Home Fiction Humor Essays Books

by Greg Swann



















I refuse to insult humanity by affecting to believe that you care where I live or what I eat, and I know beyond doubting that what really matters about me is that I could say and could mean and could intend ceaselessly to prove the words with which we began:

This is not what you were expecting.



















And the question is: how can a field nigger get himself invited into the plantation house without going through the servant's entrance? Or, in English, "Greg Swann, why can't I buy your books in the bookstore?" That's a question I get asked a lot, and I like it a lot; it implies that someone, somewhere might actually be willing to stuff some legal tender in my drawers. But it's the first question that really matters, because I ain't shaking my ass for nobody.



















I am frantic and abrasive and arrogant and self-absorbed--who could argue with these evaluations? Moreover, I am driven, and not moderately so. I am very much aware that I will die someday, and I take that prospect very seriously. My work is here, on the printed (or virtually printed) page, and I haven't done enough of it, not nearly. Consciousness of mortality drives me to keep working, working, working, so that I might finish my work in time, before I die.



















I wheedle, I needle, I tease with a snort; I hector delectably, expectorator sport. I'll pick at your scabs so you can heal up without them, and I'll poke at your posturings until you dare once to doubt them.

This is not what you were expecting.

It's the prototypical Greg Swann opener, a scorching line drive to left field carefully devised to grab you by the throat and put you on notice that we are not in Kansas anymore. It's metaphor stew with skewered Toto-ke-babs and if you blink your brights you'll be swallowed by the night. I come not to haunt you but simply to taunt you, to prance scatwise on the cobblestones--undaunted, uninvited, unabashed--because, after all, the streets is where I dance.

Someone asked me to write a biographical blurblet, but I'm much too vain for that. My life is a life of the mind, and so the mere details of my existence are a total bore to me, except insofar as I can twist them around in a metaphor concerned with something else entirely. My mother's mother's youngest brother had in-grown toenails, but that's not what I think about when I think of why I loved him. Away from a very few subjects, I am utterly without sobriety, and even in the gardens of my grimmest passions I cannot pretend to that grim self-seriousness that seems to be the admission ticket to being taken seriously by others. I refuse to insult humanity by affecting to believe that you care where I live or what I eat, and I know beyond doubting that what really matters about me is that I could say and could mean and could intend ceaselessly to prove the words with which we began:

This is not what you were expecting.

Not even now, when I've annotated the program. Because I'm not going to sit here like a linecut, pensive and bearded, and dissect myself into a catalogue of trivia, the licit substance upon which academic minds are blissfully palsied. I don't care if you know anything at all about me, and I don't understand why anyone would care. I don't have in-grown toenails, if it matters, but I do have very long and slender toes. The better to dance on your head with, my little pretty, because that is what I intend to do. I don't care if you know what I was, for all I plan to do is be, be vain, be gorgeous, be lithe and graceful and utterly, utterly outrageous.

And here is a true fact of my life, and it's not trivia: I don't care if you read this or not. I hope you do, but I won't skip a heartbeat if you don't. I write with my ears, not my mouth or my eyes or my fingers, and the ears I write for are my own. I love it that so many people are seeing what I'm writing right now, and I love it more that so many of them are my kind of people, the people I want to hear what I have to say. But the person who must hear it, and who must hear it in the way I must say it, is my own sweet self. If you hear it and love it in the way that I do, that's great. But if I don't hear it, or if I don't love what I hear, that's intolerable. There have been spans of time in my life when I have been my only audience, and that was fine with me; not what I might have wanted, but perfectly acceptable. But there have been other periods when the words weren't there at all, and that was insufferable.

I skitter across these pages because I love to hear the percussive pop of a bloated metaphor getting busted by a beat cop. It's not enough to say what's true, I want it said beautifully, I want the words to ring on in my head a year and a day after I'm dead. The metaphor is sound, and, if you listen for it, you'll hear it echoing everywhere. And the metaphor is dance, the objective of the music, the thing one does when every serious obstacle to joy is overcome. The music is with me always, the metaphor of my mind. But sometimes, as you might expect, it's awfully quiet. But I have my words, the embodied music of my past, and I can dance whenever most I need to.

