Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Evening's Entertainment

After binge watching Luther, House of Cards and the first four seasons of Girls over the last few weeks, Annie and I tried something a little different last night. Friends of ours had invited us over for a light dinner and a read-through of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. We scurried out into a squalling rain storm and arrived late, chilled and dripping. It reminded me of Bill Murray's playwright character Jeff, in Tootsie:
I don't want a full house at the Winter Garden theater. I want ninety people who just came out of the worst rainstorm in the city's history. These are people who are alive on the planet -- until they dry off. I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained.
There were seven of as altogether, veterans of the Nantucket Theater workshop, and one younger woman I had seen a few years ago playing Emily in a superb local production of Our Town. Our host had directed me in two David Mamet plays and acted with me in one,  back in the 90s. Annie had acted in or directed plays with all of them. She played Mrs. Webb in Our Town and Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degrees of Separation a couple of years ago, alongside two of the other guests. Our hostess studied Chekhov at Yale and has directed and acted in numerous productions, good and bad. She made an interesting point, between the home-made chicken soup and the table read: Bad Chekhov happens when people play to the language -- acting sad an mopey when they say things like "What does it matter? My life is over!" When actors treat the lines as comic, or at least ironic, they spring to life. Turns out, despair is kind of funny if you're stuck in the midle of it and realize how ridiculous you are.
We read through the play, pausing now and then to talk about what was really happening in a scene.("Astrov and Yalena are flirting here"; "Sonya just wants to be comforted") It was fascinating, and soon the fatigue of a long day burned off and the wry sad fatalistic brilliance of the play took over. We reached the end and sat in stunned silence for a few minutes. The play felt as fresh and contemporary as if it were being prepared for an off-Broadway run today. Astrov was actually upset about deforrestation and global warming -- in 1897. Our hostess pointed out that Chekhov was the first playwright to make drama out of ordinary lives -- not the kings and princes of Shakespeare, fighting great battles, but  down-at-heel landowners and doctors and failed academics, muddling through. He wrote them as workshop pieces so his friend Konstantin Stanislavsky could have scene work for his students as they worked out his new concepts of psychological drama.
By the end of the evening we were telling crazy anecdotes of the old days at the Theater Workshop (The actress who fell asleep in the middle of a scene, the actor who showed up drunk and almost killed himself making his entrance down a fire-pole, head-first) , planning new projects and reminiscing about evenings like this back in the 70s when there was literally nothing else to do during the long Nantucket winters.
When we got home I was reminded of acting in the old days, when I was way too wired after a performance to go to sleep. I finally dozed off around two in the morning and woke up to find myself redirected on the computer to the "walled garden" Comcast payment website. I was late with my bill and they wanted $179 to turn my cable and internet back on. Of course I paid them -- they make that part easy, at least. But I couldn't help thinking about the difference between the prefabricated TV entertainment we'd been staring at for the last few weeks, and the night before. Television, even the best television, is a supremely passive experience, designed to be narcotic. At the end of the last episiode you can barely crawl off to bed.
After a night of Chekov, we were flying.
Every element of the experiene seemed designed to awaken the dormant synapses -- the rain, the old friends, and most of all, the text. Just reading it aloud in a robotic monotone would have spiked the brain activity visible on an MRI. Actually engaging with the characters and their interactions, trying to understand what they wanted and what they were doing, probably caused a cranial fireworks display that would put the Fourth of July to shame. I thought of educated people in earlier centuries, with no X-box or movies, nothing to stream or download, playing chamber music together in the evenings. This was no different.
And as I typed in my routing number and my account number for the greedy corporate story-mongers at Comcast, I couldn't help noting one other signifiant fact: The Chekhov was free.

The College "For Profit" Sports Scandal -- Solved

Last Sunday, a shocking but not surprising edition of Bob Edwards' Weekend ran a documentary called "Dropping The Ball" . It described the horrific way college athletes are treated, with bogus "paper" courses that require no work at all and other classes that are tailored for the uninvolved and semi-literate.
In fact, around 30% of college athletes, in the "for-profit" sports -- basketball and football -- read at somewhere around the third grade level and don't progress much beyond that by graduation. Some can't read at all.From a cold Capitalist viewpoint, this set-up makes sense. These kids aren't students. They're professional athletes, the best kind of professional athletes:  the ones you don't have to pay.
 A woman who teaches remedial reading at the University of South Carolina – the epicenter of the most recent scandal – came forward with the truth and has been rewarded by hate mail and death threats. But professors at other schools have corroborated her story. These jocks take the deal university athletic programs offer because they're dreaming of a career in the NBA or the NFL. Some of them achieve that goal, but most of them don’t. The ones who are left behind face a grim future. After four years at college they remain uneducated.  Their chances of a successful adult life are slim to none. Like old race horses who can no longer run fast enough, they are discarded and forgotten.
The players have to work a 50 hour week to stay in shape for the big games, and it’s impossible for them to carry a full university course load  at the same time. No one expects them to. No one treats them like students or expects any meaningful academic performance from them. Too much money is riding on them keeping their undivided attention on the game.  This is a business and the business model works. No one is going to change it. So is the only solution to entirely dismantle the institution of NCAA sports?
I don’t think so.
The actual solution is simple. All it requires is for the schools to be honest and fair. I know that’s asking a lot, especially the honesty part, but here’s how it could work.
Athletes are signed for what is essentially a four year “farm team” semi-pro contract with the school. No fake classes, no lies and cheating, just a straightforward acknowledgment of the truth. After four years, ten to fifteen percent of them will go into professional sports, more than half will graduate with valid academic credentials and a solid start on a bright future. The thirty percent we’re talking about will be given the opportunity to re-enroll as actual students, with a four-year full ride scholarship to thank them for their previous unpaid labor, and a generous amount of tutoring and other special help to get them up to speed. No sports, no glory, no pro scouts buying them fancy dinners – just a fair shot at a real education. That’s what the schools promise now, with absolutely no intention of delivering.
They have to start making good on that promise.
And it could work. However academically challenged these kids might be, they have learned some crucial lessons during their years on the University basketball court or gridiron: teamwork, loyalty and most of all, discipline and the value of hard work. With help they can learn to apply those lessons to the classroom.
They deserve a chance to try. 

Emily Nussbaum's Drive-by Criticism

Well, it's not just her, though as a high profile TV critic for The new Yorker, she ought to know better.
First let's define our terms. A "drive by" critique is like a drive-by shooting -- fast and mean and cowardly: the opposite of a duel, or even a meaningful confrontation: squeeze the trigger, burn rubber and scram. Readers of the magazine that employs her know that Emily Nussbaum nurses an igrnorant, irrational loathing for Aaron Sorkin. Her fully realized essays about his work sound flat and shrill, as she takes the usual miss-by-a-mile potshots at the creator of The West Wing, Sports Night and The Newsroom: Sorkin is pompous, self-righteous, a bloviating narcissisitc bully, strutting his moral superiority and his overblown vocabulary for the unwashed masses. Yeah, well, he does have a good vocabulary. But it's his chracters talking, not him, and many of them (including the producer who faked a story on the second season of The Newsroom) are anything but the preening moral paragons Nussbaum describes. The protagonist of The Newsroom (her favorite target these days) Will McAvoy, starts out the show as a sold-out cable  news anchor, lobbing whiffle ball questions at politicians with no follow up,  pimping the lowest common denominator of infotainment in a greedy scramble for ratings. He has ideals but he's not living up to them. By the end of the show he's going to jail to protect a source.
According to Nussbaum, having ideals makes you pretentious, and living up to them makes you a bore. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact The Newsroom is far more entertaining, and serious, than the program Nussbaum was getting the vapors over this week -- Black Mirror, the new techno-Twilight Zone from England.

