Johnny America


But What Are You So Afraid Of?


The house in which I spend the sec­ond half of the grow­ing up por­tion of my life is on­ly two blocks from my high school, but all the same, once I have my driver’s li­cense and my white 1982 Toy­ota Corol­la, I dri­ve to school every morn­ing. To at­tribute this com­pul­sion to lazi­ness is to over­look a com­plex­i­ty in the be­hav­ior. For in­stance, I park, every morn­ing, in the same spot, which is the sec­ond-fur­thest spot in the en­tire park­ing lot from the en­trance to the school; the on­ly spot fur­ther from the en­trance is to its im­me­di­ate left. The con­se­quences, though large­ly un­de­fined, of not park­ing in my spot, im­pose them­selves up­on me omi­nous­ly and in­de­ter­mi­nate­ly and so, to make sure that I nev­er have to face them, I leave thir­ty, forty-five min­utes be­fore school starts. This, now, is my se­nior year in high school: for thir­ty or forty-five min­utes I stand in the class­room in which my first pe­ri­od class con­venes look­ing out the win­dow at the park­ing lot, wait­ing for the ar­rival of who I can­not, from this per­spec­tive, prop­er­ly re­fer to as my girl­friend, but who was the clos­est thing I had dur­ing that era of my life to a girl­friend. I loved her; or, more to the point, I was in love with her. And from time to time she al­lowed me to ejac­u­late in my pants while I dry-humped her. I can­not here di­vulge her name ex­cept to say that her first name be­gan with the let­ter ‘A’ and her last name was a word that, in an­oth­er con­text, would re­fer to, or de­scribe, a part of a tree. She looked like a boy. She was a goalie on the soc­cer team and — thanks, I like to think, to the hours I spent play­ing one-on-one with her dur­ing the off-sea­son, hop­ing for a sweaty dry hump af­ter­wards — the star of the bas­ket­ball team. She comes late to school, in her sil­ver Toy­ota Corol­la. By the time I am watch­ing out the win­dow for her, I am no longer dri­ving my white Toy­ota Corol­la, but rather a metal­lic blue Nis­san Stan­za Wag­on and, lat­er that year, a Ford Tem­po of a sim­i­lar hue. What I want, des­per­ate­ly, is for her to park her car next to mine. She can’t miss it, right there, where it al­ways is, just a cou­ple of car lengths from the park­ing lot entrance.

My emo­tion­al con­di­tion, for the mo­ment, when she fi­nal­ly ar­rives, al­ways be­tween the first bell and the late bell, is de­ter­mined by where she parks: elat­ed if she parks close to my car — on an al­most drug-like high if she parks near enough to my car that we’ll talk if we leave school at the same time (I’ll do my best, then, to make sure we do) — and in­creas­ing­ly dev­as­tat­ed de­pend­ing on how far away she parks. The spot just to the left of my car, the fur­thest from the school en­trance, al­most al­ways re­mains open, but she would nev­er park there. She knows too well how much it would mean to me. In ei­ther case, my emo­tion­al con­di­tion is pre­car­i­ous: she would nev­er sit next to me dur­ing the class we have to­geth­er first pe­ri­od, but oc­ca­sion­al­ly she looks at me when she ar­rives, and from time to time she talks to me af­ter class, though briefly. Such con­ver­sa­tions are dou­ble-edged swords: they bring me high and then, be­cause the con­ver­sa­tions are al­ways brief, and be­cause she nev­er throws her arms around me or tells me she loves me dur­ing them, are nev­er sat­is­fy­ing. So I crash.

It is 1994.

It is 2005. In the morn­ing I peer out the win­dow of my loft in mid-city Los An­ge­les to make sure that no­body has stolen my car dur­ing the night. From time to time I ex­change cor­dial emails with the girl whose first name starts with the let­ter ‘A’ and whose last name is a word that, in an­oth­er con­text, would re­fer to or de­scribe a part of a tree. Last sum­mer she got married.

To a woman.

Hei­deg­ger makes an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween fear and what, in var­i­ous mo­ments, has been trans­lat­ed as anx­i­ety, angst, or dread; what, in any event, is the es­sen­tial con­sti­tu­tive or re­veal­ing mo­ment of Da­sein, a cer­tain phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal be­ing in the world. Fear, Hei­deg­ger tells us, is al­ways of some­thing — of some­thing that is in the world. It is ground­ed or found­ed in threat, or in be­ing threat­ened by some­thing, and the found­ing or ground­ing move­ment of that ex­pe­ri­ence — the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing threat­ened by some­thing — is in the swift ap­proach, ex­pe­ri­enced as a near­ness that could al­most be de­scribed as an on-hand­ed­ness — in oth­er words, “it is on hand” — of some­thing that has not yet arrived.

