Dumping Heroes: Gatsby, Manhattan, and coming to terms with it all

After watching Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and his introduction of Gatsby to Rhapsody in Blue, and reading Fitzgerald’s description of New York as Nick and Gatsby cross into the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world…

 “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

I cannot help but recall Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan. Manhattan elates and saddens me.

I first saw Manhattan in 1979, when I was 19 and thought myself precocious. I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a school full of young people who rebelled in their precociousness. Tracy’s relationship with Isaac simply echoed my sense of myself. Who among my friends would have put a limit on the seventeen-year-old Tracy? We were only steps away from that age; we were not intimidated by 42-year olds. What did we know about power dynamics or anything more than our own blossoming worth in the world. Blossoming? Fuck that—we were valuable and powerful as we were.

If anything, we looked at the adults: Isaac, Yale, and Mary, as failures. They were warnings against what adulthood held for us. How many of those warnings were broadcast directly to us—adults, even bright, hyper-intellectual, and connected adults, failed miserably at the single focus of life: true and abiding love. (Is that the focus of life? Should it be?) They were even willing to ensnare us in their tangled ruin. And yet we were becoming those adults.

I still hear Rhapsody in Blue as flirtatious, triumphant and orgasmic—just as Allen used it to begin his movie. It starts with the clarinet ensorcelling the listener, almost drunk, almost like the opening of “West End Blues.” Then it is answered by the horns—overwhelming in their insistence, and unable to be subdued even by the speedy-fingered piano that interrupts the answer. There will be horns. There will be crescendo and climax. Yes there is more. It is hard not to feel movement through that city when hearing this music, but that city is full of sexual vibrancy, and sexual competency. We do it, and we do it right.

The sadness with Manhattan comes, of course, with the knowledge of what happened to Allen-—that youth and vigor swept him away. That romanticization won out over, what? Adulthood? And couldn’t we see in Manhattan all the signs of that? Where was there a space to be an adult in his work? Who knows what Tracy was going to come back to the city as—still full of possibility? or wrought into something, somehow less?

And here’s the thing—we are all going to be wrought by life, by struggle, by disappointment. It’s what we do after the first act that determines who we will be. Or the second act. Or the third.

Life contains an element of the bipolar—there will be elation and sadness. I embrace both. I struggle with both—or I try to. I tell myself to get ready for the fourth act; Agincourt, after all, takes place in Act IV. Still, the bitterness of disappointment is hard to set aside. And there have been so many disappointments, so many sadnesses, so many disenchantments. Heroes fall. I fail. What was once sweet on the tongue no longer pleases. My knees hurt. “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Cohen, and he sings in spite of his indelible croak. “Born with the gift of a golden voice,” indeed.

Manhattan elates and saddens me because it lays bare all the trouble to come and makes a statement about the seductive power of the city—a power I felt every time I visited it, every time I visit any great city. Life—like the city, the film about the city, and the novel by Fitzgerald—is rich and dense and confusing—and infuriating. I wish it was not so, and yet, it must be.

Vulnerability (sadness and happiness) and Writing

I have had long stretches of sadness in my life. Not depression, mind you. I dipped an oar in that black river at the end of my annus horribilis; I learned the difference. Sadness is not intractable. It will seem odd to hear this, but I cherish my sadness. I do not revel in it, nor do I valorize it, but when it comes, as it must, I do not turn away from it as from an unwelcome guest. There are good reasons to feel sad. This past year has laid a few at my feet. I have made decisions that would, at some point, along with a bounty of other emotions, cause me sadness.

Sadness passes. So does happiness. I am happy by default. I have a sleep app that prompts me to reflect on how I feel at the end of the day. I almost always designate “happy,” even on days that I also tag as stressful. Even on days when I have felt sad at some point during the day. However, I do not feel happy exclusively, nor do I adamantly cling to that emotion.

When I grew up, my mother warned my brothers and me away from things that would make us feel sad. She policed movies and television shows that grappled with serious and discomforting issues like nuclear war or actual (not fictional) crime. The ugliness never plagued me as much as the shutting off of truth did. Information—truth—drew me with powerful magnetism. Even now after watching the news of the day, I can let anger and sadness pass even as the information remains. There are rare occasions when the cacophony of information drowns out other, happier possibilities. There are times when the information mixes with personal challenges and setbacks. The personal is harder to overcome.

I fortify my day with opportunities for joy. I surround myself with students—people who are younger than I am. They have avoided the cynicism that adults wear too willingly. I go to the gym and lift weights, then charge ahead on the elliptical for 23 hard minutes (530 calories burned!). This summer, I took my place at the table in the school library and worked at my book. I go home, cook dinner (steak, broccoli, and brown rice with avocado), then read. I head to bed at a reasonable hour.

