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How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)

When I was a teenager I read James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I fell in love with this story of a meek, middle-aged Connecticut man whose daydreams afford him temporary escape from a dreary shopping trip with his overbearing wife. Maybe it was because I was an incorrigible daydreamer too. Or maybe I read in his fantasies of being a fearless Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, or a brandy-swilling bomber pilot a sense of my own opportunities in life, at that point still wide open if you left my gender out of it. Unlike Walter Mitty, I could still learn anything, be anyone.

With time I found a calling, studied for a doctorate in medieval literature, published a book only a handful of people would read, and gained a longed-for professorship. But new desires arose. I discovered I want to write books for more than five readers, and that doing so is remarkably hard. I started to feel afraid of being trapped in one role for the rest of my life. That sense of endless possibility I once had was slipping away.

One day, when MasterClass sends its millionth paid ad into my Facebook feed, I decide this is the answer to the Walter Mitty lurking inside me. MasterClass seems to offer everything: from writing seminars with over a dozen famous authors to celebrity-driven inspiration to take my hobbies further. Clearly, all I was missing were the right teachers, filmed professionally and beamed into my living room. I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

* * *

It’s October 2019, and I begin with Malcolm Gladwell. The funny thing about these courses is that you have a relationship with the teachers already — or at least with their reputation. Gladwell has a host of detractors. He’s been reproached for oversimplification and vast generalization, for illogical arguments and a lack of critical thinking. A book reviewer once wondered why Gladwell didn’t “hold a tenured professorship at the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious.” But nobody questions Gladwell’s ability to write. He is the small-town Canadian boy who made it to the New Yorker on the strength of catchy ideas, brilliantly told. I have been reading his books, sometimes despite myself, for years.

Gladwell teaches his class in a cozy space that looks like a cross between a bar and an apartment. A chess set on a low table behind him suggests something intellectually challenging could happen, but no worries, strong drinks will be served. Ever the model pupil, I open a fresh notebook and write down every other sentence Malcolm says, intent on letting no insight or bon mot slip my attention. I spend so much of my life teaching that it feels like a treat to be a student again, waiting to be filled up with wisdom. It helps that Gladwell is wry and quietly charming, his self-effacing good humor belying a deep seriousness about the calling of writing. More importantly for me, he offers a lot of practical advice — nitty-gritty tips for conducting interviews, structuring articles, and building characters.

I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

Having so much concrete information about how he goes about his work makes me feel confident that I could do it too. Suddenly, this all seems possible. I will become a fantastic writer! I will publish features in the New Yorker and give entertaining talks to sold-out auditoriums! David Remnick will invite me to dinner and I’ll have everyone in stitches with my anecdotes! Pass the butter!

Most exhilarating for me is Gladwell’s approach to imperfection. “What you find interesting is not perfection,” he explains. An imperfect moment in an essay irritates readers just a little, like “red pepper,” but keeps them thinking and talking about it. Gladwell appears generous, providing his audience with surprises and space to draw their own connections. But he’s also happy to make promises he won’t keep, or to force an unwieldy argument together with writing. His way of working is wildly unlike my good-girl academic mindset, but it seems suited to getting things done. “The task of a successful writer,” he says while arguing for bad first drafts, “is to lower the bar.”

Of course, it is one thing for your writing buddy to tell you to embrace your imperfections and slam out a crappy draft, and another for Malcolm Gladwell to do it. Success creates its own truth. This is the MasterClass formula: once a person is famous enough they acquire a charismatic glow. Their counsel is prudent, their past decisions are justified, and their jokes are funnier, too.

* * *

Gladwell’s MasterClass leaves me energized. Writing seems more manageable now, simply a matter of the right tools and attitude. I decide to work on one of my weak areas. Due to a series of curious life choices, I trained to become a scholar and teacher but wound up spending much of my workday carrying out managerial tasks. MasterClass is ready to help me, however, with a course by Anna Wintour on “Creativity and Leadership.” There is a cheekiness to offering advice on how to deal with employees when a hit movie has been made about your notoriously demanding — if not outright callous — management style. Then again, maybe I could use a bit of that Wintour ruthlessness, or what might be called “decisiveness” if she were a man.

The course introduction confirms my suspicion that its appeal is as much about offering a glimpse of the woman behind the mysterious sunglasses as it is about learning how to deliver negative feedback. Sitting in a discreetly lavish apartment, and wearing a stunning green dress with bulky statement jewelry, Wintour describes her vertiginous rise to the top — from somewhere remarkably close to the top. She learned the ropes from her father, Charles Wintour, editor of the Evening Standard in London at the time. (She leaves out the part where he arranged her first job at Biba, a trendy fashion store.) Much of the course revolves around Wintour’s comfort with risky decisions, even if they are wrong. She deals with her mistakes by owning, acknowledging, then moving briskly past them. It sounds like excellent advice for people cushioned by money and an astounding network of connections. By the time Wintour says, “act like no one’s telling you ‘no,’” I want to ask her if anyone ever did.


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The most depressing thing about Wintour’s advice is that it is not wrong. “Own your decisions,” she says, “and own who you are, without apologizing.” It’s just that most people do have to apologize at some point in their lives. (If they are Canadian, like me, they will apologize to complete strangers simply for disturbing the air in their general vicinity.) I want to see a visionary describe how they wrestled with mistakes that had real consequences. Wintour’s suggestion to give direct feedback does give me the courage to have a frank conversation with an employee, and we are both better off for it. But I wonder how her life lessons could possibly translate to someone else’s reality.

