It seems there are so many threads to pull together for this piece to make any sense at all that I will never be able to slow the thoughts enough to convey the layers. Did I mention that this post is pot related?
First thing you have to understand is that I smoked pot every day of my life from the time I was fourteen to the time I was 34. I have said often that I was stoned out of my mind for twenty years and couldn’t figure out why my career was not taking off. Apparently some of the time even I’m not listening when I talk about myself.
In ‘98 I quit smoking pot and over the course of the next ten years I was diligent about saying, “No thanks, I’ve quit,” aloud whenever an offer was made as a means of reinforcing the idea in my own mind. Also, I had taken up Martial Arts training as a new way of fighting my depression and I was using that identity marker in lieu of the angry-stone-rebel thing I had been doing since high school.
Then, about six or seven years ago I was at a party celebrating an important milestone for a story telling show that I had become heavily involved in. One of the people who created that show had moved on to much bigger things, television staff writing, heading up writing departments and so on. I wanted to meet and impress her. As I was realizing that social anxiety was getting a hold of me, I started to make a round of party good nights and was waved over by a good friend, a successful famous comic whom I know. I told him I was leaving. He suggested that I stay. He introduced me to the very woman I had hoped to meet as a pipe slipped from his fingers to mine. I took a hit, thrilled to be at the cool kids’ table. And a few seconds later I blacked out in a bush. Three times. Because I used to be a comic.
The next day I went to the doctor about this. He said, “Some people can have a vasovagal reaction to pot. It makes them faint.”
I said, “But I used to smoke all day every day! I once had a dealer tell me ought to cut back a little bit.”
He said, “Yeah. I’ll bet there are a lot of things you used to be able to do that you can’t do anymore.”
A few months later I contacted the woman I had wanted to meet at that party and she agreed to lunch with me. We talked about the business. She asked me to do some free punch up on some scripts as a way of checking out my work. We’ve remained cordial and friendly over the years. She’s never hired me. I can’t really say that I blame her. The first time she met me, I melted into the nearby foliage. This is not the impression one wishes to make on those who can use you for regular, get-dressed-and-go-to-a-place-to-work kind of jobs.
About six months ago I went back into therapy to figure out how the hell I keep managing to sabotage my career. I get things going, it feels like there’s momentum and then I somehow manage to prevent myself from breaking through to any level of real success or – you know – making a steady living.
Now, the only therapy my insurance program covers is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If you’re not familiar with the various forms of therapy, if Freudian Therapy is Kodály approach to musical technique, and Jungian Depth Analysis is the Suzuki system then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is sort of like Professor Harold Hill’s Think System from The Music Man.
But my therapist likes to be part of the solution not part of the problem. So, while the insurance people say, “Take him for six weeks, find out what he’s thinking about when he gets sad and tell him to stop thinking about that,” she doesn’t hesitate to say, “Yeah. You know what? He could use another six weeks of reminders.” Then she and I can continue to do the actual therapeutic work at hand.
Now, there’s another show in town, another ultra-hip, high-end show that’s been around for a long-ass time and where I’ve never gotten to play. For years this has been a point of frustration for me, a feeling that the woman who runs it, a woman I like and respect didn’t think I was good enough or cool enough to play with her and her friends.
It only occurs to me now that in the days when I was stoned all the time, I may have behaved in any number of inappropriate ways that I failed to store in any of my swiss-cheesy drug-addled memory banks. I have literally no way of knowing.
A few months ago she finally tried to book me for a night that I was already booked elsewhere so I had to turn it down. Then finally she booked me for a gig and I was able to take the gig and plan to do her show next week.
This week I went to her show to be supportive and to see a couple of good friends perform. It was incredibly exciting to feel like I was finally considered a part of the group I think of as my peers.
I am so very excited to be a part of this show; I am goofily puppy-dog eager. I am also neurotically punctual and trust neither my navigation skills nor the cooperation of Los Angeles traffic. So I left my home early in jacket and tie. I arrived at a strip mall within walking distance of the venue. I parked. I realized it was still an hour and a half until showtime. I downloaded the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly to read while I waited.
After a while a couple of comics I’ve known for a long time showed up. I joined them. A friend offered me a hit of pot. I checked my neodapper, steam-punk pocket watch (a Galaxy S4 on a watch chain, my current affectation of choice) and found that I had at least a forty-five minutes before the start of the show I was here to see. I said, “Sure” and took the hit.
