Plant Trees Under Whose Shade You Do Not Expect to Sit
It all started with stand-up comedian Marc Maron.
Personally, I only find Maron occasionally funny, only sometimes as good as he wants to be. Mostly, his overblown ego and need for attention quash any shot at charm.
You may have dated someone like this in high school. Although painful at the time, it was for the best that you guys broke up the week before graduation while sitting on the hood of his Dodge Omni in the McDonald’s parking lot; had that relationship continued as a long-distance affair into the first semester of college, he absolutely would have cheated on you with a girl from Michigan named Heather and then called you to confess his misdeed right as you were walking out the door to take your final exam in Poli Sci 101. What’s worse, he would have made you feel that his straying was somehow your fault–because you were, selfishly, too far away, too not there for him, too busy studying the Swedish model of government to fulfill his needs.
Fortunately, although you would have sobbed your way up the hill as you walked to your final exam and then found yourself so distraught you could hardly write out even bare-bones responses about highly-developed individualism in socialistic countries (here’s a direct quote from your exam, as I recently pawed through your recycling bin in The Universe of Parallel Realities and retrieved that tear-blotched Blue Book from 1984: “It’s okay for there to be an I in the midst of a we; why is that so hard for the democracies of the world and asshat cheating bastards to get???”), being freed from that relationship would have meant you were able to move on and really commit to the joys of college life without constantly pining for the half of your heart you’d checked into a dorm at the state university. Post break-up, you would have reclaimed that half of your heart and then, years later, tried not to chuckle too evilly when your cheating ex and Heather got divorced because she’d been caught with lipstick on her collar as a result of steppin’ out with–gasp!–Sharon Garrison after a Pampered Chef party one night.
Other bonuses from this young-adultian angst would have been the fact that your abysmal score on the poli sci final exam helped to convince you that you didn’t actually want to major in politics or become a lawyer. Rather, you would have taken the memories of the nausea you felt when writing about Swedish socialism and wiping broken-heart snot onto the sleeve of your hoodie and decided to make it your life’s work to figure out why stomachs sometimes roil uncontrollably.
All of this is why you would have become a research scientist, specializing in the study of lipids, making three times the income of your cheating ex who, satisfyingly, would be living in a dark one-bedroom apartment with only a couch, a universal remote, and a stack of yearbooks in the living room to keep him company.
But none of this actually happened, Silly, since you guys broke up a week before graduation. That’s why you had your damn act together for your first final exam, and you rocked the poli sci and did become a lawyer. It took a decade, though, for you to realize wholly how propitious that break-up was; only as a fully-realized adult did you have the capacity to register rampant relief at not being yoked to a partner whose contributions to the relationship were limited to (1) ego and (2) need for attention. Your life’s edges had to harden before you could apprehend the exponential happinesses that derive from Not Being Romantically Partnered to A Petulant Child (or A Pampered Chef!), but along the way, you made yourself economically independent and met a good guy–the right guy–someone who doesn’t feel diminished by scrubbing toilets, who doesn’t call spending time with his own children “babysitting,” who watches you when you cry and admires the strength it takes to express emotion.
So now, some decades later, you’re a happy lawyer with an iPod, and you love to listen to Marc Maron’s podcast a few times a week. Every time Maron launches into one of his self-obsessed monologues, it’s not so much annoying as it is a welcome reminder of bullets dodged and final exams well written. You listen to the anger and the anxiety that he’s still trying to tame in his late forties, and hearing his biweekly rants makes you smile, makes you sigh with something resembling bliss, makes you think, “Praise the hood of that Dodge Omni that I’m not committed to life in which a voice like that sets the tone.”
The all-too-real phantom woman in this scenario is not me, incidentally, so save yourself the energy of trying to connect fictional dots into a profile of my face. Yes, I drove a Dodge Omni in the 1980s. Yes, we hung out in the McDonald’s parking lot in high school. Yes, I took political science my first semester of college, a class in which we studied the Swedish model (having only skimmed the course description in the catalog, I was stunned when I was the only student who showed up the first day toting a poster of catwalker Vendela Kirsebom). Let’s see, what else can I give you? I know a guy who’s a research scientist whose work focuses on lipids. Although I never asked him directly, I don’t think he’s ever bawled his way through a final exam. I feel pretty certain of this because he’s Algerian, and male college students in Algeria generally don’t come out the other side of their degree programs if they have a track record of public weeping. Oh, also: because I’d rocked the Original Oratory event and the odd Lincoln-Douglas debate during my forensics career in high school, I did want to be a lawyer when I started college, a dream that lasted approximately two weeks, until the night I found myself sitting in a fountain, clutching a half-drunk bottle of Peachy Riunite, wondering where my shoes had gone, and it occurred to me shortly before I dropped my flushed cheek onto the cool, cool stone of the fountain that I might do better to pursue a career not predicated on ration, logic or getting my mind from Point A to Point B without taking a U-turn at the letter K.
