Oatmeal & the Basilisk
People just don't know how to act around celebrities.
Just ask any celebrity—like literally stop them on the street, get in their face with your breath, and really, really ASK them—and you'll see what I mean.
I once ate breakfast at a restaurant in Idaho several tables away from Richard Dreyfuss (true story), who had ordered eggs and coffee. It was clear he didn't know how to act around me. But I get it. There aren't playbooks for situations like that.
And people ask the most inane questions. Just ask any celebrity. Try a question like: how do you prepare your oatmeal? You'll see what I mean.
Personally, I boil the water in a 2:1 ratio with old fashioned rolled oats. (Steel-cut are fine, but the extra prep time is hard to justify given my #lifestyle.) While I wait for the water to boil, I plop a pat of butter in a bowl, I add a 5-second squeeze of honey from a honey bear (with a standard diameter 3mm lid hole under the constant pressure of a Standard Celebrity Grip), twist some Himalayan salt from the grinder (you guys, it tastes just like salt!), and sprinkle a few drops of vanilla extract. At this point, I add the oats to the boiling water and reduce the heat to a simmer, which is a "3" on the front right burner of our Standard Celebrity Issue range at about 4,500 ft above sea-level. Due to that altitude I take long, slow, cleansing, oxygenating breaths for the nearly five minutes it takes the oats to cook. Then I scoop the hot oats into the bowl, stir purposefully, and finally dust my oeuvre with cinnamon, sometimes with dried currants or finely chopped tart apples.
Clearly Richard wasn't ready to talk oatmeal.
But of all the totally unreasonable questions that people ask celebrities, the one that really gets me is: "So Andrew, how do you feel?" Or its equally vexing cousin: "Drew, what do you think?" Or even worse, with the addition of a prepositional phrase: "... ABOUT issue X, Y, or Z?"
Oh, the gall! Can't we just talk about oatmeal?
Of course, fame requires that I maintain a certain level of public decorum, even in invasive situations like these. It's all about acting—just ask real-life soccer great Roy Kent. It's the price we pay for the game we play, le Roy and I.
Someone has the nerve to ask how "I feel," and I reply, "fine," with a Standard Celebrity Nod. But on the inside, I'm literally figuratively shouting "how on earth would I—of all people—know how I feel?!" These people!
Someone dares ask what "I think," in general or in regards to a specific topics like lunch or geopolitics or which freeway exit to take, and it's all I can do to cover over the muffled, bewildered cries of my psyche. Have they no shame?
Do other, more experienced celebrities just wake up one morning, knowing how they feel or what they think about things? Maybe Richard can bring that up at our next breakfast. I'll ask St. Brené to ask Roy.
Candidly, this aspect of fame has been literally figuratively tricky.
Take, for example, the other day when my wife—of all people—asked me what I thought we should give our boys for Christmas. Inside I shrugged in existential panic, but I managed to display a convincing blank stare—somewhere between a Richard and a Roy performance, if they had been directed to stare blankly.
"You know, OUR boys. There are two of them, ages 7 and 9," she clarified. "And we're focusing on THIS Christmas, as in the holiday at the end of December." She's not letting up.
William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor—both relatively famous despite not doing much social media, which is a pro celebrity move on their parts that I salute—both tweeted, effectively, "I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it."
They get it. They get me.
And given the number of pages they wrote, they had a lot of thinking to make sense of. Entire fictitious counties full of pages because a Good Thought is Hard to Find. I don't even have time for steel-cut oats!
I imagine Richard finishing his coffee, getting over his nerves, asking William and Flannery first about their oatmeal and then about what they really think or how they really feel.
They would stare blankly, I suspect, fingers hover-quivering over their typewriter keys.
Then—clack, clack, clack, clack—they would descend into the earth's core, where deep thinking sloshes around like molten rock, then gradually claw their way back up to the crust, from the dungeon back to the dining hall, back to polite celebrity company. William and Flannery would then review their pages of clacking with a red wax pencil, striking half-formed thoughts, making necessary adjustments in service of clarity, coherence, and song. They might rework the entire oeuvre, if needed, while you patiently savored your oatmeal, steel-cut or not. But eventually they would tell you ...
... that they had just seen a basilisk.
Yes, a clear, totally coherent thought is a basilisk.
Like Harry Potter, you know all about basilisks, like the one that lives in the Chamber of Secrets. Remember?
You know that basilisks are terrible, motley creatures—part fanged serpent, part chicken, depending on your preferred mythology and your relationship with chickens. Regardless of the mythology, the basilisk is double trouble: not only might it gobble you up or run you through, but also, like Medusa, it will turn you to stone if you make eye contact.
You don't look at a basilisk head-on. The only way to see it is to cobble together partial glimpses caught in peripheral vision.
William and Flannery's clacking and wax penciling is simply an attempt to construct a clear picture of the basilisk from the fleeting half images they collected in the Chamber of Secrets. You never get a photograph of the Thing Itself, but you might get close. And on a good day of thought and effort, very close.
