I have written 4000 words so far this morning, here at ten of ten. These are the first 4000 words of an essay, called "Only Us Chickens: The Dilemma of Growth and Loneliness in the Age of Great Aloneness." You should read it. It's kind of good, kind of powerful. Something like that.
If everything in life is a matter of degrees, some degrees count for far more than others. For instance, a degree of loneliness has more juice—let us call it degree-juice—than a degree of post-prandial satisfaction.
A degree of hopelessness has an emotional quotient that a degree of faith is hard-pressed to match, which is why, I suppose, some people will tell us that faith is so important, though I wonder if they say that because of their accumulated degrees of hopelessness. Or loneliness. If those two accursed blighters do indeed bed down in the same storehouse inside of us all, one that we would prefer remain empty.
Ours is a becoming a world where people do the good things they do—we will forgo quotations marks for now—for a couple of leading reasons, the nature of those reasons changing, retroactively, how we vet the ostensible—but rarely real—good deeds of others, if that’s something we’re even really doing. We say we do it more than ever, that we have a green light the size of a jade sun to critique conduct in what purports to be an age of accountability. We do it in the name of justice. What’s more, social justice, which sounds quite important and sounds nice in theory, if we did not have other motives—we almost always have other motives—quite far afield of the judicious separation of appearance and reality, useful agenda and honest intention, wrong and right.
We like to bark the orders of ostensible good advice—affixing, often enough, a passive aggressive bromide of “Do better,” as if we expect someone else to say, “thanks, chief,” and begin to walk a path that we ourselves don’t walk, but we’re kind of familiar with it, in theory, and that’s enough to reprimand someone else. I imagine these people saying, “shit, that feels good. And shit, that looks good, me out here on social media, tsk-tsking away. We hit the day’s quota. Nice.”
Presenting a simulacrum of ourselves in full view of others, for plaudits, for the lowest form of approbation—and the cheapest and least meaningful—in human history with the click of the “like” button,” becomes our stage-managed identity. It’s not a real identity, but as Andre Agassi said decades ago, “Image is everything,” and now, surface is everything.
Sheen is everything. The shine is everything. The self-conferred shine. What is beneath the shine, that is, the surface, can be a mephitic, festering boil, but if the sheen is there to distract, and it is re-stoked, again and again, with the latest nozzle-blast of the wood-polishing aerosol can, and enough other people are going about their same self-shining practices, this becomes not only how we behave en masse, it underwrites a new definition of goodness and decency, with those two essential qualities—which we need in maxed-out degrees—having no basis in reality.
They become ghost images of what they once solidly, truthfully were; that is, in the new dispensation, sheens and shines. Echoes. Phantom limbs. And let’s face it—most people have come to like nothing better than a good old polish of their wood. If you won’t polish their wood, they’ll do it themselves, right in front of you, along with a billion other self-polishers, which reminds me of that scene in the exceedingly spooky 1922 silent film Haxan when the devil has a butter churn between his legs and it looks like he’s jerking himself off, going to town with mighty hand pumps. He’s out there in plain view, and he doesn’t care who sees him—in fact, you have the feeling he’s kind of into people looking up and saying, “well I’ll be, Lucifer is going to blow, better bring my galoshes to work today.”
Another reason for the theoretical good deed, and the constant dispensing of advice, is a more private bit of business. It’s not for show so that 10,000 other people—or however many Twitter followers we have—can sing hosannas for us, it’s so we can live with ourselves. Degrees of loneliness and hopelessness are silent killers in ways that cardiovascular disease can only dream of—maybe there is a little heart-shaped devil dude with his head on an aortic pillow who dozes with visions of hyper-tension in his head—but nobody likes degrees of guilt either.
They get you in different ways. Tug at you throughout your day, nag you more than your kid ever has on her most petulant afternoon when she walks in the very footsteps of your shadow because she wants something that she’ll have forgotten about by bedtime.
If there were pills we could gobble down like so much chicken feed that would excise our love handles and cure our paunches of their protuberances, we’d all be walking around looking like Olympic athletes hungry not for another Twix bar but rather the next games to start, champing at the bit. But run every day, climb some stairs, get the ass to the gym before the work day commences? Hard work, albeit—and this is the rub—a form of hard work that is as easy as snapping the fingers compared to the hard work required for true goodness and decency, which takes accountability to a whole other level than logging thirty-five minutes on the Precor.
