Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.0]

Chapter VII


Despite my unfulfilling marriage, life was more than I could have hoped for in many ways, and I was grateful for Jax and my career. One day, while perusing books in Barnes and Noble, I picked up an interesting-looking one and flipped through it. I read the jacket to see who the author was, and I recognized the name. Jonah L. was the name of someone I went to high school with and the description of him sounded like it could be person I knew. I didn’t buy the book then, but I did get on Facebook later that day to look up Jonah L. Sure enough, he had a link to his book’s website on his profile. I e-mailed him a “hello” and asked him how the last twenty years of his life had been. He immediately wrote back to catch me up.

Jonah was a few years older than I was, but we’d been in a drama class together my freshman year. He considered himself to be a “dork” back then and wrote that he prides himself on remaining “dorkalicious” to this day. I’d have called him a “hipster” who was ahead of his time. I remember his sharp, quick wit and his love for The Cure. Thankfully, it turned out he wasn’t aware of the “I Hate Michelle Dean” club. He only remembered the “Jonah L. Is A Big Raving Queer” club. I reminded him that in our high school, anyone who wore all black and sported a monocle was asking for it. We bonded over our high school anguish and agreed high school leaves scars, if you were doing it right. As it turned out, we’d had somewhat similar paths since then.

He’d earned a BA in creative writing, an MA in German Lit, and had spent a year traveling through Russia, Germany, and the Ukraine. I asked him how he liked Europe and he wrote, “Travelling was a lot of fun. For a lot of reasons, most notably, I think, because I learned I wasn’t entirely loathsome to women. Well, to Russian women. Well, to one Russian woman, at least.” Jonah had gone bald since high school, wore trendy black-rimmed glasses, and jokingly referred to himself as a “sasquatch” because of his overabundance of body hair. I liked his edgy-nerdy persona, personally, but I empathized with his self-esteem issues.

Jonah, too, believed that “internal conflict was good for a person.” If there isn’t any, we’re complacent, and if we’re complacent, we might as well be dead. I could tell Jonah had truly contemplated this by a story he shared.

“My best friend of two decades’ standing and I used to talk a lot about how to maintain oneself. He got his grad degree in Poetry, making him at least as unsalable as I. We came up with the dichotomy of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Hear me out, it does sorta make sense. Ezra Pound’s entire life was poetry, poetry, poetry. That was it. He had nothing else. And then he went bonkers, and then decided that words weren’t enough to express what was in his soul, and then he became a Fascist, and then he died a raving lunatic. Now, T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, had his little job in a bank, and then went to work for Faber and Faber Publishing, and, essentially, wrote his poetry on the side, and while he had his ups and downs, pretty much died at peace with himself. Moral of the story is, you need to maintain a piece of yourself that is uniquely, incorruptibly yours to maintain soul and sanity.”

I concurred that leaving academics was about finding my soul and leaving those corporate jobs was about preserving my soul. But, I felt Jonah was expressing something else with that story—he’d come to terms with giving up his dream to be a famous writer.

After grad school, he wrote ad copy for a couple of different ad agencies in Milwaukee then moved back to Chicago, where he was born, and started working in nonprofit communications. We communed over our mutual disgust for Corporate America. He’d married a Greek woman and had two kids, Anna (who was Jax’s age) and Sam who was one and a half. I asked him about being a dad and he wrote, “Never thought of myself as the dad type, but my god, I’ve had so much fun with those little creatures. I love being a dad.” I could tell he meant it.

A few days later, I ordered his novel on Amazon. It was beautifully written, with grit and humor. I laughed out loud several times. It gave me a real glimpse of his mind, what was important to him, and how he’d come to look at the world. His characters were vibrant and likeable. His story-telling was gripping. I finished it in a night told him he had a great mind. I’d dog-eared many pages with reactions to his stories, which he seemed to genuinely appreciate. I asked him if he was writing anything at the moment. He was—a novel about Leo Strauss, someone he admired deeply. He believed Strauss’ life was such an amazing story and he was genuinely surprised no one had done a novel or movie about him. He wanted to “tackle him through the prism of fiction.”

I wondered if Jonah knew what an interesting person he’d become. I couldn’t help telling him so. Jonah response was, “You know, about getting better with age. I think we all do, or we all should. One of the things that appeals to me about Judaism—in spite of the fact that I think it’s as much a crock as any other religion out there—is the idea of everything being a process. There is no destination. Education never stops; we just keep learning all our lives, for the sake of it. Not because we necessarily want to DO anything practical, but because it’s worth doing in and of itself.

“But that ethos, I think, carries beyond education. It’s a process of making ourselves more self-aware, more interested… for lack of a better word, cooler… our entire lives. I’d hate to think I got to the point where I was happy being who I was, you know? We need to keep evolving so long as there’s breath in our bodies. I’d like to think it’s just a continual process of change, betterment across boards—intellectually, spiritually, physically, morally, socially. I can dig that. I’m a lot happier with who I am now than I was in high school, and I’m kind of eager to see who I’ll turn into, just as I’m totally curious as to how my kids will turn out.

“Bob Dylan said it a couple of times: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying,’ and then again, later on, in an interview: ‘An artist has to be careful never to actually get to that place where he thinks he is.’ I can relate to that, you know?”

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