The name MasterClass also increasingly bothers me. I remember when I first saw the term (as the two-word “master class”) on a poster in graduate school. A musician friend explained that a visiting eminence would work with one of the students on stage, correcting and training them right in front of an audience. It sounded horrifying, but my friend said it was an honor to be chosen for this kind of specialized attention.

Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

Over the years, I began to see all kinds of things called master classes, not just intensive live workshops for people who already had a thorough grounding in their field but online introductions to topics like social media marketing and meditation. Why couldn’t people just take classes, I wondered, especially when they knew nothing about the topic? Were they worried about feeling like a child again, afraid of admitting their own ignorance? Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

* * *

It seems easy to turn into a success story when you start out young and privileged. I want to watch a self-starter, someone who had to figure out how to practice their craft on their own. Enter Werner Herzog, who materializes on a dark, empty film set, wearing a green Bavarian-style jacket with elbow patches. Herzog begins with his childhood: the bombing of Munich, his escape with his mother to the mountains, living with no running water and only occasional electricity. “I did not see films until I was eleven,” he says, “in fact, I was not even aware that cinema even existed until I was eleven.” I know there is some legend-polishing here, especially when he mentions the bombing again in the second video, but it’s a more appealing myth than the well-connected London girl who becomes editor of Vogue in her thirties.

Herzog has the air of a professor who has cultivated his eccentric persona for so long that he can now let it do most of the work. His voice alone, at once hypnotic and foreboding, brings me back to evenings in grad school when my German boyfriend did his best to introduce me to the highlights of the Herzog film corpus. Lessons of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man — we watched these masterpieces on his laptop in bed. I usually fell asleep after about 20 minutes, occasionally waking up just enough to be confused by a burning oil field or a screaming Klaus Kinski. Still, that boyfriend became my husband, so I have a soft spot for old Werner. I don’t need him to make sense or teach me anything practical. I’m not going to make a movie. I’m just hoping to absorb some of the unflinching resolve of a man who once ate his own shoe after losing a bet.

Although the course is aimed at budding filmmakers, much of Herzog’s advice applies to making art in general. It helps that he speaks in enigmatic aphorisms: “you have to know, you have to know, that you are the one who can move a ship over a mountain.” It also helps that he cares very little about the standard ways of doing things or about the rules of a particular medium. Herzog’s advice is to search for inspiration in a wide range of music and books, to gather nuggets that can be reshaped into a snippet of dialogue or an unusual camera angle. I love this, probably because it confirms so many of my own beliefs. “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!” he intones, and laments all the prestigious film-school students he meets who do not read and are doomed, as he puts it, to be “mediocre at very best.” Could I make my own students watch this? Could I show them Herzog reading the opening of the Poetic Edda out loud, explaining how its laconic description of the creation of the world and the birth of the gods helps him edit his scenes?

There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them.

My semester is shifting from intense to overwhelming, so I watch much of the course while folding laundry or cutting vegetables for dinner, chuckling at reliably absurd Herzogisms. My notebook and pen are always close by, but my notes wind up as cryptic as his movies. What is the iguana? The Swiss chocolate? Why have I written down “20 milking cows”? Something penetrates my distraction, though: the intensity of Herzog’s belief in his own films, and by extension, in the power of great art. Although I teach literature for a living, I rarely hear my fellow scholars talk about why creative work matters. And seldom does anyone venture a judgement about the quality of a book or a poem. It seems like it would be overstepping our boundaries to call something “excellent,” or “middling,” or even “bad.” We are deft at dissecting novels and plays, pinning down their references and ideologies and unresolvable tensions, but not particularly good at putting things together. I realize at this point how ill-suited years in the academy have made me for making art.

My husband walks into the room at one point and watches a few minutes with me. “With Herzog you get the feeling that he absolutely does not censor himself,” he says quietly, “No self-doubt. He totally trusts his own judgement.” Mired as I am in endless discussions with my inner critic, I find something beautiful about Herzog’s assurance in the brilliance of his own work — even when it is, let’s be honest, kind of awful. A deep belief in my writing would give me the freedom both to make a mess on the page and to edit it ruthlessly. Herzog seems to be speaking directly to me when he says that “there’s something much bigger than your own quest for perfection: your own quest for inner truth.”

* * *

Three months in, the MasterClasses are beginning to frustrate me. There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them. Am I ever going to be the editor of a fashion magazine? No. Am I ever going to direct a movie in Antarctica? Actually, come to think of it, even that’s more likely than the fashion magazine. I want something within reach, I want a celebrity to teach me something I can actually try to do. I have spent untold hours watching Gordon Ramsay tell people what they’re doing wrong in the kitchen — now it’s time for him to show me how to do it right.

In order to do Gordon’s cooking class full justice, I prepare a full dinner spread and bring it to the couch on a tray. I have baked frozen miniature spring rolls and jalapeno poppers in my oven, which at this point has had a broken thermometer for about four months. For a touch of class and nutrition, I also have fresh radishes. And a cold beer. It is some sight.

The class is set in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, which is spacious, sunlit, all marble and polished steel, and filled with jars of fresh herbs. Through the window we catch a glimpse of a manicured lawn, a backyard pool, and behind it a gently rolling Cornish hill. This kitchen is possibly the most pornographic thing I have ever seen. I try not to think about my own kitchen, which my husband and I outfitted in a hurry when we moved into our bare apartment, as you have to in Germany. The cabinets were the cheapest available from Ikea, and we bought them second hand. We got our fridge from someone who had used it to store raw meat for his dog. All of it began falling apart immediately.

