Friday, September 26, 2008

Miscellaneous Notes #4

On Tuesday, I rode bike to New Iberia, which is prettier now than I recalled, and larger, more spread out. I went to two branches of the parish library, the labor department office (very nice--it used to be a bank), and the office of motor vehicles, and a movie theater (there was no bike rack at the theater and no good films I had not seen already, so I didn't stay). It was a long ride, about an hour both ways, to and from New Iberia. Today, I again rode to New Iberia and it took half the time, about thirty minutes--but, not that far from home, on a curve, I heard a car break behind me, turned and saw a truck moving toward me and a car near it. I turned off the road, toward a ditch, and the momentum of the bike and the angle of the land carried me forward--and I somersaulted over the handlebar, landed, stood, and picked up the bike and walked back onto the road. (The good thing seems to be that I didn't fight the fall, throwing my hands and arms wildly about, tensing my body. I moved smoothly. I did not land on my feet but I also didn't land on my head or ribs. My black leather bag was on my back and I seemed to have partly landed on it.) The truck had moved ahead and beyond me, careless, and the woman in the car stopped to see if I was all right (she asked several times). I said, I'm fine, and that I wasn't sure what was happening behind me and that I just wanted to get off the road. I felt okay after and I feel okay now--I don't feel yet as if anything is sprained...

Yesterday, one of my mother's sisters drew the attention of outsiders after, apparently, she made some public statements: among other things, she thinks people, presumably her neighbors, have broken into her house and damaged her property...

...There was a television news report late yesterday about a Louisiana public officicial who has proposed the sterilization of poor women as a way to fight poverty, the second time in several days that I have heard this disturbing report. The worst thing was that 58% of the people polled agreed with the politician. (Birth control should be an option for people who cannot afford children. Sterilization is a step beyond that choice.)...(Last night, I saw comic Craig Ferguson's late night show on television. I think he's very very funny, with a spikey appeal--there's something a bit anarchic about him.)...

My mother, who has taken photographs of the local geography that I like very much, is constantly busy, puttering around her own house and yard; and yesterday I helped her trim some shrubbery and today I tried to help her with something, putting foundation stones under the outside water heater (it's in a shed), but that didn't work out. (I think she works best alone. Also, she had something housed in the shed that I didn't think should be there--and I told her, "You people spend so much time alone, you no longer know what crazy is." She smiled.)

...Money is the meaning of much (the reason, the cause, the motivator; and the lack of money is devastating in its effects)...It is why I'm riding a bicycle rather than driving a car. Why my aunt is worried about the destruction of her property, why she feels besieged, betrayed. Why my mother is doing so much of the repair work herself...


"Trouble, according to James Carter"

(c) Written by DG, 2002


“There are some things that are certain—not only death and taxes, but also fucking, eating, and shitting, greed, exhaustion, and poverty,” said the managing editor, an overweight, ruddy-faced bore who imagined himself a wit. James smiled tightly at him, hoping this little lecture had a point that had something to do with his own work. As far as James knew, the editor seemed to imagine that these epigrams were to be taken in by James and remembered and would someday become one with the very structure of James’s mind—but James knew this would not happen.

“With the way things are in the economy, businesses closing, people being laid off, dire predictions, the homeless shelters and food pantries and soup kitchens are crowded. I’d like you to do a story on this,” said the managing editor.

I really do not want to do this, thought James. Give me an executive who has lost his job, or someone trying to keep a company going, or a labor union leader or secretary struggling to pay her bills—somebody with hope. I don’t want to visit a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. What is there to say? People are suffering. People are always suffering. Why pretend this is new, and why pretend to care? Give people education and opportunities to work and reduce the reasons for their suffering, and give me a political scandal, a fashion show, an innovative computer, an alcoholic sports star, a literary masterpiece, a film premiere, a historical discovery, or a new building going up: those are my subjects.

James returned to his desk, wondering where to start. He logged onto the internet to do a quick search of resources—institutions, experts, books, and articles. He called the office librarian to tell her what he was working on, what he’d found, what he thought he needed, and his deadlines for research, active interviewing, and various drafts. James then called his friend Pete and asked him if he wanted to have dinner later, but Pete said, No, that he had to work late. When James looked up again, he saw Calvin at his desk putting things in a box, looking angry, determined, and sad.

James stood and walked over to Calvin. James was apprehensive, fearful.

“What’s going on?” asked James.

“I’ve just been fired,” said Calvin.


“Because I didn’t turn in my expense reports on time. Because I yelled at the receptionist for mixing up my messages. Because I took a too adversarial stance toward corruption in my reporting. Those are some of the things the Redface told me. They’ve wanted to fire me for a while—I’m not acquiescent enough for their taste; so they just wracked their brains to come up with a bunch of junk to accuse me of,” said Calvin.

“I can’t believe it,” said James, though he knew there was a clique of people in the office who were always trying to make everything as simple as their own minds. “The idiots.”

The two looked at each other; they’d miss working together.

“Do you want to have lunch? I can walk out with you,” said James.

“Would you do that? It’s not a very politic thing to do,” said Calvin.
“I want to—and I’m hungry,” said James.

Calvin laughed.

When Calvin had gathered his things, and the two men walked out, all eyes were on them; and when James looked back at the looking eyes, the eyes looked down or looked away. The Redface was the only one who held James’s gaze.

James and Calvin ate at a small sushi bar. Calvin liked sushi, and that was why they chose the place, but once they began to eat—standing, hunched over their food, people all around them in the small place—they realized that they had made a mistake. If they’d gone to a larger, quieter place, they both would have been more comfortable. Yet, neither said anything about the place; they talked to each other beyond their discomfort about the work they had hoped to do in the office, about trying to deal with the pettiness there, and about what Calvin was going to do now. “It’s amazing how quickly a man’s life can change,” said Calvin, who said he thought he would try freelance writing and editing. “As long as I’m working, you can use me as a reference, and if you need money, let me know, and if I have it, it’s yours,” said James. Calvin was glad to hear that, and a smile crossed his face, banishing for a moment his more intense feelings.
“What are you going to do?” asked Calvin.

“I’m going to try to do my job,” said James, both of them knowing this would not be easy, as James’s sense of mission was not entirely that of his editor’s, and his editor’s mission was not entirely that of James. But then, what drove James was not simple—news, truth, pleasure, meaning, a critique of power, history, prophecy—and what drove his editor—beating the competition in being the first to deliver the news, surprising the reader, raising the number of subscribers and newsstand sales, impressing the publisher—was also not entirely simple, though it was possibly much more obvious.

“I know Sharon will be glad that I’m not there anymore,” said Calvin.

“Her only goal is to try to make the office safe for her unquestioned inadequacies,” said James.

James laughed, and said, “I don’t know how people like that get so far and stay so long. She delegates most of her work to others and spends most of her time on the phone,” said Calvin.

When they said goodbye, neither James nor Calvin was happy, neither was relieved.

James made an appointment to interview the executive director of a homeless organization, and after work he stopped by a poetry and music event organized for attendants of a mental health program that worked to get people off the streets and into homes and jobs. He thought the music was good—very rhythmic—and the poetry plain and dull, but he liked the sense of camaraderie between the attendants. He didn’t introduce himself or take notes; he knew he would be back. Leaving the building, located on the edge of Manhattan’s East Village, above the bowery, James thought about the tickets he’d bought for a music concert for the coming weekend. His friend Pete had backed out because of work, and James hadn’t found anyone else yet to go with. He couldn’t ask Gail without asking her husband, and he didn’t have a ticket for her husband, nor was he fond of the ill-informed, blunt man. Too often, when you had a married friend, you were forced to deal with the spouse as well despite lack of rapport.

On his way into his office the next day, he stopped by a couple of churches to ask about their soup kitchens, coat drives, and food pantries. Most of the church offices were closed and he left notes, but one church office was open, and the woman there was direct: “We see all kinds of people—high school dropouts and college graduates, different ethnicities, married couples, singles, whatever. People are hungry, and we feed them,” she said. “They need clothes and we give them the clothes our parishioners leave with us. We shouldn’t have to do this, and they shouldn’t need to come here, but that is the way the world is, that’s the way it’s been, and maybe that’s the way it will always be.”

With that summarizing impulse she’d get on with the Redface, thought James. Yet, he could not say she was wrong. She was trying to be clear, and she was; and James realized once more that we’re all trying to produce knowledge or wisdom and it might be too late. If a child hasn’t learned wise and generous ways, he may not be able to adapt to them when he’s a man—his bad habits may be his very own nature: this may be why it’s so hard to change anyone, why it’s so hard to change the world.

Leaving the office, he reconsidered this conclusion. He thought that children were sometimes limited in their perspectives because of lack of experience, and because information was kept from them, but that men and women had the perspective and freedom to change—to change themselves and others.

James waited in the open air on a square marble bench near a bulbous sculpture in a cement park surrounded by seven office towers, one out of which he had come after leaving his desk and its work, and another his friend Gail would leave to join him. James was pleased the sun was shining, as the breeze off the nearby water was cool. He wondered what kind of mood Gail would be in. She had been up for a job at a small television station committed to social issues, but had not been given the job. A personnel committee made up of two managers and two support staffers had reviewed her work, resume, and colleagues’ response to her, and they recommended Gail for the job. The executive director in her office had not agreed, and so she did not get the job. Gail and the executive director had disagreed before, disagreements that were matters of policy, procedure, and personality. Instead the job Gail wanted had gone to someone who had been eliminated earlier in the process, someone the committee had decided was not even one of their top three choices, a man Gail had not considered a friend but a friendly colleague. Yet when Gail arrived, she smiled and said, “How is my friend, the misanthropic humanist?”

James laughed. “I’m well, though you seem, amazingly, in a much better mood than I am.”
“It’s their loss,” said Gail. “I applied, I was found gifted and worthy, and I was not appointed, so it’s the organization’s loss. I still have my televised nightly discussion program and I’m going to continue to do my work.”

