NeverNesters

lefty politics, Asheville real estate, and what to expect when you're not

“It is all right to hold a conversation, but you should let go of it now and then.”

Posted on March 4, 2015

Couple years ago I was washing the dishes and listening to All Things Considered when I made a minor discovery about growing up. It was triggered, this discovery, by the transition music between stories. Some anonymous NPR sound tech had excerpted an instrumental passage from an M.C. 900 Foot Jesus song, of all things. If you’ve never heard of M.C. 900 Foot Jesus, you’re not alone. That boat you’re in contains nearly the entire human race. All I can tell you about him is that for a minute in the nineties he was probably America’s most famous white Texan rapper. (In a similar vein, I believe I am the most famous Devin Abraham Sorrell Walsh born on April 17th, 1980, ever.) Around the same time, I’d heard P.J. Harvey sampled on Marketplace. My peeps were growing up.

The kids I played four-square with were employed in public radio now, smuggling their culture into the larger American conversation vis a vis transition music. Siegel finishes talking and, boom: it’s 1997 again. It seemed possible that soon enough the whole country would sound different: just as our parents grew up in a world that sounded like Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and engineered it into one that sounded like the Beatles, the Supremes and Led Zeppelin, we would grow up in a country that sounded like the Beatles, the Supremes and Led Zeppelin and engineer it into one that sounded like Outkast, Radiohead and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.*

I remember getting pretty cheesed when it was reported that W.’s speechwriters coded allusions into his formal statements only the devout among his listeners could identify as biblical; the rest of us just whistling obliviously on as the chief executive secured camouflaged grappling hooks to the wall between church and state. (Actually not obliviously whistling, just pissed about something else.) But there’s something cool about it, too: a sneaky, sophisticated method of communicating different things to different audiences though reading from just one script; a way to say shibboleth without the enemy even hearing.

Anyway, that’s what the M.C. 900 Foot Jesus person was doing, too. Even though I was wrist-deep in suds in an Asheville kitchen, and he or she was punching buttons in a radio control booth in D.C., we were in communication. The tech was saying: Our turn.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because, even though musically the U.S. is still pretty firmly under the Boomer moon, the conversation I’m hearing more and more on the news and in social media does in fact seem to revolve around issues of emotional and intellectual development germane to the 30-something. People be talking about how they finally don’t care what other people think of them. People be talking about learning to be different without judgment, to respect difference, listen, stand up for themselves, admit their shortcomings, stop lying.

Meanwhile, the news is dripping with vaccines and saddled with college debt—issues my parents must be relieved they don’t need to worry about too much.

But this is always happening. In another thirty years the national dialogue I’m taking part in will resemble what my folks’ sounds like now (albeit with more flooding and less retirement security). People in their early 20s will be scheming their future greatness while preoccupied with sex. Middle schoolers will have their own Beavis & Butthead to mimic into exhaustion. Kids will rove into their back yards with whatever species of superhero action figure you have to have, and will pour their liquid minds into the console game they’ll ironically-unironically claim still to love a couple decades later. The conversations stay the same, the proper nouns change, the speakers cycle through.

The illusion is reinforced by the fact that I’m just not Facebook friends with many 60-year-olds or 8th graders.

*

I’m more capable of having better, more substantive conversations than I used to be. This stems in large part from figuring out how to better suppress my ego—that obnoxious little lunatic that lives between my belly and my crotch. If you come at a conversation from a position of wanting to inquire, rather than wanting to teach or show-off; if you’re uncowed by the prospect of being judged; if you insist on taking everyone seriously and you demand candor from yourself—all operations the little lunatic quakes against—you improve the quality of your conversation.

Arielle and I recently had lunch with a former real estate client who is suffering from a pretty bad break-up. Conversation-wise, heartbreak’s got a lot of juice. It can get you fairly heavily divulging to near-strangers. (If I were an evil genius professional interrogator, I would inflict heartbreak on all my subjects and then get them at their lowest.) Anyway, our pal had a lot to say, and I was struck by how rare an occasion it is: to be the audience for a genuine emotional outpour. This got me thinking about conversations in general; hence the blog post, the title of which is a quotation by the deceased Ogden Nashy American poet Richard Armour. How often have you had a conversation you let go into? If you’re like me, you can count them on both hands.

