Archive for January, 2013

Excepted, Not Exceptional

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Of the many wonderful things the internet has brought us (porn and… y’know, other stuff, NOT porn) my current favorite is the social media “humble brag”. This is when you post or tweet a seemingly innocuous or even negative thing, but it contains a really audacious bit of self-celebration. “The MTA fucked me AGAIN, and I’m late for my third audition today,” says the actor, who wants everyone to know his career is going great. “One more cup of coffee, and this novel is gonna be set in Brazil,” says the novelist, who’s writing a novel and getting his novel done. “Marlena just poured juice in her boots,” says the high school dropout, desperate to prove that he got married and had kids just like he was supposed to, and is living a totally reasonable life with adorable pitfalls…

So, it’s hard for me to figure out how to talk about some of the stuff I see and feel without feeling like I’m doing the same. In a way it’s insidious, because the guy who’s writing his novel is probably struggling, and he’s reaching out to the rest of us for some sign of support, some sense that this lonely horrible thing he’s trudging through is meaningful to someone, anyone. To accuse him of the humble brag is to attempt to humiliate him for even subtly claiming that his work is important.

So, when I talk about the people I know as being “strange” or “singular” or “unique”, you have to know that a big part of *being that* is just horrible. The defining aspect of the small group of people that I adore is our total lack of definition. My community is defined by our inability to form a community. The club that we belong to requires, for membership, a complete inability to be a part of a club. We try, we open our hands to one another and we form loose bonds and when we see each other at a bar or a reading or something, we run over and hug each other and drink in the jokes and one-ups-manship, and we bemoan our inability to land any grants or get into grad school and then hours later or days or something, we retreat back into ourselves, we roll over in bed with the covers up over our ears.

But that… loneliness, is the only word I can use, is apparent in everyone’s work. It informs everything we do. The isolation, the independence, and that information colors the work in such a way that we recognize it in one another. I see great looking people with awesome shoes and easy smiles, so I go out and get awesome shoes and go to the gym and try my easiest smile for everyone I see, but there’s not a SINGLE PERSON who buys into it.

And here’s the thing, how do I put this? Do I write down the fact that I love deeply and easily? That if you’ve ever seen me smile and it felt genuine, it’s because I genuinely adore you? That if it ever seemed like I was forcing a smile, it probably was forced, that I can’t seem to be kind and gracious? Do I try to describe this pathology, this horrible life long gun pointed down that will shoot my feet as some kind of *gift*? Am I going to say that this loneliness, this isolation is what makes “me and my friends” wonderful artists? Do I craft this humblebrag in such a way as to make yet another Seanrant into some kind of celebration?

Because it’s awful, for all of us. I’m under no illusion that there is a Duran-Duran-video yacht somewhere covered with beautiful people in bikinis sharing cocktails, and that I’m not invited. But I do believe that there are people who walk around without a crippling sense of regret and shame for all the times they *didn’t* say the right thing at the right time, the people who figure – that moment came and went and they may as well just let it go and keep dancing. The people who think what they write is probably pretty good! It’s at least good enough! When they’re on stage, they’re probably great! When they go into a party, they’re probably gonna have fun! I know there are people like this.

But man, I sit down with a friend I haven’t seen in a couple of months and we start talking shit and there’s a moment, early on, five minutes in, when we’re cracking jokes and there’s a weird… pause, we’re not sure who should be talking. We can crack each other up on email but in person we’re just. sentence ending. in some – paragraph editing, punctuation problem with – what, no you- oh no, I was just gonna say, actually that was just, like, a minute ago and –

And that’s the moment when I think “this is where I live, in this moment, when we’re lost, when we don’t know what the next moment is supposed to be and this is why God made pockets, so we could do a thing with our hands…”

And then I’m talking to someone and I’m trying to tell them about a moment, about a thing that someone said to me or something and suddenly I can’t talk because I think, fuck, I think I’m actually kinda crying and what the fuck does that even mean? Why would I do that now, and then I stop because it’s fucking humiliating and then it feels like an affectation and… we’re all okay if we’re behind a sheet of white paper because we can read this out loud a couple of times before anyone else reads it, so why the hell am I here, why am I AT this place, why am I carrying all this godawful ME around with me everywhere I go, like a giant fucking elephant suit I have to wear to a black tie party?