 Black mirror
Nussbaum chides Sorkin for demanding integrity from real newscasters, and sneers at him for placing himself, and his made-up people, above the hardworking real-world journalists ... her pals. Maybe that's the secret of these bizarre, infantile screeds -- the newspeople writing about Sorkin feel threatened. Well, they deserve to. I saw Chuck Todd, who took over the venerable Meet the Press recently, explaining with no shame that he asks softball questions and lets politicians lie on his show beause if he got tough with them they would never come back. Sounds like something an Aaron Sorkin "straw man" reporter would say. But it wasn't. It was a real guy, a smug college drop-out trying to fill Tim Russert's shoes and betraying every fundamental principle of his trade. Reporters are supposed to confront politicians, not suck up to them. The high-pitched whistling sound you hear is Tim Russert spinning in his grave.
So, Sorkin calls out debased puny sycophants like Chuck Todd and dramatizes one way they could do their job better. That makes him an urgently necessary moral visionary, not a clown. Sorry he hurt your feelings, Emily. But taking cheap shots at him doesn't do much to vindicate your point of view. In fact it just proves Sorkin's point.
This week's cheap shot was especially lame and petty, revealing Nussbaum's shallow view, even of the shows she likes. She was raving about the Black Mirror pilot in which the Prime Minister is coerced into having sex with a pig on live televsion, to save the life of a kidnapped princess. Emily noticed the whole nation's obsession with the unfolding story. But she failed to mention (or just never saw the significance of) the key plot point. The terrorist releases the princess a full half hour before the deadline, because he knows no one will notice, because they all have their eyes glued to their little black screens. If anyone had just glanced up for a second, the whole horror show could have been stopped. That's the point. It may be a tad exaggerated, raised to the level of fable for effect, but the point itself is sound. I had a small jolt of that same reality last April when I found myself crossing to the shady side of the street on the first sunny day of the spring, so I could read the screen of my smartphone.
Of course, if Sorkin had attempted such heavy handed commentary, Nussbaum would have been all over him like slime on tofu. But her drive-by attack chose to aim at his supposed techno-phobia. Check out this classic sentence with its perfectly aimed gratuitous parenthesis (She's discussing the creator of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker).
          Because Brooker is an insider, with a deep and imaginative understanding of tech culture, he doesn't come off as The Simpson's "Old Man Yells at Cloud" (or Aaron Sorkin, his representative here on earth).
I'll tell something about Aaron Sorkin -- he's never written a sentence that clumsy, or taken a cheap shot like that at anyone. And it's bullshit anyway -- Sorkin is no Luddite ... though some of his characters are (notably news director McKenzie McHale). Neil Sampat, a character who grew in stature and importance through all three seasons of the show, was dedicated to bringing Atlantis Media into the 21st century.
His only complaint with the internet was the people who abused it. But that point is a little too nuanced to fit  into Nussbaum's lazy, smart-aleck parenthesis. Nussbaum thinks that sideswipe makes her look shrewd and cool. Instead she comes off as paltry and unkind, rebarbative and unprofessional. But she remains at her post, and The Newsroom has been cancelled.
I humbly suggest  the opposite approach: bring back the show, and fire the critic.

Nantucket 5-Spot interview

The new Henry Kennis novel , Nantucket Five-Spot 
will be released in January. I did an inyerview about writing for a local give-away newspaper, which never ran it. But I think it's worth reading, in the exciting run-up to the publication date!

First, the questions --
1. Tell me about your creative process. Where do you write? How do your ideas come to you? 

2. How does your day job influence your writing?

3. Are your characters based on real people on the island?

4. Tell me a little bit about Nantucket Fivespot.

5. How many more Kennis books do you anticipate? 

6. Where are you originally from, and how did you end up on Nantucket?

7. Tell me about your years in Hollywood and how they have shaped you as a writer. 

8. Do you see any of yourself in Kennis, or vice versa? If so, please elaborate. 

And the answers --

1 -- I always write early in the morning -- usually from 5:00 to 7:30 or so. Partly that's because the integument between dreaming and reality is thinnest when you first wake up, before all the mundane stressful demands of the day begin. I remember when my kids were babies -- they're 18 months apart, so we had two under two for a while there -- having to start writing at four in the morning, to get something done before they woke up, I went to work at seven in those days, so the routine was brutal. I did manage to finish a book, though! And I might just sell it some day. I got an interested e-mail from an agent this week, thirty years later!  Relentlessness pays off. That's my advice to writers: be relentless.

As to ideas ... the most literary ones come out of real life, the desire to distill and express my actual experiences. I remember driving in a cab in Manhattan years ago with a girlfriend thinking as we cut through the park to the West Side, with Pilgrim Hill dropping away to the sailboat pond beside us, thinking ... she is seeing a totally different place than I am. She sees a grassy hill with a  turbid, cement-walled pool at the bottom. I'm seeing a hundred sled-rides, and the day my dog fell into the water, and class trips to the zoo -- a whole lifetime of memories. I wanted to make her see my  Central Park.  That's where a lot of the serious writing comes from. In detective fiction, so much of it is just finding what I call decepticons ... things that seem to be one thing but turn out to be something else -- clues. Connections that my detective can see and other people can't. You don't actually think of those -- at least I don't. They sort of appear. Like when my friend showed up in a wet jacket on a sunny day and told me it had been raining in Madaket. I thought -- decepticon! The suspect says he was in Madaket but his jacket was dry. And Henry knows it was raining because his second-in-command is a bird-watcher and he was out at the west end on a birding trip that day. Those little moments are gold to a newbie detective fiction writer.

2 -- I say in most bios that I write novels and paint houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of my customers. Unfortunately Poisoned Pen Press cut out the last part. My Dad was right -- people love to take out the jokes. In fact painting and writing are an excellent match. Repetitive physical labor frees the mind and I often end a day of disc-sanding or sash painting with just the idea I need for the next morning's work.

3 -- Most of the characters are amalgams of numerous people, who have little in common. Billy Delavane is part Neil Brosnan and part Ginger Andrews, with some of my old pal Steve Vannerson thrown in. And of course part of him is me. Someone one pointed out that they could see a lot of me in both Mike Henderson (A house-painter ... hmmmmm) and Henry Kennis. But there's a little of me in Preston Lomax, too.

4 -- Nantucket Five-Spot comes out next January. Here's part of the query letter that convinced the editor at Poisoned Pen to read it:

Locals, my 92,000 word mystery, takes place on the resort island of Nantucket, and the action covers three weeks in late July and early August, the height of the tourist season. A series of bombings threatens to destroy the island’s economy, along with its cachet as a haven for the wealthy. A local carpenter is accused of the crimes, but careful investigation -- by a police chief reminiscent of Jesse Stone in Robert B. Parker’s Paradise mysteries – proves that he’s being framed.  The story takes an unusual twist when it turns out that the new suspect is also being framed -- for the bizarre and almost unrecognizable crime of framing someone else. Every piece of evidence works three ways, eventually leading to the true villain and an obsessive revenge conspiracy stretching back twenty years, rooted in betrayed friendship, infidelity and the quiet poisonous feuds of small town life
It sounds insanely complicated, and it gave me migraines to write it, but all the early readers seem to approve. So ... fingers crossed!

5 -- Poisoned Pen Press only publishes series. Barbara Peters and her husband ran the Poisoned Pen book store in Scottsdale, Arizona for many years before they decided to start a publishing venture, and by then they knew  mystery readers inside out. Well, yeah --they'd been studying them for decades. One thing they figured out was that people like series. They want more of the same (but slightly different); and they like a character who grows and develops over the years. Obvious examples that come to mind: the Kenzie-Gennaro novels of Dennis Lehane and the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly. And don't forget Jack Reacher! Lee Child has a new one coming in September and I can't wait. Thomas Perry has #8 in his incomparable  Jane Whitefield series hitting the stores in January. People who come to A String of Beads fresh, and love it, will want to read the previous seven Jane Whitefield adventures, so every new reader's book-buying is automatically multiplied by the number of books in the series. Probably the most stunning example this is the Harry Potter novels, which built their audience exponentially, book by book. It works for little guys, too. Poisoned Pen doesn't really care how your first book fares in the marketplace -- they it will continue to sell as more books in the series come out. For that reason they want you to write at least four. I've outlined stories through #6, and I'm sure I'll have no problem carrying on after that. Nantucket is very inspirational
6-- I grew up bi-coastal in the days when air travel was a treat. First Class on TWA was giddy fun for a ten-year old, back in 1962. I was living in Los Angeles when I got back together with my college sweetheart. She move to LA, but she really hated it. "No matter where you go you're in the middle of nowhere," she said once. and another time, "These people think white wine is health food." We made a deal: if I didn't succeed as a screenwriter in five years, we'd move to someplace she wanted to live. That place was Nantucket. Her parent has honeymooned here in 1952; when they came back for their 20th anniversary it hadn't changed at all. They have two photographs, posed under the old Downeyflake donut on South Water Street. She had grown up as a vagabond following her Dad from state to state (He worked for McKinsey as a consultant), and she wanted her kids to have a hometown, even if they wound up leaving and never coming back. They'll always come back, but Caity is working as a social worker in Boston, and Nick is study for an masters degree in Public Policy at the American University in Beirut. You couldn't get much farther away than that. But he still misses his friends, the parties at 40th Pole. I hated it here at first -- I spent February of 1984 re-shingling the roof of the Stone Barn Inn! -- but I'm still here and Kim is gone. Very odd.
7 -- In Hollywood I learned two things:  story structure, and dealing with rejection. The one part of a screenplay that tends to survive the re-writes and director's touches is the structure. If you can carpenter together a solid plot, they usually leave it alone. The rest is action and dialogue. As a screenwriter, not to put too fine a point on it, EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING YOUR WORK FOR YOU. What about dialogue?, you might ask. Fair enough, but let's face it, dialogue is either easy and natural or just plain impossible for most writers. There's not much territory between perfect pitch and tone deaf, clever and stilted. Most screenwriters can spin out ten pages of dialogue before their first latte in the morning. Cutting it back is the tricky part. But other people do that job for you, too.

