No one ever thought of
Gerard Manley Hopkins as being a with-it kind of guy. Emily Dickinson wrote her
poems in a little room on a quiet street in the quiet town of Amherst, Mass.
The only Internet code one might
have detected streaming through the room came from the energy of her mind
musing over the cruelties of fate in her rather one-sided conversation with
God: Click “Send.” I report this to soothe my wounded pride on being so out of
it these days. I never saw or heard Joey Ramone (not intentionally, anyway).
Worse, I only met Lionel Trilling once. I can’t tell you the name of a single
ice-hockey player. I don’t know who is the hottest chef in town or where he or
she cooks. I couldn’t pick a supermodel out of a lineup. I could go to those
glamorous benefits for hospitals and sicknesses of the most reputable sort-if I
could afford it. I get invited sometimes, but while I’m a lady who eats lunch
(too much of it, usually), I’m not a lady who lunches or dines with hundreds of
strangers on your average weeknight. I don’t know the names of any of the
Knicks, except that one who thinks I killed Christ. But I’d never heard of him
before and assume-with no more than a little lump in my throat-that lots of
people I don’t know dislike me on very shaky grounds.
Once upon a time, when I was 21, I would have my morning
coffee at Les Deux Magots. I thought I was at the center of the meaningful
world. Jean-Paul Sartre might have been nearby. Rilke’s translator liked to run
his hand up my leg. Allen Ginsberg had been there only days before, and I had
just missed his Beat comrade, Gregory Corso. My always-frizzy hair stood up in
electric shock at the glory of being in Paris, where Gertrude and Pablo and
Ernest had frolicked. It never occurred to me then that one day I would not
know-really know-what was happening, what was new, newer or best. I believed
that nothing would ever bore me, that no name of an artist, a thinker, a poet,
a business genius, a politician would ever pass me by. I was a sponge, happily
squeezed by every paper, book, radio and TV transmission that came my way.
But now I am a rube, a strap-hanger for whom life has become too real for trivial
pursuits. I have stepped out of the game. Sometimes I cheer from the sidelines,
and other times pay no attention at all to the passing carnival. The cultural
noise has become so deafening that it has lost its distinct syllables-lost me.
Could this be depression? Maybe. I rather think I suffer from maturity-that is,
I’m not so interested in knowing everything as I am in finding something out. Knowing
what Cinderella wore to the ball is not a high priority on my list. I am,
however, still interested in finding out the fate of the mean stepsisters. Are
they buyers at Saks or selling real estate at Corcoran? Have they just booked
an Alaskan cruise with their husbands? My real questions have no answers, not
on Lexis-Nexis or in the phone book. This, I think, is what makes me a grownup.
There have always been hermits who retreat to caves and wear
sackcloth and eat berries morning, noon and night. This seems to me a stupid
way to waste one’s brief time on Earth. God is no more apt to speak to a person
in a cave than to one in an office with a view. These days, burning bushes and
whirlwinds are as apt to enter boardrooms or bedrooms as they are tents in the
desert. But there is no doubt that it is hard to hear one’s own voice in the
din of CNN and MSNBC and the pundits who pundit nonstop and the op-ed editorialists who opine without
caution but with energetic conviction. If one reads all the gossip, the political
analyses, the literary news, the reviews of books and plays, business reports
of mergers and acquisitions and tragedies of overexpansion or underinvestment,
of real-estate prices and interest-rate cuts, The New Yorker (fiction and non-), The New Republic and The New York Review of Books , as well as Slate and Salon.com as I do (and still
don’t know what’s going on), it’s possible to overdose. Vertigo is a reasonable
reaction. Silence becomes a goddess worthy of pursuit.
So why don’t I stop reading? At the very least, why don’t I
practice what I preach and stop writing? Take a vow of non-expression? Retreat
to my apartment and watch my cat shed his long, white hairs on my black couch
hour after hour? Watch the sunsets reflect orange slashes on the windows of
West End Avenue, take my clothes to the cleaners, look through old photo
albums? For in this free country, no one forces me to write, and no one forces
me to prick up my ears at the sound of the culture going pop! pop! pop! On the other hand, old habits die hard, and despite
the fact that I no longer expect to discover a major truth in every encounter
with the outside world, I still don’t like missing much.
It’s hard to separate my personal life from the way I
respond to the cultural fray. Sometimes, when I am worried about my sick child
or sorrowful about another, I see the roll of the historical dice as snake eyes
every time. Other times, when I am not worried, I see silver linings everywhere
and hope spreading its feathers over us all, a certain Knicks player included.
My mood does not lead me to the truth, it just colors it. That can’t be helped.
Finally, I realize that it is impossible to know everything
going on in a culture, to be hip and fresh forever. But I think it is possible
to keep an ear open, to listen and read and see as much as possible, knowing
that the best efforts to keep abreast, to be of one’s time, will come up
short-way short-more and more as age takes its toll. I will admit to an
unfashionable palate (dislike sushi, like peanut butter and jelly; hate good
wines, like Manischewitz). I will admit that I have no calling for poetry. I
like the combat of politics and comment. I love to fight with Bob Grant. My
fantasy of living with earplugs and eyeshades is just a spring folly, a daydream
of becoming better than I am.
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