Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Boats Against the Current

I have mentioned before that there are only eight things one can ever write about.  As stupid as you may find this idea, it is true.  I’ve touched on many of these different themes on this blog, but I have only hinted at one of the larger ones, which is Youth.  Tolstoy wrote three entire novels called Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth in an attempt to fully render the subject and perhaps wasn’t able to do the theme justice. Youth is certainly a separate entity from Childhood and Boyhood.  Childhood and Boyhood suggest the factors of your early years: the years before age 10 or 12.  These two words or phases bring to mind the toddler Stephen Dedalus learning about a “nicens moocow” or listening to his “Dante” speak about Parnell at the table on Christmas.  Childhood and Boyhood suggest those early impressions of objects and relatives, family holidays, the way your grandparents speak, smell, and give you presents. “Youth” is something completely different.  Youth is figuring out what loyalty is; how easily you can be deceived by what you think love can be; understanding the extreme differences of the feel of the opposite sex’s body from your own: like that softness only girls’ thighs seem to have.  Youth is finding the extremes of your athletic ability; beginning to realize what music can waken within the depths of your soul. And, of course, Youth is all of those hours passed with friends in the heat of summer or huddled in the freezing cold of a car during winter trying to stay warm and just stay out as long as possible – even if there isn’t any beer or smoke left for anyone.  These are the things that we write about when we write about Youth.  These moments and images are so powerful that we constantly try to write and rewrite “coming of age stories” or “bildungsromans.” Perhaps one day when I have the faculties to correctly create me own tome to Youth I will do it just as Tolstoy did.  But, for now, I only have images and occurrences that I can thread together.

The night before Thanksgiving is one of the more wondrous nights of the year.  However, there is no enchantment to it like Christmas Eve or even a feeling of simple exuberance like the humid nights of our Fourth of Julys.  It even lacks the sheer uncertainty, the bleary-eyed bliss and shoulder shrugging that New Year’s Eve brings with it year after ominous year.  Thanksgiving Eve is something different.  It is not enchanted, but merely real - mundanely poignant.  It is colored in sepia from the moment the sun sets and all the oranges, browns, dark yellows and grays of the world drain and are replaced by the deep blacks, navies and periwinkles.  And in those colors of November nights there are endless postures: college freshman returning home with gelled haircuts and fresh eyeliner, the prodigal son stepping through the garage with a beat-up green canvas backpack, old fishing buddies sneaking out from their wives to have one quick drink at the Corner while the bartender lets Knicks highlights flash on the TV and countless twentysomethings in sweatshirts or fleeces, wool sweaters and pea coats with gin and tonics or clean, very cold brown bottles of Budweiser look around either for someone to love or skyward for some kind of distraction.  In either case, someone is looking for an answer.

This past Thanksgiving Eve, I watched people I knew and still know spill out of an old colonial home that also serves as a bar.  The jukebox was playing, but I always imagined that at one point it could have been a piano.  I saw and exchanged countless customized handshakes; draped my arm around Carhart jackets, fuzzy wool pea coats and thin-shouldered black sweaters.  I drank long cold beers and huddled on benches with beautiful girls I was once very close with and we felt the bushes on our back and looked closely to try and articulate “What if?.” It was at this scene that I stood on green, frosted grass and looked at the white, wood shingles of the bar.  I stood next to one of the most stand-up old friends I’ve ever known.  We drank our beers.

“I read your blog,” he said.


“Mr. Puddles of Yourself.”

We both laughed.

“Anything you like in there?” I asked. “What do you want to see?”

“This,” he said, stretching his hand out toward the smoking cigarette cherries and the bodies spilling along the wooden plank walkway into the front door of the bar.

I drank my beer and surveyed the scene.  I thought about the old girl I had just sat with and how she was still quite beautiful.

“I might just do that.”

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Caraway (Fitzgerald) describes Long Island as a great many things.  He describes the Sound as a “great, wet barnyard” at one time and that is a phrase I have certainly absconded into my own little catalogue.  He also manages to do justice to the exhilarating feelings of darting back and forth from Long Island to Manhattan, which is unlike any other commute.  New Jersey is too clunky and filled with impossible bluffs and the historical wickedness of the Hudson River breaks it apart from the island nature of Manhattan and Long Island; Westchester is lush and promising, but it shares some of its sentiment and identity with New England and Buffalo, which are entirely separate entities.  Long Island is like a funnel, which one travels along, the seagulls and piping plovers skirting along overhead, while you leave a trail of sand in your wake along the parkways that inevitably lead into the heart of New York.  Always there is the smell of salt water and promise in either direction.  Caraway/Fitzgerald does this justice.  I also admire the small parts in the novel where Nick steps out of his house and onto his lawn; you feel the heaviness of Long Island leaves and the constant knowledge of water out in the dark just beyond the reach of your arm.  The water makes the stars shine brighter as the pools perfectly mirror the darkness of the sky.  In the summer there is always the mist and the allure of some light glowing in a bramble or thresh of forest.  In the winter everything is barren and your breath streams out, the wind is persistent, but at times everything falls dead and quiet and you see how bright the moonlight is on the frosted grass and the near frozen saltwater.  In the distance is the call of a gull or an ill-informed duck and a car drives on some stretch of road across the harbor under tall streetlights and you realize what is so close in hand.  Perhaps, what I like most about Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald is this quote from the very end of the book:

"Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

This quote seems to set the scene of Long Island, with its great history, its natural beauty and slow decay, in the most accurate and concise nature – with a bit of romantic prose to curve the edges.

