Recently, feeling uninspired about what to write here, I asked my friend Siobhan to give me writing assignments. It seemed a simple enough request, but Siobhan surprised me by coming back with demonically difficult assignments. What follows is to the story I wrote for the assignment “Tell me about the time you entered a cat in the Westminster Dog Show.”
Dear Ms. Lyons,
Again, to be clear, the Westminster Dog Show is a competition for dogs. Dressing up your cat to resemble a dog does not make him a dog; beneath the dog suit he remains a cat. Westminster has no category for cats, only dogs. Accordingly, all of our judges are experts in one or more dog breeds. None of them, to my knowledge, are experts in cat breeds. Thus we are not qualified to judge your cat in the same sense and to the same degree as we are qualified to judge dogs.
This is my 12th letter to you. I believe I had been more than patient and understanding in responding to your repeated requests to enter your cat in a dog competition. I am not a doctor but over time I have come to have grave concerns about your sanity. Do you even know the difference between a dog and a cat? If shown a photo of five dogs and one cat, would you be able to identify the cat? I’ll give you a clue: the cat is the one who doesn’t look like a dog. See, it’s not that tricky!
On a related matter: I want you to know that I received the letter you sent that was supposedly written by your cat. I say “supposedly” because cats cannot write, in part because they do not, and cannot, know any human languages, and in part because they cannot grasp a writing implement such as a pen or pencil. I grant that the paw prints at the bottom of the letter were, as you noted, “super adorables”; however, again, because of certain physical limitations, it is not possible for your cat to have made them. Instead I believe that you made them yourself by dipping your cat’s paws into black ink and pressing your cat’s dripping paws onto the paper where a signature would go. Thus I have rejected your cat’s request to be entered into the Westminster Dog Show, since your cat, being a cat, could not have made it.
Please leave me alone now, okay? I am just a person doing his job and you are a total lunatic.
Robert H. Sly
Lead Judge, Westminster Dog Show
My friend Siobhan emailed me out of the blue yesterday to tell me that Jason Kottke had quoted a piece I wrote 14 years ago (https://kottke.org/19/04/good-things-by-their-nature-are-fragile).
This set me on a search of old archived emails to figure out when I had last had contact with Siobhan. Long story short, it was 2007; that is, 12 years ago. I was shocked that so much time had passed.
I did remember, though, that Siobhan had visited New York a year or so later, I believe for work, and that she had come to Brooklyn to see me and that we had spent the afternoon together. None of which I could remember. All I could recall was standing with her on the sidewalk next to Flatbush Avenue and feeling sad that our time together that day was coming to an end.
I mention all this to say something about time. The thing I want to say comes very much from the perspective of a middle-aged man (I’m 58 now, somehow). I’ve mentioned this time-related thing to many friends and have noticed that only my middle-aged friends really get it. It seems that my younger friends haven’t lived/suffered enough yet to appreciate it.
Here it is:
THERE IS NOTHING TO SAY ABOUT TIME BUT VARIATIONS OF “WHAT THE FUCK.”
We have our secrets and our needs to confess. We remember how, in childhood, adults were able to look right through us, and into us, and what an accomplishment it was when we, in fear and trembling, could tell our first lie, and make for ourselves the discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects, and know that within the territory of ourselves, there can be only our footprints.
— R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, 1965
I’m no longer a child and I still want to be, to live with pirates. Because I want to live forever in wonder. The difference between me as child and me as adult is this and only this: when I was a child, I longed to travel into, to live in wonder. Now, I know, as much as I can know anything, that to travel into wonder is to be in wonder. So it matters little whether I travel by plane, by rowboat, or by book. Or, by dream. I do not see, for there is no I to see. This is what the pirates know. There is only seeing and, in order to go to see, one must be a pirate.
— Kathy Acker
A woman in a blue coat stood and talked. And talked and talked. There was a deeply ironic moment when she said, amidst the torrent of babble, that she loves the silence of these Quaker Meetings because she’s not given to silence.
I’m in Prospect Park, on a bench overlooking Long Meadow.
My neighbor Marie just passed by with her dog Pancake who was wearing a New York Yankees t-shirt which appeared to be five sizes too small for him. The shirt only covered the front half of his body. Had he stood on his hind legs, it would have resembled a halter top.
“What’s with the t-shirt, Marie?”
“He has a skin rash. It was that or the space collar.”
“It’s fetching,” I said. “Which is apt for a dog.”
The pun was lost on Marie, who explained that the t-shirt was meant for a cat.
1. America is a mistake, a giant mistake.
2. What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.
3. Time spent with cats is never wasted.
Many years ago I saw a therapist for a time, as an experiment. I didn’t think she was any good. One time she pointed out that I refer to both of my sisters as “my sister,” that I don’t say their names. She said, “It’s as though you can only have one sister at a time.” When she said this, I wondered what it meant to have only one sister at a time, before finally concluding that it meant absolutely nothing.
Another time I was talking with her about a friend who had the same name as her, and she stopped me to point this out, then added, “I wonder if you’re really talking about me.” Again, this sounded interesting at first, as though she were saying something insightful, but the truth was, I wasn’t talking about her, and rarely ever even thought about her.