I think I stood up after a while to head inside, but I’m not certain of that. I know that I swam back from a parallel reality to realize that I was lying on the pavement with my friends standing over me, helping me up. I had cut my head a bit on the pavement and was bleeding some. At some point, somebody called the paramedics. I remember wondering if I should call my wife for moral support or my manager for damage control. I think I may have blacked out a second time for a moment or two, ‘cause there’s some vague time in there.
That happens when you’re rendered suddenly unconscious. I know this because, as a martial artist, I competed in full contact tournaments for a while very badly. In fairness to me, most of my losses were to twenty-somethings who spun around and spiraled up into the air to kick me in the head while I, in my forties, lumbered about the ring like a tranquilized bear. I digress.
Paramedics came and took my blood pressure and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said, “No thank you. I’m not going to hospital ‘cause I took a hit of pot and had a vasovagal reaction.”
And they said, “Well, sign this electronic, Captain Kirk clipboard acknowledging that you are aware that you could die,” as if that’s not something I’m aware of every day of my life already.
They went away and I went in to watch the show. An amazing show, by the way. Those who performed were spectacular. I feel largely like an ass for being a center of attention for a bit before the show.
Now: I was a embarrassed and humiliated in a way that turned part of me introspective AND I’d had a hit of pot good enough to make me black out. So even as I watched the show and turned some of my focus outward and laughed at some great work by some of my most genius peers, I was peeling back the layers of the experience.
Cognitive therapy is all about identifying behaviors and changing them, rather than figuring out the root causes of our issues or telling and retelling our stories. I mock it as an approach, but there’s something sort of down-home sensible about it and, after all, the band does perform at the end of the Music Man.
I’m in therapy to find out how I’ve been sabotaging my career. For twenty years I smoked pot and couldn’t figure out why my career wasn’t taking off. Now TWICE I had gotten involved in shows run by people I very much wanted to impress and the moment I felt I had been invited to the cool kids' table, I had taken a hit of pot and fallen down. The reasons can be sussed out later. Clearly the behavior has to change. I must not ever smoke pot any more at all.
That both of the people I most wanted to impress were smart, talented, beautiful women is an important detail to be dealt with in therapy as well, but is not, I think, pertinent to the particular aspects of this story I seek to highlight here.
The clarity of the realization that my pot smoking days must be declared forever and officially over was painful. The pattern of drug use as self-sabotage seemed troublingly human and sad and so, so very obvious. All the layers unfolded in front of me like onion petals once the skin is peeled away; the stench of my frailty stung so badly I wanted to cry.
The show ended and I had to get to my car. I was wholly sober now, running through the night’s events with my rekindled, resettling intellect. I blasted Butch Walker and allowed myself to be alone with my thoughts, to give them words and texture examine the nuances.
I knew I would have to write it all out as a blog post. My wife would be asleep by the time I got home. She has to get to work in the morning and there is no possible way she would appreciate me waking her up and saying, “Honey! Honey! Honey! I took a hit of pot tonight and now I understand everything!”
Three days a week or so, I go to the park to teach martial arts to my only current student. On Thursday, February 26th, 2015 I arrived about twenty minutes early. I had a bit of friendly conversation with a young couple who were sharing a joint and then I tied on my black belt and sat cross legged in the grass with the sunlight pouring over me. In my black master’s uniform, the warmth clung to me and seeped in through cotton and flesh and muscle to warm my marrow.
A few feet behind me, a tree whose name I do not know, scratched and rattled with the sound of squirrels at play. I listened to the squirrels. I listened to my breath. I pretended to meditate as I often do when I wish to meditate but believe I have forgotten how, or never really knew to begin with. I listened to my breath, but I heard the squirrels.
I heard the soft isping breath of a squirrel very close to me and I opened my eyes to glance down in time to see a bushy grey blur vanish from my periphery. I wished that I had had the discipline to keep my eyes closed, to let the sound of the squirrel and my awareness of its presence be enough. I steered my focus back to my breath and decided to do better. A minute or two later I was almost certain I heard the squirrel – I was quite certain it was the same squirrel, though I realize now that I can’t know that for sure. It had come near again. I heard its very stillness, then I heard its soft speech as it muttered to itself and examined the ground a foot or two away. I kept my eyes closed and listened to my breath as much as I could so that the squirrel would remain unobserved. I wanted it to feel safe enough to examine me. I made myself a sort of Schrodinger’s statue, neither art nor reality, needing to be explored for certainty, hoping the squirrel might walk to me, might walk on me. Thinking of it, a light smile played across my lips and I realized that I was supposed to maintain a light smile when meditating or pretending to meditate.
