The jazz musicians play their last song, sit to eat their dinner after ten o'clock on a Monday night, and an attractive couple who've had dinner and a bottle of Bordeaux and a few glasses dance gently and talk in the space opened up. There has been talk of the recent protest marches about heavy-handed (to put it mildly) law enforcement aimed at black people. The bass player holds a glass of wine in his hand as he eats his pear tart dessert and begins to talk, after the couple expresses their appreciation and the friendly warmth of the end of a night opens up. The waiter attended the "royal family's" dinner over the corner near the musicians and expresses surprise that the gesture of a tip did not happen. "They never do," I say. "Not even on Christmas." He recounts the empty Bordeaux glass held up in his face, the aloof silent 'fill me,' and then after the late dinner, the tasting of dessert wine, three separate trips when one would have done. He shakes his head and has a quick half tumbler full of wine. A thank you would have been nice. It takes the attitude of privilege to justify the things you put other people through, the servant's missing holiday, then the hoop of the holiday party that comes later on. Oh well. Chalk it up to a different culture. Be grateful for your "Christmas bonus."
The talk is of music. I've found some soft Allen Toussaint for the background. "I don't even listen to that music they push today. I mean, Miley Cyrus, what is that?" the bass player says. "And that gangsta rap shit. All about guns, cars, drugs and booty," the young lady pipes. She went to the march. She's from Baltimore. Her date is a dancer and a DJ, and they are both attractive. She is of Haitian descent. (Her auntie died in the earthquake.) He has tasteful tattoos on his biceps. I catch a discussion about GoGo music, the African depths of its rhythms. She talks of Carnival in Trinidad, the sexuality of the driving beat. The mainstream doesn't acknowledge, doesn't foster the growth of GoGo. Yet it's known and appreciated in other music loving places, like Japan. Later I'll tell them my cool boss who lives over there in Bali is an aficionado. Chuck Brown.
"It's all socially engineered, all this stuff, all the tastes pushed on us," the bass man says as the violinist wraps up some cables after finishing his trout. "I mean, listen to what you like. I grew up back in the Seventies. But then music had to justify all the killing and shit we were doing around the world, Vietnam... And that's what's happening now. The culture is engineered to make us use to violence, so we don't question it. You know, 9/11, three thousand people died. Social engineering by those in power.. Greed. Bankers stole trillions of dollars from us, and no one could do anything about it. Those in power taking it all away from us and telling us what to do...
"But you talk to people, people are peaceful. They are good people. Like I went looking for some place where I could buy a turntable and start listening to records, that warm sound, and there's a whole movement of people thinking the same thing. Records."
I am allowed in at the periphery of the conversation amongst black people. Eddy the bassist has told good musician stories, a Miles Davis quip, gruff, "you need to learn rhythm and harmony" to a young sax player I've been able to catch at the end of a busy night. The young lady from Baltimore, a bartender a few nights a week, asks if "we're keeping you too late," to which I reply, not at all and it's nice to have a great conversation.
"Yeah, man, like what you like. Don't let the mainstream social engineered bullshit (he rattles off a few pop names) dictate your tastes."
I am not privy to the things that the American of African descent has had to absorb into the molecules and the DNA. Theirs is a wisdom, and I listen to it. I respect if I'm not exactly completely allowed one hundred percent into their circle. I can say I know how they feel, maybe, in some way.
I wake up early the next morning, a bad dream. But I might as well be up. Writing down what my values are, acting on them in whatever modest way I can, even if it is uncomfortable and the demons come out when you try to take control of your life, and indeed a sad feeling is known to settle in this time of year. Truths are uncomfortable to face sometimes, but you plug away, softly onward.
The process of writing is much like that of therapy. No wonder then Roth the great master put the two together, the monument of Portnoy's Complaint, to be understood at a level deeper than whatever specifics might come out it its own prose. Much the same as Hamlet's own wanderings around in the spaces of his own mind are very close to the observations a writer would make about his own whole organic process, living as a writer, an unmistakeable sighting like that of a particular bird in a tree seen through binoculars. "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to take arms against a sea of troubles..." Open up that play at random, stick your finger down, and there's a writing life in all its oddity. Roth wrote it after going through his own process, working through the pains of a bad marriage, finding a fecundity. Just as some of us have to work through the sense of themselves not as a great writer but a miserable go-for lackey who feels unable to reach out (to the female of the species) even as he does reach out. A writer works in great discomfort and this is the sweat of his brow by which he earns the bread he gathers, the substance of his work. None can spare him from it, nor from his work in general.
The whole point of liberal arts, of a place like Amherst, is its irrelevance. A gentlemanly conversation earlier in the evening before all the people unannounced.
Workman come and gone, I read a piece found on Google news, reported by breitbart.com, "Dishonest Feminist Panics Leave Male Sexuality In Crisis," as I slump off for a weary nap on a rainy wintry day. And unfortunately the story it tells, of young men giving up, is one I only know too well. The tacit suggestion of the charge of sexual harassment raised against simple ineptness on the part of the young man, and here in an academic setting, with a lack of encouragement toward the male as he is put on the scale of standards that encourage the female student, making him out to be the deviant. The article, somewhat overstated perhaps, brings flashes of recognition of my squeezed generation of males. While not facing on a daily basis angry third wave feminism, I've witnessed the stomping lesbian takeover anger while quietly muse over old DeMott ghosts in Johnson Chapel, such that one indeed made a retreat, 'til the angry drove away speedily in a Subaru down past the old Octagon. I see how my self-esteem suffered; I can see how a generation becomes lost, in a double bind, in retreat, victim of social experiments, the young white male rapist bogeyman responsible for all ills, as women take care of themselves and won't even let a guy shovel an old lady neighbor's steps. I scan part one of the article and fall to sleep under the comforter after setting the alarm to get ready for work.
One cannot expect an apology from the female of the species, oh sorry, we messed your life up acting like a bunch of lawyers, constantly judging you, an attitude to maintain, assuming the worst about you, forgetting you are a human being.
The ironies abound. Born in the era of The Beatles, songs both sensitive and masculine, son of a feminist and a professor of an all woman's college, taught that being sensitive and deep were okay male things, that there was such a thing as art... become through practice just another irrelevant piece of the world.
A writer is a conduit of life's information, of the mental vibrations and perceptions, observations. Whether correct or true or false, right or wrong, that is the human activity, welcome or not. So doing, one observes the thousand cuts to self-esteem, the thousand mixed messages that eat away the self-confidence, leaving once bright people to fall into things like the Elizabethan theater, the modern restaurant business, useless servile places that occupy the edges of society and normal hours.
But it's important to point out that individuals are not to blame, even as one might want to pursue the fruitless task of attempting to assign it in some particular quarter. Whether it can even be boiled down to a societal lack of respect for humanity, who knows. (We sometimes offer terms of more respect to particular people than they might actually deserve.)
It falls upon the artist, who respects the individual, who respects humanity, love, the family, to discover such things, to understand the blameless just people being railroaded quality of life.
All year long I respect humanity. I'm kind and gracious to people. And yet, will I be spending Christmas dinner with family?