We know when we snip corners. We know it as sure as if someone took a pair of Fiskars and cut away the lobes of our ears, Van Gogh-style. There are a lot of voices inside of us we can stopper and stall. The insides of humans, no matter how simple a given human may be, are, more than anything, choric. There is no house sound inside each of us, the Napoleon Bonaparte voice that avails itself sans doubt, commands with singular direction.
We are each a temple—or a mausoleum—of fractured sounds, of one voice arguing against another, a third piping in, a sea of sounds, coeval waves, if you will, cabal of breakers. The waves mass, despite the dissent and contrast, and it is from each of those collage-structured waves that we find the voice that we will fling—or judiciously channel—out into the world.
At times we can silence almost any of the voices, but we can never fully drown out guilt, which must occupy a rigorous, resilient patch of our DNA. Or come from something more ineffable than science. Either way, it is always there, which is why when we can’t do the hard work of assuaging the guilt by doing what Spike Lee pithily called the right thing—the active, oft-challenging-to-do thing—we come up with alternative methods. Advice of the nature of “do what I say, not what I do, as you actually know me and my actions” is a biggie. People like that one.
I do not know if anyone has ever been more alone than I am right now in my life. I talk to nobody, nobody phones, I am not invited anywhere on Thanksgiving, say, people don’t email me.
There’s an irony in this, as part of my job is to go on the radio often and sound energetic and ebullient, funny, full of vim and life and insight, passion, good fellowship, critical acumen with an edge without being a dick.
I have not had a romantic relationship in years, when I was engaged and subsequently ghosted by the woman I was going to marry, though I go through the horrible folderol of dating sites, my eyes blighted time and again by people who tell me their personalities were formed on account of how close the earth to the sun when they were born, they hate cops and want them to die; people with their emojis, their constant effluvia of LOLs when nothing remotely funny has been remarked; the endless clichés of how one should not take life “too serious”—nor adverbs, apparently—and this is a drama free zone and you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff and everything happens for a reason, and so forth.
I run many miles a week, climb tens of thousands of stairs a week inside of an obelisk commemorating this country’s greatest pyrrhic battle—which seems ironic—and after having walked more than 3000 miles a year for quite a few years, after my marriage ended, doing nothing but thinking, composing in my head, better knowing myself, the world, people, the shifty, scattered locus of truth, I had evolved more than I would have previously thought possible had I not lived the evolution, and ended up, too, in better shape mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, than ever before.
And yet, there I was, on my own, in a sexless life, which is not easy for someone with what I will call an artful, ravening libido, becoming better at what I do all the time, while simultaneously more despised for it in an industry governed by cliques and a backbreaking, spirit-breaking brand of discrimination stemming from the decree that the self-made person who is not one of the sanctioned system people must not get ahead. Must be snuffed out. Buried.
After years of consuming massive amounts of alcohol, ending up in the hospital several times with heart issues, I gave up drinking entirely in the space of a single night, having resolved that I would do so before the clock on a Saturday evening became the 12:00 of the earliest point of a new week.
I am sufficiently alone and broken down that after I have worked through another whole weekend, alone, talking to no one, and done my workouts, so I can handle this aloneness, pain, and stress and keep going—in hopes that I will be alive for a better time of my life later—I will lie in bed, bite into a towel, scream and cry.
I’ll often split my larynx, blood will fill my throat, I’ll write some more, spit the blood into a Boston Ballet coffee mug, which I got when I went to the ballet, which I do often, of course, alone.
That’s how alone I am.
The people whom have been in my life are aware of this—friends, family. They live comparative lives of ease, and I think they feel guilty that someone who does what they do at a level they do not do what they do—if they even do anything—who also outworks them by an immeasurable amount, who does good for the world at large—or certainly tries to, and gives the entirety of their heart and soul for that purpose—keeps going through the years, when they’d not last a week in that person’s situation. A weekend. I know that’s part of it. Some of them care, and they can’t face seeing me like I am. Which is a form of ultimate victim-blaming, but that’s how people tend to be.
We speak of a contact high, but there is also something called contact pain; and just because they are getting a whiff of what comes off the crack pipe three buildings down your street from where you live and you have the damn thing in your mouth, blistering your lips, doesn’t mean that it won’t be too much for them.