It was in this sort of place that I had my Youth.  What people sometimes fail to realize is that there is an honor to growing up.  Much of it is pain and boredom, but there is an honor to being young and that should never be forgotten or overlooked.  The part that should never be overlooked is the part that has to do with the impossibility of friendship and how we are forever trying to make friends or understand what that vague word means.  I mentioned earlier that Youth is made up of all the time spent sitting around with friends in the summer or in a dark car or in the hallways between classes at school, which is a fundamental truth that almost any person growing up in America can relate to.  Yet, what many people in America fail to understand is how there is an actual virtue laying in all of that sitting around.  Sure, we’ve had people like Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, the Replacements, Nirvana or Wilco try to explain it to us in song, but it always comes off as the commodity of rock n’ roll, of what your youth is supposed to be like if you want to end up this way – if you want to be as messed up and depraved as the rest of us.  Those are obviously terrific sentiments, but what Youth is to me, is something more than that.  Youth teaches us to enjoy sitting on a curb in the darkness of the night and watching a sprinkler shoot out into the street while your friends circle aimlessly on bikes; to appreciate for all its worth those hottest days of the year climbing the brambles of the dunes in order to look out across the harbor at the sailboats that stood so prominent and white with their masts ringing back and forth against the water that was at times green and navy blue.  Or even those evenings walking along Main Street and just listening to the hum of the back of the deli or the wine store and looking at the shadows of the automotive shop.  And further still those stinging fall afternoons playing football in the park while cars whizzed past and your friends’ older brothers hurled curses at you and then tried to take you down to the stiff brown grass.  And that one time when your friend jumped on your back and tried to strangle you while everybody piled on top.  What I am saying is that there is a distinct honor in all of these activities and it is the honor of growing up and you will recognize it immediately in anyone that you meet as you move forward in life, and will notice those who lack this honor even sooner.

Youth is an honor and a virtue to be gained.  And as I said, the main aspect of it is the search for friendship.  Great Gatsby is in many ways about that search for friendship. It is certainly a story about one man trying to gain a handle on another’s man’s personality, trying to size him up and figure out what draws him to his personality.  And, to be frank, that is what much of adult male friendship is made up of.  Take this quote from Nick:

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

If you read that sentence ten times, eight of those ten times you will agree that, deep down, that is what friendship is completely about.  Friendship for the most part is about loyalty and most of our notions of loyalty are formed in this period of Youth – when we fight for each other, back up the jokes in the back of the class, perpetuate the lies to keep everyone out of trouble and stay out as late as possible so that we are all in trouble if the ship really is going to sink. Nick’s outlook on Gatsby is always left unclear.  He is glad that he compliments him at one point towards the end of the novel; at one point he says that Gatsby was alright, but at another says that he disapproved of him from the beginning to the end.  Yet, he was drawn to him, drawn to him because of that ability Gatsby had to fully concentrate on one person with a smile full of understanding.  And perhaps it is like Nick says, that he had some “deficiency” that made him ill suited to the East.  For his Youth was made up of the West, of the long train rides home in the snow from prep school, passing Chicago and going further to Minnesota and watching the flakes fall at the stations in the winter dark.

Another novel that shares some of the themes of the Great Gatsby and what I am trying to say here is The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon.  It is ultimately a novel about summer, about friendship and its difference and confusion with love.  It is about a narrator who seemingly has no friends and who gets mixed up in a world of friends who look like celebrities and who have sex and drink and some of who are homosexual.  It is in many ways a weak and frivolous book, but it always calls me back – it has its hooks in.  It is because the book does justice to the complexity of friendship with quotes such as this:

“If any of the attempts I made that day to telephone Arthur had succeeded, I would have asked him nothing.  I would only have listened to the way in which he spoke to me, listened for accents of friendship: the banality, relaxation, and lack of style that characterize a conversation between two friends.”

Or, when the narrator, Art, is feeling overwhelmed at the long-standing friendship that his new friend Arthur and his other new friend Cleveland share, ruminates:

I envied their history, the plain and frantic days, the simple length of years behind them.

“No matter how long I know you guys, I’ll never be able to catch up.”

The cigarette hung from Arthur’s peeling lower lip, and I saw that he’d had his own reasons for suddenly growing quiet.

“Catch up on what?” His Kool jiggled as he spoke.

“The time. All the days and evening like this one.”