Sometimes, happiness—extreme happiness—is necessary. The first big push for a new writing project requires a kind of ignorant and unabated bliss. There are 100,000 words ahead, and no one may ever read them, but I am going to write them anyway. I began this past book in the bountiful throes of such exuberance. Boundless joy carried me into the first hundred pages of my book. Fortunately, when the cause for that joy left my life, the writing continued. I was writing—at last!—and that became the source of joy for me.

The Doctor on Horseback

Even now, writing this, I feel happy. I look at a photograph from a year ago: the doctor on horseback. I am ecstatic. The novel had not yet begun. As far as the horse carried me, the novel carried me farther—and further. It helps to know the difference.

When I was depressed in 2002, I sought out a counselor, and he advised me that happiness was, if not an illusion, then, at least, a particularly difficult aim. He made this suggestion because I was tangled up in feeling that I was mistaken for not being able to feel happy. My relationship of the past 6 years had ended. I was teaching in a strange place, and my friends were hundreds of miles away. My mother had just gone through a harrowing battle with cancer. My father had just died. Happiness was, at best, elusive. And, perhaps most damning of all, I was not writing.

Writing is difficult—for the reasons I pointed toward above, but also because it requires a kind of vulnerability. One must, at once, care and not care at all about the reader. One must care, and not care at all, about the outcome of the effort. One must learn to love the process above all. This is true of life as well, but writing lays this truth bare in ways that many other kinds of work do not. It is work, and it is, absolutely, not.

No matter what other happiness—even joy—passes from my life, this more vulnerable happiness remains. It was always there, waiting for me to find it, perhaps waiting for me to need it. Finding it, and needing it, I am vulnerable now—open to a more profound sadness—but also open to a deeper joy. I write and proceed.

Failure, Self-recrimination, and Advice in Much Ado About Nothing (and other places)

One of the joys of reading Shakespeare is finding small moments that are only (only!) tangentially connected to the play—as if Shakespeare was trying to overpack his plays with wisdom. One such moment happens in Much Ado About Nothing, when Leonato’s brother, Antonio, attempts to advise his brother. Antonio knows that his brother is grief-stricken, and wants to assuage that grief with wisdom. He offers this: “If you go on thus, you will kill yourself,/ And ’tis not wisdom thus to second grief/ Against yourself.”

Leonato responds with a diatribe against the advice:

I pray thee, cease thy counsel,

Which falls into mine ears as profitless

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel,

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear…

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk

With candle-wasters, bring him yet to me,

And I of him will gather patience.

But there is no such man. For, brother, men

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief

Which they themselves not feel, but tasting it,

Their counsel turns to passion, which before

Would give preceptial med’cine to rage,

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,

Charm ache with air and agony with words.

No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience

To those that wring under the load of sorrow,

But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency

To be so moral when he shall endure

The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

Later Antonio will suggest: “Yet bend not all the harm upon yourself./ Make those that do offend you suffer too”; and Leonato agrees to this course—grief will give way to anger and action.

All in all, Leonato hits on the failure of most advice to do anything like good. Can words “[c]harm ache,” or are they just “air”? And what will mend agony?

My father rarely swore. I recall two incidents of “fuck”—once while he was driving, and once when we were getting hammered by a boom made too dangerous by inattentive helmsmanship. Swearing on the ocean was easy for some, but not for him, because he was happier on the his sailboat than anywhere else. Of course there were often far from pleasant days and nights spent under sail. Instead of offering anodyne comment, or suggesting that better days were ahead (we were, after all, headed to Bermuda and at least one evening of perpetual dark n’ stormy’s), we would pronounce, “This is shitty.” That was as far as he would go under duress—save the one time when we were in specific danger—and it summed up the the awfulness of a third day of rain and misbegotten wind as well as anything.

I recognize that we were under sail, and therefore about as far from genuine grief as can be imagined, but soaked, misdirected, and cranky will approximate. We had the advantage, as Leonato said to “endure the like” all together. How often do we experience grief together, and just suffer with each other? How often do we witness those in grief, and feel compelled to offer wisdom—and recoil in shock when our solace is returned with scorn?

Leonato responds in this vein. His grief is exacerbated by his initial response to his daughter, when he excoriates her after Claudio wrongly heaps shame on her. His grief is doubled by the knowledge of his failure of faith in his daughter. Antonio’s final advice points his self-despite toward the men who caused his fault.

And this is a special sort of grief—a pain we lade on ourselves. How many of us can easily confront our failures? Not our foibles—we populate the empty air with “my bad’s.” But genuine failures? Only those who have can offer us solace. Shakespeare offers us this in Leonato’s rejoinder to Antonio.

