There was a guy who prowled the frat bars at my university. He had a feline nickname and he wrote poetry. He was the sort of boy girls creamed their 5-for-$25 Victoria’s Secret thongs over back in 1993. He was tall, had lanky dark hair that fell over his large, liquid eyes, and was in a fraternity but didn’t act like he was in a fraternity. He liked me. But I chose a guy called Dakota Bob over him.
The feline dude wrote like Obama.
I was reminded of the collegiate poet immediately when I first glanced over Vanity Fair‘s “Becoming Obama“. Reading the excerpts from David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story took me back to the days when I alternated my free time with trips to an arty bar to read angry, funny poetry and swilling $5 pitchers of beer with SAEs and Kappas. I was a psychology major, a columnist for our school newspaper, living off $10 a week and the kindness of drunk frat guys and gay friends. I was deeply troubled, usually hung over, theatre geeky, constantly annoyed…all the cliches of a 19 year old college junior from a family with a history nearly as unusual as Obama’s. Yet I wouldn’t have dated Obama or the feline dude for all the money I spent on text books.
Boys like that are trouble. They’re demanding, yet they won’t commit. Every girl who isn’t poisoned with rom com fantasies knows that.
A boy who defines “choice” as the following in a letter to you will never love you: “as a convenient shorthand for the way my past resolves itself. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors, the planet, the universe.” Yes, college-age people are self absorbed nincompoops bent on finding their place in the world, but this is a young man who, as he himself admitted, was “way too serious for my own good”. I’m astonished he had this much self awareness, but what he failed to note is that he took himself far too seriously. These are the words of a person who weighs himself as the culmination and apex of the efforts of everyone who has come before him. While this is to some degree biologically true, it ascribes to himself a “chosen” status, where his every decision holds greater import than those of others. These are not the words of a young man who has put his faith in God to guide his life; this is a young man who believes his decisions have godlike consequences.
Oh, it gets so much funnier.
The girlfiend, Alex, writes him about her poetry class. He, the charmer, writes back, amongst references to politics:
“And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?”
Don’t you, you little minx? When I was 19, since I knew everything, if a boy talked down to me like that, I would have punched him in his stupid face. He also said “moribund Europe” in the same paragraph: two punches! My next letter back would have read:
I’m deeply impressed by your grasp of Eliot’s work and your ability to politicize nearly anything. So impressed am I, dearest Barack, that I suggest your further communications to young women should be as an English literature TA, where your pontifications will be appreciated. Think of me as you spend your Saturday nights contemplating moribund Europe. I’ll be freakin’ with some Kappa Alpha Psis.
His prose is remincent of that kid who just discovered Kerouac’s On The Road. It’s a tumbled mess of images starring him him him! and it’s all meant to sound so vibrant. Maraniss’ himself describes young Obama as “the central character in his letters, in a self-conscious way, with variations on the theme of his search for purpose and self-identity.” That’s fine if you’re working on your memoirs, but courting a young woman? That’s chest beating. “Look how exquisitely thoughtful and so very awesome I am! You are privileged to share in the bounty of my troubled glory.”
Obama says “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.” Look, I get it. I was born in England and brought to America when I was six. I rejected the ever living hell out of my Englishness when I was teased mercilessly for my accent in middle school. I learned to accept it later, especially since my wacky Slovak father seemed threatened by it. For a number of reasons, my upbringing was isolating and untraditional, too. I did not believe that it entitled me to some destiny, nor did I believe it entitled me to lord my uniqueness over my paramours.
I admit it; I kept a rambling memoir going all through college. It was called Entire, and I may publish it one day for a laugh. In it was a terrible passage about “violins and violence” and a funny story about my father placing the Slovak and American flags alongside the Union Jack over the garage one morning. I asked him why he was doing it, and he said, “It’s Labour Day, Kay-lee!” in his fresh-off-the-boat accent. “Because Labour Day,” I wrote, “is clearly the day we celebrate our ancestral nations.” I was a loopy smart ass. But I didn’t write any of this nonsense in a letter to a boy, even though the age of email was alive and alert, because I worked out my bizarre emotional states on my own. And sometimes with the help of therapy, which is usually free in college, Young Mr. Obama.
We move on to the new girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, who catches young Barack in his little sweaty apartment (such as boys have) wearing nothing but a sarong and doing the New York Times‘ Sunday crossword. Ya know, like ya do. I’ll spare you Ms. Cook’s equally appalling collegiate ramblings, but this one much of the country identifies with now:
” I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi-stranded reasons. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness—and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.”
Ya think, darling?! Maybe this is why:
“But he is so wary, wary. Has visions of his life, but in a hiatus as to their implementation—wants to fly, and hasn’t yet started to take off, so resents extra weight.”
You know, like Congress and the Supreme Court and the Constitution and the will of the American people. And here is the clincher, the inevitable conclusion, and the reason I could never date Barack Obama:
“When she told him that she loved him, his response was not ‘I love you, too’ but ‘thank you’.” Yes, thank you, America, for that giddy first blush of excitement upon meeting me, just like Genevieve Cook, and for giving me the most important job in the world based on hormones and endorphins alone. Thanks, but…I don’t love you back. You’re “impatient and domineering”. Sorry, girl.