Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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For Jen, Joe, and Gregor
Chick Chom Tang and I are very much alike: childless, suburban-bred, TV-culture baby boomers who somehow missed the boat on the Promises of Youth. Neither of us has ever come close to marriage. Both of us have been poor (by American standards) all our adult lives. As solid and supportive as our families have been, they probably still regard us as disappointments, difficult to explain in the annual Christmas letter, the funny uncles in the family tree. We console each other in weekly beer-drinking sessions, telling fond tales of childhood and ancient female conquest. The strong difference between us is that, while I try to be realistic about my circumstances, Chick believes his life has not yet begun.
Chick has been my next-door neighbor at this small-town residential motel in central Kansas for almost two years. Tall and pale, with long dangling arms and tousled brown hair and a large purplish nose, Chick was born in Topeka, Kansas, and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. His real name is Melvin Bodger Witherby. He calls himself Chick because he dislikes the name Melvin. The Chom Tang part came to him, he claims, with mystical and artistic insinuations, while he was walking the streets of Honolulu at age twenty-eight as a first-year member of the United States Navy.
Chick’s favorite subjects are Tarzan, Carlos Castaneda, L. Ron Hubbard (the science-fiction writer who founded Scientology), music, and especially art. Though primarily a piano player, Chick has also mastered many other instruments, including the banjo, the violin, and the tenor saxophone. He admits that he doesn’t quite have the talent to be a Charlie Parker or a Thelonious Monk, and over the years he has lost much of his interest in playing. “Music is my rudder,” he likes to say. “It has brought me this far, but it is behind me now.”
Chick is forty-one (I am forty-three) and attends the state university two miles east of here. He entered on a music scholarship and six months later switched to physics. Now he is an art major. That he has not become a successful artist, painter, writer, or musician, he insists, is the fault of his parents, who did not give him proper and, more important, early enough exposure in these areas. He has given up on his parents, his brothers and sisters, too. They don’t understand or appreciate him or what he is trying to become. They can’t relate to Chick Chom Tang. He has no more contact with his friends back in North Carolina, either. He subsists on and pays tuition with his GI Bill and government loans. Most of his life he has lived under the sponsorship or protection of some institution or relative. Chick was honorably discharged from the navy when he was thirty-five. He has not worked in two years and intends to keep it this way.
Chick likes to think that once his art studies are completed, he will become creative — not in any minor problem-solving or songwriting sense, as he is now, but in a manner that borders on, perhaps even falls within, the realm of genius. He believes that, by the empirical application of certain as-yet-unknown principles, the mysteries of the creative mind will someday be revealed to him. He has read numerous books on the subject and reconstructed the creative processes of many famous artists. He is working on a brain-hemisphere theory, a return-to-the-cradle theory, and a psychological system of creativity induction called “flux” that will take ten or fifteen years to master. Once he has assimilated and harmonized all of these, he believes, he will be privileged with artistic knowledge beyond that of any other practitioner on earth.
Beginning at age forty-six, Chick asserts, he will find his ideal mate, sire children, and teach them all the valuable things his parents never taught him: how to tend animals, fix cars, defend themselves, create art, and so on. He will not likely produce symphonies and sculpture until much later. A grand future must be meticulously prepared for. All great ideas must be thoroughly explored: love, for example, which Chick insists is a force, not an emotion. I believe he says this because he does not understand or is too afraid of love the emotion, and quantifying it as if it were a physical property takes the sting out of not having been successful at it. This is also, I’m sure, what he is trying to do with art, perhaps with every intangible goal he finds unattainable in life.
Chick explains to me that the reason I have failed in all my relationships with women is because I don’t understand this elemental principle of love-equals-force. (I thought it was because I was a chump.) This doesn’t explain why he, too, has failed in all his relationships, but that is another matter. Chick is presently infatuated with a fellow art student who is twenty-one. His feelings for her are clearly unrequited, and I have tried to convince him of this. I don’t often directly challenge Chick’s fantasies, but it’s only right to tackle a blind man about to be run over by a streetcar: he already has two formal sexual-harassment charges (trumped up, he says) filed against him at the university. One more and he will be out on his own, with no place to turn. He has run out of friends, relatives, and institutions. I try to jar him with the facts: “Look at yourself, Chick. You’re forty-one. You’ve never had any kind of lasting relationship with a woman. Do you think things are suddenly going to change? Why would they?” I think it’s working.
