Small Talk

“I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

“Ha ha, yeah.”

And just like that, my fate is sealed.

I was getting my hair cut, see, and they run this TV in there on daytime crap all day long. I believe the choice du jour was Rachael Ray’s show, but I’m not sure. I do, for the record, remember noting that “Rachael” seemed to be gunning particularly for the ethnic crowd, or at least the ethnic crossover crowd, and by that I mean white women who wish they had a black girlfriend to gab with. And I’m not knocking those women. But I base this assertion on overhearing a segment in which a seemingly black woman (I was listening not watching) gave the host dance lessons, and then said, “You’re gonna need to go to rhythm class too,” and the host indignantly squeaked, “I do NOT need to go to rhythm class!” Ha ha ha black people have rhythm.

The man cutting my hair is a contemporary of mine. It’s a family-owned business I have patronized for a while, and he has cut my hair more than once. He is the young devil of the family, moonlighting as a dental student at NYU. He once gave me an impassioned argument against Obamacare, saying it would hike up prices for reasons I am not informed enough to fully understand or combat. I nodded and smiled, which is the crux of this entry.

Because here we are, over a year later. He said, “You know, you see the face of the customer, you do not maybe remember, but you start cutting the hair, and the stories come back.” He asked me about my degree, my dozens of girlfriends, and so on. I thought, well, what else do you see in that scalp up there, big boy? But this is when Shanaynay showed up to wedge us apart. Except she didn’t.

First, my man offered an inarguable bromide: “This is such a stupid show,” he said. Yes! I can agree with this! I immediately said, “Oh yeah!”

Because even if I do sometimes watch daytime shows because they offer me the escapist thrill of thinking the world is actually a well-managed three-camera affair, I can at least acknowledge that such a thrill is a stupid one.

To my credit, I did hint at some possible hypocrisy. Indicating that in fact this show was playing in his own place of business, I went ahead and offered him an out: “Do you just keep it on to have something in the background?”

He nodded and said, “But I am going to turn on the radio.” We both laughed the full-throated laugh of the small talker. It is NUTS how much funnier things are in small talk. Oh my GOD you can’t get your airplane seatbelt to click together?! Well I guess you get what you pay for! Hahahahahahaha I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT WE MEAN: ARE WE CHEAP OR ARE FLIGHTS TOO $$$$ EITHER WAY MODERN LIFE IS HARD hahahahahahaha.

I will add that my man did not switch to the radio, at least while I was there. How I wish he had. Tuned in to NPR. I would have had zero crises of conscience, I feel. Instead, he left it on, and during a banal segment about girlfriends who give you tough advice, he offered the aforementioned verdict: “I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

The casual racism wasted no time in smacking me across the face. I was instantly aware of the implications of his statement, and I instantly laughed and made cooing noises of agreement.

Why?

Given ten seconds to reflect, the researchers in my brain offered the thesis that really the most likely audience is little old ladies, not welfare queen boogiemen. Or the white retired couple who live above me and keep the TV blaring 24/7. Or the tired old cleaning ladies I met at a summer program who took plenty of breaks from scrubbing toilets (and finding the retainer I drunkenly puked out of my mouth one night) to catch up on stories. Or MY MOTHER for crying out loud. Or my self.

But I rejected the work of my researchers. I buried it. It would have been non-confrontational enough to say, and at least plant a seed to challenge his stereotype (even a seed based on other stereotypes), but I didn’t.

I recently read Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That, and one of the things she is over is small talk. She calls it “smalk” which I find to be a completely superfluous abbreviation. She has no patience for it. I find that such a feeling is a luxury of a very few, and may have something to do with age as well as money and power. Anthony Hopkins is said to be a bit eccentric in the way he will just up and leave his own table if you’re boring him: his wife has to smooth things over.

I have nothing new to say about the occasional inanities of small talk, of the embarrassment we may feel over using the weather as a conversational crutch, for instance, or the necessary evil of trading superficialities on a first date. But I have an exceptionally extreme terror of it. A friend of mine did a comedy bit about the people on the street who try to get you to Save the Children. She said not only did she start avoiding them, but that as she rode the train she would begin to get anxious just thinking about how she would soon have to deal with ignoring them.

I feel that way about everyone. I will cross to the opposite side of the street if I see you coming and I don’t want to do the plastic “how are you” thing. I will act like I don’t see you; I will deny you three times before the cock crows, and I apologize if it’s ever hurt your feelings.

I am, however, getting better, and also realizing the benefits. I went out with a combination of friends and strangers after a show, post-haircut, and I managed to start a little conversation. It’s a new skill, so it’s still a bit mechanical; my brain sends me messages like, “Now it’s your line. You should say, ‘What was weird about it?'”

But I listened to the person across from me, found something I could ask informed questions about (Yale Drama School), and then asked those questions, with follow-ups. When our chat spread to two other nearby diners, I took the kind of pleasure I imagine the cave man did who made fire: “I have done this!” “This was me!”

In addition to the pleasures of narcissism, I am finding that the more interested you are in other people the more interested you are in other people. It’s like having faith. The more you have it you have it but you have to have it to have it.

Of course, if you add alcohol to this interest in others, you can get all kinds of unpredictable results, like when at a large party I decided to lead a one man polling team to find out what everyone’s favorite cunnilingus technique was. If you are curious, I have sealed the results and put them in a vault to be opened six years after my death.

Then there are the times when you just have to suck it up and smalk it up. The times you’re in a social situation and you don’t agree with the person you’re talking to but, for the sake of harmony (maybe the person’s your significant other’s relative), you tuck your dick between your legs and prancercise in your airy kimono like a conversational Buffalo Bill. “I’m just like you,” you say. “I also believe Obamacare is the enemy of the people.”

Buffalo-Bill

I suppose the fact that my barber holds sharp objects up to my head is a motive for harmonizing, but I’m not letting myself off the hook that easy. It’s not like I was trying to sleep with his sister.

