From the Archive: Phillip Lopate – “My Brother, Life” (Vol. VIII)

Photo by Sally Gall, via philliplopate.com

In honor of Phillip Lopate’s visit to Sarah Lawrence College this Wednesday, we are delighted to share with you his essay “My Brother, Life” which was featured in LUMINA Vol. VIII.

(This essay also appears in Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry, ed. Andrew Blauner, Wiley 2010)

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My Brother, Life 

(with apologies to Pasternak)

We are quite a lot alike. Whenever we don’t see each other for a while and then reunite and compare notes on movies, books, music, current events, we find we have almost always come to the same conclusions. In our adolescence he was my mentor, introducing me to Billie Holiday and the Dadaists; so it is hardly surprising, my mind having been formed to an extent by his, that we continue to share many tastes.

When we were growing up, we indulged in that Corsican Brothers fantasy: that whatever happened to one, the other would feel, however much distance separated us.

The narcissism of small differences: he is three years older yet more ardent, youthful, risk-taking, still chasing happiness. I always act like the older, graver, more prudent one, giving advice. He likes fine wines and fancy food, is something of a sensualist and an epicurean. I, a stoic, can appreciate a well-cooked meal but will not go miles out of my way for one.

He is bolder, more reckless. He acts, I watch. Bicycling around Europe in his mid-sixties, he had an accident and fell off the bike and was taken to a hospital where he received several stitches. He phoned from abroad to ask me to pick him up at the airport and drive him home, an errand that gave me great pleasure. I waited for him at the receiving entrance, and he had a dazed look, a bandage on his head, looking around and not recognizing me at first. It disturbed me, as only a younger sibling can be, to see him so vulnerable; yet also made me proud that I could take him in hand.

When we were teenagers, people would say I was the better-looking. Now, in our middle-aged years, he is probably the more handsome. He has retained a full head of hair, while I have lost mine, following our father’s tendency to baldness. He wears a full beard and has a commanding stare no longer hidden by spectacles, thanks to laser surgery.

One of the other ways we differ most is that my brother identifies with our mother and I with our father. Both our parents are dead, but they continue to rule our psyches and orient our moral compasses. Our mother was a flamboyant, lusty, histrionic personality for whom the term “larger than life” applies; she had wanted to sing and act, was thwarted for many years by having to work as a clerk and raise a family, but in the last decades of her life she did perform on stage, acted in TV commercials, sang in supper clubs. Our father was a rather withdrawn, self-taught intellectual who wanted to be a writer; he lived what Matthew Arnold called “the buried life,” toiling as a factory worker and textile clerk. The taciturn scapegoat of our family, he eventually divorced my mother and exiled or abandoned to a nursing home. While they lived together they made an odd couple: Eros and Thanatos, you might say. I felt sorry for my father; our fates were permanently entwined on my assumption of his literary ambition, by which I was both honoring and replacing him. My brother, on the other hand, did not get along with my father and retains very little fondness for him. He drew his strength from the example of my mother, who threw herself, with bravado, into the fray as an entertainer.

My brother is a radio personality, heard every weekday in the New York metropolitan area on a midday interview show. being a generalist and a quick study, he ranges widely, questioning novelists, politicians, scientists, film directors, actresses, car mechanics, chefs, etc. I listen as often as I can, not only because he is my brother but because he has, in my opinion, the best show on the radio – the most informative, the most discerning. Even knowing him as I do, I am still amazed at how astutely he can shape a fifteen-minute or half-hour interview. Of course, knowing him as I do, I also am aware when he is bluffing about a subject he has only vague notions about, and I sometimes catch him making errors, confusing, say, T.H. White (whose book about King Arthur, The Once and Future King, we read in our household growing up), with the political pundit Theodore White. Or I will yell at the radio, “No no no, Lenny!” when he makes an asinine comment. I am more tolerant of his bad puns; those we love should be permitted their puns.

My secret pleasure in listening to him is that I can still hear the unsure but learning-eager adolescent he was at our dinner table, imparting his latest discovery, inside the smooth tones of the all-knowing radio personality. Though he always had a euphonious voice, he has done considerable work on that instrument, shaping its baritone, losing the family’s Brooklyn regionalisms. The only aspect of his radio persona that dismays me is when he comes across as dripping with empathy for some guest who is telling her sob story (usually it’s a woman); and I sense a blip of insincerity in that momentary delay or vocal catch that has become a signature tic in his delivery. Maybe I’m too conscious of how sardonic and unsentimental he can be in real life, and how much of a constructed artifact his radio persona is. But that is part of what makes him a professional.

We are both proud of each other’s successes – he no less than I. sometimes I am listening to his show and will be brought up short by a reference to his brother the writer. I register that I am in his thoughts as much as he is in mine.

Are we competitive? Of course. But the roots of our sibling rivalry go so far back, and we have been overlaid with so much self-conscious discussion between us about our competition, and each of us has gotten so much public approval since, that in truth I don’t (consciously) experience competing in his presence any more. The times I do experience a twinge of sibling rivalry is when he is not around, and others bring him up. People are constantly pitting us against each other, either for their own sadistic amusement or experimental curiosity, to see what reaction they can elicit. Lenny is the more well-known of the two: a radio personality cannot help but have more fans than an essayist. And the bond that a talk-show host has with his regular audience goes deep: not seeing the person but only hearing his mellifluous, sympathetic voice each day invites them to fantasize and idealize him…Nevertheless, even understanding this dynamic, I do not like it when I am giving a reading at a bookstore and someone comes up to me and the first question he or she asks is about my brother: that seems to me a lapse in tact, especially at a moment when I am trying to project an outsized, authorial persona. I forgive the zhlubs their need to connect with celebrity through me. The ones I have a harder time forgiving are my fellow authors, often with bigger names than mine, who should know better but only want to talk to me about Lenny and the last time they were on his show or saw him socially. I  have the urge to say to them: Look, I’ve written a dozen books, why not spare a word or two for my literary output? But with typical writer’s narcissism they are much more grateful to Lenny for publicizing their latest; he nurses carefully his relationships with big-name authors, and they regard him as a useful extension of their egos.

