Upon further reflection

October 30, 2009

Hey Steph,

I’ve given it a tremendous lot of thought and come to the conclusion that my manager was right:

I am a sissy.

In actuality, I don’t actually have it in me to fuck up people who mess with me … Well, barring putting me or my loved ones in mortal physical danger.

I have a big heart and boundless love for humanity, flaws and all.

I’m cool with that.

Love and miss you!




A quote I like

October 18, 2009

Dear Stephanie,

I came across this quote (an epigraph to Part 1 of The Tender Bar) and want to share it with you (even though–you’ve read that book, right? so you know this quote?). Anyway:

“”Slumbering in every human being lies an infinity of possibilities, which one must not arouse in vain. For it is terrible when the whole man resonates with echoes and echoes, none becoming a real voice.” (Elias Canetti)

I like it.



Something about reading

October 14, 2009

Dear Stephanie,

I think I read too much. I’ve been worrying about my reading-to-writing ratio. On the one hand, I know that I need to read in order to write. I don’t write well or enough when I’m not reading. There’s something almost addictive and compulsive about the way that reading inspires me to write. “Here are words on paper. See how the eye moves along them. It cannot stop. See how the brain creates strings of words. Quickly! Record the strings!” But on the other hand, it’s dangerous. If the book is good, I get lost in it. I can’t stop until I finish, which leaves me little time to do my own writing.

Also, I fear that I read so much that half of what I read goes right through me. I couldn’t even tell you the names of all the books I’ve read over the past month. I feel almost ravenous, gluttonous. I consume them so quickly then—poof!—they’re gone. They may be burrowed in my unconscious, though, acting on me in ways that I don’t know. I suppose. Like how you can eat a big bag of potato chips and still be hungry, but then your pants are too tight a month later, proving that those chips definitely stuck with you even if they didn’t make your belly feel full.

I’ve even gotten into the bad habit of starting books but then abandoning them when they’re boring or otherwise unsatisfying. I never used to do that! I always stuck it through to the bitter end. Not just because I buy books rather than borrowing them from the library. It wasn’t about the money. I just felt…I don’t know exactly—maybe that because I’d made a commitment to that book, I should see it through. I shouldn’t be a quitter. I should be fair to the book. I should give it a chance, get through the whole thing before I make a judgment. I mean, you never know when it might surprise you at the end and change how you read and experienced the whole.

That’s what happened with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, if I’m getting the title right. I can’t recall exactly (it was probably 50 books ago easy), but I seem to remember that something happened at the end that changed my reading of the whole in a not entirely unpleasant way. It’s a lot like life, actually. You might think you know and understand something, someone, yourself even, then you receive information that makes you read the whole of the past anew.

I guess I lost my patience, though. It became tiresome to slog through something unpleasant with the faint hope that maybe, just maybe, something magical would happen at the end to imbue the whole experience with pleasure and meaning. It happens sometimes, but it’s rare. For a long time, I’ve had the bad habit of staying too long at the party, of trying to create meaning when perhaps there’s no material to work with, or not enough anyway.

Plus, sometimes the magical thing at the end is of the negative variety. This happened with My Sister’s Keeper and Atonement, two books I hate with “the white hot intensity of a thousand suns,” as Diane from Cheers once said of Sam. I felt grotesquely manipulated at the end of those two books though in different ways, and this made me angry.

My Sister’s Keeper was, I’m sorry, just stupid. I was irritated at the author’s blatant attempt to manipulate my emotions through her highly contrived ending. It was like she was trying to force me to come to a certain conclusion, and while this can be said of any and every writer, her attempts were so clumsily and transparently executed that I felt offended, actually, that she wasted my precious time with her foolishness. I mean, give me some credit! Don’t insult my intelligence! At least be artful about it, be sneaky. Something.