I remember one at a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was probably 12, another with my best friend during high school, a bunch with young women I’ve loved, a series with a pair of buddies in my early 20s… Age tends to be a common denominator, another is that I mostly don’t recall what we discussed, only how. At the heart of each was a mutual disarmament. That Jean-Luc Picard knew his stuff: if you want to make friends, try not raising your shields. Suddenly the world is busy with dimensions you couldn’t articulate before; rich with texture you couldn’t feel before; you’re not alone—or you’re still alone, possibly even aloner, but so is your friend, so is everyone.

I’m not sure if it’s sad that I remember so few or if I should be grateful to remember so many.

*

My nephew and I were watching Transformers: Rescuebots over the weekend.

(This must be one of the dearest privileges of parenthood: having a supple-minded little kid you can talk to. When else—and with whom but family—do we routinely engage in candid personal cross-generational dialogue?)

We got to talking about ghosts, ’cause of the episode, and one thing led to another, and I was defining “sexy” for him and discussing holograms and time travel and he asked me: “Is the future real?”

Judging from my own experience, he won’t remember that conversation for long. But I will. I mean, are you kidding? Is the future real? That just freaking wins.

D.W.

*Full body chills moment: the afternoon after writing this, and after spending an inordinate amount of time mulling over which bands should constitute this final triumvirate, having settled first upon and having never once budged from Outkast, what do I hear as the first segue tune on the news? The opening piano riff of “Caroline”. Raise your hand if you’re over 35 and you know what I’m talking about. Raise your hand if you’re under.

Advertisements

What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Republicans

Posted on January 21, 2015

At some point in the last couple years it dawned on me that one does not mention the Republican Party in polite conversation. At least, the people whose conversation I admired, whose political sensibilities I most wanted to emulate, they don’t talk about Republicans. This would seem an awkward impediment to an open flow of ideas, but in fact nuanced discussions of policy are entirely possible without anyone ever directly invoking the GOP. Instead, you simply refer to any of the double helix of primarily corporate interests that represent the elephant’s genes–ALEC, Scalia, Monsanto, the NRA, “Big Fill-In-The-Blank” (Data, Oil, Pharma, etc.), Koch Industries…you get the idea. From what I have observed, those who engage in this campaign of deliberate omission fall into two camps.

Let’s call the first camp the Guarded. Among the Guarded, the word is hidden for any number of reasons. Mostly they seek not to offend (i.e., you find yourself addressing a small audience on the subject of climate change: to highlight a history of congressional obstructionism without inciting wrath, you use the term “deniers” instead of the more accurate “Republicans”). Maybe the Guarded are unclear as to the disposition of the debate, and so refrain from pointed nouns. Maybe the Guarded don’t want to be reverse ID’d as Democrats. Maybe the instinct is a cousin to the puerile notion that keeps candidates from identifying their opponents by name.

But I’ve been in rooms packed exclusively with spirited Democratic activists and seen speakers, at precisely the moment when naming the foe would be most gratifying, suddenly become Guarded. It’s like if a prosecutor, at the height of her opening peroration, rather than pointing her finger at the accused and intoning his name, were to just kind of shrug and mumble, “And that fellow is in this courtroom, next to his lawyer…”

Obviously, this tendency owes much to our training in etiquette. In most circles, talking politics is worse than boring, worse than profitless: it’s rude. When I reflect on my past of Verbally Opinionating, I could just as well be reviewing the history of a turbulent sexuality: I first Opinioned myself at age 12; at 14 I first said an Opinion to another… After my Opinions were assaulted, here, I became confused and experimented with heterodox Opinions for a few months… I remember during this time I was plagued by a recurring dream of walking into school wearing all my Opinions… Finally, I came out as an Opinionated Liberal Partisan.

I’ve had plenty of conversations about delicate issues with people I didn’t know all that well that were much more comfortable than even the most basic, tip-of-the-iceberg political talk with people I’d never see again. A contractor once sat at my kitchen table and asked me, in an oblique way, who I was going to vote for in 2012. I got around to Obama, but it was hard sledding editing the volcano of my beliefs on the issue down to an unmolten nugget. I stammered and flopped. My jaw got tight and my face hot. I’d have better handled a direct question about how I took my pornography.

One of the reasons we admire a candidate for office is that they boldly and unequivocally enumerate points in support of their ideology. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time doing that, so it’s convenient when someone else does. We hear them and go, Yeah, that’s why I support a woman’s right to choose, too! Or, I knew there was a reason I hate the minimum wage!