I understand this all may not seem like a big deal, and certainly not something worth still thinking about twenty-four hours after the fact. But if I could so easily put aside one of my convictions (making racist comments about Shanaynays), what else could I put aside? Is there anything I won’t put aside? I began to see myself as a barbershop Zelig, the Woody Allen character who takes on the characteristics of whoever he’s with.

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He even turns different races.

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It’s Allen’s argument against mindless conformity (Zelig is easy bait for fascists), and I started to wonder if, at the right cocktail party, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t agree to or say myself, for the sake of popularity.

If that’s not bad enough, there’s another kind of mortal sin you can commit while smalking (okay, Shirley, it has grown on me). And that’s faking it.

If my father only got to tell one story about me, he might talk about when I was a wee lad accompanying him on a Saturday morning trip to Sports Authority. It might have been the time we went to get me rollerblades. The point is, when we left the store, our masculine egos all puffed up by the smell of sneakers and balls, one man asked my father when the big basketball game was that day. My dad said, “Ummmm,” and then another man chimed in, “I think it’s at three,” the other man said. “Yeah! Yeah, it’s at three,” my dad said, nodding.

As we walked away, I said to my dad, “I don’t think you know what time the game is, because you don’t watch basketball.” I was, of course, right, and from then on my father decided I was a genius. And my dad and I now regularly compare notes about how we’re trying to be more honest about acknowledging what we don’t know. But it’s hard out here for a genius. At a recent Oscar party, we were all asked to make up fake awards for each other. A companion of mine handed me the “I Know Everything and I’m Always Right” trophy. Zing.

The Freakonomics guys, Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner, have a new book out, and their recent podcast focused on a chapter of it: “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.”

The #notallmen (ugh) male ego is just one of the factors that can pressure us into false certainty, and those factors start early. When a teacher quizzes you, you don’t earn points for not knowing. Stephen Dubner interviews an English researcher whose work depicts how children are conditioned toward “having a go” at any question. Should teachers more positively reinforce “I don’t know”? Of course, a good teacher is generally asking a question that the student should know the answer to, and often wants the student to have a go regardless.

It works both ways, too. I had a mentor, a saint, who told me that if a student ever asked her a question to which she did not know the answer, she would say, “I don’t know, but I will look that up and we can talk about it tomorrow.” She hated when teachers threw students’ curiosity back on them: “I don’t know; why don’t you look it up?” From experience I know how tempting it is for a teacher to never admit he doesn’t know. I’ve BSed plenty of times, and only called myself out on it for a portion of them. I don’t think I would have lost much face if I had been more honest about my occasional ignorance, and certainly the relief over not having misinformed my students would have counterbalanced it.

But in job settings where you have bosses who aren’t teenage children, it can be even harder. It starts with the job interview itself, one situation where Levitt and Dubner admit that “never say I don’t know” can be a helpful maxim. In this post-recession recession world, that kind of can-do can-know spirit can easily seep into the rest of our lives. But imagine how easy it could have been:

“I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

“Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe.”

BAM.

“Obamacare is the enemy of the people.”

“Is it, sir? I don’t know. Say more.”

BOOM.

And I don’t really know the ins and outs of small businesses and healthcare anymore than I know if there is or is not truth behind the Shanaynay stereotype. More importantly, I don’t know what personal experience is causing my conversational partner to espouse such beliefs, but with a little gentle polite prodding I’m sure I could find out, and then I’d be in a whole new world of understanding. It’s predetermined certainty, isn’t it, that keeps us all from actually listening to each other? Even if it’s certainty that what we’re hearing is just smalk.

Steven Levitt admits the occasional benefit of “I don’t know,” but asks, what’s the fun in life of constantly faking it? “The goal is to be good,” he says, and while I know he means “competent,” when I heard that I couldn’t help but jump first to the moral dimension. Because when I got back from my haircut, I saw a friend had sent me a link to a Maya Angelou interview. I read Caged Bird in high school, and blew through it to get it done. I’ve never been a big fan, though I enjoyed listening to her talk about her mancatching banana pudding on Oprah. Well. After listening to this (part of her Oprah Master Class), I sat on my kitchen floor, like a child, and clicked link after link, listening spellbound to this woman speak seemingly right into me.

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You must listen, but here are the words:

And I think now what would Grandma do? What would she say? And I can almost hear her voice, say “Now Sister. You know what’s right. Just do right.” You don’t really have to ask anybody the truth is right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul. It brings you the kind of protection that bodyguards can’t give you. Try to be all you can be, to be the best human being you can be. Try to be that in your church, in your temple. Try to be that in your classroom. Do it because it is right to do. You see. People will know you. And they will add their prayers to your life. They’ll wish you well.

I think, if your name is mentioned and people say, Oh hell, Oh damn, hahaha! You’re doing something wrong. But if your name is mentioned and people say oh she’s so sweet oh he’s so nice oh I love, god bless her! There you are.

So try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up. It’s yours. This is your life. This is your world. I’ll be leaving it long before you under the ordinary circumstances. 

You make your own choices. You can decide life isn’t worth living. That would be the worst thing you can do: how do you know? So far.

Try it. See. So pick it up. Pick up the battle. And make it a better world. Just where you are. Yes. And it can be better. And it must be better. But it is up to us.

This might seem a bit heavy to add to a discussion of small talk, but it feels right. And sharing her words is certainly right.

I do know what’s right, in this case. I should have said something about Shanaynay. Small talk offers us some quite large opportunities to be honest to our self, even if (hopefully if) that self is not rigid or fully formed. Being honest and un-Zelig must be how self is built in the first place, the kind that sticks out from the crowd like Dr. Angelou’s.

I’ll do better next time.