If you can, too, so much the better. But I was dancing before you got here, and I'll be dancing after you've gone. I am proud to be proud of my life, and I am so perfectly vain that I refuse to be ashamed that I admit to being proud of my life. There are things that I've written that I want very much for particular people in my life to admire; for example, I want my children to love the things I've written about them as much as I do. But, with one exception, I have no generic sort of concern for the reactions of readers. The one exception is Ken Hooper, my best friend, and, practically speaking, the reason that I'm writing today to an audience larger than my own sweet ears. I don't love him enough to satisfy his ears and not my own, but I love him a lot, and I do a lot to make him happy. Which, incidentally, is more than I ever did for the woman who hopes someday to make me her ex-husband. I know he loves to watch me do that fat-boy dance, and I love knowing that there is at least one reader out there who is getting almost everything.

No one gets it all, no one but me, because some things, especially the scatliest stuff, is there for me alone. I don't want to do much on this, because it's boring, but I'll lay out a taste or two, just to cleanse the opacity with lemon-fresh veracity. So: "He loves to watch me do that fat-boy dance," refers to "Davy the Fat Boy," an old Randy Newman tune, and I used it to play off of, "the streets is where I dance," which comes from the Francis Ford Coppola film "The Cotton Club", all of which is a way of making fun of me using dance as a metaphor by contrasting it with other people's uses of dance as a metaphor. Strictly for me, strictly a way of needling myself for nothing more than fun. In "Cameron at Four," I said, "Their minds so much better honed than my own blunt instrument," and I expect I am the only person who knows that I was playing with the words "blunt instrument"--a crime-beat reporter's cliche for "bludgeon"--to make a statement about not just my mind but my mental functioning. But how could you doubt the simile, now that I've pointed it out, when you've just watched me hammer away for 200 words about nothing?

But as you must know by now, if I'm going to go to the trouble of putting on fishnets and heels, then, by god, I'm going to strut. If no one stuffs tender notes of legal tender in my drawers, so much the worse for me. But ecstasy ain't free. It ain't even cheap. And on Saturday night I'm just another field nigger with ambitions, hiding from the tawdry in the glare of a mirrored ball. But if tawdry is all I can have without compromise, then tawdry is all I want. And if you don't like the groove and you don't like the moves, dance away. I came to play, I got swept away, I owe nobody nothing and there's no hell to pay. And baby, baby, baby, I know you'll always remember how I love to dance.

And the question is: how can a field nigger get himself invited into the plantation house without going through the servant's entrance? Or, in English, "Greg Swann, why can't I buy your books in the bookstore?" That's a question I get asked a lot, and I like it a lot; it implies that someone, somewhere might actually be willing to stuff some legal tender in my drawers. But it's the first question that really matters, because I ain't shaking my ass for nobody.

I'm not in the bookstores because I stopped sending books to publishers, and I stopped sending short stories and essays to magazines, and I stopped sending Willie stories to newspapers. It's not like I was selling much, and it's not like the money is anything special, anyway. The problem is that the money is everything, the thing that distinguishes the worker bees from the wannabes. If you want to make money as a writer, it's not that hard to do: study an editor and sell him what he buys. If you can do this with enough editors who pay (many don't), you can make a decent living. You can't do that and love the sound of what you write, since the sound you're writing is what the editor loves, or affects to love, and you're just another session player in his studio. But you can make money.

And the money spooked me, not because I found myself writing things I hated, but because I found myself writing things that I knew Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, would love. The money is nothing, the money is dick, but the money is everything to a whore turning tricks. If you didn't get paid then you just got laid, fucked over again by another beery Shriner with a tassel on his fez. Money is what separates the pros from the doe-eyed, sloe-eyed perpetual virgins making just-this-once exceptions in the motel bar and grill. If you didn't collect, you didn't quite connect, now did you?

