Sunday, November 30, 2014

800 Words: Identities

There are many, many things in life I’m deeply uncomfortable with. I’m uncomfortable with Baltimore, uncomfortable with the Left, uncomfortable with many women, uncomfortable with many friendships, uncomfortable with Judaism, uncomfortable with my generation, uncomfortable with just about every major aspect of my life, and forced into a close, unnatural proximity with them all. Some days, perhaps most days of my life since childhood, I wonder what would happen if I were able to take a sledgehammer to the walls of my life. Would my life be better? Am I even able to do it?

Uncomfortable is different than not wanting to be part of it. I’m very much a Jew, I’m just not a Jew anybody wants - an ambivalent agnostic who likes some of the Bible, most of the food, a bit of the music, and and has contempt bordering on hatred for the rest. I loathed growing up in Jewish day schools, forced to learn Hebrew and Yiddish, in a homogenous community of co-religionists who assured me that the wider world wasn’t much worth seeing. Yet I can’t deny the impact it had. In the wider world, I’m nothing but Jewish. I spend as much time outside of Pikesville, MD as possible so that I may be a Jew - inside Pikesville MD, I’m a bad Jew. I’d much rather have been raised Jew-ish - sent to a Baltimore private or magnet school like Park or Friends or Carver, where ‘different drummer’ types were encouraged. Would it have been so terrible if as an adult I turned out to be a social justice protestor type who smoked weed every day of his adolescence and thought music didn’t get better than indy rock? I’d have been less in touch with reality, I’d have also been a much better adjusted adult.

Ditto whatever sort of left/liberalism I subscribe to - which I’m reminded nearly every day is completely out of step with virtually everyone I know save perhaps my father and a few college friends. Eventually, every old leftist looks on the developments of their younger counterparts and sees their aspirations mocked in favor of another unrealistic goal - aspirations toward rights of workers in our great-grandparents’ generation gave way to longings for racial equality in our grandparents’, which gave way to pining for world peace in our parents’, which gave way to yearnings for complete rights of the bedroom in our own generation. Perhaps all four generations of leftists have made a small bit of headway on their chosen issue, but nowhere near what they dream, and the miniscule progress they made makes their aspiration a tantalizing mockery, only closer enough to see just how impossibly far it still is. Inevitably the generation after them has a different focus, and old leftists look at the generation after them as having betrayed the revolution that ‘really matters.’ For me, the leftist utopia of my dreams is the one in which utopia does not exist - everybody pursues data-driven, practical solutions that give the greatest good to the greatest number of people. There is no need in such a world for ideology, politics is something boring that the left-brained people can provide for us in the best manner, while us right-brained creative types who always spell trouble in the political arena can be divorced from politics altogether.

What would my ideal 32-year-old self be? Well, for a start, I’d be about seventy pounds lighter and the incessant ulcer burping that started two years ago would never have happened. We’ll take it as a given that height cannot be changed. Also, as perhaps a given, I’d be less narcissistic and less given to wondering about what my ideal self would be.

At 32, I think I’d like to have lived in New York. Preferably downtown Manhattan or the Lower-East Side but if that’s too pricey then Brooklyn wouldn’t be a bad option either. I eat out with friends five nights a week, and two nights a week I cook - once for friends and once for my wife. If I’m temperamentally the same person, then I’m far from ready to be a father, but I’d like to think I’d have been married around the time I turn 30 after a 20’s which are obviously filled with ungodly amounts of meaningless sex. The girl is Jew-ish, as practical as I’m dreamy, so much smarter than me that she makes me smarter, and indulgent of all those special ways in which I’m particularly stupid. She’s a few inches taller than I, and possessed of a number of qualities prized by the superficial male… I’ll spare whoever reads this the details, and there are many, but truth be told, since this is of course my fantasy, she’s as beautiful as I’m homely. There’s a small part of me who believes that every good looking person has a moral obligation to settle down with an ugly one. The fate of the human race depends on us all being understanding and compassionate towards one another - what better way is there to train ourselves to do that than in matters of love and sex? Beautiful people need be trained to look past the ugliness in others in the same way that ugly people need to be reminded that they can be beautiful. If more beautiful and ugly people manage to couple with one another, we know we’re getting better as a species.