Last year, I entered the fray directly as a Field Coordinator for the Kay Hagan campaign. Kay was vying for re-election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina. It was an appalling job and I didn’t last long in it, but the experience was singular. (I am thinking about, if a lobster could leap out of the pot…that’s what my experience was like.) Among the most eye-opening aspects of the job was the depth of ignorance out there concerning, uhhhh, everything. Because I had to practice my pitch on the phone five hours a day, six days a week, I got to where I could fairly fluidly deliver a pithy little sequence of infotastic tautologies at the drop of a hat. I blended the campaign-approved, intellectually vacant boilerplate with my own homespun witticisms and earthy common sense (i.e. “bullshit”). Hearing me, elderly volunteers seemed generally impressed. “He’s got the gift,” they’d say. “Watch out for this one.” And the truth is, in terms of the art of political persuasion, I sucked.

Imagine your average white Hoosier teen with a decent jump shot introducing basketball to the people of some remote, unconnected land. They think he’s invincible. They take him on in one-on-one match-ups and laugh at the futility. They’ve never heard of Lebron James.

That about summarizes my experience in the campaign. I don’t want to be rude (not gratuitously rude, anyway), but my point is, even though the people who look like they know what they’re talking about don’t actually know that much, they still know a shitload more than most everybody else.

Scratch a partisan and you find someone who has uploaded certain tenets of their party’s platform into their gestalt. Scratch the gestalt and you find nebulae of emotion in orbit around a wobbly lodestar called Justice. “We engage in political activity so that we may, as societies of men, deal with the world as it is,” wrote English critic Henry Fairlie in a 1973 issue of Harpers: “This is not a slight endeavor; the world as it is, experience teaches us, is not easy to deal with.” I would put it to you that, in today’s culture, we engage in political activity mostly to compete over the privilege of defining what the condition of the world is. It’s a difficult, postmodern business, thorny with footnotes and clashing source materials; the swarm of worker bees flooding your neighborhood every two years to bring democracy to your doorstep work at several removes from their masters and are drilled to language their way through critical thought and to spend no more than five minutes on anyone. The vast majority of prospective voters, for the sake of whose allegiance billions of dollars are converted to bad television, have only the dimmest understanding of the American way of government. And all this frothing to-do results in paltry electorates dispatching to Washington ambassadors soon to be almost universally despised. Meanwhile, largely irrespective of which team controls the clock, the billionaires, as the marvelous essayist Tim Kreider puts it, “help themselves to the rest of the money.”

Which brings me to the second camp of people who don’t talk about Republicans: the Over It.

I first became kind of retroactively aware of the Over It while reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Goon Squad didn’t make much of an impression on me (I didn’t finish it) except for the story of Stephanie, who meanders from a West Coast punk scene in the 1970s to a married suburban New York life in the 90s–a life that sees her regularly at tennis with a neighborhood woman who is, dun dun DUN…: A Republican. One of Stephanie’s old confidants is stunned by this development. You’re friends with a Republican? I mean seriously, a REPUBLICAN?? Stephanie’s botoxed, bleached, white-skirt-clad, generally-augmented tennis buddy becomes a symbol of the collapse of her ideals. Reading this passage, it seemed probable that the denouncer had suppressed the word “Republican” for decades, in the same way a member of the nobility might for so long effortfully elide from his mind and speech all references to those wallowing in the muck that when one of the poor bastards shows up and drips in the vestibule the words are an outrage in him, an incantation, poisonous.

It’s hard to write about this without being really offensive.

I’m imagining a hypothetical schoolhouse dynamic…one in which the administrators have ceded control to the students for an object lesson in civics. For one day the kids have to deliver their own lectures, proctor and grade their own quizzes, preside over an orderly lunch, distribute appropriate homework, and so on. In my conception, the student body would divide into three factions: A select group of leaders would rise of their own volition; as would a class of kids uninterested in leadership but willing to modify their behavior for the sake of achieving common goals; then finally you’d have a bunch of clowns who just want to goof off and throw rocks.

In this analogy, the Republicans are the ones who want to goof off and throw rocks.

By the end of the day, a number of representatives from the first two groups would have decided to simply ignore the existence of the third. They’d be over it. Let them speak–sure, if they must–let them retard progress if they’re able, let them benefit from the decisions of a reasonable consensus…but acknowledge them? What’s the point?

