Tom Clancy died a couple of weeks ago, and I happened to catch an old interview with him on Charlie Rose, and I came to the somewhat distressing realization that I’m super into being an old dude who wears big tinted eyeglasses, that sort of I’m-in-my-mid-50s super-square look.
I should point out I’m not talking transitions lenses—those are for people who aren’t willing to commit fully to The Look. Also, they cannot, absolutely cannot, look too much like regular sunglasses, because, again, that’s a refusal to commit to The Look; you’re trying too hard to be cool. No, these glasses have to have that quasi-Aviator shape, the lenses preferably that perfect nicotine-stain shade, and ideally they should be enormous.
Getting old is going to be so great for me. I can hardly wait.
About ten years ago I bought John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman based solely on the fact that a quote—It came to him very clearly: If I ever set foot in that place I am done for— from the novel appeared on the back cover of All Hail West Texas by The Mountain Goats. I liked the book a lot, and so when I found myself staring at a cheap used copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and knowing that John Darnielle—whose opinions in these matters I take a lot of stock in—is something of a zealot when it comes to Didion (“the foremost stylist of American letters in the second half of the 20th century”), I grabbed it.
I honestly didn’t know much, if anything about Joan Didion, other than she wrote a couple of books—The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem—that I always associated with being Huge Seventies Touchstones, but not anything that seemed all that important anymore. The only experience with her work I’d ever had was watching The Panic In Needle Park a couple of years ago, a movie Didion wrote with her husband, John Gregory Dunne. As it turns out she and Dunne wrote or worked on a number of screenplays over the years, at least two of which—A Star Is Born and Up Close & Personal—I wouldn’t associate with the two of them, who seemed way too brainy for such lowbrow material.
The Year Of Magical Thinking details Didion’s reaction to the death of Dunne, a few days after Christmas, 2003, a period of time in which their daughter was hospitalized and near-death and, following a brief recovery, once again fell ill and died shortly before the book’s publication. A later book, Blue Nights, chronicles Didion’s coming to terms with that loss.
Heavy stuff, right? This should be some seriously deep, gut-wrenching material. But I was just bored by the thing. The telling of the story is flat and undramatic in what I suppose is an attempt to portray just how awful such events are, how they come from nowhere (“Life changes fast,” she writes, “life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”) and wipe you out so completely that all that is left is the barest ability to describe or explain. I understand that, I do, but it doesn’t make for a terribly compelling read.
From Wikipedia: “Didion applies the iconic reportorial detachment for which she is known to her own experience of grieving; there are few expressions of raw emotion.” Yeah, sure, I get it, but all this does is to create that same sense of detachment in the reader. There’s nothing in the book that makes you particularly care about Didion or her troubles, and since her insights into grieving aren’t especially unique or compelling—she can’t believe her husband is dead; she won’t give away his shoes, because that will confirm the reality of his death; she broods over the possibility that his death could have been avoided—you’re left feeling not much at all about what happened. And I find that iconic reportorial detachment very unappealing. I don’t know when I last read a colder book.
There was also this nagging undercurrent in my own mind as I read the book, of some blue collar, class-war style resentment. Didion and Dunne were rich and leisured, in that east coast, old money sort of way that makes me think of prep schools and John Irving novels. They seem like the kind of people who use the word “summer” as a verb. Or the kind who would casually mention attending a Knicks game with David Halberstam and his wife, being able to get good tickets because of a friendship with NBA commissioner David Stern.
(I wonder if the seed of this resentment—not toward wealth and leisure; that’s a basic hatred that was bred into my very bones, but toward Didion herself—comes from my reading of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre when I was fourteen or so, in which he dismisses Didion’s The White Album: “for rich folks, I suppose it’s a pretty interesting book: the story of a wealthy white woman who could afford to have her nervous breakdown in Hawaii.” Of course, King, even at the time he wrote that line had more money than he could ever spend, but he’s saved from hypocrisy by the simple virtue of writing something honest. And the fact that I’m quoting Stephen King speaks to what people like Didion—or what I imagine her to be—would probably see as emblematic of my own basic ignorance, the lack of sophistication among the great unwashed, that whole messy throng.)