And I remember being at a concert in college – one of four colleges that I barely attended – and I was watching a chamber orchestra doing a handful of pieces, modern pieces that I wasn’t gonna know but for some reason in the middle of it they did Elgar’s Nimrod, and it shouldn’t matter that it was my dad’s favorite composer because what am I, an asshole? And it shouldn’t have mattered that I had an LP of the piece that I used to play and switch out with Adagio for Strings or whatever…

It doesn’t matter, because everyone else at that college was DONE with Elgar and Barber, and there’s only two opinions you can have, you can not know who they are and not care, or you know, you know the whole thing and you’re DONE, but for my rattlesnake brain, just responding to stimulus like “beauty” without any kind of information or context, I was overwhelmed and I sat there in more and more pain and when the timpani rolled at the climax I cried in what I thought was silence, but it was obviously not as silent as the people I was sitting with, including the woman I was with at the time, who looked at me with crooked smiles as if to say, “surely not *this*. Surely you have better taste than *this*.”

Man, I don’t. And when I talk to someone and they phrase their opinion as if they are speaking, with authority, as a member of a large contingent, I just shrink into myself. When someone says, “Well, my friends and I have BEEN skydiving and what you need to know is …” and I’m just like “okay, you belong to the subset of aviation experts, that’s you, that’s your group and you speak for them and my group is, and always has been, just me and my incredibly limited experience. My larger group is comprised of disjointed individuated circles who’s venn diagrams intersect but don’t overlap, at least not with more than one color…”

I take comfort in the fact that some of our greatest poets and playwrights were men and women just like me. And I’m terrified because so are the lone gunmen, and so are some terrible poets and playwrights. Even worse, so are brilliant poets and playwrights who become so uncomfortable with the accolades of joiners that they sabotage themselves to reaffirm their sense of loneliness. Because in a world of cliques and ethnicities, of soldiers and terrorists and survivors, of artists and engineers, for some of us, who can’t tell where those groups start and where they stop, our only sense of identity is that loneliness. We may be capable of greatness, but we live in that awkward pause and no matter how much I may want it to be something to brag about, it is, more often than not, just awful.

On Thinking On Thinking

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

It’s about an hour after the kids have gone to bed. Jordana has excused herself for a long winters’ something-r-other in the bathroom when I hear Barnaby’s bed shift, some feet patter and then the door open. I head up the stairs to intercept him before he goes into the bathroom, but I’m about 20% as fast as I need to be to pull this off. I hear Jordana laugh and tell Barnaby to check with Daddy for the downstairs bathroom, just as I am dragging myself up the stairs. Barnaby’s head appears at the top.

Me: Hey kiddo, what’s going on?

Barnaby: Well. I’m having a set of problems that I can divide into two parts. The first part is that I’m having some bad thoughts, but I know how to make the bad thoughts stop so I can go to sleep, but the *second* part is the interesting part because, I’m not having bad thoughts? But I AM having my brain going, and it just keeps going and going and I can’t seem to find a way to stop it.

Me: (bringing him into our room) Okay, what are the bad thoughts?

Barnaby: Well, I was thinking about Marlena’s Farmer, and this is where my bad thoughts actually became just my brain going. I was thinking that she shouldn’t be scared of The Farmer because I don’t know what she’s talking about – there is no farmer. But then I thought that *ACTUALLY* she isn’t scared of The Farmer, she’s scared of some things and she doesn’t know what they are and she’s too little to *explain* what she’s scared of, so she calls it The Farmer. And that way, if she’s feeling scared, just of being little and being two and a half and falling down the stairs and ALL THE OTHER STUFF THAT SHE IS SCARED ABOUT, then she can just be scared of The Farmer and she can tell us that it’s The Farmer, but it’s actually everything else.

Me: That makes sense.

Barnaby: But I was thinking that all the stuff that I’m going to invent when I grow up, the new Mars Rover and the special houses for Little Guys and the Carnaby and all that stuff, all of that stuff might be stuff that I’m just *thinking about* instead of thinking about other things.

Me: What other things?

Barnaby: Like food. Or dirt. Or I don’t know, just, things. Presents. Just, like, things in the world.

Me: And that’s what’s going on? Your mind is thinking about the inventions?

Barnaby: Partly yes and partly NO. My mind is thinking about my mind thinking about inventions.

Me: Dude, that sounds like your mind is just a mess.

Barnaby: Yeah, but I don’t know how to clean it up.

(Jordana enters from the bathroom)

Me: And that’s why you’re having trouble sleeping?

