REVIEW: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Few books encourage me to take longer and longer to digest them the more I read. This is one of them. I managed to get this one done in about a year. I tried to drain the beast dry.

Revolutionary-road-cover

The “Greatest Generation” and their lives in the 50s and 60s are often idealized in popular culture, but not here. The book introduces the characters with a play-within-a-play device that works remarkably well throughout. Everyone is ham-handedly trying the roles they’ve grasped or been assigned in life — and failing miserably. The overwhelming oblivion of the character’s empty lives bangs on like the insistent, lame drumming of Steve Kovick and his klutzy combo at Vito’s Log Cabin. Yates gives us no one to root for. Not even the lounge musicians are granted a air of easy-going belonging and competence.

My thrice-married father was a product of that generation. His martini-quaffing, suit-hat-and-tie-wearing, Chrysler Saratoga-driving, deal-making and nightclubbing ways could have made him a minor character in this book. Perhaps the characters ring true for me because they remind me of my father’s desperation and emotional isolation. This was just how things were back then. You did what was expected of you out of duty — the same sense of duty that won the war. And just as in war, there were many casualties and many walking wounded.

A central theme is failed fatherhood. Men here procreate without caring for or nurturing their offspring. Women let them get away with it because that’s what society tells them to expect, but not without cost, and not without complaint: “I mean come to think of it, you must give him a pretty bad time, if making babies is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls” says John Givings in a classic outsider’s moment of clarity. The father is either gone or just not really there in the case of each character in the book. The spectacular list of consequences of absentee (or weak or selfish) fatherhood scrolls off the page.

The prose is just this side of brilliant. Yates is able to bring the reader into the minds of each major character as he shifts perspective, but never with much more than empathy. As readers we feel the second-guessing and weaknesses in each. Although we understand, we sure are glad we don’t have to live with them.

In the end the reader tends to agree with April Wheeler when she tells her suitor that she can’t love him not only because she doesn’t know who he is, but also because she doesn’t know who she herself is, either. She doesn’t know herself, and thus can’t love herself. She’s not alone: That diagnosis extends to almost everyone in the book, with the exception of an insane jester figure–the only one able to speak his mind openly and courageously in hidebound 1950s suburbia.

Probably one of the best American novels of the twentieth century.

Almost sad that I’m finally done.

Poem: Broken Things

“Broken Things”

I champion the broken things:
Old-town busted concrete aprons
In front of renamed stores.
The quiet, soft, lurking decay
Slowly overcoming the catalogs left
On the floor of the abandoned ranch.
This is the straightening of the line:
The gentle, slow return to mean as
“New” and “improved” fade.

I champion the broken things:
The car’s true beauty revealed in rust
And deep corrosion. The once-smooth
lath-and-plaster now murmuring stories
Of love’s regrets and fear of time.
“This is what you always were, but
Better for the journey now.
Awaken and speak: Be healed by
My somber celebration.”

broken things

Love Your Job and Never Work a Day in Your Life

“Love your job and it will love you back.” That’s one thing I heard from a woman who had struggled with her career choice, only to eventually find happiness.

love-your-job-satisfaction

I found it impossible to take her advice. The job I had at the time wanted only one small part of me. The more open and loving I was towards it, the more it hid away from me. The more of myself I showed to it, the more it just wanted to be friends. The initial spark we shared had been only in response to some sliver of each other’s being.

I realized that the advice “love your job and it will love you back” had worked for this lady because she was a nice sort of person who had minimal ego needs. She worked at a bank. She valued the relationships she had among her coworkers, and the satisfaction of serving her customers. Her job fully embraced her in that way.

But I realized that her job NEVER would have loved me back no matter how much I “loved” it.

Learn What it is You Love

I believe there’s a core set of passions we need to cultivate first to be happy in a career or in life. Everyone’s first order of business starting in childhood should be to identify and cultivate those passions. Misidentification of one’s passions is why I ultimately found it impossible to be an office-bound spreadsheet-looker-at-er and conference-call-ya-ya-ya-er but easy to write and publically cavort and persuade. My heart just never was in the first. I’m an extrovert and need to perform for people.

My eight-year-old loves to imagine himself a SWAT team member. He pretends to throw grenades and shoot people in pretend-play of what he thinks happens all-day in the land of SWAT. He would probably not like the service and discipline of actual police work. His passion is for drama.

An actor. Damn, I’m screwed. 

