You are here

Like Robert Downey Jr.

The capacity to understand the testimony of others is a basic human trait. And we are frequently most eager to hear the stories of people who have lived through something we have yet to face ourselves. There are times, however, when no amount of understanding can fill in the spaces that derive from a deficit of experience.

Charlie Bertsch

The city is waist deep in a Sonoran June, but nobody’s getting wet. The bridges span riverbeds without rivers, their surface clotted with plants that struggle to remember moisture. Nestled here and there in the shade provided by foliage or the concrete underbelly of the roads that cross above, transients and not-so-transients seek shelter from both the sun and a state that shines its flashlights into more and more dark corners everyday. Tornados of dust and debris spring up and dissipate in the distance. The heat works its way deeper and deeper into the psyche. Even in the luxury of air-conditioned spaces, the body senses its relentless onslaught. Frustration turns to rage with the slightest provocation. This is the brown time, when people do their best to avoid the worst, only to feel futile in spite of themselves

Driving down Oracle Road this morning on the way to drop my seven-year-old daughter at her summer art camp, at the Tucson Museum of Art, however, the three of us are managing to keep our environs at a manageable distance. We’re listening to the soundtrack to the film Cabaret, just as we have on every workday of the past several weeks, and she and my wife are singing along. “Bye-bye mein lieber Herr, bye-bye mein lieber Herr. It was a fine affair, but now it’s over. And though I used to care, I need the open air. . .” The words are as natural as breath, in our minds day and night, because you can’t hear something that many times without it becoming part of you. For my daughter Skylar, though, the effect is magnified by the fact that she is learning some of these words from the album, not just French and German, but an English beyond her years.

When my wife and I first played Cabaret for her, we didn’t remember the lyrics very well. Over time, as we became more aware of their more “adult” moments, we hoped that they would go over Skylar’s head. It’s different now, though. A month or so ago she convinced me to print out the lyrics. And, because she has rapidly moved from reading basic children’s books to Harry Potter, she rapidly memorized the words, including those that aren’t what we parents call “age-appropriate.” Thus, when we’re nearing the end of our morning drive downtown, and she asks to skip ahead to “Cabaret,” as she inevitably does, she enunciates the story of Elsie with stunning clarity: “I used to have a girlfriend known as Elsi, with whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea. She wasn’t what you’d call a blushing flower. As a matter of fact she rented by the hour.” It’s a moment that gives me and my wife shivers. Would we do things differently if we had to do it over again?

* * *

“And this is where the manuscript breaks off.” That’s how this transition might read if this were one of those self-reflexive novels I love to teach, in which stories are nested inside each other like Russian matryoshka dolls. When I saw down today to finish this essay, which I’ve been writing, off and on, for the past three years, I confronted the daunting task of opening all the many drafts piled up on two different hard drives, their contents overlapping in confusing ways. In one file the first section was a late version, but the second a first, fitful try. In another, the first section was an earlier iteration, but the second and third sections reflected my most recent changes. Then there were the abortive beginnings I’d consigned to separate documents, equally compelling but, at least in their current form, mutually exclusive.

When my students come to me with problems of this scope, I tell them that they have yet to find their way to the source of their motivation for writing. “It’s like when you hurt your back, but don’t immediately realize it. Over time, your whole infrastructure gets out of alignment and you have to slowly work your way through all the collateral damage to the original wound.” I like the analogy. It helps them see the editing process in a new light. And now, as I type this, it’s finally dawning on me that I came up with this elaborate conceit, in part, because of my own experience being a parent during the Presidency of George W. Bush. All those documents, part of the same project, but not properly integrated together, are a sure sign that I couldn’t perceive the source of my pain, even though I felt it throughout my daily life.

Sorting through the fragments this morning, trying to turn all the pieces at my disposal into one piece, I found one beginning that I barely remembered writing, even though I’d begun it last summer: the three paragraphs that open this essay. Had I continued the line of thought they inaugurate, I might have kept them in mind. But now I find myself struggling to reconstruct a destination for them. I was thinking about fascism, clearly. And the tension between the inside of our traveling “home,” with its cosmopolitan and conditioned air, and the harsh reality it wards off. Also, the debates surrounding “illegal immigration,” which have become an increasingly prominent aspect of political discourse in the state of Arizona during Bush’s tenure. Still, I can’t say for sure how I would have extended those three paragraphs because I had, uncharacteristically for someone with a fine memory for detail, forgotten the frame of mind in which I wrote them.

For this reason, they surely would have been discarded from the final version of this article, had not something happened recently to make them seem strangely prescient. Once again this summer, Skylar is attending art camp at the Tucson Museum of Art. Over the past few months she has been listening mostly to the soundtracks of West Side Story and My Fair Lady, which have displaced last year’s favorites. Although writing about her love of Cabaret had slipped my mind, I did feel a pang of nostalgia a few weeks back when, as we prepared to drive her down for her first day of camp, I noticed the disc sitting forlornly in its sleeve inside the CD case we keep in the car. So I asked her if she was interested in hearing the record again. “Maybe later, dad. I want to hear West Side Story now.” I obliged, wondering if she would ever wish to repeat last summer’s listening ritual.

