Sunday, February 5, 2012

Freedom

I like what Bill Littlefield said so well this week on Only A Game:

"On the days that seem easiest to understand, it feels like there is a clear line between our grievances and our delights, between that which oppresses and threatens us and that which can temporarily banish our troubles by entertaining us. To the people who lost loved ones on Wednesday in Port Said, it must feel as if there is no safe place at all."

Littlefield gets right how activities that seem safe, even delightful, before a trauma, undertake more subtle considerations of risk and reward after it; how uncertainty persists in habits of self-distraction. I have written about a few of those habits--hiking and television watching, the management and medication of sleep--and also in newer writing that has yet to make the rounds. Driving, dating, everyday finance, even parenting are sometimes occasions for the integrity of a life to collapse inward; for the malevolent unreason of the world to exploit vulnerabilities and undermine confidences. As those activities, vulnerabilities, and confidences continue normalcy in a life, a corresponding over-caution becomes exhausting; however coincidental, its intrusions seem both predictive and useless.

I enjoyed very much Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. It is an energetic, well-constructed, and thoroughly unconsoling novel. Time and again, Franzen asks, what does it mean to mistake an abundance of opportunity for the absence of consequence? What binds us to our choices beyond the freedom to make or not make them? The hero, Walter Berglund, clings as dogmatically to the preservation of a minor species of songbird as the neoconservatives who coax his son to profiteer during the Iraq War shift their moral, political, and social rationalizations; as his best friend struggles to preserve in his public self the heterodox moralities of rock and roll; as his wife rejects inherited models of companionship for equally ambivalent ones. I would say that the thinking here feels very Midwestern and Catholic, except that the main characters are Lutheran and Protestant, the author Jewish. Better to say, I think, the values that resonate throughout the book seem exceptionally American: full of transformative potential, utterly blind to context.

Four years ago, I went to the wedding of a very good friend from college. During the weekend festivities, I threw up in front of a famous landmark, underdressed for the rehearsal, arrived late to the wedding the next day after trying again and agin to buy a nicer pair of shoes, and generally stood in corners of elegant rooms feeling very sorry for myself. I left the reception that night inside my own fully-inhabited, private head. Mostly, I hated feeling pitied by those other guests who did know about Katie's death. I resented those who were not aware of it.

Do I see now, in my allergic hostility to weddings then, a certain collegial narcissism, a willingness to take what I could in order to extend the terms and scope of my grief into new geographies? Whether I was merely sympathetic or understandably, justifiably overwhelmed, seems beside the point. I had no idea how to insulate myself against a world that seemed largely indifferent to my grief. I felt stuck perpetually sussing out the sympathy of strangers who, of course, attended the wedding with other, more relevant intentions.

Cait, Walt, and I are going to watch the Super Bowl this afternoon at a friend's house, with some other parent-friends we've made in the last seventeen months. It has become, gradually, an abundance of energetic and social occasions with other new parents. Walt is mobile and capable. He likes being around other kids, especially bigger ones. My mom says that Walt is as social and engaged as I was at that age, a tow-headed charmer of all ages and genders. I would like to be able to tell Walt with any certainty that the world is either a secure or insecure place, but his experience of it will finally supersede my limited perspective. I can only stand near Walt, and not too close, as he climbs then leans out from one precarious structure after another. In the meantime, this afternoon, I will glue myself to the television and root convivially for whomever is losing. Go Giants! Go Pats! What does it really matter to me who wins?

A friend recently posted to Facebook photographs from high school. As my sister pointed out then, a late-adolescent move from moon-shaped, Dynasty-style lenses to narrow rectangles updated my look a good twenty years. I have aged well, at least in the relative sense. High school, like college, was no series of peaks, not physically, intellectually, or socially. Rather, both were periods of experimentation and the practice of many kinds of failure. Gone are the short eras of chorale singing, chewed cigars and fedoras, beaded hair, not wearing jeans on principle, subscriptions to Mother Jones and The Nation, Spyro Gyra mix CDs, etc. We can, it seems, only choose so many uninherited influences. As I no doubt wrote in many yearbooks, next to so many lyrics by Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson, in the end, the truth does set us free.