Anyway, if you’re unhappy in your career this Labor Day, consider really opening yourself up to it: To love it with all your might, to make it your main squeeze. Would it love you back, or would it run away and hide, sneering at you?

It’s worth a try, regardless of the outcome. At least you’ll know.

Maybe should you really be dating someone else, or at least seeing someone on the side?

Happy Labor Day!

photo credit: - Jake Gonçalves via photopin cc

On Love and Respect

“When you look in your husband’s eyes and say ‘I respect you’, that’s the same feeling you get when he looks at you and says ‘I love you.’ Think about that for a while.”

love-respect-success-now

That’s what a pastor said during a counselling session before he married us. As it turned out, there was neither much love nor much respect in that relationship. She didn’t believe me when I said “I love you” and I didn’t believe her when she said “I respect you.” Our actions towards each other belied the words we said.

Thus, it failed. Lesson learned.

Lately I’ve come to think of love vs. respect in terms of relationships as a false dichotomy. People who tend to encounter the world through feelings like to hear whatever it is referred to as “love.” Those who would rather think than feel tend to crave “respect.” The thing is, you can’t really openly choose one or the other. They’re so inextricably related as to be one, as we usually encounter them.

Two sides of the same coin.

If a child isn’t given sufficient unconditional love, self-respect won’t rest easily in him. With lack 0f self-respect, respect for others isn’t as present. With lack of respect for others, less respect and love is given back. And most of the time, the cycle starts over again in a self-reinforcing tumble.

The ideal is to be both loved and respected. The ideal is to be looked at through both lenses and seen as an object of love that is grounded in respect for self and others. That’s the mark of a successful adult.

But love is primary. We need love first.

Because no one respects us as babies.

photo credit: Effortless Vitality via photopin cc

Poem: MUSIK4U

image

“MUSIK4U”

Through the misty cover of the surface effect,
The strums of lazy guitar and soft, stifled coughs.
The vape gives up its cloud of forgetting:
A weedy trade for his half-broke bass amp.
Orange County never was the place.
It never was the place.
It never was the place.

Years have been kinder to him than to most.
He’s got the phone kiosk and the gig at the mall.
He promises the mirror to change it all.
A new look and a new repertoire.
This is the new Greg, not the one who quit before–
Nor the one before–
Nor the one before.

This is the time, finally the time! Everything’s right.
He has new loops and a new USB.
Crisper, higher, tighter, louder, sicker, retro.
He knows he can bend light inside his little dream
And make the kids like him still.
Kids like him still.
Kids like him still.

Frenetic drum loops and lyrics about chatrooms.
Covers by Banksy or a Banksy-like vibe.
A guest shot on a blog from a onetime GoGo.
Bass drops and a shot of minoxodyl.
Something will work,
If only because it must.
If only because it must.

It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better: The Horrors of Mindfulness

Leave it to my Facebook friend from Australia to bring to mind the dangers of mindfulness. The notion itself is like a boomerang. I awoke this morning to see this article in my newsfeed:

mindfulness-guy-meditation

Mindfulness therapy comes at a high price for some, say experts

It brought to mind a few things about the treatment of depression — and about life, of course.

It’s estimated 1 in 10 Americans is now on antidepressant medication. Among women in their 40s and 50s the number is 1 in 4. Many millions are using these medications long-term and not necessarily in the way they were intended. It makes me wonder if there’s been some great forgetting of their purpose–or some fundamental misunderstanding about life.

Depression in most common cases can be described — rather simplistically — as pain. Pain itself indicates that something is broken or injured. When you take an antidepressant, the goal is to give you enough breathing room to make the changes necessary to treat the underlying condition — to fix what’s broken or to at least set it to mend.

Then with the source of the pain addressed, you go off of the medication when things get better for you. Mission accomplished! Yay science!

But there’s a widespread  belief that SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and the like are “happy pills” that can be used without downsides–and without ever needing to address the underlying source of the pain. It’s true that some people desperately need them even to get out of bed in the morning or to not kill themselves, and I don’t intend to minimize those users’ needs at all. But in most cases sufferers are prescribed these meds rather casually. Doctors rip off scripts for Wellbutrin or Zoloft to people who barely describe their symptoms. They also don’t bother following up to ask what’s been done about the underlying brokenness.

Believe me: Personal experience talking.

