Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cut-rate Parasites

So what do Google, Joe Biden and Colin Powell have in common? Each found themselves at the juncture of history and conscience; each had an opportunity to make a stand and change things for the better. Each of them failed. Each of them had a counterpart who was somehow less despicable, though far more vile. There’s no disappointment when you expect the worst of a villain and you get it. Each new lie and betrayal provokes little more than a fatalistic shrug. It’s when you expect a crucial gesture of decency that your heart breaks. Why waste a moment’s regret or sadness on Yahoo, who agreed to help the Chinese government track down and punish dissidents; or Clarence Thomas, or the Bush Administration? But the people who could have stood up to them and didn’t continue to infuriate me.
Google is compromising with the Chinese, running censored web-searches, with a note attached, explaining that some results have been deleted by the government. Do they really believe that the Chinese are unaware of Government censorship? Do they really believe their little footnote makes any difference to anyone? No, what they believe, with overwhelming corroborative evidence, is that there is an incalculably immense amount of money to be made in China, if they’re willing to collaborate with one of the most repressive and vicious regimes on the face of the earth. They could have made stand, but grand gestures are expensive, rationales are plentiful, and nothing really matters but the bottom line. Yahoo’s all-out collaboration seems almost clean by comparison. I think of that line from Casablanca, when Rick says to Ugarte, “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.”
As for Joe Biden, he’ll never live down the way he caved to the sleazy accusations of racism during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Thomas said the questions were the equivalent of a lynching. That wasn’t the moment to duck your head and apologize (and refuse to call the three women who could back up Anita Hill’s charges with stories of their own). No, sorry. That was the moment to stand and say, “How dare you accuse this body of such a crime? More to the point, how dare you conflate honest discourse with a heinous race murder? Do you really not understand the difference? Your reckless words have shown us the crudity, sophistry and corruption of your thinking. Your relentless manipulations, your desperate mendacity, your self-serving, self-righteous slanders prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have no place on the highest court in the land. You have no place on a night court in Newark. Shame on you. And thank you – for showing us all who you really are before it was too late.”
That’s what he should have said, but he didn’t. And if he chooses to run for President in ’08, all the people who might have votes for him will remember. He had a chance to stand up, and he backed down. That’s not a accident of circumstance, that’s a character trait. That’s who you are. All the tailored suits and tough talk in the world can’t change it.
Which brings us to Colin Powell, the worst and saddest of them all. He knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He knew that Saddam wasn’t trying to buy uranium from Niger. He knew there were no chemical warfare laboratories or atomic warheads in the ruined kingdom of Saddam Hussein. He had said as much in public, on television, before 9/11. Our policies were working, he said. Iraq was disarmed and helpless. He knew that Bush had cooked the intelligence on the Middle East, he knew the neocons had been slavering to take out Saddam since Desert Storm. And yet he went to the U.N. and lied. He could have stood up at the U.N. or just at a press conference, and told the truth and stopped the whole insane delusional Iraq war before it started. He could have saved thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spent on improving life for the majority of Americans who don’t happen to have a controlling interest in the Bush White House. But he didn’t. Cheney and Wolfowitz and Pearle had the courage to be evil; there’s nothing tragic or even surprising about that. But Colin Powell couldn’t muster the courage to be good. That’s the real calamity. And every mother with a son killed or maimed in action must feel a special fierce loathing for him. He wasn’t evil. He was just weak. But that one weak man was our only bastion against the years of bloodshed national disgrace that were rushing towards us, so his weakness excuses nothing. It just makes everything worse.
He says he’s ashamed of himself. Well, that’s nice, but it’s not good enough. It’s not even close. He retired in disgrace? He deserved to. Bush says his critics are traitors. But Powell, in his debased capitulation to bad men who frightened him, was the real traitor, and we’ll be living with the results of that treason for a long time to come.
Google, Biden, Powell: the best our side has to offer.
No wonder the other side is winning.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Velocity of Intuition

