Sunday, October 19, 2008

Campaign '08:The Unspoken Issue

Watching the network and cable news discussion of the election has left me with a queasy sense of dislocation. They talk about Ayers amd Palin, they discuss duelling tax plans and insurance benefits, ACORN and the Hanoi Hilton; Reverent Wright and wolf hunting from helicopters. But no one seems willing to come out and discuss what may very well be the deciding factor in this Presidential race.

That's the word, I just said it, I guess it just popped out:


Most people refuse to mention it. Pundits don't say it on the air and 'Joe Six-Pack" certainly doesn't say it to the person from Gallup or Pew who calls asking questions. It's like the race of the black husband in the new Jonathan Demme movie. Rachel Getting Married: elaborately, conscientously, surreally ignored.

But this is a racist country. A shocking -- and at this terrifying, teetering point in the history of our Democracy, an unguessable -- number of people are going to step into that voting booth on November 4th and in that Constitutionally mandated solitude and privacy, cast their ballot in favor of the nutty old white guy, no matter how creepy he seems, no matter how ugly his campaign or how schitzophrenic his political history.

Why? Because he's white.

I'm sorry. I wish it wasn't true. But the fact is, people are talking about this, in a slimy set of code words: Obama is a 'terrorist' and 'arab', 'unamerican' ... alien ... in other words: black. All the hard core racists I know self-righteously deny it, and this elaborate counter-language allows them to have it both ways. But it doesn't fool me. And because McCain is such an appallingly bad candidate, mindlessly lockstepping to the catastrophic policies of the people who tried to destroy him eight years ago ... because he is so erratic, so bankrupt of ideas, so angry, so unscrupulous, this election becomes a classic controlled scientific experiment, a 'litmus test' for the American public. I mean, let's face it: there is NO OTHER REASON to vote against Barrack Obama. He's calm in the face of violent aggression, measured in thought, shrewd in policy-making, a stirring orator with real ideas and a history of consistent political action, a man with no demons or scandals in his past (Ayers was the best they could come up with), a shrewd passionate leader with a new agenda for a country that's just about to adjourn. He's running against a senile, amoral, war-mongering buffoon. Which adds up to one unavoidable fact: this election is going to be nothing less than a referendum on American racism: a civics test for the class of '08, a final examination in tolerance and the American ability to see beyond our personal prejudices to the greater good.

I hope we pass it. We can't afford to fail.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Haiku For the Bailout

Sometimes the world offers a kind of visual haiku that expresses all the density of meaning, all the layers of reality moving through the world and under it and behind it, at once. A man takes a woman's hand on the street and she leans into him like a swell against a seawall; a CEO talking on his cellphone ignores both the new puddle he steps into, and the pale rainbow from the recent storm, sketched on the water-blue sky over his head.

I was reminded of another such moment today, when I read that Citicorp had purchased Wachovia. The latter company has quite a presence on Nantucket: various corporate officers own homes here and their annual party features a fireworks display that puts the town's to shame. And who pays for that lavish artillery barrage? Well, you and me, of course, the taxpayers who will be bailing these people out this week or next week, when the right compromises can be finessed.

And what a perfect, oddly sinister metaphor to show where our money went: fountains of sparks illuminating their own spider-legged trails of smoke in the flash of light against the stars, rockets and roman candles, bouquets and brocades; lovely but pointless, extravagant but ephemeral, conspicuous consumption etching its temporary fossil into the soft stone of the summer night.

Then it was over.

The rich people had their fun and it was time for dinner and another round of drinks. For everyone else? Cold cinders on the beach Monday morning, and a long work week ahead.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Scenes We'd Like to See #3: The Debate That Should Have Been

Why do we always do this? Why does every Democrat take the podium like a dishrag and let himself be wrung out by the Republican – who is invariably a moronic bully with nothing a few catch phrases and a cocky attitude in his favor? Where are our catch-phrases? More to the point, where is our anger, our passion, our simple human energy? Obama, like Kerry and Gore and Dukakis before him, seemed to have been coached by his ‘handlers’ to avoid showing any anger or outrage. He was flat-lining last night. Who are these handlers, anyway? I suspect they all work for Karl Rove. What strategy could have been more catrastrophicly foolish and wrong-headed? How many times does caution have to fail before we learn that it's the most dangerous tactic -- that the measured drone of the policy wonk means death in the polls and doom at the polling place?

You know what Obama should have said as well as I do – you were probably shouting it at the screen, just as I was. By the fifth or sixth time that smug demented geriatric bully repeated his ludicrous sound bite about Obama “not understanding” and “not getting” something, I needed Obama to shout back:

“I don’t understand? I don’t get it? You have been wrong on everything! You were wrong on Iraq. You were wrong on Education and the environment. You were utterly wrong on deregulation. You fought for deregulation during the Keating Five scandal! You were so profoundly involved with the Savings and Loan melt-down, desperately trying to roadblock any regulation or investigation, that your were publicly scolded by your own colleagues. You think Iraq is the main front of the war on terrorism – why? Because George Bush told you so. You think we’re hunting Al Queda there? Al Queda wasn’t even there before we came! Saddam hated bin Laden and the feeling was mutual. You were so eager to prove we were winning the war that you walked through a Baghdad street market – and ripped off a rug salesman – just to prove it. Except you were surrounded by soldiers and guarded from the air by two attack helicopters. That market wasn't safe and you knew it. Your visit was photo op and a lie. Are you going to deny that now, and lie some more? Because America is tired of the lies and mistakes and corruption that you and your party represent.”

Or how about McCain's “The surge is working” line? Obama got trampled there. Why not tell the truth:

"Yes, it’s ‘working’ -- if you call a minor slow-down in the killing and a few more safe neighborhoods in Baghdad a victory. But there’s no democracy in Iraq, no working army, nothing like a self-sustaining government. You’re kidding yourself! No, you’re lying to yourself. But you can’t lie to the American people any more. Not when you're on the stage with me."

Finally, when McCain trotted out the tired old lie about Obama raising taxes on people making $42,000 a year, Obama muttered something about it not being true and just let the crazy old geezer trundle on.

This is what he should have said -- and it didn't have to be ad-libbed. No quick thinking was required. Obama's people knew MCCain was going to pull these tricks. I knew it, and I’m a small-town housepainter. They’re savvy political operatives. They should have been ready with this response:

“Excuse me, Jim. I’m sorry, but I have to stop this right here and respond to the Senator. I have stated here that he is lying about my tax program, but he goes on lying about it as if I said nothing. He doesn’t listen or he doesn’t care. But maybe this will get his attention: I swear in front of every American citizen watching this debate tonight, that if what he says is true, if I really aim to raise taxes on families making under fifty thousand dollars, if he can find anywhere, in any speech or interview, in any statement or private correspondence, on my website, in my advertisements and pamphlets – anywhere – evidence that I actually said that, I will walk away from this campaign and cede the election to the McCain-Palin ticket. But listen to me, now! If he cannot find the evidence for this slanderous and inflammatory accusation, then HE MUST DO THE SAME. He must agree to terminate his campaign – not suspend it in a cheap meaningless theatrical gesture – but end it, if he cannot substantiate his claims about me. He says he’s telling the truth. Will he put his hopes for the Presidency on the line? Will you do that Senator – see, Jim, now we’re talking to each other! – because either you act like a man and do it, right here, right now, or you admit to the American people that you’re a liar.”

And McCain would have folded like a rusty beach chair.
And Obama would have won the election, right there and then.
But he didn’t. And maybe he never will.
And if McCain wins, it will be Obama's fault. Obama and his crack team of advisors. Or maybe they're just on crack. That might explain it.
This election is Obama's to lose, and he’s losing it. He's doing a superb, classically Democratic job of it. Just like Dukakis and Kerry and Gore, Oh my.
It’s Greek tragedy and it's farce, it's the Oresteia meets the Honeymooners. And it’s making me physically ill.

The worst part is, I’m absolutely certain that John McCain’s “Health care plan” won’t help me at all.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Mutant Powers for Grown-Ups #1: Epiphany Man

Here’s a question: what’s the most annoying thing about a annoying person? It’s not necessarily what they do. It’s what they think about what they do. It’s their attitude. A standard piece advice for beginning fiction writers is that the villain should always believe he’s the good guy. There’s a reason for that. The villain actually does believe he’s the good guy. Bush thinks he’s bringing Democracy to the mid-East. Cheney thinks liberals want to turn America in a Socialist dystopia. McCain thinks off-shore drilling will free us from our dependency on foreign oil.

And that’s the creepiest thing about them.

We all know the asshole who seriously believes that everybody else, everyone around him, everyone he’s ever met, is an asshole – that explains why he has no friends and even strangers cross the street to avoid him. We’ve all known the obnoxious motor-mouth who actually believes she’s ‘a good listener’ despite the fact that she hasn't shown a heat-lightning flicker of interest in anyone else’s life in decades, and can keep acquaintances on the phone literally for hours with the operatic drama and traumatic details of her own.

One of these people marched into my apartment twenty minutes after I had found out that my father died, stared at the shell-shocked group on the couch and started talking about her day at work. When my girlfriend explained the situation, this lunatic said “Oh,” – just a little pot-hole in the road to swerve around --and then re-launched: “So, anyway, the all the cooks hate me and they won’t give me my orders and then I have to explain that to the customers, I mean without seeming rascist or whatever, and when I try to talk about it I just get the cold shoulder. The one guy? His name’s Raoul? He actually had the nerve to say …” and on and on.

We just stared at her, dumbfounded.