As well, I do listen to Marc Maron’s biweekly podcasts, and I do enjoy them heartily–but not because I successfully dodged a relationship with someone like him. Rather, I listen to his podcasts because Maron overcomes his personal limitations by being one helluvan interviewer, particularly when he manages to keep the conversation focused on the guest and not his own history of interpersonal tensions, eating issues, and parental resentment. That noted, I do have to say that when Maron interviewed Conan O’Brien, he received a valuable therapy session from the late-night host thanks to O’Brien’s skills as an active listener.
Then again, if you have Conan O’Brien sitting in your garage, letting you interview him, shouldn’t you maybe shut up about how you can’t stop gorging on ice cream and then reeling from the resultant self-loathing?
In his best moments, however, Maron achieves something wonderful with the comedians, actors, and writers he interviews: he connects; he illuminates; he creates moments that remind listeners that there is power in two voices bouncing back and forth against a backdrop of silence. Of course he’s able to do something wonderful–even self-obsessed egotists have appeal. Why do you think you hooked up with your high school boyfriend in the first place? Remember it? It happened the hour after that dramatic hair-flipper Mindy Fassenberger lobbed a pointed comment your direction, hissing “Cows shouldn’t be allowed in the schools.” Still oozing hurt, you were sitting in trigonometry class, attempting to staunch the flow of liquid pain, when the soon-to-be boyfriend applied balm to your savaged self-esteem by catching your gaze and rolling his eyes while Mr. Norak joked, “I wear glasses because it improves division.” As you and your soon-to-be boyfriend shuffled out of the room towards seventh period, he leaned over and whispered to you, “What a dork. We should call him Mr. Dork-ak,”
and in that moment you were that much less alone in a world churning with cruelty and sneak attacks.
Soon-to-be boyfriend had connected, illuminated, created a moment. Soon-to-be boyfriend had seen you, and that validation created an ingress to your pneuma (Ingress to Her Pneuma, coincidentally, was the working title of Freud’s book about his mother’s loss of virginity; ultimately, however, just before the proofs went to the printer, he changed his mind and went with She Had a Hole in More Than Her Heart).
Maron, at his best, achieves what your boyfriend did that day in trigonometry class: he sees people and helps them move their stories forward.
What’s more, Maron identifies with his guests because he is so conscious–obsessively conscious–of his own vulnerabilities. In addition to ice cream binges, for example, Maron often monologues about how (when his primary companion, Anger, is absent) he is given to weeping at life’s small moments,
such as those portrayed in the reality television cooking program called Chopped.
Each week on this show, four chefs compete in three rounds (appetizer, entree, dessert), submitting to judging after each round, until only one chef remains. Distilling as it does all the hopes and stresses of humanity, this simple cooking show brings Maron to tears.
Having heard of this show through Maron’s podcast, I was itching to see it. All my iPod-toting lawyer friends already watched it with regularity, thanks to earning salaries that could accommodate cable television. However, since I’d had my Peachy Riunite night in the fountain and subsequently decided not to become a lawyer, I had taken a different route, one that has led to the less-robust salary of an English teacher, a salary which cannot rationalize $65 a month just to have access to 150 television channels, only 3 of which are worth watching. If, though, when I was 18, I had realized Peachy Riunite was directing me to a life without cable television and therefore limiting future opportunities to watch Chopped, I might have steered myself towards the apple schnapps.
As you learned on the hood of the Dodge Omni in the McDonald’s parking lot, however, we can’t go back and undo our choices, nor should we care to.
For me, it’s a good thing that I became an English teacher and not a lawyer and, consequently, can’t afford cable. Not only does a cable-free life save me from staring frequently, aghast, at the hair of that guy who hosts Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, it also gives me ample free hours in which to run the trails of my city and nurture seeds into seedlings.
It also gives me the opportunity to be over-the-moon excited when I am in the presence of cable. When I stay in a hotel for a conference, often times I scan the agenda of break-out sessions while muttering, “Okay, which of these can I skip? Because–HELLO, PEOPLE– THERE ARE HOUSES BEING FLIPPED AND BRIDESMAID DRESSES BEING CHOSEN INSIDE THE ELECTRONIC BOX THAT LIVES UP IN MY ROOM ON THE FIFTH FLOOR. PLUS, ALSO, THERE’S AN ICE MACHINE UP THERE, AND THAT’S SOMETHING ELSE I REALLY GET EXCITED ABOUT, AND DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THE WAY I CAN DROP MY TOWELS ON THE FLOOR, AND THEN THEY DISAPPEAR THE NEXT DAY.”
In addition to hotel rooms, I also encounter cable tv at my in-laws’ house. They aren’t huge television watchers, as a rule, but since they live in the country, they get no tv reception at all without a satellite boost. So they have cable.
And that means I get very little sleep when we visit the in-laws.
Especially when I discover at midnight that back-to-back episodes of Chopped are airing and I will, at long last, have the chance to see what’s been making Mark Maron snivel.
That’s what happened when we were visiting last month, and by the time 2 a.m. rolled around, I was sated and happy. I’d seen people cooking with caul fat, fer holy smashes! Even though I hadn’t cried, Chopped had delivered.