Ramsay is annoying at first. He repeats himself a lot. Everything is “unbelievable.” At one point he demonstrates how to choose good produce, picking up flawless baby vegetables from a tray in front of him and showing them to the camera. (“Unbelievable!”) I think about how I could not buy those vegetables even if I had the time to seek them out in my city. But as I let the videos roll on, I start to find him charming. I have watched Ramsay play a dour taskmaster in a series of television shows by now, but here he has the enthusiasm of a labrador retriever. He explains how to lovingly brush carrots with toothbrushes instead of peeling them (confession: I will never do this), and describes herbs as being like “a lady putting perfume on.” Then he demonstrates how to sharpen knives and I’m off to the races.

I have a decent set of knives — a remnant from my childless twenties, when I did footloose things like take the free knife-skills classes offered at Williams-Sonoma. The day after beginning Gordon’s course, I go on a hunt for my knife sharpener, which finally appears behind an entire regiment of mismatched tupperware. I spend a meditative afternoon sharpening my knives, testing each one by slicing it through a piece of paper I hold up in the air. At one point my son and husband walk into the kitchen, see me with all the knives, and quietly slink out again. I feel powerful. My knives are sharp. I can cut things again. I resolve to use my honing steel every time I cook, with the exact up-and-down movement Gordon taught me. It gives me the feeling of being a kitchen warrior.

I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course.

Gordon’s is the one course I don’t watch in order. Instead, I pick the recipes I think I can manage given the state of my oven. I decide to attempt the poached eggs and mushrooms on brioche. To my surprise, my local discount supermarket carries brioche buns, most of which my delighted son eats before we make it to breakfast. I get up on Sunday morning, make myself a pot of coffee, review the recipe, and cook alone for an hour. The result is not perfect. I oversalt the mushroom-and-bacon mixture. My eggs come out a bit harder than I would’ve liked. It has been so long since I have poached an egg that I’ve forgotten how to do it.

But the time spent in the kitchen, learning some new techniques and remembering others, brings me back to the early days of my relationship to my husband. There was a time in our lives when we would spend an entire weekend day trying out a new recipe, or experimented with poaching eggs three different ways to see which method was best. Now we put eggs in water with a tiny mechanical device that plays “Killing Me Softly” to let us know they are soft-boiled. You could say our standards have fallen. But on this particular day, we eat so much brioche with protein on it that we are unable to move for hours. I’m not sure what makes me feel younger, trying out a new recipe or spending an entire day doing nothing afterwards.

Emboldened, I take on experiment number two: lobster ravioli. Fresh lobster would be impossible to get, but I look up a vegetarian filling with spinach, ricotta, and pine nuts. Nor can I find the correct Italian flour, so I settle for the most promising alternative. But life intervenes, and by the time I have a few hours to make fresh pasta, most of the eggs have disappeared from the fridge. I decide to make a smaller batch, with the wrong flour, just one egg, and a bit of oil and water — after all, I think, surely an Italian nonna could make do without the ideal number of eggs? The dough turns out tough, and my wrist hurts trying to soften it, which seems far from the sensuous experience Gordon is having as he expertly kneads his pasta dough in the video.

My son comes to the kitchen to see what I am doing, and I convince him to join me. He tries to knead the pasta with his little hands, helps me roll out the dough and run it through the pasta machine. Sometimes he loses interest in the work but likes staying close to me, and I find it comforting to feel this small, curious creature by my side. At one point he insists on making a dough of his own out of flour and water, which I am to fry for him. After three hours of labor, we manage to produce a grand total of ten ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta; in all the excitement I forgot to add the pine nuts. We supplement our small dinner with my son’s fry bread, cut in half and smeared with cream cheese. Making and shaping the dough has been so pleasurable that we don’t mind that we got almost every part of the recipe wrong and had very little to show for our efforts. In the weeks that come, my son and I make pasta again, screwing it up even more thoroughly, and having even more fun.

* * *

The idyll does not last long. My life is increasingly taken over by work. In January, I am part of a grant renewal application that involves a two-day inspection by a crew of visiting scholars, a process in which millions of Euros of funding are at stake. I remember that I am, in fact, expected to demonstrate mastery at my job. In my morning shower and before I fall asleep at night, I practice answers to potential questions, working out what impressive German abstract nouns I need to survive this experience. I try to cultivate an air of confidence, but worry it might be coming out more Herzog than Wintour. But the questions we get are not the ones I practiced, and by the end of the ordeal my project is booted out. I travel to my hometown to teach for a few months, and the hassle of settling in helps me put the failure out of mind. Then, a few weeks later, I learn that someone I trusted has spread a damaging lie about me. My stomach drops. I feel rage. Then I feel as though I have left my body altogether. A day later, my lower back spasms. I wind up immobile in bed.

I had planned to learn tennis with Serena Williams or do barre with Misty Copeland, but here I am in a rented house in a rented bed, moaning in pain if I turn as much as an inch. Propped up against pillows that do little more than fix my body in the least excruciating position, I have little patience for books or even television. Then MasterClass sends me one of its emails, and I can barely believe my eyes: it’s RuPaul.

I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course. This particular class is only nominally about drag: it claims to be about “Self-Expression and Authenticity.” This is convenient, because covered with heating pads and smeared with a variety of pungent salves, I’m not in much of a position to try and look fabulous. Still, I would watch RuPaul explain the finer points of installing drywall, so I click the button to join.

