By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
A teacher nicknamed “Vast,” whether because of his girth or the breadth of his knowledge I’m no longer sure, was on to me. He taught Divinity and English Literature. I still remember his discussion of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds “that fall onto rocky ground” and are soon gobbled up by the birds, and how I instinctively thought, “That’s me.” Meaning I sensed immediately that I was not composed of the “fine soil” that brings forth grain “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold,” but of something if not rockier, then considerably less fertile. We know everything about ourselves before we know it, and our parents and teachers know it even before that, and I knew I was, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, in some deep sense superficial. I lacked the temperament to try to accomplish great things, and it was years before I realized I might just have the chance to pull off a few small good things.
Though I can no longer find the report cards that cover my adolescence — thank God — I do remember Vast’s sneakily profound final comment on my capabilities in my best subject, English, when I was about 17 and being touted, much to everyone’s astonishment, as a possible candidate for Oxford or Cambridge. His words are etched on my brain. In fact, I once typed them out and stuck them on my computer monitor:
Brendan can write quite well, but he must have something to write about.
Aside from the unspoken dig (“If Brendan read a set text once in a while, he might actually have something to discuss in his essays”), I see a genuine insight in this apparently unremarkable statement: the recognition that a) my only discernible academic talent was for writing, and b) that fiction was not my forte. Put those two things together, and you may possibly have the makings of some sort of journalist. I emphasize “possibly.”
At Cambridge I ended up doing quite well without, in the spirit of my old French Master, actually wearing myself out. If you took English Lit, this was quite easy to do. (I knew one “student” at Cambridge who spent most of his three years there living in Paris. He’s now an annoyingly successful writer.) I did go on playing Ping-Pong, however, though this time it was a version of the game chemically enhanced with “Pakistani Black,” a form of hashish so oily and potent it might as well have been opium personally handed to you by a time-traveling 19th-century Chinaman.
The Pakistani Black raised the pleasure to be had from executing cute back-spin dinks and ferocious top-spin smashes while grinning inanely to an unprecedented level, though I suspect a neutral witness might have observed that those “smashes” were crossing the net at a peculiarly slow pace. I played with a fellow American expat who was studying Economics — i.e., smoking massive quantities of dope and rarely rising before noon. Such was the languor that prevailed among our set of English contemporaries, however, that it was concluded that only two Yanks could possibly do anything so vigorous as play Ping-Pong, out of their heads or otherwise.
Not that we were such great Yanks, or even capitalists. After we’d both moved back to America, we met a few times in New York. It was the early 1980s, the dawn of the yuppie era, the Age of Reaganomics, and I had announced my ambition to take the New World by storm by applying for, and getting, a minimum-wage job as a foot messenger. (“This position is far too low . . . His attitude is contrary, even disaffected” — the English Master, Easter, 1972.) Still, for years I’d been in the habit of wandering the streets aimlessly and often thought I’d end up a tramp. Now at least I had an address to go to and a package to deliver. My friend wasn’t in a particularly capitalist mode, either: He was studying to become a yogi. After a while he floated off on mystic clouds and I never heard from him again.
Now, of course, I care for capitalism (i.e., money) more than I did then. I read less of the footloose Rimbaud, and rather more of the sedentary Philip Larkin (required reading), who worked in a library and wrote piercingly of the fear of unemployment, of being “one of the men/You meet of an afternoon . . ./Turning over their failures/By some bed of lobelias/Nowhere to go but indoors/No friends but empty chairs . . .” (Well, they do say journalism is a dying profession.)
On balance, I suppose I’d prefer to have these handwritten comments on my early years than not, though it’s a pretty tough call. Report cards, if they’re written honestly, can be instructive, but also depressing and distressingly prophetic. On the one hand, they reactivate the ever-present urge to wage war on one’s own character, to “pull oneself up by the bootstraps,” as the quaint phrase goes, and set about rectifying all one’s faults. On the other, they are equally likely to provoke a sense of fatalism, even inertia, now enhanced by the popular neuroscientific belief that (in Tom Wolfe’s phrase) “the genetic fix is in” and we’re all hardwired to become more or less precisely who we were to begin with.
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