And every other aspect of the task is a free ride for the screenwriter. Atmosphere? The cinematographer and the composer handle that stuff. Creating the physical world in which the story takes place? The director, the production designer, the location manager, the CGI teams have that corner hammered down. Chemistry between the characters? It's Brangelina for chrissake. Or Bogey and Bacall, or Tracy and Hepburn. It's handled. Sex? That's the director's lookout. Screenwriters don't even have to try. As Shane Black said among his memorable stage directions in his Last Boy Scout script, "Hey, my mother reads this stuff. Actually I probably lost Mom in the hot tub blow job scene."

But the most crucial aspect of writing fiction scarcely appears in the screenwriter's life. The only faint hints are the stage directions 'CUT TO'and 'DISSOLVE TO'.

I'm talking aboiut transitions.

There's a reason why Virginia Woolf, when someone asked her how her writing day had gone, answered, "It was great. I got them off the couch, through the french doors and onto the veranda." That's the tough part, making those physical transitions work. Even tougher are the mental transitions... or as they say in the movies: 'actor's moments'. Describing the intricate mental process by which a character figures out something important,or changes his mind, or makes a decision, is the most technically demanding task a writer is ever faced with. If you make a single mistake, if a comma is out of place, if you say too much or too little, or lapse into cliche, rush or dawdle, over-play or understate, then you break the dream, and the reader becomes aware of you and your clumsy efforts, and the whole delicate machine comes to a grinding halt.

In fact, writing a book is just one transition after another, making things flow visually and physically, balancing action and thought and description in every paragraph. Compared to a screenwriter, it's like juggling a chain saw, a bowling pin and an apple (while eating the apple) ... versus, some guy lobbing a ball from hand to hand. "Look," he might remark, "Polish juggling." Pretty good line, slotted in there before the cut away. That's all a screenwriter needs.

Here's the last secret: this peripheral role in story telling is the real reason screenwriters are so miserable. Yes, they're at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood. Yes, they get paid worse than everyone else above the line. But their status is so low because they don't have enough to do. And they don't have enough fun. Making a narrative move all by yourself, keeping the action floating above the shallow spots, tacking through the perfect channels, is a challenge, yeah; it's tiring and frustrating. But it's also a gas. And screenwriters never feel it. Moving from the young hero to the about-to-be-killed mafioso whose death will kick the story into gear, all the screenwriter can do is say "CUT TO". The writer can do it any way he wants ... this way, for instance: "Eighty blocks downtown, Alfredo Blasi was thoroughly enjoying the last two hours of his life." You create momentum with a line like that. you jazz things up and put a spin on them. And you can do it as much as you want. You can play. Screenwriters can only watch the game from the outside, at that first preview (if they're invited).

No wonder they gripe all the time. But it's an easy complaint to fix. So I feel like saying to all those miserable scribes: Put that half-finished script aside, and try your hand at a novel -- or even a short story. Write a first sentence that lives and keep the action alive, hot and slippery, jumping in your hand, word by word until the end.

Try real writing. You may never go back.

That's what I did. I think it was the right choice.
8 -- As to me and Henry Kennis ... he is me! Just younger and smarter --  and much better looking.

Monopoly Capitalism at Work

I had a good laugh the other day, listening to that recording of the exhausted customer trying to cancel his Comcast account, against the relentless "Why, why whys?" of the maniacal cable company representative.
Then I broke my computer router, an accident which allowed me my own glimpse of media giant Comcast at work. Corporations may be people, but unfortunately most of them are bad people --sneaky self-satisfied bullies, scofflaws,cheats and liars. With the Congress and the Supreme Court on their side (or in their pockets) they're like the schoolyard thug who happens to be the Headmaster's son. Or the pig-faced++ Sherriff shaking you down in  some dusty little down, smirking, "Watcha gonna do, buddy? Call the cops?"
When I called Comcast, they told me I would need a new router, but the only one they were offering was a new improved router/modem combination unit. If this sounds smart and convenient let me remind you of Axelrod's Third Law: All improvements make things worse. In this case the "improvement" consisted of a much weaker and smaller router tucked into the modem. It's signal doesn't reach to the second floor of our apartment, where Annie has her office.
My first thought -- that's odd! The old, separate router worked just fine. When I went back to the comcast office they blithely told me I needed a "booster". This cost just over a hundred dollars. Would Comcast pay for it? Of course not. The trick is to make me pay extra. The fact that they proided me a defective machine is quite irrelevant. The nice girl behind the counter thought I was making a joke.
I bought the device, but of course I couldn't get it to work without a $129 call to a Netgear affliliated tech service. Even with the tech guy on the phone it took almost four hours to get everything up an running. So I lost around $250 and a morning's work in the busiest time of the year. I can't help thinking that a competitor willing to provide a workable replacement router for free would have forced Comcast into a more cooperative response.
The customer on the phone with the die-hard Comast seales rep last week refused to explain why he wanted to change his internet and cable provider. More than anything else, that's what drove the sales rep. crazy
He should give me a call. I'll give him an ear-full.

Nantucket Summer: Moving Violations

If I were Henry Kennis, the Police Chief in my Nantucket mystery novels, there are days when I would arrest everyone on the I see on the streets Not all of them are breaking the law – the drunk drivers and the speeders; but their outrages are just as infuriating, especially when we hit the mid-point of the summer, August is careening toward us, and you know it’s all just going to get worse.
Where to start? How about with the Rotary piggy-backers? Sit on the deck at Lola Burger and watch the show – three, four, five, six cars caravanning into the roundabout from Milestone road, an unbroken train of heedless overpriced metal, while everyone else fumes and waits. The last car – most likely a Range Rover or a BMW M5 – was still on Polpis Road when the the painter in the old van, heading out from Marine Home Center, arrived at the intersection. And yet somehow Mr. BMW is entitled to first place in the line. He pushes to the front at Bartletts and Sandoli’s, too. But his kids are worse, texting while they drive, honking and shouting abuse when the lady in front of them hits the brakes for a gaggle of kids on bikes.
Then there are the finger twigglers, the lords of the four-way stop sign. They got there first but refuse to go through, wiggling their fingers at you, imperiously granting you permission to drive on. Does that seem neighborly and polite? Just try ignoring them. Then you find out it’s some kind of perverse twisted power play.
I haven’t forgotten the parking lot miscreants. They don’t get – or choose to ignore -- the  most obvious, if unwritten, parking lot rule: free parking spaces are a lottery. If someone is loading their groceries into the back of their car as you’re driving by, YOU LOSE. Keep moving. Leave the spot for the next person. Don’t make a growing line of cars wait for five minutes so you can grab it. Most of all, do  not BACK UP when you realize you’ve passed newly liberated spot, and force all those other people to back up also, for your convenience. No one cares about your convenience.
At least the Stop & Shop has marked spaces. The long side of Marine home center, where the tradesmen park, has never bothered to paint in some slant parking lines, so most days you see two big trucks parked in a V, or one giant van parked parallel – anything to use up an extra space or two during the busiest time of the year. Thanks, guys.
Which brings us to the oh-so-special ten-speed racing bike divas. We paid five million dollars for our bike paths on this island, your lordships – so use them. I know, you’re too good, too cool in your rainbow spandex and toe clips, too far above the lowly three speed family excursionists and the kids with the training wheels. You deserve to share the road with the cars. Except, sorry, but you don’t. You block traffic, you’re a danger to yourself and others, and your smug Tour-de-France attitude just makes you look like clowns. Get over yourselves and use the bike path – or we may start drug testing you.
The worst offenders are the parents with their double wide baby carriages who refuse to use the sidewalks. They’re called sidewalks, super-Mom. Let’s parse that. They’re located on the side of the road for people walking. That would be you. What’s the problem? Do the brick sidewalks disturb your baby’s beauty sleep? He’ll live. I heard one toddler calling his mom from inside one of those deluxe canopied rickshaws, on his cellphone. Every toddler should have a cellphone – and its so hard to text when you’re rolling over the bricks. If I have to sit in one more line of cars on Union Street, backed halfway up to the duck pond because of some oblivious parent with a baby carriage … I’ll just roll up the windows, turn on the air conditioner and listen to someone on the radio talking about the delights of a Nantucket summer.
Which will make me no different than the idior who ruined my lunch a few days ago at the little turn-out near the Island Home. It’s one of the few peaceful spots mid-island, with a lovely view of the marsh and the harbor. The air was mild and silky, but this guy in his giant truck wouldn’t know that, because his windows were rolled up and the air-conditioning was on, cheating himself of the true beauty of the day and treating us to a dose of fumes and engine noise worthy of the Cross-Bronx Expressway.
It’s enough to make you flee back to the Bronx. At least in a real city you can see more than one movie and buy a decent bagel. The moving violators of Nantucket should make boat reservations, jump in their SUVs, get out of here and give it a try. We’ll come down to the boat and throw confetti, as if they were leaving on the QE II. I know, that’s not going to happen. And it’s okay – they’ll all be gone after Labor Day. That’s only five weeks from now.
But this year more than any year I can remember, I’ll be counting down the seconds. 