James listened and thought about what she said. She was in a better mood than he was. He was still thinking about Calvin, still thinking about the injustice of that, of how Calvin’s good work had meant nothing, and now Gail was giving him further evidence of injustice. Where would they eat?

James was having a salad at his desk. The salad was full of chunks of chicken, croutons, thin slivers of carrots and other vegetables, olives, and a thick dark oriental dressing—delicious. He was thinking about his lunch date with Gail the day before, about Calvin, about the office he himself continued to work in and the exaggerated exclamations of pleasure and outraged complaints over minutiae there, the indifference to genuinely important matters, the jockeying not so much for relationships with the powerful but for appearances of relationships with the powerful—no one really wanted to know the publisher, but they wanted to seem to be in his favor. Once James and the man were in an elevator together, and, James, incapable of thinking of anything to say after briefly describing the story he’d been working on, went on to describe an Italian film retrospective he was attending, having seen four of twelve scheduled films. The two of them spent the remainder of the elevator ride talking about the difference in the mood of Italian films compared to American films. James knew he had squandered an opportunity to advance a professional goal, but he was pleased that he had the kind of conversation with the publisher that he might have had with a friendly acquaintance. James smiled upon thinking that it was not the kind of conversation he could tell most of his coworkers about; they wouldn’t understand why it pleased him. He smiled; and then the grimaced, for this was another example of how and why he was something of a misfit. He finished his salad, and then went to work on his afternoon story, the retiring of a French designer after thirty years of big business and bigger headlines, headlines about nervous breakdowns, drugs, ill-chosen lovers, and great clothes.

James called his friend Pete, whom he had been invited to see the Italian films, and who had said he’d try to see something, but Pete had managed not to see a single film. James doubted Pete would be interested in going to the Whitney for a free exhibit, but James would ask him anyway, and when he did, Pete said “No, I have to work.”

James asked, “Do you have to work, or do you choose to work late?”

Pete said, “I have to—I have a project I have to finish and there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do it.”

“Do other people there work such long hours?” asked James.

“Some people do,” said Pete.

Pete said they’d get together soon, and told James to stay in touch.

James left several messages for Calvin, and when they finally talked, Calvin explained that he hadn’t been seeing anyone, that he was trying to assess where he was, and what he wanted to do. He found it painful to talk about being fired, even to someone who respected him and understood that he hadn’t done anything wrong of significance. He also said that he didn’t see any available job that he really wanted and felt as if he had to choose between getting an important job he didn’t like that might be overwhelming or getting an unimportant job he didn’t like but could easily manage. He decided to try to get work proofreading, but wanted to avoid temporary office clerical assignments. He said, “I’m not that desperate yet. Some people think any job is better than none, but I disagree: some jobs undermine who you are.”

When James and Pete got together, they went to a comedy club, where women comedians insulted men in general and those in the audience in particular, and the two men, drinking and making comments between the comedy sets, had a great time, honest, intimate, and thoughtful.

James had begun publishing a series of articles on the unemployed, the hungry, and the homeless. James thought the best piece was on a mother’s attempts to keep her children in school with good grades despite the family’s living in a homeless shelter. He was still interviewing people for the series. Reading over the interview transcripts of a man who had come out of jail and was depending on soup kitchens for daily sustenance, James sat in the company cafeteria not far from Sharon, a managing editor, and her staff, two young women and a man. It was supposed to be a casual editorial meeting they were having but sounded like a gossip session, with professional evaluations mixed with ignorant perceptions. At one disturbing articulation, James looked at the group and they looked at him, seeing his disapproval. He soon left the table, and on his way back to this desk stopped by the mailroom to get express mail envelopes and overheard the mailroom supervisor’s comments to his staff. The supervisor was tall and slim with thinning blond hair and a pimple near his mouth, and James thought he looked like photographs of Paul Verlaine, the poet who left his wife for another poet, Rimbaud. It was obvious to James that the African American assistant, Jerome, was being given menial tasks while the Irish American, Michael, was being given tasks requiring more thought and management skill. James knew both men had begun working there around the same time, and he’d had conversations with them, and he knew the African American was ambitious to move up in the company. Jerome was confident but not a braggart; he was boyish and quick, with sensitive eyes, and James imagined he could be easily disappointed—wasn’t I easily disappointed at his age? James asked the supervisor if Jerome might help Michael, suggesting this would cut the time it took to get the assigned work done. He knew this suggestion might be seen as intrusive but thought what it entailed possibly had not been imagined and might be helpful. Jerome looked hopeful, while Michael merely waited. The supervisor looked offended, and said, “I’ve made my assignments, but I’ll consider more task-sharing in the future. In the meantime, I’ll think up a list of story ideas you might want to pursue.” James smiled and left. Well, that didn’t help, James thought.

James took a cab ride from Greenwich Village to the Metropolitan Museum. He never grew tired of observing the city and its people.

His thoughts drifted from the city to a conversation he’d had with the Redface, a conversation that could only worry him.

The Redface had said, “I’ve tried to influence you, to point you in a direction that complements me and serves this office, but you seem sometimes to resist that. It’s as if you’re determined to be independent.”

James, hearing the complaint, had smiled without joy.

“When I hired you, you seemed so grateful for the job,” said the Redface.

“I was glad that you hired me and excited about the work,” said James.

“Aren’t you grateful now?” asked the Redface.

“I’m still glad that you hired me and I still feel I have something to contribute,” said James. “We’ve gotten good responses to a lot of my stories, even a couple of award nominations—and you had no complaints of significance at the time of my last performance evaluation three months ago.”

“I’m always re-evaluating everyone,” said the Redface with a smile.

What a stupid face, thought James, who watched the man’s face show in quick succession surprise, alarm, and a sense of accomplishment in response to what he’d seen in James’s face. He wants to alienate me now, thought James. Why do I know enough to know that, and not enough to change my responses?

James heard the taxi driver say something. “What?” asked James. The man repeated his pleasantly empty question. James answered, and they rode on to the museum.

There were a lot of people outside the Metropolitan Museum, some of them invited guests who were just arriving but many of them simply there to watch the celebrities arrive. James disliked making his way through crowds, but he had been looking forward to this event for months. He had on a new black suit, new white shirt, new black tie, new shoes, and new cologne.

Inside, he saw faces he had seen on movie screens and in magazines, some he’d seen walking in Soho or entering the stage door of a Broadway show, a few he had interviewed, and some he had worked with who had gone on to bigger things. James saw statesman Henry Kissinger and journalist Christopher Hitchens sharing cigars together in one part of the large hall, laughing and puffing away, and he saw former vice president Al Gore and activist Ralph Nader in another corner, with Gore patting Nader’s shoulder affectionately as he spoke. James saw the model and businesswoman Iman talking with her husband David Bowie, a musician James had liked since he was a boy, and James hoped he could think of something smart to say later to Bowie. James heard someone say that he’d had a 1958 Cabernet Sauvignon at dinner the previous night. James saw one of New York’s grand ladies, Brooke Astor, elderly and frail, but with an utterly joyous look on her face, and he vaguely remembered reading something about her foundation’s plan to give away its remaining assets. When had he read that—a year ago, two, five? Walking past another society lady, Nan Kempner, he heard part of actress Catherine Deneuve comments and realized she was talking with film director Andrew Techine, whose work he liked. James saw singer Diana Ross talking with the model Naomi Campbell, their faces excited, and he wondered what they were talking about—war in Africa, poetry, cosmetics? Or perfume? The place was full of scents. James saw waiters passing by with trays of champagne, which they brought to the famous faces first. He was curious as to whether they were also serving wine, which he would prefer. “I loved Pamela Todd’s book, Celebrating the Impressionist Table—great paintings, very good recipes,” someone said. James looked around and saw someone with a glass of red wine, asked him where he got it, and went in that direction. Not far from tables filled with glasses, he saw novelist Toni Morrison and the essayists Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. huddled together. He said hello to them, and Gates nodded. James understood that violinist Joshua Bell would perform and he wondered where and when that would be. Walking away form the wine table, James saw Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and one of his writers, David Kamp. James sipped his Chianti. He saw the painter Ross Bleckner and music executive David Geffen talking with singers Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe. What was that thing Stipe was wearing? James saw the journalists Utrice Leid and Clayton Riley and stopped to ask them about their latest projects, sipping as he listened. Golfer Tiger Woods was talking with boxer Muhammad Ali—how Calvin would like that, as he was wild about golf—wild about golf? Sounds like a perversion, but Calvin had become an enthusiast of the sport. That was Marisa Berenson! Were those two the Hilton sisters? James recognized in the crowd Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Richard Parsons, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Gore Vidal, John Updike, Caryl Phillips, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Valerie Simpson and her husband Nick Ashford, Jude Law, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Giovanni Ribisi. On James’s way to a table to pick up grilled slices of chicken, which he wanted to couple with bits of blue cheese, James saw and avoided Percival Everett, who hadn’t liked the profile James had done of him a couple of years ago. The piece was something James had thought would please the writer but Everett had said it was more concerned with his personal life than his work. When James reached the food table, he forgot about the chicken and put on his plate scallops glazed and topped with almonds and shallots, and a small serving of a gratin of peas, tarragon, and pistachios. Before the night was over, James would see and hear Rudolf Guiliani, David Dinkins, and Ed Koch, New York mayors, break into an aria from Tosca, seeing who could hit the highest note.


Weeks after the museum gala, James entered the Redface’s office, thinking about the previous night’s celebration of Calvin’s new job and wondering what this meeting with the Redface would be about, barely noticing the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “That’s Life” that was playing low on the stereo behind the man’s chair. James hated surprises.