Not nearly enough hours later, my mood was distinctly less upbeat. Because we were having a family birthday party that day, my only chance to go for a run was before the party. As not-a-morning person in general, but particularly not-a-morning person when I’d watched cable and then read my book until after 3 a.m., my mood was dark.
Enter the anti-Maron, the not-your-high-school boyfriend: Byron.
The shorthand of our relationship allowed me to communicate that I was feeling vewy, vewy tiwed and that I feared that having to head out of the bedroom and play nice with his friendly parents might put me over the edge.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
A minute later, he returned with a banana and a cup of coffee, doctored to perfection. “Once you’re done with these, you should slip out the basement door and not go upstairs at all. Just avoid the morning pleasantries altogether, and go run.”
As if he didn’t already own me.
While I was out running, he puttered around his parents’ kitchen and made all the food for the birthday party.
A few hours later, in the midst of the festivities, my semi-perkified head was starting to droop. “Crikey, but I need the mid-afternoon pick-me-up that is a huge cup of coffee,” I noted out loud.
“Me, too,” agreed Byron, which spurred on coffee orders from his uncle and dad.
We walked to the coffee pot, four mugs in hand,
and discovered a mere inch of coffee pooling in the bottom.
Laying my cheek on the kitchen counter, fleetingly imagining it was the stone of a fountain, I moaned, “How long will it take to make a new pot? I have a serious case of The Whinies today, and only coffee can drown them.”
Byron, a man who would never call time with his own children “babysitting,” a man who scrubs the toilet and admires my tears, lowered his voice and murmured, “You take this coffee now. I’ll make a new pot. The others can wait five minutes for theirs.”
Some time later, the party over, we were in the car driving the three hours back to Duluth when Byron announced, “Here’s my plan. When we pull over for a bathroom break, we’ll dump you at the Panera so that you can grab a quick hour of wireless access since my parents’ Internet was out all weekend. I know you’re frantic inside about all the student work that’s been submitted this weekend and itching to answer all the questions that have flooded the class and your email. So you sit and work, and the kids and I will drive around and figure out what we’re all having for dinner. I’ll also distract them at Target for a bit to buy you more time.”
An hour later, full of chicken and burritos, my work stress considerably attenuated, we were back on the road. Since the weather was looking forbidding the further North we got, Byron insisted on driving. His knuckles were white the last 90 miles, as high winds pushed the car towards the shoulder, and lashing rains obscured the road.
He got us home safely. Naturally.
As we unpacked that night, I looked ahead to the work week that would have me on campus, participating in job interviews for a new dean. Standing next to a huge pile of dirty laundry, I peered into my closet and wondered aloud, “What should I wear tomorrow? I have to look professional, but I just want to be comfy.”
Not missing a beat, Byron suggested, “You can never go wrong with jeggings tucked into boots.”
Fortunately, he survived my enthusiastic response to his suggestion (a full-body tackle punctuated by a firm smooch) and was functional enough a few hours later to crack a beer made by a brewery called 21st Amendment, pour it into a frosty glass, and hand it to me while explaining, “It’s called ‘Allies Win the War!’; it’s brewed with dates. Enjoy.”
We sat together on our Turkish kilim-covered couch, alternately sipping our beers and holding hands. When the bottom of the glass appeared, he began yawning. “I’m not even going to try to stay up longer. If I go to bed now, you can get to your Sunday night grading sooner, which means you can get to bed earlier, too. What with being kept up so late by Chopped last night, I know you’re whupped. That damn Maron.”
There is this thing about Byron.
Actually, there are about seven-eleventy things about him.
That day, though, the thing about him was that he was–as he always is–positively Wordsworthian. Although it was some two hundred years ago that Wordsworth observed “The best portion of a good man’s life [is] his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love,” Byron breathes new life into the sentiment.
Effortlessly, easily, happily–Byron carries out his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. He discusses with the kids what foods might work best in their lunch bags. He helps nervous wannabe-gardeners at the green house where he works, directing them to low-maintenance plants that will lead them to feelings of success. He speaks to me of jeggings. He stops to chat with the lonely neighborhood dog-walker who spends hours each day trolling the alleys and sidewalks, looking for conversation. He offers our old patio chairs to the college students across the way. He sits down with our Girl and helps her prioritize her choices of volunteerism sites for a summer program. He reads the newspaper aloud on a radio station for the sight-impaired. He cuddles the hell out of Paco, our most-tactile resident. He retreats to the basement to draw, knowing that, to be capable of kindnesses to others, he must tend to his own needs.
Lacking the ego and passive/aggressiveness of your high school boyfriend, free of the anger and neediness of Mark Maron, Byron demonstrates a less-fraught way of moving through the world.
I like to think I meet him halfway in all he does: by providing endless occasions for his thoughtfulness.
Perhaps I do one other thing, too:
I take the Dodge Omni and political science final exam moments of my personal history–
in their many forms–
and turn them into the basis of an enduring gratitude.
I went through much before Byron, which makes it infinitely pleasurable now to note
his many unremembered acts of kindness and love.