Out of the Know and Suffering From Adulthood

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.