James sat down and opened his notebook, poised to write. The Redface affected seriousness but James could see he was pleased with himself, fatuous; he almost hoped that James would share the enthusiasm he felt for what he would say. The man was quick, direct, and he said, “James, you’re being here is no longer working. I’ve been trying to put together a team here and you aren’t a team player and your work has suffered because of it—it expresses you more than it expresses this institution. We have to let you go.”

“You have to?” asked James.

“Yes,” said the man, disliking the editorial implications of the question as much as the logical correction it suggestion. He went on. “I’ve asked the personnel office to extend your insurance benefits for three months and to give you whatever reasonable support you might need upon your separation from this office, which will be effective in one hour. A security guard can help you gather your things, if you like.”

“No, I don’t like,” said James, standing up. “I’ll gather my own things.”

James put resumes in the mail, and he made phone calls; his life was now not about work but about seduction—trying to interest employers in what he had to offer as a worker. He spent his days following up on job possibilities he found in newspapers and on the internet; and he sometimes went to films or museums for the distractions and took long walks at the end of the day to use up his extra energy and to think.

One day James found himself being extraordinarily polite to everyone he met, a newspaper vendor, a waitress in a breakfast diner, and a subway booth clerk. James realized this was a false benevolence that had come out of his own sense of injury; he was offering care to others when he wanted it for himself. He restrained himself.

James was in a bookstore one night, browsing, his friend Pete having backed out of a plan to meet for a drink. James bumped into a woman he hadn’t seen in years. They went to a bar for drinks, a bar full of Polish-American locals, and he told her what had happened to him, and she told him about her own disappointments and frustrations. She had been hired for what seemed a dream job, but the company went through a sudden downturn and she was reassigned to the kind of job she’d had when she first began her career. The newspapers were full of similar stories—of innovations that undermined traditional sectors of the economy, of new companies begun in good times that didn’t produce enough of a profit when things went bad, and of dwindling consumer confidence that affected consumerism that then affected staffing levels. The woman’s face, pale, with baby fat at her cheeks but tiny lines at the corner of her eyes, was well intentioned, sensitive, and hopeless; she had not thought of how to change her life. They talked past midnight, and he woke up the next morning in her bed, remembering everything, miserable. He thought about sex more often now, and when he pursued it, it brought a sense of adventure and a quick sharp pleasure, but it solved nothing.

After putting two hundred resumes in the mail at the post office, James went back to the clerk’s window to get a money order check for a telephone bill he wanted to pay. Soon after handing over a fifty-dollar bill, a man in a wheelchair asked James to move back so the man could pass, but James hadn’t received his change yet and was afraid of a mix-up if he moved away from his money or out of the clerk’s line of vision. The man in the wheelchair—middle age, bearded, short, with a somewhat thick though not fat body—looked at James, who had only moved a little, and said, “Some people are so rude.” James looked down at the man as he rolled away—should James swallow the presumption and the shock of pain he felt? James called out loudly, “You crippled idiot.” A woman near James looked disapproving, while a man nearby laughed.

James often used a copy center downtown to reproduce his portfolio, and the first time there he argued with a young woman behind the counter. She didn’t seem in the mood to be helpful, and he wasn’t in the mood to tolerate the slightest disrespect. Their argument was short and ugly and they repeated it on two or three of his visits. Once he heard her say to her supervisor, “We’re going to have trouble with that one.” Weeks passed and James didn’t say anything at all to her and finally he tried ordinary greetings and she returned them. One day he’d been working quietly, collating materials, and felt something and looked up and saw she was staring at him and he smiled. She blushed. She was a small pretty woman, Venezuelan, with a slight accent; and, to him, her face was sensual and surly—passionate. James began talking to her when he was done with collating, and he asked her when her break was, and if she’d like to go out for a coffee, and she said yes. He was surprised at how easy they found their way to bed, but realized that because his mind was full of so many things—culture, philosophy, and politics—sex was usually not the first thing he thought of; but for his generation and those younger, many of whom were concerned with a lot less than he was, sex was one of the few things they thought about. In bed, she was like a woman both begging for and fighting her own pleasure, afraid and demanding, and James found this very exciting, though a part of him observed it from a distance, as if for later consideration.

Before his friend Gail had called him with the news, James had heard it over a local arts radio station he listened to. The program director and the executive director of the television station she worked for had been fired, along with several of their assistants, and Gail had been appointed interim program director. James was pleased for her, but not as happy as he would have been if his own life had been as he wanted; and so he saw her ascension also as if from a distance. The appointment had been made not by an executive director or a personnel committee, as was customary, but by the chairman of the board of the corporation that owned the station. There were already protests outside the station’s offices of people who feared corporate intervention would weaken the station’s programs. The station had been known for its independence—for its coverage of the arts, progressive politics, eccentric personalities, obscure news, and advocacy of free speech rights. Gail had gone on the air to reassure the public that the station’s mission would continue undisturbed, but though she was a known journalist, and someone who had covered issues important in various communities, her words did not placate the demonstrators. When Gail called him, she said, “I have the job I was entitled to, and now I have the chance to do some good work for the station.”

James hadn’t eaten in two weeks, and his energy had diminished, his face was drawn, his body was learner, and he suffered headaches, when he got a tiny check for an article he did for a local giveaway paper on a recent special community board election. He cashed the check at a storefront check-cashing service and went to a local Chinese restaurant for chicken in garlic sauce. Hours later at home, in the bathroom, he read from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil—“A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle—or as a temporary resting place. His characteristic high-grade graciousness toward his fellow man becomes possible only once he has attained his height and rules. Impatience and his consciousness that until then he is always condemned to comedy—for even war is a comedy and conceals, just as every means conceals the end—spoil all of his relations to others; this type of man knows solitude and what is poisonous in it”; and James pushed out of his bowels tiny rabbit-like pellets. James thought of what he wanted—individuality, self-expression, the pursuit and exploration of an intellectual mission with a social purpose and appropriate rewards—and he thought of his own anger, distrust, and impatience when faced with obstacles and these feelings had made him sometimes, too often, politically clumsy: he had paid the people he disliked the tribute of honesty when he might have been a hypocrite, but hypocrisy would not have caused them to question themselves, their values, or their sense of reality. A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle—or as a temporary resting place.
Having read his fill of the book, taken a walk outside, and had a little something to eat, James called his friend Pete and asked him if he had time to get together during the weekend—maybe they could meet in a park and talk for an hour, or have a cup of tea somewhere. Pete said, No, he was busy with work, and as James put away the phone, he knew that he and Pete were not friends and had not been friends for years.


James had applied for jobs in person and through letters, faxes, and electronic mail. He had sought reporting jobs and work in the various industries he’d previously worked in, but he found nothing.

James had drunk glasses of water to fill his belly and had taken aspirins for the headaches, but he was ravenous; he thought he was going mad with hunger.

It had been months since James had spoken to Pete, longer than that. He had not spoken to Calvin recently. James realized that he’d left several messages for Calvin that Calvin had not responded to—queries, invitations. James’s friend Gail, who was still enduring protests outside her office, and slanderous reports in the press—in which she was accused of egocentricity, professional favoritism, and political shortsidedness, in addition to being a corporate pawn—had loaned him money for rent, and he didn’t feel comfortable calling to ask for more.

The first time James entered a soup kitchen, one run by a national charity group with local offices, he felt lucky. Being served was roasted chicken, with potato salad, gravy, and string beans, and it all looked good and tasted good. He, dressed simply but neatly and carrying a canvas bag with his notebook and a magazine, took a seat across from a man seated alone, and James began to eat, glad he’d come even after the man opposite him started mumbling irrationally to himself. In time, James would see the range of food offered: food that was surprisingly good or quite bad, with little in between, with the worst being a tasteless stew of stringy chicken rumps over unsalted pasta.

Many of the people who came here were what he expected: homeless men and women, old people, toothless people who had been drug addicts, women whose salaries were not enough to sustain a life, and young men whose families abandoned them after they had lost jobs or gone into crime or jail. But there were also people who seemed ordinary, able, clean, and sane; they simply were hungry and wanted to eat.

Some of the people were quiet, and kept to themselves; and others acted as if this were a great social occasion, a chance to see and speak with good friends. James was not interested in them, in their oddly plump, weary, indistinct middle-age faces, nor in their comments—“I hate to throw food away, I hate to see food wasted, I won’t have any more food as I’m watching my weight, The powdered milk is so useful.” They were smart about pretending that frugality was chosen, or that if they didn’t get what they wanted here there remained options at home. James sat and ate, his attention entirely on the food, and when he wanted a second plate of food he asked for it. He would not pretend he was here for any other reason. Their friendliness, as he’d seen, might be followed suddenly by suspicion, fear, unsolicited self-defense, or even mockery.

One man had misplaced a bag and immediately thought it was stolen by one of the other people in the dining hall; but it was only on a chair underneath his coat. James thought, Paranoid people are worried about injury but they don’t realize that the injury they’re worried about is actually in the past, not the future; the wound is already there, misunderstood, unhealed. The man has already lost something and that is why he is here.

James couldn’t stand these conversations; he preferred silence to banality. He sat at a table, and took out a magazine, and was happy to see that the three people seated there whom had already eaten get up and leave, but then three more took their place. A chatty woman among them talked about having twins with a man who worked in a local beauty shop, something that surprised one of her tablemates.

James was surprised to find that the magazine he read carried an article about Gail, in which she was said to have fired people who questioned her authority—questioned her authority? A couple of them had called her a bitch on the air—and in the article she was also chided for being overweight: what does being overweight have to do with anything? James saw also that the co-anchor on one of her programs was being demonized as well, discussed as if he were bordering on the violent and insane simply because he was angry at being constantly insulted—he had talked about simply trying to do good journalism despite the surrounding controversies and had received nasty calls and letters and even threats.

