The Bad Plus was on Conan last Friday and they sounded great. I asked Ethan how it went, and he said he was very happy, because they sounded like The Bad Plus. This is a big thing I've learned from Ethan, and from all the good jazz players we know: that to sound like yourself is the highest goal. To make it so that someone is able to listen to a few seconds of your music or read a few paragraphs of your story and know immediately who it is.
But this is very important: this true voice doesn't sound like who you are in the world. It should be bigger than your neuroses and bigger than your biography. It should be surprising. This is why it is disappointing when we meet our favorite artists. It should be disappointing. If it's not disappointing, the artist isn't doing her job.
This is also why it is frustrating when people comment on the content of one's work instead of the form. Writing gives the illusion of being so personal, but even the most candid confessional piece is a lie. It's a little song.
I saw Conan give a talk once. I've always remembered the way he answered this one question. Someone asked him which other comics he liked to read/watch. He said, "I don't read comedy, and I don't watch other talk shows. I prefer to be inspired by other genres." Then he told a story about taking Drivers Ed. The driving instructor told the students, "When you are trying to drive between two objects, don't look at the one on the left or you will veer left. Don't look at the one on the right or you will veer right. Look in between."
I used to think nitrous oxide was a shiny, happy drug. Cocaine makes me think of scary things like razor blades and stockbrokers, but nitrous oxide is whipped cream and balloons.
Back when we were teenagers, my cousins even used to do it and drive. (Not that my family had high standards of driving safety. My aunt, the one who was on heroin, once drove us somewhere with her head held out the car window. When I asked her why she was driving that way, she said, “The wind helps keep my eyes open.”)
The first and the last time I huffed nitrous oxide was a few years ago at a drug party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The party was thrown by a group of debauched Stanford alumni. Their loft was filled with ironic, dusty objects – vintage lunchboxes, velvet Elvises, and a sticky coffee table heaped with barbiturates.
Yvette had brought me there. At the time, she and I were live-in nannies in the same mansion. Despite the luxury (wave pool and sauna in basement), the gig was traumatic. Yvette and I had formed the sort of bond found among Vietnam veterans.
It was her 23rd birthday, and I had baked her a cake – chocolate almond roulade – but this was not the kind of party where people ate. My cake and I sat on the ironic naugahyde sofa, ignored. Next to us, Yvette stared into space. Her eyes looked glazed. I think she was on horse tranquilizers. I wished I had brought a book, and then I felt pathetic for having thought that.
A cute boy appeared, waving around what looked like metal tampons: “Hey, who wants a whippet?”
Well, I thought, when in Williamsburg. . .
I admitted that I’d never done them before. Yvette put a droopy hand on my shoulder. “Dude,” she said, “you’ll love it.”
The boy explained the procedure: “I’m gonna fill this balloon and pass it to you. Exhale all the air from your lungs and inhale what’s in the balloon. Then huff it in and out a coupla times. Then, don’t breathe for as long as you can.”
I am a yoga teacher, and at the time I was doing extensive breathing exercises. I am also rather competitive. Great, I thought, I’ll get the best high ever! I put the nozzle of the balloon to my mouth and inhaled the sweet, rubbery gas. I exhaled the gas back into the balloon and inhaled it, again and again. I told myself not to breathe.
When I lost consciousness, I was still trying not to breathe. Apparently I turned blue and began convulsing. I’m glad this was not an NYU party, as someone might have been filming.
Drug dealers fled like roaches. EMS was called. Mellows were harshed.
But not for me. I had drifted away to a dark, happy place where I lay on a much cleaner couch. A man sat beside me. He was speaking to me in a gentle voice, and I have no idea what he was saying, which is frustrating since he was probably Jesus. Or at least my dead Grandpa Harold. All I know is that I felt very relaxed.
The first face I saw when I came to was Josie’s. She was a friend of Yvette’s, a beautiful Korean woman who hardly knew me. She was crying and touching my cheek. The party was dissolving around her, heading on to the next in a series of never-ending parties, the guests slowing to stare at me on their way out, like commuters rubbernecking wreckage.
Once a man saved my life in Quebec City. I was stepping into the street, and he snatched me back onto the curb. A bus flew by, right where I’d been. He looked at me then the way Josie was looking at me. I never thanked him. I was too embarrassed.
“Tell EMS not to come,” Josie yelled. Then someone put a phone in my hands.
“It’s 911. They want to talk to you.”
“Tell them not to come here.”
“Tell them you’re fine.”
“Tell them you had an asthma attack.”
I put the phone to my ear and greeted the operator in the cheerful, breezy voice I reserve for ex-boyfriends: “Hello! Yes I’m doing great. Feeling terrific. Just an asthma attack. This apartment is very dusty.”
The operator was hostile. “Ma’am, are you on drugs?”
“Oh, no. I don’t do drugs. I’m a yoga teacher.”
After a brief negotiation, I convinced her not to send the ambulance. The strange thing was, I did feel totally fine. I could even have moved on to the next party, but the Stanford people had carefully concealed its location. It was only the following day that I stopped short in the middle of a walk, shaking, and realized how close I had come. The feeling of having been spared lasted a few days, during which I was giddy with gratitude. Then life went back to normal.
I can’t remember what happened to the birthday cake.
Gary Gygax, the man who invented Dungeons and Dragons, is dead at 69. Rest in peace, Gary, and thanks for helping to improve my vocabulary and stunt my social development. Gary's wife states that he died of an intestinal aneurysm, but I suspect orcs.
Julie gets a profile in the Neopolitan. How wonderful to see praise of my beautiful friend in print.