Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Junk Drawer of My Mind

Love Among the Ruins

Il y a dans le coeur humain une génération perpétuelle de passions, en sorte que la ruine de l'une est presque toujours l'établissement d'une autre.
                In the human heart there is a perpetual generation of passions, such that the ruin of one is almost always the foundation of another.
Maxim 10.
~François de La Rochefoucauld
Source: Wikiquote

We humans work for, obtain, use, repurpose, and, ultimately, junk things. When we don’t know whether or not to junk it, many of us create a junk drawer. Or junk closet. Or junk…garage. But for today, I’m thinking of the handy drawer for the odds and ends, the bits and bobs, we find useful but not often used. Like twine. A garlic press. AAA batteries. Felt dots to place under hard objects you set on the table. You know what I mean? If you have a junk drawer—and Miss O’s guess is that you do—I’ll bet you can find some of those dots. (I know. I don't know where mine came from either.)

I have a junk drawer in my kitchen. The drawer was already a junk drawer when I moved into this apartment as a tenant, over ten years ago, before I bought the place. Some drawers are like that, being what they are before you even know yourself that it’s so. Curiously, my oft-used sandwich baggies and bartender’s corkscrew reside there, which just goes to show that junk drawers are not full of not-useful thingies, just thingies for which you don't really have a thingy place.

I have two junk drawers in my bedroom. One is filled primarily with packets of the last photos shot on my Pentax K1000 SE (I also have two undeveloped rolls from years back), old cell phones, a couple of framed photos I put out sometimes, and later exchange with others. What are those moth balls doing there? The second drawer has mostly linens that belonged to my maternal grandmother—vintage table cloths, a couple of scarves, some tatting—as well as compilation videotapes a former student's dad was kind enough to make for me showing my work as a high school theater director over the years (part of grad school applications that led nowhere, thank god, because I live in New York now).

Under these linens, there’s also a jewelry box from my childhood. I don’t know exactly why I keep it, except for nostalgia, and the fact that that particular Christmas, several friends received just such a trinket—faux glamour in a lead lattice box, “gold” painted and lined in red “velvet,” and what girl wouldn’t go nuts for it? The left front leg (see photo) broke off when I dropped it once; never telling anyone, I’d just make sure it rested right, and it was fine as long as I didn’t shut a drawer or bang the dresser on which it sat. It wasn’t until I moved out on my own and rediscovered it in a box, that I bothered to glue it and mask the scar with a little gold-colored paint. So easy. Why hadn’t I mentioned it to anyone? Why hadn’t I tried to mend it? Because it drove me mad to be ever fixing it, day after day.


This winter has found me reading the blog Brain Pickings (including a really cool letter of advice by Hunter S.Thompson, of all people, in one of the posts) and in an exchange of emails with my friend Anna Citrino about writing and why we write. I’m in a very strange emotional/creative place, in that I’m not particularly driven to finish a play, or even write this blog, or, what is most startling, to save the world. Because I don’t really have a driving passion right now—in that losing the desire to write has not been replaced with something else, as per Maxim 10, at this blog's opening—I’ve been thinking about infrastructure, doing things to repair broken things in my life. And for some reason I got to thinking about junk drawers, what they are for, why we have them. Why not “a place for everything and everything in its place”? Is a junk drawer a “place” for anything?

In addition, I’m sorting through the junk in my head, the junk drawer of my life, as it were; I guess maybe I just want to see what’s in there. I suspect I’ll just leave it the way I find it, as we do with that junk drawer of ours in the kitchen.

“I love how I'm looking for something I know is in a junk drawer... like superglue or somesuch thing. I KNOW I put it there a year ago, thinking this will be the first place I look when I need it. But it's not there.”
~George Lightcap, friend and fellow user of junk drawers

Junk Item 1: On being ill—the fluctuations in weather—congestion—sadness. Trying to explain depression to my sweet boyfriend, who said, “But you are so lucky! Think about all the great things in your life!” To this I said, as kindly as I could: “When you have an awful cold, just the worst—like the one you just got over, you know? Does it help you feel better when someone remarks, ‘But you have four beautiful children’?” Mental illness needs to be called “illness,” and there an end. Meanwhile, where to put it? And where is that bit of sanity I KNOW I stashed in my mind’s junk drawer this time last year just for this occasion? Fuck.