And I realized that this woman had no idea of how she sounded, or what we were thinking at that moment, or to be more inclusive, who she really was: her nature, the truth of her character. Alcoholism is not the only mental disorder whose primary symptom is denial. And how many wives and husbands and parents and children and siblings and friends of alcoholics have yearned to hear them say “I have to stop drinking, it’s ruining my life,” before their life is actually ruined?

One Olympic level marathon talker accidentally heard an answering machine tape of a phone message – not even a live call, just a message, going on and on, ceaseless as a cicada, tedious as a cricket, subtle as a woodpecker – and was appalled.

“Do I really sound like that?”

Oh yeah. That was kind of a taciturn moment, actually.

But it was soon forgotten, that’s the point.

The only lasting value to that brief moment of clarity was it made me realize what the coolest mutant power would be. Not shooting beams from my eyes, or levitating objects, or growing metal claws out of my fingers. No, my power would be much more devastating. With a single blast I would make people see themselves with absolute clarity. Not who they think they are, but who they really are. On top of that they would get some vivid consensus flash of the way other people see them. The jerk who thinks he’s admired and efficient and envied … kind of a Renaissance man, actually … gets the blast and suddenly realizes, not for a second like the friend with the phone message, but permanently, as an absolute reconfiguration of the synapses, that he is in fact an inept blowhard, a bully and a fool; that people despise him and laugh at him behind his back. That his name itself has come to be a kind of joke, a slang word for an incompetent bungler who thinks he can do everything perfectly.

Iceman can encase you in a block of hardened snow; I think my power would be far more paralyzing.Cyclops can hit you with a bolt of sheet energy from his eyes; but you can recover from that attack.

Once you realize the truth, there’s no going back. Remember the first time you saw the flash in the upper right hand corner of the movie screen just before the reel change? Someone had to point it out to me. But now I always see it, and I always will.

Maybe my victims will take this knowledge and change. Maybe they’ll just get some kind of aneurism and collapse. Maybe they’ll spend a year or two whimpering in the fetal position. There’s no way to tell – I can’t predict that.

Hey, I’m just the messenger.

The classic Twilight Zone ending to the story of this power is that I blast someone, they move unexpectedly and it turns out they were standing in front of a mirror. The blast ricochets right back at me and I see I’ve turned into a pompous, power-crazed tyrant myself.
So I never unleash the power again.
Too bad, because the world could really use it.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Home Bureaucrat

For the last three months I’ve been struggling with the UMass bureaucracy to secure financing for my son’s semester abroad. My daughter is a social worker who spent most of the last two years helping her clients ( HIV positive homeless people) navigate the diabolical HUD paper-work labyrinth.

In the middle of yet another endless phone call (on hold for ten minutes until disconnected by the bursar’s office hang-up robot)I had a vision of what ordinary domestic life might be like if it were organized along the same lines.

In this fantasy I become the power-crazed institutional functionary. My girlfriend asks for a cup of coffee in the morning. Normally I make a pot when I get up. Not any more.

“Of course,” I say. “I’ll just need the coffee request form 676-J. When you get that signed by the Early Morning Activity office -- ”

“Early Morning Activity Office? What are you talking about?”

“We’ll need their approval. You can fax the form over to them after you’ve gotten it notarized."

“But I just -- ”

“When that’s approved you can turn it in for a single-cup-of coffee voucher --”

“Single cup off coffee? Who drinks a single cup of coffee?”

“Well, many people do, I assure you. There’s no need to be short with me. I didn’t make the rules. For multiple cups you’ll need an excess-of-ten liquid-ounces variance from the Hot Beverages Office.”

“The what?”

“It’s all very tightly controlled. We can’t have people just guzzling coffee willy nilly, M’am.”

“But, I – it …How long is all that going to take?”

“Hard to say. Depends on the brewing method. If you use the standard Mr. Coffee drip machine, and you have the sales slip and proof-of-purchase voucher, it could be as short a time as two weeks. But that has to be submitted with coffee-brand form and the grind specification sheet. The problem is, you can’t access the grind specification software until you have full approval on the coffee-brand form. That requires three signatures, one from each of the Morning Protocol offices. And you have to take those in personally. I’d get there early. Word to the wise. The lines can be brutal. Ironically, they often offer coffee and doughnuts on those lines, when they get too long.”

“You’re insane.”

“Being rude isn’t going to move things along any faster, M’am.”

“I just want some coffee.”

“Well of course. We all do. If it was up to me I’d just pour you a cup and be done with it. But I could get into a great deal of trouble for doing that. I’m sure you don’t want that to happen. I could lose my job.”

“Your job? You’re a housepainter!”

“I was. Now I’m District Supervisor for Caffeinated Beverage Distribution. So let’s stop whining and get started on this paperwork. You do have five forms of identification, don’t you? We require five forms of identification.”

“No one has five forms of identification!”

“Coffee drinkers do. As of January 1st, 2008. What can I say? It’s people trying to cheat the system. They make it worse for everyone. They think coffee drinking is a right. But in fact it’s a privilege and the sooner you appreciate that fact, the better it will be for you.”
I offer her a tissue as she starts to sob quietly, and pick up the phone to discuss tea-bag allocations with my supervisor. I’m good at this. I’ve been on the other side of it for months. I’ve learned the lingo.

I’d apply for the job, but there’s too much paperwork.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Live Blogging War and Peace #4: It's All in the Details

To paraphrase Leo himself, every bad book is the same; every good book is good in its own way.
This is because good writing is specific, bad writing is vague. Good writing thrives on details, bad writing generalizes. My Dad once told me the worst possible sentence to write in a novel. He had crafted it carefully, over the years: “Tannhauser was one of the great wits of Europe, and he held the entire table spellbound for hours.” It sounds good, but it tells you absolutely nothing. A friend of mine described an artist’s work-table in his perennially unpublished novel as “A chaotic cosmos of appurtenances”. I knew when I read it that this vague and almost contentless string of words was one of his favorite bits of writing in the whole novel. I’m glad it gave him pleasure as a writer; as a reader it gave me less than nothing. Compare that to this first glimpse of Nikolai Andrevitch Bolkonsky’s study:

The immense study was filled with things obviously in constant use. The big table with books and plans lying on it, the tall bookcases with keys in their glass doors, the tall table for writing in a standing position, on which lay an open notebook, the lathe with tools laid out and wood shavings strewn around it – everything spoke of constant, diverse, orderly activity. By the movements of the small foot shod in a silver-embroidered Tartar boot, by the firm pressure of the sinewy, lean hand, one could see in the Prince the still-persistent and much enduring strength of fresh old age.

The interesting thing here is that this is not some bravura performance piece paragraph – just another example of the workmanlike strong writing that animates every line of the book. In one paragraph he gives us the vivid image of the Prince’s lair, as well as the beast who inhabits it. We see it and more than that, we feel it -- along with the still potent personal magnetism of “le roi de Prusse” in his fresh old age. The small foot in the Tartar boot! That’s the kind of detail you never forget, the sort of small thing that accumulates gradually over a thousand pages, like the individual snowflakes that come together to comprise city-closing epic we end up calling ‘The Great Blizzard of ‘86”.

And it happens one snowflake at a time, every one of them modestly hand-crafted quietly unique, just like Leo’s sentences, every one of them good in its own way.

To paraphrase Leo himself, every bad book is the same; every good book is good in its own way.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Un-Popular Culture

Is it just me?
I hate everything that’s popular. Harry Potter. I don’t get it. I can’t follow it.I read one of those books and ten seconds later I can’t remember a thing about it. There’s a good Wizard teacher guy who's really bad and some bad wizard guy who’s really good, and some bad guy with no nose and a cute girl no one is ever going to sleep with. And a war about who’s the greatest wizard or something. And house elves. I have no idea.

Or how about George Lucas? This has to be the most idiotic guy who ever made a billion dollars. Everything has to be so insanely obvious – the bad guy is darth sidious and darth plague-us, in case you had any doubts about these giant thugs in black. They’re evil! Why not Darth scurrilous? Or just go with darth Evilis? Darth scumbagus Darth assholus, Darth what-a-total-dick -this guy is -us. And come on -- really ... did he have to call the big weapon the Death Star? What actual villain would ever call it that? They’d call it the Peace Star. Hello, George – all the real villains think they’re the good guys. Like you! And what’s with these worlds? Every world is one thing. A world that’s a desert, a world that’s a swamp. A world that’s a city! How insane is that? Is there a suburb planet?And where do these city planet people they get their vegetables from? The farm planet? And beef from the stockyard planet. I bet that place smells good. It’s the stupid universe.

Then there’s Pixar.
Is everyone sick of pixar yet? It’s always the same movie: bugs or fish or something inanimate ... talks! Like toys or cars or robots – It’s a talking car! It’s a talking doll! This time its a robot that squeaks. That’s it – something inanimate has feelings. And takes a journey. Enough already! What’s the next one? You can fill in the blanks yourself, like Mad Libs.
CHAIRS! The little kid's chair wants to be a big chair :“The master wants to throw me away. They’re redecorating!” and the evil baraclounger rules the house and there’s a lovable old couch that’s lost a pillow and Randy Newman will write some crap song - “You can sit on me”.
Even better – Pixar Disney presents --
MISCELLANEOUS APPLIANCES! With Dane Cook as the can opener. Not the crumby old can-opener – that’s Wally Shawn “OOO I hope this fancy new Can opener doesn’t take my job away!” Or else --
BRUSHES! The adventures of a toothbrush who wants to be a hairbrush! Chris Walken as the wily old paint brush! It’s a world with nothing but brushes in it. There’s more where that came from. Just buy the ticket. We don’t care.