They should find a way for that not to be the case, but it’s so easy to get wrapped up in having kid #3 and fertility measures, or building someone a new deck for your contracting gig, or—and this is the absolute worst—telling yourself that because that person is strong, and stronger than you could ever be—why, look at how they keep going!; look at how much they create!; listen to how hilarious they sound on the radio!; behold how they wrote a full book in a week!—they’ll be okay, you don’t have to do anything, they’ll keep growing and eventually it will be peachy.
When I used to go to the hospital for my heart, my heart rate over 200, my pulse all but ripping apart the skin around my wrist, after my marriage, when the years of complete aloneness began, the epoch of blood-spattered ballet mugs, I’d take a book with me. It was my regular emergency room book, written by a guy named William Sloane, called To Walk the Night, published in 1937.
People don’t really know the book. It’s sort of sci-fi, sort of horror, and is about two friends, Jerry and Bark. They grew up as brothers, because Bark’s mom was a socialite, not especially cut out for motherhood, and Jerry’s dad adopted him. Bark tells the story, which begins with the pair returning to their alma mater—they’re in their mid to late twenties—for the big homecoming football game. Following the game and quite a few nips of whiskey, they decide to visit Jerry’s old science mentor in the observatory.
They get there just in time to see the guy burning to death, sitting in his chair. The professor was a frowzy fellow who lived for his work, so it comes as a great shock to learn that not only did he recently take a wife, she is described as the most beautiful woman in the world.
In short, surprising order, Jerry is going to marry her, while Bark puts together what pieces he can of her back story, which are not strictly human. She’s so evolved as to be removed from hoi polloi. Someone remarks to Bark that she must be lonely, and he confesses, in his first person narration, pretty deep into the book—so we know these people well by now—that he just assumed she was the kind of person who didn’t need, wouldn’t need, friends. That she’d be okay, on her own. Because of her gifts, command, strength, will. It’s as if because of the outsized quality of those traits, he denied her the benefit of deserving, of needing, what every single human who has ever walked this planet—or the night—deserves: not complete aloneness. Which does not mean the the succor of your own singular company, if you are, indeed, singular; it means other people, fellowship, goodness, kindness for real reasons, not kindness for clicks/likes, kindness to dump sawdust into the mouth of the guilt monster inside all of us, to stifle its voice, albeit it, at best, temporarily.
Jerry and his new wife—Selena—are ultimately going to travel to New Mexico, to live in an artist’s abode cottage on a mesa, bequeathed to the family. He works on a mathematical problem that his mentor had been trying to solve at the time of his unsolved murder, and we understand that the forthcoming solution will explain much about how we come to be. How we move through the ages, the planes, without even knowing it. His marriage weakens as he begins to realize just who his wife might be, so he summons Bark for a visit, and Bark, with Selena also in the room, is going to watch when his friend, ostensibly without wishing to, as if guided by something else, reaches into a desk drawer, pulls out a gun, and shoots himself in the head, right in the middle of writing a note which contained some form of the vital answer. The note was intended for his father. The truth was silenced.
Bark rides the rails east, to meet with that father at his Long Island home. They sit on the porch, drinking sherry, the sound of the waves lapping, as Bark tells his story, and they look for different kinds of answers. Jerry’s dad—Dr. Lister—wants, naturally, to be able to understand why his son, so full of life, talent, killed himself. And he says a line to Bark that goes straight through me every single time I read it, every single time I think about it—which is every day—and that line is, “The one unforgivable fault is weakness.” I suppose it says something that this was my hospital book.
By weakness, what is not meant is, say, crying.
Sharing what you are going through.
Admitting you need help.
Breaking down. What is meant by weakness is not doing the right thing because you have snipped corners. Because you have lied to yourself. Lied to others. Because you don’t want to do the heavy-lifting of decency, but you wish, as an old hockey coach of mine used to say, to have the world tongue your taint. It’s standing down when a friend is in need, because you’ve told yourself it will probably be fine, and it’s easier to think that than think the converse. No matter how obvious the converse, or at least the possibility of the converse, might be.
The weakness is in not crying when we have occasion to, the weakness is in forced machismo, the weakness is in bragging about how Woke one is, the weakness is in saying you hope all cops get murdered but the first thing you’d do if someone said so much as boo to you is call the cops. The weakness is in saying you believe in love and live and let live, but routinely assembling internet mobs to destroy lives, careers, or someone’s peace of mind, their small nimbus of personal space.
Weakness is putting on a mask, going to a parade organized by people you do not agree with, throwing batteries, rocks. Weakness is preaching something that is not lived, weakness is not phoning, not inviting, and weakness, more than anything, perhaps, is the back—the turning of the back.