The deer

There was a show in the summer of 2019 at the National Gallery of Art, called “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.” There were several deer, and one of them—not this particular deer—snuck into my work. Whether it stays or not, who knows? For now, here:

As he thought about truth—perhaps the most slippery but indelible of ideas—he became aware of a murmur from among the host of the gathered djinn. He, the dark djinn, and Jabari turned to locate the cause and center of this gentle disruption.

A blue deer walked through the assembled djinn. From its sides and back rose thick shards of white crystal. It could have been quartz or moonstone. Perhaps salt. Its paws pressed deep prints into the earth, revealing how heavy the animal was. As it neared, the gold djinn could tell that it was made of lapis lazuli. And yet it walked. It was tall, almost as large as a horse, and around its legs two cloud colored foxes romped and played. The stone and crystal deer was walking through the crowd and toward them. It was regal.

When it reached them, it lowered its head, and gently—but coldly, since it was made of stone—nuzzled the dark djinn and gold djinn in turn. It was strangely soft, belying its nature—it was made of stone—but remaining true to some deeper nature—it was a deer. The foxes moved around Jabari, who stumbled around them, thrown off by their play. They were like smoke but firm, and this unnerved the ‘Ifrit. They were unnatural.

All the djinn had turned their attention to the scene: the blue and white deer, tame and regal, and the two smoke foxes, playful and disruptive. The three djinn at the center were not aware of the attention given to them, because the animals before them had entranced them. Blue, and white, and silver smoke. A crack began to form along the deer’s supple neck, and another at its hind quarter, and then a dozen others, opening its body and dividing the crystals ridged along its back. Bits of crystal fell to the ground. Blue stone chipped out from its body. Then it collapsed into rubble, beautiful rubble, but no longer alive. The foxes simply dissipated.

The djinn were struck silent. The deer had been beautiful and impossible. It had come through them and to them. It was a message and a messenger. Quietly, each member of the throng walked to the pile of stone and crystal and each took a piece of what had been sublime. There was enough for each and every djinn—no more and no less. The remaining wisps of fox-smoke drifted over their heads.

“What was it?” Jabari broke the silence when the taking had finished.

The white haired goddess stood with them. “It was him.”

Loss and Connection

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a tart response to the steady procession out the door.  First she loses keys, then houses, then cities, two rivers, and a continent.  She writes, “Practice losing farther, losing faster.” And finally, “you (the joking voice, a gesture I love).” And that seems about the right order: keys, houses, cities, rivers, continents, you.

I have to admit that I’ve lost my fair share of people along the way. I have no friends from elementary school. I have a few acquaintances (thanks Facebook), but no profoundly important bonds from high school.  I keep in intermittent touch with a couple of professors from college, but all the people I played bridge with at lunch or in the evening, my swimming compatriots, or my more fiery friends from that rich time of awakening have gone. I retain only a single connection from the lost years while I worked in restaurants. Until the age of 28, the only people who remained constant in my life were my father, my mother, and my brothers, and I could no more lose them than I could lose my opposable thumbs, my kidneys, or my hair. Oops.

Somewhere along the way all that changed.  And it wasn’t the people I was meeting.  I figured out a few things about myself, and started on my life’s work. I am happy, overjoyed really, that I have friends who I met on the first day I started graduate school at Binghamton, and that in the thirty years since then, I have built, and been built into webs that extend across the country and onto other continents. Even if I disappeared today, if sudden tragedy erased me, those webs would remain, and my juncture would remain too, if only as a bright memory.

Still there are losses, certain “you’s” who spin away someplace else, who collided with my life, briefly or for longer times, and then left.  In the ramshackle castle of my heart, I have a dozen rooms of voices and gestures belonging to this you or that you who received and returned “I love you” from me and to me.

I can imagine rekindling almost any old friendship.  Bruce, Steve, Kevin? Trevor, Barry, Pete? Beth, Paul, Wendy, Cliff, Neil, Jean, Miriam, Ted? Sure. I would be delighted to hear about their lives, to listen to their stories, and discover where they have been, what they have learned, the best meals they have eaten.  I would sit them all around a table and cook a stew of memory.  But those women with whom I have shared at least a glimpse of my most intimate self, for whom I carved hearts into scallops (and filled those hearts with pesto), or alongside whom I have sat quietly on glacial erractic boulders, or who kissed me until days turned into into weeks, and weeks turned into years?  I think I have lost them.

