I recall that when we were in the 11th grade you left me a note in the center of an old geometry book. I came home that evening, ready to start the class assignment and found your
small, folded piece of paper placed directly in the middle. The note was taped on page 202 where the author was outlining the different type of triangles. You had highlighted the definition for an isosceles triangle:
An isosceles triangle is a triangle with (at least) two equal sides.
I turned my attention to your note:
“The other night my mother scolded me for gazing outside the window and not tending to my chores. My tendency to daydream has gotten me into trouble before and I knew that in order to avoid parental conflict I must quit spending so much time in the trappings my mind. This is difficult because it is what I want to do and where my brain naturally goes. ’Isosceles triangles have it easy,’ I told my mother. ’If they only they knew the trouble we humans have to deal with
caused by isosceles friction.”
And then there was a black line made by a dark marker underneath, as if to tell me that your thought was not yet complete, just a fragment of a larger idea.
I came across your address when I encountered an old friend down the block at a local flea market. He told me you were returning to the United States from some seemingly exotic adventure and had tentatively chosen to strike your claim in Los Angeles. However, he quickly added the modifier that you were actually going to live in the notorious San Fernando Valley.
When he said this, there was a hint of shame in his voice, as if to tell me there was something dreaded about this location. The Valley is indeed this suburban oddity that you’ve heard and read so much about. I can’t imagine the emotional tumult occurring within you. Now, you will reside on the outskirts of a city wrecked with culture and commodity, an overwhelming experience to be sure.
I hear you won’t be moving there by choice, thus making a deeper mire of your situation. You must mentally prepare yourself for the things you are about to encounter, for if Los Angeles is a city that is difficult to love, you should understand that The Valley is its quieter, less attractive and subliminally abusive brother.
You must prepare yourself to encounter endless strip malls of every variety. There are the old, run down areas with stores you couldn’t fathom entering unless by some emergency. There’s an inherent sense of decay as you pass them by, but your quick judgments would be in folly for there are people who spend the better years of their lives in these areas and find themselves quite content. It truly is a tricky place.
Then, in the southern and western end of the Valley, you’ll find the younger, more attractive siblings: newly constructed strip malls bragging the latest and greatest chains. Here you’ll find the newest restaurants and shops that will surely be the hit of the Midwest this time next year. Their Spanish style architecture reminds you of the area’s colonial past, only now you can enjoy cheeseburgers, lattes and discount flannel, luxuries the natives, conquistadors and missionaries never knew.
Your time in the Valley will eventually lead you to the meccas, temples and churches of its citizens: the malls. These large, showy national treasures feature store upon store upon store. People buy and sell identity, while the youth of the area choose to spend their free time there. Malls, you see, are one of the few locations parents allow their teenagers to escape the trappings of their suburban communities because there is the appearance of safety and security. If only they understood what they were sacrificing in the end.
I hear, that from where you are coming from, you could walk four blocks and see twenty people you know. This must be difficult considering that you now are living in a place where you can walk twenty miles and see no familiar faces. I know there were times when you desired anonymity, but this is the other extreme of the spectrum. You are but one, singular face in a pool of countless others. They all rush, push, and hurry at breakneck speed. ’Where are they going?’ my niece once asked me. I never had an answer for her.
You told me once that you thought of yourself as a city boy, so much to see and no time to see it. I hope you haven’t forgotten that. This city and its lifestyle infects quite quickly. The odd becomes normal, the bizarre is common place and the instinct to resist is overcome by the desire to conform. Don’t let it pull you in.
Los Angeles is a strange creature indeed. I recall that when I was driving you to the airport you told me that the palm trees in this city perfectly reflected its citizens. In Southern California, you explained, the palm tree was unique and special. People came to Los Angeles to bask in the sun and see these trees that did not grow in the rest of the country. These tall beings tower over almost all over plant life, vying for attention demanding to be noticed. But there
are literally thousands in this city, making one palm tree feel all the less special when they are surrounded by many.
And while you may indeed dislike Los Angeles and even hate the Valley, I’m sure your travels have given you a new perspective. For, while the city life is indeed attractive, how can one find his identity while feeling trapped within a circumstance that really isn’t that bad? You felt too comfortable, I know this, it’s but one of the reasons you left. You didn’t flee tragedy and hardship, you fled the mundane and mediocre. This is the American Dream, the American struggle for most people: escaping a circumstance that was never too bad in the first place.
