Memoir: Ian's Influence

I found my old gray I Ching this morning while I was packing up my books. I first fell in love with that book, not as literature, but as a physical object, when I was thirteen, and saw it on my brother Ian‘s bookshelf. My mother and stepfather had moved into a new house while we were away at summer camp—it was a huge, white-brick, white-pillared mansion, with an indoor squash court and a swimming pool overlooking the Long Island Sound (it would remain empty of furniture for the two years we lived there, my stepfather clearly having it in his mind that he would be bolting any minute now)—and when Ian and I arrived there in late August, we had both changed.

Being fifteen, he had grown several inches, and morphed from an unhappy little boy into a gentle young man. I had resigned myself to being me (i.e., not a laugh riot and not like the other kids), and had resolved to henceforth stop trying to fit in. I hung an American flag upside down on my wall, and Ian made a shelf for his I Ching and a few books of poetry. Suddenly, we were friends.

I always knew that I looked up to Ian, but I didn’t realize how much I was influenced by him until today. Apart from the I Ching, I also found, today, the copy of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal that Ian gave me for my eleventh birthday, in 1967, exactly a year after our father died. I remember being astonished by that gift, and with the other one that came along with it: a small bouquet of dried, colorless flowers. The book and the dried flowers were the first presents I’d ever received that were not age appropriate. I got the message immediately, though I didn’t know how to act on it. Ian’s gift to me said, Wake up. But wake up to what?

A year later, Ian dragged me into the living room the moment I came home from school one day—Miss Baron’s sixth-grade class—and played me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before he put it on the record player, though, he held the black disc between his hands and showed me how the vinyl they’d used to make it was different from before: it bent, rather than broke.

The next year, in 1969 (this is the year before we became friends), in yet another house, Ian played Traffic’s song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” over and over again for days from behind his bedroom door. The music, slightly dissonant and sad and otherwordly, was like a drug wafting out from under the door and through the house: I breathed it in. The particular perfume of that song, that time, my brother, did it. I got it: The journey was not going to be an outward one; we were going inward.

Apology #3

I’m sorry, Blogkateers: I seem to have lost my whimsy. I’m hoping to get it back starting tomorrow, when Julia comes home from India and takes over the job of petting Fat Dave at four in the morning to keep him from screaming for no reason. Unfortunately, I am going to be packing up my Brooklyn blog bubble in the next few days, and moving all my junk into storage,* so that might create a delay in getting my sense of humor back. But it might not: It might mean a few good sessions of Dude Dad watching and hipster bashing, and inspire me to come up with some lies that at least make me laugh. I’m hoping the guy next door doesn’t have sex while I’m boxing up my dharma books (for my sake, obviously, not his), but if he does, I promise to report on it. And if my poor Scout takes another crap in the elevator, you’ll be the first to know.

*Thanks again, James!

In Praise of Losing Your Job

Today I was walking by a tree on 97th Street, between Columbus and Central Park West—is it a dogwood? A short tree, with an afro of white flowers? There was no one around but me, and suddenly the wind came up and hundreds of brand-new little flower petals blew into the air and drifted, like snowflakes, to the ground. It was just a quiet, natural occurrence—so very beautiful—not meant for anyone, and I was lucky enough to have been there. Afterwards, I thought to myself, about my ex-boss, “Thank you for firing me, you gigantic jerk.” Had I still have been working at that magazine, I would have missed the little flower blizzard.

And that got me thinking about my job (which I can’t really talk about since I signed an agreement, in order to get a pretty pitiful severance, not to give them bad publicity), and how I never really liked it. I kept saying this to the people closest to me and to myself, back in the day, and I think we all felt that that was just me, Deitch, being my usual pain-in-the-ass, not-liking-my-job self: It was a good job, after all.

So I got fired, and, after the initial shock, I felt really happy. I mean, I felt liberated. I was even liberated from my New Yorker job, which I never would have quit had I known I was going to lose this job. So I guess this is about intuition, and how you can really trust it.

Because the truth is, writing has always made me happy, and I haven’t been able to do it, holding down these other jobs. The years that I was freelance writer were really hard financially, but they were the best. What made me think I couldn’t do that again? What made me doubt my intuition? (Could it have been dwindling self-confidence and paralyzing fear?) Thank goodness for being fired!

