Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chapter 7, from 1983

He arrived at school full of determination to be back on his course. He'd chosen science earlier because that had been the language which promised to eradicate all the demons. It had a favorable track record in his experience. And that summer had ended with a foray to a cottage in Canada to correct the deficiencies of his freshman year. He had chosen Yale over more prestigious technical schools, because some stirrings had begun that there was other than science. He wanted to be where it was available. But he'd ended his freshman year in a ruin of exposure to philosophy, music, psychology, art, and literature, and was determined now to make amends.

He'd loaded his tiny motorcycle with all the physics books he could lay his hands on and made off for Canada where there was a cottage, beloved of his youth. He was detained at the border where some officious girl, about his own age, seemed not to believe that he had no ulterior intent. Boundaries are always guarded by those jealous of free passage. He asked her affably -- out of curiosity -- why they had chosen to detain him. "It's not your right to enter Canada." He was not entitled to an answer. It seems that personal contact is denied border guards.

What made her suspicious? He was the most innocent of travelers, wanting only to return to what had belonged to him since before he could remember. His memories where shaped by Canada, and now they were to be cut off. This metaphor compels me. Isn't there always reason and good sense behind all buffers at crossings? He was a natural candidate for suspicion. No obvious means. A motorcycle loaded only with books on a ridiculously unlikely topic. He'd just bought a carton of Pall-Mall cigarettes at the duty-free shop. What better candidate for insanity?... Excuse me; "suspicion of ulterior motive?" She had to stop him. He was just curious.

He got to the cottage, and tried to make a home for two weeks. During those two weeks, he was indeed reinvigorated in his desire to study science. He'd finally unraveled the brick wall at the end of infinity. For the first time in his life, he'd encountered relativity theory, and the language of science was brimming with wild promise. Infinity returns to the origin. My God, it was exciting. He was dizzy and chosen. He made himself sick with unaccustomed heavy smoking. He swam wildly in the clear water of his youth. But he shuttered the excitement at nights within the cozy cabin.

Here was a real answer. It had been found in 1905 and nobody had told him -- so he'd better keep quiet, because probably his excitement was ridiculous. The "world" had known for some time, and no-one seemed excited. He was by now quite suspicious of his every excitement -- as though all it revealed was his ignorance. It was a pattern long since made obvious. Whatever truth he was chosen to receive, in the privacy of his thoughts, he would immediately find revealed in whatever book came to hand afterward. He hadn't been chosen at all. He was simply slow to learn.

Yet the books came to hand with astounding coincidence. He wanted to cry out, "Hey, that's exactly what I was just thinking. I know that already. I must think just like so-and-so" who had written the book. But he kept quiet because the experience had grown so familiar that he knew he must read every book written before declaring his originality. His premature excitement would only be ridiculous.

But these books were new. There was nothing familiar except the old question that they answered. It reinforced his muteness even more, because it showed him where he couldn't venture untutored, and brought a new conviction to return to the sciences. His excitement was bridled by the habitual fear, and he wanted to know where this would lead. So convinced was he of the need for originality, and of his own lack, that it wasn't for a long time that he would learn that all original statements are rehearsals of the most ancient --and thus the most original. To invent something is to discover something, and vice-versa, though language hadn't broken down for him in that way yet.

He was suspicious of his excitement for another reason. He had been excited many times before, and there seemed to be a causal relationship, about which he was more and more certain, between the excitement and a swift depression that would inexplicably ensue. It was getting more difficult each time to find new excitement. It seemed forever impossible to make any excitement, or even aliveness or contentment, last for more than an instant, while the depression would go on and on.

So he would cling -- to his love, to his discoveries, to this new physical world which was so unlike the world that common people inhabited that he was able to cling to his conviction that they all must be zombies. Common people --the everyday people of his world -- the ones he knew and cared about, and the ones he didn't know; they all inhabited a world which he now had proof was a false one. They were trying to drag him into that world with all the common-sense advice and example whose purpose was to convince him to settle down -- and not get so excited. But now he had proof. My God, you all act as though you know. But you couldn't know because you never even hinted at this. You live in a world which has been denied by your own high priests of science. Why doesn't their proof change you as I would have it change me?

But the common people were the only people he had ever really liked in that simple way that he was familiar with. The people who never gave advice and were unsure of their example. "They" whom he hated were the pretenders, the hypocrites, the people in charge and in control, or who would be. He wanted desperately to be liked in that simple fashion, and was, on occasion, though simplicity for him was usually a pretense.

Howie remembered that when he was twelve or so, he had been possessed by one of his self-transcendent passions. He was beginning to scan the newspaper want ads for scuba diving equipment. He had some money from a paper-route and yard jobs -- not enough to seriously believe that he could enter the monied world of sport, but he kept hoping that he would find a bargain. The passion leaked out in some mystical fashion, and his father surprised him one day after work. It was a very wise thing to do. His father also had been nipped by the impractical desire to swim under-water, but he knew that it wasn't something one should do on blind desire alone. Howie was oblivious. He knew he wanted to scuba-dive, and that if he could just get the equipment he'd be able to. His father had heard that there would be a course in the local high school, and proposed that they take it together. Howie was thrilled.

