But, honey, that is who I am. What else can I say?
By Jason Dubow
Here’s a voice memo from January 8 at 7:26 AM:
The phrase “in a perfect world” keeps jumping into my head, my go-to sentence starter. It’s a verbal tic, a crutch, an impediment. It qualifies things in a problematic way, suggests the inevitability of failure while somehow absolving me of responsibility for that failure. It is, after all, as we all know, an imperfect world, but sometimes what is false can be more soothing than what is true. I suppose I say this out loud on occasion, you tell me, but it’s a constant presence in my brain. “In a perfect world,” followed by almost anything: it can be about how I expect my day to proceed (“wake up at five in the morning to write”); it can be how I think somebody—a neighbor, the president, my wife—should behave; it can be about the weather.
Here’s another voice memo, this one from February 28 at 12:07 PM, on what would have been Nana Ruth’s 98th birthday. I missed her a lot that week: her stories and her wisdom, her optimism and her honesty, dinners at her favorite neighborhood Chinese establishment, where the wine was so sweet and so free.
But I digress; I am sorry, sort of.
On the recording, I am barely audible over the grumble of Smith Street traffic. (Maybe Skeptic is right: I do mumble.) It’s a Thursday and I am heading to school for a meeting, reluctantly because I have a fairly strict no-appearance policy on the days I don’t teach. (Basketball nights are the prime exception; when the Terriers play at home you will almost certainly find me, along with both boys and our friend David the Bear, in the cafeteria at dinner time munching on a pregame burrito or banh mi, Snickers forthcoming at halftime.)
Skeptic and I do not conceive of Tuesdays and Thursday in the same way. She has been known to say on a Monday or Wednesday evening, “Since you’re not working tomorrow . . . .” This is a precursor, as you might guess, to a request that I, a man of perceived leisure, take on some family or household responsibility. I would prefer not to.
“I’m not teaching,” I tell her, “but I am working.” Of course, how you take that statement depends on how you define “working.” Sometimes what I do clearly qualifies but sometimes, well, sometimes what I do falls more into the category of preparatory behavior.
I am reminded of Skeptic’s reaction to my most recent post, “Waiting for My Epiphany”: “Good but nothing new.” Ouch. She’s referring to my obsession with quantification, the compulsion I apparently feel to write about not writing, my persistently oppositional attitude.
But, honey, that is who I am. What else can I say?
It could be worse: good is not bad and new isn’t everything.
As you might imagine, particularly if you have ever felt Skeptic’s wrath (I hope you haven’t), I am hesitant to wander down that path again, but sometimes it seems there’s only one way out. Or is it in?
Quantitative easing, SchoolLess has talked about that. What is it again? Might it in some way be about, and perhaps even an antidote to, my dysfunctional self?
Speaking of attitude, oppositional and otherwise, I have for years enjoyed this joke with my boys: “I don’t like your attitude,” I’ll say, apropos of nothing, or just “attitude.” It’s an inside joke but let me try to explain it this way: the statement is not made in response to anything real but rather as a general, non-contextual, random-seeming statement about the absurdity of language, human interaction, and the world in general. This is the kind of father I am.
Do the boys think it’s funny? I don’t rightly know. My guess: sort of.
Other examples from this comedic vein:
“Why’d you do it?”
“That’s not right.”
“What’s your point?”
Again: digression, apology. So here it is, the voice memo you have been waiting for with such admirable patience:
I started thinking about intention yesterday, and then I kept on thinking about it, and then after that I thought about it some more. I thought about it first because of [William] Zinsser and I intend to keep thinking about it and, hey, I could write about it. Take that intention for what it’s worth.
Zinsser, an all-time great, says: “The important thing for writers [in terms of truth and honesty] is intention. Intention is the writer’s soul.”
I think about intention when somebody says, “I tried.” What exactly does that mean? What does “not on purpose” mean? I think about intention when people blame circumstances beyond their control. I, too, am mired in this morass. We lie to ourselves about intention. We create it for our moral convenience, a prophylaxis against accountability, sometimes with forethought, sometimes in retrospect, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Intention can be “the important thing” but only if it’s true. If my dog is dead, my identity has been stolen, and my basement is full of sewer water, it doesn’t much matter what was intended.
Another voice memo, this one from March 4 at 9:51 AM, the sound of running water can be heard in the background. I often jump out of the shower, as fine a thinking place as there is, to record some momentarily brilliant thought. At a certain point the pressure to remember becomes too much to take. A second thought begins to push its way into my consciousness, and now I begin to worry about what will become of the first thought?
Drugs: end up wandering the streets in a daze with a 24-hour hard on and a smile on my face. Self-reliance and that kind of thing, you can take it too far: Transcendentalism run amok. Also, about therapy, feeling we got this far, not perfect but not bad, maybe we should just keep on keeping on. Focus on incremental improvements. It’s a huge time investment issue and have to consider: what might come out?
Spent too much time adding this comment to an e-mail thread among the class parents at SchoolLess’s school, one of whom—the “only guy” and not much of a contributor to the cause—is me:
Re: talking to teachers and advisors [about homework and grades], it seems important to communicate to [administration] that this is an ongoing issue and that in suggesting individual responses, as opposed to seeing the critical mass of similar concerns as a collective concern, [they are], in some sense, abdicating responsibility; in any case, [the] suggested approach does not seem to have solved the problem. [They are], of course, free to say that the perceived problem is not one, but this assessment should only be made based on a clear sense of the reality of the situation: exactly how much homework students are doing (a range, obviously), what the grade distribution actually was for a particular assignment or class, etc. If this information is consistent with the school’s educational policies and philosophy–or if giving teachers considerable discretion in how they interpret those policies and philosophy is–saying so seems like a perfectly reasonable response.
On a somewhat related note, these quick thoughts in regards to a predictably unsatisfying conversation with a school administrator about some issues concerning SmallerMan:
Don’t tell me you are going to follow up unless you are. I still don’t have an answer to my rubric question, still don’t know what you’re going to do help a quiet child—my quiet child—thrive in a loud world. And, please, don’t tell me that what I called “over-aggressive” is really “energetic.” I know the difference. Everybody does.
There’s more to say about all of this and I promise to say it someday, but I am soon departing for Havana, with much still to do. I’m not talking about a metaphorical communist dictatorship of consciousness here, a place where I retreat into resentful isolation, this is the real thing: students, colleagues, we are off to the land of rum and cigars, baseball and universal healthcare, sun and sentiment.
A friend recently pointed out that in my writing I often make promises—to tell a story later, to discuss something in more depth when the time is right, to follow-up on a post another day—but that too often I do not make good on these promises. Here, again, is that foreboding chasm between what one intends to do or bring about and what actually happens.
My friend, a writer himself, suggested that such intentional resistance to completeness is not unadmirable, it reflects my true self, but he also suggested—commanded, is more like it—that at some point, and soon, I “tell the damn thing, all of it, before it’s too late.”
It’s not unlike my constant preaching to SmallerMan, as father and basketball coach, to “shoot the damn ball.” He’s got some game but is afraid to go all in.
You may be wondering, in regards to all these things, “Are you talking to me?”
I reply, in the Talmudic tradition of answering a question with a question, “Are you talking to me?”
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