It turns out you don’t die when you lose your job; people don’t turn their backs on you, or tell you you deserve it. You cry a little bit, you start getting familiar with uncertainty, and you come up with something else. If you’re lucky, and you try really hard, you love what you come up with, and it gives you time to smell the dogwoods.

The Freedom of Not Knowing

Why did the grass smell so much fresher, and the dirt so much more loamy when we were children? Was it that we were closer to the ground? You could feel the heat coming up off the sidewalk in dry waves, and really study the hummingbird as it floated in the air in front of you. I want that back.

I went to see Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyal at the New York Shambhala Center this weekend, and she talked about how she doesn’t want to be a knower; she just wants to chill in the uncertainty, hanging back, as much as she can, from right or wrong, good or bad, like or dislike, the blue one or the red one, meat or vegetables, chocolate or vanilla. If you relax and don’t decide, the world opens up.

I think these two things are related, the sensuality our immediate experience, and not knowing. But I don’t know. Or at least I’m going to try not to know.

Hallucinating The Enemy

I was really thrown by this video (I’m most of you have seen it; I’m posting it late). For days, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Even as a kid, when I began to understand how hateful war was, I appreciated the situation our soldiers were in: in the trenches, in the jungle, fighting for their lives. But this—flying around in helicopters, picking off innocent people in the street, not out of malice, but out of lack of self-awareness—this is something to ponder. How quickly we are devolving toward apehood. Apekind.

I’ll post again today on a subject I might know more about, or with a lighter heart. But I wanted to share this: it’s for anyone who feels they could use to be woken up (you don’t have to watch the whole thing). I don’t know much about politics, really. But I know a little bit about ordinary delusion, just from watching my own mind. If there were any reason to learn to meditate, if you haven’t already, it would be this. If there were any time to practice, once you learn how, it would be now.

Community

I was having dinner by myself tonight at Community, on Broadway and 112th Street. I was trying to contemplate karma while eating a trout salad and sauteed greens, but I was distracted by the mother and daughter at the table next to me. The girl was probably a sophomore at Barnard—a pretty brunette with thick glasses and a mouth so sour it looked like she’d need a face lift to smile. And the mom, well, I couldn’t see her because she was beside me, but she was from out of town. What got me was that the mom ordered the beet salad, saying she’d eat with “daddy” later on, but when the daughter’s chicken dinner arrived, the mom dove into it like a doctor doing exploratory surgery on a fat man. I mean, rhonestly: she was working her fork and knife so hard that I worried I’d end up with a shiner. I think it got to the daughter, too, because she began texting while she ate, and answering her mother’s questions in monosyllables.

And then a wave of deep sadness came over me, from missing the days when I would sit across the table from Maud and be an annoying and pathetic mom, thinking that because the chicken was hers, it was mine too. How lucky I was to have had that experience!

I was pulled out of this reverie, though, suddenly, when I heard the daughter singing. It turns out she was waving her hand in the air, too, conducting, just for her mom.

“I got the sheet music in Barnes and Noble,” the girl said.

“Really?” the mother said, her mouth still full of chicken, “They have sheet music at Barnes and Noble?”

“Yeah,” said the daughter. “I got that Chopin that you used to play, remember?” She softly sang that tune, and it was beautiful. “And I got the Rachmaninoff, too—that one you like?” And she sang that too.

I wanted to stay longer and hear more, but I had to leave. I was wrong about them. I hope the daughter ordered the coconut cream pie. I think the mom would like it.

Stay, Dogs, Stay

Scout in Brooklyn in the old days
Dolly is so small, that when she stands in front of Scout, he doesn’t have to lift his aching head to see her—she’s just there, panting, with her terrible crooked teeth and weepy button eyes. So when the two of them know that I’m about to take them for a walk, Dolly jumps up in Scout’s face, and says to him, in shih tzu language (which spaniel’s understand), “Dude, get with it: we’re leaving!” and Scout smacks her on her head with his paw, and pretends to bite her little head off. This happened today, in fact, even after the email came in from the vet, saying she doesn’t think Scout has canine dementia, after all, but instead something so much worse, that it’s ridiculous and I’m not going to say it.