Punctual

ThoreauWe do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. So said Henry David Thoreau. I know, because I beat the phrase into three years of eleventh graders so that they would have something concrete to say about Transcendentalism. In payment to the karmic gods, I’m forever haunted by these words I made them parrot, along with, “You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours even in a poor-house.”

Today I took the train (at peak hours!) into the city to see a screening of a documentary. It’s a so-called lost film from 1971 about Roman Polanski palling around with a Formula 1 driver. I was asked to go to this advance screening by a guy who runs a website for which I have agreed to write some film reviews. At the time I thought, who would pay money to go see this incredibly niche film?

Maybe no one, as the screening was cancelled. I was the only person who showed up for it, like a dupe.

As I walked back to Grand Central, surprisingly unperturbed, it occurred to me that I was much less upset about having wasted my time than I would have been had I been late to the screening. My train that morning had been five minutes late, which had put my time-sensitive scheduling to the test. I made it to the place with two minutes to spare, of course fruitlessly.

Isn’t that sick? I wondered. That I am so stressed by the idea of running a few minutes late I would rather the whole event be called off? I even had trouble getting to sleep last night, thinking of how I would have to wake up and be out in time.

Lately I’ve had a string of successes with being perfectly on time. This comes of course with living in one place for long enough that you get a good sense of how long transportation takes. But it’s a valuable thing, being not late but not early, especially in the city; for a while in college I toyed with smoking, only because it gave me something to do while waiting those last few minutes before a reservation or an 8:00 curtain.

On the other hand, I also recently had a wonderful experience with tardiness. A friend and I were to go to a Buddhist center, of all places. We both arrived early to the rendezvous point and stayed in our cars, thinking the other wasn’t there yet. By the time we figured out our error, it was too late to go. I had been mildly annoyed at first, but the afternoon morphed into an odyssey that involved encounters with wild turkeys, a search for dry ice, and the recovery of a trashed armchair. As I said to my friend, “Nothing we got at that center would be more spiritual than this.” Cue Grey’s Anatomy indie music montage. We all have similar “everyday is a winding road” stories.

It reminds me of that credo, When God closes a door, he opens a window. Or as I put it, everything’s for the best – because how could it be otherwise? When I was applying to college, my mother, among many others, offered up this piece of advice on a regular basis: “Well, these things have a way of working out.” Of course they do! Because there’s no possible way of ever knowing if Swarthmore would have been better for me than NYU. So why bother thinking about it?

Still, at a point in my life where I am very consciously working toward evenness of mind, nothing quite upsets me like the possibility of being late. Maybe I don’t like apologizing to people, for one thing. Also, in the case of a film or a piece of theater, I hate missing the beginning, and in this case it would have been worse as I had a job to do – and what if they didn’t admit latecomers? Now, I was much less frantic as I hustled to the building in Times Square than I would have been a few years ago, thanks to my “it won’t kill me” or “at least I’m not a child prostitute in Cambodia” mantra work. And I think that must be the goal: the balance of making diligent effort to arrive on time with not being distressed if you don’t. It’s like “productivity,” balancing making it work in the world with not beating yourself up for spending seemingly empty hours.

I recently read Siddhartha (yes, I’m slowly making the obligatory survey of Obvious Spiritual Literature), and on my walk back to the train I thought of the part where Siddhartha goes on a business trip.

When he arrived there, the rice was already sold to another merchant. However, Siddhartha remained in that village several days, entertained the farmers, gave money to the children, attended a wedding and returned from the journey completely satisfied.

I did pause for a few minutes after stepping out of the building, and went through a little checklist. I wondered how I could Siddharthize this little daytrip. Anyone to call and see if they want coffee? Any stores to go to, things you can’t find in Yonkers? Any shows whose box offices you want to pop into and try to get a cheap ticket?

No, not really.

Out of laziness I didn’t put my earbuds in; I just walked. I got to hear one well-dressed yuppie moan to another well-dressed yuppie – “You see how this collar, it’s all rumpled?” I walked through the Christmas shops at Grand Central, artisanal and Brooklynesque to a fault, and didn’t buy anything. I went to the bookstore and browsed and almost missed my train.

Nothing productive. No wedding, no entertaining of the farmers.

On the walk back from the station to my house I still wasn’t listening to music so I was able to really say “Good morning” to an old man walking his dog who said it to me first (the man not the dog). That felt important, like See Daniel you had a human interaction without having to worry about whether you shouted because your music was on. But was it worth the $20 I blew on train fares?

Since as far back as I care to remember, I’ve played a little game with myself. I might have written about it here, before. Actually, allow me to just excerpt from the Great American Novella I wrote in college and promptly shared with exactly four people. I haven’t looked at this story in years and it’s frighteningly earnest, so be gentle and whisper sweet things in my ear:

When I lost things I sometimes tried to make up for it by thinking of the stuff I’d gotten for free, a counter-balancing thing. Usually it was about material things, like I’d lost my scarf but my parents had just bought me a DVD or I’d downloaded some Ben Folds without paying. Now these things had been given to me, free of charge, whether or not I was worthy of them: Candace’s smile, Molly’s sex, this day, this air, this park, this life. There was so much to be given, more than I ever could lose. After a minute I remembered the word for these things.

            Blessings.

Today I walked home in the cold and I thought, that game’s all well and good, just like David Foster Wallace’s thought experiments which so influence me. But the trick has got to be to get to the point where you no longer need to play it. I shouldn’t have to try to make a balance in my head of $20 for two hours of time. I remember where I was in Grand Central today when I had the thought, look, money is an illusion of worth anyway, it’s a constructed sense of worth: think of the pisspoor job you did teaching those parents’ children yesterday, and they paid you for that. I’m not being cynical; it was a bad teaching day. It wasn’t worth it.

The games go on, my blood pressure rises and falls. I’ve made progress on this path of being a human. I can sit in traffic and get my shoulders to drop their tension; I’m only mad now at the personal sins, venial, like when a person takes way too fucking long to make a fucking right turn.