Maybe it’s because break ups are just that—a break, a tear in the web of connections.  If a declaration of love is tantamount to an assertion of meaning in the universe: there are stars! there is hydrogen! the miracle of leaves! radio waves! elephants! cellos! then the end of love threatens to cast all of creation into some alternate universe where everything delicious tastes like burning tires.  Of course it doesn’t. Of course that is overly romantic. It is just turning a page.

What universe do you live in that anything can be set aside so blithely? I cannot.

And so it is with special joy that one star flickered back onto the horizon.  After nearly twenty five years, I sent this old friend a message “Went on a date with someone who so fabulously reminded me of you.” We chatted back and forth and she sent me a draft of the book she has been running away from for as long as I knew her. Finally running into it, she has uncovered connection after connection, and as she does, she bounced between them amazed and perplexed, delighted as a child who has discovered the art of skipping. At some penultimate revelation she declared that she had uncovered a miracle, to which I responded that she is, was, and always would be a miracle. She answered, “Well that made me cry. We had something so special. And for you to still be in my in my life is another miracle.” Thank you, my now distant friend, for helping put the universe back into order.  Keep writing.

We are all miracles. Loss only makes me feel that more keenly now than I ever had before.  But not just loss: my daughter, my students, my friends, a Sondheim song, everything, everyone.  Once I felt unequal to the task of acknowledging and praising the miracles that were all around me.  I kept them at a distance and felt flustered, off-balance, and awestruck when they accepted me into their orbits.  When they drifted away, I accepted the loss, almost as glibly as Bishop does in her poem. After all, what was I but some strange satellite from some strange universe?  Even Bishop’s advice, “Write it,” seemed to make the world and the process of loving and losing little more than the material for writing (which, I am half ashamed to say, it can be).

Loss is a disaster and no disaster, because it casts me back out of myself, and so deeply reminds me that I am not the center of a weird universe, but part of something larger. In his poem, “The Cleaving, “ Li-Young Lee calls us “a many-membered body of love.”  So I am reminded, and so I write, part of the miracle and a miracle. A contradiction and a multitude. Brian Brennan for the moment and in perpetuity. My heart fixed here, back in the web, part of this and every other universe, spinning in every direction, and open.

Indignation

I ran around all the time as a child. My mother showed my brother and I the door early in the morning, we came back for lunch and were signaled when it was time for dinner. We wandered over the countryside, in and out of creeks, over train trestles, into corn cribs, for miles in many directions. We hung from creepers high in trees. We dove off construction equipment into puddles of thick mud. Our lives were idyllic and unsupervised. We ran through stores, charging up down escalators and down up escalators. We waited in cars while my mother shopped, and we waited, untended, doors locked to the outside, because we ran through fancy dress stores and raised havoc.

At dinner time we sat and ate quietly because children were to be seen and not heard. We scarfed down our meals, partly from boredom, partly because we did not snack all day and were legitimately hungry. Then we sat while my parents talked. We fidgeted, just as we fidgeted at the St. John’s chapel on Sunday mornings. On Sunday’s, at least, we would ride with my father after church, and he would take us to the News Agency in Paoli, where, if we had been good, he would buy each of us a pack of trading cards (Batman, it was the 60s) when he picked up the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. We fought over prized cards.

I read the indignation that people heap on this parent of that parent, or this child or that child, particularly around the incident at the Cincinnati zoo. But indignation over parenting (or childing) is not limited to that event. A girl’s skirt is too short, or his teeth are crooked, or her hair is dyed, or his pants are too short, or he cusses, or she chews gum, or he doesn’t say “sir,” or she runs down hallways. And mom works, or dad works two jobs, or travels away from home, or sleeps late on Sunday, or doesn’t go to church, or mom doesn’t bake cookies for school, or doesn’t volunteer at church, or spends time in her studio, or runs out of gas on the way to the store. Or brings rambunctious kids into a store, or a park, or a zoo.

My objection is not of the “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” variety (although, come to think of it. What the hell? We swam in neighbors’ pools without adult supervision. There but for the grace of whatever, any one of us could have gone.). My objection is to random acts of indignation: the knee jerk blame response. And sure, there is plenty in this life that is blameworthy: acts of intentional cruelty vile enough to stir rage. Occurrences that general good will could prevent if there was enough political and social fortitude to solidify into meaningful action. But sometimes there is simply tragedy, unplanned, stupid, and even if entirely avoidable, but ineffably tragic.