Barnaby: Yeah, I just can’t turn off my mind. Even when I have the Bad Feelings, I can turn them into something else and just think about solutions, but then the solutions are *very interesting* and then my mind is thinking about *that*.

Me: You know, that happens in our family.

Barnaby: It does?

Me: Oh yeah. It happens to me and mommy all the time. Our minds can get messy like that, especially at night, we’ve always had insomnia both of us.

Barnaby: You can’t sleep because of your brains?

Me: When Mommy and I were first living together, we’d do our day and then we’d say good night and we’d go to sleep and then, at some point in the middle of the night, one of us would wake up and we’d listen for the other one and if the other one was breathing like they were asleep we wouldn’t say anything. But a lot of times, we’d hear that the other one might be awake and we’d whisper “hey… are you asleep” and the other one would whisper, “no…” and then we’d sit and talk. For hours, sometimes.

Barnaby: Even though you’re grownups and you stay up later than kids, you still can’t go to sleep when you go to bed?

Jordana: Totally! We still have trouble now.

Barnaby: Because you can’t turn your brains off?

Jordana: Yeah, that’s about right. It’s hard to turn your brain off.

Me: But kiddo, you need to be able to use your brain tomorrow, so we need you to go back to bed.

Barnaby: Okay. I think I can go to sleep now.

Jordana: Come here.

He jumps up and instead of just hugging him, she starts to carry him in a hug.

Barnaby: Are you gonna carry me?

Jordana: Yeah! I can carry you.

Barnaby: (as they go down the hall) Mommy, I think you shouldn’t carry me. I think I’m too big.

My Expert Opinion

Monday, January 14th, 2013

I have no interest in pretending this isn’t outright bragging – I have *fantastic* hearing. Seriously, really, really good hearing. When I’m downstairs and we’re watching TV, I can sometimes hear the kids rolling over in their beds upstairs. I can hear people in the bar across the street when it’s raining and the door is shut. The cat used to wake me up when I was a kid. Also, on top of that, I grew up as a classical musician, became a vocalist and had a totally shitty career in musical theater, so I have decades of training and experience under my belt.

A fair number of people had asked me what I thought of Les Miserables, the movie. Because of my superior hearing and training, I’m about to tell you.

When I first saw the play, I was in my late teens. My sister and I were in the audience, somehow we scored tickets in the center of the orchestra seats, and she turned to me and said, “(sigh) I mean – Look, is this gonna be any fun?” and I turned to her and said, “Well, I’m no scholar and I failed French Two twice, but I’m pretty sure we’re watching ‘The Miserable Ones’, so I’m guessing- No.” She said to me, “There’s a new Indiana Jones movie, with Sean Connery, opening *right now*…” and we both stood up – JUST as the lights were going down. So we sat back down.

At that point in my life, all I cared about was musical theater (and, probably more often, sex). The show opened and this band of men were bouncing giant voices off the walls behind me, singing “Look down, look down. You’re standing in your grave…” and all normally overpowering thoughts of my genitals evaporated. It was like being hit with a shock wave from an explosion.

As the show went on, all I could see were people driven by the one thing they judged themselves by – their singular dedication to That Thing They Held Most Dear. From the priest at the beginning giving Valjean the candlesticks, even the relentless dedication to the law from Javert and, eventually, the men preparing the barricade. The men on the barricade.

Marius shows up and starts talking about this girl he’s met, and his friends say, “Look. There’s something bigger here. There’s something more. Listen, listen to us. Do you hear the people sing? These aren’t just colors. This is the blood of angry men, the dark of ages past. If you’re gonna talk about girls, we don’t have time for your shit…” And I sobbed. I sat there all of seventeen or whatever and sobbed, from shame, from inspiration, I was transported.

Yes, the turntable and the barricade and the high B on “24601” and the vocal acrobatics from Cosette, it was the theater and it was the thing I cared about almost more than anything else – but it was seeing a group of men who had dedicated themselves to something larger that made me sob and sob. The way Les Mis made me feel might have fueled my totally shitty career for ten years. So… y’know – thanks for *that*.

When I saw the movie… the opening swell, the slow pan in on Hugh Jackman and then… the men. “Look down. Look down. You’re standing in your grave…” and I started to cry.

