Monday
May022016

Estranger

By Erik Anderson


Rescue Press
May 2016
978-0986086939


 

In early December of 2010, after an exhausting autumn, I filled an already brimming box with an assortment of loose ends and drove to a cabin on the Poudre River, west of Fort Collins, where I spent several weeks in a peculiar frame of mind, wrestling with certain notions of strangeness that had arisen in me not long after the birth of my son two years prior—notions which, by their fugitive nature, had resisted elaboration in my daily life. The place was a mobile home done up to look like a log cabin from the outside. It had been brought here on a flatbed truck, the manager told me as she confirmed my credit card. I was tempted to ask for a refund, but it was already late afternoon and, as so often was the case in those days, I didn't have the strength to explain, or maybe the heart to express, my objections. Weeks earlier, I had rented a log cabin over the internet, but where I was staying was a prefabricated version made primarily from plastic. The woman, Darcy, was friendly enough, and the cabin was situated in the canyon in such a way that I couldn't see the two-lane highway even if it was impossible not to hear it. She gave me the key, attached to a plastic log, and after I had driven my car a little way up the road, I placed my bag on an armchair, my box on the kitchen table, and lay down on the bed, where I promptly fell asleep.

It was dark when I awoke. I was hungry, but hardly in the mood to cook any of the food I had left in the car. I drove several miles downstream to the restaurant I had passed earlier that afternoon, and where that night, among the stuffed animal heads and antique shotguns mounted on the walls, I was struck by the contrast to other canyons I had spent time in—places where rock climbers, hikers, and skiers prevailed. When I mentioned this to the man working as bartender, waiter, and host, he said that here, too, the change had come, but business had also picked up, and he had even, on account of the Buddhist retreat center up the road, added several vegetarian options to the menu. For now, there were only a few other customers: a pair of rough-looking characters watching a football game at the bar and an ancient couple hunched over their plates in silence. I sat amid a small cluster of tables with a distant view of the river and, as I looked out at the trickle of water flowing through the snow, considered the bizarre, sometimes painful, reconciliations one negotiates, through language, with time.

Back in the cabin that night, I removed the contents of my box and set them on the table. On the outside I had written, months earlier, the word STRANGENESS in large block letters, and since then I had placed in it, one by one, the items it now contained. Laid out in front of me, I felt overwhelmed not so much by their quantity but by the intractable connections among them. Was there something dishonest about the whole endeavor, some element of disloyalty either to my family or myself? Would the individual elements bridge the gaps between me and those I loved, as I hoped, or would they be the wedges that only made those gaps larger? I took a photograph from the table and, a little buzzed from the beer I'd had with dinner, lay down on the checkered bedspread.

On TV Mark Zuckerberg was being interviewed about the recent hit film, based on a nonfiction bestseller, that portrayed his origins in an unflattering light. Why is it, I thought, that interviewers never ask the most interesting questions? My questions, anyway, were about the tricky business of a subject describing itself, about the distortions that result from the translation of a three-dimensional being into a two-dimensional profile—a process that has always reminded me of the artist Kara Walker's ghostly silhouettes, her charged figures that tend, deliberately, toward caricature. For me, the dilemma was related to exaggerated features and grotesque distortions that, as their purchase increased, threatened to replace the persons they had originally intended to represent. Walker's art was about the dangers of conflating the actual with the imaginary; Zuckerberg had made billions encouraging us to revel in that conflation.

As the inane interview continued, I looked more closely at the photograph I had brought into the bedroom. The year is 1955. My grandfather's left arm curls around my father's body while his right hand grabs the edge of the boat. My father's right arm rests along my grandfather's thigh. The person taking the photo is probably my great-grandfather, my grandmother's father; my grandmother and great-grandmother are somewhere on shore. The men float on one of the fifteen lakes that make up the Cisco Chain, straddling the border between northern Wisconsin and Michigan's upper peninsula. The nearest city is either Duluth or Green Bay, but the family has driven up from the south side of Chicago, where my grandfather works as a salesman for Wyler's. Neither smiles in the photo. Underneath his bright sunhat, the look in Dad's eyes is a mixture of fear and distrust, and though my grandfather's eyes are hidden behind a pair of dark aviators, he is clearly frowning. They wear the mantles of father and son awkwardly, as though the roles are foreign to them or imposed by an inherited sense of propriety. Then again, I may be reading too much into the photograph or reading it in light of the events that flowed from that moment. Either way, I can't help myself.