For our weekly beer-drinking sessions, Chick and I always convene in my room (with the blue vinyl armchair, the shamrock green carpet, the cracked vanity mirror, and the chintzy Second Empire desk and dresser). He is not equipped for visitors. Chick is a self-proclaimed misanthrope and anarchist. I am the only person in this complex he can stand, the only one who can relate to him, the only one patient and interested enough to pursue his company. He enjoys talking about himself. Our discussions are sometimes reminiscent of a clinical counseling session, with me in the role of counselor.
“Have you ever prayed to God to die?” he asks.
“Oh, yes. One or two hundred times.”
He holds out his hands. “And here we are.”
“God doesn’t want us to die, I guess.”
“Maybe he isn’t there to answer our prayers.”
“Maybe asking God to die isn’t really a prayer.”
“He only kills the weak ones.”
“Then he should’ve killed me years ago.”
Chick smiles at me with pity. He often boasts that he is descended from Viking stock. “What is my weakness?” he asks.
“I don’t want to recite your weaknesses,” I say, “because I don’t like people reciting mine. I know what mine are. You know what yours are.”
“C’mon,” he urges. “Tell me what my weakness is.”
I try to think of a friendly way to say that he lives in a fantasy world. He believes, for instance, that he can intercept the thoughts and feelings of women who are in love with him. He consults with and receives messages from “the Universe.” He believes that he possesses telepathic powers that allow him to communicate with plants and insects. At twenty-six, he lived in a small converted garage with a roach problem, which he claims he solved one night after speaking telepathically with a female albino roach “emissary” who appeared out of the drain in his bathroom sink. He once lived for free on a little plot of wooded land in North Carolina, where he walked about naked and climbed trees for a few months. Trees, he claims, are his only source of love. He planted tomatoes too late this year, but talked with confidence of their extraordinary ability to last and even produce through the winter. (His only knowledge of plants comes from a book called The Findhorn Garden, a modern account of a miraculous Scottish garden invested with pagan spirits.) Chick conversed with his tomatoes daily and the tomatoes instructed him in what to do: which weeds to pull, when to water, and so on. When harvest time came, his tomatoes were rather small and sickly, many of them splitting and decomposing on the vine before they could ripen. All the plants died with the first frost in late October, and they now hang brown against their string restraints, the green fruit rotting into the ground. Chick believes that the concept of destruction is a flaw in the universal plan. When I admitted to him once that I often had to write ten bad stories to get a single good one, he refused to believe me. Only later did he identify some defect as the source of my difficulty.
So now, when he asks me to name his weakness, I summarize his general outlook on life by saying, I hope kindly: “You’re too idealistic.”
“Wrong,” he says, with a hearty, easy grin. “I’m lazy.”
Chick’s most recent fantasy construction — the imminent discovery of the origin of creativity — appears to have been influenced by my rather late and mild success as a writer, which has taken the form of a few fan letters, one visit from three admiring strangers, and invitations from a coffeehouse for a reading and an alternative newspaper for an interview. Most impressive to Chick is the money, my sudden ability to buy expensive beer and take a trip home to visit my parents: all this just for sitting in my little room making things up in front of a computer. (And I’ve only been at it for twenty years!) To Chick, this seems like a good gig. If art can exonerate an undistinguished, middle-aged, motel-dwelling loner like me, why couldn’t it do the same for him?
“I’m thinking of writing some stories,” he tells me.
“Oh, really? What for?”
“To make some money,” he says with a big smile.
Every time we get together, Chick and I spend at least an hour talking about creativity. He is determined to figure this thing out. I tell him in so many words that he won’t.
“It’s a gift,” I say. “You either have it or you don’t.”
“I don’t believe in gifts,” he says. “Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt — they were all exposed early to their craft. They all started young.”
“And you don’t think they had gifts?” I say. “Do you know how many people were exposed young to painting and piano playing who weren’t geniuses? I started playing the violin when I was seven. I was terrible. I hated it. I had no gift.”
“You didn’t have the right teacher.”
“That doesn’t explain why one student becomes a great violinist and another doesn’t.”
“It’s learning,” Chick says. “Learning and memory and exposure to certain ideas at the right age.”
I sense him fuming again at his parents for their lack of foresight in not preparing him to be a genius. I recite to him a few examples that contradict his theory: Raymond Chandler not beginning to write until the Great Depression ruined his future as an oil executive; Joseph Conrad not learning English, the language in which he composed his novels, until his mid-thirties; Carson McCullers moving to New York from small-town Georgia, intending to study music and turning to fiction only after losing all her money on the subway.
Chick insists that once a thing is learned, it can be repeated indefinitely.