By this point, I have realized that there are two kinds of teachers. Some focus on transmitting their skills. They seem to be saying to the student: “this is how to do what I do.” Others offer themselves as models to be imitated: “this is how I became who I am.” Many MasterClass instructors pretend they are selling the former while in fact delivering the latter. RuPaul doesn’t even pretend. Dressed in a carmine suit and seated against a black-and-neon set reminiscent of Studio 54, RuPaul talks about some of the most basic challenges of growing up in the world. He describes the course of his career, the role artistic inspirations played in his life, the challenges of addiction, criticism, and just plain being ignored. I take no notes — I physically can’t. But I am moved by RuPaul’s vulnerability, a refreshing change of pace after the unrelenting cockiness of the other teachers. Instead of presenting himself as magnificent from the get-go, brave and destined for greatness, he comes across as a human being who had been broken but helped along his way by kind mentors, friends, and a lot of therapy.

Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.

The other MasterClass teachers seemed impervious to criticism, able to brush it off with a knowing smile. But what do you do when you are not born that way, or if you have been brought up to value the opinions of others, sometimes to a fault? In one episode, RuPaul describes the unquenchable hunger of bullies to feed their fragile egos: “The only time they feel visible is when they create pain.” I reflect on how attached I still am to what people think of me, and how hard this makes it to distance myself from the hurt they cause even when I know they act out of their own self-loathing. RuPaul’s answer is to focus on finding what he calls “your natural frequency, your natural energy source.” Incapacitated, I can muster little of my usual cynicism about talk of “energies.” Besides, I like what he seems to be getting at. Maybe the secret to freedom is not to emulate the bravado of a few wildly successful people, but to tap into what feels true. According to RuPaul, doing so will draw other people with a similar energy to yours, but, “like a garden, it takes managing. You have to cultivate it.” Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.

I binge-watch RuPaul’s MasterClass late into the night. I am only half-focussing when a story breaks through my daze. RuPaul recalls his parents divorcing when he was seven. His father had custody on the weekends, and every weekend, little RuPaul would sit on the front porch waiting for his father to pick him up. His father never came. RuPaul looks straight into the camera and speaks softly now, to the child he somewhere still is: “Baby, that had nothing to do with you.” I think of my father, who left my life eight years ago, who is now just an hour’s drive away, and who I know I will not see. I think about the grandson he has never met. I am fuzzy on the details, but this may be when I begin weeping like a baby. Ru breaks down too as he describes his own journey to sobriety. And there we are, two people separated by a screen, crying together in the dark.

* * *

Half a year after starting my MasterClass adventure, I am a different person from the eager pupil who scribbled down every pearl of wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell’s lips. I am disappointed in other people and — in a distant way I cannot quite place — also in myself. I wish I were stronger, or easier to transform. My back still hurts. And if that were not enough, I have returned home to voluntary quarantine. Now, instead of a fun distraction from everyday life, the computer is my only point of contact with the rest of the world. I cannot bear to see more people talking on the screen, but there are not too many other places to go.

As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening. The instructor, Ron Finley, is a fashion designer turned urban-gardening advocate. MasterClass pitches him as a “gangsta gardener,” and he offers fresh, zen koan-like takes along the lines of “Air is gangsta as fuck” and “When Bambi dies, or some shit… no one buries it.” At first, I ignore the ads. I have no green thumb. My rap sheet includes a long list of potted herbs, houseplants, and even cacti that I have, by some amazing level of neglect, managed to dry to death. In the past 20 years I have moved through a variety of dorm rooms, house-sits, and rental apartments in three countries. How could I grow something when I have barely put down roots myself?

As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening.

The ads keep coming. One night, I have a dream about planting a garden. Then I get flashes of another version of myself: a teenager tending to the front and back yards of my family home. I had the boring chores of raking leaves and mowing the lawn, but I also grew flowers and pulled weeds and cared for a bed of strawberries. I remember now how I used to pore over seed and bulb catalogues, calculating the amount of sun each part of our yard received, imagining how I could replace our lawn with a glorious cacophony of color, if only my parents would fund the project. I never did manage to plant the garden I dreamt of. One bad spring my mother spread grass seeds all over my flower bed, and in my anger I gave up gardening altogether.

I start the course.

Finley is charismatic and funny and, wouldn’t you know it, down-to-earth. He’s not precious about gardening, a point he makes by showing how to turn a wooden dresser drawer into a makeshift planter. The course itself is not so much a master class as a basic introduction to keeping a plant alive. Finley stands behind his big wooden table and rubs different kinds of soil between his hands to show how to recognize the good, loamy kind that plants will flourish in. He gently eases seedlings out of their pots and pats them into the ground, pokes holes with his finger, and pops in sugar snap peas. Given that I haven’t touched a bag of soil in over two decades, this is what I need.

Between little jokes like “size does matter… in a garden,” Finley slips in an entire philosophy of being in the world. He describes building a relationship to plants as a way of connecting to one’s body, one’s environment, to life itself. Learning to care for plants, he says, is a way to learn to care for yourself. As he shows how to loosen the roots of a nursery plant or divide a sprouted sweet potato, Finley calls attention to the creative force deep inside all living things. “Plants want to grow, they wanna live, they wanna thrive,” he says, and I’m enchanted by the potential of survival he sees in a part of life I had wholly overlooked. I can’t remember looking at a plant and not seeing a future reproach.

In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own.