And, of course, weakness is fearing, even hating, even wishing dead, the person who knows these things, and says them, because if you know them, and you have courage, you have decency, you value connection, you don’t seek to stopper the conscience within, you say these things. Because how could you not?
Are you doomed?
Are you left to scream into towels?
And if you continue to evolve—because what else are you going to do?—are you doomed all the more, if that is even possible?
I have a friend I’m going to call Horton. He’s one of those people who just always gets referred to by his last name, as if using his first name would be an act of atonality.
Horton and I first became friends when I was a sophomore in college, and he was a young professor. He was twenty-six. He had a kid, with another on the way. We had a much in common. We both spent a lot of time on Cape Cod, we each had played hockey, we both valued literature a great deal.
My college professors would throw Ds and Fs at me routinely as an undergrad, and Horton would say, “Look, you write for the world, you are not someone who writes for these pedants, what you’ll do is reach people, connect with them, don’t get bogged down in this shit.”
I didn’t. I knew what I was trying to do. I knew, at least to a degree, what I had in me to do. I knew I wasn’t close to that point yet. I had so much I needed to develop, harness, untap. Still, the words were helpful, the support.
Horton is a guy who likes Thoreau, Melville, a Catholic guy, who emphasizes right and wrong in how he talks. He’s an advice-giver. I think a lot of students still come to him for advice. We’ve been friends now for more than two decades. I’ll call him my friend, because I love him, and I think, in some way—maybe an arcane way—he cares about me. But I’ve also come to realize how hypocritical he is. How he doesn’t live, at all, what he preaches.
Horton’s kids are out of the house now, they are adults with jobs in the real world, but despite knowing everything in my life, having received letters from me over many years, and despite my habit of filling up his voicemail of what is going down, where I am at, as I walk those many miles, climb those thousands of stairs; despite knowing how totally alone I am, poor, with no one to talk to, living in a filthy apartment strewn with what had been in a house, the books, films, records that I cannot throw away, which do not fit here, there is no way—there is just no earthly way—that Horton would ever pick up a phone and check in on me. Talk to me.
Now, I can beg him to do this, but he won’t. That’s the kind of man he is. But, he will, on the occasions when we do talk, because I’ve happened to catch him at his office, lecture me on how I am lacking as a person, never mind that, at this point, frankly, there’s not a lot I do wrong. That’s not the point. I’ll work and bust my ass, and he’ll shame me because I would not be content being a janitor, going home to write at night, my sustenance being, I don’t know, pages of blank verse, the inner life, and a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. I want what I deserve, what my work deserves—and, frankly, I want the world to get what it deserves and needs with my work—in terms of audience, reach, financial compensation. And Horton will shame me for chasing fame and fortune, despite the fact that he likes money, he has two homes, etc. And he doesn’t see anything wrong with this, or, if he does, he can’t deal with it, address it, fix it, act otherwise.
When my wife left me, there was no word of warning. There was never a conversation where she said, “I am not terribly keen on this, we should talk about it.” We had just acquired a house. Days before she left, she was filming herself doing various, let us say, erotic acts, you know, the kind of playful stuff that husbands and wives do, or do for each other. As it turns out—and as it would take years to learn—she was having affair. She took everything from me. At the time, I considered that the blow of my life, the thing that, more than anything, I’d have to overcome, but it turned out to be nothing compared to the evils of the most bigoted industry there is right now, but it was awful, I never got over it, and I am still feeling those blows from what is now almost eight years ago.
For a month, until she forced me off the deed of the house—she had multiple lawyers, I could afford none—I lived in that house alone, a dream house, of sorts, in what is certainly my dream town, a place called Rockport, thirty miles north of Boston, a sleepy port-cum-hamlet nestled against a nape of harbor, that quiet, settled space where land and water conjoin, before ocean roars into the full-throated shout of the open seas.
I am haunted by the memories of those days. I’d awake in the house I knew I’d be leaving, having had no contact with my wife. I tried to make the best of it. I tried to work hard, tried to begin the process of returning, finding a way to come back here again, to make that process take as little time as possible, even as I reeled, all but raped by confusion, my eardrums exploding with the single most disconsolate, painful note in the history of humans: the single syllable of Why. Which was a lot to do, creating in that situation. It was also all I could do, because I could not function, and brushing my teeth felt like a minor miracle. Moses had his parting of the Red Sea, I had my daubing of brush to incisors.