I've had it. Maybe that's why I was reading Pale Fire while my friends were waiting on line to see Batman. I know what's going to happen in Batman. He's going to be tormented and conscience-stricken and then he's going to kick ass anyway. And stuff is going to blow up.

I'm sick of stuff blowing up, too. And guys walking away from the explosion in slow motion. It's one of those fresh new cliches, where everyone thinks they're doing something original. But they're not. You know who was doing something original? Vladmir Nabokov, in Pale Fire.

So I'll stick with that.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Live Blogging War and Peace #3: Pierre Bezukhov and the Tip-Toeing T-Rex

Sarah Hughes wound up sitting on the ice occasionally; Tiger woods has missed some easy putts. Dylan sings off key, Hemingway wrote Across the River and into The Trees, and Faulkner described a rainbow -- in terms of the rainstorm that preceded it -- as “the chromatic arch of its insubstantial armistice.”
We all make mistakes. Even Tolstoy.

I caught him cheating this morning, trying to gloss over a plot hole. It’s odd, because he uses a sleight of hand one sees much more often in bad movies than in great books. The trick is to set up something awful to build suspense: there’s really no way out of this one! Then you bob and weave a little, and save the day with no real explanation. Like in the incomparably awful Mr. and Mrs. Smith when brad and Angelina are trapped in the motel surrounded by SWAT teams … and the next thing you know they’re hiding from the troops under a grate in the street. How did they get there? Don’t ask! Just eat your ten dollar popcorn and drink your slurpee. Something else is about to blow up.

Here’s what Leo does:

Pierre Bezukhov is Count Kiril Buzukhov’s’s illegitimate son. The old man is dying and has written a letter to the Czar to legalize Pierre’s claim to the family fortune. Prince Vassily Kuragin and his various money-grubbing relations are expecting the inheritance (They’re cousins). They're already spending the money in their heads and the thought that Pierre might waltz in and steal their fortune has them spinning in a grotesque frenzy of rage and greed. Their solution is to steal the letter before it can be sent to Moscow. It’s in a portfolio near the dying man's bed, while the Count lounges and mutters in an arm chair at the other side of the room. It's an easy caper, because the Count’s back is turned and he’s only half conscious most of the time, anyway.

Standing against them is good old Princess Drubetskoy, who knows she stands to benefit if Pierre receives his patrimony. She’s off having a cup of tea in a different room when the theft takes place and it seems impossible for her to stop them – or even realize what they’re doing.

All is lost!
And then … for some reason, the thieves linger in the anteroom instead of making off with the document (or just tearing it up), giving Anna time to catch them. A wild tug of war ensues and Anna wins it and Pierre gets his inheritance. It’s hugely entertaining, but dragged along in the slip-stream of Tolstoy's narrative brio, the nagging question lingers: how did that work exactly? Why did the Kuragins wait around to get caught?

I was reminded of a similar lapse from a more recent master story-teller: at the end of Jurassic Park, the heroes are trapped in the Visitor’s Center by a pack of velociraptors – once again, all is lost. The carniverous dinosaurs circle the hapless humans, but when the first one leaps he gets bitten out of the air by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s a perfectly engineered moment and the audience practically explodes with relief and exhilaration. But later that night it must cross some peoples' minds to wonder ... how exactly did a tyrannosaurus Rex get into the Visitor’s Center in the first place? All through the film, the enormous creatur e's distant footsteps have caused the ground to tremble the liquid to jiggle in coffee-mugs. But this guy must have been walking on tip-toes, like a cartoon mouse in front of a sleeping cat. Because no one noticed him, not even the raptors, for whom the T-Rex is a primary predator.

It makes no sense – but I had to see the movie three times before I noticed.

I suspect that at a certain level, knowing the narrative force they can throw behind a scene, these great storytellers just don’t care. They’ve moving fast, they have the momentum: we want the family to survive the creepy dinosaurs and we want Pierre to defeat the creepy Kuragins. We want it so much that the details don’t matter, at least that’s the gamble.

Ultimately, it’s one that Spielberg loses. And Tolstoy loses, also.

A moment like this is lazy. It’s diminishing. In a lesser book it wouldn’t matter, but the first 80 pages of this one set the bar too high for this kind of cheating.

Still, the fact remains: striding through the narrow corridors of his immense, labyrinthine story, the giant stumbles occasionally; those great flailing arms, gesticulating to make a point, can knock things down, and there’s going to be some breakage.

As I blunder through my own novel, I find that truth perversely consoling.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Snakes and Ladders

As a painting contractor, I find myself turning into the harried patriarch of a dysfunctional family of ladders. It started when my son and I began naming them. The biggest one, the forty foot aluminum extension ladder whose upper rungs are held in place by bungee cords, we named Mongo. The next bigggest one, a brand new 35-footer, naturally became Mongo Jr. And that was where the trouble began. He didn't like the "junior" stuff, he wanted his own name and he felt, with some justification that he was a lot more ladder than the senior man on the crew. He had his own rope, for one thing, which made extending him to his full height easy. Mongo has to be jumped against the building while standing on the lower rungs. He hasn't had a rope for years. Most of the time,Mongo just lies there -- we only need him for the highest peaks and he is insufferably smug when he finally gets to make his appearance. "Guess you need a real ladder now," he seems to say. The only way to get a few more feet of usuable hight from Mongo Jr. is to attach a "stand-off" -- a bracket that holds the ladder off the building and improves the angle for painting. But MJ hates the bracket. He thinks it stigmatizes him as vertically challenged. I tried to explain that the points of the bracket are wider than most windows and "stand-offs" are usually used to paint window casings. But he's not buying it. None of the ladders like the stand-offs. It's like having crutches cuffed to your arms. I'm like -- "Hey! I'm just trying to paint a house here!"

My next biggest ladder really is handicapped. He used to have adjustable legs so you could use him on uneven ground. You can imagine the resentment that caused! Because of course had had to brag about it. "Maybe you should get a cinderblock to put under Mongo's right leg. Or you could just let a professional ladder to the job." Ugh -- insufferable. But now the adjustable legs have rusted and the only was to make "Leggy" as we call him useful is to bind his slats with more bungees. The bungees would like a little credit for making the whoole motley crew functional, but no one cares what the bungees think. Now every time I have to put a shingle or a plank under one of Leggy's feet to level him the others pounce. "Nice professional look, there, Legster" "You sure you can handle this?" How am I supposed to paint off a ladder who's having a breakdown? It's nerve-wracking. Next are the twins. Two twenty foot, "Mr., Home-owner"- style, lightweight ladders, "Slim" and "Jim". You can't use one without the other getting upset, and both of them feel like flimsy second class citizens. As to the step ladders -- don't get me started. Everyone treats them like dirt, but of course they have their own hierarchy. The fancy fiberglass eight footer sneers at the ever more wobbly wooden six footer who won't even talk to the poor aluminum three step we call "Bubby". You get them all on top of a van's ladder racks , it's like a box of snakes.

But I'm a good Dad and I love them all. You don't want to play favorites with heavy grade aluminaum, when you're forty feet up in a thirty knot wind.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Live Blogging "War and Peace" #2: Pride and Grovelling

Starting War and Peace reminds me again of the huge advantage books have over movies and television. The daunting effort required to recognize and connect the marks on the page, to configure vocabulary and grammar into a convincing narrative full of people and conflict and weather is in fact fiction’s secret weapon. Your very engagement with the writer, your collaboration in the manufacture of your particular War and Peace, provides a far richer experience than the passive IV drip of television, or the carnival ride of a typical summer movie. It’s the difference between moving into a house and helping to build it.

With a writer as great as Tolstoy, the act of completing his suggested world has a kind of giddy presumption.: Leo describes Pierre Bezukhov … I see Seth Rogen in John Lennon granny glasses. I half expect a howl of protest, but Leo doesn't complain. It goes on -- we build a common Petersburg, a common Moscow, a common Bald Hills (Prince Bolkonsky’s estate) together. None of it may resemble the real places or even the places Tolstoy imagined in his study at Krasnaya Polyana … but they belong to me as much as him; they form the essence of our bond.

I remember my first glimpse of the real Pamplona, Spain; it in no way resembled the hill town that Ernest Hemingway and I had constructed together. So I did what any good reader would do: I forgot about the actual town and never looked at another photograph of the place again. The Pamplona of The Sun Also Rises is a prized possession, my true ‘intellectual property’.
I have no interest in imposter towns whose only claim is that they’re ‘real’
Real is overrated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Anna Scherer’s soiree.

I think Tolstoy may have invented this idea of throwing all the characters together at a party and peppering the reader with a dozen little scenes that would have been cumbersome and time-consuming to set up separately. Everyone is introduced and so are the major themes – not just War and Peace, but war and money. After reading Jane Austen I’m no longer surprised by the overwhelming venality of the characters in classic literature.

But the desperation of Anna Mikhailovna Drubskoy to secure her son Boris’ military position and get the dough to outfit him properly feels sadly familiar. This is the evergreen universality of these nineteenth century masterpieces: the never-ending scramble for cash. I admire Anne Mikhailovna: she’s relentless, shameless. Her self-flagellating maternal determination that makes it easier, in the end, for a Prince Vassily to give her what she wants. Anything, if she’ll just go away and shut up. There’s a lesson there for desperate parents. I used it when I was trying to secure a co-signer for my son’s college loan.