Watching these videos makes me want to nurture something. I run to my kitchen and pick up a pot of fragile supermarket parsley. I pick off the dry leaves, then water it. A few days later, it has perked up. I gain courage. That weekend, I go with my family to a garden center, where we don our masks and look through fogged glasses at a bewildering variety of soils. We spend hours on our balcony, mixing soil with fertilizer, planting a cut-off wine barrel full of kitchen herbs. In other pots, we give a tiny strawberry seedling and a tomato plant a chance next to some sprouted onions from the pantry that I have learned how to divide on YouTube. In the days that follow, the three of us are stupidly happy. We go out on the balcony, stare at the plants the way parents watch sleeping newborns, call each other to witness how quickly they have grown. Then, what begins as an experiment turns into a minor obsession. Flowers and a miniature olive tree join the herbs. We plant peas and potatoes, and my son and I try germinating seeds for herbs we could not find in the store. There is no special talent here: it is an ordinary hobby, but that does not dull its wonder.

As I observe our seedlings take root and flourish, it dawns on me how little power I have over their growth. I can provide them with a fertile space to be. I nurture, prune, and guide them as necessary. I can destroy them through neglect or poor decisions. But I do not make them what they are. In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own. It is what being pregnant felt like. It is also how some essays have come to me, in full bud and pressing to be written down.

More often than not, though, making things in the world feels like slamming dead clay on the ground, hoping that enough force might shape it into something beautiful. It occurs to me that what I have to learn in my little balcony garden has nothing to do with mastery. As I watch the cilantro and the basil and even the sad supermarket parsley take root, I feel that I am coming back to myself, to a part of me I had forgotten. Here it is at last: something new.

***

Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature.

Editor: Ben Huberman

Lloyd’s Mattress

Lloyd’s Mattress

Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Scott Korb | Longreads | May 2020 | 18 minutes (4,490 words)

1.

Our time is nearly up, but we’ve been living in our building on East 19th Street, in New York City, for more than a decade. It’s six stories, 24 units, built in 1920. A walkup. To arrive home we walk up to the fifth floor. The stone stairs grow smoother and more slippery as you descend, because more people over the years have trod the lower steps; that is, fewer people have had to climb so high as us. On the way down one has felt inclined, landing-by-landing, to step more gingerly, to grip the bannister — until these days, when we try not to touch anything or anyone outside the apartment, or when we wipe those things down before we do. Our lives will be this way until we leave, because, again, our time is nearly up.

The roof is off limits and armed with an air-raid siren that would make the dog howl.

The paint in the stairwell, a light, creamy green, bubbles and sometimes flakes off in chunks, sometimes peels, exposing paint and plaster from decades ago. For most of the time we’ve lived here, on the wall just above the landing as you ascend between the third and fourth floors, the paint was cracked and had folded itself to form the shape of a woman, nude, from beneath the breasts to just below the hips, somehow including a navel. I suspected I was the only one in the building to see her, and I was too embarrassed to alert my wife.

Not long after we moved in, in 2009, before we were married, I painted the lower half of one wall in our kitchen a clean and deep red, which now matches several striped hand towels and the new teapot. (We’ve continued making improvements.) The same day I painted in the kitchen, I also covered a wall in the living room a bright, flat blue, though we could tell right away that was a mistake — to live in a lesser Mondrian — and I repainted the wall in white just as soon as the blue was dry. For now, there’s a pair of bright red paintings, the work of a friend, centered on that wall above the blue sleeper-sofa. We’ll soon take them down. The kitchen table we use today once belonged to a woman I briefly dated and was friends with off and on for years, though I don’t recall exactly why or when I came to own the table. (My memory is not what it once was.) I seem to remember its being offered, and then loading it into a U-Haul truck beneath her loft in SoHo the same day I helped another woman move to Inwood, in Manhattan’s northern reaches, before returning home to Brooklyn late that night. Together, that other woman and I must have carried the table up to my apartment before settling in for a few hours on my mattress. This is how we lived.

The kitchen table is an antique, and for a time, in several apartments (including this one on 19th Street), I used it as an office desk. Hanging above the table these days is a bookshelf that once belonged to a couple of radical publishers, relatives of a friend who, in 2016, organized an estate sale in the couple’s warreny West Village apartment, advertising “art, furniture, lamps, tableware, a multitude of unusual curios, loads of books (especially cookbooks).” The day we left with the bookshelf and hung it on our wall we also carried away cookbooks by Molly O’Neill and Joyce Chen. Our other kitchen bookshelf once belonged to two men whose apartment we rented on 29th Street, also on the East Side, near the hospital where our son was born. This apartment had deep blue carpeting and a balcony, a pass-through from the kitchen to where we ate, and when we lived there we also owned a guinea pig. When we arrived where we live now — with the dog who came with me, the cat who came with my wife, and before our son — we posted on Craigslist an advertisement putting the guinea pig up for adoption: “Free to a good home. Full set-up.” As it grew and ate more hay, the rodent had become too messy; my wife was allergic. So after some emails, one afternoon two girls came from the Upper West Side with their mother, who insisted we take her daughters’ twenty dollars before they carried him away with his cage, which I must have lugged down the stairs and loaded into their hatchback.

Most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor.

Over the years, many people have come and gone from our building on 19th Street. During the pandemic, the building has more or less emptied out — some, no doubt, for good. Who knows who’ll return? And yet, throughout our tenure, mostly we’ve complained — to each other and the more durable neighbors — about the turnover, which for a spate about five years ago, involved renovations to apartments in the lower floors that turned one-bedrooms into two- and two-bedrooms into three-. More bedrooms make apartments easier to share with other college students, which has been at the root of our grumbling: Our landlord’s fostering of transience. Dorm-life. (How soon we forget.) Even so, we twice wandered into these renovations, always on the lookout in New York for a little more room, but it never made sense when we considered the deal we’ve always had: our overall space isn’t much and the bathroom’s a puzzle, but there are two bedrooms and our rent remains below what the market will bear, for now, in the neighborhood.