I began to write a story in my head. The Accidental Meditator, would be a man who pretended to meditate until he drifted into a relaxed and happy state and in that state he held still and breathing as a squirrel climbed to his shoulder. Enjoying that proximity he might think to himself that, while he might never learn to meditate properly, he was certainly enjoying this moment and the comradery, so he would hold still and at least the squirrel would get a comfortable and safe place to be for a while.
As I thought this, I heard heavier, human footsteps a little distance away from me on the grass. I kept my eyes closed, reminding myself that there was really very little likelihood of danger from whomever it was and I very much wanted to be perceived as a disciplined meditator. I watched that thought come and go with mild amusement.
In my imagined story, a man walked past my hero in much the same way. My hero, Thomas, he seemed to be named, heard him do so, heard him stop and then heard him move on. Thomas did not know, though, that the man had snapped a photo with his phone. He had snapped a photo of a man in a park meditating, apparently unaware of the squirrel on his shoulder.
The photo would be uploaded. It would go viral. The story was swiftly becoming a novel. The photo would become a meme before Thomas was aware of it. Meantime, he returned to the park every day now. The squirrel joined him regularly, ran across his lap one day, nested in his hair the next.
Eventually people began sitting with Thomas while he meditated and the squirrel brought friends. The people who sat still enough sometimes found themselves joined by squirrels.
People began asking Thomas for advice. Thomas would not understand why this was happening until one of the people made him aware of his internet presence, his odd sort of burgeoning fame. A spirituality grew up around him with which he was not at all comfortable. He gave advice as best he could when asked, tried to remain thoughtful and present, but the demands increased and a friend saw the potential for profit.
Others would see him as a threat, accuse him of some kind of spiritual fraud, FOX News hosts would berate him, misquote him.
Thomas became a small center of attention, speaking, holding seminars, making money, growing anxious . . .
A novel. Crap. The whole thing was reeling together in my mind as I listened to my breath in the park, in the warmth. Each scene led to another and I could not imagine when I might make the time to get it all onto the page. Sometimes I fear that I have forgotten how to write or that I never really knew to begin with. Other times, it seems as though it is all I know how to do and I will never have the time to get it all done.
The squirrel, whose name I did not know, still moved about the grass near me, exploring, eating, curious and hungry.
My student said, “Good afternoon, Sir,” and I was a bit startled as I emerged from my state.
I said, “Good afternoon.”
We spoke a few more words of greeting and then a man with a tiny grey dog on a leash approached.
One of the great benefits of training in a park rather than a studio is that people with dogs happen by and breaks can be taken to meet dogs. I like dogs a lot. So does my student.
The man with the dog said, “I watched you meditating.”
I met the dog. Her name was Bella. My student met Bella.
The man said, “I used to meditate. I had a thing in my shoulder. There was – anyway, I was in a lot of pain and I used to meditate a little. It’s good. I think it helped.”
My student and I had finished meeting Bella the silky-terrier now, but the man was still talking to me. What he wanted seemed apparent, though he hadn’t said it. I hadn’t intended on starting the session this way, but there was no harm in it.
I told my student to sit down. He said, “Yes, sir,” and complied.
I told the stranger to sit down. He complied. I growled and said, “No. Say, ‘yes, sir.’” He complied with that as well. It was subtle but it was deliberate. The ‘yes, sirs,’ have a psychological effect. They inform one internally that authority is granted, that a level of trust is established.
I talked my student and the man through one of the basic guided meditations I have developed over the years. I focused them on their breath, reminding them of their ability to listen to their breath and still hear my voice. Bella curled up in contact with the man, feeling safe in his presence.
I created imagery about time and light, confidence and the unknown for them to follow. I let them become their own light at the center of an experience. I reminded them, as they listened to the darkness behind their eyes, that the future is always invisible until they arrive to shine light into it, to learn what is there when they are present. I told them to open their eyes. I told them to stand up. I nodded to the man and told him to go away so that I could teach.
He did not. He thanked me for the meditation. He hugged me awkwardly. He told me he needed that. He told me that he had been married for twenty-five years and that his wife was leaving him. He told me that neither of them had cheated and that somehow that made it worse. I told my student to warm up and begin stretching without me. The man continued to talk. He is almost fifty, he told me. His wife is pretty much the only –
His story rambled. His eye contact never broke. I listened as my student, beyond the man but in my line of sight, began practicing a form. Seeing him about to turn right when he should turn left, I put a finger up to the stranger and said, “excuse me.” Then I shouted, “Other hand!” to my student and returned focus to the man in need.
