I want to call this account “Slapstick” in commemoration of Kurt Vonnegut’s only attempt to write an autobiography, which, according to him “was a complete failure.” My fictional account will also be a complete failure, because it will be about what life has felt like to me this past year, in other words, it will be an autobiography.
Surprisingly, life to me has resembled one of those black and white, silent films where characters interact with each other through mimic and pantomime but there is never any direct dialogue. And there is very little love in these films. I have been so intoxicated by these films which have been playing through my head ever since my move to NYC that I now find it natural to discuss life without even mentioning love.
It does not seem important to me anymore.
What is important to me right now is making sense of things.
I am a philosopher who hates doing philosophy, and a writer who dreads having to write. This paradoxically does not imply that I am hypocritical about these disciplines; it just means that I need an extended family of other writers and other philosophers to help me out in this extensive mission of conquering my own stupidity.
Something I learned this past year is that I can create my own extended family with all the members I need. And this has little to do with love, and a lot to do with common decency. Oh, yes.
You see, it all started because I had an uncle who used to attend A.A meetings for this reason. Exhaustion and deep money worries, made him believe that he was not good at life. And he would sometimes tell me when I was a child, that the only people who really understood his mind where other alcoholics. So I used to go ahead and imagine him sitting in rooms, introducing himself with his name, and later that brave confession “…and I am an alcoholic” which gave him the credentials for membership in an extended family, and I was slightly jealous.
Oh yes, so months later, I attended a meeting for people who are related to alcoholics. I guess it was loneliness as much as it was dread what brought me to attend my first meeting. I had failed at love, many of my relatives had died, I was unemployed, and I needed to look for more brothers and sisters. I found out that there were several meetings I could attend daily, and that I could even get a sponsor, who is a person I can call whenever I am having a problem. This idea became amusing and comforting because I suddenly had brothers and sisters, and aunts and grandparents, everywhere and was lonesome no more. In Charlotte most of us even recognized each other outside of the church basements, and would say “Hi” always in a low key tone, protecting the anonymity of this extended family.
Before I left North Carolina, my friend Hannah suggested I stop going to so many of these meetings, and actually attend real social events in NYC if I want to make real friends. She might be right. So I have been attending lots of free events in the evenings. For example, I went to a book reading last week at an Art Gallery in Chelsea. There, the author who also writes for The New York Times read a chapter of his new “witty” novel. The novel was about a boy who gets taken out of his medication for schizophrenia and gets himself into trouble. The announcer commented that this novel had a resemblance to “The Catcher in the Rye.” I hate it when people say that something has a resemblance to “The Catcher in The Rye” because usually it does not. I also find it amusing that every writer has a job with The New York Times in this city. So despite how much I enjoyed the free wine, and the gallery, I still felt lonesome. “I could have just gone to a meeting tonight” I kept thinking, “I could have gotten to speak to my extended family.” Some habits are hard to break, I suppose.
Somebody else who has strange habits is my Dad. I will never ever understand this man’s philosophy of life. Ever since I was a child he has been waking up at the crack of dawn to start his day reading bible passages and praying. After this routine he goes to work, currently as a Spanish teacher in a public high school in the South Bronx. At night, before falling asleep, he always picks one of these two novels religiously: Either Dostoevski’s “The House of the Dead” or Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times.”
Start the day with Jesus; end it with Dostoevsky, who would have thought this philosophy would work for anybody?
My father has also incorporated Joseph Conrad as part of his philosophy of life ever since we moved from Argentina. He likes stories about the sea. But I think Conrad might be the reason why Dad has not been on a boat, or at sea, in a long time.
Let me explain. Dad likes to fish stripped bass. But ever since our last move, his fishing poles have been stationed in a corner of the apartment, and my mother even tried hiding them behind a book shelf. I’ve recommended he take fishing again on weekends, once he begins his vacation, because it might allow him to make new fisherman friends. But Dad is too picky about his fishing group.
“I’m looking for a specific fishing group, you see Carolina. They have to like Joseph Conrad.”
All I learned about how to alienate myself from people, I probably learned from Dad.
Something else Dad and I have in common lately is that we will both be unemployed after next week. The school year is over, and so are our jobs. This means that we will both be job searching for teaching positions this summer, and we both have some hurdles to jump over. In my case, I am too young and don’t have enough teaching experience to get hired as easily. In dad’s case, he is too old and has way too many years of experience that allow him to claim a higher salary that few employers want to pay. I talked to him about my slight fear of not finding a teaching job, and consequently, not being able to afford my graduate school classes. To this he responded,
“Well Carolina, you shouldn’t worry. The women always look better at closing time.” This saying applies to him too, I suppose.
But Dad is not extremely worried, and I’m not extremely worried. Guess who is worried? My mother, duh, the only person who does have a job for the next year. You see, we live in Queens and most of our neighbors are Chinese immigrants under rent control. Some of them are also on disability or unemployment compensation. I have the day off on Tuesdays, and can tell you that in the afternoon my neighbors just hang out in the hallways. Sometimes they play Chinese karaoke, sometimes they boil fish with their doors open and the smells filter into my room.
There is one neighbor in a wheelchair who likes to hang out in the main hallways and open the door to people. There is a catch to this, whenever he lets you in, he also asks you for ten dollars. I cracked this joke today at the dinner table, about how Dad and I would be hanging out with our neighbor next year. We will be opening the door to people, asking them for ten dollars if we don’t find teaching jobs. But I don’t think my mom found it that funny.
“Don’t say that Carolina. The teachers and the kids love you at your current school, and I’m sure they will offer you a job for the next school year. As for your father, he can be sent away to teach at a boarding school, anywhere in the country.”
All I learned about survival in hard times, I learned from Mom, I suppose.
But back to my extended family that I see in church basements, I have to say that sometimes we loose people to insanity. Not all stories have happy endings. For example, last week I met a man in A.A who was looking for a new sponsor, because his current sponsor had relapsed. I had never though this could happen and it made me somewhat afraid about the reality of this fellowship. What if we are all just blind people leading other blind people? Is this how it always works, in every family, in every group, in any discipline? I think I asked this question to my Dad once, and he told me something I would never forget, and it boiled down to this:
“The reason why we are here Carolina is to help each other get through this mess that life is. Who cares how we do it.”
I think he stole this quote from Kurt Vonnegut, but I believe it, and now that I write it down, it just makes sense.