"... for the eye sees not itself," says Brutus in Shakespeare's not-comedy Julius Caesar, "But by reflection, by some other things." So true, Bruté.
Of course this is what's running through my head while my wife clears her throat for the second or third time: "You may have noticed we have an annual tradition of giving gifts to our offspring. It started nine years ago, no coincidence. Unless you want to change the tradition, how about playing along?"
I'm still mucking around in the dungeon, trying to snatch a glimpse without being petrified.
What do I really think? Well, I mostly hate what has become of Christmas in the hands of marketeers, especially now that my kids are so susceptible to their messaging and false promises about unwrapping happiness delivered by The Great False Elf whose existence I'm supposed to fraudulently endorse. All things being equal, I'd vote for a monthly Thanksgiving; it's harder to corrupt, appropriate caveats about cultural erasure and appropriation noted. This relates to how I like the idea of a Sabbath, even though the same boys whose Christmas gifts now hover with me in limbo make it anything but a day of rest, which relates to …
... a glimpse of the basilisk.
How do I really feel? Well, if I were seven again and had just recently shed my belief in The Great False Elf and yet, despite the mega-drought and rising seas, despite partisan political norms that befit a MMA cage fight rather than the world's flagship democracy, despite the fact that changing schools twice after a cross-country move and the dumb Covid year was hard ... if, in spite of all of that, I looked at the future with blue-eyed, gap-toothed hope and awe, I would just wanted the damned LEGO set, okay Dad?
Some days it's only a glimpse. On better days—on the Sound and Fury days—I feel like I get multiple impressions of the basilisk, darting this way and that, before I'm summoned back up to the dining hall.
"Ah, yes, Christmas," I say. "I've heard of it..."
Gradually—a day late and a dollar short, as is my style—I get a sense for what I actually think and feel. Not in the moment, not usually, but right now as I'm writing. Because I'm writing.
What I actually think. How I really feel. The notion that I do in fact have things to say. These are all the gruntings and stampings of a basilisk, rolling around somewhere, way underground.
Writing a piece of music, composing an essay (derived from the French verb essayer, to try) is simply my attempting to get a glimpse of the basilisk. Many days I come back to the surface empty-handed. On good days, I come up with fragments that I can assemble into a bricolage portrait. I point to it, still wondering where it came from, and shout, "hey, wait, that's what I think! Hang on—this might be how I feel!"
Wendell Berry asked me, when I visited him on his farm about 10 years ago, how I decided what to compose. A useful and interesting question, no doubt, and very kind of him to lavish any question at all on me. I fumbled my way through a response (okay, YOU try to sound eloquent when you're talking to one of your heroes!), and decided the best defense was a good offense: I countered and asked him how he chose what to write.
"I write what needs to be written," he replied with an agrarian-octogenarian mic drop.
Who's to say what "needs" to be written? Certainly we respond to needs we see around us, whether it's climate change or Christmas. But as often as not, I think the need is deeply internal. Over time, Berry's aphoristic reply has become an imperative for me: when the basilisk rumbles, try to get a glimpse.
The noise means something needs to be written. It means my job is to try to relay to the surface world what a basilisk looks like. Even if I can't look at it directly, I can get close.
And on the flip side, the basilisk’s clatter is also a courtesy announcement that it will eat me alive if I don’t pay attention. Thanks, buddy!
Plato argued that human art imitates life, that it mimics nature. He also doesn't do social media, so it's hard to reach him for clarification. "Mimesis" (now there's a 25 cent word for mimicking) is fine as theories go, but I wonder what he would say about the basilisk. As far as I can tell, we humans have a peculiar knack for inventing our future based on the stirrings of basilisks—creatures originating from our imaginations. It isn't so much that art mimics nature as it mimics human nature. We spend time with the basilisk, return to the surface with art, some of which, filtered through our hierarchies of values and opportunities, turns into technology and society, all of which guides and defines our human life and future, within the bounds of nature and natural law. Whether we live rightly within a healthy relationship with Nature and each other is Berry's chief concern, and should be ours too. But it all starts with the basilisk: what we really think and feel, how we respond to "what needs to be written," said, or done.
"Legos are a safe bet," I agree, as I navigate a working truce with the basilisk in favor of communing with my fans and on the surface. They don't know what I've just been through. St. Brené knows. Roy knows. William and Flannery and Plato, whatever his first name is, know.
Fortunately legos are concrete. (Or plastic, rather.) Forming an opinion about Christmas gifts isn't so hard; that comes quickly enough. But most of my actual thoughts and feelings are slippery and evasive—if not quite a basilisk, then more like Close Encounters with a giant mound of oatmeal, which I'm desperately trying to fashion into something consequential.
Oh, the burdens of this kind of fame are tiring! Help me, St. Brené!But Richard Dreyfuss understands. He urges me on. Our madman eyes lock from across the restaurant: this is important; this means something!