Op-Ed Round-Up, Mass Killers Edition

In honor of Dick Cheney’s recent op-ed piece on Iraq, and because I know you’re all busy and there’s so much to read out there I’m offering a round up of four other editorial voices heard around the world in recent weeks. There’s nothing like a self-serving screed by a legendary amoral monster, mass killer or war criminal to lighten the mood over coffee and croissants!
Heinrich Himmler
Writing in Der Speigel
The gist:
Apparently Jew were really bad. They had horns and stuff. And Hitler was a lovely man, mistreated by history. “Arbeit Mach Frei” – words to live by! New developments in Europe give him hope.
Writing in El Coreo
The Gist:
The Inquisition was necessary and effective – and a lot of fun. It should be brought back promptly, especially considering the new lax and subversive tone from the Vatican. “Call me old school,” he says. “But nothing beats a good torture session to help a heathen see the light.”
Pol Pot
The Gist:
Writing in the Rasmei Kampuchea Daily
“I just don’t like people who disagree with me!”
Vlad the Impaler
Writing in the Transylvaniq Times
The Gist:
He wants to set the record straight. He was a beloved ruler and even a folk hero in Romania. People wanted to stay on his good side! As for all that impaling, He only impaled people when they deserved it. “Fair is fair.”

Unsung Super Heroes: Embrace the Alphabet, X-Men Fans

x men

Enough with the X-men movies, already! There was one trilogy, then a prequel, than a bunch of unwatchable Wolverine pictures and now they've mashed the Wolverine, the prequels and the sequels into one giant steaming savory X-men Paella for us to gorge ourselves on. Well that's fine for the X-men -- all X-Men all the time. That must make them feel like a pretty darn welcome bunch of outcasts. But what about the other groups? Where are their movies? What other groups, you ask?
My point exactly!
Time for some schooling. Let's go right through the alphabet, at least the relevant letters. The letters that don't even get a bunch of loser super heroes ... well, we'll deal with their issues in a different post. Sorry, letter "L"! Go drown your trouble with "S" "T" and "W".
So first of all, you have the tediously religious A-Men.
Why they're outcasts: Who wants a group of heroes who have to pray before every fight and seek compassion for the super villains! Mongo the Living Firestorm is trying to burn down Manhattan! Stop him now! Forgive him later. And put away that collection plate! Mongo doesn't carry cash. Sheeesh.
Then there are the sad B-Men
Why they're outcasts: So many reasons. Cell phone tower radiation kills them, no one understands how they can fly, everyone mistakes them for wasps (who don't give a shit -- take a lesson from those wasps,  B-Men!) and though you may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, honey doesn't really help when you're going up against Magneto. A sweet, stcky Magneto is just a more irritable Magneto. Still Magneto, sorry.
Who next? The sexually obsessed C-Men
Why they're outcasts: Because they spend all day trolling for internet porn when they're supposed to be saving the world. Hello! Sign off and get busy!
Make way for the horrific D-Men.
Why they're outcasts: What can I say. No one likes demons. They're scary. And tossed-off quips like "What's wrong with destroying the world, anyway? Will there be torture and stuff?" don't help matters!
And how about the pushy self imprtant G-Men?
Why they're outcasts: Drunk FBI agents in stupid Halloween costumes? You tell me.
Then you have the geeky i-Men.
Why they're outcasts: Bad priorities. They'd rather argue about the 5G version of their powers than go out an use the 4g version and get the job done. Running away from a villain whining "We need upgrades!" doesn't make you a good role model. And how about that poor shlep they to didn't even bother to save because "He was a PC" and not only that -- "Aol e-mail? Let him die." Bad attitude, iMen.
Who's next? The hilariously irrelevant J-Men.
Why they're outcasts: When your only super power is crossing crowded streets against a red light, you're just going to annoy people. And get lots of tickets.
The lame pathetic K-Men?
Why they're outcasts: They agree to everything. They started out as the chirpy optimistic OK-Men, but now it's just a slap-happy gum-chewing "Kay!" "I'm going to take over the world and reduce all you puny humans to slavery!"
Just say no, K-Men.
Who else ... the eerie, prognosticating O-Men.
Why they're outcasts: No one wants to hear it! "Magneto is going to destroy the city!" Care to DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT, buddy?!"
"And afterward, even worse mutants will trample the wreckage. And eat the suriviors."
Thanks for the heads up, Cassandra.
But they're better than the disgusting P-Men
Why they're outcasts: Why do you think?! They piss everywhere! Not just the shower, not just the pool. Everuwhere.How does that help anything? Some of these creepy villains actually like being pissed on. Here's a clue: don't charge after "Golden Showers Man" and expect to make any headway.
Then, we have the dutiful Q-Men and their tiresime sycophants, the U-Men
Why they're outcasts: You don't wait on line to attack a supervillain! You just go for it. They're not taking a number to destroy the city. "Ah, 29? I'll be here forever! If there's any city left after Mole Man and Elecrtro get through with it. Good thing I brought a book to read." And does every single one of you need to have a mindless toady U-Man standing behind you? That doesn't help matters. "I go where my Q-man goes. I'm having what Q-man 's having." Get a life! Take a trip on Qantas airlines! That sould be a nice wake-up call.
Now, the U-Men
Why they're outcasts: They pass the buck. They say "we delegate" but that's crazy talk. Giant evil creatures are turning the city to ice ... and the superhero asks me to pitch in? Are you kidding? Get off the phone, stop texting, put down the Latte and start SAVING THE WORLD. You don't have to ask your Q-Man for permission! Grow up.
Finally we come to the dreamy intellectual  Y-Men
Why they're outcasts: They think too much! We say, "The Vanisher and the Blob have teamed up with Unus the Untouchable and thr Shadow King! They want to take over thhe world!" You're supposed to say "We got this," or "On it." or "Y-Men awayy!"or something. Not "What do we speak of when we speak of the world? Is it merely the physical world? Or is it the aggregate of human culture we are discussing? Even if it's both, would saving it be a necrssary good? And what do we mean by the term "good" ?"
Jesus Christ on the crapper! Just shut up and save the world! This world! The one with no God where only your authentic actions matter. Authenticv actions like, oh, I don't know ...  saving the world, for instance! Don't ask yourself "What would Sartre do?" He'd get drunk and write an unreadable essay! In  French! THAT WOULD NOT HELP.
Last and least, the negligible Z-Men
Why they're outcasts: They just mope about always coming last. "Since when did the world have to do EVERYTHING in alphebetical order? Huh?" They gripe about standing for sleep "We're the banner boys for the narcoelptics! Yay." and standing for "Zebra" in every stupid alphabet book. "We hate zebras. They're just horses with accessories." Some evil mutant attacks they're like -- ask any of the other Letter-men.
Dangerous battles -- the one place where it's good to come last. Also, walking through minefields.
So there you are Hollywood. The full inventory of absurd super-heroes.
Get busy! You've got a lot of movies to make.


