Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Of Jonathan Winters and Junior Dad

I sat there watching the sky -- no drugs involved, just a sense of being outside the flow of time, for just a couple of minutes or so. Maybe longer. It felt like forever. In my head, I heard the sound of my mother's laughter ring out after all these years -- let's say when she saw Jonathan Winters do one of his goofy characters on the Carson show, you wouldn't hear her give a gentle feminine laugh -- she would positively shriek and squeal. It was heaven. I'd lie in bed and listen to my mother die of laughter above the tinny sounds of televised conversation while the dogs whimpered on the stoop wanting to come inside. That Winters, he sure hit her funny bone. I should thank him for making her laugh so hard.

Some geese flew by loudly honking. I tried to remain empty but the thought came into my head: what ever happened to species diversity? Goddamn geese crowding out everyone else. Same effin birds Aldo Leopold celebrated in Sand County Almanac, exhorting us to prevent them from going the way of the Dodo. Sixty years later my lawn is covered in their shit. Remembering how I loved that book, immediately wanting to partake in his ethos of living light on the land, to feel in my bones a kinship with all living beings, wanting a cleaner, more habitable earth. Sitting a stone's throw from Hempstead Turnpike amid the post-war suburban sprawl, without a choice in the matter. No matter where you grow up, it's Eden. If I couldn't make something better of my birthright, that was because I didn't know how. These fucking clumsy hands of mine.

The sky remained implacable like rock, like iron, like water. A chilly breeze came up and I went inside to get a sweater. I could've been anywhere. It didn't have to be Jersey, it didn't even have to be the Western Hemisphere. It's where I found myself. On the shore of a man-made lake with thickly wooded green hills in the background. The countryside filled with too many deer, too many geese. An apparent lack of diversity all around me despite the evidence of teeming life -- dragonflies, vines, wildflowers, thick underbrush, human traffic. There were too many poor people scattered in the hills with no one to represent them. And yet something about it was beautiful for simply being itself.

I stood there watching two small brown moths trapped between the screen and the window try to find a way out, their wings useless in the narrow space, thinking to myself, there is no way out, little ones. I walked over to the kitchen sink and washed my face. There I was, having committed better than half my life to bookselling and publishing, finally having achieved a small degree of competence in my chosen field. (What malarkey: the field chose me, I only took a bookstore job when I needed some money.) And what happens? Publishing as I knew it falls apart. It was a small industry that for too long had pretended to be a big one. Now the really big ones were crushing it. It was a slow industry living in a fast age, derailed by new technology and rapidly shifting demographics. It was a vital industry that had had the life drained out of it by the need to make a profit for its bosses. And I still stubbornly loved it -- the making of books, those romantic objects, and their ratification of the inner life of the imagination.

There was no reason to go outside again. I had seen enough for one day. I opened my laptop and went onto YouTube. Lou Reed and Metallica performing "Junior Dad" in Cologne. It made me cry and I wasn't even a big fan. I sat there, watching old Lou Reed, a face hewn out of stone, grooved and grizzled, sixty effin nine when this thing was recorded, he had a good eleven years on me and he stood there, carrying a guitar, still rocking. If you get chosen you better follow it through till the end, no matter what kind of bad day you're having. Bad days are bullshit, any day you're alive is a good one, said Quist.

I looked outside. The sky wasn't about to change for me. Wherever you live is authentic enough if you accept it for what it is.

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