Humiliate yourself and persevere: that’s what Tolstoy taught me today.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Consciousness

I’ve been hitch-hiking for the last week. I live at one end of my little island and most of my work happens at the other end, so I’m usually on the road a lot. But with one car off-island and the other in the shop – and taxis costing twenty dollars a trip – I decided to stick my thumb out and take my chances.

It was frustrating at first, but it woke me up, the way re-arranging your routines always does. Just waiting for a ride was instructive, watching all the fat SUVs full of fat people with their faces pulled tight against any eye contact with the beggar at the side of the road. I was amazed at how many of them didn’t pick me up. I’m not an axe-murderer and I live in a small island; the news would get around if we had a mad hitch-hiking killer-rapist in town.

But as car after car blew past me, metaphors seemed to coalesce around the experience. It reminded me of so many other moments in my life when I had left some small portion of my fate in other hands. In the ocean, waiting for a wave; or sending out stories and waiting for the response. Normally you get the form letter rejection slip, but once in a while the letter comes back without your own handwriting on the stamped-self-addressed envelope and you know you made contact with a stranger, and that stranger wants to introduce your work to a wider world. Eventually a car picks you up as well.

I said to old time Nantucket home builder Neils Van Vorst, when he pulled over, “You’re one in … let me see – two hundred and eleven.” He was a little shocked by the number, but there’s an upside to the ordeal. Hitchhiking filters the world for you: all the annoying jerks drive right by and invariably the people who actually pick you up are interesting, generous, smart, funny – and cool. Neils had to stop by a house he’d just finished building on the water; I stayed in the car and petted his terriers, reading the scatter of literary magazines on the rubber mat at my feet. On the way out to Polpis we talked about politics and the Conservation Commission and Vladimir Nabokov; I showed him around the old cow shed where Annie and I live, when h dropped me off. I knew he’d appreciate it.

A high school poet picked me up; a local actor and piano tuner gave me a ride. So did a new Dad who had to move his child seat into the bed of his pick-up to make room. Old money Nantucket rich people gave me rides and we bemoaned the island’s decline; new arrivals picked me up and we rhapsodized its glory. A real estate agent offered me painting work; a local newspaper editor asked me to write an editorial about my vagabond status.

It was an extraordinary week, and I thought to myself – to hell with the car! I have too big a carbon footprint anyway. I’ll hitch all the time now – unless I’m moving ladders or clearing out a job site, or something.I was asleep before in the soft futon of my old routines, and I was missing everything! Now I’m awake. Hooray for me!

But of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. I have my car back and I’m driving it happily, air-conditioning on, big-footing my carbon trail all over Nantucket, just the same as ever. Never has anyone been so eager to get back to sleep.

But I have to say ... it was fun being awake, while it lasted.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Live Blogging "War and Peace" #1

For me, one of the great pleasures in reading an approachable classic like War and Peace is the chance to meet Tolstoy face to face as it were, take his story one word at a time and derive a self-made opinion of everything he sets in front of me. The greatest novel ever written is not some monolith for Kubrick’s 2001 apes to caper around, grunting and throwing bones, cow-towing to the critics; it’s a living narrative that sets out, whatever its other ambitions, to entertain its audience. I love that about Tolstoy. Though he dwarfs me as a writer, as a reader he approaches me as an equal, as a respectful but exigent friend who needs to be amused, beguiled, thrilled.

Everyone starts with the same materials, the blank screen or sheet of paper, the keyboard or the pen, the same twenty six letters. There’s a kind of fierce democracy to that, a level playing field; or is a mine field? You feel it at my MFA residency sitting in Noble Hall at Vermont College, listening to a student reading one night and a faculty reading the next afternoon. The wild-eyed kid’s garbled ungrammatical account of catching his parent’s making love and – for example – Larry Sutin’s latest admixture of Kafka and Dinesen, precipitated with the mysterious reagent of his own lucid vision and wry humor into a compelling and mysterious potion, both start the same way, with a nervous man standing in front of an audience; with scratches on paper. In that context the difference is particularly stunning. Clearly words can be used to sharpen thought or to dull it. As Orwell points out in Politics and the English Language, many writers just piece trite phrases together as if they were “assembling the pieces of a prefabricated henhouse”.

I remember the exact moment when I turned away from the consumption of this kind of writing forever. It was about three quarters of the way through Leon Uris’ Trinity. The effortless sentence – you just know it flowed out of him with the giddy sluice of inspiration – was this: “His role was to ferret out brewing insurrection and nip it in the bud.” Not just four clichés, but four clashing and incongruous clichés jammed blithely together in the clattering rush of another day’s work. Many years ago, before computers, when an IBM Selectric was state of the art, Leon Uris gave my father some deeply considered writing advice. “You have to go faster. Get an electric typewriter.”

Over the years, I have come to believe that there’s some middle ground, some leafy suburb between the woods and canyons of literature and the grid-lock city streets of genre fiction (not to mention the graffiti-smeared urban blight of the sub-genre world).

That middle ground is my favorite landscape, and I would define it upward as a type of literature, rather than downward as a classier version of trash … in human terms: a young heir in jeans and a t-shirt, rather than a bum in a tuxedo. And of course it’s a sliding scale, with almost infinite gradations. The work I prefer, the work which has no official title, perches right on the border of literature, the rough undeveloped sections of that suburb, perhaps: the last house on the dead-end street whose back yard merges with a tangle of bushes that becomes the forest; the ranch style teetering on the border of the wetlands with the perpetually flooded basement; the canyon house stalked by coyotes.

Despite carrying the ‘genre’ stigma, these authors, these suburban pioneers if you like, combine the most enjoyable aspects of high literature and low. They don’t dig as deep into their characters’ psyches as the masters who dwell in the deep woods; but they reject the trite puppet shows of their inner-city brethren. They create the vivid dream that John Gardner talks about, they allow you to live in the particular world of a unique human sensibility and let your own perspective be colored and enlarged by the exposure.

I realize now that almost all the writers I love at least own property in this fringe area: genre writers like Len Deighton, John LeCarre, P.D. James, Dennis Lehane and Philip K. Dick; and masters who understand the power of plot, from to Faulkner to Graham Greene and John Fowles, to contemporary writers like Vikram Chandra and Michael Chabon.
And of course, standing genially above all the others, Tolstoy himself.

Tolstoy shares a craven common urge with the genre writers who followed him: he wants you to turn the page. It democratizes his greatness, somehow. It’s endearing. And it makes a book written 150 years ago about events transpiring 50 years before that absolutely present, an urgent transaction between two minds, an intimate seduction and a great mutual project.
I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace, but found the length daunting and the translations stilted. When I heard that Pevear and Volokonsky, who did the sharp and engrossing translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago, were working on Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I was thrilled. Perhaps I would finally be able to read this intimidating tome, this Everest of literature. Then it occurred to me that it might be interesting to chronicle the climb; if others chose to take it with me, we could share our thoughts and de-mystify the experience of reading a classic.

That’s the plan.

I’m standing at the base camp, among the litter of other people’s oxygen bottles, hoping you’ll join me, hoping we won’t be turned back by bad weather or the cold. If your lungs are strong enough for the thin air, and you’re not scared of heights, organize your equipment and get a good nights’ sleep.

We start our ascent tomorrow, at first light.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Thing With Feathers

Hope is a strange emotion. It’s addicting but dangerous, like some kind of new street drug, except that we manufacture it ourselves, like endorphins or adrenaline. And we stand in a somewhat different relation to those other chemicals: the body releases them involuntarily, at moments of physical exertion or stress. Hope is active, intentional, a gesture of the imagination, an attempt to conjure the future. To actually allow yourself to hope for something you care about deeply requires a peculiar unacknowledged bravery that not everyone can muster; it opens a troubling chasm of vulnerability at your feet, and looking down into that gulf of disappointment creates a dizzying vertigo.

Much better to play it cool, pretend it doesn’t matter. We have invented a whole patois of self deception on this point: ‘Easy come easy go” “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” “Que sera sera” ‘So it goes” “Who cares?” “Roll with the punches” “Lighten up” “Big deal” and the ever popular “Whatever”. But things don’t go easily, we all care and we take most of those punches right on the point of the jaw. Still, indifference remains the perfect combination of pose and protection. We act blasé while we prepare for disappointment in advance. We tell ourselves not to “get our hopes up” though we know the secret shameful truth that actually having your hopes up is one of the few clean cheap thrills you can get in life and flinching in advance doesn’t make it sting any less when the rejection finally comes.

Sustained hope in the face of relentless setbacks and failures can be toxic, though it feels nourishing – sort of like trying to live on Chai tea and muffins. My friend used to say of my Hollywood ambitions, “Until it happens, it didn’t.” And I would answer, “And when it happens it was always going to.” But releasing those hopes has been liberating, Hope requires the stamina of youth, when the seemingly limitless procession of days ahead lend any prediction a diaphanous plausibility. A five year old toddler dreams of becoming an astronaut; a twenty year old boy writes his Oscar acceptance speech on the bus to work. A fifty-year old man is happy just to make it through another week. There’s no more time for dramatic re-inventions and astonishing second acts. I won’t be going to law school or clown college any time soon. Win or lose, I am what I am: accepting that mortal tautology sounds despairing. But it contains an element of bliss, a caress of relief, like a vein of warm water in a frigid lake. I can happily call myself a ‘hobbyist’ and get on with my work. Emily Dickinson put it best: “Publication is not the business of poets.” She knew what she was talking about on that score; she made obscurity into another art form. But she understood hope well enough. She called it ‘the thing with feathers that perches in the soul/ and singe the tune –without the words/ and never stops at all.” I always wondered whether that line was a tribute or a admonition.