But I still don’t have an answer for the most troubling question of all, which is why I should be allowed to have a long enough life where I make any progress, while so many others are clipped off in the midst of an ignorance or an innocence. And I don’t have an answer as to whether or not that makes me beholden to make something of life. I don’t have an answer yet to why I shouldn’t be late, always, forever, for any reason or no reason at all.

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For the last month or so I’ve listened many times to a piece of music from the film The Year of Living Dangerously. Composed by Maurice Jarre, it has a quiet contemplativeness to it – the music feels dialectic to me, even though I’m not sure I really know what that word means; I just feeeeeel it. And I think the person who made the accompanying Youtube slide show of images from the movie did something really quite nice, intentionally or happily. The film deals with many things, but certainly the question I mention above, about why some and not others, comes into play in a story about white people in love in an impoverished Indonesia.

This particular piece of music swells right at the end, and it’s matched by an image of Mel Gibson, the main character, walking to the plane that will take his privileged ass out of the chaotic country. Right around 4:30 there’s a frozen  close-up frame, and it might just be an accident, but his eyes are closed in a way that perfectly captures, I think, what the character must be feeling at that moment, on that walk: a sense of failure and an awareness of waste, and the grim duty of having to be the one who keeps going.

That combination of picture and score is a fitting note to end this on, as it is an example of perfect timing.

In the meantime, here’s to continually trying to ride on the railroad, and not the other way round.

Productive

This may be more personal than you’re interested in. Not because I’m going to talk about my rash again though.

First, I Google imaged “board meeting” and this was clearly the best one:

board meeting

The spark for this entry occurred a few days ago when I read just the teaser of some blog post which said that being “active” or “busy” is not the same as being “productive.” That hit home because I’ve had a lot of spare time on my hands lately and I’ve been driving myself a little crazy with it. Both of my teaching gigs currently are part-time, and the main one being a Jewish school I had almost the entire month of September to sit on my hands here. I thought that would be relaxing. It was not. A couple of rejection letters combined with some late-blooming post-grad panic to produce (ha ha) a flurry of activity in me.

I wrote new things, revised old things, and submitted, submitted, submitted (and applied for full-time jobs). Submitting for me means writing a cover letter to a theater and emailing them a script or a 10-page sample. Because there are a lot of me’s out there doing that, you generally don’t even get your form rejection letter until 6-12 months later. Also, since each theater’s submission requirements are just a little different, you can spend a lot of time licking figurative stamps.

But it went further than that. I was also researching a new play idea, and began to become a little obsessive about how I was spending my time. “Well, you can watch another half hour of Das Rheingold, then read another chapter of Nixon and Kissinger, then write a new scene, all before going to work.” If I wasn’t doing something that I felt was leading me on to SUCCESS then I became antsy and irritable. I was not fun to be around, and I’m not a peach to begin with.

And when this need for proactivity (ugh) infects my brain, it gets to the point where I even start rationalizing things like getting a cup of coffee with an old friend. “Well, networking…” NO! NO! Not everything is an opportunity for networking or inching your way farther down whatever road you think exists through life!

I mean it’s really odd, in my opinion, that I have gotten this way, since I am not somebody who sees a whole lot of purpose to life in general. I think it’s bizarre that we all walk around in shirts and pants and underwear and shoes and socks and belts when really if we were being honest with ourselves we would probably be more comfortable in blue paint and peanut shells. Don’t you look around sometimes at the world, at these strange animals we are prancing around on two legs, with our buildings and our meetings and our very important importances and don’t you feel like you’re the only one in on the joke?

This occasional nihilism or anarchism or whatever collegiate ism you want to attach to it is coupled in me with what has always been a lack of ambition when it comes to art. I mean in terms of Gettin’ Famous. I’ve always felt that I would put out my work in whatever way I put it out, and/or put it on for whomever, wherever, no matter how small or unsophisticated an audience, and be fine. To me, the writing is often the thing itself, and I’ve daydreamed about an heir of mine finding a stack of Great American What-have-yous hidden in my rolltop desk.

Because while I certainly do not scorn but instead admire the efforts of people who try to improve the quality of life on this planet, I ultimately think we’re a random act of kindness, a blip on the scientific radar and I really have no strong feelings about the continuation of the human race.

So why the hell do I care so much that Playwrights Horizons doesn’t want my shit?

And why can’t I allow myself to waste time? As if it were possible to spend or waste such a thing at all.

I want to compare this now to something personal and because it’s my blog I get to do that. Lately in particular but always in general I also have a hard time with what most people would consider normal drinking. I recently read (for research!) Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore by Rachel Brownell, and that introduced me to the term “problem drinking.” I am a problem drinker, which is nicer and more accurate to say than I have a drinking problem. And recently I have sharply vacillated between nights when I don’t drink at all, and nights when I just flat out get drunk. Because my approach is, well, if I’ve already broken the seal on drinking, I might as well drink until I get that nice fuzzy feeling, otherwise, what’s the point? I will have wasted the time and calories when I could have been finishing Das Rheingold (and I can tell you that getting to the end of that one is worth it).

Writers and artists and other unsavory types have an advantage when it comes to productivity, because we can always chalk something up to a valuable experience. “It’s all grist for the mill” is the kind of annoying thing you hear people like me say all the time. Sometimes after puking up red wine on a Wednesday. (Right now you are the mill and my shame is the grist.) It’s true, of course, but can lead to some seriously disordered thinking. And also a lot of pissing off of ex-lovers when they read your stuff.

“Love is not a MILL and we were not GRIST.”

That is a line from a fight I’ve never had.

Productive is a straightforwardly Latin word from producere, which means to bring forth. Obviously this is different from what we talk about when we talk about being active. But a scan of the etymology for act  tells us that actus and actum both derive from the root agere, which means “to do, set in motion, drive, urge, chase, stir up,” which in turn comes from ag which means (here it is) “to drive, DRAW OUT OR FORTH, move” (emphasis mine). So if produce is to bring forth and act is to draw forth, what’s the difference?