As he spoke, he revealed pain and wounds far greater than I could treat, but at that moment, I was all he had, so I stayed. I wanted to cut him off, to send him away at once. More than that, though, I wanted to set a good example for my student. So I stayed, shouting occasional corrections or words of encouragement past the man to my student.
When I felt the desire to silence him, to make him stop sharing his pain with me, I simply listened to my breath, to the chitter and shake of the tree nearby. I could listen to the living world and still hear his voice. I tried to be a sprocket-post for him, to allow him to re-wrap his unreeling story about my stillness as he spoke.
A great many thoughts had drifted by, bookmarking themselves for later examination. This, I thought, is how my student should perceive his Master. I seem caring and patient. I seem empathetic and more interested in doing what is right in the circumstance than what is scheduled or anticipated. I still had moments of irritation with this stranger whose needs demanded me, but I could at least appear to be the man I most want to be. I could be still and present and let this happen.
When the man seemed to be at a loss for further personal details to reveal, I reminded him that he was going to be okay. I offered conversational reference to images from the meditation. I asked his name. It was Sean. I wished him well a moment later and he walked away.
My mind sought stillness in a synaptic tempest. The novel about Thomas and his discomfort with his role as a spiritual leader continued to build, scene after scene, image after image, pressing against the inside of my skull and murmuring assurances that it would have time to be written eventually, that I could do that a bit at a time, that it would all come to the light of the page in proper order.
The small man with a grey lawn of short hair and his grey rodent-sized companion walked off across the grass. They reminded me of something, but I could not quite figure out what it was. There was some connection my mind wanted to make, wanted me to see, but I was too dense to find it.
The squirrels had retreated into the tree, chittering and chasing.
My student awaited my attention and I turned it to him, pretending to be a Master, which is what I do when I fear I have forgotten how, or never knew in the first place.
Taylor Negron first made me laugh in the late eighties. As house MC at Krissy Frances’ Hollywood Comedy Room I brought him up on stage. I was young enough then that the seven or eight year difference between us made him seem wildly more grown up than I, made him seem far more knowledgeable than I. In many ways, he was.
He had been in the film Punch Line, a film of which I has seen a pre-release screening, a film I resented deeply for its inaccurate depiction of the comedy world, its perpetuation of the mythology that comedy gets better when we throw away our material and improvise, for treating comedy as a sport right down to the inclusion of scenes in the comedy club’s locker room. That’s right. If you haven’t seen the film in a while you may have forgotten: at the comedy club in Punch Line, the comics all hang out and get ready for their show in the locker room.
Taylor had a part in that film and I hated that film, so I resented Taylor because I imagined that actors with small parts in major motion pictures should take the writers and directors to task for their errors in accuracy or turn down the roles on principle. Did I mention that I was very, very young?
Whenever Taylor came in to do a set there was a little bit of a buzz in the greenroom – in which, by the way, there were not any lockers – because he had been in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and now he was in Punch Line which was about to be released so he was one of the big kids, like Rick Overton or Barry Sobel. He was one of the guys who were on their way and soon to be huge stars. Because I resented him over Punch Line, I waited in the club owner’s office and didn’t watch his set the first couple of times that he was in. I was gracious, friendly. He was gracious, friendly. But I didn’t bother watching what he was doing because I was a passive-aggressive asshole.
Then one night as I performed my opening set I noticed him sitting in the room watching and laughing and afterward he told me I was funny so I warmed to him considerably. I stuck around when he went on stage. I remember almost nothing from his set, but I remember the laugh he got from me that opened me up and allowed me to fall in love with his work. He said, “A woman approached me – no. She accosted me after a show a few days ago. She told me that she liked my work as a conversational opening gambit and then listed her screen credits as though she had learned them in Catechism Class. I smiled through it all encouragingly and I refrained from asking her where one purchases perfume that smells of cocaine and delusion.”
The joke was so different from anything I had ever heard in that club, from anything I had heard in any club, really, that I found myself drawn in, listening to every word, enjoying his set without analyzing it. He turned me from a cynical comic into an audience member and a fan with that one set, that one night.
A week later – maybe a month. I don’t know. I was stoned and my sense of time from those days is distorted. All my memories stretch and ooze like a landscape seen through an ice-glazed pane. Some blurry time later he saw one of my sets and I saw one of his sets and then he came up to me outside the club as I was smoking pot with a few of the other comics and he said quietly into my ear, with great urgency, “They’ll tell you talent will prevail, but that’s like ‘the truth will out.’ It’s a lie. Don’t believe it.”
I was stoned and young and wondering if there was a punchline I had missed in the words so I said, “What?”