I did, but once the nostalgia wore off, I started to pay attention. And I was watching a different story then the one I knew. I cried when the priest gave him the candlesticks, I sobbed, but it was different. I sobbed because an old man was reaching down to a young man, a young man he didn’t know at all, with whom he’d barely shared a word, and he said, “I claim your life for God.” He is saying “I reach back to you through time, and you reach back to those who come behind you…” That priest is claiming Valjean as his heir. His son.

Then, when Fantine is thrown out, she gives up her hair, she gives up her teeth and finally she gives up all of herself to reach back to her child. Her daughter. She could walk away, the dream she dreamed is still there… but she can’t because “there is a child who will die if I go to prison.” As she is dying, Valjean promises to take care of Cosette and fights Javert because THERE IS A CHILD WHO WILL DIE IF I GO TO PRISON fer chrissakes.

The villains? The inkeepers who don’t take care of their children. The wealthy who won’t take care of their fellow people. Javert, childless and heartless, who wants the prisons filled even if all the children will die because of it. And of course, the soldiers who make sport of killing a child. How did this become a play I’ve never seen before?

And then – The barricade. And the note from Cosette. And Valjean sees the sleeping Marius and looks to the sky…

If I told you the *physical machinations* I had to go through not to openly sob, you’d be impressed. You’d think I do yoga. I could feel how difficult it would be to breathe, and I had to stretch my torso and open my throat so I could cry as hard as my body was demanding without making a spectacle of myself and ruining the movie for those around me.

All he knows is this – there’s a boy and that boy makes his daughter filled with love. He looks to God and makes an open prayer, a cri de coeur, a deal that, were it with the devil, he would make the same… If I die, let me die – Let *him* live. Bring him home.

If I told you I couldn’t make it through writing that last paragraph without sobbing, I wonder if you’d believe me.

My point is this – when Valjean gives his life to God and Christ, it means something to me. It has nothing to do with actual God or actual Christ, I fucking *invented* my own version of all of that. I translate “God” to mean “every other person, the sum total of humanity” and I translate Christ as “the weak, the meek, the downtrodden, those who need help, everyone mentioned in the beatitudes…” I’m sure some gay-bashing Christer would be furious about my *complete fabrication* of what it means to be a Christian, but that’s what happens in my head.

And when I see a show, I’m bringing so much of me to it that my opinion is useful only to the subset of humans that have my identical circumstances and history. When I was a young man, it was the dedication to a meaningful life well-lived that sent me sobbing. As an older man, it’s the passion for those we are responsible for, the ways we meet those obligations and also fail them.

I look at my own spawn, the charges I’ve created and am responsible for, and countless nights I’ve watched them, scribbling through idiotic homework or meticulously dressing a toy car in a doll’s dress, and I think, of him, “Give him peace. Give him joy. He is young… he is only a boy…” and, of her, “suddenly the world seems a different place, somehow full of grace and delight…”

Feet to the fire, I could tell you what I heard. I could pick apart the vocals, I could take a darning needle to the stitches and tell you what my marvelous, marvelous ears told me. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. When he was a year old, Barnaby would turn to me, point to the window and say, “train!” and three seconds later I would hear it. Right now, in all things, if they can keep collecting the best of me, even as I lose a bit of the best of me every day, then that’s the measure I choose for my life.

All The Young Dudes

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

If you know me at all, it will come as no surprise that I have, over the course of my life, been punched soundly in the face.

Here’s the thing you should know about that – it doesn’t hurt as much as you might think. Looking at my extended group of friends, I doubt many of them have been punched in the face, so I’d like to make sure you all know – it’s really not *that* bad. The nerves on your face have been exposed to a lifetime of yanking and pulling, of windburn and kissing and shaving or whatever else you do, so it’s not like the nerves on the inside of, say, your upper arm. You can be punched in the face and, so long as it doesn’t snap your head back and knock you out, you’ll just be super sad and miserable. But it won’t hurt as much as you might fear.

(When I say that I know my friends HAVEN’T been punched in the face, it’s not because they aren’t tough or street-savvy or anything like that, it’s because they are, by and large, kind. And even when they aren’t kind, they aren’t usually cruel and small. I was punched in the face (repeatedly, I should admit) not because I was tough or standing up for a princess or whatever, it was because I was cruel, small and usually obnoxious.)

But I know a thing. I know it doesn’t hurt that much. I know that if I fall asleep on a park bench and it snows on me, I’ll wake up cold but I won’t actually get sick. I know that if everything is taken from me, I’ll figure it out.