I liked Atonement well enough. Until the author pulled the rug out from under me at the end. That book actually made me terribly upset, sunk me into such a deep pit of despair at what I perceived to be the author’s statement on the complete absence of justice and meaning in the world (even if it’s true, who wants to hear that?!) that I had to quickly, quickly begin another book to wash the bad taste out of my soul. I needed more words, crafted to lead to an entirely different outcome, an entirely other view of the world, preferably of the light and humorous variety, to get me past the emptiness Atonement left me with. I wondered how in the hell this book became so popular. How did it not lead to mass depression, a rise in suicide rates and prescription drug usage? Maybe it did. Maybe the author was hired by the makers of Prozac or something.

Or perhaps I’m just out of touch with humanity.

Anyway. I’m off to the bookstore now. I’ll try (as always) to restrain myself—one book at a time, or at least one book of a given genre at a time. I keep lists, you know, of books that I might like to read next. I usually lose them, but then I take another trip to the bookstore, and—isn’t it something?—I find all new titles to tempt me.



Creative Crisis

October 9, 2009


Dearest Stella,

I miss you. As you’ve told me, you’re taking a break from the blog, and I feel your absence profoundly.

I have thought about writing all week. I have tried to write. Without you on the other end, I can’t remember how to put sentences together. Nothing feels right. Everything is jumbled. The tenuous writing contract with the self has once again been revealed.

When I write, I imagine you listening, and I let myself live in the fantasy, I suppose, that my words might mean something to you, that I might matter. This is the big difference between the Idea of Audience and a specific person to whom one writes.

One of the many things I love about you is that you listen in order to try to understand, not to fashion a tightly wound argument or to show off your knowledge of such and such. We talk and write to share and learn. You make me think; you keep me engaged with the work of living. I look forward to your blog posts like Christmas morning. What will you show me today about this world in which I live? What will you make me think about? What will you change about the day’s make-up so that I discover it anew?

Dawn has been trying to get her students to understand the power of a creative crisis. Seasoned writers know that crises are part of the work we do and that they are necessary for a writer’s growth. We are as much psychological warriors as we are craftsmen.

And yet, each crisis feels as if it is the end of the road, even though each one before felt like the end and it wasn’t.

This crisis, too, feels giant, irrevocable. Yet even as the questions loom— Will our project together end? Will I write again? I know I must find a way to keep this going. Without writing, I lose faith in the everyday moments of my life. The big questions become bigger, and they swallow me. What is the point of bartending if I’m not writing about it and trying to understand the bigger picture? If I am just working and sleeping and using the money from working to pay for the house and gas and electric in the house in which I sleep and then which I leave to go to work?

I have to believe that the everyday has meaning, or rather, I have to do the work of making it mean.

Or what then?

When I suffered from paralyzing depression a few years ago, and my “work” was trying to get out of bed or brush my teeth once a day, one of the things that happened is that the external world was stripped of its resonance. When I’m well and I look at a tree, for example, it’s not just the thing—“tree”—but a kind of visual echo-chamber set off by the particular shade of orange or the slight bow of branches or the bright or muted light that falls upon them. As Virginia Woolf showed us about words in “Passing Russell Square,” these echoes, or non-verbal associations, multiply endlessly. I can neither record nor even consciously articulate the echoes, nor would I necessarily want to. I suck them up like a sponge to water; they expand me on a cellular level, each cell coming alive, fat and succulent with echoes of a life richly lived.

Depression depletes the thing of its resonance. All that nourishment, all that dimension—gone. The thing is revealed as only the thing. Tree. No life attached. And not just the tree, everything—the mug that holds my tea, the faux leopard print blanket that cradles me on the couch, my own skin, others’ skin. Empty shells, hollowed out of meaning.

Let’s fast forward to now, after battling the abyss, after making learning how to Live (with a capital “L!”) my “work,” I re-gained access to the echo-chamber. Miraculous!

The catch, of course, is that the underbelly of nothingness is also always there. Once you see the world stripped bare, the image lingers. Once you see that meaning is an illusion, what then? Some never come back from the vision of nothingness. Sometimes they can’t; sometimes they choose “truth” over “illusion”; sometimes human activity appears too shallow to be re-engaged in. I choose illusion. But not in a Matrix-I-choose-the-blue-pill desire-to-be-ignorant kind of way. No, I choose the red pill and I choose the work of making something out of nothing. It’s the hardest challenge of my life; I could say it’s the challenge of my life.

