strabismus

An old man approached me at the gym as I was catching my breath between sets on the leg press. As I pulled the tiny speaker from my left ear to give him precisely half of my attention, I more than half expected to hear something about the amount of weight I had on the machine. Which I did, sort of, because it was a lot, relatively. He told me, with his hazy, exotropic eyes twinkling, that his ninety-one-year-old cousin does the same amount of weight. That’s impressive, I said reflexively, wondering if his comment had a punchline and why he was sharing this information in my direction, rather than, I don’t know, saving it to share the other way round, to his ninety-one-year-old cousin, perhaps, where and whoever he was. You know, tell the old guy he’s doing the same as the young guy and bla bla bla ha ha. His mouth and lungs made some more words about his cousin that traveled to my ear and died there, well short of my memory. But in those little linguistic deaths it became more or less apparent that there was in fact no punchline, only a useless fact about another human being and I wondered where in his seventy-plus (eighty-plus?) years he forgot that communication is sometimes described in some circles I’ve just invented as the confluence of what you mean and what you think others might think you mean, because not once in our brief exchange did he attempt to draw any sort of relevance from this useless fact that might wrap itself around our present situation. Maybe he never knew. Maybe he never cared. Maybe I know and care too much. Maybe I’m overstating it. I got on the machine and did another set, faintly meditating on whether I really meant what I said to him about hoping I could still do that when I was ninety-one.

Sometimes stories don’t matter till we tell them, and sometimes not even when we do.

standing at the center of the picture of his joy

Filling page after page with half-thoughts is both an affront to writing and essential to the practice of it. It takes time to cook up something good, and sometimes we have it, sometimes we don’t. What spooks me is a certain flatness, apathy, lethargy, whereby the impulse to pursue an idea or sensation or line of thinking is weak, and the corresponding motivation to slide down another rabbit hole is almost nonexistent. Some, surely, would call this “depression,” and though I might be inclined to debate, I would not go so far as to deny the applicability of that term. I try so hard to choose happiness, I’d protest, every moment of every fucking day I try to choose it like it’s the daily fucking chef’s special but I sometimes fail to see how it stands out from the rest of the menu and order a perturbation omelette and a coffee and wait for inspiration to return from wherever it goes when I go missing.

dough, booze, and chicken pot pie

Last night was the last night in that apartment I’d tell people was down by the Stadium and the Convention Center when they asked “where do you live” because the Stadium and Convention Center are landmarks and most people wouldn’t know the cross streets anyway.

Now comes relief, and I don’t mind saying that. New anxieties, of course, but also relief. Fresh coat of paint, different arrangement, new habits and a new habitat. Something to write about, more stories to tell. Stare too long at the same walls and out the same windows and you get listless, languid, lethargic. That may happen anywhere, though, of course, I suppose.

No matter. Tonight I’ll sit with Teju, my regular settler of late, with his essays known and strange and his voice steady and assured and inquisitive and absurdly learned, and I’ll read something absurdly placid, maybe about Aciman and his connoisseurship of lavender, or Walcott and his naturalness and tomorrow I’ll get familiar with some cross streets and practice new descriptions.

the fake elegance of periphrasis

Here’s an idea: Write the story of this move we’re making to a completely different neighborhood, different part of the city that’s technically not even part of the city where city people go to be out of the city but still close to it because that’s a natural progression and a better way to raise children, though I haven’t packed any children and don’t intend to create any.

In this story we’d be wondering if the move from the city to a part of the city that isn’t technically part of the city is the right thing to do, if the house is ok, safe, structurally sound, functional, unhaunted, etc. We’d meet neighbors and I’d scan their expressions and read between their words for clues and hints of warnings or reticence. Empty for nine years, the house was, then bought and remodeled, bought presumably from the family of the one-hundred-and-eleven-year-old woman called Lula Mae who lived and perhaps likely died there, though that’s not a thought upon which I’d like to linger, and I say so to the neighbors in lighthearted neighborly terms of orthodox joviality and we all have an uneasy chuckle.

The wife and mother of the two little blonde girls whose names I instantaneously forget and her husband their father talking to me over a low chain-link fence, his expression kindly, clingingly earnest and lacking the sort of withdrawn haste to which I’m accustomed. The uneffusive, reticent elevenish boy from the third floor of the old brick midwestern three-story walkup around the corner to whom we’re introduced by the wife and mother as he’s walking home from school, saying I haven’t seen you in a while while he with modestly downcast eyes gives a dutiful half-smile and wishes only to continue on his way and I wonder what he knows and how he thinks that knowledge applies to us. The heavy woman from the first floor of the same old brick midwestern walkup with two little identical white dogs which run and yap along the fence until she carries them back inside from their little dead-grass little yard in early March like they’re furry footballs, lumbering corpulently up the four wooden steps to her back door. I wave to her and imagine she fears for us.

Everyone knows one another. Everyone says it’s quiet. “You’ll like it,” they say, not knowing the first thing about us, and I’ll call it “The Fake Elegance of Periphrasis.”

like a small wisp of smoke drifting quietly skyward on a windless day

Getting a new job is like asking for a favor. And so is moving. Asking for a bunch of favors, in fact, between the two of them. Consider me, help me, allow me, permit me, assist me, pay me, appreciate me. At least that’s how it feels when one is disinclined to take up space. Shall I elaborate on that? Nah, not today.

Today I’ll tell you about last night. Last night, driving back to the soon-to-be former apartment with Antoinette in the empty moving van, I wondered if it’s simply experience that makes people feel anxious about all the stuff that could go wrong. Seems logical, natural. Things have gone wrong before, they will go wrong again. Experience tells us this. Experience also tells us that we’ve felt this way before and that “wrong” is oftentimes a judgment, a wish, a desire, not a thing. And it tells us that speaking in generalities is tiresome.

