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On the nature of cultural inheritance and exchange

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in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

I’ve often heard people speak of a “cultural inheritance,” meaning something nonmaterial, whether wisdom, generosity, or some other positive trait increasingly defrocked in the current zeitgeist, and passed down through acts both unconditional and impartial — “I demonstrate, you do what you will.” Yet cultural inheritances can be more diluted, problematic as well — “His father was an ass­hole, too.” And if you are from the Midwest, where soporific scenes dominate, a love of drinking is handed down more often than a love of books or an interest in great philosophical questions. There were books in our house when I was a child and I ogled them. Some mighty ones were at my eye line in a bookcase my father constructed. Impotent were the words, but behind those glass doors . . . the spines, hard and soft with no formal arrangement — and then the covers. The thick Brothers Karamazov, with small-font to save paper, but with the menace of a large, black, typically stout Russian torso like an Easter Island stone on the cover — no features, no dress, just blackness. But I came into literature later, and more fetishistically when living on the West Coast.

College couldn’t make me into a writer, let alone a close reader. I knew only the canon and I respected it in the way a civilian looks at a retired warship in the harbor. Yet, soon after, I would finally begin to read the current fiction of repute, thanks to an irreducible, im­probable friendship with someone a decade older. He’d grown up on the Upper East Side, regularly strolling the Met, MOMA, the Frick, and Lincoln Center, seeing the best jazz musicians, and filing through The Strand for the latest Updike. If the inheritance came from anybody, it came from him. Simply, he knew what was good to read.

The summer after college graduation, I embarked on a garden­ ing internship at a community near the small town of Dexter, Oregon, in the foothills of the Cascades. On the first evening, following some seven hours of hard labor, I fell asleep right after dinner. Still, the earth was beautiful, and being so close to it for the first time fostered a hardy affection. Working in the same fields hour after hour, day following day, I came to know nature better. As we tended the soil and it formed, sometimes changing overnight, covetous feelings were sparked, like the earth was a baby, my own child. I was part of a team, working alongside ten other residents and interns — some innocuous, some challeng­ing, and some merely spirited. One fellow stood out, diminutive and intense, but sad, with a straw hat askew over his blond, curly locks. I had met him some weeks before in Eugene. Blue-eyed and haughty in his concealment of some great blustery emotions, he struck me as a threatening presence. Judgment harkened and see­ ing him as too much a mirror of a prior, discarded self, I instantly disliked him. To live and work together, I would have to give him a second glance, but for the first days, I circled him, staying close to the younger, more approachable women full of skin and smiles.

On the Fourth of July, the community was invited to our distant and famous neighbor’s property for a celebration. Ken Kesey’s land had a bunch of young hippie chicks and enough special lemon­ade to send the 100 people there into unique spells for hours. Sharing the same general sense of unease in the face of this frolicking, the mystery man and I both left the gathering around the same time to walk the two miles back to the community. I stayed a safe distance behind to avoid the inevitable awk­ ward, hello, but my gait was almost twice his and he kept slowing down, though I was sure he didn’t feel my presence, given I hung back on the straightaways. Too frustrating to keep stifling myself (I wanted to get back before it started to rain), I finally caught up to him with not much distance to go. We muttered a few things and I instantly recognized a reader. Even though we divulged little merriment about this shared interest, I immediately began to re­ cast my hasty judgments. Soon, he became my closest friend.

He could have a thorny way of relating and many asked what the hell he was doing in a small community of people in search of inner light in the Pacific Northwest. He had broken with his prep-school and Dartmouth upbringing and had already lived in a truly cultish community in Florida, where, under the influence of his fetching partner, he gave away thousands of dollars and became involved in a legal tussle, eventually declaring bankruptcy to save face. After this and other stints in NYC and Seattle that came to similar tired and spent ends, a long depression cloaked him. Money and status — the hallmarks of his upbringing, what he paid attention to, what he read about, and what he admired in others — still obsessed him. Yet, he’d followed his own path in Oregon, driving a red Datsun truck, listening to bluegrass music, and searching for a nature girl, while still subscribing to The New Yorker. He also loved films, especially Nashville, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Goodfellas. We spent many a time in the garden quot­ing lines to each other and laughing. The people around us, many earth-firsters, sat mystified as we all picked hardened clumps of dirt off pungent garlic knobs, a vegetable taking up almost a fifth of my internship with the additional cleaning and braiding.