Things could go on like this forever, and peacefully, so long as the doers stay in the majority over the undoers. What’s disruptive is when the clowns don suits and begin cultivating a constituency who’ll give them power. What’s problematical is when the dressed-up nihilism of their heretofore fringe ideology is granted an aura of authority by a media system bludgeoned into submission by the sledgehammer of liberal bias. And what’s catastrophic is when they win, raze the school, and declare a season of unending recess. “But it’s storming out,” someone might protest, pointing to the darkened, rain-spattered window.

And the new leaders look too but say, “No it isn’t.”

Which is one of the things we don’t talk about, when we don’t talk about Republicans.

 

-D.W.

Love*

Posted on January 5, 2015

So the holidays are over and A. and I’s lives have changed concretely, probably for keeps. I write this now (shame on me) installed at my new desk at South College Asheville, where I’ve through a marvelously simple daisy chain of contacts and events been named Chair of the Department of Professional Brewing Science. Funny how you can spend all this time gazing at your past like you do through a window at inaccessible baked goods, some enticing, others appalling, but all of them passively beheld, remote from you, gripless as yesterday, and then all of a sudden those same baked goods assert themselves enough to…

No: you’re up there on the foremast deck, at the conn, helm in hands, sails blooming full of a steady wind, and though your body is poised at the future, your gaze trails aft at the slow-boiling wake as it smooths back into the sea, and from back there all at once comes a sudden shift in the breeze and you’ve altered course.

That’s a little better than the metaphor of the appalling baked goods, at any rate.

In retrospect, hurrying into my MFA program wasn’t wise, and toiling four years at a local craft brewery felt less like a strategic move than it did treading water, but in the third act the first two are revealed to have been essential. For accreditation purposes, South College preferred that someone with a masters degree head up their new program, and there aren’t (yet) scads of people with those in the craft brewing field. As icing on the cake, one of the people instrumental in hiring me has a son who was briefly a staff writer for the literary arts magazine I founded as an undergraduate. It isn’t white smiling God in his glowing heaven picking up these scattered threads and cinching them into a neat bow. Fate is made by people. Let’s praise them.

To that end, we’re going out to dinner tonight with a couple friends who were key in hooking me up with South College. They’re getting a sitter for the occasion, are expecting number two any day, and I imagine the subject will come up.

We were blessed with beau coup nephew-and-niece time over the holidays, and while I’m not ready to haul up the curtain entirely on the most recent kitchen-counter-side Pressing Subjects broached in chez Walsh, I will say that the see-saw might could be at its see-sawing thing again. Might could. One can’t yet say for sure. One must wait to see which numbers one’s feelings throw.

The Slocums are expecting again in New York. The Warren-Hills of Weaverville. The Berlin-Moris. One childless couple in our neighborhood is preggers, another is in deep contemplation. Lukatrina just popped their first one out… This generation that flooded into 80s pre-schools together and came out the other side as college graduates in a melting economy, who lined up for choice interest rates on their first mortgages while watching D.C. unmoor itself from the mainland: blink and they’ve multiplied.

One thing is we had too much unstructured free time over the holidays. Vast slow unspooling bobbins of time, harassed by no one, kept awake by no one, unprepped for. We got bored, honestly. The idle hands of thirtysomethings are much more dangerous than those of kids. (Well, kids who use protection.) I read a short story in Harper’s Magazine recently in which the main character’s love interest tells him on a summer day, at the beach, “Knock me up. Let’s take our lives seriously.” Now there is a line that sticks.

*

My trouble is I see myself holding a beautiful baby, my own, my wife’s, and I love her, of course, but also I’m aware of what I’m missing, and I can’t shake that, and every time I kiss her forehead or nom her tiny toes there’s an asterisk, and I’m reminded that instead of spending a day with my wife on a couch engulfed in high literature, I’m reading Give a Mouse a Biscuit again.

Originally this post was called “If We Must Have a Baby, Let It Be a Bauhausy Baby,” because for some reason all day I’ve been listening to Bauhaus for the first time in more than a decade, thinking how great would it be if the 80s comic gothic quartet, less like any other band than any other band I’ve ever heard, reunited to make an album in honor of me and A.’s amazing new baby. In this fantasy, Peter Murphy, the gaunt prince of the glass-wristed set, attends the exhausted mother, bleary father and cooing newby on Day One, going, like: “I dub thee Chrysanthem,” and I say, “No, you can’t, but thanks,” and he says, “Your child is extraordinary. This demands a grand gesture. I’m getting the band back together.”