Away from that relentless bird-song I’ve found my own refuge, pecking away at the keyboard in privacy and silence. But hope is a tough old pigeon and not so easy to escape. It feeds on litter and perches on the fire escape, strutting snd fluttering over it three inches of hard-won territory. And so I find myself doing hopeful things like contributing to Open Salon and even –on a cockeyed impulse – contacting an editor who expressed interest in seeing more of my work. She’s reading my new novel now, as I comb the Open Salon website for comments and wonder feverishly if the last post will be an Editor’s Pick. So I guess I haven’t shaken the addiction after all and I probably never will.
I never could stay on a diet.

So please, O! charming editor who actually returned my phone call on a dreary Tuesday afternoon and chatted for half an hour about Hillary Clinton and Alice Munro, please read my book and like it and publish it, and send it off into the world with a full page ad in the New York Times. And while I’m waiting, I’ll have a Chai latte.

Make it a double, with a pistachio muffin on the side.

Monday, August 11, 2008

PLugged Nicholl

Mac Dixon, the first Artistic Director of the Theatre Workshop once remarked to my fiancée, “Only mediocrity succeeds on Nantucket.” It was a harsh comment, but even three decades later it continues to resonate because with every passing year the idea becomes more and more of a universal axiom. In politics, in corporate America, even in the building trades, the inept and the mendacious succeed while the gifted and hard-working fall by the wayside. From Jimmy Carter’s defeat at the hands of the charming but catastrophically foolish and ideologically blinkered Ronald Reagan to the more recent electoral nightmares, to the sub-prime lending scandal that may yet bring down the entire American economy (Someone decided it was a good idea to give mortgages to guys living in refrigerator boxes), the plague of dull-witted, pedestrian greed rages on. For the most part I’ve become numb to it, but occasionally the phenomenon hits close to home and I have to face it.

In the community of aspiring screenwriters the Nicholl Fellowship – a screenwriting contest sponsored by no less an organization than The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stands as an almost unattainable measure of achievement. Blogging screenwriters compare notes on the harrowing triage of talent … who made it to the quarter-finals and the semi-finals. More to the point, they discuss the mysteries of the judging: why their script never placed at all, how to improve, where to find the secret code that unlocks this exalted prize. There are websites devoted to coaching neophytes in the arcana of this contest. I should mention I never entered the race because as a member of the WGAw, I’m automatically disqualified. This quest is for amateurs only.

I had never seen a winning screenplay until today. This one is being shot on Nantucket and a friend of mind is helping to hire the extras and scout locations. I read the script and I confess to being stunned by it, stunned the way you feel when you crack your shin on a coffee table in the dark or miss a step going down a ladder: a physical jolt of outraged surprise. Because this script is bad. The dialogue is stilted and laden with exposition. The characters are barely sketched in, rounded off to the nearest cliché. A local sailor was asked to check the sailboat details; every single one was wrong. So are the points of local color. A shrill local rants against tourists, referring to them as wash-ashores; whereas anyone who lives here knows that a washashore is a resident who came from somewhere else. My son was amused by the local girl telling the off-island boy that “We always go to Jetties for The Fourth Of July – it’s crowded but it’s a tradition.” He said, “Right, because I’ve lived here all my life and don’t know anyone with a boat or a house with a view of the harbor.” The script is a symphony of wrong notes, a trite family drama complete with the callow grandson who learns important life lessons and the curmondgeonly old grandpa who teaches them. None of this would be of even passing interest (I read dozens of scripts just this bad and bad in just this way when I was reading for production companies in L.A.) except for the astounding, jaw dropping fact that this commonplace bundle of lazy plot points and sticky sentiment won the Nicholl. It beat out literally thousands of other screenplays, at some of which were probably pretty good. The scripts that won Project Greenlight on HBO – and the films made from them – were just as awful … as are so many more traditionally produced movies and TV shows. So something is going on here. But what?
Perhaps it’s true: mobs and morons rule the world. Certainly the wrong people seem to run everything. The notion may be economically disheartening and politically frightening, but it’s kind of liberating artistically. The opinions that make one cringe and cower (people have seriously considered giving up writing after not placing in the Nicholl three years in a row) are in fact nothing more than the senseless noise Truman Capote was talking about when he dismissed critics with the phrase, “The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.” So not winning the Nicholl isn’t a defeat and humiliation, after all: it’s a badge of honor. It’s a credential. It proves you’re not mediocre. Unfortunately, Mac Dixon was right: much of the time, in every profession, in every art and craft, mediocrity succeeds.

And not just on Nantucket.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Genre Fiction smackdown: Aristotle Vs. Chandra

In Greek tragedy plot was primary. Not much has changed in the realm of genre fiction. A publishable mystery can lack interesting characters every bit as much a Greek heroic poem; it can lack insight and metaphor, aphorism and a sense of place, as long as the simple two stroke engine of what-happens-next is turning over. This is not to say that most published mysteries are so thinly-written and debased. Many detective novels have fascinating characters and settings, sharp writing, vivid imagery. But they could have been published and read without those things.

Only one element stands as essential.

Take the analogy of music. If you’re writing ‘house music’ for a German disco club, nothing really matters but the beat: bang-bang-digga-digga, bang-bang, digga-digga on an endless loop. A simple 8 bar blues melody can be floated on this current, like a canoe. You can add key changes and witty lyrics as Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard of the rock band Postal Service do. That might be analogous to teak brightwork on the little boat; or titanium paddles from Hammacher Schlemmer. But no one dancing at the 90 degrees club on Dennewitzstrasse would care … even if the words were in German. Only the current matters: diving into that swift water and being pulled downstream.

They’re dancing to the beat, not the lyrics.

But Aristotle is discussing the writing of plays; that’s why his work applies so well to screenwriting, and has been so extensively ‘anthologized’ by Syd Field, Robert McKee and others.

"Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they representare naturally of this twofold description. The action, proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when thechange in the hero's fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery; and complex, when it involves one or the other, or both.These should each of them arise out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be the consequence, necessary or probable, of the antecedents. There is a great difference between a thing happening propter hoc and post hoc. "

Of course by Peripety he is referring to the reversal of fortune, usually in the second act (and some would insist, on page 78) that is the core of both screenwriting advice, and most modern screenplays. Along with unity of action, the idea that nothing extraneous can be permitted in the story, that the gun over the mantel in Act One has to go off by Act Three, as Chekhov instructed, we can see the basic parameters of the modern screenplay emerging. Authors like the ones mentioned above, the first to realize the relevance of Aristotle, have made a fortune from his work without fear of copyright infringement.

Whether these strict rules – and the reductive way they are applied -- are healthy for the cinema is a subject for a different essay. The question here is: can these principles be applied to the novel, a much longer and naturally more discursive medium. The answer is clear, at least in terms of genre fiction: yes, of course. But in the realm where genre fiction approaches literature, where the conventions of the mystery novel, for instance, are played with, investigated, even subverted, can these rules still hold true?

There’s an instructive example on Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. This is a sprawling 900-page book that encompasses much of Indian history in the twentieth century. It’s a portrait of modern Bombay, and study of Hindu-Muslim politics and simultaneously a compelling procedural police novel. Simply put, Chandra is doing everything I’d like to do. Though I am to some extent in retreat from those ambitions, it’s still inspiring to see them accomplished with such breath-taking skill and audacity.

In the first third of the book, Sartaj Singh and his partner Katekar investigate a murder. Three successful young thieves have had a falling out; one of them winds up dead. Sartaj’s work on this case runs parallel with the larger story, in which he seeks to understand why Bombay’s most powerful gangster chose to kill himself and his mistress in the basement of a newly built fallout shelter. Several other cases also intertwine throughout the story, but by the middle of the book the murder sub-plot has been resolved. Sartaj and his partner discover who the boys are, and plot to catch them in the act of fencing their loot. The ambush goes awry and Katekar is killed; Sartaj shoots the murderer as he flees down an alley. So a faceless killer is lying in the dirt, and the case is closed, but Sartaj derives no satisfaction from the senseless slaughter. It feels both pointless and grotesque.

Throughout the book, Chandra introduces chapters he calls ‘insets’, which present stories of marginal significance to the main plot. Anjali Mathur, the chief government agent working with Sartaj, was mentored in the service by her father’s best friend; one inset shows his early days, fighting the Chinese in the Hindu Kush. Another reveals the fate of Sartaj’s Aunt Navneet, who perished during the Partition.

These are sidelights, apparent violations of the Unities, but Chandra gets away with them because they deepen our knowledge of the book’s characters and their world. Plus they are compellingly written. Aristotle didn’t have much to say about the benefits of a muscular prose style, though you could cobble together a sense of it from his descriptions of Thought, Melody and Spectacle.

Near the end of Sacred Games, Chandra seems to push his fascination with the peripheral too far. In a final inset, he describes the life of a small town boy from Rajpur named Aadil Ansari. Aadil loves reading and becomes the first boy in his village to finish high school; he even goes on to college, working for two years in between, driving trucks and maintaining them, to pay for his schooling. He studies Zoology and in a just world, he would have become a university professor. But college is a torment because of money. Often he can’t afford to both eat and buy books. Meanwhile his rich friends laugh at his complaints and call him a typical weak-willed bumpkin when penury, stress and exhaustion force him to quit school. Of course, no one offers to help. These friends of his are a familiar type: born on third base, certain they hit a triple.