Consider the scene in The Year Of Magical Thinking in which Didion’s daughter is being flown cross-country from California to New York for medical treatment: the plane lands in Kansas for refueling and the crew arranges for someone to bring them dinner from McDonald’s. While there is a definite sense of sadness in the telling (her daughter is strapped into a stretcher; she is barely able to eat; a feeding tube remains in case she can take no solids) there is also, somewhere under there, a kind of bemused condescension—just imagine! There we were, eating McDonalds! In Kansas of all places! How droll!
I’m probably being unfair, but I’m in dire straits and likely to remain there for some time and unfair is all I got.
“Jake would rather have a flick than a ho any day.”—a coworker, discussing me
It’s been some years at this point since I’ve been in any kind of a romantic relationship with anyone. I think that this is probably supposed to bother me, since every movie, TV show, popular song, advertisement, etc, ever composed seem to suggest that wandering alone through the world is perhaps the single worst fate that can befall a person. And I don’t know, maybe it is for some people. But Being In Love has never been something that’s exactly important to me. Maybe this speaks to my giant ego, or my intense selfishness, or even (probably!) a basic laziness. I certainly don’t think it’s because I’m afraid to get my fragile heart broken, which is what people say when they don’t have someone but they want to be desired. It’s a way to fake that you’re a deep and sensitive soul who only thinks you don’t want love, because your emotions are just too huge and raw for you to handle. This is quite naturally bullshit, and these people are not to be trusted.
We’ve been conditioned to think of love as this unstoppable thing that makes you act crazy and stupid, and it can be. It often is. But romantic love is rarely spoken of or portrayed as what it usually is: simple, and unglamorous, and even sort of workmanlike. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just mean that when you have something that’s genuine and strong, something that’s permanent, you’re not obsessing over it at every moment of the day. Love, or the idea of it, learned by everyone through movies and TV, is always showboating and melodrama; Ryan Gosling is willing to jump off a bridge for the girl, but he’s not willing to get a job and do the boring shit that makes up 90% of life. (Which, granted, is sort of the point of that movie, so maybe it’s not the best example, but I feel like when people watch movies like that, the drama is what they remember, not the grim reality.)
Even as a kid, when I was in high school, when you’re supposed to be a big mess of Romeo & Juliet-style emotional upheaval, I wasn’t like that. I didn’t really have crushes, and I didn’t sit around and pine for anybody. This is probably because I went to a very small school, and the pickings were pretty slim. I just didn’t like anybody. If I’d gone to a bigger school, I’m sure I would have been mooning around and writing bad poems about somebody. Which means I’m glad I dodged that bullet.
Granted, it probably also means I might’ve gotten laid in high school, so maybe I’m not so glad after all.
And it’s not that I’ve never gotten bent out of shape over someone. I have, but I was a lot younger and quite a bit dumber, and I wasn’t wrong, exactly, to feel that way, but goddamn is it embarrassing to think about now. And it’s not to say I don’t like having a girlfriend. I do. But I guess I don’t like it enough to really get out there and try to get one. I honestly have no idea how that even works. And the idea of going on a date makes me feel almost impossibly weary.
It’s gonna get worse, too. That’s the thing. I’m not old, but I’m old enough now that anyone my own age is most likely going to be divorced or have a couple of kids and looking for someone who is a real grownup, not a fake grownup like me. Somebody who has health insurance and a car with a working air conditioner and who wants to go to church and watch cable TV and buy rugs at Target. And anyone younger than me, unless it’s someone with some kind of unresolved Daddy Issues—what do they want with a busted up old dude like me? I’m not really old enough to be a creepy old man, and I’m too old to be an aimless twentysomething.
I talked about this awhile back with a friend of mine, who was oddly—almost frighteningly—simpatico with me on this. “I worry sometimes that I’m some kind of a robot,” he said, and that’s something that goes through my own mind from time to time when I think about this stuff, but then there’s a great big cloud of Aw Fuck It that rolls on through my brain, and I don’t really care too much. Whatever. Moving on.
Hank Williams (born this day in 1923) and his first wife, Audrey Sheppard, 1948.
I’ve been haunted by this image since the first time I saw it. That’s the weird magic of pictures—this is literally something that happened for one second in Montgomery, Alabama 65 years ago; for all I know the two figures in the photo were having the time of their lives. They could be at a party, surrounded by dozens of friends and family. At least one other person—the photographer—is there. It could be bright June, the sky blue and limitless above them, their lives and their future wide open.