Two years on, and we both lived in Eugene, a happy hippie bubble kept afloat by its university. A Catholic Midwesterner and a Jewish New Yorker. Two people who looked like Abbott and Costello together, just with less weight on their bodies. Why did we continue to work so well? He had tasted what I yearned after. Ten years older, he had spent most of that decade in assorted relationships, while pressing to break into the photography world and briefly succeeding. The blank, blunt stare accompanying his no-nonsense attitude and strict beliefs in living and art also actuated a few parts of his own unique pain of love, career, and home gone sour. Joy did lurk. He could erupt into a long cackle, reddening his face until he hid his head. He had the gift of gab and could extemporize for many minutes on a number of subjects, his words interspersed with hiccoughs of laughter aimed more derisively at himself than at others. He could be severe — once at a community meeting he told another male resident he had a whiny way of currying favor — but he could also have a good time and he introduced me to a variety of art and psychedelics.

Strong opinions were manacled to the former. Barry Lyndon was the greatest — The Shining not so much. Monk over Coltrane. Into my hands, he put books authored by four writers who would come to have as much influence over me as any: Paula Fox, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, and J.M. Coetzee. Incredulous, he would deny my knowledge of a certain subject, up to the point of check­ ing an encyclopedia or the internet, though still dismissing me when I turned out to be right. I didn’t mind — it was part of our banter. The young always have more to prove. At times boyish recalcitrance kindled our interactions. Making fun of this, grousing about that. Our thoughts, as satirically laced dark sides, were aligned, but out of step with the more politically correct and country-mannered people of Eugene, our “community” — a word we drew out in speech to accentuate its wide range of rearguard connotations. Sometimes the sappy seriousness of the self-help culture was too much to bear and we cruelly picked on obvious targets, criticizing their bloviated, sentimental manners — moments now many times more spiteful in memory. But this was only the fraught side of the friendship; those poisonous digressions to make one feel better about the psychic pain installed for ages. Movies and books propelled the rest.

It surely wasn’t enough to suggest titles, there had to be a discussion as well, and during the numerous potlucks and lazy days particularly in the winter of 2002, creeping into the in­famy of the new year and the second Iraq invasion, we convened. In the sepia-toned existence that is Eugene’s gray sky and dreary atmosphere, a daguerreotype predominating from Halloween to Memorial Day, we had little choice but to nestle in and avoid the damp chills in the Willamette Valley (called “The Valley of Sick­ness” by the area’s last known Indians), often in a rich friend’s large house a few hundred feet above sea level on the way to Spencer’s Butte. While others trafficked in the plat du jour, processing (that is, working out one’s issues face to face with the source and some­ times with help from a “mediator”), we’d break off into a corner, or even sometimes in the midst of a cuddle-pile (the crowd we ran with did ignite and continue to broker a weekly cuddle club), because it didn’t matter where the literary tête-à-têtes took place. It didn’t bother us that pretty much no-one out of the dozens and dozens of people we knew from the college town (most were older and only a few attended the school) did not relate to or even read any of the works we considered — they were too engulfed in Bar­ bara Kingsolver or the aforementioned processing. These talks on the fly were integral to our shared existence, for why else have friends? Our book-club-for-two did speak of story, of characters and their motivations, and also of structure, dialogue, foreshadow-ing — all things that make fiction imaginatively sweet. Less about language and syntax, unless considering some of McCarthy’s abstruse vocabulary.

For May Day, we went to the annual Beltane celebration (an ancient Celtic holiday co-opted by contemporary Wiccans). We camped in the cold, twisting hills of the Coast Ranges, which don’t warm until July, stretches of land where every few miles another travesty of industrialization, the clear-cutting of large swaths of forest, moved an economy that had no sales tax and somehow supported the Oregon Health Plan. Nearly everyone at Beltane made less than $20,000 a year or they had made a mint in the Bay or L.A. and retired in Eugene or Portland, buying a house for a song. I’m not a pagan. I thought of Hawthorne as we danced around the Maypole, chanting something vaguely Middle English. Sex with strange and new women sounded fine to me, but I also reserved time for reading. My friend had just put me on to McCarthy then, and after Blood Meridian and Suttree, I went on to begin The Border Trilogy. On Sunday morning I warmed up in front of the lodge’s fireplace (the lodge served as the kitchen for the gathering), reading of John Grady Cole’s final movements in All the Pretty Horses. Next to me a nearly verifiable wood nymph (like many of those in attendance) sewed pieces of corduroy onto a homemade journal’s cardboard covers. My friend came in and I told him I’d just finished the book — it wasn’t as strong as the first two McCarthy books I’d read, but it was strong. He began to speak of it in grave tones — enamored of the moral weight of the questions McCarthy posed, particularly of the hero’s return to America and confessing his murder of a man to a judge, after-hours at the judge’s home. John Grady had to clear himself or at least check his karma. Didn’t regrets shape our lives, with murder just an outgrowth of many different ghosts in our closets? We were often speaking like this about fiction. We’d insert ourselves in the story, even if we didn’t mean to; that is, we did with litera­ ture what it can rarely do for young people studying it in school—play life experience both against and within it. And what else but art, displaying characters like themselves, makes people question their own morality so vociferously, as it does not indemnify their life choices, but simply stands as a mythical portal? If life teaches life, art teaches hindsight.