“You’re talking about formula, which doesn’t apply to art,” I say. “Harper Lee never wrote another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird. If she knew how to write one great novel, why didn’t she do it again?”
“Maybe she didn’t want to.”
“More likely, she had only one story to tell.”
“I don’t agree with that,” he says. “If she’d wanted to, she could’ve written another. Look at Steinbeck and his repeated use of the Knights of the Round Table.”
“But he uses it over and over, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he does.”
“Don’t you see? That’s an application of a known system.”
“If creativity is an application of a known system, why do good directors make so many bad films?”
Employing logic with Chick takes almost more energy than it’s worth. But I take no satisfaction in simply humoring him all night, even if we are merely passing the time. Chick’s belief in the eventual discovery of the principles of creativity is just that, a belief, an article of faith. Like many people, he operates on the false premise that intelligence begets creativity, that because he possesses one he’s entitled to the other. He assumes that since he understands art he should be able to produce art.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told him that smart does not translate into art. This is illustrated by the many dull celebrities who croon, paint, strum, draw, rap, act, and write brilliantly. Conversely, many bright people are left to consider or criticize or stand in line and pay money to admire the work of their intellectual inferiors. Creativity, like beauty or athleticism or a sense of humor, is simply the luck of the draw. Perhaps it will one day be traced genetically (along with beauty, athleticism, and a sense of humor). Then it will be duplicated in the laboratory, dissected and distilled by scientists, and distributed for consumption in the Perfect World Where Everyone Is Happy. But meanwhile, now, in the Land of Reality, it cannot be acquired.
Chick can’t accept this, though, because it undermines the very foundation upon which his fragile notions and his grandiose future rest. The secret to a creative life (which promises vindication and escape from his ordinary existence) must be accessible to him somehow, just as one might sign up for a sky-diving class or obtain a real-estate license or learn how to juggle. He wants something easy and indoor and formulaic: A + B = CREATIVITY. If you’re interested in becoming rich, I suggest you produce an infomercial guaranteeing to divulge the Ten Easy Steps to Creativity. Chick would buy your product, and so would a million others like him.
Chick is never shy about giving me advice, especially about my writing. He knows I am no genius. What genius would work all day in a radio-antenna factory to write stories at night and then discard 90 percent of them? He is particularly appalled by this abysmal success-to-failure ratio, and by the fact that I have completed sixteen novels, not one of them marketable. “You’ll never learn how to write a novel if you don’t master form,” he advises me gravely.
Since Chick doesn’t write and doesn’t even read fiction (except for Tarzan books and L. Ron Hubbard), I am somewhat amused by this. All of the examples from literature that he uses to make his points he has borrowed from me and reworked to fit his argument.
“How would I go about that?” I ask.
“Simple,” he says. “You copy the masters.”
“In my business, we call that plagiarism.”
“Picasso copied the masters,” he says. “Seurat, Cezanne.” He continues to recite a long list of painters who became great by copying others and who continued to copy even at the height of their careers.
“Painting is different from writing,” I say.
“It all boils down to the same thing,” he insists. “Composition, mood, value.”
“Except that language has to have specific meaning,” I say.
“Music and painting are languages, too,” he counters.
“But the problems are different. One is literal, the others symbolic.”
“It’s all symbolic,” he says emphatically.
“The word novel means ‘new,’ ” I say. “All good novels are new. I can’t write Variations on Catcher in the Rye or Great Gatsby in B Minor. A writing style is discovered or invented, not copied.”
“You’re too left-brained,” he says.
“All right, I’m too left-brained.”
“If Picasso were here,” he says, “he’d tell you.”
“If Picasso were here, he wouldn’t know what left-brained meant.”
Chick laughs nervously. Which means I have won the argument, though it makes no difference; the argument is irrelevant: either you produce something creative, or you don’t.
For Thanksgiving, Chick has nowhere special to be. He mentions an aunt in Abilene, but he has no desire to go where he will not be appreciated or understood. It was the same last Thanksgiving. I imagine it has been this way since he became Chick Chom Tang, the Don Quixote of Unnurtured Genius. I suggest we roast a duck. He eagerly agrees. I tell him to bring the stuffing. He is pleased by this. I’ve worked in a lot of kitchens, so I usually do all the cooking — all the cleaning, as well. Chick simply lets me take care of him. That is the only arrangement he understands. “I’ll bring the wine, too,” he says.
I roast a duck with apricot sauce, boil potatoes with onions and milk and chicken stock, then mash them, poach asparagus, and bake (thaw, actually) a Mrs. Smith’s Dutch apple pie. Chick brings oyster-spinach stuffing and a three-liter box of Franzia merlot.