Chabon does his work very simply and elegantly in his first novel.  He is able to capture countless scenes of silence between two characters that are friends as they smoke cigarettes and sit somewhere high up above Pittsburgh and look at the streets and the faraway small forms of cars and mothers with children standing on the streets in summer.  However, these two quotes epitomize what exactly that period of Youth is about and what it instills in us if we achieve its honor.  First, is that distinct ability to talk with a friend, moments of urgency punctuated by prolonged silences, fiddling with bottle labels or worn in boots.  There is no pointed questioning, only idle questions. And at the end of it all, if you are on the outside, there is always that envy for those who have that camaraderie – those who share the years that you so desperately lack.  It is more than just knowing someone for a long period of time: it is a shared experience, it is a virtue that was borne through passing time, through fighting, through forging loyalty on the doorstep of growing older.

Why this past weekend made me think of all these things I can’t say.  I have had Great Gatsby and Mysteries of Pittsburgh on my mind for quite awhile.  And perhaps it is because I am always thinking about friendship and the Youth that sometimes might keep me separate from the youths of others. I think mostly of friendship, because as Chabon says in his novel, “In any case, it is not love, but friendship, that truly eludes you.”  What that actually means can only apply to each individual person and how hard they want to be on themselves.  However, my friend’s prompt certainly pushed the issue.  That and perhaps two other scenes.  The first was at the same bar I described at the beginning of this post.  I was leaving the bar with one of my best friends who I had not seen in about a year and we passed a kid that we had known in our Youth.  This guy had once choked me during an afternoon football game that got out of hand, but it had stood out as some kind of instance against other instances of the years so that always bonded us in some way.  Regardless of that, we had all known each other.  So, we passed this guy and his girlfriend standing on the dark, quiet neighborhood street, lined with cars.

“Domino! Morgenstern! Where are you going?”

“Sawicki! We’re going home!”

“Going home?”

“My sister is in Busko’s car. I gotta go.”

“Look at you two. You look the same.”

“So do you.”

“We’ll always all look the same.”

My friend turned to me then.

“You go on. I’m gonna stay.”

“You got it, Danny.”

And then I turned to my friend’s car where my sister was waiting to ride home too.  The stars were beginning to become patchy as it was getting nearer to four o’clock. And I knew we all didn’t look the same, but in his eyes we did and for some reason on that night, at that moment, that seemed profound.  Perhaps it was because of the tone of happiness in Sawicki’s voice.  I felt more so, that it was because we shared a time together, and it was really all the people that crossed my path in my Youth – they all became some kind of character in my mind, passing from place to place, all sharing some secret more than the fact that we grew up in the same place, but some distinct honor that would seem opaque and impalpable to those who didn’t see or value it. In any case, I went home that night.

Second, the night after Thanksgiving all of my best friends piled into the Corner bar.  My best friend, his girlfriend and his brother piled into a booth drinking pitchers of beer.  Acquaintances came by and told us about the army.  My friend’s pastor came by and introduced himself and I told him I was a Catholic. Then, all of my friends were pushed into the booth and we were drinking beers and the laughs were coming as easily as anything I’d ever done.  It was warm and light and there was terrible music and a worn wood floor and before we knew it we had to get outside and have a bonfire at my friend’s farm – so we did.  We drank freezing beers and got smoke in our eyes and threw a liquor bottle in the fire trough and molded it into a sculpture for a friend who was far away and who was coming back home.  It was a freezing night if you were away from the fire, but my breath was strong even though I had a cold and the beer tasted good and I could fit my arm around my friends’ shoulders. And I realized that even if you get annoyed at a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time and are wary of the next time you see them – its never bad, because your Youth precedes you and will always win.  We are creatures of the past borne by habit, and all of the virtues that ride along on the trail of our missteps will forever dictate our future triumphs.

After each of these instances, I was infinitely hopeful of some great future. I was hopeful because next fall my other best friend is getting married on a farm and its what he’s wanted to do for his entire life.  And amidst all the pain and loneliness and confusion of the world, the criticism of the arts, of what is maudlin and what is genuine emotion, there are moments of clarity and happiness, moments that we can look forward to when we are all together in some kind of pristine moment that is indestructible.

In the end, you may be saying that this was a complete waste of time.  It is completely obvious that everyone has a Youth.  Everyone has some dinky and limiting suburb that they grew up in, that can also double as the universe and eternity and the soul of man if you look at it hard enough.  That opinion is absolutely valid.  For I know there are cities on the West Coast and in the South and even further up North along the Northern Atlantic seaboard that can brag all of the same things I have expounded upon and provide their own nuances. However, my Youth came from Long Island, a deeply terrible place that is capable of the most breathtaking moments and places nature can provide; a place where you can only bow your head at all of its history. And only I have that conflict with it, only I have that knowledge of the honor of Youth and the virtue I have achieved through it.  I only hope that you too can dangle the same intangible object, in your own way, over the world’s quivering head.


  1. thanks for writing this. i like the way you make me think of home.

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