A friend of mine died last Saturday.
This won’t be an obituary; I’m not qualified to write one. I never knew his whole life story, just the part of it that touched my own. But Ken Cross had a big place in that life and his death leaves a big hole. He came to Nantucket in 1987, bought a house in Wauwinet with his partner Joan Barr, flipped it and then rode the big ground swells of the real estate boom for the next decade, Ken painting and Joan decorating mansions and cottages, selling them and moving on. His daughter Meredith came to the island a few years ago to assemble a photograph album of all the projects they’d worked on here. It was quite a task.
They changed the island during their stay. Many people believe that Joan Barr introduced bead-board and teak countertops to the interior design vocabulary of the island; and Ken introduced a new kind of house-painting: real world, New Jersey production painting. Wags referred to him as “Earl Sheib” after the cut rate car painting maven. There was more fear than contempt in those remarks. Ken underbid the established class of old school contractors by as much as two thirds, painting a house inside and out for twenty thousand dollars when the next higher bid was sixty. How was that possible? I learned first-hand, working for him on and off over the next ten years. He taught me to use an airless spray gun, and I worked with him on the first house we did, stuffing outlets and lighting holes with newspaper, stretching plastic over the windows, opening and pouring out the 5-gallon buckets of latex.
In that first day we used seven “fives” of Ben Moore Wall Satin thirty five gallons of paint. When we were done, the closets and ceilings were finished and the trim and doors were primed -- latex penetrates wood just fine when it’s hitting the surface at three thousand force pounds per square inch. It was exhilarating. Cleaning up afterward, he said, “Pretty soon I’m going to be able to leave you here in the morning and pick you up in the afternoon with the whole house sprayed and the machine taken apart and cleaned out with thinner in the lines.” I thought he was crazy; I had trouble filling a fountain pen. But he was right. Ken was right about a lot of things. He was one of the toughest, most shrewd and practical men I’ve ever met. I didn’t learn how to paint from him really, except for the spraying and occasional tips, like rolling ceilings with yourself as the base of a pendulum, or dipping the putty knife in thinner when glazing windows.
No, what I learned from Ken was how to run a job, and in many crucial ways, how to run a life.
I remember, we were painting a billionaire’s house on Washing Pond Road, working behind Bruce Killen’s crew. I was alone in the house one afternoon when the phone rang. It was the owner, an affable gent calling from somewhere in Europe, curious about our progress. I told him everything was going fine, that the English specialist was starting to sponge paint the bedrooms. Things like that. I thought I handled myself pretty well, and couldn’t wait to tell Ken about the phone call.
He was furious.
“You NEVER tell anyone my business! I don’t want this guy knowing I hired some English punk to sponge paint his bedroom! I want him to think I could finish this job if everyone who worked for me died tomorrow! Think about it this way. Nothing you say can improve the way this guy thinks of me. You can leave him thinking of me the same way or thinking worse – that’s all. So you say nothing. No! You say, ‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ken about that’ Let’s try it! Is this kitchen finished?
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ken about that.”
“How do the colors look in the children’s suite?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask ken about that.”
“And your girlfriend – she good in bed?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ken about that.”
We were both laughing by then. There was a level of insane mischief he was capable of, and he could always laugh at himself, which is rare. “You’re a 40-year-fourth grader,” Bill Dowling told him once. Ken roared with laughter: “It’s only funny because it’s true!”
The lesson of that day on Washing Pond Road stuck with me, though. I’ve tried to play my cards closer to the vest since then, keeping customers on a need-to-know basis. Whenever I manage to do it, things go well; when I talk too much, things go wrong. But Ken always enjoyed disasters, even as they were happening. How many times was I going to have to tell the story of stepping into the five gallon paint bucket for a group of his rowdy friends?
No more times, now. I never thought I’d feel bad about that.
Ken taught me how the different parts of a job connect with each other, and impact each other. I remember after some minor disaster (a paint spill; a spatter of white oil paint on a faux-painted wall), hearing the all-too familiar “What am I going to do? I can’t fix this!”and telling him how I could clean it up and him charging back at me: “That’s not the point! You’re cleaning your mess, not painting what you’re supposed to be painting, so someone else has to drop what they’re doing to pick up the slack, and then another guy has to do what he was doing and pretty soon no one’s doing anything they were supposed to do and I’m losing my shirt on this job!” Once he calculated on the fly how much time and money he was losing with a six man crew taking a twenty minute coffee break six times a week. It was scary.
But he was also generous. He came back from a vacation and gave me an extra thousand dollars (it was just around Christmas) for “carrying the ball” on the job while he was gone. And who could forget the end-of-project battle cry, “You push, I pay.” And he did.
He fired me twice – both times deserved. I walked off the job on my own finally; but we always wound up working together again. We understood each other. I still have his voice in my head when I’m working (“Push that latex! Throw a good coat on there! Square it off! Flood that hole! Caulk it with paint! Float a good coat on there. Bully that roller! We’ll just face it off for the next coat --you agree?”) After he moved to Florida I got calls from him at random intervals, usually with a Hollywood question. from some bar in Naples “Ryan O’Neal’s kid – the one in paper Moon – who married what his name, the tennis player?”
“Tatum! Tatum O’Neal. Great! I knew you’d know.”
It was always good to hear from him. I went down to Naples for a couple of weeks a few years ago, and it was just like old times, working Sunday “To get a jump on Monday, Yah?”, going out to dinner and regaling a new group of friends with our crazy exploits. I always thought there’d be more of them. Ken seemed immortal, a jolly sharp eyed juggernaut. But cancer found him and he took himself out. That was typical of Ken: he wasn’t going to give himself up to the hospitals and hospices, the chemo and the commiseration.
He was never much for being helpless.
I just wish he’d called first, with one more joke, one more job, one more Hollywood question. I wish the people I know now, who know him only through my version of him (“What happened?! No way in the world this takes so long! Did you go to town? The upstairs is done, yah?”) could meet the real person, the one who took my side when I was getting divorced, snooping my ex-wife’s house so he could tell me triumphantly “You’re the slob? She’s still got that mountain of laundry in the basement!”
But he appreciated her, too. And he never let me get away with my griping. “At least she feeds those kids real food,” he snapped at me once, after I confessed to one more take-out pizza dinner. And when I complained about their mom having full custody, he just laughed. “Are you kidding me? That’s the way it should be! When was the last time you made anyone a Halloween costume?” He nailed it, as usual. And he was a brilliant physical mimic; no one who watched his impression of a certain crew-member having a leisurely smoke as she daubed the paint onto a window sash, or his classic hip-slapping hapless Nantucket painter doing the “Where’s my putty knife” dance, could never watch the real thing again without a smile.
Ken was the one who would always keep a secret, pick up the tab, make a loan and enjoy a laugh – at his own expense, or mine. Well, that's all over now. But I’ll always his have voice in my head, and it will always come out at odd moments and make some new set of strangers laugh. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. It may be the only kind of immortality we get.
Better than being forgotten – you agree?
Yeah, Ken. I definitely agree.