Your cousin at the flea market informed me that you’re an artist now. How I both pity and envy you! Remember the kids from art classes back in high school? Smoking cigarettes, dressed in black and carrying around this false sense of superiority? I could never imagine you like that, but you’ve always taken pride in your cultural capital. Be mindful and be careful. After all, there’s a sense or protection that comes with self-awareness.
It’s hard to believe that I got your postcard five months ago. Is it true what you wrote? That you’ve always felt that you were on the cusp of something great, but only you’re never quite sure what it is? And then, it never comes? This is why the lifestyle of an artist is unattractive to me. Pushing, working, desiring something that most likely will never come to be, wanting that which might never happen. Well, as your mother use to say, “Don’t dream in a vacuum; move forward to move in circles.”
I feel strange confessing this, but you certainly have always been the most peculiar of all my acquaintances. I came to this realization shortly after our first kindergarten homework assignment together. The entire class was given a piece of paper in which a plain rectangle had been drawn. Each of us were instructed to color the rectangle in. All of us got to work pretty quickly, choosing our favorite colors and enjoying the afternoon break from reading and arithmetic. You hesitated though, frozen and staring at the paper. You said you had to think of the way in which you would color in the rectangle, it had to be something specific, something special. You said anyone could color in a rectangle, it was a pretty regular thing to do. It was how you color that rectangle in that set you apart. I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve never looked at you the same.
You’ve always had a bizarre eye though. I guess its one of the consequences of that whole “art” thing. You see yourself as an observer and that you’re very seldom connected or even felt. That must be why you took such an issue with what they taught you in film school. I can see where you’re coming from. It does strike me as quite stupid that film schools teach students that the key to good films, to great art, is to show and never tell. As if people weren’t already indirect and masterful at concealing their emotions. If we have the means and desire to communicate clearly, why not do it? But I suppose the idea of direct communication is as fallible as the idea of an objective truth. After all, we all speak in codes, don’t we? It’s really about finding those who understand or speak the same codes as you. We are such a funny species.
I think what you’re searching for is what my strange great uncle referred to as ’static release,’ one of those rare moments of clarity where things seem simpler, calmer and there’s that naive sense that it might all work out OK. They’ve only come to me in moments of extreme desperation. It’s a pity, really, but I think it might be genetic.
One fall, I was with my great uncle in his office as he repaired an old stereo. Do you remember? It was the gaudy silver one with the hot pink and lime green stickers? It was shortly before his divorce and my family all knew things weren’t going well, despite the fact that my uncle had just sold a copy of his book and secured a steady job writing.
While he was unscrewing the back of that Panasonic my uncle mumbled something I’ll never forget. “The desperation in profound loss. The motivation in profound loss.” He never made eye contact with me when he was speaking those words. I think he thought they were more for himself than anyone else, but they left a lasting mark. I think I only recently have I begun to understand what he meant by that.
It’s such an odd memory. It’s one of those moments where you are unexpectedly reminded of the past. You see a picture, smell a specific scent or just something makes you recall a different time, a different you. You marvel that it could be the same person, the same mind, the same life. And as I get older, these moments happen more and more. Are we still connected to that older self? What part of us, within that memory or moment, is still us? These are the things that keep me up night.
I was at a bar with you sister the other night, After my third whiskey sour I excused myself to the restroom. While washing my hands there was a phrase scratched into the mirror that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. “The selfishness of empathy, the selflessness of sympathy.” Well, Mr. Artist, what do you think it means?
Old friend, I’m just a homebody with romantic notions of adventure. What is it like, really? You see, I have to live vicariously because I don’t have it in me to do what I want with my life. I’m boring and the whole world doesn’t know it.
You scolded me once for living in the past and thinking too much about the future. You once confided in me that the thing you wanted more in life, more than money, love, success or adventure was something you thought few, if any, ever achieved. You craved feeling content in any given moment. Not yearning or wanting for something else, but happy to just be in the place and time here you were. Have you found that yet?
With today’s technological marvels, I’m believing more and more each day that we are a collection of fragmented identities, delicately held together by the technology that both blesses and incarcerates us.
As I finish this letter to you, I want to remind you of the second postcard you sent me from your journey. It only contained a quote by the 19th century Japanese tea master, Kakuzo Okakura. “Truth can be reached only through the comprehension of opposites.” I’m starting to believe that this is what you meant by isosceles friction, but I cannot be sure. You always leave things ambiguous. However, I will also end this with a line made by a black marker, because all of what I’ve written feels incomplete. They all just feel like fragments of some larger, greater ideas.