***

When we first moved into our building, in our early 30s, there was a mother and two boys on the third floor. On Fridays, the boys’ father would appear and the mother would be free until he dropped them off again on Sunday. The boys must now be teenagers. I have no idea what she ever did with her alone-time. There was also a world-weary writer named Tom across the hall, who kept fit at the nearby city rec center and whom we liked quite a lot to talk to briefly, and who liked our son when he was just learning to walk. Tom was encouraged to vacate by the landlord’s offer of a buy-out, and we don’t know where he’s gone, but we miss Tom. The longtime tenant in 12A — we’re triskaidekaphobic in our building — was keeping his rent-controlled place as a second home, living there less than half the year, which the eviction notice taped face-down to his door said was against the law. Over time the legal notice grew worn and folded and ragged from all us curious neighbors. Now the tenant doesn’t live there at all. At the moment, no one does.

There was John, a military vet; we don’t know what branch. He was old, but we don’t know how old. No family that we could tell. John seemed to like me, called me guy, fella, or a word like that, when we met at the front door or mailboxes. For a few years we had the business card of a social worker under a magnet on the refrigerator; she had been knocking at John’s door one day and was about to give up when I took her card and said I’d call her in an emergency. Who knows who buzzed her in. John lived in apartment 5 and rarely left and seemed not to clean. Our building’s super affixed a plastic air deodorizer atop the doorframe of the apartment that I suppose John never noticed — one indignity spared — since, unlike those of us who come from the upper floors, he had no occasion to view his apartment door from above. He also had a crooked spine, which kept him constantly looking down. We knew, because of gossip, that over the years John spent time in the Veterans Affairs hospital on 23rd Street, and one of those times he didn’t come back. His mail piled up, was bundled with a rubber band and set on a ledge in the vestibule, and eventually that disappeared, too. We removed the social worker’s card from under the magnet probably around then.

This was a few years after Superstorm Sandy, in October 2012, when the building seemed to shift on its foundation and went dark for a few days along with everything else in our neighborhood and so many others downtown. From the backyard, where the trash goes, today you can see through the seam between our building and the neighboring one. It may always have been like that, but we only noticed after the violence of the storm. For the days the lights and the boiler were out, we bathed our son, who was a year-and-a-half then, with water heated on the range, like in the old days, and made daily trips from 19th Street to a hotel on 42nd Street, where the power worked. We charged our phones and our laptops, read the news and watched the bar television, had lunches and beers, and when we got home, after the baths, my wife and I played DVDs and ate all the food we could from the thawing freezer, before it went bad. Then we had the idea to make up plates of Bolognese for John and another older, single man on the third floor named Lloyd, which, looking back, is the only time we’ve had this idea.


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Like with John, Lloyd and I got along. He’s among those people who’ve left, who may be among the dead. We never had conversations and he never gave me a nickname, but he appreciated when I stepped aside to offer my place in line at the local grocery chain, and we nodded or greeted each other on the street, when he rode by on his bike or returned home with a bag from Petland. Yet most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor. He had good days and bad days, like any of us, yet with Lloyd the bad days always seemed to be leading somewhere worse, part of a decline, until a few days later he’d be robust again, his hair smoothed, or he’d shaved.

***

One Sunday, in an autumn that now seems very long ago, a couple perhaps a generation older than me shoved a rotten mattress around the banister at the bottom of the stairs in our building; they were headed to the back yard. This mattress was Lloyd’s. His door apparently still open, he was shuffling upstairs. I’d come home with lunch from the new LA-styled taqueria on 3rd Avenue, and meeting the couple on my way in, they were resting, debating, in silence, the best way to proceed down the steps, out to the trash.

At the foot of the stairs, I made eye contact with the woman in the couple, then eyed the mattress, deciding whether to help, recalling a moment early in our relationship when my wife and I, alone, moved a dark brown couch down the narrow staircase leading from a Brooklyn studio I had for a year. There was yelling that day and we were still young.

Lloyd’s mattress was heavily stained: evidence of injury and illness, night sweats, incontinence, maybe violence. The mattress was torn along its side. Lloyd owned dogs, and perhaps some of the evidence was of them. But I’d also seen him bleeding from his shin after a fall on our stoop. I’d seen his shoulder dislocated under a tank top. There were moans sometimes from the apartment. Once, we heard him rattle his rear window and then call out in distress. “Don’t jump!” I said from two stories above, rattling our own window cage, looking down through the fire escape. My wife sensed I was overreacting. Back then, someone called 9-1-1 and a group of us from the building assembled outside Lloyd’s apartment, whispering, until the EMTs arrived to coax him out.

Lloyd’s mattress was heavily stained: evidence of injury and illness, night sweats, incontinence, maybe violence. The mattress was torn along its side.

Moving the mattress would have taken only a few minutes. The hard work was already done by people older than me, who may or may not have been related to Lloyd. To help would have meant putting down a sack of warm tacos. To help would have meant embracing and lifting that mattress. Maybe rolling it down the back stairs into the yard, where I later saw it, spread out like a murder scene.

I did not help. Some social psychology and moral philosophy I’ve been reading lately has helped explain this away: with compassion, I’ve learned, the “tendency toward helping behavior is quite powerful, if the helpful action is ready at hand and not very costly.” Big if. Nonetheless, this moment is another thing from the hallway, like the nude, that I’ve found myself too embarrassed to tell my wife about.

Instead, I said, I’ve got the tacos.

