The Man in the Empty Boat
By Mark Salzman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Mark Salzman
All rights reserved.
Everyone has a worst year; 2009 was mine. I'd been suffering from writer's block for nearly a decade, ever since having children. Fatherhood had filled my heart with joy but turned my mind to mush. When I volunteered for the stay-at-home parent role in our family, I told myself: I'll write during the kids' naps! Fatherhood will inspire me. Fatherhood did inspire me, but not to write. When our daughters napped, so did I.
I owed my publisher a book and failed to meet the deadline. When I tried to write, what came out was crap and that made me nervous. In March of 2009, I started having panic attacks. In May of that year, my little sister Rachel became ill with pneumonia. I flew back east to help look after her young daughters while she recovered, but something went terribly wrong during her hospital stay and she never made it home.
When I returned to Los Angeles I was in bad shape. I sought refuge in the comforts of hearth and home, but our family had grown while I was away. We had acquired a dog—and I've never cared for dogs. That dog pushed me over the edge.
Anxiety has been my trademark dysfunction for as long as I can remember. It runs in the family, and it doesn't help that the members of my family are all atheists. Not for us the solace of believing that Someone cares or that suffering serves a higher purpose or that the next world will be better than this one. We are faith-challenged, so perhaps it isn't surprising that we're vulnerable to despair. I've spent most of my life searching for peace of mind, but people with my credentials generally make poor spiritual seekers. Atheists, after all, are supposed to have evolved beyond the need for comforting but unverifiable beliefs. But without comforting beliefs we have no antidote for anguish, and that can be a real handicap.
My search for peace of mind has taken me around the world, prompted me to study Chinese language, martial arts, and philosophy, and ultimately led me to become a writer. In 2009 I found a reason to call off the search. My year of crisis ended with a life-changing epiphany, which sounds good until I describe the incident that triggered it.
My view of the world, of myself, and of life itself was changed forever by the sound of a dog farting.
Eight years ago, a musician friend who was in town for a concert invited me, my wife Jessica, and our daughter Ava to have dinner with him at a fancy restaurant. (Esme, our second daughter, was still a year away.) We set Ava up in a high chair with a pad of paper and some crayons, and she got right to work while the three of us grown-ups started talking. An hour later, our friend—noticing that Ava hadn't whined or squirmed or interrupted us at all during that hour—asked what we'd done to make her so serene.
I am a person who has tried just about every method known to man to achieve serenity and none of them has worked, so I said, "She sure as hell didn't learn it from me." This led our friend to pose the following question: Since we inherit so much from our parents, including their genes, and since they play such a crucial role in our early development, do we ever truly grow beyond their influence?
This was no idle question. His father had been a renowned violinist, musicologist, and music teacher whose approach to parenting was authoritarian in the extreme. Once the father recognized that his son had a musical gift, he drove the boy relentlessly. Overseeing every detail of the child's musical career became the man's life's work, his masterpiece, and he was not going to let anyone screw it up—especially not the child himself, who occasionally expressed an interest in doing something other than practicing. Not surprisingly, their relationship became so strained that it eventually broke; for a period of several years, they had no contact at all with each other.
Our friend wrestled for years with questions like: Was what he gained by keeping to his father's schedule for his life worth what he lost? How would his life have been different if he had been allowed/encouraged to make more decisions on his own? When he became a father himself, our friend was determined not to become a controlling parent. But he also knew that sometimes, trying too hard to avoid making the mistakes your parents made can have unintended consequences. Renounce cruelty forever and you might become indulgent; forswear emotional distance and you might become overinvolved. How do you break one cycle without setting a new one in motion?
We tossed these questions back and forth for a while until our friend, noticing that Ava was looking at him, asked her, "Well, what do you think?"
I don't think that he really expected an answer from the two-year-old in the high chair—I certainly didn't—but to our astonishment, Ava put her crayon down and said, quietly but firmly, "You are who you choose to be."
Our friend looked thunderstruck, but the way he looked was nothing compared to the way I felt. Only Jessica seemed to take it in stride, but that's mothers for you. They all know their kids are brilliant.
The words weren't Ava's own. She was repeating a line from her favorite movie, The Iron Giant. The main character is a robot who was built to be a weapon but doesn't want to be a weapon anymore. He wants to be good like Superman, but only a little boy named Hogarth seems to recognize this; everyone else thinks the robot should be destroyed. In a pivotal scene of the film, Hogarth assures the tormented machine that change is possible. "You are who you choose to be," he says. "You choose."