In particular, the last five songs of “The Sky’s Gone Out” (1982) have me hooked. It concludes with a trippy cycle in which, after the world ends, a father tells his son (reading from Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal): “My baby, how big you’ll be in a very little while. You’ll be going to school and you won’t want your daddy then, will you darling? Oh, I wish you could be my baby all the time. I wonder what the future holds…?”

I want to answer: it holds the past, but not like how you supposed it would.

 

D.W.

Be thou, Spirit fierce, my spirit!

Posted on October 27, 2014

What if I were to begin consecutive blog posts recounting 7-year old memories of my literature professors? What kind of person would this make me? I say to you yes: whatever you came up with, that’s true.

Professor David Hopes, the egg-shaped ginger sprite of UNC-Asheville’s Karpen Hall, used to (no doubt still does) amuse himself by imagining Percy Shelley striding into a classroom to field questions. He’d insist that we wouldn’t believe in Shelley, because no one’s like Shelley anymore. People back then just lived more. He’d make us imagine the poet standing at the front of the room, radiating difference, intellect, energy, power: this pale little man who dared the west wind to be like him.

The story is, Shelley drowned when his sail boat (Don Juan) was rammed by pirates who mistook it for Lord Byron’s; or when intelligence agents of a foreign crown sunk him; or by committing impassioned suicide during a dramatic storm; or owing to a sloppy boatwright; or due to landlubberly seamanship and navigational ineptitude. Take your pick. He was found fully clothed but lacking most his flesh. After they’d lit his funeral pyre, friend Edward Trelawny rescued his entire heart from the fiery chamber of his torso. Cors cordium, they named it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Romantic poets, in particular the larger-than-lifeness that animated them. In a long, dreamy essay about the American novelist Marilynne Robinson in a recent New York Times Magazine, the writer, Wyatt Mason, describes an interview:

“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”

“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.

“Exactly.”

“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”

‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

I don’t know if Shelley was a Christian or not. I suspect he was deistic. Certainly he was keen on impermanence (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”). But, to be sure, his universe was lit by a wilder voltage than most of us would be comfortable with today.

Today, we know we are borrowing time on a pale blue dot circling through a vast, empty sea. When we die, we do not— most of us— expect to find heavenly architecture, luminous faces, angels at the gate. We are not the same gullible folk who lined the pockets of hack priests flogging indulgences. We are meat, and we know what happens to expired meat.

When we had faith, when we believed that death was a stride into eternity, were we braver? Maybe. Anyway, we’re wiser now. And scared as hell. Even as crime plummets to historic lows and scholars assure us that we live in an era of unprecedented peace, the national anxiety mounts. A hoodie— hoodie — becomes a menace on par with a drawn weapon. Waves of brown children lap at our southern border and mobs form, a Californian woman holds up a sign: NOT OUR KIDS, NOT OUR PROBLEM. He looked at me funny, so I shot him.

*

I’m pretty good, generally, about acting on my principles, I excel at letting my conscience complicate my life, and I stand up to bullies, but I’m not a very brave person. The great West Wind, were it to mimic my spirit, would rather stay home than explore. I’m more Deep Space Nine than USS Enterprise. I can be cavalier around electricity and rash with promises, but there are dark islands in me I prefer leaving off the map.

We went canvassing for a local campaign the other day, Arielle and I. We thought it was going to be in one part of town. We’d planned on making a nice few hours’ walk of it on a pretty autumn day. Turns out it was in a different part of town. We were quiet on the drive over. After parking, getting out, and puzzling over a logical entry point into the sprawling, homogenous projects, I decided to skip them. Took about five minutes. I would have been uncomfortable doing it by myself— my wife’s presence made me doubly uncomfortable. I caught myself rationalizing in the usual ways, again and again. We canvassed around the projects for an hour plus, doing good work, but finally more than half our packet went unknocked because, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was a coward. When we were done and I turned in my data, I confessed to a pair of overworked field organizers. Later, I confessed to some friends.

Nobody shamed me.

 

D.W.

White Man Thinking

Posted on September 16, 2014

I don’t remember what I used to think about. In fact, I don’t remember thinking. Does anyone?