“Forth” is what they have in common, and forth of course is the only way that time goes anyway. The only way it can go. What we do in that time has no effect on it, no matter how many brilliant uniquely tailored cover letters we write in an hour, the only thing that ever matters is the present moment – blah blah blah. The idea that you bring anything forth is a bit vague and presumptive. Forth is bringing you.

You know a few weeks ago I went to a Buddhist center up here and got to hear the main guru. And he seems very happy. And he was leading us in meditation and telling us how very easy it is to be very happy all the time. And he told us that we had homework. We had to start each day by, well shit I’ve already forgotten it because I didn’t do it, but it was something like start each day by visualizing how good a day it would be. Not visualizing like they tell you to do in THE SECRET, but just touching your inner happy touchstone. Like, choosing the light. And he said, but you really have to do it. And I was like, I will!

And I didn’t!

I’d like to have a more conclusive ending here but instead let’s just sum up in outline form because it is official and makes me feel like I haven’t wasted this time:

A) Productive and active are the same thing because nothing matters

B) People who write blog entries about the difference between productivity and action are corporate assholes

C) Except for me

D) I am going to work on being able to have 1-2 drinks just for the hell of it

E) This one is just a mental palette cleanser to set you up for

F) Just do it.

F) The English teacher in me wants to say, “‘It’ is a vague pronoun reference in that sentence/slogan, because we do not know to what it refers.”

G) And the hippie in me replies, “Exactly, baby. Exactly.”

 

Health(care)

I am Obamacare. Even though that term is a deliberate politicization of the issue and we shouldn’t call it that (see the Jimmy Kimmel bit where people hate Obamacare and love the Affordable Care Act).

I know there is a lot of small print with this thing, and there are sob stories on both sides of the issue – families and small businesses whose costs may go up, for instance. But for me it is so important, and I really think there is something to be said about availability heuristics, and spreading the word about who really cares about and is affected by this stuff, so that the demagogues on the right can’t frame it as an issue of welfare queens and other moochers.

Actually don’t get me started on welfare queens. Racist mythmaking.

But I bring this up because a few weeks ago I was at my job, where a student of mine said he didn’t like Obama because Obama gave away stuff like healthcare and made other people pay for it. I couldn’t help telling him that it’s not free and the people he’s “giving it away” to are people like me who don’t get it because their jobs are too cheap to offer it.

Well, I avoided the word cheap. But he’s an impressionable fourteen-year-old and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let everybody else make all the impressions.

Today was the first day that the marketplaces are open for the Affordable Care Act. I have been counting down the days, ever since a few weeks ago when, for the first time in my life, I started having an actual health issue without insurance. As the New York marketplace kept crashing due to two million visitors in the first two hours, I started to write this.

After no longer being a teacher with benefits, I went back onto my parents’ plan until I was 25 (thank you Obama, part 1). Then they helped me get COBRA coverage, where you pay a lot to extend the benefits you lost. But every time they brought up researching the ACA or other options, I resisted. Most of this resistance was my own embarrassment over not having a job that gave me my own healthcare.

That, I realize, is silly. I was trying to not have my cake and not eat it, too. I had rejected the college-job-retirement straight line that I was on, but I was ashamed to no longer have the trappings. I had said goodbye to being a young suburban professional, because I was unfulfilled and unhappy, but I didn’t want to admit all that that really meant: I lived for a while with my parents; I gave up my retirement plan; I gave up healthcare; I gave up not having to worry about which gas station is cheaper.

Coming to terms with this, and I mean coming to terms with now being someone who has two part-time jobs and no benefits, who still relies on others to partially finance his life or his art, is for me a process. It leads to moments like I had this morning, where I freaked out over my Optimum bill (which I do every single time I get it) and then spent an hour on the phone changing and unchanging my wireless/cable plan. I ended, in case you’re wondering, by going back to exactly what I had at 8:57 AM, when my panic started. Because I fear change.

Now, I hate going to the doctor. Always have, insurance or no. But thanks to this health concern I had, which thankfully isn’t grave (okay okay it’s a RASH), I went to a neighborhood health clinic nearby. It is literally on the other side of the tracks, and I felt bad just being there. Like, even though I didn’t have healthcare, I didn’t have any business taking the sliding scale option that these other people, these truly poor people, were getting. Like I wasn’t poor enough for the poor clinic. In reality, as I know from registering as a patient and stating my income, I am perfectly poor enough. So that’s fun.

The real thrill started though when the doctor looked at my chart and told me my blood pressure was high. She looked physically pained by this. “Have you had high blood pressure before?” she said in her Eastern European accent. “No.” “And you’re not even obese!” she said. “Thank you.”

She freaked out and wrote me a prescription for a home monitor and ordered me to get an EKG to see if my heart was enlarged. I rationalized. It’s probably because I walked through public housing to get here and was surrounded by people I onto whose mostly uninterested faces I projected judgment and racial discontent. My guilty little heart probably was in overgear.

But at the same time I started paying way more attention to sodium content, and worried about my drinking, and my stress levels. I felt like Cookie Monster when he climbed down the food pyramid.

cookie-monster

I also found out that my parents both have high blood pressure. And take meds for it. “So why does this bother you so much?” my brother-in-law asked. “If you know it’s genetic and treatable.”

I hemmed and hawed.

“Is it because this is your first real ‘thing’ that’s wrong with you, the first thing that you have to deal with now, for the rest of your life?”

“Yeah! That’s it! That’s exactly it!”