Junk Item 2: The need for altered states—a junk drawer of the psyche, where we can throw all the random items: A memory, say, in exchange for the toothpicks; or trading extra packets of matches for the scraps of paper and post-its with ideas written on them that didn’t have time to get lodged in the mind. Some people snort coke for this.

Junk Item 3: It’s tedious to clean out all our junk. I have met actual, functioning humans with a sense of humor and everything who have managed to live all their lives without a junk drawer, in body, home, or, it seems, mind. I’m even friends with one such person. (She also folds all of her underwear and organizes her socks by size and color; her linen cupboards are works of art; AND she can write, breed and ride horses, do scientific experiments, raise dogs and kids, and draw. And fuck her, by the way. I say that with love.) I’m also friends with more than one person for whom the equal and opposite is true: Every single drawer, surface, and even room is a junk collection point. Yet don’t people have to toss out excess sometime? Sort the junk? At least open the drawer once in a while and see what the fuck you’ve been tossing in there all this time? And what is it that triggers that crisis moment?

Junk Item 4: My Great Uncle Phil and Great Auntie Clare would take off the oxygen straps just long enough to smoke one more Lucky Strike. I keep remembering it lately—I don’t know why. Maybe because my boyfriend smokes. It’s more junk in my mind drawer, because I never know when I’ll need it.

“The last one.”
~stage director Maureen’s announcement at the first rehearsal of almost any show, back when you could smoke in public buildings, stubbing out what I remember as a Carlton; friend Richard always carried a pack of her brand, which he would proffer at the second rehearsal when she inevitably started to lose her temper.

Junk Item 5: I’ve had a wretched cold all week, to say nothing of the 12-day menstrual period, still in progress, until the next wave of hot flushes kicks in. All of it’s junking me up.

Junk Item 6: Snow, snow, snow…global warming, global warming, global warming. Walking back this morning from my boyfriend’s place, I see the piles of dirty snow and detritus from spilled garbage collections, uncovered in some of the melting (so much more melting to go). What are we ever going to do with all this garbage?

Junk Item 7: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an overdose of heroin was a total shocker last weekend. Junked by junk. If any actor seemed to have a real life devoid of drama, his would be a first guess. A father of three children with a loving partner; life in Greenwich Village; artistic director of the Public’s LAByrinth Theater Company; a major motion picture star in character parts that showed a breadth of range without peer—who could have guessed that his inner demons led him into a life of drug addiction? I was astounded by how ugly it became on Facebook, commenters blowing him off as “just another rich artist with a habit,” because it is so easy to judge another that way. What is less easy to understand is the crippling drug problem in this country, not only among artists like Hoffman. Thanks so much to David Denby for exploring the loss of Hoffman so sensitively in The New Yorker online, because if I read one more snark-post (“Who cares? Just another druggie actor…”) I was going to throw up.

Si nous n'avions point de défauts, nous ne prendrions pas tant de plaisir à en remarquer dans les autres.
                If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.
Maxim 31.
~François de La Rochefoucauld
Source: Wikiquote

The Master

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d'elle.
·      Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.
Maxim 22.
~François de La Rochefoucauld
Source: Wikiquote

To think more deeply about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman—because it has seriously been eating at my heart—I’m being helped along today, you may have noticed, by the French philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld, whom I studied in high school French classes, and probably in some college history course, too; de La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims came up yesterday as I was watching a YouTube video from The Rubin Museum here in New York, a series called “Happy Talk,” this one featuring a conversation between that late, truly great American actor and the English philosopher Simon Critchley, about whom I really didn’t know and now want to read more of.