There is a cost to knowing stuff. I paid for this knowledge and I’m still paying for it. I don’t pay NEARLY as much as some people – the mistakes I made went largely unpunished since our culture tends to turn a blind eye to white boys with upper class charm, even if they’re wearing a black mohawk and eyeliner and a disgusting jean jacket stuffed with bags of weed. But I did pay for it by NOT taking advantage of the many advantages offered me. And not heroically but because I was (and often still am) a total dick.

Marlena fell down the stairs a month ago. She broke her collarbone – went to the hospital and everything, and they x-rayed her and sure enough, she’s got a broken collar bone. Two days later, she was at the top of the stairs and she said, “I CAN DO IT” and walked down the stairs holding the banister.

A few weeks ago, she fell down a totally DIFFERENT set of stairs, in California. When we got home, she said she didn’t want to go down the stairs by herself because she “will fall and break my bones”. I really, really want her to try, I want her to know it’s okay but… you know what? I’ve never broken my collar bone. She knows a thing.

We walk to school every morning, Marlena and me. And I’ve had a couple of different moms stop me to congratulate me on making her walk. Strollers are for lazy kids of lazy parents. I don’t have the heart to tell them that my stroller is just fucking huge and I’m too lazy to take it out, I never *decided* that she should walk, I just don’t want the hassle. Sometimes she runs, sometimes she jumps, and she almost always sings the whole way. Yesterday, she was at a full sprint, arms out to the sides so she could twirl the sleeves of her jacket, and her feet went out from under her.

Her face took the brunt of the fall, her feet off the ground above and behind her. When I picked her up, there was blood everywhere, all over her mouth and cheeks and eyebrows and hair. Blood all over her jacket, my jacket.

Once I got the blood cleaned off, I realized she had just split her lip and scratched her nose and knees.

Sometimes I hold her hand when we go to school. More often than not, she declines.

I want to blame my parents for the times I was beat up in school. I want to SO MUCH. I don’t know if it’s a middle-child thing or what, but I want them to suffer for not protecting me. But the fact is, I got beat up at the poshest southern private school in Virginia… and I got beat up at the shittiest High School in New Jersey. I got beat up wherever I went, until I stopped getting beat up. It’s been a dozen years since I got in a fist fight with anyone, and that would put me in my late 20s – how on earth could that have been my parents’ fault?

I tried to catch her when she fell down the stairs, I was RIGHT behind her. My arm moved to grab her at the same speed that she fell, I just wasn’t fast enough. I can replay it in my head a hundred times, my hand moving as fast as my body can move, and her body moving through the air, drawn by gravity, nothing but the drag of atmosphere slowing her descent.

And I can see her sprinting in front of me, the number of times I’ve thought “I should tell her to slow down/No/No, I shouldn’t/I should tell her that she can run/she can fucking run/she can run anywhere and run anything/she can run the world” and then the soles of her shoes are facing me and I see her face drag on the concrete, and I moved to pick her up as soon as I even KNEW SHE WAS FALLING, and it was already too late.

From now on, what do I do? When she’s in danger, do I stop it? If my mom… If my fucking DAD had seen me, drunk and high, sleeping on a bench at a church while the snow fell on my disgusting jean jacket stuffed with bags of weed, would they have picked me up and brought me inside? Almost certainly. And what would I know right now? I would know that if I fall asleep on a bench, someone will pick me up, instead of knowing that I can sleep the night on a bench outside and I’ll make it. It will be horrible, you will be super sad and miserable, but it won’t hurt as much as you fear.

We walked to school again this morning, Marlena and me. I thought I heard her whimpering, but I didn’t want to bring attention to it. And I didn’t want to carry her – NOT because I’m a great dad and wanted her to learn a lesson, but because my back is tired and it’s cold and I had my hands stuffed in my pockets. I realized her whimpering was singing, just nonsense stuff that she sings.

I said, “are you okay?” and she shook her head no. I said, “what’s wrong?” and she shook her head no. I said, “Are you hurt?” and, in her two year old logic, she looked at me and said, “I’m not a *wrong* girl, daddy! I’m not a *hurt* girl, daddy!” I said, “Okay, honey, what are you?”

And she said, “I’m a *school* girl, and that means I’m a BIG girl, Daddy!” And she stopped walking and spread her arms out as far as they would go and said, “I’m a *BIG*  *GIRL*!!!”