He meant it as a throwaway, as something that shouldn’t bother me. But that does bother me. Because now, and for me really for the first time, I’m stuck in the world of bodies. I had already been sitting in the waiting room thinking about how we are all so scared of death that we just keep lugging these things along, putting up with suffering through banal waiting room TV squawking under mind-numbing soul-crushing lighting just in order to get pay outrageous prices for a little more elixir to limp a little farther down the line. I mean as an occasionally depressed person who sometimes romanticizes the literary suicide, I can’t always help feeling a little disgusted at people’s unbridled desire to keep going for as long as they can.

Cut to me in my little kitchen with my blood pressure monitor from Walgreens, not wanting to die young.

The doctor I saw ordered me to have some blood work done. I couldn’t do it that day because I had recently eaten. “Any day,” she said, as if those words would be comforting. I wanted to bolt out of the room and never come back. I have this desire, this anti-Woody Allen drive let’s call it, to not know what’s wrong. To not know that, oh yes, you also have sky high cholesterol, like everyone else in your family.

I want a little blissful ignorance, because I’ve had too much reality lately. I’ve fretted over bills and been turned down for jobs and had writing submissions rejected one after the other after the next. I’m 28 and everyone rolls their eyes when I say it but for the first time I feel older than ever. Even the nurse at the clinic, in between bouts of singing Taylor Swift, told me I need to hurry up and get married.

This twenty something(something) malaise is of course accurately and more pithily summed up in Avenue Q’s “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” I did, in fact, go back, to get my Master’s, and it was as wonderful an escape as could be imagined, and now is over. So I doubly can’t go back.

To cap it all off, I went to the DMV yesterday. Insert tired joke here. I waited at a station that only had one employee servicing it. I wouldn’t have really minded except the man in front of me said, “Y’all only got one employee working here?” so I was inspired to indignation. When a second person eventually came, he spent a really long time setting his station up. We had been waiting for a while. I thought, here’s the problem. He doesn’t see us as humans. He sees us as a line of people, part of his job, which is dehumanizing in itself. If he saw us as people he would hurry up and try to be ready for us.

That’s probably being a bit purple about the whole thing, but I guess my real lesson is to see myself as a person, too. A person with a body that is imperfect and needs taking care of and help from others, just like every other person with a body out there. Sometimes it is easy to remember that we are all people with bodies. Other times, someone buts into your exit lane without properly waiting in line and for thirty seconds you lose your mind and honk and wish you had a tire iron under the passenger seat to beat that person with a body into an unpersonlike pulp.

But because I’m seeing myself as more of a person-body and not just a brain with fingers, I’m thinking more about health, physical and emotional. I’m going to have those blood tests done. I’m going to eat less Hamburger Helper.

And after I honked at that son of a bitch I remembered my blood pressure and ten minutes later let someone into my lane. Color me Mother Theresa.

So while I don’t know a lot about the ins and outs of healthcare, and like I said I’m sure there are loopholes and horrors all over the map, and I’m not trying to say that everyone should have to kick in so that privileged white kids like me can quit their 9 to 5 jobs and be Bohemian. I mean I get it: I too watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi and secretly wished my parents had kicked me out at age 9 so that I could have found the inner strength and dedication to be a master sushi artist.

But I hope that maybe all of this hubbub over healthcare will remind me to invest more in the health of myself and all the rest of us.

Yonkers (Racist?)

Lost_in_yonkers

Ever walked down a part of town and counted the white faces to give yourself a sense of how safe to feel, and also hated yourself for doing so?

Since leaving school I have become a public library junkie, and today on my day off I went to return two items to two very different libraries.

I live in Yonkers. It’s above the Bronx, if you don’t know. It’s sometimes called the sixth borough, although when voters had the chance in 1894 they opted to stay the hell out of New York City.

I can’t really afford the part and apartment of Yonkers wherein I live, but years of (what I now see as) fatcat living off a public school teacher’s salary has made me loathe to give up such bourgeois fixtures as my own washer/dryer, so here I am, drinking discount beer and eating peanut butter sandwiches twice a day.

Yonkers is where Sarah Lawrence College is, although as one of my professors put it, “the school has a Bronxville zip code so parents feel better.” Bronxville is a rich little town nestled within the Yonk where everything looks like Playmobil and thus has nothing to do with the actual Bronx.

Yonkers has a reputation for racial tension and segregation. In the 80s, the city wanted to use Federal money to put up new public housing settlements. The problem was they wanted to keep all of those settlements in a narrow little strip of land. In layman’s terms of course that’s a ghetto. A judge ruled that for decades the city had been involved in institutionalized racism, and ordered the city to build public housing on the east side as well as the west. Well, white panic set in, and citizens and race-baiting politicians kept the city in contempt of the judge’s ruling. The problem was that the ruling came with a $1 fine which doubled every day the city failed to comply. So the city started losing a lot of money in order to keep their poor elements well-contained. Finally the rookie mayor, in the face of massive layoffs and cutbacks, got the council to relent and build the housing. That mayor later shot himself.

So it’s not hard to understand how two of the city’s libraries can be in two very different-looking locales. My first stop today was the Yonkers Riverfront Library, on the west and traditionally poor side of town. However, because it also happens to look out on the Hudson River and is thus prime real estate, the city has been spending a lot of money to try and revitalize the area (the importance of diction: it’s all in the hopes of gentrification, that dirty word). So there are new buildings, like the library, new expensive restaurants, new condos. This is all well and good except if you happen to be sipping a whiskey by yourself in the lobby of the Yonkers Hampton Inn, as I was recently, you may hear the bartender talk about how she deplores the revitalization because “it just made it nicer for the crackheads.” She is a woman of color, for what that’s worth.

Regardless, though it’s a little out of my way it was the only place in town where I could check out Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography (that’s a whole other story). But I like to go there anyway because they sell used books for a quarter and tend to have good stuff. Anyway I took a slightly different route and ended up in Getty Square, which is known to some in their infinite wit as Ghetto Square. So here’s paranoid white boy dilemma number one: do you lock the doors to your car while surrounded by people who might be offended by hearing the sudden click? (I once read an essay by a black man who heard the click and was offended, so there.)