They passed the course in the friendly competition of the two best swimmers and best students of the physics and physiology of pressure that were necessary to complete the course. They swam effortlessly when others floundered, and were at home under the water more so than above. It was a dream come true for Howie. Finally, he was able to accept the gentle repose of the ever-peaceful womb-space of water without the urgent cry of his body for breath always to haunt his return. Even in the spittle-ridden water of the chlorinated swimming pool, it was a heavenly feeling.

They equaled one another's score on the written exam which was several percentage points above the rest. There was a brief panic when it came time to fill out the forms for certification. Yes, even this limited transcendence is regulated. It seems that Howie couldn't have taught himself to dive even if he had the equipment. But it was a sensible regulation. There are many dangers involved in diving, and those selling equipment wanted to be sure they were not selling barbiturates to a potential suicide. It wasn't a government regulation. The people involved needed to ensure the safety of the sport simply to ensure its continued free practice. There was no injustice.

But consider the injustice Howie felt when the instructor lowered his eyes and quietly cursed his condolences. You had to be fourteen to be certified. Gosh, they'd all thought he was eighteen or so. How could he be just thirteen? How. I don't believe it. Well, it was all a big joke, and it wouldn't matter in the end. They would send in his application later and in the meantime the instructor ran his own shop. Thank God for rules whose letter can be ignored.

Howie clearly fell within the bounds of the rule's spirit. He had been well trained for the water. No-one would know the difference.

And so he was free to dive, except that he didn't have a car or a boat or any money. The discomfort caused by this impossible prison -- knowledge without means -- must have been so palpable that his father had to swallow his own rule about self-reliance by erosive bits. Howie had enough money for some equipment and his father helped. Then there was to be a weekend trip to the underwater paradise of Tobermory, Ontario. It seemed a paradise to him after the murky polluted water of Lake Erie where the world became pitch black and claustrophobic below twenty-five feet or so.

He was sixteen by that time and had gotten his driver's license. O, the agony of waiting for that birthday. The backing in and out of the driveway. The indulgent driving down dirt roads. He was a natural driver with all the instincts that need not be taught but which await only permission to be enacted. He had built go-carts and flown miniature motorcycles over jumps. He had internalized all the various laws of motion and propulsion whose exploitation by the automobile -- that subject of all American boy's dreams -- was being cruelly kept from him by the irrelevance of his age. The great leveler of differences which ignored his special qualification by counting only the years that he walked on the earth, was again caging him with his desires.

It was necessary to have a "buddy" to go on the dive trip, so as to observe one of the basic safety principles of the sport. He was alone in his interests -- he had no companion of his own age -- so he called someone whose name had been given by the shop that had organized the trip. Howie never seemed to be close to people his own age. There were some friends he'd grown up with, but he had since moved to a different town. Now he was able to like only those younger than him -- he was great with kids -- or those older. He was suspicious of people his own age. They would demand the simple respect that he be like them and that was his greatest fear. There had to be reasons that they were all frivolous or dull or bad or too good and he found them all without trouble. Then, too, he didn't want anyone so close to him as to be able to know his own vacancy. In truth it was a simple thing. He was afraid he wouldn't be liked -- or that he couldn't like someone he'd allowed to get close to him. So he kept a distance.

His father dropped him off at his "buddy's" house on the way to work. It was in downtown Buffalo in a working class section, and Howie was mildly afraid that he'd gone in over his head. He wouldn't know how to communicate with this person. He would be the object of scorn and hatred and even the violence that a youth from the suburbs fears in the city. He knew he was to be far younger than anyone else along on the trip, and that had already made him defensive. He wanted to get along and was afraid he wouldn't know how to act.

But Howie and Fred liked each other simply and immediately. They both shared the same excitement about diving and instantly fell into the familiar banter of shoptalk. Fred was about twenty-five, and they were going to travel in his van. Howie was impressed with the work Fred had done to put this ancient relic in terrific running condition. When he learned that he'd rebuilt the engine himself, Howie began to be filled with admiration. It was fueled. Fred seemed to like talking with Howie -- perhaps he was drawn by something there that impressed him. The obvious intelligence of his speech and manner that bespoke privilege. They were each entrapped in their circumstance and needed to prove to the world that they didn't belong there. Howie was trapped in the banality of suburbia with all the petty school concerns from which he'd dissociated himself. Fred was trapped in a world of no money and no priviledge. He told Howie of how he remembered the start of his interest in diving. He was a child in the bathtub with his older brother. He knew from some innate ability to see how things worked that he could breath through the drain in the bathtub if he covered it with his mouth underwater and opened it. He and his brother would compete to see who could hold his breath the longest, and he had terrified his brother with this drain pipe snorkel.

Howie was entranced. Silly to say, but it was the beginning of another revelation for him. Here was this man who'd come out of a tiny and shabby frame house and who spoke with a heavy city impropriety and who exhibited more intelligence --and romance -- than all the best and brightest people from his own background. Here was true intelligence and ability --and, as usual, it was buried by circumstance.