For a living, I’m an opera composer. Nobody’s ever made a living purely on writing operas since Puccini, but in my fantasy world, my premieres and recordings would be looked forward to as eagerly as the latest album from Bjork or Radiohead, and I’d be remunerated accordingly. My operas would be progressively tonal - akin in harmonic language perhaps to Prokofiev or Poulenc or Britten but with both more popular appeal and rhythmic kick, and more intellectual depth than any of them. They’d be far less obfuscatory than your average avant-garde operatic fare from Henze or Birtwistle, but far more complex than the average musical or rock opera. The faucet of words, then as now, would never shut off. But my always obstructed faucet of notes would repair itself in this parallel universe, and I’d have written an opera every year from the time I was twenty-one. The music could portray every style, the words every conceivable character. Both glide effortlessly though that always fragile line between tragedy and comedy, and my ideal self would find an idiom that does justice to ‘my masters’ - Mozart, Janacek, and Sondheim. Politics, so time-consuming in my real-life’s thoughts, would be the secondary concern it truly is in these works. What would matter in these works is ‘permanent things,’ only permanent because they're so obviously ephemeral. They wouldn’t be too far from the plotlessness of life itself - the life of The Marriage of Figaro, or Uncle Vanya, or Middlemarch, or Seinfeld, or Tokyo Story, or The Adventures of Augie March, or The Rules of the Game, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Company, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Louie, or The Confessions of Zeno, or Mad Men, or A Long Day's Journey into Night, or The Human Stain, or perhaps something a little more fantastical like The Simpsons or Into The Woods or Don Giovanni or Fanny and Alexander or The Cunning Little Vixen. The subject, for one and all, would be life itself, how it passes through us, and how we pass through life - with all its tragedy, comedy, and absurdity completely intact. The subject of the operas would be life as people like my real self live it.

Ideal Evan would never make the cover of Time Magazine, not at least until he was in his sixties, and wouldn’t ever become a household name, but he would get blurbs fairly often. He would have enough success by this age that he can make a lot of side money by conducting, or directing theater, or giving master classes at universities, or even writing book reviews. Once a week, a la Woody Allen, he would have a group of musicians with whom he’d perform in public as a violinist in a regular place - the genre would be somewhere in the nexus between jazz, gypsy music, and generic American folk and roots. He would be a blogger like he is today, only every blogpost would have a thousand comments. Mornings would be spent reading and listening to music, afternoons spent in writing of various sorts, evenings taking in New York City in its various forms, and perhaps most importantly, he would be able to get to sleep every night between 10 and 11 should he so desire, and this horrible insomnia which has plagued him since he was 7 years old would never have reared its pillow-tussled head. Long international vacations would be taken twice a year, visits to Baltimore to see family would happen once every three months - usually in keeping with the Jewish Holidays, and family would be up to visit me a different four times a year.

It seems like a very good life… But 99.9999999% of us can only fantasize about the lives of our ideal selves, and the few among us who achieve our ideal selves are probably psychopaths who have to throw hundreds of people under a train to get and keep the lives we all so fervently desire. The rest of us have to figure out how to live a decent life in the circumstances which conspire to keep us disappointed by the way life unfolds.


  1. I find it interesting in that you started with uncomfortableness and moved into your ideal self. A big aspect of my ideal self, and perhaps the least realistic (after making a decadent salary as a journalist) is feeling less uncomfortable. My whole life (is still!) ruled by so much constant self doubt. And no many how many places I move and upward life ladder I climb, it's still the thing I can never quite get rid of.

  2. Self-doubt may be vital in that it wards off exaggerated sense of self, abilities, and in general cuts a person off from almost everyone else.