Dolly
It’s like that passage from Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter,” when someone asks Buddy why his older brother Seymour threw a rock from his bedroom window at a girl he liked below, scarring her for life, and Buddy says, “He threw it at her because she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway…. Everybody knew that, for God’s sake.” So I guess you can’t have the wonder without the horror, the good without the bad. Tonight, though, I’m not seeing the charm in that.

Rhona: An Introduction

I fell in love with Rhona at first sight. I was sitting by myself in the lunchroom in seventh grade. It was a month or two into the school year, but my mother and stepfather had decided to move from the city to Great Neck suddenly, on a whim, over a weekend, so here I was: twelve, taller than everyone in the room but the fifteen-year-old basketball players, and mortified.

Then, out of nowhere, this girl sat down next to me. She was small and thin and dark and had straight brown hair down to her waist. She wore beat up Levis and a white cotton V-neck sweater. The thing that got me about her, apart from the fact that she was beautiful, was the way she threw her leg over the bench to sit down: it was like someone who knew how to ride. In fact, she was a dancer—although, no, wait: that would come later. On this day, she was still a kid. She said hello and she looked at me with brilliant, ancient eyes. I have to tell you, and I’m not lying, that I knew right then that Rhona would be the best friend I would ever have.

It’s so funny that these are the secret things: the magical things that are true. Why did she sit down next to me?

Today, Rhona’s ex-husband called after twelve years, and asked if I’d talk to their fifteen-year-old son, Alex. Alex is starting to ask questions about his mother, who died two years ago, of cancer. I only discovered this terrible fact—the fact of Rhona’s death—a year ago, when I was trying to find her through the Internet, and discovered her obituary in the Times. This is the story I haven’t known how to tell, because it is so painful. It starts: “I fell in love with Rhona at first sight. I was sitting by myself in the lunchroom in seventh grade.”

Ten-second Rant/Dharma: Contemplating the Holiness of Gross Things

This is what I was contemplating this morning, before I took Scooby to the park:

My faults are as large as a mountain, but I conceal them within me.
Others’ faults are as minute as a sesame seed, but I proclaim and condemn them.
I boast about my virtues, though I don’t even have a few.*

Then Scoob and I went for a walk, and I immediately got tweaked because a runner blew his nose onto the road right in front of me. I thought, “You wouldn’t do that while you were carrying your briefcase down Madison Avenue in your Barney’s suit—why here?” And, really, why do people blow their nose in the street while they run? Is it, like, a biological thing? Because it looks more like a macho thing—like you’re in your running bubble, all high and self-righteous, and you think, “I’m such a healthy stud that I’m sure this dog-woman wouldn’t mind a little of my snot on her clog.”

It was like the one on the left
So, anyway, others’ faults are as minute as a sesame seed. Trying to get back to that, I thought back on past times when people did gross things in the street, and, because of the benefits of hindsight, I can see that they were just things—not good, not bad. Like, one time I saw a homeless man rummaging through a garbage can with one hand, and with the other hand, holding a Dixie Cup around his dick so that he could pee.** That doesn’t bother me now. (Actually, it didn’t bother me then, either).

Anyway, the point is 1) my faults are as large as a mountain, but I conceal them within me; others’ faults are as minute as a sesame seed, 2) I have a real hard time not judging people based on my own likes and dislikes, 3) wouldn’t it be great if no one blew their nose onto the street?, and 4) either way, our lives are dreams that pass quickly, so whatever it is, maybe it’s just a little bit sacred.

*From Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s “Crying to the Guru’s From Afar.”

**This was in the old days, before Giuliani took all the homeless people and turned them into dog food.

Memoir: My Boyfriend Geoff

In the winter of 1974, I was living in a tiny bedroom in a house in Port Washington owned by a junior high school teacher named Fred, who had a soft spot for his young female students. (This was at least a year before Ian went crazy.) I’d run away from home a couple of months before, and Fred had agreed to rent me this room, which was only big enough for a single bed and a dresser. It had a slanted ceiling and one window, which seemed huge in that space. I was not quite seventeen, and Geoff—who lived with his mother, but stayed with me most of the time—almost eighteen.