Fear, in this fash­ion, or the ex­pe­ri­ence of the threat from which fear is de­rived, lit­er­al­ly promis­es the pres­ence of a fu­ture, seals it in­to the ex­pe­ri­ence it­self of the present, when that ex­pe­ri­ence is one of fear.

But fear is al­so il­lu­so­ry, or sec­ondary, a de­riv­a­tive phe­nom­e­non of the foun­da­tion­al phe­nom­e­non of angst, anx­i­ety, or dread which, first of all, is dis­tin­guished from fear in that it is dread not of any­thing out there in the world. Dread, or anx­i­ety, the ex­pe­ri­ence, ac­cord­ing to Hei­deg­ger, that re­veals the na­ture of be­ing as it­self, or in it­self, a be­ing-in-the-world that is at once no be­ing oth­er than a be­ing-in-the world, is of noth­ing, and in a sense this is pre­cise­ly what con­sti­tutes it as it­self. What we are dis­cov­er­ing, per­haps, ac­cord­ing to Hei­deg­ger, in that mo­ment of pro­found anx­i­ety or dread, is not sim­ply our own be­ing as such as a be­ing that is in the world, a be­ing-in-the-world, but al­so, in pre­cise­ly that same mo­ment, the ab­solute vac­u­um of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a be­ing that is nev­er any­thing oth­er than a be­ing-in-the-world not be­ing in the world. Dread man­i­fests as a rev­e­la­tion of the fact that our be­ing-in-the-world is not not in the world, and yet this rev­e­la­tion is al­so the con­sti­tut­ing of the very pos­si­bil­i­ty, which is it­self, from the stand­point of be­ing, a self-im­pos­si­bil­i­ty, of be­ing-in-the-world not be­ing in the world. Dread, which is the first mo­ment of re­veal­ing of our be­ing-in-the-world, of its re­veal­ing not to it­self but to lan­guage, and, there­fore, thought, is some­thing per­haps like the mo­ment of dis­cov­er­ing that there is no be­ing here out­side of be­ing-in-the-world, a world which ex­ists, some­how, at the same time, in­dif­fer­ent to our be­ing in it, and will ex­ist when we are no longer in it, al­ready ex­ists while we are no longer in it.


A woman with whom I am cur­rent­ly ro­man­ti­cal­ly in­volved re­marks to me that she has re­cent­ly read that sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered a new galaxy.

“You mean a new plan­et,” I say to her, hav­ing read that very day that sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that the new plan­et they re­cent­ly dis­cov­ered — a plan­et which in­deed may not be a plan­et, for the mat­ter is still up for dis­cus­sion — has its own moon. Al­though, if the plan­et is not a plan­et, then the moon is not a moon, but leav­ing that aside…

“Not that,” she tells me.

She’s al­ways a step ahead of me.

“They dis­cov­ered that a long time ago. This was just last week.”

“A whole new galaxy?”

“They took a pic­ture of it,” she tells me. “But this is what I don’t un­der­stand. They took a pic­ture of it, ap­par­ent­ly, eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago.”

We are at the beach in Go­le­ta, Cal­i­for­nia. It is day­time, or night­time; I can’t re­mem­ber which it is. I think it is night. I think we have just eat­en a pizza.

“I don’t un­der­stand,” she says to me. “This just doesn’t make sense to me. How can you take a pic­ture of some­thing eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago?”

I ei­ther have of have not yet thrown the piz­za box in the garbage, but I re­mem­ber with great clar­i­ty that, when I do — whether I have or have not al­ready — I find that it does not fit in­to the open­ing of the garbage can, and the woman with whom I am cur­rent­ly ro­man­ti­cal­ly in­volved calls over to me to fold it in half.

And I do.

And it works.

Hav­ing not yet or al­ready done that, I ex­plain to her:

“Light takes a long time to get places. Es­pe­cial­ly from very far away.”

“But eight hun­dred mil­lion years? I know, but I still just don’t un­der­stand that.”