That may be true. I suppose I’d like it to be. But instead we have this strange tableaux, this schism, this one second when one person turns away from the camera, his body curved like the long f-hole in a guitar, his face hidden. The woman to his right isn’t turned, but she stands, her head down, her hands pressed over her eyes, as if to ward off some impending doom. There is nothing in the photo to suggest anything but an almost paralyzing despair.
They are there, the two of them, in this photo, in 1948, and the longer I look at it the more I’m convinced I will never get to the bottom of the image. It is a boundless mystery.
[I’m gonna apologize right now for the absolute heft of this thing I’m posting. I tried unsuccessfully to put one of those “read more” cuts here, but Tumblr was not cooperating. I considered just dropping it, but I spent a couple of days turning this thing over in my head, and so the world is just gonna have to suffer for it. Sorry.]
She’s given half her life to people she hates…
Last Friday, the seventh, was my mother’s birthday. I called her up. She seemed okay.
She’s been ill for what I guess is now more than half my life. It began when I was maybe fifteen, maybe younger, I honestly don’t remember. She began having severe headaches—something that had affected her father years before—and eventually she began these…episodes, I guess you’d call them, where she would lose consciousness, just pass out, drop like someone had shot her. It’s crazy to think about it, but I don’t remember the first time it ever happened, because as disturbing and scary as it was, it became something that was so common—it happened probably every day, and it often happened multiple times a day—that you couldn’t remember when it started. It was just a part of life.
She’d go to doctors, but it did no good. Mainly because, since we were poor, she didn’t have health insurance, and so would go to the free clinic, where she would never see the same doctor twice, her treatments would be scheduled months in the future instead of days, and sometimes she just couldn’t go, because she was working. I’ve spent countless hours sitting in the emergency room at the local—and local meant an hour’s drive—free clinic, waiting to be admitted, then waiting to be seen, then waiting for whatever analysis the doctor could give. I remember spending a full 24 hours at the hospital once before we left, with no clue as to what could be wrong. There were tons of tests, procedures—heart, brain, lungs, all the usual suspects, and nothing satisfactory was ever discovered.
These episodes of unconsciousness were always brief. Two, three, minutes at most, you’d spend kneeling down beside her, making sure she wasn’t actually physically hurt, and then she’d slowly swim back to reality. Sometimes she’d have to go sit down, but usually, after a few minutes, she would be back to whatever task was at hand. Sometimes there would be twitching in her hands and feet. You learn to live with these things, and for my mother, and for my brother and me, and for my stepfather, it became routine. When someone else was around and it would happen, they would always freak out, wanting us to call 911, to help her to her feet, to give her water, to give her air. We would just wait with a kind of almost-smug air of detachment, telling them to wait. She’d come around in a minute. She always does. She always did.
There was an instance, after I’d moved out, living in Texas, when I went to visit her in Arkansas, and she had lost her memory. Not in a soap opera/amnesia kind of way, but nearly all recall of events and people from the previous six months or so were wiped out. People she’d met only a few weeks or months before were total strangers to her, and she didn’t remember things that had happened.
This was an instance when I got actively worried again, which may sound callous, but you wouldn’t believe how easy it becomes to just accept something when it becomes such a normal part of your daily life: oh yeah, my mom passes out and falls on the floor four or five times a day—it’s not that big a deal. But this memory thing, it was new, and I got that same kind of worry I’d had years before, when this had first started.
She’d almost always had a job throughout all this, somehow. My stepfather worked, but they were never very good jobs, and my mom wound up becoming the manager of a McDonald’s, where she was pretty quickly taken advantage of; a salaried employee, she was now free to be worked as much as possible, and she began working somewhere between 80 and 100 hours a week. I know that sounds like I’m making it up, but it’s the absolute truth. She would come home, sit down and instantly fall asleep wherever she happened to stop, and it was nearly impossible to make her stand and go to her bedroom.
It was about this time that these episodes, along with the headaches, got especially bad, and she wound up going into the hospital, and missing three or four days of work, possibly an entire five-day week. And she was fired. Greg, the guy that owned the McDonald’s she managed told me in the parking lot of the hospital that he believed that her medical issues were all psychosomatic. I thought he was full of shit and that he showed an almost subhuman lack of sympathy for someone who had kept his business afloat. I was seventeen and hated him.