And that, I confess, is paranoia. There are a lot of fine writers selling fine work to fine publishers, and not one of them has to roll a condom over a tasseled fez. But they're already in the Big House, so it's another issue entirely. In the newspapers, in ad agencies, in qualified-subscription trade magazines, you can watch as the talent is fucked right out of a lot of bright kids with writerly ambitions. Slam it out, slam it out, slam it out, sprightly, punchy little bits of nothing that no one will read, superlatives and hyperbole painted layer upon layer on a vast array of identical empty boxes. Every one of those kids came to work the first day imagining the dance he hoped to do on the printed page, and each and every one of them was promptly pointed nose-first in a corner and invited to stand there except when commanded to bend over. And of those few who do not succumb to the tedium tremens, nothing of the love of the word remains. You can see that, too, if you watch for it. As an example, note the aging correspondent who paces to his pension by slamming out a weekly column that consists of meaningless items cribbed from other spent wrecks in the same predicament. You read these poor wretches and you realize they have nothing to say, and, worse, that their editors don't care that space that ought to be priceless is wasted on nothing. It's not love. It's not even sex. It's purely transactional. Nobody's making love, but everyone involved is getting fucked, the writer as much as the reader, the whore as much as the john.

Not everyone who prances the cobblestones in the City of the Night is a whore, but it's a challenge to prove to yourself that you're not dancing the steps that make the coins clink, particularly when the rent's due. And, basking in the self-serious glow of the very best light, the money you get for dancing to another man's music is your very own gold-plated key to the servant's entrance. You're much too talented to be a field nigger, so we'll toss you niggardly little bribes to get you to kowtow forever as a house nigger. To be bought and sold is a loathsome fate, so why not do it in style?

I'll hang with Bartleby instead. If I ever make it into the Big House--and I freely concede I might never--I will go in through the front door. I'm a field nigger by fate, but I won't be a house nigger by choice. Not that I could, anyway; Missy, she don't take to my kind. Surely it's obvious that I'm a pain in the ass to work with. If I respect your judgement, I'll follow you off the edge of the Earth. But if I suspect your discernment in the smallest way, time will run backwards before I'll give an inch. This is not quite the attitude they're looking for at Whores 'R' Us, house niggers for finer homes.

The bottom line is this: I'm waiting for my pigeon. I have stuff out on the road, but it's my stuff, and it's really quite absurd to attempt to sell things--such as Willie stories--for which there is no established market category. And like Melville himself, I strive to affect to believe that someday, somehow, something interesting will turn up in the mail. But unlike Melville, I own no despair, because I know I'm going about this all wrong, all right. I have no hope of making transactional conquest of the mountains of verbiage that are every day extruded for no reason anyone can name. I could take no pride in driving my sword into the peak of irrelevance, but--truth is a brutal handmaiden--ain't nobody asking me to, anyway. And who, precisely, is going to pay good money to plow through text this dense as a diversion?

It's a scat dance and I know it, but it's complicated, syncopated, a thundering truckload of curmudgeonly wonderstuff. Gentle reader, this is not your father's Oldsmobile--as if you had to be told. The actual recompense I get for sending something like "Reflecting His Radiance" to a publication is knowing that some poor overworked, underpaid junior assistant asswipe is scratching his head and saying, "What the hell is this?" You or I can read anything and reap whatever it happens to sow. But for an editor, if it doesn't fit the editorial mix of the publication, it's useless. And it is into this precious little corner that I've painted myself. I write for my ears, and, by god, I love the music I'm making. I'm not writing to any editorial preconceptions, and I'd find it hard to quarrel with the notion that I'm writing against them--afraid to doubt my own hermetically sealed virtue, afraid to lose the music to a studied, monied boredom.

So I'm waiting, waiting, waiting for the money that wants to dance with me for love. I'm not done, I'm but barely begun, and I'm patient enough, or stubborn enough, to stare down the Sphinx. But nobody's going to be fooled into thinking that this is the same old thing, and it won't do at all for me to hack and slash a festering mountain of simpering, whimpering eyetrash. There's not much I can do except build an audience and wait for a publisher or an agent who either likes the music itself or likes the potential the audience poses to stuff money in his drawers. I prefer the former, but it's a lot to ask. I know I can count on the latter, at least, in due course. In the meantime, alone in the dark it's just you and me and no one will tell because no one will see.