Two days later, everything seemed to be going smoothly. Her mother and I remarked that the transition to art camp had once again been remarkably painless. Historically, Skylar has struggled to extricate herself from one routine and adapt to another. But the atmosphere at the Tucson Museum of Art is well-suited to her long concentration span and short patience for turmoil. Because my presence wasn’t required at Wednesday’s drop-off, I stayed home to work. Then I went to play my weekly basketball game at the JCC in the afternoon, with the understanding that I’d meet the family by the pool later. So, once I’d showered and changed, I trudged my exhausted legs outside to perform my supervisory duties while mom had her turn in the gym. Because I knew Skylar would be tired after a full day of art camp, I expected her to be more demanding than usual. But I certainly wasn’t anticipating having a long conversation about art. “Art camp wasn’t so good today,” she blurted out. I asked her why. “There was a very disturbing painting at the museum.”

I’ve learned, in eight years of parenting Skylar, that a statement of this sort will almost certainly obey Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg principle. Most children are fast to purge what pains them. Distraught one minute, they will move seamlessly to a new pursuit in the next, as if they are willing themselves to feel better. Not Skylar. What seems like a minor incident to most will preoccupy her for days. And something that really shakes her might well trouble her years. Our household still hasn’t recovered from the mistake I made, when she was five, of having her watch the film adaptation of Michael Ende’s The Never-Ending Story. Ever since, when she has needed to process something traumatic, she compares it to that film’s “Creature of Darkness.” She understands that this rather fake-looking wolf is a metaphor too, a representation of the cynicism that gnaws away at our capacity to imagine a world distinct from the status quo. But it freaks her out regardless. Or maybe, as her mother suspects, it freaks her out because it’s a metaphor.

When, as I tried to determine how bad her day at art camp had been, Skylar confessed that the painting she’d seen, “was as bad as the Creature of Darkness,” I was alarmed. Had I been premature in concluding that she had left her phobic phase? Frankly, the prospect of spending sleepless nights, vainly attempting to reign in her fears, disturbed me out almost as much as the Creature of Darkness bothers her. Every time I think that our life is entering a period of greater stability, something seems to happen to disrupt the calm I desperately need to make progress towards the goals that matter. I suppose most adults feel that way, but the last few years have proved especially challenging to us, as we’ve confronted a steady stream of personal and professional crises. The last thing I wanted was to have the island of security that art camp had provided last summer turn into Survivor.

* * *

With this concern in mind, I set to work trying to discern the damage and, to the best of my ability, contain it. I asked her if she could explain what upset her about the painting. “I saw the bunny, Dad, from far away and wanted to get a closer look. I thought it would be something nice. But when I saw what it was about, it scared me.” The painting, she went on to explain, featured a cute little bunny, but with a gun pointed at its head. “I don’t think artists should trick you like that,” she added, complaining about the way the image of the rabbit had lured her in. Seeing a way into a productive conversation, I tried to support her assessment without passing a negative value judgment on a work I had yet to see myself.

“Sometimes artists do that deliberately, Skylar. They’ll make a picture that looks beautiful from a distance, but gives a different impression up close.” She was listening to me, but dubious. “Why would they want to do that?” I gave her a couple possible explanations, then tried to connect them together into a more abstract formulation. “In a way, the idea is to make us ask questions about why things are beautiful and how they get that way. But I agree with you, Sweetie, that this kind of art probably isn’t appropriate for someone your age. It’s meant for grown-ups or perhaps teenagers, not eight-year-olds.”

As those words left my mouth, I found myself musing on their premise. Why would a child her age, particularly someone as intellectually precocious as she is, be too young to learn a lesson of this sort? Our conversation had already made clear to me that she understood what I was trying to explain. But there’s a critical difference between explanation and experience. The capacity to understand the testimony of others is a basic human trait. And we are frequently most eager to hear the stories of people who have lived through something we have yet to face ourselves. There are times, however, when no amount of understanding can fill in the spaces that derive from a deficit of experience. A five-year-old may know where babies come from, but it’s highly unlikely, in the absence of being sexually abused, that she or he will understand why it matters so much to grown-ups. Could it be, I wondered, that the same holds true for beauty?

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in Skylar over the past two years is a shift in her attitude toward art. She has been drawn to it from her first months, when we took her to see Picasso and Van Gogh exhibitions. It’s no accident that she was already pronouncing the names of all the basic colors at thirteen months, when many children have yet to learn the distinction between them. The artistic instincts evident in abstract art she made as a two-year-old make it quite clear that a pretty refined artistic sensibility was already operating within her long before she could articulate it. What has changed since the beginning of first grade, however, is that she is now eager to make aesthetic judgments on her own, without being asked. Driving around town, looking at a magazine, browsing at a store, she freely offers her opinion of what is beautiful and what is not.