The writers I know often argue about the value of outlines. Some books require them – a murder mystery, which has to be composed back to front, can’t really be done without some clear idea of who done it and who you want the reader to think done it; all the clues and red herrings. But I wrote the first two hundred pages of my first mystery with only the vaguest idea of what was actually going to happen. The eventual hero and several other major characters didn’t even exist in that draft. Admittedly, when I decided to actually finish the project, I had to sit down and organize who did what and to whom. There was a murder; someone had to solve it. That implied a detective character. Probably he was should be the hero. I had another unfinished book with a housepainter/poet protagonist. The book wasn’t working, but I loved the character. So – how about police chief/poet? That might work. The transplant was surprisingly painless. I was sick of housepainters anyway. Twenty years of painting houses will do that to you. I also needed some villains and some apparent villains. It came to head with a big party scene. Most of the characters attending that soiree in draft one have been written out; at least half the characters in the finished version didn’t exist when I started writing. It seems a chaotic and dysfunctional way to compose a book, but I was pleased to read today that the writers of 24 only have about one third of the season figured out when they start. In a way, the less you know, the better. Fowles said, “In art as in life, follow the accident, fear the fixed plan.” It’s a little scarier. But the results are generally worth the anxiety.
The truth is that writing occurs as you do it: the act of putting words on paper generates more words, not to mention ideas and characters. Much as your nit-picking, list-making, problem-mongering front brain hates to admit it, the big work is done in the sweat shop cellars of the unconscious. All your petty, anxiety ridden conscious mind can profitably do is get out of the way. This is why the best writing is always the quickest and the easiest. Studio executives and editors like the image of the writer pulling each perfect word out of his head like wisdom teeth with a pair of pliers and no Novocain (straight whiskey is our preferred anesthetic). It troubles them that good writing should come easily. But when the work is slow and painful, something is wrong. Nabokov understood this. He called the natural ease and lack of hesitation he felt the ‘velocity of intuition.’ Escape velocity: you can feel yourself pulling away from all the normal gravity, all the insecurity and confusion. You’re in orbit and three hours go by in the turn of a dependent clause.
It’s true that an outline can keep you on course and free you up for those big sessions. But the outline changes as you write and if you fight that anarchic process, the story dies.
I’m about to start rewriting a book I’ve been pecking away at for years. The new version of the character has a daughter. I almost dropped the whole idea of the revision, It would mean a year of my life and a massive amount of work. But I couldn’t bear to part with that little girl. Here’s the fragment that did me in:

But living on the ocean was a privilege, even Sally understood that. She’d stay in the water until her lips were blue and her fingertips were pale prunes with the cold, and still beg for more. She loved walking on the beach with him, on the cool, packed sand near the low-tide line, letting the icy brine foam around her ankles. He’d take her to lunch at Alice’s restaurant on the pier, just the way his Mom had taken him, chatting with the fishermen, checking the surf and then hurrying home before the incoming tide swept under the houses and they had to walk on the edge of the highway.
Sally loved the scent of the ocean and demanded to know why she could only smell it early in the morning and when she was just home from school. Mike tried to explain the principle of nasal fatigue, but she didn’t get it. “I want to do exercises,” she told him once. “I want a strong nose so I can smell the ocean all the time. “
He gave her a hug and kissed the top of her head when she said that. “Me, too, honey,” he told her. And he was thinking. “My girl. My little girl.”

So I decided to do a whole year’s worth of work and reconfigure a the whole novel, all because of one six year old girl’s stray comment about smelling the ocean. The point is, I hadn’t even known Sally cared about the ocean when I started writing that morning. But there she was, suddenly, alarmingly like my own daughter at that age, like the little kids in those Save The Children Foundation ads: just pennies a day will buy their village a goat or pay for ten years of penicillin shots. Or, in this far more eccentric and trivial case, a few paragraphs a day will keep this suddenly vivid and crucial figment of my imagination alive ...and sustain six hundred pages of painstaking rewrites.
Who could refuse?
Not me.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Best Thing Ever

I've noticed people posting from works in progress -- mostly screenwriters. This is a chapter from my new book; I'm thinking it might stand alone as a story. The title is the logline. Does it work? Let me know.