If you will patiently dance in our round
And see our moonlight revels, go with us;
If not, shun me, and I will spare your haunts.
--William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

And this is not what you were expecting, because only now do we begin to approach the point of all this. For the one is a metaphor for the other, and everything, everywhere is alike and equally the same thing where it is not entirely something else. I am taking you to a place I think you don't want to go, particularly, and I am offering you every good reason to go somewhere else instead. I have told you nothing about where I live, nothing about what I eat, and only a tiny little detail about my toes. But with a metaphor I have told you everything there is to know about my life, about where I'm headed and what I intend to devour when I get there.

For the one really is a metaphor for the other, and my life is the same one dumb tawdry little melodrama acted out in infinite variations on the same one dumb tawdry little stage. I can smell corruption when it's ten miles distant and I can anticipate a power play ten days in advance. It's not you I'm worried about--except to defend myself--but me. In the absence of equality there is dominance and submission, and I want no part of either. Mere vice is a chimera, harmless and pitiful; it's the vice that disguises itself as virtue that is cloying and, ultimately, devastating. I question my motives constantly, and this is not a virtue, although it might be an obsession. There's so much to be had for the price of a smile, so, just to be safe, my mouth is tightpursed line.

I wrote this to an acquaintance who is suffered to write with depth and beauty from the pages of a daily newspaper: "Fan mail is always suspect; one cannot discount the possibility of flattery, and one cannot discount the possibility of susceptibility to flattery. But hate mail you can trust. If an opponent is bending over backwards to show you where the target isn't, you can bet you hit a bull's eye."

This is the key to the front door of Number One Greg Street. I seek to elicit a response--not just in my writing but in my life--but I know exactly what response I seek, and I shun every faux approximation. And even when I hear the clink of the true coin, I am suspicious, because there is always room for doubt, doubt of the authenticity of the response and doubt of my reaction to it. Except for my children and my parents, I love Ken Hooper more than anyone in the world, and I love him because I have no doubt that he has never once said to me a thing he did not believe.

What frail virtue is this, so lauded? It is simply everything to me. We are nice and we are gentle and we are temperate and we are considerate and we are thoughtful--and we are lying. We are unkind and we are brutal and we are bombastic and we are careless and we are spiteful--and we are lying. I have nothing to fear from the dominance of pain; I know its true name and I've said it backwards in my sleep. But in every act of the melodrama of my life, I fear the submission to pleasure. That which we yearn for and believe so compellingly we deserve, that is the key to our undoing. And much more horrifying than being imprisoned at gunpoint is turning the key on the door to a dungeon with one's own hand. A thief or a tyrant can steal only your body, but, if you permit yourself to be seduced by vain trinkets, your soul itself is up for grabs.

And so it is vitally important to me that Ken Hooper does not lie to me, not in the smallest, most harmless way. I am filled to bursting with things I am burning to talk about, and for many years there was no one at all I could talk to. I am suspicious to begin with, and I can spot the lie that's stuck between a gnat's teeth, and, once I do, what can I do? Listening to lies, to flattery or spite, drowns out the music, and I cannot know what is genuine and what is not. Ken Hooper gave me something I had never had before in my life, a fundamental belief in the trustworthiness of another person's testimony.

I am frantic and abrasive and arrogant and self-absorbed--who could argue with these evaluations? Moreover, I am driven, and not moderately so. I am very much aware that I will die someday, and I take that prospect very seriously. My work is here, on the printed (or virtually printed) page, and I haven't done enough of it, not nearly. Consciousness of mortality drives me to keep working, working, working, so that I might finish my work in time, before I die. There's an edge to me, I know it. An edge to my voice, and a demanding glare in my eyes. If you should chance to keep me waiting, you will remember the experience, but you won't enjoy it. But it might surprise you to learn that I used to be much worse, with the edge on me half-a-molecule thick.

What changed is this: in 1988, I wrote a book called Janio at a Point. It's not the last book I'll write, and I hope it's not the best. But it's very, very good in the only respect that matters to me: it tells the truth beautifully. When I finished it, I knew that, for the first time in my life, I had done a bit of my life's work, I had made something that stands a fair chance of lasting forever. And that calmed me considerably, even if the difference might seem comparatively small to anyone else. After Janio at a Point, I knew it would be okay for me to die. Not desirable, but not tragic from my point of view in the way that it would have been tragic for me to die without having written it.

