This is what I often try to communicate on this blog. Here’s Dave Grohl saying it from a musical perspective.
Caleb was a smart, funny, middle-aged real estate salesman who dressed well and seemed amused by the world. He sat apart in my Shakespeare seminar, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, shrouded in the kind of invisibility that accompanies older, returning, so-called “non-traditional” college students. The rest of the class, early 20-something undergraduates, were only interested in each other and passing the 3 credits of Shakespeare required for their various humanities degrees. But I paid attention to Caleb and listened to him when he occasionally spoke up.
Maybe this was because I spent my childhood and early adult years in search of male role models, my father having been emotionally absent for most of my life. Whatever the reason, while the other students were busy trying to get together with each other and / or ridicule each other’s ideas—oblivious to everyone and everything (often including the professor and the work) that stood outside the narrow purview of their post-adolescent obsessions—I was taking it all in, especially the things Caleb said.
I remember thinking that he seemed to have everything a man could want: intelligence, style, money, wit, and enough virtue to believe that he could better himself by getting a second bachelor’s degree. In my own very naïve and superficial way, I thought he was teaching me something by example. I paid attention because I believed there were life secrets in plain view that could be discovered as long as I showed up, closed my mouth, and opened my mind. But the lesson I was destined to learn from Caleb would not be taught until I got to know him better.
Toward the end of the course, we had to find a partner and prepare a presentation on one of Shakespeare’s history plays. I was a hard worker. So the presentation was relatively easy. And since, like Caleb, I was a social outsider in the class, it seemed natural that we would be partners. In this way, I got to know him a lot better. We met a few times at the country club, of which he was part owner, and he taught me the basics of golf—which I found interesting but which I have not played since then.
We did the work, but I also got drawn temporarily into his social sphere. Caleb had a magnetic personality and was constantly surrounded by money, activity, assistants, and stunning women, most of whom were professionals in commercial real estate or finance. His lifestyle was impressive and a bit overwhelming to me. Still, working with him over the course of a month gave me an insight I hadn’t had, a vision of what life could be like after college. But it all fell away one afternoon over lunch when Caleb gave me some frank advice.
We’d just finished eating with a woman named Eva, who was about 5 years older than me and already a heavyweight in east coast corporate real estate. She could have easily been a girl in one of my classes, but she’d graduated a year before from Princeton. She was also one of the most physically beautiful people I had ever looked at. When she said her good-byes and went off towards the tennis courts, Caleb and I watched her go. I felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning—that curious blend of admiration and despair that started wars in the ancient world, made poets fill their heads with absinthe and jump off bridges, and makes everyday people like you and me weep in the dark.
Caleb noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t be a walking wallet in your life, Michael.”
I said I didn’t understand and he just looked at me with a faint smile as if to say, yes, you damn well do.
“This is no life to fall in love with,” he said. “Study hard. Do what you’re good at. This—” he frowned and waved his hand to take in the people sitting around us, Eva (now a tiny figure in a white skirt among other tiny white-skirted figures on the tennis courts), the rolling golf course, the perfect blue sky—“is artificial.”
Over the years, it has occurred to me more than once that I could have sincerely responded with: “Most things we want are.” But I wasn’t that glib at age 21. Instead, I must have nodded or changed the subject because I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I do remember how Caleb pronounced artificial, like it was covered in some kind of excrement. And I clearly recall how my sense of Eva immediately changed from infatuation to a kind of dread.
If Caleb, a man who seemed to have everything, could feel bitter about his choices, then what lay in store for Eva? For me? How long would it take for the acids of commercial real estate to etch lines of acrimony and despair into her beautiful face? And to what lengths would she go to cover all that up and approximate her former smile? To what lengths had Caleb gone? And how unsophisticated and superficial was I that I couldn’t see this while he could read my deepest longings and insecurities over a Caesar salad at the club?
I suppose he’d taken his own advice in spite of his regrets. Caleb was doing what he was good at: reading me, helping me understand how to find satisfaction. A gifted salesman knows your likes and dislikes, knows how to help you get what you want. At the deepest purest level, a salesman is your best friend. No one cares more deeply about fulfilling your needs, about why and how you’re hungry and how to feed you. It has occurred to me that a true salesman—someone following his inner gift such that a writer like Cormac McCarthy might say he carried the secret fire—is as much an artist as any painter or poet. He merely works in a cruder medium: human desire.