So today, I choose to write, no matter how difficult. No matter how stupid or worthless it feels, no matter that today I write into the abyss, against the echo of your absence.

I want to let you know how important you are to me. Because I don’t think you know it. No, that’s not true. I think you know it, but I don’t think you get it. How much the world needs you.

All this is to say, take your time, my dear friend. I’m not going anywhere. I will be here to listen when you are ready to write. I believe in you. I believe in us and our Project. This is not just a blog or a book we are making, but our lives. And yours matters to me.


My dearest Stephanie,

I don’t agree with your co-worker either.

Surprise, surprise.

I very much doubt that you could desensitize yourself, but even if you could, how would that be helpful, to you or anyone else? Would it be helpful to become a shallow shell of yourself, of what you’re capable of? I just can’t believe it. In fact, I think it would be quite tragic. Your capacity for empathy is what (among so many other things) is beautiful and inspiring about you. Though I can see at times how it might also be like an auto-immune disorder where your body turns against itself, slowly destroying itself from the inside.

What to do?

Perhaps you remember that I volunteered at a nursing home a few years back. I wanted to give, to do something. I’d go in, read to the patients, and then go home a cry for a solid hour almost to the point of vomitting. God, it was so upsetting.

I’ll never, ever forget one woman who, when I entered her room, looked at me and wailed, “My daughter never comes to visit me. She lives so close, but she never comes. She told me she was going to come, but she didn’t. I asked her to, but she didn’t. Waaaa.”

Rule #3 was “don’t talk to patients about their families.” And you know me and rules, so I said, “Well I’m here now, and I’d like to read with you. Would you like that?”

The whole time, she was clutching a big, brown teddy bear. Substitute Baby Alive for the teddy bear, and I could just imagine my future.

It was emotional torture and probably a large part of why I stopped trying to quit smoking.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said to you when you noted, for the millionth time, that you don’t like my smoking. “But I don’t really need to live past, like, 60 or 65.”

“What’s the right way to take this?” you asked.

“Well I don’t have a death wish or anything. I just think longevity is over-rated.”

“Yes,” you said, “but when I imagined what we’d do in our 60s, I was imagining going on old-lady cruises, not visiting my friend Stella in the hospital hooked up to an oxygen tank.”

Haha. Good one. That made me laugh.

But seriously. I quit the nursing home.

For a long time, I felt so disappointed in myself. I couldn’t forgive myself. They don’t get to just stand up and walk out, I told myself. Why should you, you selfish fuck?

But still. I had to quit the nursing home.

I realize that I’m not going to save the world. I’m not going to stop time or triumph over death. I’m not going to bring about peace in the Middle East or end world hunger. I’m not going to find a cure for AIDS or cancer or heart disease. Nor will I cure depression or solve the financial crisis. I can’t even compel a single person to be more ethical or more kind or more courageous. Not unless that person really, really wants to in a deep committed place in him or herself.

Stop. Triumph. End. Cure. Solve. Compel. None of these verbs come close to what I can do, no matter how much I want to, no matter how earnestly I try.

The verb I favor is alleviate.

I’ve come to understand over the last year that some people like being around me. They don’t necessarily care to know me, for real—my interests, flaws, talents, potentialities. They just like having me around. They like that I smile and look them in the eye. They like that I say “please” and “thank you” and “have a great day.” They like that I take an interest in them even if they don’t take an interest in me. Maybe they feel my warmth, and it feels good to them.

Call in “the warm towel” effect.

I suppose I could call their interest in me mercenary, if I cared to.  I suppose it is, to some extent. It certainly drains me sometimes and leaves me with a deep sense of longing. But oddly, it doesn’t divest me of my good cheer and compassion. Maybe this is because I believe in each individual’s capacity for goodness (I really do, you know?). Maybe this is because I’ve found a way to translate these qualities into financial gain (i.e. big tips).

I think it’s terribly sad to lose the best part of yourself (for whatever reason), that part of yourself that can be open and real even when it’s hard and brings you pain. And usually, it does both because, in truth, really truly living means experiencing and surviving pain. Come to think of it, I do believe you’re the one who taught me that.