And later that year I married a woman who claimed to love the book but who had never read it. She swore up and down that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever read, even though she had never read it. She was nice and gentle and temperate and considerate and thoughtful, and she told me with great frequency that she thought it was a wonderful book, even though she had never read it. She was lying, of course, but there was nothing venal about it, not then. She thought conferring upon me a gift of undeserved praise was proof of her love for me, something I'd want. And I knew she was lying; I can always tell what people have read by what they say, and by what they omit to say. I didn't call her on the deceit, which was a mistake, and I didn't acknowledge that I can't trust someone who is lying to me, and I didn't notice as the music grew more and more quiet.

I don't intend to retail my marriage, because it's boring, but there are things about it that are fascinating to me now. I wrote almost nothing in those years, although what I did write is gorgeous. I didn't know then what was happening to me, or to her, even though I should have; once before I'd been in a romantic relationship where the silence drowned out the music. I couldn't write, and like a capped toothpaste tube, I extruded elsewhere. I wrote a huge quantity of software, and the manuals are fun reading. Weirder still, the source code is fun reading, filled with jokes and puns and literary allusions. I was well and truly boxed, and by my own sweet hand. I couldn't write, couldn't talk even, and everything I couldn't extrude into diversions backed up in my throat until it came out as bile. Again and again she would say, "Why can't you be vulnerable with me?," and I had no way at all to answer. I didn't know the answer, and I had a deliberately unexamined inkling that discovering the answer would not have happy consequences for the marriage.

And then I met Ken Hooper, a man I have never once seen. And yakity-yak, clickety-clack, the train of my brain was back on the track. I didn't know what was different, not right away, because I had grown used to finding my mind's stimulation outside the house. But one night when he and I had both written very well, I said to him, "Promise me we'll never be enemies. I make the same promise. I like you so much that I'd hate it if I couldn't talk to you." And as much as I exulted in the drenching after the long drought, I realized that I had never thought of my wife in those terms. Not very much in life is surprising, really; when we're surprised, it's usually because we've contrived to ignore the obvious, a skill at which the entire species excels. This goes as much for me as for anyone, although I have no excuse; I have written at length about how people volunteer to arrive at error.

And while my marriage had begun falling apart before it had ever been put together, it collapsed utterly for me when I realized that Ken Hooper, a man who lives a thousand miles away and whom I have never seen in the flesh, loves me in a way that my wife never had and never would. Worse, that I love him as I have never loved any woman. There is nothing sexual about this, in case you're having spasms of uncontrolled juvenility. It's a communion of commonality, a meeting of like minds. It's everything my wife had said over and over and over again that she wanted, and it's everything that never existed in any form in our marriage. I have told Ken things that I have told no one else, not because I'm ashamed of them, but simply because I've never felt as comfortable with another person as I do with him. And now I know the answer to that awful question, "Why can't you be vulnerable with me?" I can't be vulnerable when I don't feel safe. And you have to work pretty hard to ignore a conclusion that obvious.

I'm not going through all this to rank on my wife. I happily take the blame for what happened to our marriage, because I'm the one who had every reason to know better. I'm reckoning with this stuff because it answers a host of ugly little questions, and because it asks some great big new ones.

For instance, I realize I don't have the first clue what romantic love means. I thought I knew, but I was mistaken, and I'll pay--and my children will pay--for that mistake forever. Lust I understand, and I can conjecture that romantic love is lust with an elaborate rationale, but I don't trust my judgement on the subject right now. What I do know is that the most significant adult relationship I have had so far in my life has had nothing whatever to do with lust, and I didn't even know the glass was empty until I saw what it looked like filled.

And lust has become a matter of interest just by itself. Marriage took care of lust, at first by sating it, later by subverting it, and finally by making it damned unattractive. For everything, everywhere is alike and equally the same thing in my life, and the price of sated lust works out to be identical to the price of sated literary vanity: silence. And silence turns out to be a marvelous metaphor for marriage, or at least my marriage, and I'll write more about it someday. But I watch my lust now, now that it is not sated and not sublimated, because I will not permit myself to be dominated by anything.