Caleb was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who carried that fire alongside his pain. The possibility that one could actually do this was the lesson he taught me in a single conversation on a beautiful California afternoon sometime in 1993. It opened my mind, not to becoming a real estate salesman like him, but to the reality that I had the secret fire, too; that somewhere it was already burning; and that discovering it was more important than all the dreams of avarice.
A review of The Last Jedi on Splice Today.
One thinks: this shit’s never gonna end. Puerto Rico. Idiot with a bump stock on the the 32nd floor. Nuclear Viagra giving Trump an intercontinental hard-on. Hurricane Maria, Irma, Harvey, take your pick. My friend’s house underwater in Houston, his dog on an inflatable raft. Girls stabbed in Marseilles. Girls with acid in their faces. Girls shot in a club. Catalonia blowing up. Spanish police hurling voters down the stairs, zip ties, broken jaws. It will never, ever end.
One thinks: on a long enough timeline, the probability of any given thing in the United States becoming a horrific instrument of death rises to about 99%. Maybe puppies, water lilies, and soft serve ice cream are exempt, but you’d be surprised. America is a lethal place. More lethal this year than last year and you know why. There is no fate. No grace. No help from above. Just you and me and the justice we make. But maybe I don’t know what’s just anymore.
One thinks: if we could figure out what justice is, we might make a little more of it in the time we have left before the Empire falls and the barbarians come wailing in to roast mom for dinner. But, you see, mom has it coming. The Empire is always collapsing. That’s part of what makes it the Empire. And mothers are the ones raising a new generation of infantry to help it all along. Mothers are secretly to blame. If you really want to be the change, just don’t breed. But you can’t help yourself, can you.
I once dated a girl whose mother had retired to Coronado Island after 30 years of running a large farm in the Midwest. The woman now lived in a pristine four-story mansion with stained glass windows and aged admirals as neighbors. The story of how she got transported from a farm to a high-end resort off the coast of San Diego unpacks like a cliché movie of the week: illegal pesticides, cancer deaths, enormous lawsuit, and an out-of-court settlement that made everyone but the families of the farm laborers obscenely rich.
Mom was, as they used to say in Northern California, hella happy with the outcome, even though (or maybe because) her second husband also kicked it in the process. She was the Laughing Farmer Buddha of corporate hush money. Though after she met me, she was perhaps less amused by life or by her daughter’s choices in men.
When we shook, she twisted my hand open in a death grip, looked down at my palm, and said, “Hmm. Soft hands.” Then she stepped back, crossed her arms, and frowned at me the way you would at a corpse just dragged from a polluted river, the corpse of the man I could have been but obviously wasn’t and never would be. Watching the exchange, her daughter—who I’d been out with no more than two or three times before that night—seemed ready for good bit of fun. It was then that I began to feel that none of us were destined to be best friends.
One thinks: there must be a reason I had this experience, some sort of magnetic resonance floating out around my navel, pulling in all manner of bigots, racists, fools, prevaricators, sea lawyers, farmer savants, red-mesh-cap-wearing bumpkins with absolute opinions on everything they don’t understand and fear. Why does Donald Trump exist, you ask? Why does wedding cake taste like shit? Why can’t we have nice things before those things try to kill us? Scott Pruitt works for the EPA, for one. But maybe you don’t like that answer. Pay no attention to the pesticide behind the curtain.
Toward the end of dinner, her mother told the story of how she’d come into her millions. It was a yarn she seemed to have told at many dinners over the years. She’d refined it with certain references to the overall stupidity of her late husband, racial slurs aimed at the farmhands, clever allusions to the worthlessness of a college education, hints at an ongoing Zionist conspiracy, and various artful insinuations that such evils were all rooted in the basic homosexuality of our times. She was, in short, one of the most repulsive people I’d ever encountered.
She was so offensive that I began to wonder whether it was all a practical joke. But by the end of the night, I saw the truth. This was a suitability test being run by her daughter. If I could deal with the repellent overbearing mother, I was worthy. If not, well, there are winners and losers in this wide world and the daughter was only interested in the former.
For desert, we had mother’s old-time funnel cake topped with sweet cream. We took our plates to the den, where mom started up the fireplace and handed out glasses of cheap bourbon to go with the cake. I saw my date wink and pour hers into the philodendron by the couch. But the plant was not within range of where I was sitting. I thought about pouring it between the cushions.