Then he said, “Beware the black tower!” and stalked off down Santa Monica Boulevard leaving me with the sense that he was the wise madman in an adventure fantasy novel, spouting prophesy that would make no sense until sometime later.
When I had a meeting at Universal a season or two after that and asked over the phone if someone would direct me to the right building, the guy said, “You can’t miss it. It’s the black tower.” Then I believed that Taylor was in fact a wise madman from an adventure fantasy novel. Recalling that meeting, I realize that I should have heeded his cryptic warning
A few years ago, when I started doing long-form storytelling, my path started crossing Taylor’s frequently again. He sat down with me one night at Muse Café when it was still up next to the Hudson Theater. We talked briefly about that long-defunct club of Krissy’s.
Then we talked about Sit n Spin, about NPR, I learned about his paintings and he asked me about my play and the difference in our ages seemed so small. We were colleagues who could respect one another. We were both subtextually disappointed with the nature of our own success and impressed with one another’s accomplishments. I told him the line I remembered of his that had made me laugh all those years before. He said, “I don’t think I ever said that. I think you made that up.”
I said, “It doesn’t much sound like me.”
He said, “No. I think I said something on stage and then you made up a joke in my voice.”
Then he told me a joke he claimed was one of mine that I do not remember.
Memory is odd. Now, already, the mischievous smile, the delighted laugh, and those long-fingered hands that seemed designed for the articulation of the luxuriant gesture become phantom impressions, as much imagined as remembered. The impressionist brush strokes of my perception replace the hard-cheeked reality of a man I loved more than the extent of our acquaintanceship justifies. I have come to suspect, though I cannot know, that he felt much the same way about me. As beautiful as a fiction may be, however lovely the lies that calcify into fossil replacements for lost moments, I suspect none can be more beautiful or more lovely than the man about whose frail and fallen form they are wrapped.
My vision becomes warped, distorted, blurred . . . forgive me. I am allergic to sentiment.
A poem for the occasion:
As we age
and let us hope we do,
we come to know the dying;
we come to grieve the dead.
Solemnities slip by
like sweet and salty
soft serve summer days
when lemonade stand fantasies
of fortunes gripped in tiny hands
dissolve to condensation
bright beneath our eyes.
Slow drops distort and magnify,
a clear trail, then sublimate to nothing,
a diagram of transience traced in transparency.
After every hot house comfort
has been peddled out to wilting,
the chairs and tables folded down,
leaned aside, some weep; some smile
a final crowfoot-wrinkled thought to silence
then living on, together
walk back up the waking aisle
to see the low-slant sun
and feel the first chill
to presage another fall
in nature’s golden leaving.
I put up a new set of Easter shirts for sale at Cafe Press a few days ago. Then I went to see if anyone had ordered any and found out that the image has been flagged as inappropriate. I can't imagine why. I've sent them an e-mail but I have strong doubts that they will respond saying, "our bad. We're stupid," which is the only accurate and honest response they could have. The image is this:
I will work on getting it straightened out so that you can order one in time for Easter. I apologize for the delay.
Finally! A clothing that says, "I am socially conscious AND too hip for the room!" Get yours today before it's passe. Click here to order yours now!
I do not believe in magic. I want to, but I do not. Even when I was a practicing druid, I thought of the rituals I performed as manipulations of psychological and scientific principles. When friends tell me I should have a vision board, I tell them that I have a picture of a vision board and am waiting for an actual vision board to manifest. Still, I think humans are somehow hardwired to seek out ways in which thought and action might influence outcomes by directly affecting unseen forces and energies.
Several years ago, I performed at a fund-raiser in a huge, beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills. After the show and the schmoozing and the flattery from high-powered, high-end audience members, I found James Cromwell hanging out near the door, handing people glossy post-cards to promote his upcoming solo-show. James Cromwell has won an academy award as best supporting actor in a film in which the star was a talking pig. There was something both reassuring and disheartening about seeing an actor of such stature doing the same sort of self-promotion that I hate doing for my own career.
I tried not to make eye contact, because I did not want a post card, but he told me I had been funny that evening, so I had no real choice but to engage. The conversation quickly shifted to the subject of his show, the person on whose life it was based, the playwright with whom he had worked. I could not properly focus on anything Mr. Cromwell said to me because I had fixated on his nose. James Cromwell has a magnificent nose. Somehow, as he spoke, his nose took on the aspect of an interactive sculpture or the knot on an ancient tree that a druid might have touched to commune with the wisdom of the forest or have marked to create a guide point in the wilderness. It became imperative that I touch his nose. I may have cut him off mid-sentence to say, “Excuse me. I know this will sound odd, but may I touch your nose?”
