Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with …
… In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears …
“You see,” said Dick smugly, “I’m the only one.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night
All that desperate fingering/stroking/pulling at hair/cheeks/mouths/lobes—observed by someone named Dick Diver—only sounds like a reference to the monthly orgy on the McSweeney’s yacht, to which I’m never invited. Really the passage is about appearing to be self-possessed even when you’re cracking up—doubly important if the other chaps at Princeton judged you because you hail from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Fitzgerald’s repose, a class notion that rejects the body as vulgar, is not insignificant. Think of Nixon’s sweaty jowls in his debates with Kennedy, or the panther scream of Howard Dean. But true repose, if it’s achievable, is not posturing. Thoreau describes it in Walden:
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe … till we come to a hard bottom … which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake … below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or state, or set a lamp-post safely …
He got the idea from Emerson, who points back to Plato: “The problem of philosophy is … to find a ground unconditioned and absolute.” It’s the place that makes possible any number of things—independence, selfhood, seeing clearly. But how to get there?
It’s finals week at Hinterland, and students have begun to permit their parents to drive three hours to pick them up for the summer. Outside one residence hall a dad in expensive shorts barked orders at his son’s friends humping stereo components to the car. Mother, in her nylon tracksuit, did the cha-cha of uselessness, trying to be helpful but also getting yelled at by her husband as if she were a child. Several younger parents in the drive seemed eager to relive their own college glory; they shouted to each other and giggled and went into football stances and paced up the block, evidently looking for the Skulls kegger. An older mom and dad trudged from dorm to curb, hardly looking up; their demeanor said, It’s OK, run over my feet again with your wheeled Vuitton luggage, I’m of no great consequence anyhow. All the students were embarrassed and begged to get on the road. It’s an awkward time.
Disengaging suddenly and finally from my students each semester fills me with nervous energy. Yesterday I walked to, and from, and then back to, campus—more than four miles—for no good reason other than to focus my eyes on something more distant than a page of student writing.
Do you have repose? Take the Patillo test. It’s named for a friend who used to try to annoy us by always asking, “Ain’t you itchin’?” “No,” we replied, even when covered in ticks and leeches and dying the death of a thousand cuts from saw grass. “Bet you are,” Patillo said. “Bet you’re itchin’ right now. Huh? You itchin’? Up there on your scalp? Top of your left ear?” “Hell we are,” we replied. “Oh yes you are, you can’t help it,” Patillo said. “It’s just a little tickle, but it’s growing, isn’t it? Now it’s on your right shoulder blade, and it itches like hell. Jesus, it’s on your lip. Scratch it. Scratch at it. You know you want to. You got to. It’s in the hair on your shin, it’s like you got fleas and they’re bitin’ you. They brought the mosquitoes with ‘em. And the earwax is in on it; it’s tickling the little hairs in your ear canal; my God, it’s the most sensitive place on your body. Scratch at it! Git it!”
Last I heard of Patillo, he was training helicopter pilots. Imagine yourself wrestling the collective, the cyclic, and both pedals on a big turbocharged aircraft, known in aviation circles—because of its capriciousness—as the DeathJet Ranger. It’s been painted bright orange so it’ll be easier to find from the air when it crashes. Sweat runs into your eyes, where you can’t reach it under your helmet visor, even if you could take your hands from the controls. Your instructor, Warrant Officer Patillo, tells you you’re doing fine. Then: “Hey, are you itchin’?” If you can say confidently that you wouldn’t be affected, you may have repose.
At some point every semester, a student asks, “Why is literature always about bad stuff?” It’s a good question, since that perception keeps so many—especially those in the middle class who want only happyhappy—from art. Part of the answer is that drama is conflict, but there’s also something in modern literature that can seem cold, even “inhuman,” as Ortega y Gasset says. James Joyce writes that “the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” That indifference bothers many, who don’t stick around for the deep humanity of Ulysses. Chekhov’s stories, too, have a “cosmic” point of view, one critic says, as if we were being observed by something too distant for empathy. So we’ve heated up the earth, and the last of the polar bears may be gone within 25 years. So what? In the cosmic view, it’s no big deal, but I find it hard to stay calm about losses like that.
Besides, you know who’s next, after the polar bears? Your third-grade teacher, Miss Rollo, that great hulk in polymer pearls who for years dressed her snarling Chihuahua in little red pants, a fur-lined jacket, and a Santa hat, and brought him to school the last day before winter break. She was wearing a green elf’s hat and holding Snookums under one arm when you watched her slap Danny Rule, the littlest kid in the class, right out of his desk for bragging about being a tap dancer while she was trying to explain the pageantry of the birth of the Christ child. Then she made him sit on the radiator until his butt had grill marks.