“You gonna drink it or look at it?”
I smiled and ate some funnel cake. Mom was already into her second glass.
Then her daughter said I was trying to be a writer, which made her mother guffaw and suggest we play a game of Scrabble. Because writers are supposed to like Scrabble. And so did mom, who saw it as a kind of IQ test. She even owned a Scrabble dictionary, no doubt for those late-night bourbon-fueled disputes about whether “gherkin” was a 170- or 180-point word.
Needless to say, mom won the game. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do recall her mix of satisfaction and disappointment, as if she’d once again proven to herself the uselessness of liberal intellectual book learning and what a waste it all was.
One thinks: why didn’t I run out the door screaming when I had the chance? Maybe because I stayed (and because others before me had probably excused themselves long before the funnel cake), the daughter decided I was good boyfriend material. She kept calling long after I gave her the Let’s Not Even Be Friends talk and blocked her number. Her mother had done her part for Big Farm Poison and the Hitler Youth while Jesus Camp and Rush Limbaugh were riding high. Now her daughter was running free on the earth.
This was long before we ever thought Trump would be anything more than bad TV, before he started referring to our present non-nuclear-holocaust moment as “the calm before the storm.” This was before the end of America, the grand finale, the New American Century with Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to bring on the Rapture. I know you believe it. So stop shaking your damn head. You were there in Charlottesville. I know it was you.
“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.” – John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse
She’s married now, lives in a suburb of Boise with husband and kids, supports Donald Trump, the white identitarian movement, and a particular identitarian organization of which I gather her husband is a card-carrying member. She must be a genius. The public posts on her FB timeline are mostly family photos, lifestyle articles from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, comments about the coming race war, and Breitbart. I know she’s not an evil person. But I can’t make fun anymore. It’s hard to even smile.
And so one thinks: that’s all over now, the thought, the hope, that the system would right itself. The system is what got us where we are. The system is wrong if it has produced this. I’m almost to the point where I’m ashamed I voted at all, even if it was for Hillary. Let’s not ever be friends, okay?
You go make America great again until your gene pool becomes so homogeneous that you start sacrificing people on step pyramids in the forest. Only the steps of those pyramids will be made out of bullet casings and the skulls of immigrant children. Go ahead. If your sister doesn’t mind, I won’t say no. I’ll be in hiding. I already am. Don’t come looking for me. And don’t keep calling. I’ve got soft hands. I like books and classical music and non-violence. I don’t own a bump stock. I don’t even own a gun to put a bump stock on. I won’t be manufacturing any justice in my basement today. I just want you to stop fucking with me. I’ve got my ear to the tracks.
PDX in the afternoon and everyone is miserable. Suitcase slightly too heavy equals the most exorbitant bag fee I’ve ever paid in a fever of desperation. I could have bought a second suitcase, should have. In the security line, a teen starts shouting that he’s not going to remove his shoes and is detained while 200 people watch. 45 minutes later, the scanner finds a sword-shaped metal object hidden down the back of my shirt. There is nothing down the back of my shirt. I am patted down.
“What’s back there?” asks a bullet-headed TSA officer with a nervous tick in his left eye.
“Are you sure about that?” He looks me over, twitches, does the hand-held metal detector. It beeps when he passes it over my back. I can still hear the boy shouting in some far-off security area.
I am asked to step behind a partition. I remove my button-down. I am patted down a second time. My T-shirt is tested for explosive residue. My shoulder bag is tested for explosive residue. My shoes are examined with a TSA dentist’s mirror-flashlight, then tested for explosive residue. I am asked multiple times where I am going and my answers are checked against passport, boarding card, secret TSA spreadsheets. This is not the first time this has happened.
I tell him I think there’s probably someone with my name and physical details on some kind of list.
“Oh really?” He taps that into his tablet PC and gives me a long sour look. “You’re free to go.”
Layover at SFO. 45-minute security theater, but I have time. It passes smoothly, no screaming, no detentions, no squeaks from the machinery. I deposit my last freelancing check at an ATM, change the money into Euros, hating myself for doing it like that but feeling like I should have some cash in my pocket. Then I look at my boarding pass. It says, “THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS.” I go to the gate, but there’s no one at the gate. At information, I’m told that this particular airline won’t issue a boarding pass at the gate for this flight and that I have to go back to passenger check-in to talk to a representative. I’ve never heard of this, but things are always changing when it comes to air travel. So I consider my options.