Here is a question: How is it possible, and what does it mean, that I have been drawn to some chance cracks and drips of paint in the shape of a naked body, while at the same time disgusted, it seems, by some actual bodies in the building where I live? All this before we were all told — before it was, in some way, right — to be fearful of everyone (and someone like Lloyd, or John, to be very fearful, given their age and preconditions, of someone like me). It’s age, the passing of time and the crumbling of plaster, that formed the apparition of a young woman who lived, without aging, frozen between the third and fourth floors. Who knows how long she’d been there. It’s also age that formed the men who lived below us into who they had been, or were. (We simply don’t know. We assume.) And it must be age, too, I see, that’s made me increasingly aware and now wary of the aged, now vanishing, bodies below me in the building, to say nothing of the aging body below me in myself.

“Disgust,” says philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “is a strong aversion to aspects of the body that are seen as ‘animal reminders’ — that is, aspects of ourselves that remind us that we are mortal and animal. … The core idea in disgust is that of (potential) contamination through contact or ingestion: if I take in what is base, that debases me.” The action was ready at hand. The tacos would not have suffered one bit. My wife and son would have waited without knowing the difference. But the cost was simply too high, even then, even before the costs of touching, of being fewer than six feet apart, became the reason none of us could touch.

***

2.

Speaking of animals, I miss the dog, who died a couple years ago now. We’d never done this before with a dog: my wife held her as I looked on, our son in the vet’s waiting room, while the chemicals were released, one by one, into her ankle. We all had taken the day off, and left her behind at the office and decided we could live without ashes. Arriving home today, when the key scratches the lock (my hands have a minor tremor), I still anticipate the jangle of her licenses and vaccination tags as she bangs the wall of the hallway on her way to greet me at the door. In the days after she died we told our son to stop playing with the collar, to hang it on his wall and leave it there. The light ringing sound he produced was creating ghosts.

I remember walking her down the dark stairwell and into the wet, leafy, dark streets in the evenings after Sandy. One winter morning, in a year either before or after the storm, I situated her between me and a man who’d found his way to the landing just beyond our door for a night’s sleep; in a crouch, I roused him by the foot, holding the dog by the leash, and said it was time to go.

The cat, who is also gone, scratched at her ear a few years ago and developed an infection that turned into a large, furless mass on the side of her head. It grew and shrunk week-by-week and grossed me out. I worried about bacteria. I sprayed where she bled. The vet had told us there was little he could do given her age — just as there was little to be done for the dog and her tumor — and so for those last years, the cat rubbed the growth against our feet in the evenings to relieve some irritation, and seemed, to me, humiliated. This is how we lived.

We’ve counted ourselves among the durable neighbors, though in January we learned our lease would not be renewed. We live on the fifth floor. We’ve taught a child to walk up, have watched a dog pass on, and then ushered out the cat.

We’ve lasted while college kids moved in and out, and I resent them for being loud and being young. For sleeping around on strange mattresses belonging to strangers they met by swiping right, the way we met strangers through friends and asked their help to move a table, a whole apartment, before crashing together, and maybe seeing each other once, twice more. Maybe getting serious before later breaking up. Maybe getting serious and bringing pets together to live and die, having a kid, getting married. (That’s how we did it.) I see the apparition of youth, of sex, in the cracks in the wall; I was once her age. She’ll be here forever, I once thought, painted over and over again.

***

3.

Along with the social psychology and moral philosophy I’ve been reading lately for comfort has been a 2013 essay by Zadie Smith, “Man Versus Corpse.” Smith opens the essay with an anecdote of riding the elevator one night to relieve the babysitter and encountering a charcoal drawing titled Nude Man from the Back Carrying a Corpse on His Shoulders in a book of Italian masterpieces she’s found discarded in the lobby of her New York building. Compared with the man — “an ideal back in which every muscle is delineated. His buttocks are vigorous, monumental” — the corpse is drawn like an apparition. And despite this, Smith proceeds with a thought experiment: “I tried to identify with the corpse.”

Her effort proves difficult, and what she does first is telling of the horror of being dead — she imagines being the man: “Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse!” The scene she envisions unfolds in post-apocalyptic terms we know from poems and novels and the movies — a wasteland, a highway — until Smith unloads the body. “And it’s child’s play,” she says, “to hear a neck bone crack as I lay the corpse — a little too forcefully — on the ground.”

The larger point of Smith’s essay is to get us to see that we (including her) are living far less urgently than we would if our future as corpses was more readily apparent. We’d also construct lives more “worthy of an adult,” she says, if we weren’t so easily tricked, somehow, into believing that what happens to others — “often brown, often poor” people, people who live in “a death-dealing place” — will not also happen to us. (“We,” she writes, “seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live.”) For Smith, then, our problem is really two-fold: we quail at the prospect of imagining our own selves as corpses, and we’re not mindful enough of the corpses that gather in the distance to prevent them from gathering there. “It’s argued that the gap between this local care and distant indifference is a natural instinct,” she writes, echoing the philosophers and psychologists on the universal difficulty of compassion and of imagining other people. “Natural or not,” she continues, “the indifference grows, until we approach a point at which the conceptual gap between the local and the distant corpse is almost as large as the one that exists between the living and the dead.”

How is it possible, and what does it mean, that I have been drawn to some chance cracks and drips of paint in the shape of a naked body, while at the same time disgusted by some actual bodies in the building where I live?

Until now in my life there was almost no arguing with her on this point. But what of Lloyd? What of the growing thousands — disproportionately brown, poor — now all dying in this city of this one thing? What of all those other older people, seen as the most vulnerable?

What of the gap that was not at all conceptual, but real, the one that kept me from hefting a local mattress? What of the distance between the living and the living? All of us six feet apart.