She was young, perhaps thirty, and I often suspected that she wasn’t yet accustomed to the role of therapist, and so she would say things which had the proper form for therapy but were completely meaningless.
There is no such thing as communication. There are only two things. There is successful miscommunication, and unsuccessful miscommunication. And when you have unsuccessful miscommunication, you are having a good time.
— Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
Last night I dreamt that I had been shot in the head and had died. That’s where the dream began — with being shot in the head and realizing that I had been shot in the head and that as a result I was dead. This was terrifying until I realized that I couldn’t have been shot in the head and therefore couldn’t be dead, because my brain, had it been shot, wouldn’t have been capable of forming the thought that I was dead. A functioning brain is proof of life, I thought. This calmed me and soon I awoke.
Then, needing to pee, I walked to the bathroom, and while sitting on the toilet I felt my head to make sure there weren’t any bullet holes. There weren’t any; my head was holeless.
Ah, one other thing: when I realized, mistakenly, that I was dead, my first thought was, “Now I don’t have any problems.” This was neither a joyful thought, nor a sad one; it was just a statement of fact. Only the living have problems.
There is another world, but it is in this one.
— Paul Éluard
We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.
— Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak, November 8, 1903
We had known that sooner or later we must develop an explanation for what we doing which would be short and convincing. It couldn’t be the truth because that wouldn’t be convincing at all. How can you say to a people who are preoccupied with getting enough food and enough children that you have come to pick up useless little animals so that perhaps your world picture will be enlarged? That didn’t even convince us. But there had to be a story, for everyone asked us. One of us had once taken a long walking trip through the southern United States. At first he had tried to explain that he did it because he liked to walk and because he saw and felt the country better that way. When he gave this explanation there was unbelief and dislike for him. It sounded like a lie. Finally a man said to him, ‘You can’t fool me, you’re doing it on a bet.’ And after that, he used this explanation, and everyone liked and understood him from then on.
— John Steinbeck, The Log of the Sea of Cortez, 1951
[Galway Kinnell wrote the following poem for a student of his who was contemplating suicide after the abrupt end of a romance. Kinnell, for those who don’t know, was a remarkable poet and a no less remarkable human.]
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
An idea for a character in a film, perhaps in passing: a man who has taken a vow a silence and only expresses himself using an Etch-A-Sketch hung from his neck.
If one grants … that one can speak of a love, of Love, one must also grant that, as bracing as it might be, love never dwells in us without burning us. To speak about it, even after the fact, is probably possible only on the basis of that burning.
No doubt the risk of a discourse of love, of a lover’s discourse, comes mainly from uncertainly as to its object. Indeed, what are we talking about?
— Tales of Love, Julia Kristeva, 1983
This is what Laura read in a book about baseball card collecting: “Remember, baseball cards have no intrinsic value; they’re only worth what people will pay for them.”
So what has intrinsic value?
A young boy and his mother were sitting next to me in Bagel Bob’s playing a game they called “Sweet or Sour.” The way it worked was that they would wave out the window to all the passersby. If someone waved back, they would cry, “Sweet!” and if someone ignored them they would groan, “Sour!” It was beautiful to watch, they both loved it so. When I left I stood outside the window, facing the boy and waving crazily and chanting, “Sweet, sweet, sweet!” The boy and his mother both applauded my performance, crying, “Sweet, sweet, sweet!”
Such joy. I turned and floated down University Place, loving everyone.
My name is not the name I was born with. That name — Michael Jay Rosenblum — I always hated, and resolved at a young age to change.
I didn’t hate my first name; in fact I’ve always liked the name Michael; what I hated was my last name, Rosenblum. This was partly about my relationship with my father and partly about the fact that when people heard Rosenblum, they immediately thought “Jew.” It felt as though I was wearing a giant traffic light that flashed “Jew” every few seconds.
I had, I should say, a fraught relationship with Judaism. I particularly resented the fact that because my mother is Jewish that made me, by Jewish law, a Jew, though I had declared myself an atheist at seven-years-old and had left Hebrew school at eleven after a titanic battle with my father, which I won, finally, by threatening to throw the torah at him from the stage if he tried to force me to have a Bar Mitzvah.
Beyond my issues with Judaism, what I minded was being stuffed into a box with a label; in this case, a label that read “Jew.” I would have hated this whatever the label said, but the fact that the label read “Jew” made it that much worse. I wanted a name which had no corresponding box, a name which if it revealed anything, revealed something meaningful about who I am.
It was a lot to ask for. Too much, really, as I would discover whenever I tried to come up with a replacement for Rosenblum. The core problem was the problem of meaning. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a name that not only revealed something about me but didn’t seem dopey or forced.
I returned to this project every few years, only to give up each time in exasperation. The only name I seriously considered in those years was Estlin. This name was meant as an homage to E. E. Cummings (“Estlin” is the second E in Cummings’ name — Edward Estlin Cummings). However, there were two obvious problems with Estlin: 1) How Brahmin it sounded, and 2) The fact that few people would know the reference.
It was sad, a sad defeat, but at a certain point I felt I had no choice but to throw away the folder of name change related notes and ideas I had amassed over the years and get on with my life.
