Last night we watched part of the new Chris Rock comedy special. Let me say, first of all, that the man is funny as heck. We were laughing hard. He had a lot to say about Obama that was not only funny but astute and telling. He’s also smart–he can read the audience and respond to that “uh-oh” feeling that comes from listening to edgy humor that takes no prisoners.
Angie and I were talking this morning about the part where Chris Rock said that if Obama were president, Black people could stop giving their kids the “you can be anything you want to be” speech every morning before they leave the house. He said, White people don’t give their kids that speech, because it’s obvious. This led Angie and me to discuss (not for the first time) the fact that we are raising two little white boys. They could be president, even in the old days (and let’s hope they are nearly over) when only little white boys could grow up to be president. Then we talked about whether having two lesbian moms would be enough of a handicap to prevent them from being president, and whether Clinton’s (Bill, that is) single mom and alcoholic step-dad were equivalent to having lesbian mothers. I said no; Angie said yes.
This is what we do with our free time while the boys are with their babysitter.
Then we go to the library, sit at the long wooden tables, and get to work. Around us, the economy is tanking, and taking us with it for the ride, I suppose, but we are all paid up on our library fines and have a clean slate when it comes to borrowing all the wealth in this bank of books. Wee-ha!
Just for the record, my mother did give me that speech, since I was a little white (half-Jewish) kid, but also a girl, and it wasn’t so obvious that I could be anything I wanted to be. Except as a reader.
Yeah–there’s the tie in to fiction: the gateway to success for those not wedded too closely to reality. Funnily enough, this is also exactly what most people–interviewers, say, or even readers–refuse to understand fully about writing fiction: characters can be invented out of the thick swirl of internal and external experience, out of the “what if” musings that run rampant in junior high kids like I was, for example, out of that feeling that who you actually are is a quirky twist of fate rather than a destiny, that you might as easily have arrived over there, in that body, in that life.
There but for fortune, we say, but is the fortune always good? I guess this is another confession: every time I hear a piece of someone else’s life, I zip into it and feel around for the fit. I overhear someone say that she’d finished her dissertation after twelve years. First thought: I should get a PhD. Someone writes to me from Kansas City with a look at living in a place that doesn’t value questioning over hierarchy as he feels the Bay Area does, but in an aside he mentions the lower cost of living. First thought: We could buy a house in Kansas City.
In life, I’m a bit of a push-over, then; indecisive and open to all manner of possibilities. My therapist seems to think (it’s hard to be sure between his nodding and questions and my own projections) that this has to do with my fear of committing to one life trajectory, since a single trajectory inevitably ends. Whereas Zeno’s paradox assures us that if we are jumping point to point, halfway to halfway to halfway again, we will never reach the end. In life, this is kind of weak, I suppose. But for the fiction writer, this same waffling, wafting search is like pumping iron for the imagination. I. Could. Be. Anything.
Sure, I can’t be everything. In life, I may only be able to be a handful of things (and some people might succeed in amending the constitution of the state just to prevent one of those things, so Vote No on Prop. 8). But there are lives ahead of me as a writer.
Borges said it better in “Everything and Nothing,” a piece out of Labyrinths which my father read aloud to me one day in what was then his living room and is now mine (speaking of changes . . .). My father had this sonorous voice, hushed in reverence to its own power, and when he read this I felt deeply understood. Which is not to compare myself to Shakespeare or Borges, but only to toss my headpiece in with the rest of the writers, to say, I live by my greatest weakness, which is that I cannot pick one life for good.