So Aadil goes home, to work his family plot of land. Requests for help from the local Raja get nowhere; and on top of that, the Raja is actually stealing Aadil’s family land, one thin strip at a time. There is no law court to dispute this encroachment: the government is corrupt from top to bottom. Aadil becomes bitter and winds up joining the Communist party. He’s the perfect candidate for a Marxist revelation. Eventually he becomes a full-fledged revolutionary, blowing up buildings and committing assassinations. It’s only when he witnesses a horrific episode of mutilation and torture that he becomes disillusioned with the cause.

He flees to Bombay, moving frequently to avoid being recognized. He goes back to his books, reading botany and biology texts for the sheer pleasure of it. He hires some boys to do his marketing and other errands, but his funds are running low. He is an expert at military operations, and he trains the three boys in the skills of commando-style larceny: careful planning and artful use of the threat of violence.
This is the first moment when you get a narrative twinge at the back of your neck. Three boys?

That sounds familiar.

The boys become successful and eventually have a falling out. Two suspect the third is talking more than his share of the proceeds. They confront him; it turns into a fight and then into a murder. Aadil tells the boys to leave their lodgings and meet him two days later at a certain hotel. But the police are onto them and the rendezvous becomes a catastrophe. The boys are arrested. As Aadil flees in panic, he kills a policeman. He is shot himself, and dies in the street.

Then you realize: this is the faceless thug who killed Katekar.

The revelation opens under you like a trap door and you plunge into the troubled understanding that there are no faceless thugs, that every incident has layers of irony and tragedy that make you cry for the whole human race.

So in one devastating coup de theatre, the Unities are preserved: nothing is irrelevant and everything is connected.

And Vikram Chandra wins the prize – the summerslam championship belt goes to Sacred Games: the Great American Literary Genre Novel.
Take the month of August and read it.
Sorry about the spoiler.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

American Idol Wrap-up

Well, American Idol is over for the season, and the right person won, much to everyone's amazement. By the time they got to the announcement, at the end of a lavish two-hour variety show spotlighting over-the-hill singers as diverse as Bryan Adams, Graham Nash, George Michael and Donna Summer, I had almost forgotten the point of the evening. I never vote myself. That's a line I can't being myself to cross. Voting would somehow be going over to the Dark Side.

I remain a neutral observer. Still, it came down this year to a choice between David Cook, a genuinely talented, bright, amusing guy who never even intended to enter the competition (he just showed up at the initial audition to support his brother) -- an actual musician with some measure of charm and charisma ... and David Archuleta, a creepy 17-year old choirboy homunculus with a demented stage Dad and a tendency to squeeze his eyes shut and clutch his stomach while he sings. This kid has basically wanted nothing else but TO BE THE NEXT AMERICAN IDOL since his days as the first karaoke fetus. (He may still be the first karaoke fetus). Preteen girls -- who must make up a majority of the voting audience -- find his neutered threatless self-effacing persona attractive. And of course, he can sing. Technically, he's one of the best singers they've ever had on the show. But there's an unformed, sort of ... larval quality about him that most adults found vaguely repellent. Anyway, he's been the preumptive winner since the creepy afternoon seven years ago when he trapped some of the kids from the first season and serenaded them with his inhuman prodigy version of I am Telling you I'm Not Going from Dreamgirls. It's on youtube. You see the wormy little boy bellowing out the melodramatic finale that's meant to be sung by a huge black woman and you can see Kelly Clarkson thinking "Whoa, thank god I'm not going have to compete with this freak! I'm smiling, I'm clapping okay? Now get him the hell away from me."

Archulleta has been twirling through his performances in a kind of smug I've-already-won-it fugue state, lapping up the robotic, predictable condensed milk praise of the judges (Randy: "You could sing the phone book, Dawg" Yes, but could he sing the yellow pages? Paula: "You're just so beautiful and wonderful and I could hang you on my rear view mirror to make my car smell all musical and I'm so high I can't even see straight right now." Simon: "That was brilliant."). Cook meanwhile, just performs his ass off and has a good time.

So we were all gritting our teeth, waiting for the inevitable, consoling ourselves that even second place finalists do very well (sometimes better than the winners) in the real world of record sales. And then, in a startlingly appropriate reversal that seemed to set the Universe right for a second or two, Cook won it. He was as stunned as everyone else. I hate to think what Archuleta's father said to his son after the show: "You didn't sing it the way I told you! You didn't smile enough!Your phrasing was off! You've ruined my life! Can you dance? I'll teach you to dance! There's a dance contest starting next week! Toe heel, toe heel, back forward -- come on DO IT!"

Cook had to sing the usual treacly winners' song, supposedly written by Idol viewers and chosen in a contest, but in fact manufactured on some Orwellian 'versificator' machine that assembles standarized chord changes, familiar melody lines and trite sentiments for the consumption of the proletariat masses (The usual sludge about dreams coming true and this is the best moment of my life and whatever), but he was too dazed to really care. I felt the same way. When they announced the winner I yelled "YES!" so loud I scared my normally unflappable pug, who must now be convinced that humans really are insane. Well, I have seven months to redeem myself, reading books and watching the Weather Channel, until Idol starts all over again in January.

I hope it's enough time.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Making the Cut

I have this weakness for entering stupid on-line contests run by agents on their websites. Most famously, an agent who called herself Miss Snark ran a 'crapometer' where she judged your log line; if it was good enough you got to submit the firt 750 words. I passed the first round but then butted up against the fact that I couldn't make the proper impact with my actual first section. So I figured out where I wanted to end up, and started cutting. Here's the original:

For Tom Jaglom, it began on the November afternoon when the Mafia killed Al­fredo Blasi. He didn’t know it, of course -- we often don’t know when things begin until after they’ve ended. The moment when forces that are going to change the world assem­ble and begin moving together is a question for hindsight and historians and college kids playing the if game in late-night dormitories -- if the Arch Duke Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated in Sarajevo, if Hitler had attacked the British Army before they fled at Dunkirk ... or, in this case, if a reporter named Jim Gramble hadn’t been on the steps of the Criminal Courts Building that day, standing in the raw wind, asking questions -- what might have happened?

The question would have bored Tom Jaglom. He was a practical person. He had no interest in speculation; besides, on the day in question he had something much more important on his mind.

He was falling in love.

He was walking in Central Park with Amy Elwell, holding her hand inside his coat pocket, watching the wind scatter her long red hair, feeling truly happy for the first time in years. He felt too large for his skin. It was almost painful. The park was deserted in the bitter cold and it felt like their private estate.

They had been together all morning. Tom was supposed to have picked her up at ten, but he’d arrived at her apartment two hours early. He had been up since five. By seven he was on the street, buttoning his coat against the cold. The wind run­ning between the grimy buildings felt as clear as stream water. He gulped it as he walked. MacDougal Street was peaceful in the sharp morning light, the shops and cafes closed, litter blowing across the pavement. He saw no one but bums and joggers, a kid on a skateboard, a little man walking five big dogs. The city was at rest, unclenched. It ab­sorbed his energy.

He had started walking without conscious direction; nevertheless, within an hour he was at the front door of Amy’s apartment house. She lived on the fourteenth floor. The elevator was slow, the hallway was silent. He stood in front of her door for a moment, bracing himself. Then he knocked. He heard footsteps, then the cover of the peep-hole sliding. Locks clicked and then the door was open and she was standing in front of him in a bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a towel. She smelled of soap and steam.

“Come in.” she said, smiling, startled but happy to see him. “I just got out of the shower. I didn’t expect you for hours.”

“Sorry -- I couldn’t wait.”

He stepped inside and she hugged him. He could feel the firm length of her naked body loose under the terry cloth. She pulled away an inch or two, kissed him lightly. “Let me just get dressed,” she said. “There’s coffee in the kitchen.”

Tom walked into the cramped, sunny room, and poured two cups of coffee. He sat down at the little table Amy had jammed into a corner by the window. He pulled off his coat and sweater; like most New York apartments, Amy’s was brutally overheated all through the winter.

He sipped his coffee. Intruding on this ordinary part of her day gave him a sudden vision of what life might be like if he lived with her, if he were really at home in this little kitchen, as if he had awakened beside her in the pale sunshine, made coffee while she showered.

These were not fantasies he could have imagined himself inventing even two months ago. But everything was different now. He saw beautiful women and he didn’t care. He saw children and he wanted his own. He hadn’t said all this to Amy yet. He wasn’t sure how to do it. He didn’t want to scare her; and he was a little scared himself.

She came in wearing jeans and a t-shirt, toweling her hair. They chatted while she ironed a shirt. They went downstairs after awhile. The city was waking up. They had a quick breakfast at a Bagel Nosh and then walked -- uptown through the garment district and then across town at forty-second Street, past Grand Central and then north on Lexi­ngton, looking in shop windows, talking about mid-terms and parents, politics, poetry and pizza, long easy threads of conversation unspooling block after block as the city un­packed itself around them.

Eventually they wound up in Central Park, walking in lazy circles towards the West Side and lunch. Amy’s hand was warm inside his pocket, her fingers laced tight with his as she talked.

“I’m just not sure why I even bother at this point,” she was saying. “They like the idea of me being home for Christmas, but it always turns into a nightmare.”

“Why? I mean -- what happens?”

“I don’t know ... everything I do is just a little bit wrong. It’s like there’s some ab­stract version of me in their heads and I don’t measure up.”

Tom smiled. “What’s she like?”