It’s also a source of minor chagrin when I am introduced to someone who says, “Oh, I love what you do on the radio. ” I should laugh it off, the way John Ford did when people told him their favorite film of his was Red River; he would say thank you with modest politeness and never correct them by mentioning that particular western was directed by Howard Hawks. My brother tells me that many people have the mistaken impression that he has written my books. We laugh at this notion that either one of us could be expected to hold down a demanding radio show while writing book after book.

I also laugh at him a lot, because his renown has given him a touchy sense of self-importance. If we got o a party together and people do not seem to recognize or acknowledge him sufficiently, he will sulk. His way of sulking is to stare high into the middle distance with a frown. He has an elephant’s memory, and resents for years those celebrities who bypassed an interview with him or those gusts who canceled. I kid him a bit: “So, Abraham Lincoln refused to go on your show? What a pompous jerk.”

A trickier side to having a brother who is a public personality (not just on the radio: he emcees countless panels and interviews authors and public figures around town) is that I find myself at times awry of him, sensing, rightly or wrongly, that he is not talking to me so much as (still) to his listeners. If I catch him making pedantic pronouncements or explaining something he should know that I already know, it will put me on my guard. I keep cocking an ear for that intimate, private tone that ought to ensure from a lifetime of brother relationship; and if it is not forthcoming, or is only intermittent, I judge him severely. I suspect it is hard for him to come down from his public persona. (Then again, I should talk: after teaching a seminar or giving readings on tour, I do not always have the easiest time descending to the domestic requests of my wife and daughter.)

When he is at home and we are talking on the phone, which we usually do about once a week, I sometimes sense he is making a remark to me for the benefit of his mate, who is within earshot. It can be a flattering remark about her, meant to keep the peace – perfectly understandable, but I resent being used that way as a straight-man. In short, I am very jealous of our unique tie, and do not like to see it diluted in anyway. I would rather get together with him alone than share him en famille. Those times, all too rare, when we do see each other alone, either going to a play or a preview screening to which he generously invites him, usually because the director or performer will be appearing on his show, we are apt to have a terrific conversation that recaptures the rapport of old. There is something so deeply satisfying and sweet about these occasions, I can only surmise that if they do not happen more often, it may be because we both pull back from an idyllic intimacy that would almost be too threatening to sustain or painful to see diminished through frequency.

I should point out that, for all my antenna-attuned mistrust of my brother’s outer-directed personality, it is Lenny who will finally become much more open about his emotional problems or confusions of the moment, whereas I am more reserved and tend to use shorthand in those matters. I don’t know if that’s because being the younger and more easily overwhelmed, I prefer to hold the power of the listener-therapist role or because Lenny is more given to dramatizing himself, even if it means being seen as the one in crisis.

When we were younger, my brother wanted to be an artist. As a child he painted battleships and self-portraits; then he graduated to abstraction, studied at the university with the arch-purist Ad Reinhardt as well as such luminaries as Mark Rothko and Robert Morris. His paintings tended in a geometric, color-field direction. They were good, I thought. Had he continued, he certainly would have made a go of it. But he found them lacking in originality, or found he lacked the passion, the “fire in the belly,” to pursue painting full-time. each of the four Lopate children had had artistic ambitions: my brother wanted to be an abstract painter, I, a writer, my sister Betty Ann, a musician, my younger sister Joan, a painter as well. As it turned out, I was the only one who succeeded in cobbling together a career out of my art. It is a situation that looms large in my mind and fills me with a mixture of gloating and survivor’s guilt. (I said we were competitive.) Regardless of the greater adulation my brother receives, regardless of the argument that doing radio might be construed as his artistic medium, I continue to feel that I hold the edge. My literary works have at least a chance of enduring, while his daily improvised chat, cruel as the comment may sound, will disappear into the ether. His is a  journalist’s way of knowing, facts gathered for the occasion and ejected once the occasion is over; mine, I tell myself, is a more arduous, intellectual, serious pursuit of knowledge.

My greatest defect is that much of the time I need to regard myself as superior to those around me and to position myself in such a way that they will feel it too. Regardless of knowing full well that there are many different kinds of intelligence or that we are all ultimately dust and atoms under the aspect of eternity, I persist in wanting to view myself as the most intelligent person in social situations. That lamentable self-regard undoubtedly colors my relationship with my brother in less than helpful ways. I insist on holding the “wisdom” and “maturity cards, or on considering myself a half step ahead of him intellectually. But he forgives me, perhaps because he is the wiser and more ample-spirited one. there is also the difference in our professional practices: he asks questions for a living, whereas I feel called upon, by students, readers, and my own didacticism, to give answers.

Together we look forward to sharing all the pleasures of old age: nostalgia, illness, incontinence, senility, abandonment. We will not abandon each other, I hope, because the world is less only for me as long as my brother is in it. He has been, if not the most important relationship in my life, certainly one of the most defining ones. I’ll say more: he has been my personal metaphor for Life itself, in all its encompassing, onrushing urgency.

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