“The stuffing isn’t too good,” he says.
“Where did you get the recipe?”
“Off the Internet.”
“Did you follow the directions?”
“I changed a few things. . . .” He sulks a little as we eat. His creativity has failed him again. “Everything else is good,” he grumbles.
“Everything is good,” I say.
When we’ve finished dinner, I clear the table. Chick tips back in his chair and watches me, sipping from his jar of wine and tapping his foot to the cool jazz of Chet Baker. He tells me that Chet Baker was a lifelong junkie, says that it’s hard to find a good cool-jazz musician who wasn’t a junkie. He makes heroin sound like a source of creativity: stick a needle in your arm and push the plunger down on a syringe full of cool jazz. We drink the wine and get slightly drunk. The sun goes down. It is a warm evening in Kansas. Chick excitedly expresses a new idea about creativity, a variation on his brain-hemisphere theory: he is going to start painting with both hands. I tell him about Yeats’s left-handed automatic writing, Kesey writing Cuckoo’s Nest on LSD, Coleridge composing on opium, Bukowski’s drunk-trance states. Chick is pleased and comforted by gimmicks. I feel as if I am misleading him, filling his syringe with cool jazz.
At the end of the evening, the conversation turns to religion. Chick has an astounding belief system, a combination of Tarzan, Scientology, Carlos Castaneda, Darwinism, nature worship, and convenient bits and pieces of the larger, more traditional disciplines, especially the Eastern methodologies. He defends his makeshift faith stoutly, believing his organization of thought infallible. Since I’ve known him, he has been trying to enlighten me, teach me, help me see the way, stubborn and thick-witted as I am. To his dismay, I have managed instead to erode and even dissolve many of his positions. Lately he has been concentrating on his version of apocalypse, which will occur in forty years and involves a natural revolution, green versus evil, wherein the earth will revert to a state of unblemished wilderness rivaling or exceeding the Garden before the appearance of Adam and Eve.
“How?” I say incredulously. “You’ve got 6 billion people flushing their toilets every twenty minutes.”
“It’ll happen,” he says. “You’ll see.”
“You don’t even recycle your beer cans, Chick.”
“It won’t matter,” he says.
“Nothing on earth is going to change,” I say. “It’s been the same for 4.8 billion years. It’s a design. It’s this way for a reason.”
He manages to light a cigarette without breaking eye contact. He seems to think that eye contact will help him win the argument. Perhaps he is sending telepathic signals to my subconscious. “You watch,” he says with a shake of his finger as he finishes his jar of wine.
I consider reminding him that in forty years we will both very likely be dead — then I realize that he is probably referring in some way to this event, his own death, and the promise of paradise to follow, though I don’t believe he understands this himself.
What I don’t realize is that I have struck a blow deep into the heart of Chick’s fantasy life, his only life. I have good intentions, though. My rounding up his vagaries and wayward ideas one by one and examining them comes out of a love of truth and order, not cruelty. I hope to see him someday get a job, have a girlfriend or even a wife, maybe return to his family, or at least have one sustained friendship outside of mine. But Chick doesn’t see it this way. And it won’t be long before my subtle and systematic assault on his dream world will cause him to angrily declare our friendship over.
I think about Chick and how, throughout his life, he has always managed to falter just at the point where he might succeed. The purpose of this pattern seems clear to me. Call it fear of failure or fear of success; I don’t see much difference. He could succeed, but he knows that a minor success would fall miserably short of his fantastic expectations. It would be the same as failure. Hence his constant changes in course and location, his withdrawal from the hopeless reality of labor and social interaction, his defiant declaration of anarchism and misanthropy, his construction of an unassailable imaginary fortress called the future.
“What do you think about this?” I say, and I begin reading to him from a book called The Religion of Spirit, by an obscure nineteenth-century Jewish philosopher named Solomon Formstecher, who said that there were only two basic religions: the religion of nature (paganism) and the religion of spirit (ethics).
Chick listens for a while, then bristles.“Why are you reading this to me?”
“Because we were talking about religion.”
“Well, it’s a bunch of malarkey,” he says. Chick regards most of my religious positions and arguments as heresy.
“It’s just an opinion,” I say. “You can take it or leave it.”
“You’re a fool,” he says.
“Why, because I read obscure nineteenth-century idealist philosophy?”
“No, because you think you know so much.”
“I don’t know a thing, Chick. We’re just passing the time.”
“You watch,” he says. “In forty years it will happen. . . .”
I’m not going to argue with him. “Maybe it will,” I concede.
Chick seems satisfied.