Maybe you can’t remember thinking because it’s a verb that leaves no evidence. What does it even mean, to think? You can’t unscrew a screwdriver with itself, and you can’t crack the nut of thought with thought.

It was reported that Einstein thought in shapes. That’s one of those things that sounds neat but, really, what can you do with it? Did Julia Child think in recipes? Did Ty Cobb think in line drives? My name is Homer Simpson. I think in donuts.

Merrit Moseley, A literature professor at UNCA (now the chair of the department), once remarked that he himself couldn’t write a novel–this art form he loved, the study of which he’d dedicated his career to–because he wanted for invention. All my stories, he said, end up being about a middle-aged white man, sitting in a room, thinking.

Contemplation, rumination. I was thinking about you the other day. Mull it over. Chew on that. Then it occurred to me.

I remember a conversation I had with an old roommate. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard say that he thought in complete sentences. You mean, I asked him, when your alarm clock goes off in the morning, you lie in bed and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to hit the snooze button now,’? Yeah, he said. ‘I’m going to answer the phone now’? Yep.

I still don’t believe him, but what the bleep do I know? For me, thought is inarticulate bodylong sensation, the original cloud drive, aura, mood, my mind’s weather.

Of course, used to be I listened to a lot more music. And listened hard. Listened to drive faster, to be transported. I remember vividly the trance Blackalicious’s Release put me in when I first heard it, sitting in my parked blue Honda Civic in Austin, outside the coffee shop where I worked while the rain pounded down. I went to a Roundrock Express baseball game that night or the next, solo, sat there in my dad’s seat behind home plate, vibrating in this out-of-mind state from the song, and fell raptly, harmlessly in love with one of the player’s wives sitting in the player’s wives section. It had almost nothing to do with her.

A song will move your psychic stuff around. It will recalibrate you in such a way that people, events, objects and actions hum and glow with ineluctable meaning. You know what I’m talking about.

For me this is also true of certain passages in literature, certain plays, certain scenes from film. (I’m sure it’s true of paintings, too, though I haven’t encountered that painting yet.) But there’s something to the sonic, versus the watched or read, that etches grooves right into the meat of things.

It makes guttural sense that thought is more like sound than stuff. At night, lying in bed, who hasn’t stunned–even confused–themselves with the quality of an imagined voice?

When we are thinking, we are distracted…thought is distraction. It gets in the way. I used to be more distracted by puerile fantasy and illusions of grandeur than I am now. I used to be more distracted, too, by really good creative ideas. But I don’t actually remember thinking. On long car trips I’d babble incessantly in accented echolalia along with AM radio. When I dialed in to an Astros game, I paid attention. Listening to favorite songs, I’d unthread the instruments from each other. Probably I spent a great deal of time reconstructing whatever had just happened. Revising. Re-enacting. Re-recording.

It seems reasonable to suggest that thought is the mind’s exhaust, and that the mind is an engine that, absent oodles of sensory input, runs hot. Maybe it’s reasonable, too, that the most complex sensory input available to us is human company. People, after all, are things into which we have peculiar insight. They smell. You can study their expressions. Their limbs are always moving. They open their mouths and out spills language. Incredible! Being in company solves thought, it keeps the mind occupied. Being alone is revving the motor, temperature gauge rising, which makes being in company all the more treacherous.

Who was it…? Someone’s obituary. Can’t remember. What was the sentence…? Nope, not that either. But the idea was: when I developed an inner life, that’s when everything changed…

“define inner life” gets you a lot of Eckhart Tolle, lot of Goddyness. But my inner life is not after peace or serenity, except insofar as it stills me in myself like with poured cement: I am certain that there is a part of me that is unchangeable, that is “Devin” in the same way a submarine floating through the sea is not the sea. My inner life is given to brooding. It is a broth of anxieties and their opposing sureties. A brew. A brine. It is preoccupied with cruelty, suffering and injustice. It’s achingly sentimental–every touch leaves a print. It is the kindling flame of a politics anchored on different words. It sings my rightness and indicts me a proud fool. It watches the world sadly and wonders what will happen.

*

At 34, the animal’s temperament deepens. Quieter, more solitary, it better hears its own music. A wide block of real estate in its mind is zoned Regret. The knowledge of time as a perishing resource is no longer purely intellectual. It drifts into the busy world and listens.

D.W.