This installment of the aforementioned Rubin Museum Lecture Series, “Happy Talk,” is wonderful to engage with in a way that, say, Inside the Actor’s Studio is painful, because every film title, say, mentioned by the host is not punctuated by fatuous applause. I say “fatuous” because there is something meaningless in the constant applause of interview programs now; it becomes self-serving to applaud at every mention of someone’s work, or when the guest says something “meaningful” or provocative—in the first case, it’s as if to remind the guest star, “I’m out here! Your fan!” is useful to the discussion: The films are done, the reviews are in, the awards won or lost—get over yourself, audience; in the second case, the applause would seem to signal an aberrant moment of lucidity and heft in a talk show conversation, as opposed to the usual notes of vapidity. How sad. Can’t we TALK anymore? (At one point in this interview, for example, Hoffman talks about a moment in a film he did that he can’t remember the name of, and an audience member calls out, “Almost Famous,” and Hoffman nods, repeats, “Almost Famous…” and goes on. Because he’s talking about something, and not the fact of being in a movie. And everyone listened.)
Here are some questions Miss O’ had that came out of this talk:

·      What is happiness? “You might be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with you,” from the movie Magnolia—PSH is the nurse to Jason Robards—and if you haven’t seen that movie, why don’t you? Because it’s stunning.
·      Do you have to make a choice between happiness and truth?
·      “Life is short,” vs. the film Magnolia’s line, “No, life is long,” and that’s what the past can make us feel like, says Hoffman. Why is that?
·      Greek playwright Sophocles: “No man happy until he is dead”: Happiness is not something in your life—it’s something attributed to your life. How does this work? Could do a whole blog on that alone.
·      Is it necessary to think of the past, to work on it?

In other words: Is it necessary to clean out a junk drawer, and more specifically, a junk drawer of the mind? Because it would seem to Miss O’ that while it can be good to reduce clutter that is moldering and sending out noxious fumes, for example, sometimes the refuse of the past needs to stay in the past. Out of the discussion of the Greeks, for instance, Hoffman says that most people probably live their life not concerned with their happiness but with the story they are creating. Hoffman admits that he just “can’t do that.” And it would seem to me that if you just can’t do that—if you really must keep moving deeper and deeper into the idea of “happiness” and where yours might be hiding, you might see why someone would turn to drugs.

Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement.
                Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.
Maxim 26.
~François de La Rochefoucauld
Source: Wikiquote

The talk about the film The Master is interesting—such an odd movie. My friend Quinn and I went to see it and found ourselves really provoked, lost, fascinated, unmoored. Great performances aside, we were so nauseated by the subject and the characters, we left, um, unsatisfied. But seriously, Hoffman and Phoenix are stunning. Simon Critchley hits on something when he says that people’s need for religion kicks in when we say to ourselves, “The world is hard, and we are twisted, and we need to be made perfect.” Hoffman points out, following on this, that the founders of religions are desperate to leave eternity on Earth, their own indelible mark, their name and their creation. Any religion will do when you are at that place.

And that gave me pause. Any religion will do when we are in a desperate place. And I ask myself, “What would happen if instead of religion we looked to art?”

The Moralist’s Eye: Hoffman and Critchley discuss the role of philosophy in all this: Montaigne, de La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche. We moralize, we judge, we provoke, we wonder. It’s a mess, isn’t it, sorting through all this thought, in the search for clarity (to paraphrase the Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine”)? So does the junk drawer—the one of the home or of the mind or of the spirit—need to be straightened out, tidied, de-cluttered? Are there places in us where it’s really okay just to toss it in and slam the drawer shut? Why do we like to explore attics? Dig for artifacts? Why do we watch the news or go to the movies, for that matter? Why add to our own clutter of experience?

“Why do we sit in the dark, watching actors as brilliant as you, playing such miserable creatures?” ~ Simon Critchley

Hoffman talks about the fact that his job as an actor, like Critchley’s job as a philosopher, is to “sit with this stuff, to not let yourself off the hook,” to think about these painful subjects and try to understand them. We read books, go to the movies, watch the news, talk to others, travel, dream, in order to LIVE FULLY, to know all we can know while alive on Earth, goddammit anyway, and the result is stuff we can use now, stuff we might want to use later, and stuff we have to throw the fuck out. For an actor, for a philosopher, for a writer—it’s a lot of JUNK we must hang onto in order to do our jobs. And when the maintaining of the junk becomes too much to take…what is the outlet? Because the “more” of life—partner, children, responsibilities—is hardly a respite.

Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d'autrui.
                We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.
Maxim 19.
~François de La Rochefoucauld
Source: Wikiquote

I guess this is the price of having the impulse to create anything, to take a photograph or make a painting or write this blog. It’s possible to make things and not think about anything—will they be good? And who decides? And is making something good, making a good thing, important? In the film Synedoche New York, which I haven’t seen, Hoffman plays a director who wants to make something exactly like life, and keeps rehearsing something that can never be complete. His character can never say, “That’s okay, that’s good enough.” How many of us feel that way—that if we can do this one thing perfectly, we will have achieved perfection, and thus have justified our own existence in this life? I suspect a good many. And when perfection in act and deed is not looking likely, one might turn to religion, which forgives your imperfections and gives you leave to give up the quest: All is forgiven because this guy died for you. And when you can’t buy into religion, there’s always the dealer on the corner.

Toward the end of the talk, Hoffman talks about reading Critchley’s book, The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009) (I think it must be this one, after looking up the subject on Amazon), about learning how to die so that we might live a richer life. “Philosophy begins with the drama of Socrates’s death,” Critchley says. I had never thought of that. Socrateswho attempted “to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice,” was deemed a traitor; he is given the choice of death by hemlock poisoning, or banishment into obscurity. He chooses, as we may remember from school, death by hemlock, and thus becomes immortal.

This is where the “Happy Talk” becomes almost unbearably painful, given the recent event of Hoffman’s untimely death. “We live in a culture that flees death,” begins Critchley, and I found myself looking at the time remaining—about two and a half minutes, and so I stayed with it—and the talk turned to the idea of looking at the skull beneath the skin, having a skeleton in every Manhattan restaurant to remind the diners, “You’ll be here someday”; then to Newtown, and Hoffman’s hearing a sermon about it, and the minister reminding them that Christians look on the cross throughout a service, looking upon an instrument of death, and are told to rejoice. “How do we do that?” Hoffman had asked. Right after Newtown happened, he said, he went home to his kids, made them dinner. And Hoffman said that the minister he heard kept repeating, “ ‘we can’t protect our children, we can’t protect our children,’ and you could see it was bothering him, but that was the truth.” Hoffman concluded, “I thought that was very helpful.” Here the tape fades out.

Il ne faut pas s'offenser que les autres nous cachent la vérité, puisque nous nous la cachons si souvent à nous-mêmes.
                We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us, when we hide it so often from ourselves.
Maxim 11.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor who was willing to go rooting around the most densely packed of junk drawers—the human soul, the psyche, whatever you want to call it—to bring forth an astonishing array of human characters on film and on stage. I have nothing but empathy for him. He alludes in the talk with Critchley to his own childhood, that when he is most happy is in seeing the enjoyment his children have in interacting with each other; this called up his own childhood, which (he said almost in passing and not too emphatically) “was probably quite different.” The junk drawer of the past. What to do with it?

I have a lot of junk to clean out. This post is the tip of the proverbial iceberg—or rather, ice pick, if I’m keeping with images from the items in my junk drawer—of what is on my mind this week. But look, I have a pile of junk on my desk, and another pile on the floor behind the couch. I should probably tend to it. If you have a chance, Netflix the delightful indie comedy Next Stop Wonderland, where Philip Seymour Hoffman's small role is so perfectly wrought I was convinced he was, you know, just a real guy off the street. And then watch Capote and be staggered. It's our work that lives after us, after all. Our work, and our love.

Il n'y a qu'une sorte d'amour, mais il y en a mille différentes copies.
                There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand different versions.
Maxim 74.
~François de La Rochefoucauld
Source: Wikiquote

Live your life. Use the past. Don’t junk the love.
In joy, somehow,

Miss O’

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