At one point the chatty woman turned to James and asked if he’d been here a few weeks ago for a particularly good meal and he simply nodded yes. As soon as he had eaten, he folded close his magazine, wished them a good day, and walked outside into the gray, cold day.

At home, James put on a John Lee Hooker album, liking the wit of the blues, and he liked the drama, but when he heard the song “House Rent Blues,” with its story of a lost job, late rent, a disapproving landlady, homelessness, and an undependable friend, he turned it off. He took out a manuscript an editor had sent him to proofread, a small job.

He was having trouble concentrating after two hours and was glad to get Gail’s call. She laughed when he asked how she was. “Well, I’m not sure who on staff is for me, or who is against me. Someone will offer me a word of support and then I’ll turn into his program and hear him attack corporate puppets and women who put knives into men’s backs in order to advance and then conclude with how these words refer to situations near and far.” She laughed again. “I’d find this more acceptable if someone would say exactly what it is I’m doing that they object to, but instead they offer generalities and rhetoric.” James wondered if she was being ingenuous—if she was resisting seeing herself as part of institutional power, the appointment, the face, the tool, of a corporate board, as some of her colleagues claimed. Maybe she saw further—that all of them, and most people, worked for a large company. Toward the end of their talk, she did sound weary, and he realized she was surprised and confused by what had happened. How could people have once supported the idea of her becoming program director, and now that she was director not give her the chance to actually perform the job without obstruction?

James was late getting to lunch. He had spent the morning revising his resume, one of countless versions. After revising his resume, he had done some internet searches, using as key words names of past acquaintances; and he found that some of the people he had known had gone on to advanced degrees, television anchor positions, book contracts, prestigious teaching jobs; and he was depressed further. What had he been doing with his life? What had he to show for the years besides some published clippings and more free-floating worries and bad memories?

James passed a woman with two suitcases in tow, her everyday baggage, and he walked into the building, hoping that there was a decent lunch served. The woman, an office worker in the reception area, who usually told the men entering the building to take off their hats, was at the entrance. Thin, almost old, pious and tough, she stood at the door barring latecomers, and said in an angry burst, “No, no more. It’s over with—lunch is done.” James turned away, and began to think of where he would eat for the rest of the week, planning each day.

James decided to walk to the local library. James remembered a recent interview in which he had been asked whether he had journalism experience, a weird question in light of the fact that the ad requested an experienced journalist. Why else would he have been called for the interview? The interviewer was clearly surprised to see someone who looked like him apply, a fact that both amused and angered James. Inside the library James saw a man working on a craft project involving beads—he seemed to be making some kind of mat. James recognized the man from a soup kitchen he’d eaten in. James looked through some new magazines, then thought of borrowing some music, something different, and he walked to the music section and was suddenly overtaken by the smell of excrement, he looked around and saw an old man in layers of filthy clothes. To confirm this as the source, he walked near the man—yes, confirmed. James borrowed some Brazilian music, and thought he’d stop for a minute to look at some essay collections and hours passed before he left the library. James saw a guard tell a man he could not sleep in the library. The man, with piercing green eyes, tanned skin, light brown hair with a little white in it, was thin, obviously malnourished, and in dirty blue jeans; he stood up and left but returned about ten minutes later; and he saw James, sat across from him, and asked him where he was from. James told him, and the man said he thought he was from somewhere else—and then the man opened a book in front of himself, closed his eyes, and slept. When the man awoke, James took out of his bag a list of soup kitchens and gave it to the man. “This might be helpful to you. Sometimes it’s been helpful to me.” The man looked at it and said, “Thank you.”

James was using a reference computer in the library one afternoon, trying to gather together some books he thought he’d use in a proposal for a writing grant. He thought he might try to write a book on an Ohio-born writer who wrote about rather mad families caught between ambition and circumstance. Next to him sat a tall, tanned young man. James looked twice at him. James had seen him before, but didn’t know his name. He hung around with another man James thought crazy. James looked at him twice as the man had dyed his hair—what color is that? A light orange? The man sensed James looking and returned his gaze. They smiled. They worked silently next to each other, but a tension was in the air. James wondered if he should say something, either about what he was working on or ask the man bout his own concerns. James had become reticent to say anything about himself since losing his job, so he said, “Working on anything interesting?”

“I’m just printing some Japanese anime,” said the man, turning his computer screen toward James, who saw illustrations of half-nude women.

“Interesting,” said James.

The man laughed.

The tension, however, was not dispelled. Each attended to his concerns, but there was something remaining to be said. What could James say to this man, a stranger, someone he did not know, and someone he suspected he had little in common with? Every once in a while he felt this kind of thing—a connection having nothing to do with reason, nothing to do with will—and he dismissed it, but now that he was idle, now that his emotions were so obviously unfocused and unresolved in so many ways, he found these impulses harder to dismiss. James looked over at the young man, and then down into the man’s lap where he saw the man was aroused. After a brief exchange of looks, comments, and gestures, they went back to the apartment the man, Santiago, shared with his girlfriend, who was at work, and amid low laughter and high-spirited lust they drank liquor and fucked. James was charmed by the man’s energy and joy; and he felt as if he were lying down with an affectionate but dangerous animal.

“Does your girlfriend know about this side of you?” asked James.

“What’s there to know? It’s not like I’m going to fall in love with any guy,” said Santiago. “I don’t give guys flowers or taken them out to candlelit dinners. I hang out with guys sometimes and sometimes we play basketball and sometimes we fuck,” he said.

James looked out of one of the windows, onto the streets he’d be entering soon.

“You’re intelligent, sensitive, free. What do you want to do?” asked Santiago.

James was startled. He hadn’t expected that perception or the honesty, and he stumbled, “I don’t know. I just want to get a job that doesn’t involve too much humiliation.”

Walking in the neighborhood, James came face to face with a boy he had been seeing in the area for years. James had first seen the boy when he was about ten, chubby, and carrying a football, and now he was twenty-five, dressed all in black with longish hair, affecting a Manhattan style that was not entirely current. It was odd to have seen someone grow older without having any connection to him. When the boy was young, he had seemed open, pleasant-natured, and now he seemed a little closed, private, moody. James had seen this transformation in other boys. It might have been the narrowing of the focus of their energies that had led to this—they went from being interested in each other and everything to being interested principally in work, sports, women. James himself had not changed very much since he had first seen the boy—a fact he attributed to not being married or having kids, things that exhausted a man—and it was obvious that the boy recognized him. James said hello to the boy and asked about what he was doing and they talked about the weather, rock music, Manhattan, the too dull neighborhood. An hour later, when James kissed the back of the boy’s neck, after ruffling his thick dark hair, as James’s cock smoothly pushed in and out of the boy’s freckled pink ass in the boy’s bedroom, which still seemed the room of an adolescent, James felt a terrific sense of conquest. James was happy to substitute this sexual conquest for professional conquest, at least for a few minutes, but then he wondered if such a feeling—so small, so conscious—wouldn’t make the experience bitter to him later, and he knew then what he would do. When he whispered in a rush of words in the boy’s ear that he wanted the boy to fuck him, the boy seemed surprised, then disturbed, and finally he grinned.

When James spoke with Gail on the phone, they inevitably discussed what had been happening to her, but James tried to remind her about other things—about restaurants she might try, about films that were opening, about books to read, about places she might travel, about other jobs she might consider. He wanted her to remember that there was a wider world.
So they talked about different things, then Gail said, “I think Susan Sunshine”—and they laughed again at the name, which Gail had mocked in the past—“I think Susan Sunshine is behind a lot of the protests.” Sunshine was a reporter with a cult following—she presented herself as the girl next door but was known for aggressive reporting and had grilled the U.S. president so thoroughly several newspaper columnists had wondered if she had disrespected his office. “She wants to control this station—she used to, through the former program director,” said Gail.

James wasn’t sure he believed in human puppetry. Sunshine might have had indirect influence, but indirect control?

A mutual colleague of Gail’s and the woman claimed that Gail was jealous of Sunshine. James thought Sunshine self-consciously good, sweet, smart, but her audience read her eager grin as warmth and her plain hairstyle and clothes as integrity and read Gail’s precise diction as artificiality, her confidence as imperiousness, her girth as transgression, and her knowledge as foreign ideology. Gail’s proper Trinidadian upbringing was working against her in their eyes.
The protests against the television station where Gail worked, surprisingly well financed and well organized, had continued so long that newspapers were no longer even pretending to try to get the other side of the story. They had been bombarded with calls and e-mails and printed material from the protesters for so long, they were saturated with their version and simply reproduced it in their stories. Gail had even been recast in her own life story as someone incompetent and power-driven, somehow both clueless and so thoroughly calculating she had fooled many of her current coworkers and the public.

The harassment of board members by the protesters—calls at home and office, protests outside their children’s schools—had led some board members to resign and others to consider firing Gail but as yet there wasn’t enough board support for removing her from her position.
“I think our work is to report the news—yes, critically, intelligently—but to report it, not to be it or to make it, but Susan wants to make news. She thinks reporters are inevitably part of their stories and should advocate a position,” said Gail.

“Well, you’ve done advocacy journalism too,” said James.

“Sometimes it’s appropriate,” said Gail.

The truth was that power had changed her—or, if not power, the circumstances of power. She had gone from being hopeful though chastened, to trying to articulate a vision staff and viewers could rally around, to being defensive, to being controlling about what was said on the air by her staff about the controversies, to being unable to tolerate dissent. The atmosphere inside the television station had become calm but fearful, professional but without intimacies or the honesty that comes with intimacy. Gail had been treated unfairly; and that became the foundation from which she thought and acted.

Gail said, “You tell me I’m brilliant and strong—we agree about that—but you’re even more pleased by the fact that I’m not afraid to be tough or difficult.”

James laughed. It was true.

