I keep thinking that these post-presidency things Barack Obama’s been doing will command more attention than they end up commanding. First I thought that his memoir was gonna be the subject of discussion everywhere I went for at least a week or two, but at no point in my moving around town did I see anybody read it or hear anyone talk about it (which is odd, cuz it sold a few million copies in its first week).
The fact that it’s nearly a thousand pages probably didn’t help. Also it came out at the end of November and probably got eclipsed by conversations about a COVID Thanksgiving and Trump’s effort to overturn the election.
Then this month I saw that Obama and Bruce Springsteen recorded a long conversation that was turned into a limited podcast series on Spotify, called Renegades, and while I rather stridently maintain that nothing, nothing ever produced by anyone in the world, should ever be called “Renegades,” I did go ahead and plow through the podcast–which is easy listening, lotsa musical cues and filler. They don’t digress all that often, they agree on everything, and while the topics sometimes get heavy, the handling is light.
There was only one part that stood out to me and it came from Springsteen.
He was talking about turning 33 and deciding to turn his life around, to lay down some roots, and he equates his feeling of loneliness with that of John Wayne in The Searchers. He focuses on that scene at the end, probably the most famous shot of Ford’s career, where John Wayne’s character, after rescuing Natalie Wood, drops her with her family and then leaves the community because, while he’s possessed of certain talents that can be useful to the community, he can never really be a member of it.
Because he’s a drifter by nature. Secretly too sensitive and damaged and distrustful to lay down roots anywhere.
And, as Obama points out, all of the great heroes in westerns are drifters. He points specifically toward Shane, from the enigmatically titled Shane, and Clint Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter (who I think turns out to be a ghost in the end(?), which would make a double sense of the “drifting” moniker…).
What Springsteen goes on to say is that he very much enjoyed being a drifter throughout his twenties, untethered, living the American dream of wandering around, meeting people, getting into adventures (“Like Caine in Kung Fu”) and focusing pretty much entirely on his art. But then, at around the time he finally had enough money to take care of himself, he began to commune with this nebulous thing in his chest, this vague but persistent dissatisfaction and sadness, and he realized that he didn’t want to be a drifter anymore. He wanted to be held accountable to someone. Wanted to share a life. Wanted to go someplace and call it home and then live there with other people and be useful to them.
And reader, I think I’m fuckin there.
In a maudlin post yesterday I mentioned that I was super bummed at having to postpone that evening’s date due to all the spring break chaos on South Beach. We rainchecked for some time during the week. And I mentioned in the post that, while brooding on the raincheck over a beer later that day, I realized that I don’t remember the last time I hugged someone. Which is true.
Later in the evening I mentioned this epiphany to a friend and he gave me a hug and so I guess the streak is broken–but what I seldom think about, because it seems so natural and relaxing and conducive to my ambitions, is just how much time I spend by myself.
While doing my work for the college, on Mondays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, it’s true that I’m talking with my colleagues, who are also my friends, and we’re bonding and confiding things and having the sort of conversation that’s enriching and restorative–but I’m sitting in a room by myself as we do it. And then afterward I’ll go to a bar and I’ll sit there with Bob or Lynda sometimes but for the most part I’m by myself, and maybe I’ll chat with the bartender about something to do with work, but the conversation isn’t really personal. It doesn’t go much above small talk, frankly. When I’m bartending on Tuesdays or Sundays I’ll strike up conversation with regulars and that’s always pleasant but, again, it isn’t all that revealing. Then yesterday evening I was sitting at the bar talking with an acquaintance, the one who gave me the hug, and I realized at a certain point that he wasn’t really listening. He was looking around, distracted. So I decided to test his attention by stopping mid-sentence, allowing a silence, and then saying, “But how are you?”–and off he went! Talked a mile a minute.
And I thought, Why did I do that? Why was I so eager to confirm for myself that he isn’t listening?
Basically I’m just flailing and looking to tell someone about it.
And since you happened to be here….