The troubles with SSRI’s (only the first of many) start about two weeks or so after treatment begins. That’s when they kick in and you finally have the heavy weight lifted from your shoulders. Suddenly, the world looks brighter. You can start to really address what’s been bothering you–that nail in your shoe that first made your foot bleed and eventually caused a callus. Now, you can stop trudging long enough to pull it out.

You might see things for the first time — things you weren’t able to confront before because they were bound up in a hopeless tangle. Now, the problem is clear. You can stop saying “no” to everything long enough to say “yes” to something. Finally, you can make decisions to make real changes.

The trouble is that those changes might put you at odds with everything people around you have come to expect.

You might find you are in the wrong career, have the wrong hobbies, value the wrong things, have beliefs outside of your cultural traditions, live in the wrong situation, are married to the wrong person, or have never really taken care of yourself in the first place. People around you — let’s call them “society” — might be quite disturbed by what they see when you make the necessary changes in your life.

But in these cases, the therapy is only working as designed.

Few of us really like change. We want things to stay the same forever — even if they suck and make us unhappy. Change is scary.

Also, people generally want you to be happy — but not if it inconveniences them at all.

So this article on mindfulness caught my eye. I am sure some of the more messed-up cases it describes can be attributed to lousy practitioners and people who were on the verge of psychosis anyway and had no social support. But I sense something else is at play here.

Maybe in some of these cases, the mindfulness therapy is only making plain what we all know is there, but can’t bring ourselves to confront. Maybe it’s wrong to expect a deep-dive into our consciousness will stop short of shaking our statuses as faithful WalMart shoppers and good credit risks. Maybe we are so desperately isolated from each other that once we stop to really confront it, all we can see is a sort of oblivion of loneliness. Once we see it, we must change.

And all it takes is a few moments of breathing and quiet to see it clearly, and for it to overwhelm us.

Maybe what we value the most is convenience and predictability, even over our own happiness.

That’s something to meditate upon, no?

photo credit: Jiuck via photopin cc

On Mark Twain and Smooth Jazz

I was just thinking about a few things:

cool jazz sax

 

I frequently think of what was going through Mark Twain’s mind when he picked up the manuscript for Huckleberry Finn after letting it sit half-finished in his closet for ten years. I wonder what drove him to publish it in its uneven form, after the Herculean task of restarting and putting something like an ending on it. I wonder what his confidence was like as it went to the publishers. I wonder what he really thought of his flawed, wonderful masterpiece as it went to press. The one thing I can say for sure is that we can be glad he didn’t say “Nahh. . . screw it.”

I find it very hard to read most modern adult fiction. There are so many books and stories where nothing seems to happen. An atmosphere is set, but the plot seems either non-existent or so buried or so minimal as to be indistinguishable from the noise floor of more descriptive details of the restaurants the characters frequent or the doodles on the wallpaper they remember from their childhoods. It frequently leaves the reader with the feeling that nothing happened at all, and thus nothing matters. Maybe that’s the idea.

Seriously. No.

I find most modern adult fiction to be the rough equivalent of “smooth jazz.” Authors are like Boney James or Dave Koz, doodling here and there, playing with a few fussy extensions of a very boring hook while trying not to say anything that might pin them down to a point of view. To give offense is the last thing they want to do to their audience in the waiting rooms and airplane seats across America.

What happened to the detestable anti-heroes you ended up loving in some way? The Joe Christmases or Tony Montañas or Archie Bunkers? Can we not tolerate them any longer? We need more greedy, sloppy, racist, classist, homophobic characters who win us over with occasional flashes of humanity. The reader can still want them to lose, but victory over them is only significant if we see and hate them in three dimensions. (Come to think of it, Don Draper from Mad Men is probably one of them. Are there others? In literature?)

I dare writers to write about real things that smack the reader in the head like a brick falling off the back of a truck. I want to read writers who acknowledge they know there’s an objective reality and who yet maintain a reserve by denying that they can ever know it completely, thus letting the reader decide for himself. If nothing at all is real to you then you are really talking about nothing, and that’s really kind of boring. Like Boney James. Or Dave Koz.

I intentionally went to college with other students who tended to disregard Nietzsche as a sort of demon who had destroyed the world. And yes, in a way he contributed to the downfall of the stasis of the culture that preceded him. But he did this by asking questions. In saying “God is dead” he challenged the people of the day to show him the acknowledgement of the loving, all-powerful God in the way people lived their lives. They couldn’t then, and they still can’t even today. But since his day, philosophy has been wallowing in masturbatory schnact. Nietzsche was the last real philosopher. Everyone since him has been playing with words.

