Jan 8, 2009

A close friend was laid off today. I went to see him. His lover was out of the country, to visit her mother. My friend's apartment was in shambles, as though to say, "It's not that I haven't thought about cleaning up, or that I haven't tried, or even that there's just no point — because everything I was or am or ever will be is a mess. I don't really believe that about myself, although I may say it. No, this chaos is simply to suggest that I have less and less interest in place and time. I'm not thinking much about the material world anymore."

The one piece of art in the room is a tall, oil painting, maybe 4 feet high by 3 feet, a parody of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. But details are missing: there is no barn next to the farm house as in the original, and this in not meant to be the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, nor even in Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvannia, where Wyeth did so many paintings. That's a small irony as it turns out. Nor is this a paraplegic's world, not in the strict sense. And this "Christina" is looking not at the farm house but over her shoulder, at us. And it's not Christina at all but Patty Hearst, wearing a beret. It's Patty Hearst's world, in the Spring of 1974, when she sought refuge with SLA friends in a little hamlet 25 miles from Scranton, in northwest, Pennsylvannia. The painting, itself, is a reminder to my friend of better times, those years ago when he could rough house through his world, and optimism was 10 cents a barrel.

So now all these years later we sit among debris in his apartment, eating pizza, letting the gin run down, whiling away his pain, and watching the national championship. Between downs we discuss how the Internet is a forlorn opportunity; how perhaps information itself will cease to be collected or analyzed for a time; how disconnected people are from each other, "the habit of disconnection" we call it; how difficult it is at 60-years old to keep on reinventing yourself, particularly when you are a writer — in an age when even a thoughtfully worked opinion has no monetary value and no matter how good you are the long tail is not nearly enough to live on.

We also discuss Tebow and Bradford, the stars of the evening. My friend has an aversion to Tebow's Christian roots, his 'baby-in-a-basket-floating-down-the-Nile' story, and his Christlike appeal to sportcasters and "anyone who has spent five minutes with him." My friend much prefers Bradford, the everyman, with Asian eyes, who hasn't saved anybody or lived an exotic life, who in his early 20s is just a kid with a great arm who gets it done. My friend respects that, the anonymity, the blue collar heroism (and the blue collar blues), the quiet competence, rather than all the matinee-idol folderol.

For my part I like Tebow; I like his charisma and his confidence. I like his ferocity and left-hand-is-the-dreamer drive. I even like his anger and we discuss that as well, how men are so angry and why that is. "I don't see you as angry," my friend says to me and I'm thinking how even after all these years we don't know each other well, and even now, even after acknowledging the need to be connected, I can't. I won't. I'd rather watch Tebow punish a free safety.

Meanwhile, my friend's friends call to say how sorry they are to hear the news. Someone from the company calls to say they can't believe it: how is it possible they did this to you? What's going on in the world? They go on and on about how much pain they are in now to hear this.

My friend is nearly weeping at this outpouring. My friend who has nurtured and supported people no end, who has saved my life twice, who, in fact, is more like Tebow in temperament than Bradford, and who is now saddled with the thought that he has double-failed. By being laid off he has not only failed himself and his children, he has caused someone else genuine pain. We go through that. I tell him it's nonsense, don't get carried away. Don't.

Meanwhile, Tebow is taking over the game. At one point he rolls out to his left, and, on the run, throws a ball right on the mark, between defenders, to the only coordinates where the ball can be caught. I marvel at the beauty of it; at the excellence, at the hope in that ball.

I am aware of my sentimentality. My mind devours the sight, and you would say, for lack of something more nutritious.

Still, as time runs out, the victory is compelling. Tebow has come from behind, overcome two picks and willed his way and the team's way to victory. Meanwhile, Bradford can't even get on the field and when he does, his go-to man catches a big-down ball twenty yards down the field, only to have it ripped out of his hands and intercepted by a safety.

Tebow has a way of surviving in the jungle. Bradford, for all of his sheer talent, and he has amazing numbers tonight, even with his Heisman he gets lost. He is not quite up to the challenge and yet It's nothing to do with him really: it's just the night and the loaded-craps odds of an interception at the goal line, and another goal line stand that shouldn't have been. What can you say?

What can you say, other than now the day's doldrums are complete. For my friend: lost game, lost job. Not-a-Through-Street signs wherever you look. I look at him out of the corner of my eye, his gray hair sailing through his fingers, shaking his head, eyes at the TV, you can hear the defeat-mechanism humming away, he looks as lost as I can only imagine that paralyzed Japanese fisherman must have felt, the one who fell off his boat the other day trying to catch a squid and treaded water for 15 hours until help arrived.

And yet it turns out the fisherman never doubted he'd be found. His friends said later they never worried. He had no defeat mechanism. He was in the moment and so survived.

"I'll give it two months," my friend says. "I have enough to make it that far. But if I don't... well then it's done. It's just done."

I do not follow up. I don't ask what 'done' means. I put my glass down on the counter. Better the ambiguity than a junniper-berry threat that either invites self-ridicule the next morning or worse sets off a reliable fuse.

But later I'm left with the warning. What do I need to take from that? What's the danger here?

"We'll start again tomorrow," I say returning the hug and going out the door, believing myself as much as I can.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

How can I put into words what this piece did for me? It brought all the news and the reports into perspective.

We have come to a place where all of us are standing up with Scarlett O'Hara and saying,"I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."