"My brother got the best of me. He told me that I'd catch typhoid from the drain. I was terrified for weeks."

Beaten by peers afraid to be bested. Hammered back from the elation of discovery by those who have invented all the best reasons for remaining where they are. I am better because I know enough not to try something stupid. But why do we have to be better? Why do we have to invent reasons for satisfying ourselves that it's better not to be better? Brothers have to compete, though, because they share the sunlight which makes them grow. Parents are partial to the clever kid, and he'd get all the privileges which must be denied to the other. All attempts at fairness are seen through by children who always know what love is.

Howie was so enamored that when they drove through the black section and Fred pulled out a switchblade and laid it on the dash, he wasn't shocked.

"If one of those fucking jungle-bunnies tries to jump me, he's got something comin'."

In the moment of revelation, the world was upside down, and this seemed the proper response. Howie made it fit with his own disgust at racism -- the denial for ever of privilege to a people, because ultimately we are jealous of God's love. He felt that here at least was an honest response.

Fred wasn't cowering in his fear. He wasn't calling names from behind the walls of some suburban fortress. He called a spade a spade and dealt with the reality as he knew it. This wasn't racism -- it was the only alive response to a fear that for Fred was too real to sublimate with words. And Howie felt secure with the knife there on the dashboard. He wondered if he could ever use it, but he admired the forthrightness and courage of Fred who, he was certain, could.

You don't knife a black man who's mugging you -- you pity him. He has a right to knife you and beat you, for his anger is real. But what do you do with the fear that creeps into your guts? Howie was not competent to enter the city. Abstractions are fine when you aren't threatened by actuality. They work well on paper and in talk, but how do you put them into practice? How do you unwind the circumstances of your skin in a world that has determined to entrap you there?

Fred grew tired on the long drive, and Howie was anxious to prove that he, too, was a real person and not some intelligent wimp.

"Would you like me to drive?"

"Well, it's a pretty tricky van. I feel like I'm the only one who could drive it. It has a lot of little quirks."

Howie was dying to drive. He'd only just gotten his license, and had still not enough opportunity to test the exhilaration. He wanted to prove what a good driver he knew himself to be.

Fred got more tired. "Can you drive a standard?"

Howie flashed with the pride of his contempt for automatic transmission. It was an axiom borrowed from his father that anyone who couldn't drive a standard shouldn't be driving. If they didn't understand at least that much of the workings of a car, then they shouldn't be on the road. They wouldn't be in control.

"I've never driven anything else."

So Howie got behind the wheel. He carried a mixture of nervousness and confidence. Fred was indulgent when he started up in third.

"The shifter's a little tricky, I always do that myself."

It still felt funny. The accelerator seemed sticky and heavy. The clutch was erratic. When he got moving, the whole van seemed loose. He wanted to blame the old van, but Fred had driven remarkably well. There'd been that feeling of confidence and control that Howie recognized immediately in a good driver. The way curves were taken. The smoothness of gear changes and braking. The van had seemed really tight and at home on the road. Now it weaved and jerked. The wheel seemed loose. It automatically over-corrected. I'm not in control.

But Howie always claimed he was doing fine. It was a terrible struggle to keep the external appearance from betraying the internal actuality. God, I can hardly keep this thing on the road -- it veers all over. Howie was slightly panicked. An odd disjunction pervaded to even the way the landscape appeared. Things seemed less than real. He couldn't get back a feeling of being there. He couldn't capture his accustomed sense of awareness of the position of the cars around him. Who was going to pass; where was the road going. He didn't anticipate the curves properly. It was a dazed feeling, and Fred wasn't getting any rest.

Howie had driven all sorts of cars by then -- at every opportunity he could get. Once, while on a boy-scout trip, the scoutmaster needed someone to pull the trailer away from a boat as it was being launched. He was fourteen and had only driven his father's car in and out of the driveway. It required tricky clutchwork. He was confident that of the boys he was the one to do it, and he performed beautifully. With the thrill of triumph, he and a friend had taken off on a furtive spree along the back roads. The scoutmaster had hurried off in the boat -- it was getting late, and he had left instructions about parking the car. Howie couldn't have driven the car if he hadn't earned the implicit trust of the scoutmaster. But there was the friend and there was the road. The infraction would go unnoticed.

Yet some realms are forever forbidden because they belong too closely to another personality. Such must have been the case with Fred's van. By now, Howie could probably drive it well enough; but then, he was pretending -- and couldn't cross the boundary of personality which made this vehicle so different from any other.

Cars are mechanical things. They can be mastered whatever their quirks. Ah, but to pretend mastery can lead to disaster. And to attempt mastery when the thing must remain forever other only serves to shut tightly the doors of entrance. A humility is required. But Howie had to be bold, or he'd never learn. He had to fake it. He believed he could master the van and fought vainly to prove it. And where is the boundary between belief and actuality? Is it just there, in the test, or can the belief alone sometimes create the actuality which would never have appeared without it. And belief in mastery is not the same as belief in things behind appearances. Yet they both require demonstration. Is pride holding the latch? And what is the relationship between pride and boldness?

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