—From the Fool—
Benny told me to be a writer so I’d get rich and then I could marry Luann. But he didn’t like the first line I wrote, and I’d already spent a lot of time on that. I guess it was a good thing, though, that I didn’t be a writer. I saw where a writer blew his head off, and he’d already written a whole slew of lines. Waste of effort.
So I asked Charlene, who has a big Rottweiler that she’s been trying to housebreak for the last five years, so she’s coped with a lot. She works for a telemarketing outfit, so that might be the thing. They always need people, she said, cause you get fired if you go nuts and throw your coffee cup at the wall. “They’ll hire any fool,” she said, so I seemed qualified.
I tried it for a day. I was supposed to sell adjustable beds, which I didn’t know what that was, but they said you don’t need to know because there’s a script. Selling is selling, they said, which I couldn’t say no it isn’t. So I plunged forth.
At the start of the script, I say, “How are you today?” That hooks them, the manager said: nobody can’t not answer.
You get paid by how many you hook, he said. And then if you score the most in the day, you can pop a balloon. They had this board on the wall, with darts and balloons, and in theballoons there might be a fifty-dollar bill, so the winner could pop a balloon. And if you score the worst, he said, you’re fired.
I never really got past the “How are you today?” Ten people hung up before I read it, three people screamed something not entirely accurate, and the fourteenth was an old lady who said, “Not so good,” and went on to tell me all her symptoms and what her doctor had said and what her daughter had advised her to take which was some kind of organic or orgasmic stuff you boiled and spread on your head but she was already going bald so she’d got prescriptions from five different doctors and was taking them all. At that point the manager told me two minutes to a call and cut her off, but not before “It blows my fuckin’ mind,” she said.
That was kind of interesting, in fact, but I didn’t sell any adjustable beds. The manager said I didn’t really have the knack. “It’s a grind,” Charlene said, but I guess she doesn’t mind, after the Rottweiler.
I was a juvenile liar. Constantly. Unnecessarily. Pathological liar? I dunno, but it was automatic and it felt awful. I have joked that I wouldn’t tell you the right time of day, and maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how it felt.
There came a time when that flipped 180 degrees, and now I truly feel like barfing as I realize how public figures do this 24/7. They say reformed drunks and smokers are critics beyond the norm, but I’d really add the category of reformed liar. And I’m so sorry for these fools.
I look at this fizzing display of mendacity that pollutes what passes for news, and I look at the way that it’s tacitly enabled, and I think, “How can they DO that?” They make it look like it’s fun, like that’s what everybody who’s cool and in the know does, and I think, “What was wrong with me?”
Because it wasn’t fun, it was hell. I was expected to be perfect, and when I brought home an elementary school report card with a “B” on it, I did my baby best to forge it into an “A”.
Once in junior high I set off on the train ride into Chicago for my biweekly piano lesson, and my mom insisted that I take a piece of leftover round steak with me in a plastic bag. I didn’t want it, I didn’t eat it, but I didn’t throw it away. It sat there behind my piano for more than a week in my plastic music case, getting more fragrant by the day, and I valiantly denied any knowledge of what was stinking.
I probably hit my pinnacle of absurdity in college when I intercepted my grade reports and did a pretty damn good job of forgery, much better than my grade-school job. I even forged my way into Northwestern University, setting myself up as a fake employer with a PO box, getting a paper transcript to alter.
But later, when my life-partner discovered an even more bizarre web of deception, learning that when I went off to my teaching job I was actually coming home and hiding in the apartment building’s laundry room until it was “quitting time,” it all came crashing down. And when he said, “What do we do now?” I had to face it. He said “we.”
The pain was immense, but like cautery on a wound, it was cleansing. I stumbled to my feet and started over, learning what I should have learned in childhood.
Who’s gonna say, “What’s stinking behind the piano?” How will we have the courage to call bullshit on these routine lies? We will need what I needed, the presence of steadfast connection, the necessity to participate in unconditional love, the clear understanding that we are all responsible for each other.
It will hurt, but it will heal, and it’s our only choice.
The value of Facebook is twofold. First, it’s a chance to connect, at least to some degree, with people from many past lives, people I value but for whom I wouldn’t find occasion to send an email or make a phone call. No immediacy in the relationship, and yet there’s a boinng in the heart when I see something from them.
The other value is that it gives us something to bitch about when we’re tired bitching about all the other stuff.
In any case, I was overwhelmed with the responses to my birthday last Saturday, and almost as much to a recent political rant. I guess that birthdays and politics find their way up to the brim of the algorithm more readily, but it was one of those days when a vital thirst was assuaged.
The thirst for visibility. A female friend recently noted the cloak of invisibility that starts to cover older women like the slow growth of cataracts. Quite true, but I think it’s true of men as well, at least if you’re outside the pecking order—not really on the bottom, because you’re not actually pecking, you’re more over to the side. That thirst is most extreme caricatured in the form of a man who puts his name on tall buildings and runs for President, but it’s present in us all, I think.
In the arts, we’re especially aware of it because name recognition means the difference between getting the booking, the job, the grant, the review, the publication—or not. And if you’ve passed a certain age, have a vast resume but nobody’s heard of you, well, it’s assumed you must either be over the hill or else that you haven’t even started the climb. Credits are counterproductive: you haven’t made it.
Indeed, we haven’t made it. We just keep making it. There’s honor in that, and life, and staying power. But oddly, all those are like drinking grapefruit juice when you really want a beer—it satisfies one thirst but misses another. And so with visibility, yes, the small moments are enormously valued.
So, seventy-five. My daughter, on the phone from Italy, asked how it felt. Actually, that hasn’t changed much since 4th grade: I’m nine, when am I going to be ten? Clearly, seventy-five isn’t what I would have thought of as seventy-five. I’m liking it. No question but that I’m acutely conscious of the years, of people younger than me dying (many & dear), of the preciousness of every year, of the faintness of the chance of getting some of our novels published before I croak—etc. etc. etc. But it makes everything ten times as sweet, and that very much includes those “Happy Birthdays.”
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© Bishop & Fuller 2016