Terminator and Inseminator, the hero always gets laid. The substance of silence is this: tell me a lie or tell me a devastatingly brutal truth or say nothing. If you won't lie, and if you want to stay together, then silence is all there is. The game is dominance by submission: I'm going to engineer our dispute in such a way that I prostrate myself and demand that you devastate me; that way, by telling me the lie instead, you'll prove that you love me, you'll be the virile hero who rescues me from my self-inflicted doom. The scenario, endlessly repeated, is lose-lose-lose in any case, but silence permits you to run away, thence to lose again another day.

This is a sick business, and yet this is the substance of all those sappy love stories you hear everywhere: love is the thing that makes war on the truth. This is not the way I feel about my children, about my parents or about Ken Hooper, and anything that requires so much advertising is automatically suspect.

The proof of the authenticity of love, true love, undying love, is that it spites the truth, benights the truth, growls at and barks at and bites the truth. Romantic love seems to be a narcotic concocted to fight the truth for being the truth. Lovers say things they do not mean, make promises they cannot keep and attribute to their lovers virtues they cannot--and are not expected to--uphold. This would be insane if it were unilateral, but, of course, it is not. For the goal in committing this conceptual atrocity is an equal and opposite insane reciprocity: if you confer upon me an honor, a dignity, a beauty I have not earned and do not deserve, I will inject you with the same elixir in return. This is social only as a canard, and I supect that the actual transaction is wholly solitary and wholly delusional. The lover is once worse than Narcissus; he seeks not to worship his reflection, but his imagined reflection. The person reflected back to him by his lover is not him, but him as he idealizes himself. You can feast on life but that's hard work, and no one can do it for you. Or you can pig out on candy and call yourself fulfilled. But you cannot feast on candy, and the glare of the light of truth melts the most elaborate confections.

It is possible to put a better spin on this: despite the outrageous claims made during the sexual "revolution", sex is a big deal. Biologically, obviously, because of the potential to spawn glaring, blaring, confectionary-melting bundles of indisputable truth. But also simply because of the immense emotional risk that such an immense vulnerability poses. We are apt to revolt against religion or tradition because they are unreasoned. But that their terminal claims are undefended is no proof that they are untrue. Arguably, we need some sort of barrier to completely casual sex, and, if we reject reason, and if we reject the unreasoned proscriptions of our forebears, then we must turn to the unreasoned proscriptions of our contemporaries. You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs? How could they, when silly love songs license their furtive unions?

In the absence of equality--in the absence of truth, in the absence of mutual acknowledgement of the truth--there is dominance and submission, and lust is a nattering little bad boy whispering treason. I like women, and I take great pleasure in looking at them. I live in Arizona, a pardisiacal planetoid in the Galaxy of the Naked Body Parts, and there's a lot to look at. But lust is a mammal brain thing, and while I'm willing to indulge my mammal brain to a degree, I refuse to let my mammal brain--or, worse, my reptile brain--rule my life. And even while I am reaping every great mammal brain pleasure the scrutiny of naked body parts can provide, my thinking brain sees through to every price acting upon that lust will demand that I pay, and, again like Bartleby, I prefer not to.

Men like to pretend that their lust rules them. I think women like to pretend that lust rules men. But nothing rules men or women except a voluntary willingness to submit. A thief can push you in the same way he can push a barrel. A tyrant can kill you. But no one can cause you to take a purposive action--to do something--no one but yourself. If you refuse to submit to domination, you can still be pushed or killed. But you cannot be dominated.

And, in my own case, where domination by submission has failed utterly, we have graduated to domination by dominance. I didn't get to see my children on Halloween, even though my wife had promised that I would. I didn't get to see my son on his birthday. Today is Thanksgiving Day, 1995, and I know I won't see my children. My father was here for my son's birthday, but his grandchildren were withheld from him. My mother had invited the kids and I for a Christmas-at-Thanksgiving celebration (since we had foreseen that Christmas-at-Christmas would be forbidden), but her request was denied. The last of her parents' brothers and sisters will almost certainly die this winter, and they will die without seeing the children for a last time. I had never foreseen that things could become this ugly, this stupid, this small, but I should have. The one is the consequence of the other, after all, and a jungle of unchallenged lies will eventually swallow the truth.