And that is what I did over the next ten years or so, only occasionally returning to the problem anew and quickly abandoning it anew. It was like having a stone in your shoe for so long you only rarely notice it.
Then, for reasons which have nothing to do with my name, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Moving, as anyone who has done it knows, sucks, and this move was no exception. Among other things, it required me to open a new bank account, because my existing bank had no branches in Cambridge. I dreaded doing this and put it off as long as I could. Then, finally, I gave in and asked my friend Liz to come to the bank with me, and she agreed; she was then, and remains today, a better friend than I deserve.
At the bank I was soon put to work signing a thick stack of forms. I didn’t count how many there were, but there had to be at least twenty. All I had to do in each case was sign my name. This sounds easy enough, but I hated signing my name; it made me angry. In fact there were moments when I considered giving up and announcing that I would be taking my business to another bank. Liz, seeing my frustration, asked what was upsetting me. “I hate Rosenblum,” I said. “I’ve always hated Rosenblum and I don’t like signing it; it makes me angry.”
“Have you ever considered changing it?”
“Yes, but I’ve never been able to come up with a good enough replacement.”
“Well, what not change it to Barrish? Isn’t that your mom’s maiden name? Wasn’t that your grandfather’s name? Anyway, Barrish is a nice name. I think it would suit you.”
I looked at Liz, then I looked at the unsigned forms in front of me, then I looked at the bank representative across from me and I said to her, “I’m really sorry to have wasted your time today, but I can’t open a bank account right now, I have to go change my name.”
There was a bench outside the bank where Liz and I sat together, trying to come up with a middle name to replace “Jay” (which my mother once told me meant nothing; she simply choose it because she liked the sound of it).
I wasn’t convinced that I actually needed a middle name; “Michael Barrish” seemed plenty to me. But Liz thought we should at least give it shot and see what happens. I agreed, but only on the condition that the name we pick would reveal something important about me. Then we got up and started walking down Mass. Ave. toward the closest subway stop.
I don’t remember what middle names we considered, but it doesn’t really matter because none of them were any good, so finally I told Liz that I was happy with Michael Barrish; thrilled with it, really; and I thanked her for all her help.
A few moments later we reached the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect Street. It was a busy corner, with people streaming by in all directions. I remember looking across the street at the traffic light.
And then there was this strange moment when I saw an older man who sort of looked like my beloved grandfather, my mom’s dad, Abraham Barrish. Stranger still, it appeared that he was waving to me. I should add that my grandfather died 16 years prior to this day, and that his death had been, and remains to this day, the most devastating loss of my life. Also, I should mention that I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or anything of the sort, nor did I that day. Nor did I imagine that some manifestation of my grandfather was waving to me from across the street. Instead I understood that I was simply imagining it, because I wanted it to be true.
But it wasn’t true, of course, and soon enough the man across the street vanished.
Whenever I remember this day, and this moment in particular, I think of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the good witch reveals that Dorothy can return home simply by closing her eyes, clicking the heels of her ruby slippers together three times, and repeating the phrase, “There’s no place like home.” I loved this scene as a child — that is, I loved the fact that Dorothy always had the power to go home, she just didn’t know it. Whenever I watched that scene, I always wondered if maybe I had magical powers that I wasn’t yet aware of. It was a fun thing to think. But of course, I was a child then.
However, I wasn’t a child when I stood on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect Street. Nor was I a child when, standing there, I suddenly realized what my name is. Not, mind you, what I wanted my name to be, but what my name had always been, without me knowing.
When it hit me, for it really was like being hit, I began to cry. Liz, believing I was upset, kept asking me what was wrong, but I wasn’t able to compose myself enough to get the words out. When I finally did, Liz broke down as well, and so there we were, at the corner of Mass Ave. and Prospect Street, holding each other and sobbing.
Here is what I said to Liz: “My name is Michael Abraham Barrish. This has always been my name, I just didn’t know it. My grandfather is inside me.”
From Robert Pirsig, LILA: An Inquiry Into Morals, 1991:
There was a famous experiment where a sane person went onto a ward disguised as insane. The staff never detected his act, but the other patients did. The patients saw that he was acting. The hospital staff, who were playing standard social roles of their own, couldn’t detect the difference.
Insanity as an absence of common characteristics is also demonstrated by the Rorschach ink-blot test for schizophrenia. In this test, randomly formed ink splotches are shown to the patient and he is asked what he sees. If he says, “I see a pretty lady with a flowering hat,” that is not a sign of schizophrenia. But if he says, “All I see is an ink-blot,” he is showing signs of schizophrenia. The person who responds with the most elaborate lie gets the highest score for sanity. The person who tells the absolute truth does not. Sanity is not truth. Sanity is conformity to what is socially expected. Truth is sometimes in conformity, sometimes not.
When asked about how he’s able to tell which students have real talent and which are simply technically proficient, Isaac Stern said, “By listening. The really talented students play with a great sense of urgency.”
This, I believe, applies across the board, and not just within the arts. Inspired people burn.
The man with the clear head is the man who… looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth — that to live is to feel oneself lost — he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.
— José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, 1929