For a long time I’ve wanted to be the kind of person on whom nothing was lost, because I once read something in a book on writing fiction that told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I should be the kind of person on whom nothing was lost. Even though I’m easily convinced, and bought this line in my mid-teens, I’m still not great at paying attention. I’m better at paying overdraft fees incurred from not paying attention.
Not paying attention means not catching the setup and payoff of events in your life. I know people who can make a story out of picking up a pizza, just because they’re attuned to setup and payoff at every moment. I can pretty much only catch setup and payoff in jokes or movies or novels. The events of my life dangle like drawstrings on racks of sweatpants in an Old Navy. The floor manager of my will cannot master the wandering sales clerks of my attention to get them to tie up the loose ends of the sweatpants in my life.
There’s a movie called Almost an Angel with Paul Hogan (the actor who so movingly portrayed Crocodile Dundee). I watched it when I was 10 and it impressed me in the way that only very mediocre art can.
I remember these things about it, without the aid of internet resources:
(1) Paul Hogan robbed banks dressed as Rod Stewart
(2) He somehow thought that he’d died and become an angel and now had to do good works to redeem himself
(3) There’s a scene in a church where I think he’s trying to give some of the money away
(4) A guy in a wheelchair gets stabbed or shot in the leg and bleeds to death in 15 minutes
(5) Somehow he’s trapped under an elderly couple’s bed and almost has to listen to them have sex
I’m sure that everyone with an intact sense of shame has experienced those moments where a movie veers into territory that the room views as taboo. When I say room I mean the broader, larger collective consciousness governing the room.
Sometimes the attitude of the room can be a specific person’s presence during the offending content that makes the difference, but many times there’s just a prevailing sense of the moral climate of the room, and in these instances a corollary impression that this moment we’ve come to offers an affront to that climate. Paul Hogan cringed under the bed as the old woman proposed something obscene to the old man, and we all cringed in front of a 15 inch TV/VCR Combo in a sweltering Pennsylvania farmhouse living room. The frequency of the room changed, and we all became aware of the exact same frequency.
Several days later, a boy who was staying with us that summer, threw a Koosh ball at me. You should know what a Koosh ball is. It’s a ball made of a multitude of dangling rubber strings, all emanating out from a ball at the core. It looks like a headless porcupine, or one of those globes that generate static electricity. It is not painful in any special way to be hit by a Koosh ball. Koosh balls have never been implicated in a grisly murder, and only rarely in any event or instance not officially classified as “delightful.” But getting hit by a Koosh ball was a freighted moment.
The boy who hit me with the Koosh ball was from inner city Philadelphia, and his name was Jeremiah, and he was black. I knew that it was wrong for me to resent Jeremiah. He reacted poorly to dishwashing machines and rats. I understood that because he was poor he deserved my deference, and that his being black shouldn’t play into any of my considerations at all. I was annoyed with him because I believed that he had no place in my house, for reasons that I have no solid explanation for. I was annoyed at him for being in my house as soon as he got there. We could analyze this feeling and find, perhaps, its root in my being the oldest child and constantly having my territory invaded by a perpetual stream of younger siblings, but it’s not a fruitful investigation. My patience was like the rubber string of a Koosh ball, stretched thin until it broke.
I picked up the ball and chased him out the front door. He fled around the side of the house and into the back door. He locked the back door. I saw him do it through the glass of the door’s window. This kid who I’d let stay in my house had now locked me out of it. I felt a vibrating fury. I walked up to the door, raised my hand to knock on the glass—knocking was my intention—and instead broke through it, cutting my wrist bad.
The blood didn’t spray, but pulsed out. I remember thinking that the flesh under the skin, probably a layer of fat, looked like a pizza stripped of its cheese. Jeremiah stood stunned for a moment, spattered with glass, and then quickly unlocked the door for me. I ran inside. From the moment I saw the blood, I had one thought, which I now voiced. My mom was on the phone talking to a friend, and I said: “I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding. A person can bleed to death in 15 minutes.”
I’d gathered the information in the setup, and now it was paying off. The fact that a person can bleed to death in 15 minutes I’d accepted— without qualification. It seemed to me that the word “can” was more like a “will” or a “must.” “You will bleed to death in 15 minutes,” was more what the lesson sounded like to me.
That’s not the only thing that paid off. I now became sensitive to the frequency of the room. And the frequency of the room was not positive. I tried to combat the negative feeling. I said, “I’m going to be okay, right, mom?” My mom said, “I don’t know,” which yielded a horrible feeling.
And another element paid off, but inversely. In a mediocre story like Almost an Angel, the moral universe has a definite cause and effect. Paul Hogan commits crimes, he’s punished and must redeem himself. I was angry with Jeremiah, who was fatherless and poor. I was angry and resented him for invading my home. I paid for it. But I did not, to my knowledge, ever redeem myself, unless it happened sometime when I wasn’t paying attention.