There is, in the common place daily existence we lead, an element of danger and potential tragedy. Bicycles. Cars. Cars! Streets. Creeks. Trees. Rock walls (not those pristine indoor creations that kids climb while tethered to safety supports), but walls of layered rocks that separated the playground from the roundabout where the buses waited at the end of the day. We climbed them while we waited for our bus to arrive, our slender seven year old fingers finding purchase as we scaled twice the height of our heads. And if there is still such a wall somewhere, I know some eyes are scanning it to find a path to the top. We learn, begrudgingly or blindly, to accept the danger, right up to the point it raises a scaly hand to snatch away a life or rudely injure a young and blameless arm or leg or eye.

As a parent, I understand the impulse to protect, and know that I wish no awful event to befall my daughters. (Someone reading this right now is charging his or her bile to new, but not unfamiliar heights: your daughter should suffer what she suffered.) What limits do we insist on placing on our wild things? All of them? Really? The only unbounded possibility is the extent of grievance we wish to express. And maybe it is just because we cannot regulate out or shame away or sternly reprimand the tragic element of life, we superproportionately feel, what? fear? grief? anger? Which we transform into salty indignation. And for those who feel fear, I have no words of consolation, because there are no words to console against the stupid and the random chance of danger. I can write, “You’re not alone,” but in that moment, you are alone. Fear isolates us. Indignation gives us a kind of strength, and, at least, a voice against calamity.

Still, remember. Protect what you can. Plan as much as you are able. Eliminate the horrible. If that means no zoos, if that’s what it takes, fine. If that means fewer guns, if that’s what it takes, then remember that more children died in gun events than at zoos. But somewhere, some danger waits. Sadly, even now, even with Neosporin and emergency rooms. And when it comes you will welcome sympathy, and it will be your due.

The Soundtrack of my Life

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Sky Full of Stars: 

Remembrance

When my daughter is in the car with me, she makes musical requests. Last year featured a month of Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” Sometime this past winter she settled on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Often the second song she requests is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” She exclaims “Wow!” when the bass beat kicks in twice in the song. “It goes BOOM.” She laughs loudly as I sing “Boom! Boom! Boom!” to the beat. She doesn’t see me cry. I keep smiling. I keep going, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

I started listening to this song in the days after my friend, Jennifer Slade, committed suicide. It reminded and still reminds me of her. Jennifer was someone who “light[s] up the path,” as the singer says about the person in the song. She was a brilliant minister: insightful and collaborative; just what a co-worker who had worked with four different ministerial teams in six years needed. She encouraged me to explore my gifts as a minister, and even if I did not choose the path she walked, she helped me think more deeply about the work I do, and to accept it as ministry.

Her death, coming in July of 2014 shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday, shocked me. I drove her home on the night she took her life, and can painfully and clearly recall our conversation on the way. She apologized for asking me to pick her up—her car was in the shop. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the drawbacks of living away from home (she lived in Durham, NC), was that she did not have friends. As a minister she was careful about making friends in the congregation. Her work—ministers never have forty hour work weeks—and the circumstances of the year (she and her husband had taken the first steps toward divorce) had made her feel isolated.

I told her that I was always happy to help, that it was my “job.” I felt that as part of the team at our church that we should always have each other’s backs. This was amazingly important to me, because I had been on less than supportive teams at my church. I had been open with her about this, telling her that I had planned to step down from my position, but after working with her and feeling the change that was happening at the church, I looked forward to what we were building. “I’ll stay as long as you are here,” I told her. Besides, I think of my role as a “guy” as a “job,” and part of that job is answering the call. But I said “job.” I did not say, “Are you kidding me? We are friends. You can always call.”

The weeks following Jennifer’s suicide were difficult. I felt dislodged from the world. I argued with my wife and a friend about how I felt and how to respond. I threw myself into healing work at the church. I met with friends who knew about grief first hand, who had survived the Sandy Hook shooting nineteen months before this. I attended services in North Carolina and Norfolk. I saw a therapist. I retreated from the world, and could not retreat from the world; the school year was in the offing—my first full year as principal at my school (my other job). I had a family. And I felt like a shell of a human.

As I listened to this song at astronomical volume in my car, I began to hear Chris Martin’s “you” not as a single specific person, but as a great plural “you.” He wasn’t singing to one person, but to the wider world. Even if there was one particular “you” who tore him apart, he was going to give his heart to the world. In my mind the big bass beat was a heartbeat, a hundred heartbeats, a thousand, a crowd dancing, like the crowds I had danced with in college and grad school. What saves the torn apart heart is a crowd of people, of friends, of love.

Do I think that life is bound to tear us apart? Probably. Do I think that we somehow come back together? Of course. I know that’s true for me. I know that I still shed tears—manly, cathartic tears, but tears nonetheless. I choose to give my heart away, knowing that the risk of sudden, tragic loss or even slow painful loss will not pass. My daughter laughs and says, “Go Boom!” I go “Boom!” I go “Boom.”