Since my 20s, I’ve had a knee problem that can act up in a very painful way. Today, I’m walking with a limp and every step is agony. But I’m a veteran traveler and I’m not going to call for the senior citizen golf cart. Plus, time is now getting short. A crowd of anxious Irish have already started queuing up for the flight to Dublin. So fuck it. Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim. Back to check-in I go.
By the time I get there, I am perspiring heavily. The pain in my knee feels hot, dull, and serrated all at once. The girl in the green polyester blazer gives me, then my passport, the same level stare. “It’s a good thing you came up here,” she says. “Your bag might have not gone through.”
My bag? What did my bag have to do with it? Ah, I think, it must be because I’m flying with two different airlines, United and then Aer Fuckery. The latter must not like the former. Airlines are like angry steroidal pumas that need to be constantly stroked and placated or your valise winds up in Somalia.
I smile. But because no one smiled at her since she was a child, just developing her deep hatred for all life, she is immune to smiles.
“I have a knee problem and I’m wondering if there’s any way, since we’re doing this, you can put me on the aisle. It’s a 10 hour-flight.”
She gives me the stare again, hands me the boarding passes, then unleashes the puma: “You were already on the aisle. But I wouldn’t have changed your seat. We never change seats. You couldn’t have gotten a seat change from me. Oh no. We don’t do that. So you shouldn’t ask that at check-in.”
“Really? Never?” I think Aer Fuckery must fly in a different universe than the rest of us.
“Never. And I’d advise you to get to security if you want to make your flight.” She said all of it with maximum leaden distaste: look at this bum asking for a better seat.
Back to security theater, the line is three times longer than before and people seem three times as anxious. When I get through, I have to run-limp back to the gate. The extras from Titanic have already started boarding, replete with bowler hats, a miasma of farts and liquor, and multiple jokes being told at all times in multiple directions. I love the Irish. And Irish air travelers love a gimp willing to run through an airport. A few people cheer for me when I show up coughing and sweating.
“You did the foot race.” The enormous red-faced man in front of me in line smiles, sways, and extends his hand. We shake. Yeah. The foot race. Grand.
There are no more problems getting going. And, though I now stink and have started wincing with every step, I’m ready to settle in with Excedrin, my book, and a good 10 hours of intercontinental semi-consciousness and dread. I actually love the physical sensation of takeoff and landing, and I’m not afraid to fly. But put me in any poorly lit area for that long and I start thinking about my life, which is never ever advisable. As soon as the harsh self-critical life performance review begins, I usually start the in-flight movie fest. Pull blanket up to chin. Shut off brain. Sweet novocaine for the soul. Unfortunately, I’ve been flying so much this year that the only films available I haven’t seen are Marley & Me, The Boss Baby, and The Fast and the Furious.
I wonder whether I should just drink my way across the Atlantic. But Aer Fuckery charges for their alcohol and the stubborn angry Welsh hillbilly in me feels that the booze should at least be cheaper and more abundant if not better. Moreover, I will not give AF any more of my money after all the fun I had back in SFO. This is the dark side of assimilation, kids. I noticed the Americans on the flight had already opened their wallets and fired up the Vin Diesel. I’ve lived in the UK too long to appreciate an $8 can of Budweiser.
Could it get worse? Well, the plane didn’t crash. No one freaked out. And I had space. So I can’t complain about the basics. I did have some issues with the complimentary key lime pie (fellow travelers allergic to the chemicals used in UK and Irish dairy products take note) and spent a good part of the night in line for the toilet reminding myself that at least there was a toilet. Think about it. Small graces. Simple truths. Yes, indeed.
The connecting flight from Dublin to Paris was also uneventful and sedate. Of course, AF lost my suitcase (“Your bag might have not gone through.” Uh huh). And then, on the delirious train ride in, some girl wanted to talk to me about Donald Trump. Really, universe? After all this, you offer me a Trump conversation before I even get to Denfert Rochereau?
Well, so be it. I’m here. I’m back. I have new income possibilities. I can eat the cheese. I feel a certain rationality returning that was conspicuously absent during my recent visit to the States. I feel a new chapter of my story beginning. Meanwhile, my suitcase is either winging its way to me over the dark waters or is destined to be a gift for someone in Mogadishu. But words are still here and my knee is already on the mend. Who knows what’s next? Only time, as they say, will tell.