James Cromwell laughed a deep, avuncular laugh and said, “Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Sure.” So I touched his nose and felt that somehow a spell had been broken. I was able to converse with him for a few minutes before walking to my car and driving home, feeling oddly connected to this man who had been handing out postcards after my performance.
I did not know that my psyche held a level of Obsessive Compulsivity that might be triggered by such an action. Over the ensuing weeks I found myself needing to touch the noses of people with whom I conversed. It did not happen in every conversation. It occurred only when I felt awkward or uncomfortable, embarrassed or intimidated in some way. I always asked first and almost everyone I asked acceded to the odd request. A few did not. One woman said, “Face touching? Really?” A person who books a comedy club that I don’t particularly want to work at any more said, “You shouldn’t do that. It’s weird.” Most people though, the vast majority, accepted my request as an endearing if unusual quirk.
I did not accept it as such. When people refused to let me touch their noses, I found myself incapable of letting it go. I resented them and found myself touching my fingertips to my thumb, imagining touching their noses. I felt rejected and disrespected and demeaned and angry. I worried that instead of becoming known as a humorist and story-teller, I would come to be known as that guy who touches everyone’s noses. I feared the compulsion would be with me forever and would ruin my life.
I created a psychological manipulation to give myself a bit of solace. I decided that eventually I would meet James Cromwell again and would close the circuit. Once I did so, I determined arbitrarily, a metaphysical web would be created, connecting all those whose noses I had touched, opening them to a great, cosmic force, granting them all great luck and good fortune. I would not be a part of that web, of course because, while I do not believe in magic, I know that it must not be performed with selfish intent.
While this did not immediately free me of the need, at times, to touch the noses of people with whom I interacted, it did allow me the comfort of knowing that I would not be troubled by the need for the rest of my time on earth. Surely eventually I would happen upon James Cromwell once more and he would chuckle his deep chuckle and I would touch his nose and the ordeal would end in a flash of human contact.
Last weekend I had to fly to New York for the 100th birthday of my miniature Aunt Sylvia. I took the least expensive round trip flight I could find for the trip, so I wound up with a layover in Dallas. On the first leg of the first flight I began to develop a powerful anxiety about the party. I would be surrounded by extended family whom I had never met. I would see my parents and my older sister all of whom can be powerfully judgmental. This sort of circumstance could well trigger a compulsion to touch a nose or twelve and it was not a crowd amongst whom this was likely to go unremarked-upon or to be entirely accepted as adorably eccentric.
By the time I’d reached the Dallas airport I was in a panicky tailspin.
The Dallas airport has a store that sells cowboy hats and suede vests and cowboy boots because, apparently, people flying into Dallas sometimes want to immediately adopt the affected costume of the locale. Standing at the entrance to this airport shop, I saw in silhouette, James Cromwell. I felt a rush of relief and a sense that the universe was protecting me from my own worst impulses. I approached at once and said, “Excuse me.”
The person who turned to me was not James Cromwell at all. The person who turned to me was a very tall, supremely unattractive woman with James Cromwell’s nose. What had been magnificent on James Cromwell was, on this woman, problematic. I saw her pain at once. Her eyes held the anticipation of revulsion and rejection, the expectation of derision. This was a woman who saw the sadness in a sunset, the dark that swallows every day. I smiled at her, undeterred.
I decided that this would do. If I could create the psychological trick that would allow me to close the circuit when next I saw James Cromwell, I could create a new psychological trick that would allow me to close the circuit when next I saw his nose. I said, “I know this will sound odd but may I touch your nose?”
The woman cocked her head to the side, taking me in like a bird studying the ground for edible bits and said, “I don’t see why not.” So I reached up and touched my fingertip to her nose tip. Rather than just touching it and moving on though, I took an extra moment. I closed my eyes and imagined the great web that I had created over the past few years of nose-touching. I imagined strands of metaphysical connector lighting up with energy at the closure of the circuit. I hoped to feel a flash of something magical, but I did not.
I thanked the woman and she said I was welcome, though that may have been commitment to a social contract more than open invitation.
During the party at my aunt’s apartment on the Upper East Side, I had a conversation with a second cousin once removed or a first cousin twice removed. I’m not sure. She’s some kind of numbered removable cousin. I had never met her before and she asked me what I do for a living. I told her that I am a humorist and storyteller. She said, “Is that actually a thing that a person can do?” She said it with a kind of disbelief that made me feel small and defensive. I nodded, rather than taking what seemed like obvious bait. She talked about her son and his law practice but I did not listen. I was just aware of how little interest I had in touching her nose. She talked and I listened in a disconnected, detached sort of way until my father came over and put an arm around me and muttered, “How are you doing?” in a way that told me this was not his favorite relative and he could tell I was being tolerant.