Of their serious expressions, Dad writes: it occurs to me the photographer would have had to say smile, thereby spooking every muskie, northern pike, and largemouth bass in a two-mile radius. My great-grandfather, he says, was one serious fisherman. He remembers the instructions: absolute silence. In the picture he is three years old, almost four. Maybe, as other photos from the trip suggest, he enjoyed fishing. Maybe the mood lightened once they got off the boat. His most vivid memory of the trip, however, is seeing the rocky bottom of the lake near the shoreline after he fell off the end of the dock, and though his letter describing the experience is funny, I wondered that night in the cabin about the connection between the hero's welcome he received when his mother, who dove into the water to rescue him, returned with him to the surface and the joke—told by his grandfather—that the fish stopped biting for the remainder of the day.

On TV, the conversation had turned to privacy, but as I watched Zuckerberg sit comfortably, unruffled by the questions, it occurred to me that the users had never been his customers, as I had always thought; they were, instead, products delivered to his real customers, the advertisers off of whom he had made his fortune. His business demanded that these products, the users, surrender their privacy at the login page. Under the rubric of community, he had duped us out of our identities. Our so-called networks were nothing more than vehicles for selling ad space. And yet he had also helped usher in an age when to be visible (particularly as an image) has become everything, an age in which a refusal to be seen is to some degree a refusal to exist. But then wasn't I, in coming to the cabin, refusing to be seen? Wasn't it this demurral, insomuch as it was about defending borders or choking back feeling, that I had recently found so exhausting? I wanted something more from myself, something more from Zuckerberg, too. I wanted the carefully constructed façade to crack, wanted to find a way to crack it. But I also wanted to know, watching him on the flat-screen TV, what he thought about the thing he had created, which, for better or worse, was not only a revolution in itself, but in the months to come would play a logistical role in the mass protests that would topple several Arab leaders. No advertisement had ever done anything remotely similar, but the drone of the interview and its interspersed commercials still put me to sleep, and although I must have woken up and turned off the TV at some point, in the morning the picture of my father was still in my hand.

 

The groceries had sat in the car overnight. Much of the food was frozen, and while I made coffee I set the loaf of bread out to thaw on the counter. I grabbed the photograph from where I had left it on the bedside table, which, I only then noticed, was bolted to the floor. The immobility of the furniture added to the sense that the entire place had been created out of whole cloth, molded from a single piece of material. It seemed a marvel of design, a marriage of matter and manufacturing.

I saw Darcy walking down the road with an old German shepherd. The dog limped a little. Bad hips, I thought, remembering how, as a kid, our own large dog, a golden retriever, had struggled to get around as she got older. As Darcy passed the cabin, she saw me in the window and waved. I guessed that she was about my mother's age, but I imagined people often mistook her, like my mother, for a much younger woman. After she moved beyond the window's frame, I began to write, but now, as I look over my notes from that morning, I can't so much see the arc of my thinking as the intuition of that arc, which, to my tremendous irritation, continued for years to defy my attempts to define it. I see myself struggling, in other words, with what I can now say freely.

One's father is the first stranger one meets. This is no less true with my son than it is with my father. The mother may be the primal site and source, but the father will never be a site precisely. Instead, he is the first non-site, and that initial distance, though it may narrow over time, will never collapse into the intimacy experienced by a mother and child, in which another body can mean home. The world itself is at its strangest—we are most estranged from the world—when we first enter it. I don't see comfort or fascination in the eyes of newborns, but rather bewilderment, as though no vocabulary is adequate to the encounter. Then again, newborns can only see as far as the distance between their mother's nipples and her face, so maybe what I interpret in their expressions as estrangement is simply limited eyesight.

Some have claimed to see in newborns a profound recognition of the cosmic joke that's just been played on them; for my part, I'm fairly certain that in spite of the crying they don't know sadness any more than they know humor, although we immediately bombard them with both. Early on in his life, for instance, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" made its way into the rotation of lullabies I sang to our son. These were a mixture of standards, pop songs, and the children's lyrics that, having forgotten them long ago, I picked up from my wife, whose memory for music is remarkably good. Because of its association with The Wizard of Oz I had always assumed it was a happy song, but the fact that it celebrates a place that only exists in lullabies—somewhere over the rainbow where (unlike here) the sky is blue, birds fly, and dreams come true—is a bleak reflection of the singer's condition. Even the longing for escape is distant: someday, I repeated twice daily for the better part of a year, I'll wish upon a star, but not today.

