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Essay: Intractable, Part 2

December 26, 2010

[Note: To read the first part of this essay, go HERE .]

I like being up in the attic on a winter evening, cup of hot Darjeeling tea, freshly lit smoke, accompanied by sporadically curious cats drawn by the hum of the space heater and the sound of Mahler. I hate the cold that’s seeped into my bones; it’s an old house, and while it’s sturdy the way older houses can be sturdy, it’s also airy the all older houses are airy. We put plastic on some of the windows, sit under blankets in the evening in an effort to keep our heating bill tolerably affordable. Over the year thanks to some small attempts at financing and the kindness of family on holidays, we’ve managed to amass a few small creature comforts. I’m on espresso and decent tea, albeit economical brands from a limited selection at the local grocery store. I drink affordable scotch, which means it’s not as good as scotch should be. I sometimes allow myself the luxury of a fine micro-brew, when I can find it at the Wine and Cheese Shop on Main Street. Penny, the owner, sometimes gives me a discount because I’m one of the few people who stop in the shop for beer – as well as a melt in my mouth 7 year old cheddar and quality German hard salami. My wife enjoys the variety of Wisconsin cheeses available here, which are different than the Wisconsin cheeses available most anywhere else – except maybe in Wisconsin, and I’d bet that cheese is better than even the cheese we get around here. She has some of those bath balls she likes – the kind that fizz when you put them in the freshly filled bath tub. Her creature comforts are actually easier to get than most of mine; I order cigars online and if I thought I could trust the coffee, I’d probably order that, too. We have satellite TV. And besides being able to watch Bengals football and keep up quickly approaching Spring Training updates and World Cup Soccer, I kind of enjoy how absurd the dish looks sitting atop our funny little house, like a small child wearing a hat that’s entirely too big.

Normally I sit up on Sunday evenings and finish up my articles for the week; the paper’s deadline is tomorrow morning 10 am. But I only have one article this week, since last week was the dead week AND the week of Christmas; and the article has more or less written itself. That happens sometimes. Not as often as I’d like it, maybe. But it does come around every once in a while. So tonight, I’m sitting up here working on my own things… this bit in addition to others. I’ve been plugging away at another novel and written a few poems here and there. I like poetry, and I like writing poems when they decide it’s time to be written. I hate fighting with poetry, which is probably why I’d never make it in an MFA program. Programs like that want you to have a journalist’s attitude about Art; they want you to take what is already a sometimes contentious relationship – between the poet and his Art – and turn it into a bad marriage. All fighting and bluster. The intent, I’m sure, is to actually limit your output as poet… less lines of a careful quality. Or what the professors would call quality. I rarely run out of things to write, it’s simply a matter of sitting down. I make no claims about the quality of all that I write – I expect the poems and stories and novels to eventually stand up on their own and carry themselves. Once I’m done with them, I set them loose and they are what they are, professors and editors and critics be damned.

Living as we do, I am as settled as I ever expect to be. I admit that I am in some ways a bit of a snob – I like my espresso and my tea and my cigars. But I like them because I know they are comforts, not necessities. Practical experience has taught me I can get along just as well without them. I make do until something better comes along. And eventually, it does. Even for just a little while. I have enough faith in the nature of the universe to know that cause and effect swings both ways; and that in spite of whatever illusion we have of controlling these things, there are some waves that have to ridden until they change direction.

It’s the day after Christmas. Christmas is one of those holidays I have a love-hate relationship with. Not so much because I understand that it’s a culturally constructed holiday – cultures, like people, establish important things and sacred things and profane things. And not so much because I’m annoyed by the rampant consumerism that’s overtaken every aspect of every holiday – although I am generally annoyed by it. I don’t hate the 25th of December because I was unable to see my daughter on it this year, or because I only saw her for two weeks in the summer; she’s 16 and getting together what she considers her own life … establishing things of importance and sacred things and profane things. I understand that, and while I am always a better version of myself when she’s around me, I have always understood – maybe because I have always been the non-custodial parent – that children are on loan to us until such time as they deem it fit to get as far away from us as possible and discover the world. I used to hate the holiday because it reminded me of people and of things I had lost. I despised it because I despised the religion it reminded me of.

One of the things I learned in Arizona, though … something I probably would not have learned if my wife and I hadn’t moved across the country … is that I much prefer a Christmas the way I prefer life: not having to be anywhere or do anything or fill any prescribed roles or expectations or obligations. The Rockwellian delusion is not for me, nor are the predictable scenes from every holiday movie since A Christmas Story … which, by the way, is one of my favorite holiday movies, for reasons I can’t quite explain. It’s so naïve and simple in it’s view of the world. When Ralphie fantasizes about shooting Black Bart, the first henchman to die is black (thought Black Bart, who gets away dressed like a Keystone criminal astride a horse, is white), and the end of the movie, where they’re celebrating in a Chinese restaurant, is so stereotypical that it’s nearly as painful as it is absurdly funny. I also like It’s A Wonderful Life, for similar reasons. If ever there’s been an stammering unsung everyman in American Cinema, it’s George Bailey, who went through most of his early life convinced that history and life had passed him by.

One of the things I like about my new perspective on holidays is that I don’t have to suffer the odd sensation that people look at me in the same way that George Bailey looked at himself. In order to see yourself as a man, there’s a point when, like the long long long southern tome says, You Can’t Go Home Again. At least, that’s how it is with me. When I stopped having to be aware of my birth order and my similarities with my father and his father (who I barely remember) I was able to relax and enjoy the holiday for what it actually is: a chance to spend time with my wife. That’s not to say we don’t visit, or we don’t put some thought into visiting. But we no longer feel compelled to make the journey for the journey’s sake. The birth order bullshit is not such an issue for my wife, since she’s the oldest. For my family, it only matters to a few people – though not my older brother and not me. I’m also not interested in competing with him, nor he with me. There are one or two others hell-bent on proving their low self-esteems wrong and they have insisted on taking that out on me… mostly because I reject the sense of obligation that they embrace and mostly because I have gone about making my life in the best way I see fit. I have made and continue to make mistakes; but if I owe apologies, it isn’t to the snarky judgmental people who clearly have nothing better to do than look down their narrow noses at me.

Relationships with people like that – especially when they are, in fact, related to you by blood or by marriage – are a lot like those expectations and obligations and restrictions put on the Poet by professors in regards to his Art. Or, if it’s not professors, it’s the other various forms of bean counters that go around taking account of all our efforts, mistakes, and sporadic triumphs – and they only notice those in order to find a way to negate them. I prefer a simple life free of as many complications as I cut myself free of. Holidays – and every other day, which I think are just as sacred – are better because of it. And while there are people I miss, and people I would like to see more of – I hope they all know who they are – overall, I realized this weekend that I am feeling better than I think I’ve felt in years. Still disgruntled, yes. Still screaming at the universe, yes. Yes.


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