The robot ends up sacrificing himself to save the humans who want to destroy him. The first time Ava saw the film, she wept as the robot hurled himself at the fatal missile and then asked, between sobs, if she, too, could be like Superman.
"Of course you can," I said, my heart melting.
All right—back to the restaurant. Naturally, I felt the rush of joy that all parents feel when their kids say something that makes them seem clever. I also had the pleasure of knowing that I, who enjoy telling stories more than I enjoy doing just about anything else, would be dining off this one for the rest of my life. At the same time, I felt a twinge of dread. For the first eleven years of being married, I had resisted all suggestions that my wife and I ought to have children. I didn't want us to have kids, because I was afraid that if we did, they might turn out anxious like me rather than calm like their mother. And I can't think of any single idea more likely to generate anxiety and existential paralysis than this one: You are who you choose to be. Because if you are who you choose to be, you had better choose wisely, and that's easier said than done.
If the Salzman family had a coat of arms, it would be a shield with a face on it and the face would look worried. Jessica once said to me, "Mark, you were raised by rabbits," and she was right. Our whiskers tremble when we ponder our uncertain futures. Our claws are useless for fighting. We live in fear.
My father was a social worker and my mother taught music out of our home. We lived in a tract house in a peaceful suburb. We owned a series of reliable Volkswagen buses (the minivans of their day) and used them every summer to go camping all over the country. We had few reasons to complain, really, but our whiskers trembled anyway. We seemed determined to validate Henry David Thoreau's claim that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." What were we so afraid of?
Biology may have something to do with it. Anxiety and depression run so strongly through our family that if you were to draw our family tree, it would look like a weeping willow. When I was nineteen years old, I became so distraught over what I considered to be the meaninglessness of existence that I dropped out of college halfway through my junior year. During a visit home that winter, I found myself confiding all my troubles to my father while he worked on one of his paintings. He liked to work while sitting on the floor, with his materials spread all around him, and I found it easier to talk when he wasn't looking straight at me.
My dad has always been a good listener. He doesn't interrupt and he doesn't give advice unless you ask him for it. After he'd listened for an hour or so without interrupting or offering any advice, I began to wonder if he was listening at all, so I asked him if he had anything to say about all this. He was a social worker, after all. He looked up from his painting, pushed his reading glasses a bit higher on his nose, and looked at me for a long time. At last, he gave me a sad little smile and said, "Welcome."
He knew how I felt, because he'd felt that way for most of his life. As a child, he looked so forlorn on most days that his family gave him the nickname Little Old Joe before he'd even reached puberty. His dream as a young man was to become a professional artist, but that dream did not come true. Just after he and my mother were married, the two of them drove from Chicago to New Orleans. My dad tried to find a gallery willing to represent him there, but the experiment failed. They got back in the car and headed east. When the car broke down in Connecticut, my father found work at a family counseling center in Greenwich, my mother took on a few piano students to supplement their income, and I was born two years later, in 1959. My brother Erich came next, in 1962, and our sister, Rachel, brought up the rear in 1963.
When I was ten, my mother realized that due to a fortuitous accounting error, she and my father had saved eight hundred dollars over a period of several years without even realizing it—a huge sum for them. My mother wanted my father to use it to buy himself a telescope. My father had enjoyed stargazing since he was a kid and had always wanted a fine telescope but could never afford one. Now that he had the money, however, my father couldn't bring himself to spend it on a luxury item. He insisted that they use the money to pay down their car loan.
But my mother held firm, and eventually they reached a compromise: Half the money went to pay down the car loan, and with the other half my father bought a telescope. He had to order it in advance, and it took six months before the telescope was completed. I drove with him to Hartford to pick it up at the factory (to save money on shipping), and on the drive home, with this magnificent instrument in the car, I expected my dad to look excited. I'd never seen him buy anything for himself before, and this was something he'd wanted for decades. Instead, he looked grim. I asked him why he looked so unhappy, and he said, "Well, Mark, I'm afraid I've bitten off more than I can chew."