In Storage

The twenty-by-fourteen storage locker holds the last of my mother’s itinerant belongings. They accompanied her from her house in Connecticut to her apartment in Los Angeles and then up to Grass Valley when she remarried in her sixties. After her husband’s death these nomadic lamps and file boxes, books and cassette tapes, the blue silk Bergere armchair with its faithful ottoman sidekick, followed her to Sacramento, and then to Long Beach when she checked into the assisted living facility there. My son drove them to Nantucket when we moved her here, and she visited them often on nostalgic field trips from the Island Home.
They always seemed glad to see her, the dusty old books (Archie and Mehitabel, Acres and Pains ), the folders full of her working notes on pronunciation and grammar and public speaking, her files of my letters, and my brother’s Camp  Killooleet progress reports written by John Seeger in the 1960s, praising Peter’s and skills at third base, his progress in canoeing and riflery, his helpful leadership on overnight hikes. 
The tables stand quietly, the bookshelves sag a little. New members of the fraternity – a deluxe walker that didn’t fit through the door of her new bathroom, the wheelchair that proved redundant among all the others at the Island Home – lean against the side wall uneasily, next the rolled bamboo screen donated by my ex-wife, which we used to separate the living room from the dining room of our small apartment when we set up a bed for Mom during the few months when she lived with us.
We often spoke of taking the two beige metal file cabinets to her room at the Home, so she could restart her business, consulting on communications, helping foreigners lose their accents and speak standard English. It never happened, of course; at ninety, she didn’t have the strength to begin again and her small shared room would never have worked as an office. She couldn’t even use the computer any more. Parkinson’s had effectively scrambled her old manual dexterity. So the files remained in storage, and we dropped in on them occasionally.
Then she died, and now her ashes sit in my front hall closet, due to be scattered into the East River near where  I grew up in Manhattan, but going nowhere, settling in among the old storm windows  and garden tools and plastic tubs of my own papers for the long haul, like a squatter in an abandoned building. I’m the landlord who can’t send out the eviction notice.
At least I’m not paying rent for the ashes: the storage fees run two hundred and thirty six dollars a month. It’s been more than a year since she died, and so far I’ve paid more than $3,600 to maintain a home for this orphaned tribe. I toy with the idea of hiring a moving company to clear the space out and cart it all to the dump. It would probably cost less than a month’s rent. I think of those chilly, climate controlled subterranean corridors, the hospital-sized elevator, the awful florescent lights (they follow you, turning on and off as you move through the labyrinth), the canned classic rock (Mom would have preferred Mozart) piped quietly above the polished cement floors, , and  I realize that I actually hate the place. Yet I keep going back, to pull a file or leaf through a book, and strategize the endgame. It would only take a day or two, really. I don’t need to pay anyone: my friend has already volunteered his giant Econoline van for the job.
But I can’t do it. Not yet.
Instead I keep coming back, to touch the last physical manifestation of my mother’s spirit clinging to the vacated world. I pay every month and I’ll keep on paying until I can finally sever these last ties. When I do it, I’ll probably fly to New York and scatter her ashes on the same day, in the same grand gesture of letting things come to an end. It will be a proud afternoon, a last harrowing initiation ritual of adulthood, standing free, above the brown, momentarily white-speckled water of the East River, listening to the cars rush by below me on the FDR Drive.
It sounds good, but I’m determined to put it off for a long as possible. Two hundred and thirty dollars a month seems a small price to pay for this proud cowardly procrastination. Even the word “scatter” chills me. I don’t want to scatter my mother. I want to clutch her to my chest and never let go.
So I write another check and mail it in wondering: how many of the sad-eyed shuffling men and women I pass in the barricaded halls are just like me, poised and paralyzed at the edge of same abyss? And I see that this is a brilliant racket, storing these fragments of a life against the finality of loss, better than leasing space to the gallery owner to stock his pictures, or to the man with the slot next door, to shelter his cases of French red wine.
The pictures will be sold, the wine opened and shared.
My mother is there to stay.

The Fountain of Youth

This is it! I found it! The fabled Fountain of Youth!  Long sung by bards and visionaries from Herodotus to Prester John, prized by Ponce de Leon ... but never glimpsed by modern man ... Until today!
That's the good news. The bad news takes the form of two small metal placques on the stone-work of the fountain's base.
One says "Patent 23461, Novardis Corp. 2012".
The other one says:
"Possible side effects may include migraine headache, cramps, peptic ulcers, hysterical blindness, skin rash, painful urination, night sweats, renal failure, blood clots, paralysis, nausea, projectile vomit, hair loss, amd suicidal thoughts or actions."
It also said, "Continued on next placque".
But I didn't have the heart to read it.

From Hogwarts to Brakebills: My J.K. Rowling Problem

As most people know by now, J.K. Rowling recently published a mystery novel, under the pseudonym John Galbraith. Like roughly half a million other people, I bought The Cuckoo’s Calling as soon as the ruse went public. I read the first hundred pages, and that’s where I suspect I parted company with the rest of the crowd.
People often say they “couldn’t put down” some bestseller they’re reading. I experience the insidious reverse: I enjoy some book while I’m reading it, and indeed if I could somehow contrive to get through the thing in one sitting, I’d happily add a notch to my kindle. The problem comes when I set the book aside. Some novels are stubbornly difficult to pick up again, and Rowling falls into this category for me.
 Here I should admit that I stopped reading the Harry Potter books halfway through final installment, the final Voldemort confrontation and many other thrilling passages and set pieces still ahead of me. That seems crazy, I know. After nearly 4000 pages struggling with Harry and the gang through so many terms at Hogwarts, so many potions masters, so much mischief from the Ministry of Magic, so many brushes with the Dementors, so many hi-jinks from so many house-elves, how could I desert them in their final and most desperate hour?
Easy. I got bored.
The same thing happened, much more quickly, with Rowling’s mainstream novel of small town English politics, The Casual Vacancy. Call me foolish, or simply a loyal fan in the throes of denial, but it wasn’t until I gave up on The Cuckoo’s Calling that I was forced to admit that something was seriously askew.
The exact way it happened gave me a hint at the nature of the problem. I had recently started re-reading Lev Grossman’s far less popular fantasies. No knock on Grossman -- what isn’t far less popular than Harry Potter? Potable water and potato chips come to mind, but that’s about it.  Anyway, Grossman is writing a trilogy, and the first two books are called The Magicians and The Magician King. 
            With volume two in my kindle, I had shifted to it, away from Rowling’s mystery, just before giving up on reading altogether for the night and going to sleep. The next morning I opened my e-reader to what I assumed would be The Cuckoo’s Calling. I felt a faint, almost ineffable shiver of reluctance. No matter: I was determined to pursue the investigations of Rowling’s hero, Cormoran Strike, using some portion of that crippled veteran’s stubborn discipline to get the job done. I would track him relentlessly into the hidden precincts of narrative bliss! Defeat was not an option! Morning would give me a new grip on the story.
I’m reasonably alert after my first cup of coffee.
            Much to my surprise, when I opened the e-book, I was faced with a page of The Magician King. The relief was palpable. This is what I saw. I know it’s drastically out of context, hundreds of pages into the second book of a series, But Penny is an old friend of Quentin Coldwater, the titular Magician King, dating back to their days when they were both students at Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy.