But now, in the hospital with her, with her memory half-gone and her confused and weepy, I began to wonder if Greg had perhaps been right. My mother was killing herself at work while dealing with my stepfather, who had lost his job, and my brother, who was well on his way to becoming a world-class shithead. She was playing referee between the two, who hated each other, and I would just sort of stand to the side and watch the three of them fall into an increasingly angry and violent circle of mutual hatred. Eventually she and my stepfather divorced, and she took up with a guy named Mike that I hated then and hate now. When that relationship soured he—Mike—somehow maneuvered to get us evicted. I had just turned nineteen at the time and it felt like the perfect time to leave every bit of this behind, which I happily did.
(It is entirely possible I’m mixing up a few pieces of the chronology here. It’s incredible how something that was so huge at the time has faded so much for me. I can’t say for sure that I’m keeping every bit of this straight, or remembering everything 100% as it occurred, but I’m doing my best.)
So: here in the hospital, I watch as, when she passes out, a doctor puts smelling salts under her nose to zero effect. He told me later, in the hallway, that this was physically impossible, that the reaction is pure reflex, so that for them to not work, the person being subjected to them would have to be consciously resisting them.
I thought of all the times she’d passed out—“my spells,” she always called them—at this point literally thousands of times. Twice a day, three times a day, for seven or eight years. All those times and never once had something truly bad happened. She’d never passed out while driving, though she didn’t drive unless she had to, for that very reason; she’d never passed out while standing at the stove; she’d never fallen down the stairs or seriously injured herself. Had I actually even seen her pass out when she was standing up? There were plenty of times I’d see her pass out while sitting on the sofa, or even when riding in the car, but I wasn’t sure then—and I’m not sure now—if I’d ever witnessed her actually fainting right in front of me while she was standing or walking.
She was eventually placed into psychiatric care for observation and remained there for thirty days, and emerged seemingly fine. It’s been years now since this incident.
Up until the point she went into the hospital and lost her job managing the McDonald’s, my mother had worked. After this point, her illness—whether real or imagined—started to take a serious toll on her ability to hold a job. She continued to work, but it began to be under the table, cash-only, temporary sort of work, which is the usually the only sort you can get when you can’t drive and you sometimes pass out for no discernible reason. Things got pretty difficult for her, and remain so. She finally was able to qualify for some kind of disability—something that’s not easy when you seem to be genuinely sick but no one can figure out what the fuck is wrong with you—but it’s a pittance, even compared to any of her previous low-paying jobs. She sells Avon now to supplement her income.
Despite not having a job, she still works harder than she should—the Avon thing alone is incredible, because to make any sort of money at all, you have to constantly be involved in it. The profit margins are so slim I can’t imagine why anyone would even try to do it. Unless you had literally no other options. All throughout my childhood she was always on the go. When she wasn’t at her actual job she would be involved in teaching Sunday school, or general housework, cooking and cleaning (my brother and stepfather were little or no help here; I helped, but honestly never as much as I could have), doing laundry. She helped my stepfather’s aunt with a home business she ran. She took care of elderly people. She acted as a nurse for my stepfather’s awful grandmother when she was dying, and then did the same for his grandfather, who briefly moved in with us after she died.
(See, this is what I’m talking about when I say it’s hard to keep everything straight: I had forgotten that my stepfather’s grandfather lived with us until the very moment that I typed it, something that feels impossible, because the old man was as awful as his wife, if not more so: I hated him, and I hated him living with us, and if you told me when it was happening that I’d somehow manage to forget it, I wouldn’t have believed you.)
I was thinking about this—her dedication to people who, by and large, have always taken her for granted, whether friends, relations, employers, whoever—when I called her a few weeks before her birthday and she told me she’d been to the doctor and that a spot was discovered on her lung. “It’s probably nothing,” she said to me over and over, “they have to check it out and see what it might be. It’s probably nothing.” But when I got off the phone with her I knew. I absolutely knew.
Cancer is sort of my family tradition. My father’s parents both had it. My mother’s father was shot through with it when he died. My mother’s aunt died from breast cancer. Both of her sisters have had it. So it was not exactly a surprise to hear. It was more like a confirmation, a name being called in a waiting room. Your turn. Man, I said, hanging up the phone after talking to her about it, I really do not want to do this.