I came from television, but he came from money and the anxiety about holding on to it. Money did something to the chemi­cals controlling his thoughts, which often revolved around under­ standing the greenbacks and their effects, and how they commanded and curtailed lives, empires, and epochs: from real estate prices on Second Avenue to the tuition fees at Columbia and the record-breaking amount paid for a van Gogh on auction at Christie’s. Money harpooned him like no other setup, except art; hence, his calling out how the father in All the Pretty Horses answers his son’s disappointment when he refuses to play chess with the boy. When the father says you need patience to play chess, the son replies:

You got patience to play poker.
That’s different.
What’s different about it?
Money is what’s different about it.

We rented a house together with our respective lovers on the Oregon coast one chilly March weekend. A couples’ weekend — cooking, watching movies, walking on the strand and fondling the mighty basalt boulders near Yachats which had been there at least as long as the oldest local’s grandfather could re­ member. A time of timelessness — and reading. His lodestar, and mine for a while, Alice Munro, had just published a story, “Passion,” in The New Yorker the week before. He had already read it and now wanted to share it, out loud, with us. It would take a while — 11,000 words is probably 60 minutes through someone’s mouth, maybe more. To do something like this, to hold three people’s attention captive for an hour — it is almost unimaginable these days. There was no internet there. No cell coverage, either. We had space and time and started an hour before dusk. Even though I considered myself under the moon of Munro, it proved hard to listen. I couldn’t still my mind, and for the first half of the story, I heard only every fourth sentence or so. Nothing to do with the speaking voice or the story — in fact, the long setup to one life-altering experience (something mostly foregone in her final two collections) was a Munro specialty. She was adept at handling time, which is to say, memory, and how memory transforms the way we think of the events making up our lives, how the ego grants certain clauses and refrains while omitting others. The sun continued falling, a rare warm light on the windy rugged cookie-cutter coast. I kept resisting all the spoken words — a familiar feeling I could often sense when I’d tried to read others my work. During those dismaying minutes, I would have to pretend we were in an early Godard film, and I read aloud while beautiful French actors or actresses (stand-ins for my friends and lovers) listened attentively and offered some pithy rodomontade to rebuke what I thought peachy, instead of the gaggle of blank looks. There were a much different quality and experience to the reading I heard in our house than one in a book­store or public place, where the creator gives people an experience or an excuse to buy the book. My friend, I noticed halfway through, gave something of his soul to the reading, while striking a confident tone owing to his familiarity with the words; plus, he had a great investment in this tale.

Munro has three or four basic narratives to her stories, and this one, chance sex with a stranger, she’d tackled a handful of times before. The story easily transfers a reader inside it because of its familiarity, its everydayness. In the recognition there is a loosening — I don’t know if my friend had sex with someone he’d hardly known. Probably. I did. Maybe the women had, as well. Suddenly the experience was not the story on the page, but the story of our lives interred in our memories. The story itself marched on to its improbable Munrovian conclusion — the woman has sex with her fiancé’s alcoholic brother, who the next day dies in a drunk-driving accident. The fiancé’s brother somehow knows about the infidelity, and although he and the woman never see each other again, his father approaches her some days later and hands her a check for a thousand dollars. Given the ending trans­ action, my friend was understandably alert and he choked up and cried for a time before he read those final lines:

Immediately she thought of sending it back or tearing it up, and sometimes even now she thinks that would have been a grand thing to do. But in the end, of course, she was not able to do it. In those days, it was enough money to ensure her a start in life.