On the way home the next day I had another Dallas layover. It turns out the tall woman works at the airport store for those who wish to assaholically assimilate. She stood in the same entryway, taking in the passing passengers. She looked very different today. She smiled at people as they passed. Her nose was significantly less Cromwellian now. Where she had craned her head forward yesterday, seeming to separate her identity from her body and accentuating the beakiness of her visage, today she seemed to live in her body. A fog of misery and anticipated misery no longer enveloped her. As I approached I said, “Don’t you look lovely today!”
I took in her smile. I took in her joy. I could imagine a man who was into really tall women being immediately attracted to her, courting her, wooing her, adoring her, enchanted. She said, “You touched my nose!”
I said, “Yes! Yes, I did.”
She said, in a softer, almost secretive voice, “What did you do to me?”
I allowed myself to grin at her and matched her tone as I said, “Magic.”
She said, “I thought so . . . but I was afraid to believe.”
I flew home on cushions of air. I do not believe in magic but nothing makes a person feel more powerful or more joyous than the knowledge that by his own action, a curse has been broken.
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What Makes Her My Great Aunt
One summer, in my young adulthood, I stayed in the guest room of my miniature Aunt Sylvia. I call her my miniature Aunt Sylvia, but she is actually my Great Aunt. As aunts go, she really is great, but she is also a very, very small human. I am convinced that she is the prototype on which George Lucas based the character of Yoda. She is tiny and wise and unforgivably adorable.
I don’t remember how I wound up staying in her guest room for the summer. I don’t know if I didn’t want to be in my parents’ apartment or if they didn’t want me there, if it was my idea or if Sylvia suggested it. All I know is that at a time in my life when I desperately needed to feel independent, but was not at all prepared to live independently, Aunt Sylvia opened her home to me. She accepted me warmly and I treated her home as my hotel in the callous, unthinking way that only a young, self-certain college student can. I’m sure I was rude and insensitive in any number of ways. I know I repeatedly borrowed twenties from her, always promising to pay it back and genuinely believing that I would do so very soon. I was absolutely sure that fame and the fortune I erroneously believed would automatically accompany it, awaited me. This would allow me to repay all the accumulated twenty-dollar loans from my great and tiny aunt, a forty-dollar poker debt to a college friend and any number of other small debts accrued over the years.
Even as I borrowed money, I spent unwisely. I bought pot regularly, a habit I later learned served as self-medication against fairly severe depression. I often took cabs rather than utilizing public transportation and, while I pretended that I did this because I tended to run late, in truth it was part of a pretense of financial comfort, a conviction that if I behaved as though I was doing very well, real success would rush in to meet me.
I cannot for the life of me place the exact date, find any surety as to whether this was all during the summer that I was the Stage Manager at the Light Opera of Manhattan or the summer that I interned at the Dramatists Guild, Xeroxing and reading submissions for their Young Playwrights Competition. Maybe those were the same summer. I do know it was a time of grinding poverty for me, made endurable by the beautiful, rent-free living conditions provided by Aunt Sylvia and her Upper East Side hospitality. She had a housekeeper who made my bed and did my laundry along with Sylvia’s in that apartment that my aunt had owned and occupied for so long that her phone number began “SA7.”
I fantasized that someday I would be as old as she, an age that is just twenty-years or so away now, and that I would have a guest room to spare. I imagined that I might grow up to be as generous of spirit as she was, as kind, as nurturing as she could be in her supremely practical, unsentimental way. I imagined that this was what a decent grown-up looked like. Only, you know, taller.
I could see her decency and could imagine developing it, but I had no idea how to exhibit it, how to emulate it. I was too young to have proper empathy for another human being, too self-involved to open myself to even the imagining of another person’s perspective.
Sylvia was seventy then and had been a clinical psychologist since the forties, as near as I can figure it. Maybe even since the thirties. I think her first book was published in 1950 and I know several years went into preparing that manuscript. A nineteen or twenty-year old man-child, I never explored what this meant in terms of professional development and personal self-determination for a small woman operating in a powerfully patrician pre-feminist culture.
I stayed with her for a couple of months in the mid-eighties, a time of self-indulgence and conspicuous opulence. I worked in the arts and attended an expensive college steeped in traditions of demonstrative liberalism and the kind of free thought that is possible only for those affluent enough to have free time and to believe, because their parents are the ones paying for it, that in a capitalist culture even time and thought might actually be free.