Downstairs, on the sun porch, was a big-boned, red-headed guy in his late twenties with freckles and aviator glasses who screwed at least two women a day—I kid you not. He said his name was Danny Lee, but his mail came to Danny Bonini. When we asked him how he did it—got so many girls—he said he just walked up to women every day and said, “Do you want to have the best time of your life?” Many said yes. Geoff and I both liked to think of Danny as dangerous (a dangerous creep, to be precise), and we made up a whole story around the fact that he had alias.

Upstairs, on our floor, was Rusty, also in his late twenties—ancient, with thinning, long blond hair. I don’t remember what he did for a living, but I do remember that he was quiet and drank himself into a stupor every night. One morning, after a night when his troll-like, drunken mother had come for a visit, I went into the bathroom to pee and discovered pubic hair all over the toilet bowl, a pair of scissors, and blood everywhere. Rusty didn’t come home that night. Then, the next evening, while we were cooking dinner (undoubtedly spaghetti), the back door opened and there he was, lipstick smeared on his mouth and his mother’s little black velvet hat tied onto his head with a bow. (She had called looking for that hat the night before, and when I’d told her it wasn’t there, she’d said I was a nincompoop.) Ashamed at finding us home, he ran down into the basement and didn’t come up until we were asleep.

But that story is not the point of this. Today is Geoff’s birthday. He is fifty-five.

Back in 1974, Geoff pumped gas at a station about a half mile from our house, and his shift started very early every day. Nixon had invoked the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act that winter, and the clocks were turned ahead an extra hour, so it was dark in the mornings (so dark that many more schoolchildren were hit by cars that winter). From our little bed, I’d watch Geoff get dressed in the shadows. He wore a uniform: blue chinos, a matching blue shirt with his name embroidered on the pocket, and a big blue coat with a Mobil emblem on the breast: the flying red horse. Geoff looked like Michaelangelo’s David—no lie—though he never believed me when I told him that.

I have not said explicitly that Geoff was an angel: He was. He wanted to change the world. In those days, he did it partly by being polite and attentive to his customers. I can see him looking into their eyes and smiling when he said hello. I can hear him saying, “Thanks so much!” after he’d handed over their change—a few ones he’d peeled off the giant, greasy roll he kept in his pocket.

Anyway, it snowed a lot that winter, and the gas lines were very long. Every morning I’d lie in bed and look out that big window after I heard him shut the front door behind him. The street was like an empty stage—quiet, dark, and snowy. I could see one streetlamp from my vantage point, and it’s light shone on the snow like a spotlight. I looked forward, every morning, to seeing Geoff come into that spotlight, his shoulders hunched, his hands deep in his pockets. His boots left solitary tracks in the snow.

At night, when he came home, his hands were always black, and he smelled like oil. I still love that smell; it is like the perfume from a faraway dream.

April Fool


I apologize for being off the air for a couple of days. Scout played an April Fool’s Day joke on me and pretended he was dying.* Fortunately, I’m used to his jokes (he does a mean sock-stealing impersonation, and he used to have a great smile), so I only took his antics 99.9 percent seriously: which meant I paid the $756 vet bill, but I didn’t have him put down.

While we were at the vet, though, Scout gave me an April Fool’s Day bonus and bit me. The vet, after helping me wash the wound out with real-life doctor scrub stuff, informed me that if Scout died within ten days, there’d have to be an autopsy performed on his brain to make sure he didn’t have rabies. It’s a state law, apparently. I didn’t know which to worry about more: him dying of his April-Fool’s-Day-joke illness, him having rabies (no, he’s not up on his shots), me getting rabies, or the bill for the autopsy, which, of course, I couldn’t pay for since I got fired a month ago.

There is no meaning in any of this or all of it together. Not in the details, anyway. There is meaning somewhere, though, and I’m trying to find it. Today, meanwhile, I’m marveling at this: that we’re on this tiny planet rushing through endless space, and while that’s happening, we’re stressing out (or I am) about dogs and money and dirty dishes and being ten pounds overweight and having gray hair, even though gray hair is white-hot this year.

*He couldn’t get up, and when I stood him up, he couldn’t stay up; now he’s wobbly but mobile.