“You think many of us are complex, and that when that complexity is revealed it creates difficulty, and that’s why people are afraid to reveal complexity. They don’t want the difficulty or the punishment that might come with it,” she said.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” said James.

They both laughed.

It was the middle of the morning, and there were snow flurries. In yesterday’s mail there had been a telephone bill, which remained on James’s mind—how would he pay it? How would he pay to get his clothes cleaned? How would he pay his taxes? James gritted his teeth as he walked, wondering if his shoes would soon be soaked.

James saw a puppy take a bone under a car, where the dog huddled near the front right tire. James stopped to watch, thinking about the smallness of the dog and its obvious hunger. He walked on and a woman, who had seen him watching said, “I don’t know whose dog that is. He’s just eating those chicken bones.” James smiled at her. He thought about the dog’s tenacious gnawing at the bone, about his huddling against the tire, and felt sympathy. This is pathetic—I’m projecting myself onto a puppy, he thought.

A man was milling outside of the small trailer that operated as a food pantry, and James walked in his direction. James had seen the man before, inside, but this was the first time he noticed the man had a scar on his left lower cheek. A knife wound? The man had dark, intense eyes. He looked at James’s face, then at his coat, his scarf about his check, his pressed pants, his shining shoes; he looked skeptical. James saw the look and wanted to say, not everyone in need or trouble looks or sounds broken. But this is what they seemed to want, to see your need abject. James had been handing out his resume to businesses in the area, and so he was clean, shaven, and dressed very presentably but not especially well by his usual standards. He had sat down earlier in a real estate office to discuss the possibility of selling real estate, but had been told it would be about three months before he would be likely to make money he could live on. He would have to be able to afford training, licenses, a desk, and he would not get a salary but would make commissions. That was another dead end.

James asked the scarred man if the pantry was opened and the man said, No.
On his way home, James stopped at a supermarket. He had no money on him, but it had become his habit to tour the aisles of food and clothing stores he couldn’t now afford, seeing the things he hoped to be able to afford again one day in the future. These were tours akin to brothel or museum visits, with most of the pleasure taking place in his mind, not on his lips or tongue. James realized he had a headache, remembered he was out of aspirin at home, and was almost surprised when he found himself picking up a a bottle of aspirin and slipping it into his coat pocket. A block away from the store, he smiled, pleased. I’ll have to do that again, he thought. He retrieved the bottle from his pocket, broke the plastic seal, and put the two white bitter tablets on his tongue.

The radiator in James’s bedroom kicked on; it was as if the house were breathing. James thought the heat was less than in previous years, and he knew that was because he was behind in his rent. He thought of this as he heard Gail say, “Two people can have the same strengths, do the same kind of work, but if they belong to different social groups, they’ll get a different reception, different rewards. We are individuals but we’re not appreciated as individuals.”
James said, “No, we’re not.”

Gail had told him about finding herself, thirsty, at her office approaching a water fountain as Susan Sunshine neared the same fountain to drink. Gail had gestured, deferring to Susan, who drank first. As Susan was bent drinking, Gail couldn’t resist adding, “You think you’re entitled to public recognition and admiration.”

Susan had straightened, a look of surprise on her face, and said, “People recognize my work. Do you resent that?”

Gail said, “You’re not the only one who does relevant work. Do you feel at all guilty about the unequal attention you get?”

Susan said, “Would you?”

Gail had not answered. She had moved passed Susan, drank water, and then walked away.
Gail said, “She’s oblivious—she assumes power is her right.” She paused, and asked, “How are you James?”

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m very tired. The life I’m living is not the life I planned,” said James. He laughed sadly. “I’m no longer the hero in my own story—I’m more of a case study, a statistic. I guess not everyone’s allowed to be a hero.”

Gail said, “We’re individuals but we’re not appreciated as individuals.” She was quiet a moment. “You’re still a hero to me.”

“And you are to me,” he said.

The corporate board of the company Gail worked for had elected new members, many of them whom were either sympathetic to the protesters or who simply wanted the protest to end and were willing to make a sacrifice for that. Gail could see that when the new board had its first meeting in two weeks, she’d likely be the ritual’s sacrifice. She announced that she was resigning to write a book and consider other professional opportunities. James read a report of the board election and resignation in the morning paper and intuited the rest.

James saw a man alone making karate gestures and mouthing words, clearly crazy. The man crossed the street, and though a bus was coming he stood in the middle of the street, unzipped his pants and took out his prick and began to urinate.

When James entered the soup kitchen in the church basement, a nervous young man was speaking with someone. James assumed this nervousness was because he was new to such spare accommodations, but in the midst of James’ meal—spicy chicken wings, buttery whipped potatoes, string beans with other vegetables—the young man sat down next to him and began talking the social service program he was with and about health benefits James might qualify for. James asked him if he had a card, and after the man handed over a card and pamphlet, James said, “I’ll review these and if I need anything, I’ll call you.” The young man tried to continue talking. James asked, “Have you eaten the lunch? The young man said, No. James said, “Well, you should eat. This is really good, and I’m going to finish my delicious meal, which is why I’m here, and if I need anything I’ll call you.” The young man then tried to shake James’s hand, and James said, “I can’t—my hands aren’t clean: I’m eating.” The man kept his hand out as if it was okay, he didn’t mind James’s hand but James repeated his words. Would the man shake someone’s greasy hand in other circumstances? He must be new to his job, James thought. With his small build, light brown skin, small mobile eyes, cheekbones, short-cropped hair, and quiet manner, there was a resemblance to James, but the man saw in himself no resemblance to James or anyone else here. He’s so uncomfortable he’s dangerous, thought James. You can destroy someone with disappointment and pity, James thought. If I had been weaker. If I had been having a very bad day.

James received a small check for a proofreading job he did, and decided to go to a party. It had been months since he’d gone to a party. He’d had a bleak spring and a terrible summer—he had not known that a summer could be terrible.

James walked into the party and saw people smoking marijuana and doing powdered cocaine. He had rarely smoked the first and had never tried the second but he knew that tonight he would do both; and he did.

The noise in the party was no longer aggravating; it seemed far away. James no longer felt as if he would cry if someone asked him where he worked. James imagined the hands of a nearby clock spinning quickly, an acceleration of time. He noticed a man watching him and thought the man looked hostile and wondered if the man, whom he did not know, wanted to kill him. James suddenly imagined himself in a closed coffin, face up, the lid a few inches from his eyes, the coffin filled with cobwebs and dirt. Could he be feeling afraid and sleepy and sexually aroused at once?

Every day for a week, James thought of calling the party’s host to ask about getting more of the drug. He went to bed late one night having decided that he would do that the very next day.

James woke up the next day and turned on the television to find the towers where he and Gail used to work on fire. Two planes had flown into them. James smiled: there was justice on earth.
James lay across his bed, reading Simone DeBeauvoir’s interview in a Paris Review anthology: “When one has an existentialist view of the world, like mine, the paradox of human life is precisely that one tries to be and, in the long run, merely exists. It’s because of this discrepancy that when you’ve laid your stake on being—and, in a way you always do when you make plans, even if you actually know that you can’t succeed in being—when you turn around and look back on your life, you see that you’ve simply existed. In other words, life isn’t behind you like a solid thing, like the life of a god (as it is conceived, that is, as something impossible). Your life is simply a human life.” He suddenly felt pressure in his stomach, and went to the bathroom; and moments later, after realizing he was almost out of toilet paper, he gazed down, seeing the thick snake-like turd in the white bowl, and bent to flush the toilet.

James stood in the food pantry line. After James was given a small bag of canned vegetables, a box of raisins, and some apples, he thought, So much humiliation for so little in return.

This world is too small for me, thought James.

(April 2002)

(c) DG

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Center and Margin, Major and Minor Culture

...I am inclined to think of important art and culture as consisting of significant ideas and strong forms, as work that embodies, recalls or represents, or makes possible complex and important experiences...I am inclined to think of great work as that which is comprehensive and suggestive, impossible or nearly impossible to exhaust for meaning and relevance...Yet, I find the significance I am looking for in literature, film, music, and visual art, usually. Yet, the greatest aspects of culture are often elements and experiences that only a few persons have regular access to: for most people, opera, ballet, European classical music, jazz, visual art, literature, and philosophy, are not consistent features of their lives, if they are present at all. What, then, defines that kind of greatness, if it is uncommon, if it is unknown, to many or most people? It's not popularity. It must be the form and content of the work, its depth, its style, its wisdom; and that the work offers something of insight and use to those who know it, and offers beauty to those who want it. It is both impersonal and intimate...

I have been thinking about the impersonality, the necessary impersonality, of art and culture. Someone I know, a personal acquaintance, confused a fiction I wrote with a personal memoir, a rather unlikely but true confusion: and he was glad to have a statement about my "personal" relations after so much of my commentary about "cultural" matters. It was a weird appreciation, as for me, whatever concerns me, whatever pleases or stimulates me, is personal. I have liked and loved, disliked and loathed, all sorts of people, those with and without beauty, education, or money; but I am most favorable to those who have knowledge and kindness. I like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison much more than I like people I have shaken hands with or seen daily for years. I prefer the lines of Shakespeare and Henry James to any religious text. I get more pleasure from watching a film than I do from listening to most people describe their family or love relations. I want meaning, not gossip. I want significance, not pettiness. I want knowledge and logic, not mindless emotion or prejudice...