And, even though my wife has never read Janio at a Point, she has twice now paid her divorce lawyer to read the first five paragraphs (but not the sixth) of Chapter Eight in court. And the brutal irony is this: the draft her lawyer is reading from is inscribed, and the inscription says, essentially, "If you betray this book, it will destroy you." There's more, there's worse, and it's ugly and stupid and small and, ultimately, pretty boring. If we can't lie for love, then let's try lying for hate, and, if that doesn't work, start over. I can say a lot about it, particularly and generally, but I admit that I don't know where, precisely, this stuff comes from. But I know it ain't on Greg Street.

It's not me she's hurting with these stupid stunts, it's the children. From her point of view, it promises to be effective as a dominance strategy, because she believes fundamentally that I will act to prevent her from hurting the children. In real life, we call this taking hostages. In divorce court, we call it a custody battle. But the children are strong. Not as strong as I am, but strong in the way that I am. I'd like to claim credit for teaching them strength of character, but they're much too strong to need me for something that small. My wife's goal is to tear my children away from me utterly; she has said her father--from whom she is estranged because she says he is an alcoholic and a prescription drug addict and, she has alleged in the past, possibly a child molester--is preferable to me as custodian of my children; in a custody battle, saying insane things is not just acceptable but expected.

And it's entirely possible that she will succeed in ripping my children away from me forever. That will be a bad thing, a very painful thing for all of us. But it won't be the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is turning the key on the door to a dungeon with one's own hand. My children will never have to live without me; I am in them to the bone. We may have to live apart, we may be pushed around like barrels. But we don't have to volunteer to roll over and beg, and, if I have taught them anything at all, I have taught them never to roll over and beg. It is one thing to lose and quite another to surrender.

I'm gonna go out tonight
I'm gonna drive up to the hill
I'm gonna dive on into those city lights
And I'm gonna dance, dance
Dance till I get my fill
--Melissa Etheridge, You Used To Love To Dance

On Greg Street we be dancing with a limp. A little more than a year ago I took an unscheduled nap in the car and slammed into a truly immense tree. I saw the car months later and it was taller and wider than a bus and the front seats were sitting in the back. The tow-truck driver reported that the tree came through unscathed. As to my own sweet self, I came very close to dancing off this mortal coil. I shattered my pelvis and broke my left hip. I smashed my face up and collected a great host of other cuts, gashes, bruises and tears. I was so messed up that it was a couple of days before the doctors discovered that I had also broken my right ankle. I got about as close to singing to Jesus as you can get without clearing your throat, and I couldn't do that because they cut a tracheotomy into me so they could wire my jaw. I had the best of everything every step of the way--the best hospital, the best trauma team, the best surgeons--and I am damned lucky to be alive. I have some lingering nerve damage that may or may not repair itself, and in due course I'm going to acquire a metal hip that will outlast me by a few centuries, but in a year's time I have gone from almost dead to almost normal. Except for the nerve damage and the incipient arthritis in my hip, I am actually better than I was before the accident--more limber, better muscle tone, better wind.

When he was here, my father and I talked about this stuff, about the accident, about the divorce, about all I've been through in the past year. The last time I had seen him was in January of this year. Just after New Year's, my wife abducted our children and moved in with her boyfriend in Seattle, leaving me to fend for myself however I could. At that time, I was essentially bed-bound. I could hobble along in a walker for about 45 feet in one direction, but I was forbidden to bear weight on my left leg, so 45 feet of transit required 15 minutes of rest before I could hobble back the other way. For longer distances, I had to move by wheelchair, and the wheelchair was too large to use in the house. If you can't put both legs on the ground, you can't remove your hands from a walker without falling, so I had no way of carrying things. There was no food in the house, but I couldn't have carried it to sit down to eat, in any case. No car, no money, $6,000 in current payables, $2,500 of it urgently overdue--including the rent. This was not a pleasant turn of events. My father had come out from Connecticut to deal with things, and to reengineer the house so I could take care of myself.