Quiet car trips home

Posted on August 15, 2014

On the Sunday Arielle and I got back from Texas we stayed over at her sister and brother-in-law’s house in Charlotte, grilled out, had beers and played with their pair of boys, who are four and two. They’ve got a great guest set-up, do my Charlotte in-laws, with a big private room downstairs. When we sleep over, we invariably awaken to the commotion upstairs: a Battle of Britain-level bombardment enacted by stampeding toddler feet.

In the morning they were sprinting circles around the babysitter when we said goodbye. We got in the car and didn’t say too much for the next two plus hours of driving. The thing in Texas was a biannual family reunion kicked off this year by a memorial service for my grandmother, Mema (actually Evelyn), who died on Sunday, May 18th, while my mom sang to her. She’d had Alzheimers for a long time, breast cancer before that, had outlived her husband of 67 years, had hung around long enough in the realm of the actively engaged to develop relationships with great grand kids, of whom at last count there were 13.

Nearly all of them were present at the reunion, plus the eight grand kids, their folks, spouses galore–all told a family gathering of nearly 40 that’d proceeded from a conspicuously absent pair of Presbyterian Texans. In reunion prequels, Papa would install himself in a plastic folding chair in a location guaranteeing a broad vantage on all his get, pop open a High Life and keep mostly quiet. In the 2012 version, convened for the first time on his granddaughter’s 156-acres of Central Texas ranch, we dipped our hands into a big Ziplock bag and let the wind sift him over a cliff.

He hadn’t always been quiet. If long-married couples acted like those paired electrons you hear about–in which, no matter what distance separates them, one begins spinning one way precisely when its opposite begins spinning the other–my grandmother would’ve become garrulous and talkative in her dotage…but nope. She stayed pretty much mum, even as Alzheimers snacked on her mind, even as the stations of her decline flew dizzyingly past and her children, AARPers all and grandparents themselves, surrounded her hands with their own and sang songs to her, entreating her into rest.

The Sorrell family reunion used to be overrun with toddlers. No more! My sister’s kids, Sander and Lyla, are among the newest participants. They’re five and two, have this warm, toasted skin tone of otherworldly beauty, and very much love their aunt and uncle. Sander plays Star Wars. (There is much, much more to Sander than this, but in a compressed time situation like our visit, it is the operative detail.) Lyla, who came late to it, now speaks in complete, even sentences. He is old enough to get a little sullen while walking along a drought-parched riverbed, ignoring his uncle’s pleas that he come back and join us while Lyla, holding her uncle’s head, her feet bobbing against his arms, has perfect little conversations with him.

(“What are you drinking? Is that juice?”

“Nope. Beer.”

“I can have a beer when I’m a woman. Can I smell?”

“Go right ahead. Sander! Will you come guide me and Lyla out of the river?”

“…”)

Mema painted, is what she did. At her memorial service she was celebrated for her skills at entertaining and for her cooking and steadfast christianity and old-fashioned wifeness, but people came most alive in recollection of her art. She did still lives, worked from photos, copied the Dutch masters, traveled the country in a big van with her retired hubby, set up easels and painted what she saw. I am about twice her size on my wedding day, bending down to give her a hug while next to her Papa beams and next to me Arielle holds the oil painting Mema made outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It hangs on our library wall now. There’s a Rembrandt forgery in our bedroom and an Indian in the laundry room, too. In my old room in my parents’ house (which is now Sander’s room in his home away from home), there’s a painting she did from a photo of me, about five, sitting on a big rock beside a creek, in swimming trunks, my toasty tan back to the camera. Possibly I was being sullen. There are no ends to thought, thinking this way, only courses that return you forever to where you were.

Everybody acquires the same superpower as they get older: the ability to know the future. I remember well when my first cousin once removed couldn’t shut up about Jurassic Park for five minutes one Thanksgiving–now he’s a Junior at Northwestern. Six reunions hence he will be my age now, the guy playing Wave Prince vs. The Dead of the Rocks in the river with his nephew, braving the sticker-burrs in flip-flops so his wife can take pictures of the longhorns, cracking his first Shiner about an hour shy of lunchtime, letting the bold Texas sun lick the alcohol off his skin.