Surprise, surprise.

The thing I want to believe in the end is that my capacities for empathy and care and forgiveness alleviated someone’s suffering, even if it was just for one hour of one day, even if that suffering was, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant or (perhaps more to the point) inevitable. Maybe it’s the libertarian in me, but I’ve sort of lost interest in grand schemes. I’ve been called “too nice,” “too naïve,” “too innocent,” but I really don’t care. I only care that I hold onto my faith in the capacity for and value of a beautiful moment.

In this spirit, I decided to forgive myself. I’m not saying I don’t still get a little teary when I drive past the nursing home. But even though I couldn’t sustain it, for at least a moment, it made a difference.



The Empathy Problem

October 1, 2009

It seems the empathy problem has followed me to Hotel Bar. I thought I could lick it by ignoring the news, switching the channel during ASPCA commercials, and leaving teaching so I would no longer bring students’ problems home.

I have a delicate ecoskeleton. Unlike the cockroach, which can survive Armaggedon, one conversation with a person in duress and I wilt and crumble under the weight of their pain.

No matter that Susan Sontag says empathy (or sympathy, I believe) can actually be dangerous socially because it can trick us into believing we are doing something by feeling and keep us from acting.

My body doesn’t care for such logic, though, especially after eight hours of running around, sans food and water, when I am pushed to my mental and physical limits.

Many of Hotel Bar’s “guests” are visiting loved ones in the neighboring hospital. They stand out right away because of their tired, weary looks; often they slump over the table and look far into the distance. In contrast, university professors are engaged in lively discussion with other colleagues and businessmen look all too eager for conversation.

“I could buy two gallons of ice cream for the price of this one bowl of vanilla,” one mother said to her daughter and husband. It’s true, of course, the prices are outrageous. The next night the family was prepared. “I’d like the cheapest beer,” the dad said. He was angry from the start, but because I knew they were visiting his mother, who wasn’t doing well, instead of being annoyed I felt the empathy tug. Maybe it’s because I have no outlet for feeling here—there is no possible action feeling might lead to—that I became so focused on the ice cream. If only I gave them more ice cream. If only I didn’t charge them so much for it. I asked the other bartender if I was allowed to give them dessert on me.

“It’s a dangerous practice to get into,” he warned. “You’ll get in trouble, for starters, but more than that, you’ll feel this way a lot working here.” He told me about a woman who came to the bar every day while her husband was dying in the hospital. “She had 3 weeks left with him,” he said, “and I was the only person she could talk to. I felt like crying every day.”

“Pretend you’re a doctor,” he said. “You’ve got to desensitize yourself or you won’t survive.”

The story of my life, it seems. But I can’t desensitize and I’m not sure I would want to anyway, although I understand its value, believe me. I must be like this for a reason, though, right? True, I can feel things to the point of paralysis, but also, in the way the act of drawing makes one see subtle details in the world, feeling is my link to sight; through feeling, the world comes into sharp focus.

So, with the care and precision of a surgeon, I lay out the tools: fork, knife, spoon. I offer warm bread and creamy butter as a salve. Wine and vodka and lager are our anesthesia.

My regular, who has been coming for weeks now to visit her husband with “black lung,” tells me they put tubes in him today. I don’t know what tubes she’s talking about, but I know it can’t be good. There is nothing I can do for her, of course, so instead, I have her milk ready as soon as she sits down. I remember her burger is to be well done and that she likes mayonnaise and ketchup and ranch dressing. I exchange her ashtray for a clean one at least twice as she smokes. So that for at least an hour, during the only meal I know she will have all day, she can feel tended to.

And last night? After the man with Parkinson’s fell and hit his head against the floor, his wife watching helplessly from a distance?

Hours later, lying in bed, I could not stop crying. I thought about the margarita I had made for him. Was it good? Did he enjoy it? I could have made it better, couldn’t I have? Feeling is not enough, of course; Sontag is right. What good does it do to focus on the margarita?

What good is one small bartender crying in the dark for a stranger and his wife?