To me, modernism and postmodernism coalesce into a single blob. At some point, it was decided that man could save himself. There’s the real demarcation. Ancients believed God would do the saving. Modernism was the initial sincere attempt to better human nature and reach a sort of beatitude through reason and design and man’s own understanding and works. Post-modernism is the sad, rueful giggling upon realising the failure and foolishness of modernism itself. “Whoops! Our bad. Hehehehe. Well, we don’t know what’s going on now, and you’re still fucked. But . . . Ahhh. . . Umm. . . I dunno. . . here’s some ambivalence and a taco made of rusty bolts” should be the motto of postmodernism.

The devil’s essence is just an idea. The devil incarnate is simple, refined sugar.

Most of my stories feature things blowing up in the least expected ways. The world is revealed to have been an illusion — a sort of trompe-l’œil. I like to move the painted matte scenes behind the protagonist in unexpected ways. But, BUT! There’s still a “real world” in them, somehow.

I mean, at least I think there is.

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New Mexico is Arizona’s Weird, Artsy Cousin

Hey! I was just thinking of this: My home state of Arizona and its neighbor New Mexico share a special relationship:

AZ NM

Route 66 is our common bond

New Mexico is like Arizona’s weird, artsy cousin.

New Mexico is the family started by your dad’s weird brother when got out of the Navy and brought a wife of some indeterminate nationality home with him many years before. Your aunt wanders around in a tie-dyed muumuu and wears make-up she creates herself: Some would say too much of it. They live in a rural house he inherited from your even weirder grand-uncle, the one they said was a cannibal or something. They took that little house — a shack, really — and added rooms on to it as needed. It’s nice enough. It serves their needs. Art lines the walls–art they’ve made themselves. Some rooms have murals–some not bad, some horrible. There are books everywhere, but most of them look only partially-read. Every topic from demonology to radiology is represented. There’s talk of a cousin who grew up there and went on to work at some international science lab where they are researching even more devastating weapons than we have now — a hometown boy-made-good. In the backyard there are horses and other stock wandering around in the dirt. Uncle’s just gotten out of jail — again, and he’s drunk — again. Your cousin Elena is kind-of hot, but she’s got that face tattoo and that look in her eye. Cousin Clive is . . . well, Clive is just Clive. His dance recital will have to wait until this nervous breakdown is over. He still wears his red unitard and lipstick all the time. Everyone in the family is nice and fun and insightful, even when they are passing the peyote. They share a single red Chevy Cavalier with front-end damage and a wobbly tire. They can’t seem to keep a car on the road.

So when you visit them you stay over for solstice celebrations. Everyone in the neighborhood shows up in their backyard, including the local parish priest. You wake up the next day naked on the porch, and decide that everything’s gotten too weird. It’s time to go home — back to flatlands covered with freeways and normalcy. You miss the midwestern transplants and their bland palates and block walls and social isolation. You long to see a clean car. You just want a burger. You want to hear a Chicago accent. You want to see a mulberry tree or something else that doesn’t belong in the desert. You miss home.

That’s what New Mexico is like in comparison to Arizona.

To us in provincial Arizona, New Mexico is like the branch of our family we go to visit sometimes when our own people bore us or piss us off.

It’s quite wonderful. “Land of Enchantment,” they say.

photo credit: Pete Zarria via photopin cc

Perpetual Loss Part 1: The Parking Lot

In some ways, I died in a parking lot one night in 1976. And it was near that same parking lot that I started coming back to life.

woolco-parking-lot
It had been a parking lot for a Woolco back then. Nowadays, new stores and restaurants cover the same area. It’s been redeveloped and smoothed in some ways, but it’s basically just a more refined parking lot. My ghost dwelled there even thirty-five years after the fact.

But I had forgotten all about it.

One day over thirty-five years after it happened, I was driving with the woman I considered the love of my life. We approached the corner from the east. Somehow, those two factors gave me a different viewpoint–some fresh perspective I had lacked in the previous few hundred or thousand times I had been past the same area going north or south, and usually alone.

And as it’s sometimes said — that’s when it all came back to me.

It was on some evening in early spring of 1976. I was seven and my sister wasn’t quite three. My mom and dad had just pulled into Phoenix from Central California. We were travelling in a convoy:  My mom in the ’68 Cadillac, my dad in the motorhome. Behind the motorhome was a cargo trailer. On the roof was an acoustic stand-up bass. They had been looking lounges to play as a duo:  The Corrine and the Professor act. After a few days on the road, they were ready for a break.