I do not, in this mo­ment, have an ex­pe­ri­ence of Hei­deg­ger­ian dread or angst or anx­i­ety, but I do, I think, have a mo­ment of in­sight in­to some­thing about where it orig­i­nates. If you can take a pic­ture, a pho­to­graph, of eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago, right now, then how can our lives, our ex­is­tence per se, or be­ing-in-the-world, ex­ist as a phe­nom­e­non ab­solute­ly brack­et­ed in time, or by time? It doesn’t make sense, but, I sup­pose, that’s pre­cise­ly the point. If you can take a pho­to­graph of eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago, then to some ex­tent, in­so­far as a pho­to­graph freezes a mo­ment of pres­ence, eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago is present right now, here, and if eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago is present then it on­ly fol­lows that eight hun­dred mil­lion years from now is present, as well. Right now. Eight hun­dred mil­lion years ago, when we did not ex­ist, when there was not be­ing-in-the-world, as it were, in­stead of not not, and eight hun­dred mil­lion years from now, when we will not ex­ist, in pre­cise­ly the same sense, ex­ist — are present — right now, when we do ex­ist. Which is to say, our not be­ing-in-the-world, or be­ing be­ing-in-the-world, is present in our not not be­ing-in-the-world, which is still noth­ing oth­er than a being-in-the-world.

The mo­ment of anx­i­ety is what re­veals our be­ing-in-the-world to us as a not not be­ing-in-the-world and, there­fore, in the sense that that be­ing-in-the-world, or not not be­ing-in-the-world, is a rev­e­la­tion to it­self of it­self, con­sti­tutes it. It is a draw­ing away that clos­es in on us, which wraps it­self around us, quite lit­er­al­ly, and suf­fo­cates us: takes our breath away, Hei­deg­ger says. We can­not be ex­pect­ed to live like that. We are chil­dren. I am a child. Dur­ing my high school years, in the house in which I spend the sec­ond half of the por­tion of my life that can prop­er­ly be de­scribed as grow­ing up, on­ly two long blocks from the high school it­self, I am a child. I can­not be ex­pect­ed to live like that. Even now, I can­not be ex­pect­ed to live like that, oc­cu­py­ing the ab­sence at the cen­ter of my pres­ence. No­body can. That is why, even ac­cord­ing to Hei­deg­ger him­self, that mo­ment of clar­i­ty — dread or anx­i­ety — in which our be­ing-in-the-world is, or is not not, by re­veal­ing it­self as be­ing-in-the-world — al­ways lasts on­ly a mo­ment, one cold and pro­found­ly mean­ing­less mo­ment, be­fore we fall back once again in­to an il­lu­so­ry ex­is­tence of tem­po­ral­i­ty and re­la­tion. Dread of noth­ing, which is it­self an ex­pe­ri­ence of noth­ing, which is it­self the noth­ing it­self, must be not so much re­placed as man­i­fest­ed by fear: fear which is not sim­ply of some­thing in a world which is some­thing oth­er than our be­ing in it, but al­so fear which is of that which is im­pend­ing but has not yet ar­rived, which there­fore founds the very pres­ence of the fu­ture as some­thing oth­er than the present, rather than as some­thing which is the same as the present — its own ab­sence from it­self. Fear puts us back in time. It as­sures us that our not be­ing-in-the-world, the end of us, has not yet come, by con­sti­tut­ing a fu­ture which is not the present. It saves us from the al­ready-present of our own oblivion.

Be­fore I am old enough to dri­ve, there is the ques­tion of the red, plas­tic clock on the shelf in the kitchen. At my sub­ur­ban Mid­west­ern high school, we are al­lowed to go home for lunch. They are not afraid that we will com­mit crim­i­nal acts dur­ing that time; or they don’t care if we do. They are prepar­ing us to per­pet­u­ate the sub­ur­ban up­per mid­dle class by af­ford­ing us our brack­et­ed mo­ment of free­dom, in­su­la­tion from the gaze of au­thor­i­ty, some­thing the stu­dents at the in­ner city schools do not have. Lunch lasts, I be­lieve, from about 11:50 in the morn­ing un­til, as I re­call, 12:46 in the af­ter­noon, when the fifth of our sev­en pe­ri­ods of class be­gins. I walk home for lunch where, for a mo­ment, I have been saved, and I am free; where I am home. Gen­er­al­ly, I am home by noon, for, as I have said, I live on­ly two long blocks from the high school cam­pus. I eat tor­tillas with cheese melt­ed on them, left over mosta­ci­ol­li, and there­in lies a sto­ry about my dog vom­it­ing which I will not tell here. I am ter­ri­fied of ar­riv­ing late to school. Ter­ror, Hei­deg­ger says, is man­i­fest­ed in the sud­den en­counter with that of which we are afraid but which is ut­ter­ly un­fa­mil­iar. But here’s the thing. I do not sim­ply leave very ear­ly to give my­self more than enough time to get back to school on time. I leave, every day, at ex­act­ly 12:18:50 ac­cord­ing to the red plas­tic clock on the shelf in the kitchen. Or, rather, at first I de­cide that I should leave by twen­ty past, just to be sure. But if I should leave at twen­ty past, then I ought, re­al­ly, to leave at nine­teen past, in or­der to give my­self room for er­ror. Thus de­vel­ops the no­tion that I should leave by nine­teen past, which is to say, be­fore nine­teen past, but how to quan­ti­fy it? I set­tle, by way of a process that is not a process at all, at 12:18:50. It makes sense. The ten-sec­ond win­dow gives me a clear space of time be­tween not yet 12:19 and al­ready 12:19, and it is this space to which, fi­nal­ly, I have com­mit­ted my­self, the space be­tween not yet and already.

