Home from traveling, I jump into the gray Corolla. I’ve been a Five Guys Dad lately, flying to Los Angeles for work and back home on weekends to take the boys to soccer and movies and the library and their favorite restaurant. It’s not an ideal way to parent, but what can you do? My job requires it, and my life requires my job.
As usual, I’m first. As I wait, the smell inside the car rises up and makes me shudder. Old burgers and fries. The smell of a grill, the smell of grease. I do not feel like I do when I’m on a sidewalk and the hot fumes coming out of a bar make me hungry and eager to go inside. This smell is stale and disgusting and I hate it.
I’ve never liked this car. I was forced to buy it in a hurry (two cars in two days) when moving here from New York and starting a new life. Everything was rushed then, everything was secondary to trying to keep a toddler and an infant fed and clothed and safe. I overpaid for the car; my half of the negotiations still stands as a particularly disgraceful display of weakness on my part.
Hate the car. And now I can’t even muster up the energy to replace it. My wife never drives it. It sits here all week, its slaughterhouse smell trapped inside like The Ghost of Weekends Past. The good times have faded, left behind like grease-splattered paper bags.
With one exception (when a rat chewed through some hoses), the car has been dependable. I hate it anyway. I hate the color, it’s too small, it’s boring, the carpet is already practically destroyed. We’ve abused it with spills and mud and orange peels and juice boxes and crumbs. The car is filthy, inside and out; the windows are crusted with bird droppings; crumbs and bits of leaves line every possible groove. Being in here makes me feel weak and unhealthy and ashamed.
And now there’s the smell. The smell that conjures up all my frustrations.
Here’s Proust on his famous madeleine:
And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
Extraordinary changes? Perhaps—but in my case, they were all going in the wrong direction.
I started reading Proust in college, when a professor everyone hated or feared (or both) assigned Swann’s Way in a class called “Towards Modernity.” This professor said things like, “I will be having office hours—or rather, an office hour, but I’m not going to tell you when it is” and “I have given an A before, once, but I regret it now and won’t be doing it again this year.”
A student complained that his grade—a D minus, practically unheard of in an English class for a student with perfect attendance and no missed assignments—could jeopardize his chances at getting into law school.
“Don’t be worried, Mr. Parcannis,” the professor responded. “Law schools know me.”
Maybe they did. The rest of the world, however, for the most part did not, which had soured the professor’s outlook. A writer, he was known primarily for two reasons: 1) he was friends with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and could be relied on to give a good anecdote to any biographer writing about his famous friends, and 2) he had famously missed the boat on Catch-22, cataloging its failures and declaring it was “no novel” on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Fifty years later, that review is still cited as an example of reviewer cluelessness.
So this was the man, bitter and venomous in public, tender and sensitive in private (one hoped), who introduced me to Proust. Who thrust it in our hands, demanded we read the first volume in a single work, then gave us a pop quiz as if we were a bunch of high schoolers who couldn’t be counted on to do the assigned work.
Actually, the professor was big on pop quizzes. One question, long answers disfavored. The professor left the room after five minutes and sent a teaching assistant to pick up the results an hour and a half later.
This was the question:
Describe the importance of “the little phrase.”
As soon as the door closed everyone started grumbling. No one had read the book but me. They thumbed through the book to put together some kind of answer:
The little phrase refers to a passage from a sonata by the composer Vintueil. Obsessed with jealousy, gradually becoming aware that Odette might never return his love for her, Swann seeks out chances to hear the little phrase, forcing himself to listen to it to remind him of the time he first saw her.
And then they jumped up, cursed the professor in his absence, and left to get on with their life.
I stayed behind.
In spite of everything, I had been inspired by this mad professor of ours, who had a zest for literature and life that he assumed we would not share. Except I did! And so I blew past the standard answer. First I wrote everything I could remember about the sonata, and then everything that it meant to me. And then everything I loved about the book. And everything I struggled with and did not understand. I wrote about the sonata, and Swann, and Odette, and Marcel, and Combray, and the madeleine. Oh yes: I wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
It embarrasses me now, to think that I wrote so much. Proust’s memories make me wish I had an artistic soul, I said. But more than that, they make me want to live.
I announced, in those overflowing pages, that the book had confirmed for me the path I should take in life. Not for me the crabbed, pinched life, the office drone, the family man, the struggler. I was not going to be a Nothing Man!
My time is now! I wrote.