Living in one of the world's great cities, such as New York, it is easy to believe that one comes in contact with important culture--that the museum show one is seeing matters, that the writer one is listening to matters, that the concert one remembers matters, that the proposal one has just heard for a new project matters...And, it is more difficult, sometimes, despite the sometimes too emphatic declarations, to believe that what is occuring in a small town, such as a small Louisiana town or village, is something that matters, even when it involves culture or politics that seem to engage one's neighbors. One wants to examine the evidence more closely. One wants to see and hear how and why something matters--how much work went into an event, fact, or work; how many effects result from engaging with that thing; how long lasting is the attention the phenomenon inspires...Life in Louisiana is, quite probably, more like life in much of America, than life in New York; and yet small town life is not typically presented as representative in public culture (it does not carry the same aura of importance, of symbolic or practical significance, that life in a metropolis does). There is so much here, in Louisiana, that is worth attention, beginning with the land itself. There is unique language, food, and music. There is a unique history, cultural and political. Is what is unique always important; or must it be made important: by an equally unique and creative sensibility; or by powerful institutions?

I have been thinking about what makes culture major, and what makes culture minor, trying to clarify the terms, the situations, the examples...

I tend to think that grievance literature almost always connotes a minority perspective, though it is true that much great literature contains a complaint against humanity (minority literature often includes particular historical charges, not simply general, recognizable protest against human nature or human society, such as against human cruelty or ignorance or selfishness).

I tend to think that great literature contains so many different kinds of experiences it cannot be reduced to one idea, to one emotion. It can be read as a hero's journey, a family saga, a social history. It can be read as a rumination on landscape or furnishings. It can be read as a meditation on manners. It can be read as a philosophy of being and perception. It can be read for comedy or tragedy. It is not ever just one thing...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Miscellaneous Notes #3

One of the local Louisiana newspapers, The Daily Iberian, publishes information regarding hurricanes, deaths (with front-of-the-paper obituaries), and police arrests, sports, local politics, and regional culture events, such as festivals aligned with churches, agriculture, and music. There has been significant crop damage, hundreds of millions of dollars in damage--different crops, cane, cotton, sweet potatoes--and seafood industry damage due to the recent hurricanes. There is little national news, though there used to be more, apparently: with the increasing popularity of the internet, there has been less. Recently, there was a short article, I think from Associated Press, on a Southern University chancellor who will be paid $295,000 annually, with $35,000 in addition for his housing expenses and $15,000 for his car expenses. I'm fascinated that it is understood that someone's housing or transportation expenses may need to be subsidized; and that is very likely for such an important representative of an institution (who may do business traveling and entertain at home for professional reasons)--but I wish something similar were more understood for ordinary workers, and, of course, I wish cultural workers, such as writers and artists and teachers, were more valued...

Someone was telling me about a time in the past, in this area, when Americans of different ethnicities, Negroes and Caucasians, that is southern Louisianians, had very friendly relations, visiting each other (not necessarily sitting inside but sitting on each other's porches or in each other's yards and talking)...That things began to change with the increased importance of the catholic church, and the increased movement to the area of French Canadians (Cajuns), with more separation and prejudice and hostility developing...Also, that blacks had fairly solid economic lives, that they worked regularly, especially in farming--but that as things developed, with increased dependency on machines and farm loans, black farmers began to be marginalized...

...This past weekend, I watched more television than I had in the previous eight or nine months together. On Saturday, I saw Three to Tango, with Matthew Perry and Neve Campbell, Naked in New York, with Eric Stolz and Mary Louise Parker, and One Last Dance with Patrick Swayze, Lisa Niemi, and George de la Pena (all on the CW network). Each film has something genuine about it, but I had reservations about the cinematography and production design. I found myself thinking that controlling for color (choosing to limit the quantity of color in a film, and being careful of the quality of color in a film) is very important, and why some people thought black-and-white was superior to color. I liked seeing the city of Chicago in Three to Tango, and the attempt to do a contemporary romantic comedy that was a bit like those done decades ago with people such as Doris Day and Rock Hudson; and I liked the subjects of Naked in New York--creative ambition, young love, friendship; and I liked the strong choreography and dancing in One Last Dance. I have watched black-and-white film at different times in my life and there were moments when I missed that, while watching these color films on televison, though the quality of the television's picture was clear, good. Sunday night, on Louisiana Public Broadcasting, I saw a PBS mystery, "The Ruby in the Smoke," and a PBS/Point of View film, "Calavera Highway," about a Mexican-American family, their memories of their strong loving mother and absent father, and late Sunday (early Monday morning) I saw a favorite of mine, The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas. Banderas plays a devout Arab who becomes involved in a battle waged by northmen, in what will be Europe, against a beastly enemy--the myth is of a fireworm, of bearlike beings, of eaters of the dead. The movie is about working and living across cultures and seeing the reality behind the myth and rising to challenges; and I think it is beautifully made. (During the weekend, I also saw a political talk show, "Washington Week" with Gwen Ifill, and a bit of the Superman series, "Smallville," and also Anthony Michael Hall in "The Dead Zone." It was, after more than a decade of little-to-no-television, nearly television overdose.)

...I have observed others and been myself observed. Today, I stopped by the post office in Loureauville, and an African-American man was getting out of his truck, and he asked me if I was from around here, and I said I hadn't been here in a while; and he said, he didn't recognize my face--and I asked him if he knew everyone in town, and he said, basically yes, that he'd lived in town all his life...Last week, when I began walking to St. Martinville, a white horse, near a fence, followed me with his eyes (and further down the way, a group of cows did the same); and days later, coming back from St. Martinville on bike, the white horse was deeper in the pasture, saw me, looked at me, I slowed down, and the horse ran toward me, the fence between us--and I stopped and talked to it for a few minutes...

There is different music I have found attractive for one reason or another during the last few months: work by Apples in Stereo, Grizzly Bear, Anthony Hamilton, Lyrics Born, Aimee Mann, Josh Ritter, Jill Scott, Angie Stone,...but this past weekend I have been listening to Death Cab for Cutie's album Narrow Stairs, and I like it very much. The instrumentation is distinct and creates a mystique and the lyrics are articulate, intelligent, and there is a subtext of sadness to the music and I like the lead singer's sensitive sound...

...After hurricanes, and days of sporadic rain, it is a beautiful, clear day today, which is, in Louisiana, reason for more than aesthetic appreciation (the land is gorgeous). It is an important fact...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Miscellaneous Notes #2 (Terrence Howard, etcetera)

In New York, I had heard some of Terrence Howard's new album, Shine Through It; and it was startling, as it didn't sound quite like anything else out--I could hear different traditions in it (European classical, folk, rock, soul, jazz) and suspected it was the kind of music some people would find repellent and others would love. Howard's mind and heart were obviously in the music; and that was confirmed by a New York Times interview. (I know that what often gets labeled "pretentious" is anything in which someone is trying to say something in which he really believes, something different in content and style.) I am more than willing to give Terrence Howard the benefit of the doubt as I have admired Howard's work in film: The Best Man, Angel's Eyes, Hart's War, Crash, Ray, and Iron Man; and I have read interviews with him over the years in which it was plain he was not interested in being anyone's stereotype: he is trying to be an individual and an artist. In Louisiana, I heard and saw Terrence Howard last night perform on the David Letterman television show, a program that might have been postponed, or rebroadcast, from an earlier day. I liked what I heard. It was unique, intense.

Television is more of a temptation in a small town, than elsewhere I think: the desire for news, for entertainment. (Television is a default form of culture.) I have not been a regular television viewer for more than a decade; and haven't watched much of it here in recent days (some news, and a little of a couple of legal dramas), but late yesterday I did go through the television guide to see if there were any films on that I might see (there were none).

When returning from my walk in St. Martinville on Tuesday, a "white" man in a white truck offered me a lift--and, after I said yes, and was going around to enter his truck he called out that he didn't have room in the front but I could get in the back. He added an apology. (I didn't see anything in the front making space sparse)...Glad for the ride, I hopped in--and later thanked him and wished him a good evening...He let me out and I continued my walk, and a second white man, a young white man (really, a boy) in a red truck stopped and offered me a ride another part of the way (I hopped in the back, without prompting); and he put on hip-hop music and started moving his shoulders to it; and, let off at my turn, I was appreciative for not having to walk the whole way...It was a beautiful day and a wonderful but long walk...

...It is easier to see age and time in others than in one's self, sometimes...(I have changed but I am not sure I have changed enough as a private person or social being.)...

Reporting of national news--whether by national networks or local stations--does not always make it clear how the news affects different regions. (This weeks coverage of Wall Street firms with financial trouble was evidence of that.) Regional news has a special value.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Graves, the City of the Dead

...I visited Loureauville, on bike (loaned for my stay by the aunt and uncle who picked me up from the depot); and in Loureauville I saw the elementary and high school; and visited the graves of my grandparents and sister, who are buried in the cemetery near a church I sometimes attended when I was a boy. (My mother has bought her grave, and a grave marker, a marker she shares with my sister, bears my mother's birth year and is ready to receive her death date.) (The road to the church is not far from the elementary school, but I forgot that; and the church can be entered by another small road, and I finally stumbled upon that one.) I stopped by the church, and heard a very small portion of the mass, given by a black priest, attended by white altar children (one had longish hair and might have been a girl); and the congregants contained more whites than blacks, which was a surprise, for what had been, traditionally, a black church, a church erected partly because whites didn't want blacks in their church...The town is small, somewhat active, and not as pretty as St. Martinville. There are people at school, in car garages, a few women tending lawns, but hardly anyone at all walking on the sidewalk, as there was hardly anyone at all on the sidewalk in St. Martinville yesterday. There are some cars and trucks passing by, possibly more than I saw in St. Martinville. (Most of the people, especially the men, must be at work.) Certainly, these towns were more active when I was young? I remember them as being more active...How can a small place, with its small people, do such violence to the spirit? It is hard to believe: one's own imagination must help, and one's own doubts must help, must help to achieve the damage.

Another Louisiana Story

...There used to be a small local theater in Louisiana (I didn't think of it as small at the time, when I was younger and went to it); and upstairs (the balcony) Americans of the darker hue would sit, and downstairs Americans of a much paler hue would sit. I found out yesterday that two brothers, twins, ran the theater, and one was passing for black and the other was passing for white: and that they were light-skinned but presumably of mixed-race parentage. (The passing-as-black brother took care of the upper part of the theater; and the passing-as-white brother took care of the downstairs part.) Isn't that crazy?

