Monday, December 7, 2009

Wherever I Go, There I Am [January 5, 2008 ]

Loneliness, the Walker Bros. sang, is a cloak you wear. As I begin this, a couple of days before my first Xmas in the USA in five years, I’m wearing the hell out of it.

Just about the first thing I do after unpacking my bags was have a cataclysmic falling-out with my sister, my sole sibling, whose presence in Kenosha was my principal reason for choosing Wisconsin. For a couple of weeks, though, I nonetheless revel in my new independence, taking myself, whenever I am conscious of the cloak beginning to settle on my shoulders, for invigorating long walks during which I revel in the novelty of my new surroundings and get endorphins coursing palliatively through my arteries.

Trying to suppress my natural reclusiveness, I smile at people in elevators. I make small talk with the cashier at Trader Joe's. When I start feeling like the last person on earth, I switch off ESPN and take my laptop to the big main branch of the library, but it turns out to be full of homeless types with apparent respiratory problems noisily hawking up phlegm. I try Borders on University Avenue, but find that the cloak has followed me there.

I finally receive an invitation. The boyfriend of the woman whose condominium I’m subletting invites me over for dinner, along with a longtime friend of his, an unreconstructed hippie with wild eyes and a conspiracy theory related to every possible topic. The Internet? Oh, he knows what They are up to with that! The scant selection of real organic produce in local supermarket chains? Ditto. Madison’s being Dubuque with delusions of grandeur? Ditto.

Thinking it will make him more endurable, I smoke pot for the first time in five years. It makes him less endurable; I wish we were not of the same species.

Our host turns on the Republican debates, and the realization that millions of my countrymen will actually vote for one of these guys exponentially increases my feeling of alienation.

At the gym a couple of weeks later, a friendly septuagenarian asks what I’m reading as I pedal my way to fitness. A retired professor of literature, he has strong opinions (if not conspiracy theories) about the woeful state of American fiction (and film, and journalism, and health care, and nearly anything else you can name), but when he suggests that we meet up for coffee sometime, I am nonetheless delighted; my first spontaneous local friendship!

We go to dinner, over which he seems to be trying to demonstrate that it should have been he, and not Walter Matthau, who played all those grumpy old men. He pronounces his entrée crap and sends it back, rubbing our server’s nose in his disgruntlement. He grins and bears its replacement, though it too is: crap. He proudly relates walking out on a succession of prestigious films within the first 10 minutes and getting his money back because they’re: crap.

He’s a widower, and can no longer drive. His loneliness is palpable. The kind part of me wants to do something about it, but the part that finds his curmudgeon schtick embarrassing emphatically vetos the idea of our seeing a lot of each other.

I go to a meeting of a group of local writers in a State Street coffeehouse. Three women without shame present inconceivably awful poems, over which we all pore at considerable length. Someone manages to keep a straight face while encouraging one of them to enter the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters’ poetry contest. I bite my lip hard to forestall a guffaw. An apparently autistic member of the group has written a largely wonderful poem about the world’s indifference to the plight of the apparently autistic. I’m the only one who seems to get it. The others, missing the glorious forest for its trees, consider individual lines in the same grave analytical tone in which they pondered those in the women’s doggerel. We are understood to be giving one another Useful Feedback.

We discuss prose too — specifically, an account by the other non-autistic male attendee of his unsuccessful attempt to pick up a woman in a bar. It makes the first woman’s Christmas gopher poem seem positively Keatsian in comparison. Mumbling excuses, I flee the meeting prematurely, feeling lonelier than when I arrived.
Bad idea: Be both susceptible to loneliness-driven despair and a frightful snob. But wherever I go, there I am.

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