“Well -- for one thing, she accepted that Juilliard scholarship. Music is the whole world to her. She’s not recklessly throwing away her God-given talents.”

“Oh boy.”

“All she wants to do is practice. It’s great -- she makes them so proud. She’s going to be the first woman Concert Master of the New York Philharmonic some day.”

“She sounds like a bore.”

Amy laughed, and at that precise moment, Tom realized they were being fol­lowed. Under normal conditions he would have figured it out much more quickly. But he was distracted. Amy kept talking, but he was counting pairs of footsteps now, estimating weight from foot falls -- three, four, five altogether. Jumbos. And they were speeding up. Amy finally sensed that something was wrong and started moving faster herself. This was the worst possible response. Tom tugged on her arm, pulled her back into a casual stroll.

“Don’t hurry,” he whispered. “Don’t turn around. Just keep talking.” There was still a chance that this whole absurd circus could be avoided. But Tom had been trained well, by his father and others, and he knew it wasn’t likely. The group was dividing be­hind them. At the moment he knew the gang was going to attack, all he felt was embarrassment —— this kind of situation made him feel like a freak.

Two gang members trotted ahead of them, blocking the path while the others caught up.

This was it. Tom sighed.

“What’s your hurry. pal?” the leader asked conversationally. Tom had made a point of not hurrying, but he decided against pointing this out. The gang ranged in age from about fifteen to twenty, big heavy white guys wearing bulky coats and packing guns un­der them.

“He don’t wanta get robbed,” one of the others suggested.

“Yeah,” a third one agreed. “You gotta be careful around here. This is a high crime area.”

“Let’s kill ‘em both!” the youngest one burst out suddenly, unable to control his enthusiasm.

“No,” said the leader. “That would be a waste. We’ll kill him -- the girl we take with us. We can have some fun with her. He pulled out a switch knife and let the eight-inch blade snap out dramatically.

Tom cleared his throat.

“Hold on a second,’ he said. “You’re making a big mistake here. No -- really. Look, this may seem a little bit hard to believe, but … I’m the son of the President of the United States. It’s true. And wherever I go, these Secret Service guys follow me. Big guys. With guns. They shoot first and ask questions later.”

The leader thought this was hilarious. He barked out a short laugh. “Oh yeah?” he said.

Tom shrugged. “Well -- no, actually. They don’t really ask questions later. Except for stuff like, ‘Where are the body bags?’ and ‘Who’s going to get the brains off this wallpaper?’”

“Cut the crap, buddy -- “

He never finished the sentence; Ira Heller’s Secret Service crew finally made their appearance. Three men in gray trench coats carrying AK-47 attack rifles. The gang bur­rowed into its jackets, and in a moment they were armed the same way. Heller, a jowly, graying man in his fifties who looked like the ex-cop he was, spoke in a tired voice with a faint Brooklyn accent.

“Okay,” he said. “Put the guns down.”

That's 1,414 words. For the crapometer finals I cut it down to 750:

For Tom Jaglom, it began on the November afternoon when the Mafia killed Al­fredo Blasi. He didn’t know it, of course -- we often don’t know when things begin until after they’ve ended. Besides, the question would have bored Tom Jaglom. He was a practical person. He had no interest in speculation; besides, on the day in question he had something much more important on his mind.

He was falling in love.

He was walking in Central Park with Amy Elwell, holding her hand inside his coat pocket, watching the wind scatter her long red hair, feeling truly happy for the first time in years. He felt too large for his skin. It was almost painful. The park was deserted in the bitter cold and it felt like their private estate.

He had gotten to her apartment early, and sat in the kitchen sipping coffee while she changed. Intruding on this ordinary part of her day gave him a sudden vision of what life might be like if he lived with her, if he were really at home in this little kitchen, as if he had awakened beside her in the pale sunshine, made coffee while she showered.

“I’m just not sure why I even bother at this point,” she was saying now, as they strolled through the Ramble, under the bare branches of the sycamore trees, between miniature cliffs of jagged granite. “My parents like the idea of me being home for Christmas, but it always turns into a nightmare.”

At that moment, Tom realized they were being fol­lowed. Under normal conditions he would have figured it out much more quickly. But he was distracted.

He half-listened as Amy chatted away about her music and her parents. He was counting pairs of footsteps now, estimating weight from foot falls -- five altogether, jumbos. She hadn't sensed anything yet. That was good. If she panicked there might be real trouble. The steps behind them were speeding up. Tom sighed. These situations always made him feel like a freak.

Amy kept chatting away, but she finally sensed that something was wrong and started moving faster herself. This was the worst possible response. Tom tugged on her arm, pulled her back into a casual stroll.

“Don’t hurry,” he whispered. “Don’t turn around. Just keep talking.” There was still a chance that this whole absurd circus could be avoided. But Tom had been trained well, by his father and others, and he knew it wasn’t likely. The group was dividing be­hind them. Two of the gang members trotted ahead, blocking the path while the others caught up. This was it. Tom sighed.

“What’s your hurry. pal?” the leader asked conversationally. Tom had made a point of not hurrying, but he decided against pointing this out. The gang ranged in age from about fifteen to twenty, big heavy white guys wearing bulky coats and packing guns un­der them.

“He don’t wanta get robbed,” one of the others suggested.

“Yeah,” a third one agreed. “You gotta be careful around here. This is a high crime area.”

“Let’s kill ‘em both!” the youngest one burst out suddenly, unable to control his enthusiasm.

“No,” said the leader. “That would be a waste. We’ll kill him -- the girl we take with us. We can have some fun with her. He pulled out a switch knife and let the eight-inch blade snap out dramatically.

Tom cleared his throat.

“Hold on a second,’ he said. “You’re making a big mistake here. No -- really. Look, this may seem a little bit hard to believe, but … I’m the son of the President of the United States. It’s true. And wherever I go, these Secret Service guys follow me. Big guys. With guns. They shoot first and ask questions later.”

The leader thought this was hilarious. He barked out a short laugh. “Oh yeah?” he said.

Tom shrugged. “Well -- no, actually. They don’t really ask questions later. Except for stuff like, ‘Where are the body bags?’ and ‘Who’s going to get the brains off this wallpaper?’”

And at that moment Ira Heller’s Secret Service crew finally made their appearance. Three men in gray trench coats carrying compact tech nine assault rifles. The gang bur­rowed into its jackets, and in a moment they were armed the same way.

Heller, a jowly, graying man in his fifties who looked like the ex-cop he was, spoke in a tired voice with a faint Brooklyn accent.

“Okay,” he said. “Put the guns down.”

Here's the question -- do I lreally lose that much in this edit? I mean, I cut the thing almost in half. And I don't feel the absent material nagging at me. Anyway ... I just entered a new contest, at Bookends LLC. They want just the first 100 words, so I had to cut even more out of the opening. Now it looks like this:

For Tom Jaglom, it began on the November afternoon when the Mafia killed Al­fredo Blasi. He didn’t know it, of course -- we often don’t know when things begin until after they’ve ended. Besides, on the day in question he had something much more important on his mind.

He was falling in love.

He was walking in Central Park with Amy Elwell, feeling truly happy for the first time in years. He felt too large for his skin. It was almost painful. The park was deserted in the bitter cold and it felt like their private estate.

It's bizarre ... how much further could I go with this? Reduce a whole book to a haiku? Or just a very dense short story -- that's the technique Borges preferred. Could I make these same relatively painless editorial corrections on everything I've ever written? It's a daunting thought. I'm sure some of my friends would be cheering, though, especially the one who said that reading my 900-page manuscript felt like being pelted by rhinestones -- she knew some of them had to be diamonds, but the barage was too painful for her to pick and choose.

My Dad made even more extensive cuts at the behest of my (then) agent -- this was in the late nineties -- and it seemed to me that his edits rendered the whole thing generic. My cuts keep the feeling of the original (I think) ... but story moves much faster to that confrontation in the park. And agents seem so impatient these days. One of them suggested an opening like the one below -- right into the inciting incident. It seems rather abrupt, but this is supposedly what people want now: plunge them into the action and don't give them time to breathe:

The gang had been following them for five minutes. It wouldn't be long now. Tom Jaglom half-listened as Amy chatted away about her music and her parents. She hadn't sensed anything yet. That was good. If she panicked there might be real trouble. The steps behind them were speeding up. Tom sighed. These situations always made him feel like a freak.
Amy kept talking, but he was counting pairs of footsteps now, estimating weight from foot falls -- three, four, five altogether. Jumbos. And they were speeding up. Amy finally sensed that something was wrong and started moving faster herself. This was the worst possible response. Tom tugged on her arm, pulled her back into a casual stroll.

I guess this is okay, but personally, I like breathing from time to time.

Anyway,I doubt I'll win this new contest, but it doesn't matter. The cutting is what counts. It's an interesting experiment; and a humbling one.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Twilight Zone -- the Movie

I recently purchased the complete Twilight Zone on DVD and discovered that one season featured hour-long episodes. They were uniformly bad, and I began to feel that Rod Serling’s story-telling style required a half-hour format. I didn’t see those sixty minute stories as a kid, because they went on too long and aired too late at night. I could barely keep my eyes open for the half hour episodes, with my mother’s bland but merciless “Of course you can watch it, if you can stay up that late” ringing in my ears like a call to battle. Far too often I didn’t make it, so it felt good to catch up on the shows I missed.