Miss Rollo, God love her, finally retired to Boca last year. She’s 98. Too mean to die and too stubborn to move back to the Midwest, she too will be washed out of being, in another 50 years or so. “Get the hell out of my Florida room,” she’ll yell at the Atlantic as it rises against her, but the waves, as salty as tears, will lap over her and the 14th incarnation of her hateful rat dog anyway. I’ll have to Google Danny Rule from the nursing home so I can tell him there is justice after all. The cosmic narrator, who has ultimate repose, will yawn and chug a quart of neutrinos right from the carton.
I’ve always felt repose was possible—else what’s a minor in philosophy for?—but loss is an obstacle. When events throw you off balance or give you pause, how can you be “below freshet and frost”? I’ll never get over the fact that I won’t play pool with Sam Clemens, or that I didn’t catch Mozart live in London on his European tour of 1764. I wholeheartedly regret that McSweeney’s didn’t make me as rich and famous as I am until now, so I never got to do coke with Mick and Bianca at Studio 54, or use my influence to be an extra in the film Magical Mystery Tour.
I grew up thinking of the Beatles as the older brothers I never had, though John and Paul were already fathers when I was born. Now Starbuck loves them, too. He knew all the words to “Yellow Submarine” when he turned 3, and his favorite curse is “Aw, Bonka!” (It refers to the Apple Bonkers, the Blue Meanies’ skinny henchmen.)
One day not so long after my mother’s funeral, Starbuck asked, “Daddy? Are the Beatles alive?” I instantly saw his new understanding of things. “The Beatles don’t play as a group anymore,” I said, dodging. “But where do they live?” “Oh, Paul lives in England, I guess. Ringo is more of an L.A. guy. Vegas, maybe.” Then he had me. “What about John? And George? Where do they live?”
I hesitated. He’s our first child, after all; how does one answer, except honestly? “They died,” I said.
“John and George died?” he asked. “Yes,” I said.
That was all he seemed to need to know for several weeks, but I knew there were harder questions ahead. Grandma Helen died, we had told him, because she was very old and very sick. It was true enough, and he needed reassurance that my wife and I wouldn’t die for a long time and neither would he. So that became the rule for him: you got very old, and very sick, and then maybe you could die. But to Starbuck, John Lennon is the handsome young man in A Hard Day’s Night who bats his eyes at the British banker and says, “Give us a kiss.” It wouldn’t help any to tell him that Lennon was my age when he died.
It came, last week, on the way home from his school. We were laughing at John’s high-pitched shouting (“Yassuh! Take one, the United Jumbo Band!”) at the start of one version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” I replayed it several times so we could mimic it well.
Unexpectedly, Starbuck said, “Did John die?” “Yes,” I said and let the music play. “Did he get old and die? Was he sick?”
I tried to make my voice matter-of-fact—a sort of cruelty, I felt, which meant that I was so callous that I could abide the horrific, and that he would be asked to do so, too—and said, “No, a man hurt him.”
“The man shot him with a gun. He hurt John so badly that he couldn’t stay alive.”
“Oh,” Starbuck said.
Of course, I didn’t tell him the accounts I’d read of John alone in the back seat of the New York City police car that sped him from the Dakota in an attempt to save his life. A policeman named Moran turned and asked, “Are you John Lennon?,” unintentionally sounding like an interrogator, a hopeful fan, or St. Peter. John, in the voice as familiar as a brother’s to millions of us, croaked, “Yeah.” He had lost 80 percent of his blood volume, and died of hypovolemic shock by the time they reached Roosevelt Hospital. I thought of how Paul McCartney said recently that one of the last times he saw John, John hugged him and said quietly, “Touching is good.”
“Will we ever see John again?” Starbuck asked. He was near tears.
I paused, because I wasn’t sure of my voice. It seems impossible we can lose people along the way as if they were only eyeglasses or extra sets of keys. I told Starbuck that through John’s music and films we can be with him and the Beatles anytime we want, and that books and paintings and films and music and theater are like wonderful friends, because they contain the best that human beings have ever thought and felt. I rubbed the back of my neck and looked over the top of my glasses at Starbuck in the rearview mirror. It was a sure tell of unease, but he’s only 4. Besides, I thought I meant it, that stuff about the miracle of art. Yes, I do.