I locked my doors and rolled up my window. I was playing Katy Perry’s “Roar” so the window was really just to prevent mockery, not theft.

Then I found public parking that was cheaper than the expensive new garage I usually use. Only thing is you have to walk through the less nice part of town, with the fried chicken joints and check cashing signs. I’M JUST SAYING THEY’RE THERE. Okay so I’m walking down the street and this car slows down and waves to someone. So the guy, who had been slouched against a wall, goes over to the car. I’m like in my head going, “Oh shit. Oh shit. I saw a season and a half of The Wire. I know what’s going down here. If that guy leans in the window but doesn’t get in, this is a Drug Deal.”

That’s just to let you know how my brain works. Racist? I routinely beat myself up trying to figure that out, but all the PC in the world can’t stop me from quickening my step or crossing the street to avoid a particular passerby. If it makes you feel better or dislike me less, walking back from the train in Bronxville  one night it was dark and I was going up a hill and there was a guy ahead of me, white, and I put my keys between my fingers like they teach you in lady defense courses because my fear knows no bounds. But yes, I was once “jumped” by a group of black kids, black young men, black teenagers, what have you. So I unfortunately have something in common with Obama’s white grandmother, whom he described in his famous speech as having “fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”

Guess what? I made it to the library without being attacked for the two dollars in my wallet. So there I am, browsing the 25 cent books, and I still can’t help but think about the guy in Union Square who, it appears, died because this black guy was looking to punch a white guy. Well, he punched a retired train conductor on his way to pick up a book on the art of Grimm fairy tales, and the guy cracked his head on the pavement and died. If you care to read it just gets sadder and sadder, and the article also includes another unrelated attack on a white man.

One story I read early on said that the assailant was going to hit the next white person who bumped into him and didn’t apologize. That sort of sounds like my dad, who has been known on occasion, while walking through Times Square, to say, “the next person who elbows me is going to enter a world of pain.” But of course my dad is mostly joking. Still, while sitting in traffic to get on the George Washington Bridge, where the inconvenience is compounded by the ugly landscape, I have lately wondered why there aren’t more murderous flare-ups among strangers. I mean living in this city, any city, can drive you fucking NUTS.

Anyway, this terrible news came back to me while I was picking up my used copy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (yeah, I like strong women, deal with it), mostly because it dealt with chance. If that man had walked through five minutes earlier or later, he would likely still be alive. If he had stopped at the Strand, say, to pick up Jane Fonda’s memoir (which is awesome, and I’m judging mostly by the pictures), then he would have his comic book and still be taking care of his 94-year-old mother.

So I just had an image of me being the victim of some freaky hate crime, lying on the pavement clutching my new hardback Siddhartha pushing my last words through bloodied teeth: “It was worth it…”

My second library was the Yonkers Crestwood. Here I was returning my DVD of Coal Miner’s Daughter. I first went here a few weeks ago, and it makes Bronxville look metropolitan. Sleepy, is really the only word I can use to describe Crestwood. It’s the kind of place where there would be an X-Files episode about Satan worshippers in the city hall basement purely for the irony.

This is the actual aww shucks library:

crest

I walked up the tree-lined street, walked in, nodded at the seniors book group having coffee to my left, slipped the DVD in, and went back to my car.

I thought, how can Yonkers be a city? I mean, how can the name mean anything when it includes such vast differences and wide disparities? It’s like saying there’s such a thing as a “New Yorker.”

What frightens me is how, when I first visited Crestwood I thought, I want to live here. I know I have within me that infamous white flight impulse. Fear of crime or fear of the unknown makes a part of me want to settle down in communities that will continue to pinch themselves off into smaller and smaller pieces as the country gets darker, so to speak. I come from such a haven: Milton, GA. It’s only been Milton for a few years, a new retreat with an old name for the wealthy Atlanta suburban, but it has earned national attention for the way it represents the tendency of the rich to hook or crook re-segregate themselves (Naomi Klein discusses it in The Shock Doctrine, for one thing).

I don’t hate myself for wanting to live in a sleepy town, the kind of place where I don’t have to get mad at my senior citizen upstairs neighbor for consistently failing to lock our shared front door. But I don’t want to let prejudice fester in my brain, and I don’t want to let fear keep me from a full life. I taught at a school back in Georgia that was a curious mixture of north and south Fulton County students, which means it was economically and racially diverse. I don’t want to romanticize what were some tough years, but I believe I benefitted from teaching in a more diverse high school than the one I attended.

I need to keep reminding myself of that. It’s too easy to stay in my little bubble.

Hangover

ImageHangover was Merriam-Webster’s word of the day today. I was struck by the first definition: “something that remains from what is past.” Further into the email, the word is glossed as “something that remained or simply survived.”

I was surprised by how many people chose to share the last entry I wrote, it being so bleak. One thing I took from that is there are more of us than I realized, perhaps, who know that no matter what Merriam-Webster says, there is nothing simple about survival. There is nothing simple about continuing to embrace the will to live.

Personally I take comfort in that. Strength in numbers.

Last night I was at a friend’s house. I only get to see her on holidays, really, and every time I go over there lately the family is larger: someone has gotten married, someone has had a baby. Now one of those babies has become a toddler, a source of much delight. His grandmother held out an animal cracker for him. He took it, then decided to give it to me. He wobbled over and handed it to me. This became a game, as his grandmother would hold out a cracker and tell him to give it to a different person each time. He would wobble over, take it, and wobble over to the person, no matter how far away they were.

This was an inexhaustible game, as most toddle-games are. There was never a flicker of irritation on his face when he was told to be a delivery man again. Nor did he laugh or squeal about it. He just took it and gave it, every time the same way. It occurred to me that if he had been faced with those million matchbox bulldozers I spoke of, he would have picked one up, moved it, and gone back for another, over and over and over. Watching him was the first time I really felt I understood the Buddhist concept of “joyful effort.”

