Take a risk, take a chance, make a change

In January 2006, I did two things that rose to the level of a habitually told anecdote. The first one was, I wore a track suit everyday. Earlier, in December 2005, I had asked a friend of mine if he would continue to be my friend if I wore a tracksuit every day for a month.

I would not be your friend, he said, if you didn’t.

That was good enough for me. I wore the tracksuit to class; I wore the tracksuit to the liquor store; and those were the only two places I really went, apart from upstairs from my dorm room to the floor where we had parties. The one exception was, after I had worn my tracksuit to the Albany airport to pick up my good friend Brian, he insisted on taking me out to dinner at a place whose fanciness shamed my tracksuits; so I put khakis on over the tracksuit pants, and put the tracksuit jacket on over a button down shirt, and felt like I had hewed close to the spirit of the thing.

These tracksuits had been provided to me as a Christmas present by my mother; I told her my intention to wear a tracksuit every day for a month, and she had cheerfully abetted this. The only obligation I had, apart from getting my friend from the airport and receiving my reward that one time, was to go to a class twice a week on the subject of SHAME. We read Hawthorne, Rushdie, Coetzee, and Silvan Tomkins. I spent so much time, in the days in between Christmas and the new year, deliberating on whether it was better to wear the tracksuits in an observable rotation, or catch as catch can, or in a day-specific manner with wildcards on the weekends (there were five tracksuits), that I cannot now call to mind what system I ultimately adopted. The professor in the course about shame pointed out that nobody in the novel — including the narrator — ever says, explicitly, what the A in The Scarlet Letter stands for.

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I apologize for not writing for some time; I have been busy enough writing other things, and facing the frustrating operation of writing in what seem to be dismal times. I have several wordpress drafts containing a mixture of (1) good ideas, to which I hope to return, (2) attempts to talk about Our Times in a wise way, most of which involve James Baldwin, and most of which I feel I cannot live up to, and (3) blistering DESTRUCTIONS of various of the current people who are hard at work making the times dismal, to which I am very disinclined to ever revisit. The oppressiveness of lies, gaslighting, hypocrisy, and blithe disregard for what YOU think tend not to wither in the face of point-by-point demonstrations of their bad qualities and poor judgment. Your utterance: but I know this true! fails to count much for people uninterested in truth. That there are ways to make them see, or to prevent the oppressive haze of uninterest from setting in permanently, I hope, even if an assumption of concern about demonstrable untruth becomes dubious. Eve Kofosky Sedgwick, the great critic whom we also (I think?) read in the course about shame, puts this fear well, and understatedly: “a writer who appeals too directly to the redemptive potential of simply upping the cognitive wattage on any question of power seems, now, naive.” All that cognitive wattage; so little to do; at a point it can produce only heat, not light, and only heat that redounds on its source.

I am resolutely dubious about my ability to accomplish such a thing, and so my would-be TAKEDOWNS sit in drafts and instead I have been thinking about all of the not-knowing that I have done, and all of the ways in which not-knowing might be recuperable from the vile dissemination of alternative facts and the complete vacuation of the meaning of “fake news.” I hope so. Being within not-knowing can be a relief, and I think a different kind of epistemic relief from just turning your brain off. Or, again, I hope so.

The other thing I did in 2006 was: I drove home, at one point, from my college town to Lockport, the place I come from. Though I remember it being bright, I doubt that I wore sunglasses, because, somehow, I did not wear sunglasses driving until I turned thirty. Having failed to learn any lessons about talking to my friends about prospective plans, I asked one of them what he thought would happen if I listened to just one song, over and over, the entire five and a half hour drive back.

Wow, he said. Who can say?

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I decided that I would be able to say. To get home, I would drive on country roads for about an hour, and then get to the interstate around Albany. And, I decided, I would spend the whole time listening to “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson.

“I gotta take a risk, take a chance, make a change, and breakaway”

That’s the sentence, then, that I think of; it’s from the final chorus of “Breakaway,” and it changes the lyrics from the first two times, when she says “make a wish” instead of “take a risk.” All versions have one of my favorite things, which is the one-word version of “breakaway,” making it a noun needlessly pressed into service as a verb. The change in lyric, however, tended to cause me enormous trouble in singing along to the song, particularly when I endeavored to listen to it an entire trip home on a bright day at the end of January 2006; I would forget where in the song I was, mix up my wishes and risks, and look around briefly with embarrassed, unsunglassed eyes, even though there was no one in the car but me. And I made it….all the way to the interstate in Albany, when I did something foolish and tried to figure out how many times I had listened it so far.

It was not immediate, but it was not long after, that I figured that the best image for what happened to me was Wile E. Coyote, out over the void, surrendering his bliss by looking down and only then realizing that his obliged to obey gravity. I know it was not immediate because I had a genuine moment of swimmingness, that I felt so far from the right places to hitch into reality, as I merged onto the interstate 90 from 87 that I not only could not continue listening to “Breakaway” for another four hours, but I had to skip immediately to the next track on my special traveling mix cd, which was “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. I spent almost the time it took to get to Syracuse trying to figure out how much of this story I was going to report to my friends, and whether and how much I should lie; I am pretty sure I mostly told the truth. Some math would doubtless help me to figure out, at least within one or two iterations, how many times I did manage to listen to “Breakaway” before untethering, but I don’t want to know, precisely.

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