...The theater raised its prices and people stopped going and it is no longer functioning as a theater; but, when I passed by it yesterday people were doing some kind of work in its lobby, so something may be planned; restoration or demolishment or transformation...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Move: Here in Louisiana

...I left JFK airport via in New York on Saturday afternoon, and arrived in New Orleans late Saturday afternoon. It was a good, smooth flight, though the approach to New Orleans was cloudy, first dense white clouds then dark clouds (It was impossible to see anything but clouds outside the window). It was interesting, moving below the clouds to land, to see the coast of New Orleans, the water; how there is no real protection from the water. I had expected to take a bus to Lafayette from New Orleans, but because of weather conditions--in Houston, which affected New Orleans transportation, I was told--there were no buses leaving Saturday, I could not, and did not, leave New Orleans until Sunday at mid-morning; and I arrived in Lafayette at mid-afternoon the same day. The ride to Lafayette was terrific--the Louisiana landscape is open and there is lots of water (lakes, bayous, swamps, coulees). (When I have dreamed about Louisiana, there was always a lot of water in my dreams: and the why of it was obvious to me on this trip back--after years in New York, I had wondered if remembering the small coulee behind our house was enough to inspire dreams of such water...but there is water all over Louisiana.) One of my mother's sisters, with her husband, came to pick me up from the bus depot for a drive to my mother's house. (The drive, which was fairly common when I lived here years ago, seemed long.) The landscape, I think, is beautiful...I have been here, then, since Sunday and I write this on Tuesday morning. My mother's house, a small white house with gray trimming, a fragile seven and a half room house remains standing, despite the yearly tumult of bad weather (other, apparently sturdier homes, have been more damaged), but the house has plumbing and structural problems. (In one way, the problems are small; in another way they're not--as they must be faced daily; and the required repairs remain...forbidding. My mother had saved some money, apparently a good bit of it, with the intention of purchasing another house, but the money was not saved in a fully secure place, and at some point in the last few years it was stolen: and stolen she suspects by someone she knows.)...It has been interesting to talk to my mother again, at length: she can be frustrating and irritating to talk to, but she is smart, complex, sensitive, honest, and imaginative. The awful thing is that her warnings are well-intentioned, and what she warns against can come to past. (Everything she warned me of regarding the south, before my arrival, was true. My grandmother's house, in which an aunt, who has a handicap, is living, is in great disrepair, like something out of Dickens. That is especially sad, as the house had been well-kept and was often the center of family activity.) My mother's conversation is full of digressions, full of history, personal and social history. If I ask her a question, the answer comes in at least a paragraph, sometimes more. It's fascinating--I'm not sure if I would describe this as a literary sensibility, but it's one someone like Henry James might appreciate. She tries to be kind, sometimes, by being imprecise (she can speak in euphemism, indirection--and when I mentioned that to her, and she became conscious of it, and began to speak again, she said, "Here I go, speaking in riddles again)...This morning, I thought it was sad that I had denied myself her company for so long...My idea of who my mother is has been informed by both genuine perception and great misunderstanding...I was too young to make some of the judgments I made--but what else could I have thought or done? I felt as if I had to think through so much alone (I wanted to be myself; I didn't want my life to be a continuation of the lives I saw around me)--and I couldn't be sentimental, but there are different kinds of sentimentality and rage can be a form of sentimentality too...Whatever I say, I made a mistake: a mistake in thinking, and a mistake in feeling...That I held on so long to judgments made when young, that is the worst thing...I was wounded and I was arrogant and I was foolish...[Writer's Note: Slowly, but completely by early January, I would be reminded of why I had exiled my mother to the margins of my life; she was the one from whom I learned a strategic and ultimately self-defeating cruelty; and I was surprised to learn that she had alienated others too.]

...The house is out in the country, outside of a couple of small towns and today I walked, a long walk, a two-hour walk, a walk past cane fields and very nice houses with barking dogs, and a few old farm ruins, into one of those towns, St. Martinville, which seems quaint and pretty, prettier than I remembered it being. (Have they been trying to turn it into a tourist attraction? And yet, business does not seem great.)...It's been a lovely day so far...

...The stories here are interesting too...Two (white) spinsters sisters who own a lot of property, and are taken care of by a (black) couple; and when the last sister is about to die, she and others expect her black caretaker(s) to inherit the property...and after she dies, two days before the will-reading and dissemination of the property, someone (white) comes along and claims to be the long unknown daughter of one of the spinster sisters...and gets at least half the property...Another woman (black) is burned alive, burned until death, while sitting in her chair, with her husband in her house and a younger relative having been recently nearby--and the house does not burn and no one else burns; and no one "knows" how the fire started...Southern Gothic?...

Friday, September 12, 2008

On the Move

Yesterday, I had shipped south about 200 lbs. of my writing work (the cost of a few hundred dollars). And, today, a friend agreed to hold onto three canvas bags of related work for me in the city...It's been nice to have the concern and support of a couple of longtime friends...

Tonight, I saw the film The Science of Sleep at the Museum of Modern Art--it was delightful: smart, imaginative, personal, speculative, surreal, funny, tormented, presenting a very unique young man, a very unique couple in fact...I have a ticket to see the new Coen brothers film, as well...A wonderful way to spend an evening, I think...

Depression at 14

(Fiction: "Depression at 14")

The classroom was full, and the teacher inattentive. There were students who talked, gossiped, joked, or worked. He thought. He had drifted away from childhood friends without making new friends; and he was intelligent and sensitive, though inconsistently so, a personality without direction; and he felt everything in the classroom was now alien to him. He was brown-skinned and overweight, dressed in a shirt with short sleeves and pants that were slightly too tight. A boy looked over at him, frowned, and told someone loud enough for him to hear, “Look at how miserable he looks. He looks dead.”

Was it that he was on the cusp of growth, a greater emotional depth and an intellectual confusion out which might come the possibility of intellectual understanding, but also a beginning sexual awareness, all of which might result in a force that would impel him to say, I am and I feel and I want, none of which he felt yet strong enough to say, an inability he suspected without having the thought or word to indicate the suspicion, and so he was paralyzed: and so he could not imagine anything beyond this moment, nor act in a decisive way; he was simply still and he stared outward while wondering why his inner landscape was so ambiguous?

He hoped to get to a point and place in which all was nice, in which he was not accidentally or intentionally treated carelessly or cruelly. (No safe place exists among people, said The Book That Should Have Been.)

What day was it? Is it March, or September? What color are the leaves? Is there a breeze outside? How intense is the light?

There had been a girl he had been a pal with throughout grade school, after they had outgrown an early, brief, mutual crush. One day, when he was about thirteen, he pretended to read another girl’s name in the lines of his palm, covering the name in ink. He had wanted to see his pal’s reaction; also he hoped that she’d tell the named girl of his new affection. The named girl was pretty, dark, smart, quiet, with the air of a shy princess, and she was neither impressed nor persuaded by the news and he chose to forget her. What had he expected? A desire that might be spoken by others, a beloved object that need not be charmed or fought for—love without conditions for him to meet. Though shy, there had been cunning in that. Where was the cunning boy he had been?

When was it that a younger cousin of his named the cousin’s puppy an unusual name, the sound of a pleasant reprimand, and he had taken the same name for his own dog (an indication that he was unimaginative but in search of distinction, even borrowed distinction)? Was it yesterday, two years ago, three years ago?

The boy liked looking at the sky and stars at night.

He had awakened too early, scared by a dream: and then the light in the room made shadows and he saw the shadows enacting a violence and the violence scared him further though he could not stop watching it: one figure repeatedly cut off the head of another.

The two women took the small children out of the car, held their hands, and gingerly made their way through the town’s garbage dump, trying to ignore the eyes of the men driving the bulldozers or walking on the ground. The children were very young, and the mothers may have assumed they would not remember this visit or register what it meant, but the boy remembered the black mud under his feet, both gritty and slimy, and the foul smell and the flies. He remembered the dented cans of sweet potatoes the women found, kept, and later cooked. He remembered a small box with a dial on it that he found, wanted, and was allowed to keep, a toy; years later, he would know it was the temperature device of a discarded electric blanket…The father at home was quiet, angry, tense. He waited for the children’s irritating noise, or always-moving bodies. They might at anytime step in front of the television he was watching, or trip over his feet; then he would look at them with dislike. His mood seemed an almost daily, unspoken threat…The mothers of the two boys had gone to a weeknight church event, leaving the boys alone—to watch television and play. The older boy, about fourteen or fifteen, wasted no time in trying to climb atop the younger boy and rub his excited crotch onto the younger boy, about eleven. The younger boy ran from room to room, and when the older boy followed he tried to fight him off, and they fought through the rooms; and, finally, the younger boy gave himself up to the older boy’s stronger body, hard prick, and the stale breath of his insistent kisses. These lips on his neck were kisses? Why was the older boy’s eyes closed? The younger boy did not tell his mother. Was it because of his confusion or because of the odd, fleeting pleasure?

“I wasn’t sure what had happened. Was this play, sex, or violence? I accepted it—I thought I accepted it,” the man said to the therapist.

Sometimes out of fear or shame a person hides emotion, but this does not end the life of the emotion, it preserves it, and the emotion resides within and comes out at sometimes inopportune moments. Pain hidden comes out then when someone mentions something that touches on the cause of the pain, comes out as a flicker of the eyes, a movement of the lips, a perceptible physical shock, something, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“I don’t believe in original sin. I don’t believe in a genealogy of disaster, that there’s one thing that can explain how everything following it went wrong, such as a bad childhood. I think there’s an atmosphere in which we are encouraged or discouraged, helped or hurt—or helped and hurt, and also a whole range of life experiences, but I don’t think one thing can cripple someone for life,” the man said to the therapist.