There is also a newborn in that family. Now. There’s an old joke that people have kids so they can have something to talk about at dinner again. And I’ve made about every argument in the book against having children in a world like ours. But I cannot escape the fact that I woke up this morning with a pretty strong hangover. By which I mean there was something that was making me want to hang around, to come over again.

I realized I’d like to know what she will be like when she grows up. I’d like to watch her grow into the fine qualities of her family. I’d like to talk theology with her.

One of the Newtown-related articles that I liked best was written by Ross Douthat. He used Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” sequence from The Brothers Karamazov. It’s a passage that puts exquisitely beautiful and painful language to that question we were all asking weeks ago: why?

I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the 20th century invented true horror, but the stories collected by Ivan Karamazov chilled even my cynical blood. A similar thing happened the other day while I was reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In her discussion of Confucianism, a single sentence stopped me in my tracks: “In 260 BCE, the army of Qin conquered the state of Zhao…massacring four hundred thousand Zhao prisoners of war, who were buried alive.”

I had to read that twice.

Faced with this sort of thing, Confucians went back to a tradition started by men who “realized that the only way they could end the intolerable misery they saw all around them was by a huge intellectual effort that began with the transformation of their own selves.”

The other day, a friend asked me if I had a reason to keep living. You know, just over coffee. I thought about it, said a few things, and then said that I’d like to keep working on being a person. Because when you come right down to it, there’s a lot of work you can do there, every single moment.

It’s like in improv, which I’ve been practicing. Improv is all about the present moment, and how much work it is, really, to be in it. My teacher has this wonderful way of referring to “Partner” in the proper noun sense. She’ll say, “You really have to learn that it’s about making Partner look good. It’s about supporting Partner.” What can I do to make Partner’s work easier?

The secret you find out is that when you do that, it actually makes your work easier and enjoyable, and it makes you more present. And yes, you can both be doing it at the same time. Somehow it just works.

And when you’re at a dinner table with 7 or 8 Partners, as I was last night, there’s a smorgasbord of work to do, of support to give, of brilliance to uncover, and hangovers to give yourself.

The other day I went and had a psychic reading. You know, just over coffee. And when it was over, my reader said, “It’s 2013. No one expected us to make it this far. We really have a chance this year to show what we can do.”

I resisted rolling my eyes over over the 2012 apocalypse thing. And I’m glad I did. Because I keep hearing her say those words.

“No one expected us to make it this far. We really have a chance this year to show what we can do.”

We have remained. We have survived. We are each other’s hangovers.

Now let’s go get drunk.

Bulldozer

kidsWhen I was a senior in high school, George W. Bush was laying the PR groundwork for an invasion of Iraq by lying about weapons of mass destruction. One of the idiots who sank his teeth into this bullshit was Thomas Friedman. Better safe than sorry, he said, even if there’s only a small chance that Saddam has the weapons.

I wrote a response and read it in my AP English class. I said I’d rather die. I would rather be a civilian casualty of a terrorist attack than be a participating citizen of a country that goes in and blows things to smithereens because of a CHANCE that someone MIGHT have a weapon that they COULD use.

I felt it then, when I was 18. I’m not sure, looking back now, if I really believed it, but I felt it, surely. And now at 27 I very much believe it.

Because I came home from another lovely morning at Sarah Lawrence and I saw the news about the Connecticut school shooting and I thought, okay, I don’t want to play this game anymore.

Like, you’re playing video games with your friend and you’ve been playing one for two hours and your eyes are dry and you’re antsy and bored and tired and you just don’t want to play anymore.

I don’t want to play anymore.

Last week a friend of mine posted something on Facebook, a graphic going around that essentially says if we’re going to regulate guns we should also regulate baseball bats. I found it, though I respect that person, to be completely fatuous. I responded. Others responded. He and I even apologized to each other and smoothed feathers later. No minds were changed. I probably further entrenched people who disagree with me in their own beliefs.

I led a bullying workshop in an elementary school last week. We had been told to prepare for hostile audiences, kids who were real troublemakers, etc. I in particular was sent to a class for the worst of the worst. And all of the kids were just amazingly angelic. They were all so beautiful. Heartbreakingly funny and kind and eager. Even the bad kids; they were so alive.

In researching the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail, who was killed in Savannah in 1989, I became obsessed with what bullets do to bodies. I wanted to re-sensitize myself to the idea of gun violence. What did each bullet do – to his jaw, to his teeth, his lungs, his vertebrae.

Death is something I forget about. I forget what it means to have something be alive and then not alive. I understand it as a concept but I forget really, really, what we talk about when we talk about death.

I have to remind myself.

Rachel Corrie is a hero of mine. She was a 23-year-old American activist who died in Gaza when a bulldozer ran her over. She did not believe the Israelis should have the right to bulldoze the homes of Palestinians. Say what you will about her politics, about her idealism, about her naiveté even. But sometimes I really envy her. Even her death. Because she had her bulldozer. She had it, she saw it, she knew what it was. She could stand up in front of it. And let it run her over.

And when you come home and you read about what we’re still just learning about in Newtown, and when you realize you can’t even keep up with all the shootings, and when you try to imagine what each bullet did to each little jaw, it FEELS like the walls are closing in, it FEELS like the ground is going to swallow you -

But it isn’t. The sun is shining.

You live in this limbo where you feel all of the bad things and yet cannot find a bulldozer to step in front of. Because most of the time it’s not one big one it’s a million tiny little Matchbox dozers, and you have to spend a whole lot of time and energy to get even one to change its course. And there is a nobility in that and perhaps that’s all there is and all we can do and should do.

It’s just exhausting and frustrating and sad, and a lot more tempting to throw down your controller and say, I don’t want to play this game anymore. What do you have for snacks?

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