(recorded for self-evident reasons)
I have glorious friends. One of them, David Schechter, who’s on my poetry list (people to whom I send my more-or-less daily verse-and-visuals) just noticed – it’s easy to miss – that I’ve taken to appending a link to a YouTube recording of that day’s enterprise in the email. David is an inspired actor, director, playwright, singer whose shamanistic embrace of existence gives everything he does and says a glow of cosmic hilarity and deep deep feeling: a kind of sweet loopy grace which is his alone. I cherish him. Therefore I cherish what he said about my recordings, so sensitive is he to speech and sound, which he says he likes a lot.
I wrote back an effusive thanks, and told him, yes, reciting these things into my iPhone’s video lens has by now become a central part of whatever it is I do creatively: to speak these things is for me a species of singing, really. I write by ear. In fact right now I’m intoning these words aloud as I type them. They rise and fall like notes - musical notes, that is (verbal notes as of course they also are) – in fact they’re really more sound than sense: the ‘sense’ takes care of itself; I barely give it a thought. Which sometimes makes ‘sense’ a casualty (what the fuck is he talking about?). Actually I suppose it’s a wonder I ever make any! It’s all about inflection, pitch, rhythm rhythm rhythm. Doesn’t always have a point.
I stuttered badly (actually I suppose I stuttered quite well - nailed that fucker down, got really good at it!) for years through postOedipal childhood (starting about 6, 7 years old) through my teens and twenties and here and there ever since although falling off almost completely by now (except when I’m especially tired & tense, when it will come back like a whimpering old wounded dog): fluency was a rare luxury and oh how I valued it! The craving for it probably is why my violin playing & writing & drawing bloomed as fast & ardently and almost desperately expressively (as if forced in a hot house) as they did. (My father stuttered as a child & adolescent; he too resorted to singing – god what a voice he had! – and drawing & writing probably also compensatorily.) Anyway I’m making up for lost time I guess.
Mentioning my father in that parenthesis made me realize again how much his son I was, am, will always be. I’m glad I could, as I think I did, reflect some of the better parts of our shared inner experience back to him. It was easy because it consisted of the three talents we shared in art, music and what I think of as “using” words, sometimes by writing them (not least as captions for drawings), sometimes by singing them, always as having them as creative agents in the mind. Whatever the media, we both played with it irrepressibly. He never wasn’t singing. He drew with a childlike expansiveness, as attracted to creating strange creatures (which however in his case usually posed as actual people or animals) as I apparently am. When I was about 9 or 10 he’d set up an easel on the second floor landing and a big pad of drawing paper and pastels and sketch in a face. When I passed it during the day I’d alter it. Then he’d alter it. And so on – so that at the end of a week you’d have seen it morph from balloon ghost to cantankerous old man to crazed clown to suspicious neighbor. The chiaroscuro got pretty dense, lord knows.
Unlike my mother, and many other good artists I know, who work “from life” – used models, looked at actual skies or bowls of apples or sunlit bays or other aspects of the “real” world as guides to what they put on paper or canvas – my father and I much preferred working from what was in our heads. Finally, I think, that’s what all artists do – but it was obvious in us because, well, we weren’t looking at anything when we drew except what we were drawing! It somehow both felt like trespassing – when you make things up, you get to make them pretty ‘out there’ and disturbing – and ameliorative: the healing was partly private – when you draw, you draw alone – and partly shared, as we each came back to see what they other had done and then added our outrageous addenda. Who knows that it wasn’t for me (in addition to being everything else under the sun) a kind of way to rage out against my inability to speak.
Stuttering is dreadful, especially when you’re a kid. It’s a kind of constipation of the mouth. You can’t get words out except in painful bursts and pushes and stops and starts: it’s like spitting nails. Because you’re convinced that certain words that begin with an “s” or a “t” or an “o” are impossible to pronounce, you become hugely adept at seeking out synonyms that ride more easily out of the mouth. This can foster some pretty strange syntax. Which means, of course, it fosters creativity, if of a forced and fraught kind. But you never could evade the horror. Excruciating eternities beset me when I’d have to stand up and recite something or read a paper I’d written. My father, hauled as a 7 year old child from West New York New Jersey where his German parents emigrated from Bremen in about 1910 (he was born in 1913) back to Germany after the First World War for a couple years to see their families, suddenly found himself often literally unutterably in a land where not only the language but customs of every kind (what you wore, how you behaved) were forbiddingly alien. That it encouraged stuttering in him seems plausible. However, human behavior and proclivities are a strange business: sources of them are, to me, either ultimately obscure or often not pertinent to the real point, which is how to move ahead from it: in my father's and my case, how to find fluency. I used to be interested in the ‘psychology’ of stuttering (all sorts of things seemed logically implicated in mine, that I was gay for example) – but it’s now a word I almost can’t write without scare quotes, as I would phrenology if that were still all the rage. I think it often breeds in its abstract phrases more of a block to the possibility of understanding what’s going on than an aid to helping you move forward: a terrible generalization, but I make it anyway.