First this one then that one will replace first this one then that one as the family’s elder statesman. When my cousin gives newbies jeep tours of the rugged land, he’ll stop several times, instead of just once, to say, “We scattered ashes here.” Minor imbroglios over jointly arranged meals will get hand-me-downed to the next in line. Some time soon, in their teens, the trio of girl cousin besties will stop performing original song-and-dance numbers for the rest of us. Sons will assume from their fathers the responsibility of manning the smoker. Smoldering political differences will flare up and die down. A younger bull will oust Deacon as longhorn alpha and sow his progeny through the little herd. One of them will oust him. The cow they named Hamburger will be the first to disappear. A new formation of cousins will come out of the tree house different people than the ones that went in, will jump into the cloudy water that flows to the Blanco River and sing all the way to the dam. Newly introduced spouses will steal ten minutes’ relief in the shade on a hammock. Hands will cover hands and eyes will stare fixedly at a point in the ceiling before closing.

And maybe, eventually, someone else in the family will take up a paintbrush. With watercolors, this time.

View from River Hill Ranch

 

– D.W.

 

D-Day

Posted on June 6, 2014

Arielle and I tend to get a little roller-coastery on the question of spawning, but taking a long view you’d pretty much have to say declines have led advances. For long luxurious periods of our marriage we’ve enjoyed a warm relationship with the idea of never procreating. In fact we bought this very Web address back in 2012, I think.

The goal was to carve out a space wherein the intentionally childless could explore their condition. Seemed to us that more and more like-minded folks were making that decision. We were thinking big with the concept.

We’d alternate weeks posting blog entries; we’d compile a corollary to What To Expect When You’re Expecting (“Blowing the College Savings Fund”, “It’s a Small World–But With so Many Places to Live!” and “Vacation? Sure!”); we’d interview experts in wellness and psychology and financial planning about the ramifications of never nesting. It would be a wall-less compound of intellectual, social and personal inquiry, not meant (snarky chapter-headings aside) to channel or evoke differences with the birthing set, but absolutely to represent a safe home base for young people making a morally ambiguous decision.

Then I was like, “Yeah but, I don’t know, if we had a little baby it’d be us and that’d be so beautiful because I love you so much!” And she was like, “I kind of feel the same way! I love you so much!” Careered we thus up the track, quietly setting the whole concept on the backburner.

For a couple years we let simmer–you’d have to say unenthusiastically–the idea that we’d ultimately succumb to parenthood. Question was when? And what do we try to do first? And what do we have to do now in order to do the things we want to do before? And isn’t that ridiculous because like everyone says there’s never a good time and if we keep postponing we’ll never et cetera et cetera.

I guess it was just a couple months ago that the roller-coaster executed another sudden turn, this time a nose-diving faceplant into the happy sandtrap of nevernesting, and we said, Know what? Let’s just relax into this. Let’s be serious: we don’t wanna have kids. 

Do you always know why you want or don’t want something to happen? I’m not sure I have myself so well figured. When I think of never siring a wee bairn, a bevy of amazingly self-centered and rationalizing reasons attach (“I get bored playing with kids…pretty much right away.” “I don’t actually buy that being is preferable to non-being, so, things being what they are, why summon new pain into the universe?” “I want to retire young. And drink.”). 

And when I think of having one, it’s for big, noble reasons that don’t move me at all (“You’re a freaking animal. Make little animal babies. It is the only non-trivial answer to the question of why you exist.” “Your baby might help reverse the wrecking ball of climate change.” “You will never experience the full scope of what it means to be a human being on the planet earth if you don’t play at being a parent for a while.”). Never mind that our baby would be wildly clever and beautiful in a society that deeply overvalues beauty and cleverness.

But more and more often these days I find myself turning off the news.

A politician–I forget which one but you can guess which team he plays for–said the other day that we are the first generations to feel the effects of climate change and the last ones that can do anything about it. Meanwhile there are plenty of very intelligent folks out there who argue that it’s actually too late: we already passed the point of no return.

When did that happen? When did we go from “Geepers, we’d better do something about all this global warming” to “Woopsy-daisy–we’re fucked!”

Meanwhile the NRA. Meanwhile Citizens United. Meanwhile the gluttonous empty-headed cynicism machine that is the Republican Party.

Meanwhile the tar sands and the predator drones and Guantanamo Bay.

Meanwhile the Incarceration Economy and the House that Gerrymander Built and the bees are dying.

In 1994 I had a wonderful girlfriend who told me that smart people had a moral obligation to have as many babies as possible. I guess twenty years ago you could think that.

-D.W.