Mike Henderson arrived in New York with the first blizzard of the season. Somehow the city had missed the early storms that blew in from the west, off the Great Lakes, and the massive cold fronts avalanching from Canada. But this one had more force, pushing down the steep longitudes, burying the city like a little town at the foot of an unstable mountain.
Mike 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 bounced his leg on the ball of his foot, beating his thigh against the cracked vinyl of the seat. 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, in Hindi, 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. He thought often about the hotel Frank Lloyd Wright had built in Tokyo. Wright sank The Imperial’s supports into the unstable sub strata below the city, so it moved with the earth. When the great Kanto earthquake hit in 1923, it was one of the few buildings left standing in a city of rubble.
The image stuck with him. Mike had always assumed his marriage was flexible enough to ride out any calamity. But the loss of their baby had leveled it. Things that should have bent, shattered; things that should have shifted, fell. 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. He might never get his final payment on the Eel Point Road job, and he didn’t know how he was going to survive the winter without it.
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, the phone call always came, 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 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 and an English muffin. That was a good default strategy: he could sip and nibble 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. He took a bite of muffin. Maybe he was hungrier than he’d thought.
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 and another English muffin. 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. There were co-op buildings of the same pre-war vintage, lining the avenues behind them, that would never have let Preston Lomax into their lobbies, much less their owners’ associations. 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. But it made him feel like he was trespassing. He was an alien here. If he actually approached one of these places he would be sent instantly to the delivery entrance at the rear. These old buildings dwarfed him and his proletarian difficulties. But he rebelled against the feeling. The streets were public and he had as much right to be walking here as anyone else. Anyone could enjoy this beauty. The swells who had lived here a hundred years ago probably saw nothing but drafty rooms and endless maintenance costs. For the current residents it was probably the inconvenience (the nearest subway was three long blocks and four short ones away) and the heating bills (those high ceilings!). He was lucky in a way: he could enjoy the formal elegance of the neighborhood with a comfortable detachment. He let it buoy him up for a moment. 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 -- ”
He wanted to say, forget it, you’re not seeing the doctor today, but he knew it would backfire. Besides, he was on to something now and he wanted to finish it.
“Just listen to me for a second. This is important. Sex felt different after that. It seems like we spend our whole 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.”
“Things were different then, Mike. We were different.”
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 to make,” 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.”
Impulsively, she hugged him. She flung herself at him and knocked 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 ridiculous 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. The wind died down and the snow sifted down quietly, gentle and relentless. That was the trick, Mike thought.
“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, Mike. 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. ”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.”
“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.”
Mike put his arm around her. “Fair enough,” he 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 you to fabulous breakfast and 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 some great art and a drastically maudlin chick flick with all the popcorn you can eat, and we may never top this.”
“Just wait six 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.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Going With the Blow

I hate wind. And it hates me just as much. Mere anthropomorphism? Don't be too sure. Living on this flat island in the Atlantic Ocean has convinced me that the wind has both a malignant intelligence and a nasty sense of humor. It's good for nothing but erosion and it's a bad influence on the other elements. It turns harmless dirt into dust storms; it turns rain into typhoons. It turns snow into blizzards. It's a bully. It creates wind-burn and wind chill and wind shear. It makes frost-bite and broken boats and plane crashes and lately it's been trying to get into my house at night. It's like an angry crowd, banging on the doors, whipping the storms off their hinges, rattling the windows, screaming in the eaves and kicking over the lawn furniture. I hate its relentless attention to detail: it yanks every door out of your hand, finds every crevice in your clothing and somehow manages to be blowing in your face, no matter which way you're walking.

In Manhattan, where I grew up, the wind was mostly impotent, blocked by buildings; all those barricades of steel and cement . It was puny and trivial, able only to swirl a stray page of newspaper around your leg or toss some grit in your eye. But Nantucket has no defences. It's splayed out to the wind horizontal and helpless as it receives its seasonal scouring from the Canadian gales.

As a house painter you develop as special loathing for the wind. It sends your ladders sliding over the shiny Tyvek house-wrap, turns your drop cloths into kites and pulls the paint out of your brush. It always wins; if nothing else works, it will sand-blast your finish work with grime. It's timing is always perfect.

I was griping about this last summer when a friend invited me to see the friendlier side of my old nemesis, and go sailing with him. I grudgingly agreed and we went out on a warm day in August, full of energy and optimism, only to be becalmed. As we rowed back home, sweating and cursing, a guy in a speed-boat called down to us, "Tough luck! You can't buy a breeze out here today! Come back in February."

I could almost hear the wind laughing at us.

Well, it's February now. The wind is back and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere until May. It's just going to scream around the island, making sunny days raw and cold nights colder, bucking my car, downing trees and power lines, spewing garbage into people's yards. It's like having a motorcycle gang in residence for the winter. But I try to be positive. Maybe I'll invest in a windmill. They may be loud, ugly and inefficient, but they force the wind to be useful, which it hates more than anything else. A satisfying thought, but impractical: I can't afford a windmill, or a sailboat, for that matter. I've never even managed to fly a kite.

I guess for people like me there's nothing to do about the wind -- except spit into it.