Compared to my father, Mom was our Little Miss Sunshine. Her favorite book as a child was Pollyanna, a tale about a little orphan girl who was determined to find the silver lining to every cloud, and my mother certainly tried to live up to that example. But unlike Pollyanna, who liked herself as much as she liked everyone else, my mother's love and light shone outwards only. She was a compulsive perfectionist who could tolerate other people's shortcomings but not her own. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where she majored in two instruments simultaneously (piano and oboe), my mother practiced six hours a day, every day, yet invariably felt underprepared for the performances she gave. We always knew better than to talk to her after any of her recitals. She would sit out in the backyard and chain-smoke, staring off into space as she relived every missed note and rushed tempo in her mind. After a few days, she would start practicing again.
When she wasn't practicing, she was cleaning or cooking or organizing the shelves or serving on the local orchestra board. And every afternoon she taught piano for three hours while my siblings and I watched television in the basement. My mother didn't have hobbies; she was too busy for recreation. She lived up to her biblical namesake, the Martha who labored while Mary sat and listened—and like the ancient Martha, my mother ended up believing that Mary had made the better choice. At age sixty-seven, in the final stages of lung cancer (she'd self-medicated with tobacco for fifty years), her fingers became too swollen to practice anymore. She began reading for pleasure, something she'd rarely allowed herself to do when she was healthy. "I should have practiced less and read more," she said to me one day, with an oxygen tube dangling from her nose and a copy of Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly on her lap. "I had it all backwards. But now it's too late."
My sister, Rachel, the youngest of my siblings, was an adorable little girl but so shy that she made herself practically invisible, even at home. She spent most of her adolescence alone in her room, drawing and painting while listening to scratched-up records on a portable LP player.
I drove her to her first dance when she was in high school. When I went to pick her up two hours later, she was in tears. Her date had dumped her the moment she'd arrived, and she'd spent the whole evening by herself in the girls' bathroom. Years later, when she had finished college and had moved back into our parents' house, I tried to play matchmaker and brought home a friend I thought she might like. When my friend and I got there, Rachel was nowhere to be seen; she was experiencing such acute anxiety that she couldn't bring herself to come downstairs to meet him. At the end of the evening, she did appear at the top of the stairs to say good night to us as we left, but there was no follow-up to that mission.
In her mid-twenties, she sought help from a doctor, and happily, the meds he prescribed for her worked. They didn't turn her into Maria von Trapp, but they relieved her symptoms dramatically, and when Rachel wasn't suffering, she savored life. Our brother, Erich, who had earned his CPA but whose ambition was to own and run his own business, proposed that he and Rachel open a custom tile store. The idea was that Rachel would hand-paint the tiles to order and design the installations, while Erich would deal with the customers, the paperwork, and the installation work itself. Their store beat the odds by surviving—but the real surprise came when Erich discovered that our shy sister was shy no longer. It turned out that she had as much talent for customer service as for design and painting. With her anxiety under control, her self-confidence rose, and nothing made her happier than being able to make other people feel good. She'd found a second calling in sales.
Erich, the middle child, was the one who didn't seem to fit the mold. He was born with a shock of red hair, a strawberry-sized birthmark on his forehead, and a disgruntled expression on his face. And boy, could he scream. Our parents named him after Erik the Red, the quick-tempered Viking who cut a wide swath across northern Europe before colonizing Greenland. Our little Viking was a colicky baby who didn't behave like a rabbit at all; if anything, he seemed more like a wolverine cub. As he got older, he simply could not understand what everybody in our house was so worried about. Why didn't our father just quit his job and get one that he liked? And why did our mother practice so much when she could play any piece of music well the first time she read through it?
"It sounds the same as it did six months ago," he would groan as she rehearsed a piece for the thousandth time, and he was not entirely wrong.
He enjoyed sports and competitive board games but couldn't get any of the rest of us to play with him. Trips to art museums and classical music concerts were torments for him, and he was not one to suffer in silence. "Music is boring!" "Art is boring!" He craved stimulation and had a higher tolerance for risk than the rest of us put together. When we drove in the car, he insisted on keeping all of the windows open so that the air could blow on him with maximum force. When he got old enough to drink coffee, he drank it in binges; when he got old enough to drink beer, he did the same.
"Moderation is for monks!" he would bellow whenever our hand-wringing parents advised him to show restraint. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Man in the Empty Boat by Mark Salzman. Copyright © 2012 Mark Salzman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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