Culture — the Sistine ceiling, Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcel­ona, the falling bone becoming the descending spaceship in 2001 — opens the sense of beauty. We were quiet, but not morose — buoyed, rather, but with the decorum not to try and cross out the seeming sadness of the humorless occasion, which the incontrovertible emotional act sought to cement. The tertiary character’s actions in the short story — giving money to a young woman who would have been his daughter-in-law, though what she did resulted in his own son losing out on a bride — made it a very curious and distant, maybe even lunatic gesture. Something taking place only in the imagination could be so powerful as to provoke but also absolve some of my friend’s pain about the role of money in life, how gifts can once in a while trounce greed.

What was my response to the act? The giving of the money didn’t hold the layers it did for him. When you’re 30 you’re still searching for evidence behind all the great realizations in your twenties. I probably read Munro to keep the flame alive of how I might one day get to a place where I might have a stable, successful relationship. I never thought I’d get married or ever become a father — so much for my auguring powers. 

To cry in front of a group might be the most cathartic event many of us will participate in, considering few would want to be caught with teary eyes by a stranger standing a hundred feet away. I had wept when reading Disgrace out loud to my honey, clenching at the final pages detailing the killing of the last dog. But this was different. When you do something in front of a number of people, a switch is turned, the gain is far greater, more worlds collide. The general feeling of release wasn’t uniquely heavy to him; we all felt taken and no longer marooned, intimate in an inimitable way. It resem­ bled how the breeze blows during high school, maybe college days, when you are held by friends who all have to apply themselves to the same matrix and the same landing spot — like a Friday- or Saturday-night sleepover that could go on forever — that crystalized feeling of togetherness common to humanity no matter in which corner of the world.

So the inheritance grew to showing one’s emotions. Years later, I interviewed Paula Fox. She told me she’d apologized to a delivery man after she had been in his way and he told her, “Don’t apolo­gize, it’s a sign of weakness,” and quickly she corrected him, saying, “No, it’s a sign of strength.” If anyone would have known, it was Fox; if I would have taken anyone’s word, it was hers. The honor was in admitting when one had erred, something my friend also val­ued. The year prior he went into a fiery coupling with a lady who satisfied where she made most hungry and as that relationship exploded into a mess of dependence and drama, he came to me early one morning at my girlfriend’s house and confessed, “I’m a mean motherfucker,” while draining his eyes. Later in the year, at a self-help seminar, I sat with him and another woman on a picnic bench while I busted a psychic rampart and unleashed the waters, grasping how I’d not felt unconditional love from my mother, how she always seemed to hold a trump card in the hand she dealt herself where our intimacy was concerned.

I never had a friendship with another man where we could cry with abandon, not worrying how what we did not only went against the grain but made the grain embarrassed for our mascul­inity. As we found our place in the world, we saw each other’s ugliness festooned by the delusions we’d been feeding our murky sides, long grown knotty and bulbous with metastasized roots. As we constantly sought peace, honor, and beauty, we continually shared, failed, and laughed. We loved each other with blind impartiality, as the narrator in our favorite shared Kubrick film remarks about Barry Lyndon’s love for his son.

Ours is a culture in love with highlights and I feel no bitterness in reporting this one occasion in a foreign house on the coast as probably our apex from which a very slow descent of years has followed. “Icarus wasn’t failing as he fell,” the poet Jack Gilbert once wrote, “just coming to the end of his triumph.” Now, mostly, our revels are ended. We haven’t lived in the same city for fifteen years, and the visits are less frequent, with the duration of one-on-one time shrinking when they do occur. But this means less and less because the inheritance was two-pronged: information and entrée emblazoned by that Oregon afternoon. Only amnesia will take it out of my life. It is all the more vivid for being so quiet, the type of instance that when caught on camera is lessened by the gloss and caterwauling of the person shifting into pantomime, turning into one too cognizant of instant capture’s sinister implica­tions. It returns to me every few years or so. I sit like a stone and look at a bookcase or out the window, often in winter’s wine-dark light, at the end of the dusk, and there it runs — simultaneously in the full duration of the entire reading and also the cherished moment’s super slo-mo, drawn out to the pregnant silence of the audience. More than any other dramatic piece, Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which a man, a failed writer, sits in a dark room listening to the diary-like tapes he has made at various points in his life, has to be the most apt microcosm of all our day-to-day existences — replaying certain memories at certain times, gorging on or being brought to bulimia by the stories we tell about our­ selves.

“Everything perishes but tradition,” according to Hugh Kenner. Tradition might be a better umbrella term for a cultural inheritance, call it humanism or what you will. Tradition, the fair courts. That one simple act can end a host of suffering almost always supports our casual ontology — our agency being much more oblique than direct advice would want to make it. Jesus Christ himself knew parables spoke to people better than direct haranguing, bar-room advice, platitudes, clichés. And when I easily reach for one from the Bard —“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” — I am double-charmed and double-crossed. Words the flint, but often not the spark.