I could not imagine what it was for Sylvia to come into her adulthood during a national depression. I could not see past my own day-to-day experience, my own egotistical endeavors and my secret fears of personal inadequacy to know how arrogant and stupid and selfish I must surely have appeared to this lovely woman who gave me a home and a safe place to return to in the wee hours when I was finished smoking with my friends, discussing our bright futures and undeniable talents.
Many years later, after I had graduated college and moved to Los Angeles where I had taken still more time to turn into anything like a self-sufficient grown-up, I visited her on a trip to the East Coast. She welcomed me and I drank coffee in that big apartment on the Upper East Side.
It had been at least fifteen years since that summer when I stayed with her, probably closer to twenty. Still, something had been on her mind since that time and she asked me about it. She told me that once I had asked her for twenty dollars and she had given it to me. She did not say, “loaned,” but I remembered with a wince that I had thought of every one of those twenties as a loan, had marked each one carefully in a notebook that also contained bits of poetry and lyrics and jokes for my nascent stand-up act. She said that after handing me this twenty she had chanced to look out through the window of that high-up apartment and had seen me, far beneath her, hailing a cab. It had troubled her deeply, to see me spending so freely when clearly I had no money to spare. She had felt taken advantage of – though that is my inference and not something she said; she had felt cheated, conned, an enabler of ill-considered spend-thriftery.
I tried to explain to her that I had been deeply invested in a pretense of prosperity, that I had genuinely believed that if I just behaved as though I was wealthy, everything would work out okay for me. I was fairly sure that she did not understand how such a belief system could exist; the idea was wholly foreign to her experience of the world, as baffling to her as the piety of true, faithful religiosity is to me when I encounter it. I hoped that, at the very least, she had understood that I was no longer that young, unthinking, uncaring man, and that I had grown into a responsible adult, but the impression created all that time ago was probably far too strong to be so easily corrected. I suspect that in order to withhold any indication of judgment about the incident so troublingly remembered, she retreated into the habitual psychiatric detachment techniques of her profession.
Recently I received an e-mail inviting me to my Miniature Aunt Sylvia’s 100th birthday party in New York. I mulled it over all day while my wife was at work. I came up with lists of justifications for travelling East to the celebration. The truth is, it is not travel I can easily afford, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I feel an affection for this woman, a real love that is not quite reasonable given the amount of actual time I’ve spent in her presence over my lifetime. She was kind to me when I was young and frightened. I have not seen her in quite a while. I wanted to go, but I wanted to have my end of the conversation fully prepared before bringing it up to my wife who is, by nature, far more frugal than I.
When Nancy got home I opened with a simple statement of fact. I said, “There’s going to be a 100th birthday party for my Miniature Aunt Sylvia.”
Nancy said, “Well, you have to go to that!”
I felt relieved and loved and taken care of. I threw away the complex arguments, the rationalizations. I said, “Yeah. Also, I want to.”
She said, “Book the flights. We’ll figure it out.”
She wasn’t even thinking about the money. Her only concern was how she’d manage to get home from school in time to walk the dogs while I was away.
I worried about what I could give to this century-old woman as a birthday gift. She has done quite well for herself over the years. Her apartment on the Upper East side alone has to be worth at least a few hundred thousand dollars and as far as I know she’s still working and writing and providing for herself. I couldn’t think of what she might need or want that I might be able to present.
I made calls to book an East coast gig to coincide with the trip, a gig that might allow me to write off the expense of travel. It occurred to me that this was the sort of sensible, financial thinking of which Sylvia might approve. I wondered how the timing would be in terms of getting from the party to a performance venue if I booked something on the same night. I considered whether I’d have time to do public transportation or if I’d need to take a cab. I knew, quite suddenly, what I had to give Aunt Sylvia and I chuckled at my own stupidity for not having thought of it sooner.
I dug through the closet in my office. I pawed through old journals and note-pads until I found the one with the right coffee ring on the cover, the one with the numbers written in it by a much younger me, long, long ago.
On the 17th of this month, I will travel to New York for the 100th birthday of my Great Aunt Sylvia. Now half her age, I will present to her the only gift I can think of that might have any real meaning. Having grown up the best that I knew how, I will give her an envelope into which I have tucked the full amount owed: one-hundred and eighty dollars borrowed in twenty-dollar increments over the course of a summer when I was young, and stupid, and she was a trusting, seventy-year-old girl.