So while there were very likely external (family- and socially-derived) conditions that had some effect on my dad’s and my ability to get words out, but I’m now more interested in the adaptations that we quickly developed, first because we felt we had to, so that we could experience fluency in some other way. Enter again: Singing. Drawing. Writing. Arguably we became efficient at wielding them because of a felt necessity: they were our only alternatives. But mostly, if we did get “good” at any of it, it was because we dived into a private realm of pleasure – we learned we loved doing this stuff, expressing what was in us in these other ways. We shifted the scenario from pathology to out-and-out playfulness – with a lovely reward: we had something to “show” for it – a drawing, a song, a movement from a Mozart violin concerto.
What I suppose I’m also groping to suggest is that by having to respond to the need to communicate via other means than talking, we were learning that feelings and thoughts could at least be intimated, and sometimes more freshly and even more exactly communicated through visual and musical shticks than through what we could say aloud. A version of this describes the experience, and arguably the great good fortune, of people who can’t see or hear. They know in ways that we cannot what life is through the conditions they’re able to sense it. (How else could they?) They are prone, sometimes prey, to acute sensations we do not need to develop: touch and smell and every nuance of sound to a blind person; a meticulous and nuanced examination of what can be seen, to the deaf. I permit myself to imagine that my father and I similarly learned, perhaps not too much less dramatically, that what we were feeling was larger and stranger than it would have been had we been able to resort to speech as the first ‘go-to’ tactic. So much speaks, it turns out, without speaking.
With what amount to these triumphs over what first seemed impossibility – communication that matters – in mind about my dad and me, I found myself looking at old photographs of us in a different way. Two photos, one of me probably about 14, one of my dad who may have been 12, but both essentially in our early teens. That age marked what I remember as the peak of my stuttering, and I know it was for my dad at that age too. However, we both were at the brink of lives which would not too long after allow to us to locate our ability to speak with some, and then greater, fluency. I truly don’t know how or why. My mother had me see a speech therapist, who made me feel so self-conscious about stuttering it simply tripled the problem. I know my father was scolded as a younger child by his German uncles and father for it – once my mother all but spat out at me, “try not to stutter later, will you?” before “company” came. These frustrated pleas or expressions of anger may seem cruel, and in effect they were, but they weren’t “the problem” either. How did my father and I stop, to the nearly complete degree we did. We stopped because we stopped. I never heard my father say anything about it to me (and he did talk to me about it because I was him, essentially, when I was going through the worst tortures of it) other than that it just went away.
There is a lovely illumination in this for me, and I suspect for my dad. Again, that the nature not only of what we do but of why we do it is finally a mystery. It seems to me you can do two things in face of mystery: have it scare the hell out of you, or find it absorbingly – funny! I wonder if my father would have nodded yes to all or any of that. I don’t know. But it would probably make him laugh. One thing life (hobbled by whatever impediments we experienced in and to it) gave both of us was an enormous readiness to laugh. Which oh we did and oh I do. And he did even through the Alzheimers’ disease that whittled away almost everything in him. He lost all words, but he still could sing. He still could draw. He still could laugh. Not least, I’d like to think, because of the tenacity of joy and aghastness at realizing nobody knew what was happening (really) in my dad, it resonates beautifully with me now that so many of the things we find dire – up to and including dying and death – harbor in their secret heart a huge cosmic hilarity. My father had it in him to the end. And probably still does somewhere out or in or beyond whatever the hell “here” is.
This is surely made manifest in that picture of my dad and me attempting the Can Can, taken in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing in December 1985 (a wonderful trip I took with my dad and mom and my then-partner Richard). In a way it’s a visual trope for the response he brought to most things. (Do the Can-Can!) And, to bring in the other treasured pic here, wit don’t nevah stop with my friend David Schechter – whose warm response to my orated poesy started all this musing – and whom you see here with me next to a bronze Daumier figurine he gave me that had belonged to his mother who’d recently gone to the next dimension, aka “died.” (David has connections in that realm.) She knew what funny was, too. Funny is God.