So I’ll tell you about something else that happened last night, something personal and poignant and profound and provocative. I got out of the shower around 9:40 p.m., worn comfortably ragged from carrying boxes and furniture and the more or less standard material culture of middle-class urbanites (the “less” being largely due to the unusual quantity of books I’ve dragged with me everywhere I’ve gone since I was nineteen) from apartment to van and then from van to tiny little seventy-one-year-old house way up on the north side of the city, looked in the mirror for no particular purpose after drying off, and I felt good, all at once. Some things had gone “wrong,” other things had gone “right,” and all in all, life had continued and I was standing in the steamy bathroom with my reflection as testimony, present and without spectation.

pigeonholed by one (in)coherent myth

So I got the job. At first I was mad, as if some principle had been violated, as if I’d been slighted, as if it was an offense or an affront or a dis. Then I was sad, as if I’d been uprooted, or would have to uproot, leaving the home I finally made for myself here, here in the nook of the city where I found myself, and found her (well, she found me), and grew, truly grew, to move fifteen miles north. Either way, it happened to me. The job happened to me. The move, or its necessity, happened to me. I don’t like when things happen to me.

By “things” I suppose I must mean offenses and violations. And also commitments. It’s an ontological problem. Plato wrote of these things called “forms.” Those forms were perfection, they were absolutes, ideals. And the world as we experience it is just a big mess of approximations. Spacedust or stardust or whatever. You could say beauty is in the effort to make the very best approximations we can out of all this dust, knowing the truth. You could say that, and I did, today.

Because I, in my worry and emotion, masterfully made my quintessential mistake of conflating approximations with ideals. I wanted perfect and thought perfect wasn’t what happened to me. And it should’ve, because I work so fucking hard to do the right things and be good and not suck at stuff or be a piece of shit of some variety or other. I, like nearly all seventy zillion of us, want to be respected and liked and be appreciated and given the things I believe I deserve. Without me having to fight or ask for it. I wouldn’t have had to ask Plato for it.

Well, I might’ve. Maybe he was a dick. And I do make it hard for people, with how I keep to myself and all, obscuring the talents and qualities for which I wish to be admired. But whatever Plato was, and whatever I am, we are people. And people aren’t perfect. And people are the ones in charge of jobs and affronts and uproots and happenings and misperceptions. Like mine. That’s why it’s stupid and ordinary and usual and ok. It might even be beautiful. I might even be, even if I still make my rent money working at an office for a company, rather than writing stories and books and prosetry and little vignettes and everyday shit like this.

What happened today with the job people was not a violation of any principle or a mistreatment of things, or forms, or things like forms. It was just a bunch of things like forms. A bunch of incomplete, imperfect, struggling, conscious/unconscious things striving in their way for things like forms. That’s what I’ll chew on tonight. And I got the fucking job after all anyway.

too much is never enough

Not enough, not enough, not enough, not enough. Never enough. Work-life balance. Work-life integration. That’s all well and good but. What about. You should. Why?

No reason, really. It’s just what “what we do,” just how “the world works.” The Path People have always seemed odd to me, even misled. I’m talking about the ones who’d worked out the course of their lives by 20 or 25, or seemed to. And yet here I’ve been, presuming the same kind of knowledge of my own life — that I’d be a writer or an academic, something artistic and creative and absurd and openly experiential, writing and thinking my way not just out of the rat race for “success” in the more “traditional” sorts of “careers,” but into a fuller, better human being. Now is that “a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”* That’s me being literary about wanting to be literary.

Have you heard of the impostor syndrome? I knew I’d never write a book as a [job title], knew I was and would always be a person first and [job title] second, just a writer (i.e., person) with a job [title]. Because life is special, too special to waste on [job title]. Besides, anyone can do most stuff, to put it with zero eloquence and mild aplomb. Marketing. Anyone. Project management. Anyone. Writer/artist. Few. So there I’ve been, writing on the fringes, hoping to be noticed, wanting to be heard, working to get better, trying to get published, to be one of the few, always feeling misplaced, paying the bills with jobs in business and professional things, earning a living for the sake of earning a living, working for someone other than myself, like one of the many.

I suppose I should be thankful, feel lucky, privileged, and seize the moments and the opportunities, etcetera, etcetera. And it’s not that I don’t, etcetera, etcetera. It’s that I don’t want to. Sometimes I don’t want to at all. And I feel something like guilt over this not-wanting-ness, something petulant and ungrateful and difficult. The same way I sometimes facetiously over-emphasize with italics and quotations. It’s the impostor in me, acknowledging himself.

This doesn’t end with me saying something conclusive and triumphant like “I don’t feel like an impostor anymore.” I do, but not nearly as much as I have in the past, or not quite in the same way(s). Am I still scrambling inside to figure out what someone else wants, and the way they want it? Yes, but less so, because I know what I want and know that I am not necessarily what I do, regardless of [job title] and Path People.

My point is this, I think: I still feel captive to the legacy of the Protestant work ethic and the mythologizing of the “free” market (does that sound academic enough?). And to the great many of their conscious and unconscious acolytes. Miłosz still makes more sense to me, artistically, professionally, philosophically, and that makes me feel like no matter how good I get at participation, no matter how well I play the game and play along, it will never be enough. They are relentless. They always want more. And different. And more different. Why? What’s the end? More. Because more means more, and there’s no time or place for less.

I’m frustrated, that’s all, and it’s coming out. Now is simply one of those times. I’ll be more pleasant and amusing tomorrow.

 


*Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man