I Have Better Things to Do than Apologize for Sentimentality
No one else in the house showed any interest in watching the coronation. Selfishly, I was rather glad. I wanted to talk to the television under my breath, commenting on the pomp, singing along to the Handel, showing off my knowledge of royal relations, all to an audience without ears or interest or sentience.
“You should note,” I stage whisper to the dust bunnies at 2:50 in the morning, “that while young James who used to be Viscount Severn is now the Earl of Wessex, his sister is still just Lady Louise. But she looks smashing. So grown up!”
I wouldn’t say these things if there were others in the room. It would sound pedantic or twee. Why not both? It would be pedantic and twee and slightly obsessive and probably pathetic. Much better to have one’s wife and children fast asleep as one weeps to Zadok the Priest, and informs a stack of coffee coasters that Handel wrote the music for the coronation of George II. “Handel wasn’t born in England, either, but he was an Englishman to his bones,” I tell the couch blanket.
We mock men who are desperate to share things they know. I was raised to believe that to be a bore was a fairly significant sin, probably on par with sleeping with your wife’s cousin. I learned it better to play things close to the vest, ask questions of others, and avoid the temptation to prattle. I mean, I’m obviously prattling here, but you can stop reading at any time. I won’t have to see your eyes glass over, and you won’t have to worry about hurting my feelings by pretending to share my passions.
I am sympathetic to King Charles. I know what it is like to be trapped in a mistake of a marriage, as many of us do, and I know what it is to want to make one’s family happy, and I certainly know what it is to have strong views on a wide variety of topics, views that everyone reminds you that they would rather not hear. I have liked Charles since I was a boy, perhaps because there was something about his face that reminded me of my own daddy.
There is certainly something about his fathering that reminds me of my own. I have only skimmed Prince Harry’s pain-and-pique drenched memoir, but I do remember that at one point, the Duke of Sussex recounts that not long ago, he who is now King Charles III looked at his two quarreling sons and begged the princes, “Please, boys. Don't make my final years a misery.”
I have already used that line on my children twice (changing “boys” to “bunnies”) when they are fighting. The mix of self-pity and imputation of ill-health is very effective at making them laugh. I mean it, though. There is nothing worse than bickering children, and I cannot imagine what it is like on the scale of the Sussex and Wales conflict. I look at the television images of Harry glowering from the third row, and I say out loud, “There’s no Goneril or Regan here. They’re both Cordelia,” and I laugh at myself, showing off like a pimply freshman in his first Shakespeare honors seminar. (Talk about on the nose, old boy. Jeepers, Captain Obvious.)
When it is time, I pledge allegiance to the King, because I am a dual citizen, and because my refugee grandfather did it when he became a citizen in 1947. My grandfather was a Georg who anglicized his name to George, becoming like the king to whom he gave homage and loyalty. (The greatest composer ever, the aforementioned Handel, did the same thing, going from Georg to George when he emigrated to England.) My own daddy took an oath to Queen Elizabeth II; papa joined the RAF at 18 in 1953, just weeks after the last coronation. I am much older than either daddy or grandpapa were when they swore loyalty to the sovereign, and I suspect neither of them wept when they declared their allegiance. Of course, their words meant something important. Their pledges were constitutive. My grandfather was becoming a citizen of the nation that had saved his life; daddy was embarking on his national service. I was standing in my living room in Lawndale in my sweatpants, weeping to the feed on BBC America. Nothing in my world changed because I repeated an oath.
I don’t apologize for being sentimental. I used to think it was vulgar. An ex-wife (or maybe she was just a girlfriend) liked to say that one could either be a sentimentalist or a romantic, but not both. To be a sentimentalist, she said, was like living on a diet of cotton candy and lemon meringues – all sugar, all air, no substance. If you wanted to feel real feelings (whatever the hell those were) you couldn’t cry at televised coronations or soup commercials. You had to save yourself for the real meat of true love, and the good wine of true compassion for profound suffering. You couldn’t cry at Handel’s easy music to flatter kings or the Little River Band’s syrupy love songs. You had to cry at obscure and difficult things, like Khachaturian’s Battle of Stalingrad or an Ani DiFranco bootleg tape from a long-ago political rally.
“Sentimentality is how they keep you complicit in the Great Crime,” my ex said. (I remember now. Not quite an ex-wife, but we did live together for a very stressful year.) Alison and I fought a lot, until I finally stopped apologizing for my absence of discipline or depths. I still think of how horrified she was when I teared up at the national anthem before the one football game to which I took her.
Sometimes, when I remember her line about the Great Crime, I cry an extra tear on her behalf as I sing the anthem at a Rams game with my son. It is as passive-aggressive as I can get.
This morning is the first morning in a month I don’t wake up in total panic. Most days, fear about money makes me sit bolt upright by 6:00AM. I have clients, but I need more – everyone is depending on me now, and I have old debts I am finally retiring, and new expenses that arrive not in battalions but in entire army divisions. Everyone thinks I’m successful because the ghostwriting has taken off, but it’s all so damn contingent on a few wealthy clients. It’s all acquired on word of mouth. What if the words stop being mouthed? What if there are no more clients? I mean, I’m exceeding deadlines and I’m as eager to please as a newly trained Labrador. The clients seem happy with what I send them. But what if it’s only a lucky season?
I don’t mind going back to retail or selling plasma, as in a very real way, it would be a relief, but I imagine the disappointment in the faces of wives current and former, of son and daughter, of all those cheering me on. I’m making as much money as I did before the fall from grace a decade ago! It has made me a contributor where once I was only a taker. The shame of not being able to contribute, to sustain, to provide --- it doesn’t let me sleep for long.
What if my final years are a Carolean horror, not because my children are quarreling but because I have plunged us all back into poverty? Maybe I shouldn’t have bought new shoes! Maybe I shouldn’t have bought my daughter and her friend those Taylor Swift tickets! (No, don’t say that. That was an investment in how you are remembered to the grandchildren you probably won’t live to see.)
I have a grand total of $9,700 saved for retirement and I am almost a senior citizen! What a feckless fool I have been and continue to be!
How is mama doing? Is she still okay on her own?
I can think of a dozen friends near my age who obsess on frailty: the frail bodies of aging parents, the frail psyches of teenagers in the TikTok era, the frail bank accounts in an age where precarity is the only constant. I am not alone in waking up in terror more mornings than not. It is my modest pride that I respond to that terror by rising to work rather than retiring to oversleep, and that I self-medicate by talking to the television and drinking gallons of coffee and Diet Coke. No cannabis or cocktails to be papa’s little helper; no sir. We soldier on, stone cold sober, muttering and fretting.
I fell back asleep a little after 5:00AM this morning. Two hours later, my son pounced on me. “Time to watch Tottenham,” he said, naming our favorite English soccer team.
“So it is,” I said, and sat up. My mug from last night, the one with the picture of the Queen from her second-to-last jubilee, still had a quarter cup of coffee within it. It was cold and sweet and perfect.
For the first time in weeks, dawn found me unafeared. It was a good way to be found, by a soccer-loving son and a sun that for a welcome change, shed not a single ray of anxiety.
Tottenham won. I decided I could take a whole day off from writing work.
God Save the King, indeed.