It’s humiliating now, but there it is. I can’t deny any of it. I wrote of my desire to build my memories, to travel and experience and absorb, to store them all away in “the portmanteau that is my mind.” Yes, yes, it was really this bad. Someday, I said, I will recall those memories—but only if they exist!
My time is now! I wrote again. And again—three times altogether.
Yes, I really thought this. I really wrote it down, on paper, and—having not finished before the TA arrived—took my stack of papers to the professor’s office and slid them under his door. My time is now! For some reason I wanted him to know that.
Someone should invent a shredder that fits onto the bottom of a professor’s door. Notes slid underneath are always regretted afterward, in my experience.
After I thrust my ideas upon the man who did not care—my time is now!, good lord—I launched into a decade of wandering, of travel, of experiences. I sampled languages and religions and cultures and approaches to life. I stood breast-to-breast with the cosmos. I swallowed the universe and felt its secrets radiating out of my fingertips.
My time was then!
And then: reality set in. The need for money and health insurance and some kind of retirement plan. The obligations of family. And before I knew what was happening, there I was, an office drone, a family man, a struggler. The words Nothing Man may as well have been tattooed on my forehead, except that would have made me more interesting and relevant than I actually was.
Proust’s madeleine gave him this:
An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.
Nice snack if you can get it. Sitting in the car, I feel exactly the opposite. Mediocre, accidental, mortal? Check, check, check.
The door to my house slams shut. My sons, seven and five, are running toward me, lugging books for the journey.
Time to put on my game face. Already my older son has exhibited a dangerous tendency to be as thinky as me, in spite of our best efforts to keep him young and carefree. I cannot let him know my thoughts. I cannot explain that the smell brings me bad memories, or even the concept that smells sometimes do this, because I know he’ll dive in. He’ll want to test the idea, he’ll feel it, explore it, measure it against his own experience, imagine it, think his way through it, and someday wind up as overwhelmed as me. Giving him a set of ideas like that would be like tossing a kid a pack of matches and telling him to go play on the woodpile. Actually, given his genetic inheritance, it would be like an alcoholic giving his son a drink at too early an age.
No. It’s tempting to share my ideas. But I can’t be that irresponsible. He deserves better.
My younger one, by contrast, runs free, psychically untroubled. Whether it’s due to youth or his disposition, he feels things without the overlay of logic and introspection that burdens his older brother and me. I don’t want to spoil that either, so I put on a game face for him too.
The doors open.
“Hi Dad,” says my older son, strapping himself in. He disappears into his book, which has wizards in it.
The little one struggles to climb into his booster seat. It is his mission to manage the seatbelt on his own, without help.
“Hey, boys!” I say. Overenthusiasm: my strategy for pushing the gloom aside. “Who’s hungry?”
Keeping things to yourself is the hallmark of good parenting. I cannot let them know I have just had an existential crisis, a dull, familiar anger that the old, stale, worn-out interior of our car has summoned forth. They deserve better.
And… I deserve better! It’s my sudden realization: the burger car can not be my madeleine! It doesn’t have to be! Because I do have those other memories!
I can reach back to the jingling sound that reminds me of a prayer wheel and transports me to Tibet, or the smell of soy and garlic in a sizzling wok that pulls me back to the night markets of Taiwan. The hot sand under my feet that summons forth the island off the coast of Thailand, and the nights I spent listening to Billie Holiday and watching sunsets with a bartender named Cy. Or the forkful of grilled salmon that brings me to the bed and breakfast in Alaska, or the sip of San Miguel that returns me to the nightclub in Manila, or the froth on the pint of Guinness that drops me back in the deep smoky basement of the Pub in the basement of Ida Noyes.
I did all that, that was me! I have other memories to draw upon! Indeed, a whole portmanteau! My mind does not need to stay trapped in the car I don’t like, dwelling in the gloom of my own weakness and stupor!
I start up the car and honk the horn out of sheer excitement.
My younger son looks around. He sniffs.
“It smells like Daddy in here,” he says to his brother.
Then he buckles his seatbelt, looks at me and the road ahead, and smiles an uncomplicated smile.
I am his madeleine! Readers, I did not see that one coming. Ah well, there are worse things to be. Hope you enjoyed the post. If you did, please like it, or link to it, or pass it along in whatever way one does that kind of thing. You can read more in the series here:
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Are you a reviewer? Free review copies are available! If you’re interested in posting a review on your blog, or if you’re willing to write a review at Amazon (or anywhere else), just let me know and I’ll ship you a book. And many thanks for helping to get the word out!