Lenore would get angry when I wrote about wanting to be happy. I was having a short-lived affair with a woman other than my wife a number of years ago and Lenore was utterly disgusted with me. I told her that Deb and I weren’t like we used to be. Not like the old days. I told her I wanted to be in love and happy.
“Happy,” she said, spitting the word out. “Happy. I’m so sick of people talking about being happy!”
“What’s wrong with happy?” I said.
“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not why we’re here.”
“Well, since we’re here, we might as well be happy. Right? I mean, it’s better than being miserable. Right?”
Lenore shook her head. “You people,” she said.
“What’s that supposed to mean? What’s that mean, ‘You people.’”
“We’re not here to be happy,” she said.
“Oh really? Oh. Really? Okay. Well then tell me. Why are we here?”
Lenore died more than two years ago. I stopped in to see her husband, Alex, last week. One of his children is living in Manhattan now; the other somewhere in Russia. Alex is still living in the same house where he and Lenore raised their family, a modest farmhouse on a couple acres of land across the street from the University Fieldhouse in Iowa City. I asked him, years ago when Lenore was still healthy, if he ever missed New York, where he was raised. He told me that he did not. He went on to say that he didn’t think he’d ever leave Iowa City. But things are different now. There have been offers for his property. Should he take one of them? Should he leave? Why is he still here? The streets that flow like a tedious argument have led him to an overwhelming question…
I recently finished writing a book that takes up where my discussion with Lenore left off. Alex asked me what it feels like to write something in private and have those words made public. And I said something like, “I thought I wanted to be a part of something. A current of thought. You know? I thought I was going to enter into this current. But I didn’t, really. The questions I ended up answering were questions like, ‘Where are you living now?’ and stuff like that. It’s not really like I imagined it would be. Maybe I need to write a better book.”
“So, you didn’t like being published so much,” he said.
“It was exciting at first. But then I found out I really don’t like it all that much. I got pretty nervous. The interviews and stuff? I didn’t really enjoy it.”
“Then why are you doing it?” he said.
“I don’t fucking know,” I said. “Maybe I do enjoy it. Ha. Getting all nervous about whether or not it’s any good. You know? I don’t know. But you know what sucks? All the promotion they expect you to do. Like, you get a good review and you’re supposed to post it on Facebook or whatever? Fuck that. That’s gross. That’s the shit I don’t want to do. I just don’t want to do it. So I’m not going to do it.”
We were quiet for a while. Alex had a fire going and he knelt by the hearth and placed another log on it.
“If I get it published,” I added. “And if it gets any good reviews.”
“Yeh,” said Alex. “There’s that.”
“I have no trouble knowing what I don’t want to do,” he said. “There’s plenty of shit I don’t want to do and I could give you a list right now. What I have trouble with, though, is knowing what I want to do.”
When we were children, my mother read Prufrock to my twin brother Dave and me. I didn’t know what any of it meant. The women coming and going and talking of Michelangelo. Cakes and teas. Cakes and ices. What moment? What crisis? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. But the way my mother read it and the way she told us who Michelangelo was and the mermaids singing each to each (the only part of the poem I thought I understood) contributed to my desire to be a writer. If I could write only one thing in my whole life, I thought, like that. If I could write something of that caliber. That would be enough to justify a life.
My favorite children’s tale involved an artist and a fish. A very rich man hired a very famous artist to paint him a fish. He paid him a million dollars to do so. After a week, he asked the artist if he had finished the painting. “I’m working on it,” said the artist. After a month, he asked again. “I’m working on it,” said the artist. After a year, the rich man traveled to the artist’s studio and knocked on the door. “How can I help you?” said the artist. “A year ago,” said the rich man, “I paid you a million dollars to paint me a fish!” “Yes?” said the artist. “Well,” said the rich man, “where is it? Is it finished?” “No,” said the artist. “Can I see what you’ve done so far at least?” said the rich man. The artist pulled an empty canvas from behind a stack of empty canvases, collected his paints, and dashed off the most beautiful painting of a fish the rich man had ever seen. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” said the rich man. “But I don’t understand. If it is so easy for you to do, why didn’t you do it months ago?” By way of explanation, the artist walked to a storage closet and opened the door. Out spilled hundreds of paintings of fish.
How silly of me to wish I could write one poem like one TS Eliot had written in a sitting. As though the poem could exist in a world separate from the poet. As though “do I dare to eat a peach” could come from me. One day, the fairy tale might go, I made a wish. Then, I dropped my bucket in the well, and out came…
But even as I made that wish, I thought it might come true. What words might be hidden away? What might I be capable of? Clark Kent was capable of being Superman. Dr. Banner was capable of being The Hulk. All these secret identities. I never wondered then, but I wonder now: Why the secrets? Why couldn’t Batman be Batman all the time? Or Spiderman? Or any of them? Were they aware, before they finally embraced their super personas, of their own powers?
Dave and I were brought up on superheroes. We identified with the chosen ones. Who else were we intended to identify with? The citizens of Metropolis? Of course not. I fostered a flame of belief, as we all did, that I had something hidden beneath my milquetoast façade. If I could just be T.S. Eliot for one poem’s length of time. Just once.
In college, I tried to emulate Eliot’s style. That mournful repetition of sounds. That specific tempo. I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. When I was in the middle of writing, in that febrile state, I imagined it wasn’t so hard. Even after I was done with my most recent poem, I’d reread it and think I wasn’t so far off. It was the following day that crashes these false beliefs.
I bought a BMW when I was in my early twenties. I wanted to own a large colonial house. A white one. We’d put one white candle in each window at Christmas time and one wreath at the entrance. Our house would be set back from the road and surrounded by trees. I’d be a member of the private golf club next door. I never stopped to think how I’d make the money.
I made the money repairing air conditioners. I bought the colonial house. It was surrounded by trees. I played golf often. But it was different from what I imagined. And I was restless. I wasn’t sure what was bothering me. My job wasn’t hard. I didn’t work long hours. We could make the payments easily. We could take ski vacations. We could save money. But I was restless. So, I quit my business. We sold the colonial house with candles in the windows. Now we own an inexpensive house. Our cars are paid for because they’re older. We can’t afford vacations, so we make the choice to not want them. I have decided against my golf addiction. And I no longer want to write like anyone else. I realize, now, that I’m not wearing a cape beneath my street clothes.
Last week, I read an unproduced screenplay based on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The young woman at Harvard. One of the few women accepted. And her intelligence. And her love of the law. And her pride. And the sacrifices she made for her husband. And her ambition. And her desire. That simple, innocent thing. That thing that, once a goal is either given up or attained will vanish. In some cases it will be instantly replaced. In some cases not. But that simple, burning belief in the thing one loves. A belief in one’s self in the thrall of that love. The lack of cynicism. It was so beautiful, I almost cried when I read it. Just for that.
I know that Lenore was right. The reason behind our existence, if there is a reason behind it, can’t be for the sole purpose of searching for a place within us where we are happy. Where we want for nothing. Where we want what we have and, therefore, have what we want. It might be the recipe for contentment or happiness, but life’s not about the finding of something. It’s about the pursuit of it.