The house the boy lived in was made of wood, and it was white. It did not seem sturdy, and yet it lasted.

The father did not build or own the house, nor was he the one who added rooms to it when they were needed. He was both absent and present.

Twenty years in the future, the boy might dream of this house, and of the people who have lived here, and of the people who might need to live here. He might ask in that dream if there are enough electrical outlets for the toaster, the hairdryer, the television, the music stereo, and other things all these people want and need. Will all these electrical demands cause an explosion of charges? This is not a question about electricity—about energy and utility—alone. It is a question about economics. It is a question about love and intelligence. This is a dream, and an understanding, he cannot anticipate. If anyone had explained it to him, would he have understood it, and would this understanding have changed him? Maybe. Maybe not. (There are always uncertainties, said The Book That Should Have Been.)

Intelligence is a facility, a skill, an understanding, but it is not as agile as one expects or as indomitable as one hopes, as its’ value and use are limited not only by one’s situation, but by one’s own personality, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The boy spent afternoons after returning from school looking at trees and birds. He thought about the life and the people he knew, trying to figure out who he was by seeing what he felt about them.

Again the boy dreamed of armed men invading the family home. Unknown to him, his mother had grown up with the same recurring dream. Had they spoken of their dreams with each other, and of the hostility they sensed surrounding them, might they have grown closer?

The boy’s aunt told his mother that she thought he was disturbed, but did not say what had disturbed him nor what he was disturbed about. The people he knew were interested in the rules and one’s ability to follow them; whether the rules were logical, good, or necessary was no matter for debate. For “rules,” substitute “expectations,” substitute “values,” substitute the subject of your choosing.

In untutored minds, intelligence takes on the cast of suspicion, with a subsequently found fact the cause of indictment, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The woman gathered her children, the boy and his sister, and took them without explanation to a faith healer, who knelt before them, put a hand on their chests, and prayed. The woman gave the healer money, and the family left. It was strange and a little frightening.

The members of the boy’s family were together, but they were not together. The existence of each influenced the existences of the others, but they did little to make each other’s lives easier. The mother ensured survival, but even she was distant in her approach. The boy might have been a text she was ambivalent about, yet felt compelled to annotate, correct, criticize.

Does your mother love you? I don’t know. She says she does. I don’t believe it. And when I think of how she is with others, I don’t know that I would call that love either. What is it? Obligation maybe, a sense of responsibility. I don’t know. Aren’t there joy in love, and a regard for someone’s uniqueness?

What is family for?

When guests came, though they might have been people he’d known all his life, he hid in his bedroom. He might have known them, but they did not know him, or what he was becoming.

For a boy to choose to pursue as personal ideas a sense of care, delicacy, reflection, and self-consciousness is to choose civilization, which is read as the feminine. It is a brave choice that is read as weakness, an affirmation of independence that is read as acquiescent to women and the dominant establishment, a presumably bureaucratic order. It is a profoundly decent choice that is perceived as queer and seen as queer even by he who makes it, a confusion of values and understanding that can lead to other confusions, false starts, disappointment, and punishment, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Tears in his eyes, he said to his mother and grandmother, “What do I have to do to be loved?”

If you have been convinced that you’re life is meaningless and realize this, or if you see that you have not been the one to determine your life’s meaning, you then are likely to make every effort to achieve a meaningful life, and to have that meaning be something you respect. It may take you a while to see that meaning is not always generated in such a singly conscious, controlled fashion, though it is affected by your efforts. It is generated by who you are and what you think, feel, and do, as well as by the results, the residue, of everything and everyone you encounter, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Were the games boys played rehearsals for friendship, community, work, or war? Or all of these? One day when he and the boys in his gym class ran a race, another boy advised him to pace himself, to not run full out the whole way. The physical education teacher laughingly told someone else to watch the boy’s ineptness on the basketball court, to see how unlike he was to the boys who otherwise looked like him. He was chosen last for teams more than once.

While he was getting a book and notebook out of his locker for his next class, hands suddenly appeared on his locker door, hands heavier than his own and a shade darker, hands belonging to another boy, a football player, someone he thought tough but decent, who looked at him hard and said, “You think you’re smart, but being smart doesn’t mean anything.”

Are men good for anything but work, sports, and sex?

The woman storeowner looked into the boy’s face and called his mother’s name, startled and urgent; she said, “You’re her son.” She had seen that earlier face in his. “Yes,” he said, “I am her son.”

Under the tree in a neighbor’s yard, the children stood. A seven-year old boy looked at the fourteen years-old boy and asked his own older girl cousin, “Is that a boy or a girl?”

Your grades used to be better than this, the teacher told the boy.

The civics teacher set up a television in the classroom on the day of the presidential inauguration. One of the students, who had been a friend just two years before, said, “The niggers elected that president,” and looked at him.

No one had ever took the time to explain to him why schoolwork was important, and he had not seen in any of the work where it might lead. Then, when he began to understand all he had not been taught and the dangers of ignorance, he began to train his mind, and the schoolwork often became part of his necessary exercises. Other times, his will faltered.

Dreaming of the uneven, patchy back lawn of his family’s house, the boy saw himself walk around half-buried large bones, bones that suddenly emerged from the soil and took on flesh and feathers—monstrous chickens—that then tried to devour people. In the dream, the boy rushed to escape them.

He refused to go to church. If fear of misery, death, and hell were the worst that could be promised, the motivation for attendance, they were not enough.

“I don’t hate authority. I do not like it; I prefer to be my own authority. However, I don’t assume a particular social or professional authority is to be questioned or dismissed until something is said or done to me that I find lacking in logic or sense or use,” the man said to the therapist. “Yes it’s true that I did not find the authorities available when I was young to be of much use,” he added.

If, as a child, your relationship with a parent is much less than you desire, you may feel you have no need to continue this relationship when you are an adult. What if that later time is the only time when it is possible for the two of you to have a response to each other that is mutual, possibly equal, that does not assume one’s knowledge and the other’s ignorance, and one’s power and the other’s pain, as fixed coordinates? Is this a risk and a work worth taking up? If you do not take this risk, you may be giving up what you’ve always wanted, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The boy imagined that he might become…an actor, a singer, a clothing designer, a writer, a lawyer, a doctor, a world traveler….

Usually people with money and power do not like their money and power attached to your need, neither as cause or remedy. Although money and power are as real as a loaded gun, a fancy car, a stuffed refrigerator or the private number of a necessary contact, people with money and power prefer you to see these as part of their charm and discretion, as something ephemeral and ethereal, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Those who give charity often see their generosity as pure, and your need as impure though it may be rooted in the injustices of the age in which you live, though their generosity often is tinged impurely with pride and suspicion and sometimes contempt, said The Book That Should Have Been.

While you work to achieve what you call success—an important career, a measure of fame—time and life do what they do, and there are for your neglected others love affairs, marriages, births, and deaths. And of those you once knew or might have loved, there are only memories, regrets, and irrelevant dreams. You might have laughed once more with a sister or brother, taken a glass of water to an ill grandmother or grandfather, but you did none of these things, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“Work. There’s been all kinds of work and no real work at all, only helping others fulfill their plans, trivial commercial plans,” the man said to the therapist.

One dreams of it, but one rarely gets all that one needs at once—the work, the money, the friends, the love, the community, the power, rarely arrive as needed, at the same time, if they arrive at all, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Success? Providing for others? Where once was need, there may be abundance, and instead of worry over frustration and hunger, there may be anger over the new indifference, laziness, and waste that can come with comfort. This may leave your will to mastery, your will to reconcile, your will to make things better, seem nothing, nothing at all, but self-delusion, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Who might prove to be a true friend?

“My friends have been attractive, smart, sensitive people, both the women and the men, and they have not given me what I wanted. I wonder if I gave them anything they wanted,” said the man to the therapist. “What did I want? Everything. A world. People who would be fully present and engaged and match my energies and interests, people who would like me, and who would confirm that life was worth living.”

Home is acceptance, encouragement, fulfillment of needs, gratification of significant wants, intimacy, security, shelter. If you have not had this, you may look for it in new situations, encounters, people, thus charging your relationships with unspoken or spoken expectations that may not be easily met, and out of this can come conflict and defeat, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“Yes, there was sex, but no sex with love. I did not trust sex or love,” the man said to the therapist.

The boy slept and dreamed of a tall, cloaked and hooded figure walking a dusty road. The figure’s dark hood covered most of his face, leaving the lower part of his nose and his mouth and chin exposed, and his teeth were large and white in purple gums. He stopped by a dead man on the road, lifted him in his arms, and took bites of the corpse’s flesh as he carried him. He clearly enjoyed the taste of the flesh he ate, some of which became stuck beneath the fingernails at the end of his long, thick fingers.

If today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today, …is there transformation? Does the sublime exist? Is transcendence only a hope, an idea?

As you get older, your perceptions and prejudices may become so habitual, so hardened, that you confuse them with a permanent external reality and so, despite trying to think anew, you may arrive again and again at the same destinations, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The words of a solitary man can seem like a fantasy or a lie; such words must be spoken with proofs—the proofs of history, poetry, or daily work, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“The things I know seem to have more to do with the past than the present. With time’s help, life seems to outrun my ability to understand it,” said the man to the therapist.

The fourteen years-old boy paced the floors, the sidewalks, the roads, walking and thinking, dreaming and planning. A new force was in his eyes, his voice, and his movements: I have been the boy you made me, but from now on I will be the boy I make of myself.

(The boy would grow up to make his own mistakes in life and love and thought—mistakes in friendship, intuition, grammar, logic, passion, politics, style, and work—and out of these mistakes he would write The Book That Should Have Been.)

(c) (“Depressed at 14,” December 2001, by DG)