On this par­tic­u­lar day my moth­er, who is a teacher in an­oth­er school dis­trict, has the day off of work, ow­ing per­haps to a hol­i­day that has not ex­tend­ed it­self to my school dis­trict, or per­haps a doc­tor ap­point­ment. She is home when I come home from lunch, and my Aunt Sue, who lives up­stairs in our du­plex and is an artist and there­fore keeps her own hours, is down­stairs with us. At per­haps twelve or four­teen af­ter I be­gin to arrange my­self to get in­to po­si­tion to leave. At sev­en­teen af­ter, I am stand­ing with my back­pack on my shoul­der watch­ing the sec­ond hand trace its cir­cle on the face of the red plas­tic clock on the shelf in the kitchen.

My moth­er wants to know what I’m doing.

Sue, who knows, blows my cover.

“He’s sit­ting there watch­ing the clock,” she says. “He does it every day. He sits there watch­ing the clock and leaves at the ex­act same time every day.”

My moth­er pan­ics and be­comes fran­tic. Pan­ic, Hei­deg­ger says, is that which oc­curs in the mo­ment of the ar­rival of that which we have feared but for which — and per­haps this is pre­cise­ly why we have feared it — we are not pre­pared. Pan­ic. She lunges to­ward the clock, grabs it be­fore I can in­ter­vene, and runs to­ward the oth­er side of the house with it. I no longer know what time it is. I chase her. She’s hav­ing none of this. Be­fore I can reach her, but so I can see what she is do­ing, she spins the di­als on the back of the clock. The clock’s hands move, the minute hand and the hand that in­di­cates the hour, and the sec­ond hand stays still, moves slight­ly back­wards, re­sumes its po­si­tion and be­gins to tick again. There is noth­ing for me to do. I leave for school not know­ing what time it is, for sure, ac­cord­ing to the old sys­tem for de­ter­min­ing my time of de­par­ture, for that sys­tem has been oblit­er­at­ed — it de­pend­ed not on ac­cu­ra­cy but on con­sis­ten­cy, ref­er­ence of a sin­gle clock to it­self — but know­ing that what­ev­er time it is, or, I should say, what­ev­er time it was when I left, it def­i­nite­ly was not 12:18:50.

Of course, noth­ing hap­pens to me that af­ter­noon, and my moth­er thinks that pre­cise­ly this ex­pe­ri­ence will cure me of my compulsion.

What she does not con­sid­er is that per­haps this ex­pe­ri­ence is pre­cise­ly what I am afraid of.

What about the girl whose first name be­gins with the let­ter ‘A’ and whose last name is a word that could, in an­oth­er con­text, re­fer to or de­scribe a part of a tree? She’s a les­bian, as it turns out! It re­al­ly comes as no sur­prise; even then, every­one knew it, and the on­ly boy she ever dat­ed in high school oth­er than me was plain­ly a ho­mo­sex­u­al. But was I afraid this would happen?

Per­haps, if I re­al­ly loved her, this would be what I feared the most.

But, on the oth­er hand, if I did not so much love her as fear that she did not love me be­cause of me, be­cause of some fail­ure or de­fi­cien­cy on my part, this is the best I could have hoped for. Per­haps my re­fusal to ac­cept what plen­ty of oth­er peo­ple were telling me re­flect­ed a re­luc­tance to be­lieve in what I most want­ed to be true un­til the ev­i­dence was in­du­bitable. In any event, by the time I am up­dat­ed re­gard­ing her sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion it is of no more than anec­do­tal rel­e­vance to me. She is a dis­tant, idio­syn­crat­ic mem­o­ry, a name — be­gin­ning with the let­ter ‘A’ and end­ing with a word that could, in an­oth­er con­text, re­fer to or de­scribe a part of a tree — that I as­so­ciate, or that as­so­ciates me, with the rather pre­dictable psy­chol­o­gy of a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment of my ex­is­tence that has long since passed in­to its own oblivion.

Filed under Non-Fiction on November 1st, 2005

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