The next several days, I wasn’t obsessing over whether or not the results would come back as cancer, because I already knew that’s what I would hear when she finally called me back with the news. Cancer was a given, there was no need to wonder about that. What I instead obsessed over was what I would say at the funeral. Obviously, this would be my one shot to really get it out, to say things exactly as they ought to be said. For days I thought about it, at work, at home, wherever. And what would I say? Obviously, this would be my chance to get back at all these people who have mistreated my mother for as long as I could remember.
She’s forever putting herself out for people—working all day, coming home, cleaning up the house, the normal indignities of the married woman, sure. But it went beyond that. At any family gathering, even ones where she was a guest, she would make most of a meal. We would visit my stepfather’s family, and my mother would wind up cleaning their filthy kitchen so that a meal could be prepared—a meal she would in all likelihood herself prepare. She would take people to the doctor, visit them in the hospital, stay up until all hours making Christmas gifts for distant relatives she barely knew. Making them gifts because she was too broke to just buy them some dumb trinket. Since her father’s death she moved back to Texas to be closer to her mother, who I honestly don’t think could have made it otherwise. She babysits my cousin’s children because my cousin is so neglectful they would probably have starved to death or wound up locked in her hot car if there wasn’t someone to watch out for them. She gives so much of herself to these people, and they give very little if anything in return. It’s a giving that’s always assumed by them, and it’s possibly her greatest fault that she allows these assumptions to be correct.
If you give so much to the world and get so little back, it’s natural, I think, for you to develop something of a martyr complex, and my mother definitely has one. She does these things, knowing she’ll get no reward, and if pressed will say that she does it because no one else will. She’s one of the secret kings of the world, her efforts the only thing that’s keeping the planet twirling. I can understand that mode of thinking, after forty years or so of being so gently ground down, but I also suspect that her basic goodness as a person has an almost bottomless core of anger. I’ve seen it, during the worst moments of her marriage to my stepfather: the two of them would, at least a couple of times a year, subject the household to an incredibly violent, screaming argument that almost always at some point became physical. They were predictable enough, early on, but infrequent, until gradually, over the final year or so, they happened often enough that it felt strange if more than six weeks lapsed without lamps being broken and wedding rings tossed across the room.
(It becomes very easy—easier than you’d imagine—to remove yourself from these sorts of situations, to shut yourself out emotionally. Fuck these motherfuckers, you say to yourself, I don’t care if they kill each other, just as long as they don’t do it before graduation.)
The goodness, the sincerity, it may be genuine, but it’s also there to show everyone just how far short they fall when faced with your own selflessness. Everyone thinks you’re being so nice to them, and you are, but at the very bottom, there’s that rage, the rage that comes because you’re always the one. All the work in the world is yours, and you’ll do it, and you’ll smile, but your only reward is knowing that you’re better than everyone else. You’ve been saying Fuck You since you were seventeen years old, but nobody notices, they’re so busy picking your bones clean.
This is what I was thinking, this and worse, and meaner, and I was looking forward to being the hero of my mother’s death if I couldn’t be the hero of her life. I would stand there at the pulpit and tell the truth to every one of them, every fake, teary-eyed face: you used this woman, and you thought she loved you for it. The fact that she has lung cancer despite not being a smoker seemed almost too appropriate: she didn’t smoke, but everyone around her does, and yet she’s the one who absorbed the poison that, if there were any semblance of justice in the world, should be running hot and wild through your own blood. Fuck you, I’d say, that’s what she was telling you every time she bent and scraped for you. Her hatred was endless and beautiful and her revenge on you is that you never knew. Fuck you.
I couldn’t wait. The enormity of my self-involvement, the absolute glee I was taking in this fantasy—it was obscene, and I rolled it around in my mind for days on end.
You can imagine my disappointment when she finally called me back and I learned that my mother was in fact not dying of lung cancer. Rather, she’s been diagnosed with a disease called sarcoidosis, a syndrome that most often affects the lungs. It is not fatal, and is treated with steroids. Interestingly, in a roundabout way, it also affects the nervous system, and can cause fainting. “It might explain why I have my spells,” she told me. This could be it. We could have gotten to the bottom of her mysterious two-decade illness. She could get better. She could go back to work. Things could improve.
But it seems too neat. Too simple. It seems impossible that it could finally be ended. And I don’t know if that’s because I’ve lived with it for so long, or because I don’t believe it’s real, and that it’s instead some bizarre manifestation of her mind, some way she has of punishing herself further, one more cross for her to drag to whatever shabby Golgotha she’s constructed.