            “Did you ever wonder,” Penny said, “where magic comes from?”
            “Yes, Penny,” Quentin said dutifully. “I did wonder about that.”
            “Henry had a theory, He told me about it when we were at Brakebills.”
            He meant Dean Fogg. Penny only ever referred to the Brakebills faculty by their first names, to shown he thought of himself their equal.
            “It seemed wrong to him that humans should have access to magic. Or not wrong, but strange. It didn’t make sense. He thought it was too good to be true. As magicians we were taking advantage of some kind of cosmic loop-hole to wield power that by rights we were never meant to have. The inmates had found the key to the asylum, and we were running amok in the pharmacy.
            “Or think of the universe as a vast computer. We are end-users who have gained admin-level access to the system, and are manipulating it without authorization. Henry has a whimsical mind. He isn’t a rigorous theoretical theorist by any means, but he does have moments of insight. This was one of them.”
            This is not the kind of question Rowling cares about. Grossman’s characters ponder the world and their position in it, in ways that the wizards and muggles and mudbloods never do. To be fair, most of Rowling’s readers probably don’t want them to. They want their story-telling straight and undiluted: no fancy cocktails with the bitters and egg-white foam of irony and humor. Just one shot glass of story after another: what happens next, what happens next, what happens next?, until they’re passed out on the floor.
            I tell people that Lev Grossman’s books are a combination of Harry Potter and Bright Lights, Big City. His magicians are college-age, hip, self-aware, snide and funny. They’ve read Rowling (and laugh at the way her wizards need wands); they’ve read C.S. Lewis, too – as well as Christopher Plover, author of the Fillory and Further tetrology. This last set of books, chronicling the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a Narnia-like fantasy realm, have been the primary literary obsession of Quentin Coldwater, the hero of the Magicians books, since he first learned how to read.
mag king 
            The truth of the matter at first appears to be every reader’s dream: Fillory is real, the Chatwin children really went there, and you can, too. That’s what Quentin discovers, along with some considerably darker revelations. Though the Chatwin kids were booted out of their fantastical utopia at the end of every adventure by the twin rams Ember and Umber, who rule over the magic kingdom, in reality the oldest boy Martin contrived to stay on, becoming a horrific, corrupted – and immensely powerful -- Beast in the process. Quentin and his fellow-graduates eventually face off with Martin, as the Hogwarts crew finally have their showdown with Voldemort.
But for the Brakebills crew that battle is really just the beginning, the climax of the first novel, with many more adventures to come. Quentin and his three friends become the Kings and Queens of Fillory by the start of the second book, and as one might expect of real people, the endless luxury, delicious food and vast straight boulevards of leisure time soon begin to pall on them. At this moment a real crisis threatens the magical world. The gods or godlike creatures who actually run things have discovered that humans have been using magic. As the ever-irksome Penny explains, “They’re going to close whatever loop hole they’ve left open that lets us use magic. When they’re done it will go dead, not just here but everywhere, in every world … most worlds will simply lose magic. I think Fillory may fall apart and cease to exist entirely.”
But there’s a “back door” written into the software of this system, a way to “let magic back out into the universe”.
It requires finding seven keys, and that requires a full scale, all-hands-on-deck quest, just the sort of authentic adventure, with the highest possible stakes, that Quentin and his friends, and of course the reader, have been longing for. The books have featured other journeys – the trip to Brakebills South, with Quentin’s whole class transformed into geese for the migration; the perilous voyage from that outpost to the South Pole using only the spells they’d learned. Then there was that first trip to Fillory, stalking Martin Chatwin and finally finding him in Ember’s tomb, a maze of catacombs under the Nameless Mountains.
But this new quest relates directly to a very different hunt, one undertaken by Julia Wicker, Quentin’s high school crush. She was also invited to apply to Brakebills, but she didn’t get in. Most rejects take the whole experience as a kind of dream and forget about it, a specialized amnesia helped along with spells from the faculty of school itself.
But Julia remembers. She knows magic is real and starts to teach herself – finding old books, and weird fragmets of spells on-line, Finally, moving through hidden safehouses and acquiring the tattoo stars that credential her progress, she discovers an elite group of self-taught underground magicians. It is their combined efforts to penetrate the deeper world of magic that alerts the gods to the humans trespassing in their world.
They caused the crisis. now Julia has to help solve it.
The adventure ends on a beach at the farthest edge of the world, by a wall with a door and seven keyholes. The triumph is a bittersweet one for Quentin:
This was the triumph, People would tell this story forever. Though they might leave out how melancholy the twilit beach seemed, like all beaches in the early evening, when the fun is over.
 This is what I get from Grossman that I find so lacking in J.K.Rowling – the rueful adult point of view, that irony-laced realism. Here is Quentin talking about the mechanics of spells and incantations, with a gentle sideswipe at the students of Hogwarts:
One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorize the incantation – or you just read it off the page if that was too much trouble – you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words –and just like the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture – just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe –well there was just no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.
Quentin  had been perversely relieved when he learned there was more to it than that.
And of course, all of this ultimately comes from Lev Grossman himself. Beyond the characters and the plot of these books, the unique playful inquisitive sharp-witted mind of their author sparkles. You want to meet Grossman as you move through these clever, truth-spiked fables, and in fact you do meet him. To some extent this is true of all authors, apart from the step-by-step machinsts of the Hardy Boys or the Harlequin Press.
But that’s where the harsh judgment intrudes. Some people are just more interesting than others, and the ability to construct a suspense-filled plot doesn’t indicate much about you. A plot is like a bannister or a pleated dress: the skill required to construct them doesn’t guarantee a lively mind or a scintillating dinner companion. Or a book that stays with you after the last page is closed.
Rowling is in many ways a wonderful story teller, but she cannot give you the greater wonder of the way the story is told. And I find, these days, that’s all I really care about. I root for Harry Potter and the gang but I care about Quentin Coldwater, and I cared about him from the first lines of the first book:
“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
Harry Potter is done and I think even Rowling allowed herself a sigh of relief when she reached the end. Ultimately, Harry was a well-intentioned bore. He could never  have had subversive but entirely reasonable thoughts like these about Hogwarts:
Quentin’s mind spun.Maybe he should ask to see a brochure. And no one had said anything about tuition yet. And gift horses and all that notwithstanding, how much did he know about this place? Suppose it really was a school for magic. Was it any good? What if he’d stumbled onto some third tier magic college by accident? He had to think practically. He didn’t want to be committing himself to some community college of sorcery …
 Well, Brakebills turned out to be first rate, and so did the books. As for Quentin, he’ll be back next year, in The Magician’s Land, and I  for one can’t wait to see him.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Nantucket Sawbuck excerpt