That night they fed us a dinner of what was probably Banquet fried chicken and some mac-n-cheese, gave us some candy and grape juice, and told us they were going out for the evening to the dog track. They locked the door of the motorhome and took off in the Cadillac, leaving me to watch my sister.

We were alone, locked in a motorhome, in a parking lot, in a not-that-nice part of a strange town where we knew no one. There was no phone. And mom and dad were out enjoying some couple time at the dog track about 6 miles away.

I don’t remember being upset about it at the time. And that is rather telling. My not making a fuss could only mean one thing: It wasn’t the first time I had been left alone. In fact, the more I reflected on that one evening, the more I realized just how commonplace it had been.

After my parking-lot epiphany as an adult, I went on to recall being left to fend for myself in apartments, motel rooms, hotel lobbies, and cars. When we briefly lived in a house, I was a latchkey kid. My parents could afford a babysitter only rarely, and it was probably for the better that they didn’t use the local talent. It seemed incidents of stupidity and negligence were common results when they did.

Other people I know have varied childhood memories of the help and security (and discipline and  sometimes anger and abuse) offered by a dedicated caregiver. I have memories of being left alone in strange motel rooms with snacks and toys and a TV. But as long as it was for my parents’ work, I could tolerate it. I fended for myself and was proud of it.

After my sister’s birth when I was four-and-a-half, I took care of her as well–even changing her diaper one night when she was still in a crib and mom and dad were downstairs playing the lounge at the Van Buren Ramada in Phoenix.

But on that night in ’76, a new wrinkle in the fabric of my childhood appeared: Every instance of being left alone I could remember before was to allow my parents to work. But this time, it was purely for their leisure. They did it just to get away from us kids for a few hours.

Why is this significant? Because it seems every bad decision, every sad and failed relationship, every neurosis, my anxiety, my personal short-selling, my indifference, every character flaw in me either perceived or real, has something to do with that single formerly-repressed memory of that night in 1976.

It was the night I became a thing.

Adult Attachment Disorder

The problem is attachment, or rather lack thereof. My attachment to my parents was already tenuous before that night. I had experienced long periods when I could turn to no one. I was already what they call “avoidant” when it came to my parents. I sensed I couldn’t count on them and my nervous system was adapting itself around that awareness. But when my willingness to accept that oblivion and desolation without complaint turned into an opportunity for mom and dad to party, it became very real neglect and abuse.

At that point, I turned from a child into a thing.

Once a kid starts feeling like a thing, It’s almost certain he’s going to have — at minimum — relationship problems as an adult. Depression will become a constant companion as he doubts his self-worth and is unable to appropriately express his anger. He will feel the need to justify or explain every preference or joy he takes in life, because its not right for things to feel a need to be “happy” nor to deserve anything else outside of themselves. Everything he does will be a tribute to or reaction against that one aspect of his existence that totally undermines him: The belief he’s just a thing to be judged,  usually only to be found unworthy.

He’s been introduced to a life of perpetual loss. People grow and thrive, but things just decay.

As extra measures, throw adult responsibilities at him, apply a liberal coat of shame when he inevitably fails at them, and you have a recipe for emotional ruin when he finally matures — if he gets that far.

Recovery

Now at the tender age of 45, I finally understand why I have been unable to fully open myself to a partner. I realize why I’ve cut people off and kept them at a distance, making myself unloveable before they can reject and disappoint me.  The negativity, the impulsiveness, the erratic moves,  the clownishness, the insecurity, the desire for control, the resistance to intimate relationships countered by constant, nagging need to be in something like a relationship, the excesses, the emotional eating, and most of all, the constant, nagging din of sad helplessness. It’s helplessness rooted in knowing my parents chose something over me, and that I’m alone and no one is coming to help.

But this is changing. Recognizing the problem is the first step–and a massive one. Rather than just a wallow in self-pity, these blog entries are the means by which I am finally emerging from the hole. Finally, things are looking better for me.

And to judge by what I see in the world around me, I’m not nearly as alone as I thought I was at one time. Attachment disorders seem to be common, and that explains a lot about  our society and the sad faces of desperation I frequently see around me.

Here’s an online test that can help you see if attachment issues might weigh on you as well.

Next: Part 2: The Sick System

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This is part one of a three-part series.