Instead of merely liking some things more than others, then, she is ready and willing to perceive her preferences as bearers of “beauty.” Whereas it used to take some work on our part to draw her attention to a sunset or the light on the mountain range by our house, she now actively seeks out aesthetically appealing sights without our guidance. I love this development, both because of what it indicates about her growing confidence at evaluating the world and because I have another person with whom I can fully share my impressions of it. But I’m also coming to see that this new stage in her thinking also marks the beginning of a loss of innocence.

This is surely why I was willing to insist so forcefully that the “bunny painting” was not appropriate for someone her age. If the desire to seek out beauty in the abstract is itself an indication that childhood is on the wane, the realization that beauty always comes at a price must mark its extinction. Or so I mused as I hunched there in the JCC pool, trying to ignore the cramps in my legs so I could continue my intense conversation with Skylar. Whatever the merits of the painting in question, which I had promised her to see myself the next day, I concluded that she should not have the experience of learning to discern beauty cut short by perceiving the ugliness it masks.

Once I’d made it clear to Skylar that I supported her decision not to go near the “bunny painting” again, I changed tack. Now my goal was for her to keep her mind open to the possibility that she would one day appreciate that sort of art. “You know, your mom has made a lot of things that she doesn’t show you because they aren’t appropriate for someone your age.” I thought about the piece I’d written for Bad Subjects when Skylar was still a baby, about reconciling fatherhood with my record collection, in which I reflect on the same topic:

The hard part for us isn't the trips we take with Skylar so much as our life at home with her. In addition to the standard tasks of childproofing -- covering electrical outlets, removing choking hazards from any place she can reach, putting our fragile collectibles in storage -- we have to decide whether the art and music in our house is something she should be exposed to. Because my wife is an artist and writer whose work reflects her painful life history, the decisions we reach are often highly personal. During Skylar's first few months in the world a disturbing multi-media piece by my wife called "Fever Dream" was hanging in our living room. And Skylar loved it, because it had patches of shiny aluminum foil and fake fur. But there came a time when we decided that she was old enough that the content of the artwork -- a photograph of a snarling Tasmanian wolf, the looming shadow of a man, a naked woman bound to a bed frame -- might disturb her. So we took it down. But we left up my wife's other paintings of surreally-colored naked women and, at least for the time being, our Frank Kozik poster of a nun with blood dripping out of her mouth.

Eight years later, the surreally-colored naked women and the Frank Kozik poster are still up, though in a new home. But “Fever Dream” remains boxed up in the garage. And, given the resemblance between its predatory marsupial and the Creature of Darkness, that’s definitely a good thing. Indeed, as I type this I’m worrying myself with the thought that Skylar might have looked a little too carefully at the painting in her infancy. In the pool, though, I went out of my way to distinguish her mother’s work from the responses it might provoke. “The problem isn’t the art, really, but who sees it.”

Although she’d heard this line of reasoning before, the connection between her mother’s work and what she’d seen at the Tucson Museum of Art clearly resonated for her with new force. “So it’s meant for grown-ups, then. Is that also true of the ‘bunny painting’?” I told her it was. “But when I saw it from far away, it looked like the sort of thing a child would like, because of the bunny and the bright colors.” As I’ve already noted, when Skylar gets fixated on something that troubles her, she spends a lot of time treading the same psychic territory. Grass has no chance of growing in that part of her mind. “That’s true of some of your mom’s art, too. It often has bright colors and interesting shapes that might attract someone your age from a distance, even if it has disturbing content you might see upon taking a closer look.” I paused for a moment. “Also, sometimes that sort of art is about being a child, even if it’s meant for grown-ups. “I think part of the reason that painting bothered you so much, Sweetie, is that you haven’t had many bad experiences in your life.” A ripple of recognition flashed across her brow. “When people go though hard times as children” – I was thinking of her mother – “they sometimes want to relive them through art.” Skylar looked up at me. “But why would you want to repeat an experience that hurts?”

* * *

On September 12th, 2001, I returned to my duties in the classroom. Because I had a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule that semester, I didn’t get a break in my routine. There I was at 10am, facing my undergraduates whom I’d been teaching about postmodernism, trying to get my bearings in a world that suddenly looked a whole lot more like the texts on our syllabus than I’d thought possible at the start of the class. The exaggeration for effect that we’d been discussing over the past few weeks had been retroactively transformed into the plans for a future become present. Two days before, we’d been talking about a piece by Jean Baudrillard in which the phrase “terrorism of the real” figures prominently; today we were all faced with the reality of a terrorism equal to his hyperbole.

I could have cancelled class or let students share their feelings without regard for the content of our course. But I was flooded with an energy too powerful to pen up. Without acknowledging the strangeness of our meeting – the decision-makers at our university had decided that “business as usual” was the best medicine – I turned immediately to the blackboard and wrote, “How many times can you watch something painful before it brings you pleasure?”

Charlie Bertsch is a member of the Bad Subjects collective.