I was strong even then, but I sure didn't look it. Someday I'll write about being crippled, about the circumscription of the soul occasioned by being less than perfectly human. But nothing inspires like adversity, and I had already been warring my way back to a whole body. Between my father and Peter Constantino--an aptly-named, very loyal family friend--and "We deliver!" ads in the Yellow Pages, I was able to get by until I was better able to get around. There were some fun wrinkles in there--for example, the divorce court ordered me to move when I was still hobbling around with the walker--but I admonished myself with the exact same dicta I deploy on my children: if you don't conquer your fears, your fears will conquer you; if you do not triumph over adversity, adversity has triumphed over you. It was a delight to watch the neighbors' eyes pop when, in the middle of March--when I still had to use a tool to pick the newspaper up off the sidewalk--I climbed on to my bicycle and rode away. Slowly and clumsily at first, but away.

But my father had seen nothing more than snapshots of that transition, brief glimpses of me immediately after the accident, after the abduction, and then not again until now. The recovery curve seems very slow to me, but it seemed rapid and dramatic to him, especially in light of all the other crap I've been going through.

But everything in my life is alike and equally the same thing. In April, when I was ordered to move, I finally had to tell my clients what my wife had done with the children. I had forborne to do so until then, because they had hung in there so gamely through the accident, and because I didn't want them to think they were working with a bottomless pit of sob stories. They all know how much I love my children--as does anyone who spends more that thirty seconds in my presence--and one of them said, "Wow! This must have been unbearable for you." I replied, "It might have been, if I hadn't hit the tree first. After that, I have a pretty clear idea what life can do to me, and I can live through anything."

What I told my father is this: Friedrich Nietzsche said, "What does not kill me makes me stronger." Before the accident, I had no idea what that meant, and I thought it was pretty stupid. I used to joke by saying, "What does does not kill me makes me very, very sick." But after the accident I knew better, and I know the aphorism is true for having lived it. I was strong before, but nothing like I am now.

And this is not a virtue. I am what I have done, and I live to be proud of what I have done, but I am not some sort of exemplar of virtue. What we are talking about here is not what I have done, but what I have refrained from doing. Not always, not perfectly, but most of the time, and I'm getting better at it all the time. What I have refrained from doing is simply this: I have refrained from volunteering to submit to domination. Not the domination of money, not the domination of deceit, not the domination of lust, not the domination of submission, not the domination of dominance, not the domination of tragedy, not the domination of injury, not the domination of anything, anytime, anywhere. When I have been faced with the alternative to submit or do without, I have chosen to do without. And if someday I am invited to submit or die, on that day will I die. Virtue is what you do when you are whole. Remaining whole is simply the process of staying alive as an organism, as a human being.

And I do so enjoy being alive as a human being--as if you couldn't tell!

I wheedle, I needle, I tease with a snort; I hector delectably, expectorator sport. I'll pick at your scabs so you can heal up without them, and I'll poke at your posturings until you dare once to doubt them. I know exactly what I am doing, gentle reader, sage victim, and I am having a fine time. For the variations are perturbations, crenelations, permutations, and each of us, every one, is just like all the others. I embark upon a voyage and you ride along with me, but we have crossed the River Styx and yet you haven't paid the fee. I'm dancing to heaven and you know it, and you're free to dance along, but first we'll scat where Dante sat: if you want to get to heaven, you have to go through hell.

And we are alone, you and I, and you know it. I love the radio, because it's the whisper of an intimate phone call to a thousand strangers. And I love to talk to people in just this way; I can dance all over their heads and they'll let me, because I can't cost them any face in the twilight, in the silence, in the solitude. We are alone, you and I, and I know it. And I promised you nothing and gave you everything, more than you had any right to ask or expect. I still haven't told you what I eat, nor will I, but you know everything there is to know about me, everything that matters. And what really matters about me is that I could say and could mean and could intend ceaselessly to prove the words with which we began:

This is not what you were expecting.

And summer's here--summer's always here--and the time is right for dancing in the streets. And the streets is where I dance. Where do you dance?

Greg Swann is a freelance writer living in Phoenix, AZ. He likes to eat Mexican food.

Home Fiction Humor Essays Books