People grow apart but the past remains. Searching for lost time comes to occupy us more and more as our hair changes color, as autumn comes to a lifetime. Yet, in opposition to Krapp, I think this type of pastime can truly circumvent regret, the bastard child of memory. To live a bit in the past doesn’t necessitate re­ ordering the wires and telling off dad or the Daphne who haunts our dreams. That’s why the icky edict Stop living in the past doesn’t plunge in the knife up to its hasp. The silly recrudescence of “I carry a part of you with me always” is just a withering corn­ cob for the more robust, Heraclitian wording:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.

We don’t feel something as lost until it has demonstrated value to us. To “miss” shouldn’t be synonymous with “regret.” To “miss” is as natural as a course of water down a mountain. We always carry what escapes us; that’s essential in any survival kit since we often take for granted what we have, treating it as another old pair of shoes we wear every day.

Finally, we are left with memory. But more often now, I have pulled away from that window or bookcase to memory’s enemy. If the internet can be said to be live (and to be alive), we will risk death to write a rashness that will probably not be seen enough in the time we’d like. As tides to sandcastles, every few hours a new parade of opinions washes out those now grown old from the other hour, even before the coat of arms can be hung from the drawbridge — they vanish and a newer base begins to rise. The great internet of the mind has better access to raw experience, and memories of it, because it has had sex, swum with dolphins, stood on the side of the volcano, eaten fresh mozzarella in Florence, and, for all this, can experience the flickerings of sunset and not have to think, Once we lived in what we saw — light, color, contrast, and away went the day. The great internet of the mind doesn’t have factual answers but lusters and rich colors preserve in multitudinous pantries, nooks, and garrets. It con­tains me at every age and holds people I know and love in their many stages. So when someone asks me a question about living, I don’t look at the frothy screen; I examine their face with mine and herd the experiences, attempting to vacate the contumely and spout something saturated in my truth, my mysterious chloroform.

I believe I’m writing against the propaganda trying to make people think “now more than ever” or “in dangerous times like these,” because maybe our relationship to time, which is our relationship to family, friends, and enemies (with technology as prime broker), will destroy us quicker than climate change. It used to be that our ancestors thought deeply about certain hot words, values, and traits, often along spiritual and religious bents. Ralph Waldo Emerson used a single-word title for most of his essays, naming them for these values, these large ideas. His essay “Fate” is a crown source for me more than for most people, who prefer the often anthologized early Emerson of “Self-Reliance” or “Experience” to the later thinker who is a little darker, a little more in love with the fall of man, yet still allows the lights of nirvana to beam through. For him, how we understand time and memory is inherent in how we consider fate, in how we take or leave it:

A man will see his character emitted in the events that seem to meet, but which exude from and accompany him. Events expand with the character. As once he found himself among toys, so now he plays a part in colossal systems, and his growth is declared in his ambition, his companions, and his performance. He looks like a piece of luck, but is a piece of causation—the mosaic, angulated, and ground to fit into the gap he fills.

It has to help to think I’ve had a hand in gathering the light or gloom to myself, my luck being rooted in the residue of my hop­ scotch designs. It’s a swaggering delusion to think we are at the center of history just because we are alive. Today’s disciples of this sprung neuroticism would reach back to an Emersonian word, “blasphemy,” to brand such a trenchant view, when a much more American way of causality, that injunction to forever blame someone else when any accident or badness befalls us, swiftly takes Emerson’s mosaic of causation and nukes it out of exist­ence. Earlier on, Emerson wrote:

The day of days, the great day of the feast of life, is that in which the inward eye opens to the Unity in things, to the omnipresence of law—sees that what is must be, and ought to be, or is the best. This beatitude dips from on high down on us, and we see. It is not in us so much as we are in it.

So what we get is something we fleetingly, even if conscious­ly, asked for. Eugene always filled us with sappy sweetness, and its unofficial motto was: We create our own reality. Yes, I create reality again and again by the lights of the past, no matter those fools living in the present. I know the possibilities — that true intimacy can bloom between people where no sexual weaponization exists — and that tenderness, unselfishness, and honesty tends a friendship, even if fatal to it. This does not heave “now more than ever” out of its counterfeit spotlight. Our world is rich in annivers­aries, and to suddenly forget won’t help us endure the present any better. •