Don't worry, one friend assured me early on, there's nothing you can do to not fuck up your kids. All you can do is mitigate the effects. I remembered the famous line from Wordsworth, the child is the father of the man, and I had it in my head almost immediately to write something not only about the strangeness I felt in parenting a son but also this reverse parentage wherein the child forces the adult to grow up. But what I first noticed about being a father—and this is what preoccupied me that morning in the cabin—had little to do with the strangeness I anticipated. Instead, I felt time dissolving. Days did not begin, did not end. The past prefigured a future, repeated. Time both moved and stood still, and caught there in the middle of that tension I was singularly disordered. Patterns that had revolved around the earth's rotation found in our son a new axis. Sleeplessness deranges the senses, but more unsettling was the disruption of the singleness of purpose that, like the circadian model, I had taken for granted. For years I had existed mainly for myself, but now there was this joyful little person in the room, eliciting my delirious allegiance. Normalcy eventually returned, but, as when a meteor strikes, its character had been forever altered. I returned to work but as another person, a stranger, one who spoke in another alphabet, a mixture of coo and cry.

 

As I finished a second cup of coffee, eyes alternating between the picture and the notebook, I had the sudden fear that I would never understand my son and he would never understand me. I hoped for tenderness. I hoped for solicitude. I hoped for long conversations by a fireside that, as I closed the notebook and began to put on my boots, I could not yet imagine but dimly perceived, somewhere there beyond the threshold of the present, out past the foreseeable future, when my son's life had taken its own, independent shape. Maybe fatherhood itself is a crisis, I thought, demanding emotions I'd learned to refuse. Outside, the morning sun was casting long shadows through the rocky canyon, and down the road I saw Darcy carrying firewood into her house. The German shepherd was still there, waiting on the porch. I was afraid as I walked around the car, scraping off the windows—afraid of a child who hadn't yet had the opportunity to resent me, afraid of distances that threatened to expand. Mostly I realized, as I climbed into the car, that I had been too absorbed in my thoughts to make breakfast. The loaf of bread was still thawing on the counter, and my stomach was now grumbling.

I set Thoreau's Journal on the passenger seat and began the hour drive over the mountains into the long, wide basin home to the town of Walden, Colorado. I had seen the name on maps for years, and though I didn't expect much of Thoreau to show up, I was disappointed to learn first that the town's small museum, housed in an old cabin far more authentic than my own, was closed on Mondays, and then later, from an elderly waitress who had the peculiar habit of scratching her ear with a pencil as she spoke, that the place had been named after a postmaster. It is essential that a man confine himself to pursuits, I read, which lie next to and conduce to his life, which do not go against the grain, either of his will or his imagination. The scholar finds in his experience some studies to be most fertile and radiant with light, others dry, barren, and dark. If he is wise, he will not persevere in the last, as a plant in a cellar will strive toward the light. He will confine the observations of his mind as closely as possible to the experience of his senses. His thought must live with and be inspired with the life of the body. Some men, Thoreau continues, endeavor to live a constrained life, to subject their whole lives to their wills, as he who said he would give a sign if he were conscious after his head was cut off—but he gave no sign.

In the restaurant I ate an omelet so out of proportion with my needs that even when I cut it in half I could barely finish it. I stared out into the mostly vacant dining room, the size and décor of which conformed perfectly to the meal I had attempted to finish. At the front counter I paid the waitress, whose pencil again touched the top of her left lobe as she swiped my credit card, and after walking the broad, treeless streets for an hour I found a liquor store and bought some supplies. Where was the channel where my own life flowed? Was I like that plant in the cellar, striving toward the light? I gathered there wasn't much to see in Walden except the sky, so endless as to inspire something like dread. The surrounding space felt impenetrable to me, and, just as I had on trips to the San Luis Valley or to southern Park County, I came away stripped of something. Perhaps it's my sense of irony that I lose in these unequivocal spaces. Or perhaps it's my sense of self that's dismantled, which would be entirely in keeping with the sinking feeling that overcame me as I carried my purchases to the car and drove, with my defeated Thoreau, back up the mountain.