Memoir: Ian's Influence

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

I found my old gray I Ching this morning while I was packing up my books. I first fell in love with that book, not as literature, but as a physical object, when I was thirteen, and saw it on my brother Ian‘s bookshelf. My mother and stepfather had moved into a new house while we were away at summer camp—it was a huge, white-brick, white-pillared mansion, with an indoor squash court and a swimming pool overlooking the Long Island Sound (it would remain empty of furniture for the two years we lived there, my stepfather clearly having it in his mind that he would be bolting any minute now)—and when Ian and I arrived there in late August, we had both changed.

Being fifteen, he had grown several inches, and morphed from an unhappy little boy into a gentle young man. I had resigned myself to being me (i.e., not a laugh riot and not like the other kids), and had resolved to henceforth stop trying to fit in. I hung an American flag upside down on my wall, and Ian made a shelf for his I Ching and a few books of poetry. Suddenly, we were friends.

I always knew that I looked up to Ian, but I didn’t realize how much I was influenced by him until today. Apart from the I Ching, I also found, today, the copy of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal that Ian gave me for my eleventh birthday, in 1967, exactly a year after our father died. I remember being astonished by that gift, and with the other one that came along with it: a small bouquet of dried, colorless flowers. The book and the dried flowers were the first presents I’d ever received that were not age appropriate. I got the message immediately, though I didn’t know how to act on it. Ian’s gift to me said, Wake up. But wake up to what?

A year later, Ian dragged me into the living room the moment I came home from school one day—Miss Baron’s sixth-grade class—and played me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before he put it on the record player, though, he held the black disc between his hands and showed me how the vinyl they’d used to make it was different from before: it bent, rather than broke.

The next year, in 1969 (this is the year before we became friends), in yet another house, Ian played Traffic’s song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” over and over again for days from behind his bedroom door. The music, slightly dissonant and sad and otherwordly, was like a drug wafting out from under the door and through the house: I breathed it in. The particular perfume of that song, that time, my brother, did it. I got it: The journey was not going to be an outward one; we were going inward.

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