To start, I must say, having walked across an abandoned Brooklyn Bridge on a weekend in April, that I’m far less confident in my own post-apocalyptic vigor and resilience than Smith seems to be in hers. Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse! She’s not disgusted at all!

But me? My cowardice when confronted with Lloyd’s mattress was almost certainly related to the traces of animal life in a living person that a brand new corpse would also bear: evidence of injury and illness, maybe violence. A dislocated shoulder. A bloodied leg. And what’s also true is that the thought that did not quite form before I registered Lloyd’s shuffles upstairs — signs of life! — was that he had, in fact, died. That he was dead. That I was witness to this couple carrying out what’s pleasantly known as bioremediation.

Before I knew it, Lloyd was first dead and then alive, a source of sorrow and then, suddenly — instantly — relief. But then there, in that mattress, with that couple, was the evidence that we were right to expect sorrow again now — a sorrow that already resided in me then, it seems.

So then, how large really is the gap between the living and the dead? There’s no question that my life is arranged around the other living beings in my life, and that thoughts of losing them grow increasingly more painful and disorienting as the circle of my concern narrows to include only those two people I most often share sacks of tacos with. The ones, these days, whose masks I wash. Indeed, Smith expands on this reality in another 2013 essay, “Joy.” “Sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously,” she says.

“Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?”

Here I think Smith and I are equally convinced that in this version of the apocalypse, we’d be reduced to nothing, resilient and vigorous no more. That our current plague seems mainly to let the children be has been its one source of relief.

But my own experiences watching those close to me die suggests, at the end, a kind of porousness between the two states. When beings die they’re said to slip away. My step-father did. So did the dog. And it often feels as I ease into middle age that now is when the slipping actually starts. Isn’t that the wrinkles? The hairline? The half-caf? The hemorrhoids?

Then there’s Lloyd, who, it seems, slipped away a little faster than me in the weeks we last saw each other, more obviously. Faster even than John ever did. And it must be the speed at which I watched him slip, and the further slippage he’s made evident in my unconscious between living and dying — proof that we always do both at the same time, and maybe ghosts are real — that makes his mattress so offensive to me.

Still, the truth is that no matter my fear, Lloyd’s mattress would not have contaminated or debased me. Not the way I’ve worried about every container I’ve brought in from the store through the spring, nor the tub containing margaritas I marched up from the taqueria our second week sheltered at home. Our own moment, the world’s fear — and my own — of catching now what’s been going around, disproves nothing of how I behaved back then.

To do what I did (what I did not do), that’s what’s truly mortifying. Or, mortifying — “causing death” — would seem like the right word if, in fact, my marching by with lunch, leaving those two older people with the dirty work, wasn’t just the result of a kind of magical thinking — disgust — that promises with fingers crossed to protect us from all the causes of dying.

4.

Months after meeting the couple with Lloyd’s mattress, I returned to the building one morning with ice packs from the hardware store to find an industrial black trash bag — collapsed, deflated, tied off — propping open the door to the yard. At every landing was a dusting of rubble. The landlord had begun demolition and the interior strip-out of a corner apartment on the sixth floor. This apartment could easily be transformed from a two-bed into a three-bed; this is where it’s happened before in the building, up and down this northeast corner line. This is certainly what will happen to ours, someday, now that we’ve been asked to leave.

Later that morning, a man with two-by-fours over his shoulder marched past me as I carried down the recycling. Renovations would soon begin. With bags slumped at each landing and still more rubble, the person responsible for demolition seemed to be carrying on a one-man bucket-brigade, moving four or five loads to the landing just below, then repeating this pattern all the way down. This is how I would do it, too, I thought. A bit at a time.

This renovation project must have upset the building. Sliding bags along the stone floor at each landing did some minor damage; or maybe it was the two-by-fours, carried carelessly, that left the new marks. Maybe sledgehammers and crowbars shook the inner workings of the upper floors and loosened the plaster down the stairwell. Because among the dust and rubble that spilled from the bags, I noticed, were paint chips, one the size of a dime, which had fallen from the crotch of the woman on the wall.

It’d be easy, I thought, a little Krazy Glue. It would fit like a puzzle piece. We’ve continued making improvements. But imagine that: me on my knees, stooped low in the stairwell, a tube of adhesive in my fingers, pressing the wall with my thumb. There, I’d think.

That’s unthinkable. And plus, the construction created more peeling in a new crack along her inner thigh anyway. It’d be an uphill battle. Soon she’ll be unrecognizable. Or just gone.

* * *

Scott Korb directs the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific University. His books include The Faith Between Us, Life in Year One, and Light without Fire. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Oregon.

Editor: Sari Botton

Let’s Not Talk About Estrangement

Let’s Not Talk About Estrangement

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At Guernica, Joanna Hershon considers her estranged uncle (a man she met once, but never knew) and wonders not only about how his self-imposed distance has affected his parents and siblings, but specifically about the lack of family discourse or discord over their missing member.

Researchers at Emory University in the 1990s—Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush—discovered that the more children know about their families, the better they do in the face of life’s challenges. The kinds of stories that predict the closest families aren’t successes or failures but rather tales that incorporate life’s challenges into the family lore. It’s not my uncle’s absence that haunts me—after all, I never knew him. It’s that no one—not my grandparents, my parents, or any of my mother’s cousins we visited with over the years—told me stories about him, or about losing him. No one mused aloud about why he removed himself from the rest of us. It’s the absence of inquiry that feels disquieting, even now. How could my mother grow up in the same small house as her brother, and have nothing much to say about him? What are her questions, and where does she put them?

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