By a diabolical sequence of accidents and unforeseen circumstances, Mike Henderson's desperate last-minute trip from Nantucket to New York City, undertaken to save his marriage, winds up making him the one suspect in a major murder investigation with an obvious motive, great opportunity  -- and no alibi. He winds up in jail, desperately trying to clear his name, looking at the possibility of life in prison ... but he'd still probably say the trip was more than worthwhile.

Mike Henderson arrived in New York with the first blizzard of the season. He rode behind the plow into the city from LaGuardia. The snow was blowing horizontal and the wind whined like a table saw. Mike's flight had almost been forced back to Nantucket and the airport had closed a few minutes after they were on the ground.
Mike sat in the back of the cab, trying to work the tension out of his hands, staring out the window at the whitened industrial outskirts of the city. "Clean it up with paint," his first boss had always said: no scrubbing or sanding, just a heavy layer of latex. "Don't make it right - make it white." That's what Queens looked like this morning: filth and garbage covered over with pristine crystal. The snow itself would be filthy enough soon.
He had only one chance here and he had almost blown it. If the plane had been turned back, if he had taken a later flight, even half an hour later, if this old Buick skidded on the icy Major Deegan ... and even if he made it into the city, there was no guarantee -
He was thrown against the side of the cab as the driver changed lanes abruptly.
"Hey! Slow down," Mike called out, through the pitted plexiglas barrier between them. But beyond street names and monetary denominations, the driver seemed to speak no English. He wore a turban and spoke continuously into a headset. He never paused to listen. Was it some elaborate prayer? Was he dictating a novel? Mike settled himself back in the seat again. It was irrelevant. The driver knew what he was doing. Mike needed to think about what he was going to say this morning. Everything depended on that. And his mind was a blank.
How had things gotten this bad? They had wanted a baby for years. Cindy had gotten pregnant two years before, but she had miscarried. That tragedy had revealed every weakness in their marriage. Cindy had been inconsolable and Mike had been shut out completely. It was her tragedy, it had happened inside of her. Mike had nothing to do with it. He could only intrude. When he tried to understand, he was presumptuous. When he tried to cheer her up, he was shallow. When he ignored her, as she seemed to want, he was heartless.
But it was even worse than that. Over time, she had come to blame the way they lived. She hated the seasonal panic of house painting on Nantucket, as everyone scurried around looking for interior work like woodland creatures trying to get inside for the winter, and waited for final payments and groveled to imperious general contractors. The constant stress had killed the baby, that was Cindy's theory. It infuriated Mike. The doctors had no idea what might have happened, the best minds in modern medicine were baffled; but Cindy knew it was his fault. It was her body. That made her the final authority.
Mike didn't know; maybe she was right. The stress never let up. Even now he could feel it, like pressure on a bruise. Things had been the same two years ago, they'd been going through some other crisis: a lawsuit, a lost job, a late check. They always pulled through,  Billy Delavane helped them make it through until the phone call came, and it always did, and he went from no work to hiring extra people overnight. But the constant uncertainty was damaging.. Painters got hypertension and ulcers and colitis from it. They had nervous breakdowns. They became alcoholics. Why not their wives?
But it was the same old bind: if he argued he was a bully, if said nothing he was unsupportive, if he agreed he was wimp. It was like trying to sleep when he'd torn his rotator cuff, in college: there was no comfortable position.
Cindy had held her grudge, clutched it tightly, like a little kid holding her bus fare, hurrying through a bad neighborhood. It had helped for a while, but she couldn't keep it up forever. Something like normal life resumed eventually. The wall stayed up, though. Mike couldn't reach her. They still talked, but the talk was more and more superficial; they made love, but less and less often. Still, somehow she had gotten pregnant again. It was a small miracle, really. Maybe it was fate.
Mike had been in her doctor's office once, when Cindy had came down with stomach flu on a visit to her parents. He remembered sitting for more than an hour in the dark wood paneled waiting room. P.S. 6 got out for the day sometime during the wait. He had listened to the shouts and laughter of the newly liberated kids across the street, loving the sound, wanting kids of his own.
Well, that's why he was here today.
The coffee shop on Madison was still there, right across from the school. He pushed inside out of the snow and found a table near a window. He was going to have to be here for a while. He should order breakfast. But he couldn't eat. He ordered coffee instead. That was a good default strategy: he could  sit and sip for a while. He checked his watch: ten after eight. Office hours probably didn't start until nine.
The waiter brought his order, with a visible sigh. But the place was still uncrowded, so at least he wasn't taking up a table where real eaters and big tippers might be sitting. At least not yet. It was warm. He pulled off his coat and took a sip of coffee. It was strong and hot and it went down all right.
A cab pulled up across the street: the office nurse. The rest of the staff arrived over the next half hour. Mike drank two more coffees. He was starting to get wired. He asked for the check. He didn't want any delays when Cindy finally arrived. He watched the traffic, yellow taxis and buses half obscured by the gusting snow. The windows were steaming over; he'd be lucky to see her at all.
Finally, he couldn't sit still any more. He paid the check, left an extra five dollars tip, and walked out into the blizzard, zipping up his coat.
Her cab pulled up ten minutes later, just as he was considering going back inside. The light was green but it was about to go red. He sprinted across Madison Avenue. Cindy sensed the bulky figure moving toward her and looked up blankly. He hit a patch of ice on the sidewalk and skidded into her. They grabbed each other to keep from falling, an awkward little dance that ended with him sitting in the snow.
She helped him up.
"Graceful as always," she said, but with a smile to soften the words.
They stood holding each others' arms lightly, snow blowing between them, traffic coursing through the slush behind them.
"What are you doing here?," she asked finally.
"Can we go somewhere and talk?"
"I have an appointment -- "
"With Doctor Mathias. I know. 47 East 82nd Street."
"I don't understand. How did you -- ?"
"I know what's going on, Cindy. I figured it out. I'm not an idiot. And I know you."
"Mike — "
"Can we go somewhere? Get out of the cold?"
"Let's just walk."
She stuck her hands in her coat pockets and started across Madison towards Fifth Avenue. Mike followed, looking around him at the heavy green copper-roofed old buildings, the snow gathering on their ornamental stonework. These were think tanks now, embassies, foundation headquarters. But they had been residences once. They had been built when the details of craftsmanship mattered and no expense was spared. The wealth they represented made the Nantucket trophy houses look cheap and suburban by comparison. It was a different world, and Mike couldn't help feeling it was a better one. It was solid at least, rooted in generations of privilege and civic responsibility. It was actually the perfect location for this dispute. It embodied tradition and history. It had its own persuasions.
He took Cindy's arm and began.
"I was thinking about the last time we were in the neighborhood. You were sick, we thought they were going to take you to Lenox Hill. But Dr. Mathias took care of you. I remember sitting in the office, waiting, thinking how much I wanted to have kids."
"That was a long time ago."
"No it wasn't. It feels that way but it wasn't."
"Mike, I'm going to be late if I don't -- "
“Be late, it doesn’t matter. He always keeps you waiting for an hour anyway.”
“Not today. This is important.”
“I know. But we have to talk.”
“There’s nothing to say. We’ve already said it all. I’m tired of talking. It just makes things worse.”
“You don’t have to say a word. Just listen. I was on to something back there. Let me finish.”
She glanced at her watch. “Fine. What? What is it?”
“Okay. Good.” He took a breath, then launched. “That moment, sitting in the Doctor’s office, listening to the kids getting out of school across the street … it changed things. Sex felt different after that. It seems like we spend our whole adult lives dodging pregnancy, fighting against it, you know? Trying to slip a little pleasure past the reproduction police. And all of a sudden we were trying to conceive a child. Part of it was not using birth control. Just being unencumbered, I guess. But it felt pure, like there was nothing between us and the consequences of what we were doing. Like, the consequences were what we were doing. The orgasm almost didn't matter. It was just the starter's gun. You know? It was scary. But it was good. It was like sky diving without a parachute, except when we hit the ground we weren't going to die. Someone else was going to be born."
Cindy looked down. "Well, it didn't work out that way. "
"No. I know that."
"I wish you'd said some of this stuff then."
"I tried to. But it was just a jumble. I needed time to think about it."
"Maybe you took too much."
“So it’s too late?”
“Maybe it is. Things happen and then they’ve happened and you can’t do anything about it you can’t change anything.”
“This is nuts. You don’t believe this shit. You’re just scared.”
“Yes I am. Of course I am! How could I not be scared?”
“Cindy -- ”
“You’re supposed to be helping with that. You’re supposed to make me feel safe.”
“Jesus Christ! Why do you think I came down here?”
I don’t know. Why did you come here? I mean it. You flew down here in a blizzard, God knows how you paid for the ticket, and you staked out the doctor’s office since God knows when in the morning. You’re half frozen. For what? I really want to know.”
He stopped walking, took her hands, faced her down.
"I want this baby, Cindy."
She looked away, watching a Great Dane pulling a slim man on a taut leash. A woman was coming around the corner with a pair of King Charles spaniels. The dogs sniffed each other, the leashes tangled.
"That's not your decision ," Cindy said.
"Yes it is. Part of it is. That's what you never understood. You still don't get it. This is happening to both of us. Just like it happened to both of us before. I lost a baby, too, Cindy."
"Mike — "
"I lost a baby, too." 
There was a strange moment of stasis then. He could actually feel the words, the meaning of the words, piercing her finally,  penetrating her like a spear through a fish: a  moment of anger replaced by sadness and then guilt and then something else;  something he couldn’t name that contained all the other emotions and held a kind of submission, an acceptance of the identity between them. Her expression was  like sunlight on stone, shifting under swift-moving clouds.
But so fast: it was just a couple of seconds, then she was in motion, flinging herself at him in an impulsive hug,  knocking him back a step into a big car, its make and model anonymous under a great loaf of snow. They held each other tight through their heavy coats.
She was crying.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, it's okay. I love you. Cindy - it's okay."
She pulled away and looked up at him, tears glittering in her eyes, snow glittering in her hair.
"What a pair of  fuck-ups we are."
He kissed her. "I know. But we'll stop. We'll be better. We'll have to be better. We're going to be setting an example now."
"Oh God."
"We can do it. Our parents did."
She smiled. "Don't set the bar too low, Mike."
They pushed off the car and walked on, across Fifth Avenue, past the museum and along the park wall.
"It doesn't matter about Mark Toland," he said after a while. "I deserved that. And so did you."
"Well, I needed it, anyway."
"As long as it's over."
"It barely began."
"Good. It balances things. It settles the score."
"Not really. I didn't sleep with a co-worker, or make you the subject of choice for every malicious gossip on the island. You never had to stand making small talk with Mark Toland at a party."
"No. But it still hurt."
"Did it really?"
"Thinking of you with that guy? Jesus."
"You were jealous?"
"Come on."
"Unbearably jealous?"
"Actually, I found the whole thing strangely erotic."
She punched his arm. "You're sick."
They walked along quietly for another block. The snow was coming down more heavily now, muffling their footsteps and cutting them off from the gauzy buildings across the street and the Christmas card shadows of the park.
"There are just two things you have to do for me," Cindy said as they crossed the transverse entrance at Seventy-ninth street.
"Tell me."
"First, just keep talking to me." She grabbed a handful of his hair, shook it. "I want to know what's going on in there. I know I've been shitty to you. I can be a jerk. But just tell me so from now on. Don't just nod and go off to work another seventeen hour day. Whenever some painter's wife tells me her husband is on the job until nine every night, all I can think is, your marriage is in trouble, honey. If it wasn't, he'd be home. No one has to work until nine o'clock every night, unless they're on some corporate fast track. And you're not."
"No. "
"So come home early and talk to me. If I take your head off, I'll make it up with sexual favors. I promise. At least until the baby arrives."
"Fair enough," Mike said. "What's the other thing?"
"It's about Tanya Kriel."
"What about her?"
Cindy gave him her sweetest smile. ”Fire the bitch.”
"Done," Mike said. "As soon as we get home. But right now, since this is the first time we've been off-island together in six months, I'd like to take out for a fabulous breakfast, a tour of the new Museum of Modern Art and maybe even an early movie before we fly back."
“Lunch at Papaya King?”
“Absolutely. Five star all the way.”
She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. "Thanks, Mike," she said. "I mean it. Thanks for coming. It's the best thing anyone's done for me since ... I don't know. Since my Dad drove all the way up to Maine to take me out of that horrible outward bound summer camp. God, I was so happy to see that old Dodge Caravan coming up the camp road. I started crying right on the spot. No, this was better than that. This may be the best thing ever."
"Throw in a plate of pesto scrambled eggs, some great art and a drastically maudlin chick flick with all the popcorn you can eat, and we may never top this."
"Just wait eight months," she said.
Then she took his hand and they started east through the curtain of snow, toward breakfast and the rest of their day.