But I’ve come to realize that there are a number of superb Twilight Zone episodes in the form of full length films. Foreign movies like The Seventh Seal, old Hollywood science fiction like The Time Machine, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Incredible Shrinking Man; recent films like Gattaca, The Sixth Sense and The Truman Show also fit the mold. Time shifters like Sliding Doors and Peggy Sue Got Married would make good episodes. But I have a private list of the top five potential two-hour Twilight Zones. They have to be a little corny, they have to have some kind of twist or trick; there has to be a moral or some heartwarming lesson at the heart of the story.

Most of all, you have to be able to imagine Rod Serling doing the intro.

In reverse order:

#5: Big
The best of all the little kid in a grownup body movies, complete with creepy amusement park vending machine genie and the realization that childhood is too precious to waste on being a successful 30-year old ad man. Who can forget Elizabeth Perkins’ classic “He’s a grown up!”

#4: Terminator
The first one, not any of the others, which were either too slick, too complex or too stupid to make the grade. The first movie has everything a good Twilight Zone needs: scary stuff – being chased by a machine from the future with nuclear apocalypse looming (There was lots of nuclear apocalypse in the Twilight Zone); and a time bending love story where the soldier sent back in time to save the mother of humanity’s last hope in the war with the machines winds up making love with her and becoming the father himself. You can almost hear Rod doing the intro: “Scientists tell us that time travel is impossible. The events you go back in time to stop happen anyway. In fact, it’s your actions that set everything in motion. Case in point: one Sarah Connor, an ordinary waitress in the city of Los Angeles, about to receive some unexpected visitors … from the Twilight Zone.”

#3: It’s a Wonderful Life
A classic Serling fantasy, the perfect Christmas episode, especially the dark section where George Bailey gets to see how badly the world would have turned out if he had never been born. Serling always had a soft spot for this kind of sentimental fantasy. “To my brother George – the richest man in town!”

#2: Planet of the Apes
The cheesy twist ending for the ages: the planet of the apes is really Earth! We destroyed our civilization and now apes rule the world. You can hear the eerie dee-de, dee-de music swelling as Charlton Heston pounds the sand in front of the ruined Statue of Liberty at the low-tide line. How the Statue of Liberty survived a nuclear holocaust, or wound up on what looks suspiciously like Zuma beach, are questions for a more mature audience. Those discerning souls might also wonder how the apes speak perfect English. But none of that matters. The final jolting image, with its freight of moral censure, is all a classic Twilight Zone ever needed.

#1: Field of Dreams
This may be the greatest Twilight Zone episode ever filmed. It’s got everything – the supernatural element of ghostly baseball players emerging from the green stalks, the reunion with the estranged dead father, (“If you build it, he will come") the American iconography (A baseball diamond in a corn field), family values, cynics converted to belief and innocence, and most of all, Moonlight Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, getting his dream to pitch in the big leagues and giving it up to do his duty as a doctor. Who can forget Graham’s lovely speech about playing a single inning as the whole of his career. “It was like coming this close to your dreams, and having them brush past you, like a stranger in a crowd.”

And I hear Rod’s voice, resonant and wise: “Submitted for your approval: one Ray Kinsella, Kansas farmer and family man, about to risk everything for a few innings of baseball …in the Twilight Zone.”

That one would have been worth staying up for.


Fittingly enough, I come back to the blog again, it's still the same day and I have to revise it over and over, until I get it right.

I'll let Mr. Serling do the talking for me, standing in his dark suit and thin black tie, heavy eyebrows bunched together, hands clasped in front of his crotch, as always:

"It's February 2nd in Puxatawney, Pennsylvania, and weatherman Phil Connors is walking through another soft news feed, waiting for a groundhog to predict the end of winter and hoping to beat the next blizzard home. He's bored and he's cranky and he's going through the motions one more time. Or so he thinks. In fact, Phil Connors strayed off course today, far off course. He doesn't know it yet, but Phil is going to be broadacsting this particular Groundhog Day report ... from the Twilight Zone."

Groundhog Day -- that was an inexcusable omission. It bumps Big off the top five (to fill out the top ten with The Dead Zone, Miracle on 34th Street, E.T. and The Birds) and jumps to the #2 spot. It's a great movie, actually it's a better movie than Field of Dreams, but as an episode it loses by a nose.

You just can't beat Burt Lancaster saying --"You know, we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize, that was the only day."

--no matter how many times you repeat it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The True Story

In the new spate of memoir scandals – one just broke this morning – the newspapers are full of recriminations and finger pointing. Everyone feels that everyone else should have made the one phone call to L.A. County Child Services (for instance) that would have brought Margaret Seltzer’s crudely assembled deceit tumbling down like a cheap condo in an earthquake. Normally staid editors an agents talk about the author as a crazed psychopath bent on destroying the system of trust that holds the publishing world together. But the driving force behind this fraud was not really one woman’s pathology or the dunderheaded Panglossian naivete of the publishers. That would be kind of appealing, actually … a throwback to the old days of tweed jackets with leather patches; pipe smoking editors parsing sentences and drinking whiskey out of silver flasks.

In fact the publishers are cynical operators who understand and are expert at gaming a tragic fact of the modern era: the novel is so commercially stigmatized as an art form that any story’s value is now directly related only to how much of it you can say is true. The invented has been devalued; imagination is suspect. Fiction is a lie. The ad copy reads: “It’s a true story!” Or:“Based on a true story” Even in movies you see that wan claim. “Inspired by a true story” is one of my favorites. How about: “Vaguely related to someone’s version of a true story”, or: “Sharing some names and locations with a true story.”

More to the point: willing to exploit the idea of a ‘true story’ to sell tickets.

James Frey wrote a novel about drug addiction and recovery. It was a good novel, and people bought thousands of copies and made it a hit. They did so under the false impression that the story was true. Their hunger for a true story was so great that they could ignore the obvious exaggerations (He really extracted a tooth himself without anesthetic? Come on): after all, truth is stranger than fiction. “You couldn’t make this stuff up!” is a phrase I hear all the time, when some mundane coincidence disarranges someone’s routine. But you could make it up. People make it up all the time. They’ve being making up since they were illustrating the stories with cave paintings. James Frey made it up. That’s not a bad thing.

It’s a good thing.

The bad thing is that he was pressured by his venal, mercenary publishers to call it a memoir … because they knew it would be a best-seller if was wrapped in the shiny gold foil of ‘truth’. They got caught in the lie and paid the price, with recalled books and tearful mea culpas. But it would be wrong to confuse their lie with James Frey’s. Frey took the materials of his life and shaped them into a powerful narrative. It touched people and moved people and inspired them. That’s what good fiction is supposed to do. He deserves praise, not opprobrium. If I had been the publisher I would have simply re-issued A Million Little Pieces as a novel, and proudly used it to make a case for the novel against the cheap, unearned legitimacy of the memoir.

Most true stories are boring. That’s why we read books. Life doesn’t shape itself; writers do that.

I remember an old girlfriend of mine finished reading James Dickey’s Deliverance many years ago. She said something like, “It’s so fantastic he was able to write about this stuff. Just surviving it must have been so hard.” I pointed out that the events of the book were imaginary. James Dickey had never been raped by toothless red-necks on an ill-fated white water rafting trip. He made it all up. But I couldn't convince her. In fact, she acted like I was insulting her -- and James Dickey: accusing this lovely Southern gentleman of lying.

For me that was a deal-breaker. I knew I could never marry someone like that, who found the work I cared about most to be some kind of mendacious con-game.

But she was ahead of her time. I’m sure she was cheering the egregious Oprah Winfrey as she chastised Frey for convincing her of a reality that existed only in his head. I felt like screaming at the TV: “That’s his job, you self-righteous pedestrian power-junkie! You're supposed to understand that! You have your own book club!"

Frey’s only real mistake was capitulating to the greedy corporate parasites. Maybe he's learned his lesson: I notice his next book is unashamedly marked ‘fiction’.

I suppose we should be grateful that this trend is such a recent one. Can you imagine Melville on Oprah, tearfully admitting there was no white whale and and Ahab was actually a family friend who lost a leg in a gardening accident? Or Daniel Defoe confessing he’d never been shipwrecked?

If The Great Gatsby had been published as a memoir, would Fitzgerald have been excoriated by the press when it was revealed that Jay Gatsby was a figment of his imagination? “There’s not even a town called West Egg,” Oprah might have snarled. “There’s no Daisy Buchannon in the phone book! None of these people are real!.”

But they are, Oprah. At least to me they are. Much more real than you.

And they will be around – Tom and Daisy and Ahab and Queequeg and Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday – long after you and all your flash-in-the-pan ‘true stories’ are gone and forgotten.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Scenes We'd Like to See #2

So Annie and her friend were walking their dogs along the beach at Dionis a few days ago. They decided to cut up to Tuppency links on their way back to town. That meant crossing some property lines, but on Nantucket in February that’s a tradition as firmly entrenched as the Vineyard-Nantucket football grudge-match and the high school parties at 30th Pole. If you live on-island one month a year, you’re not a local, and your right-of-way property rights are suspended during your absence. Most old time home-owners understand this, and they don’t care if you cross their driveway en route to the beach or the bike path, even in summer. Unfortunately this isn’t true of the nouveau riche owners of the trophy palace that adjoins the old golf course. The rumor is they’re Hollywood people. They have the estate guarded as if it were smack dab in the middle of a Brentwood crime wave, complete with key-pad alarms and security fencing. It’s hard to figure out just what these people are afraid of. But apparently the list includes two middle aged women, a yellow lab and a pug.

The owner sighted them and came to the window shrieking. “Get off my property! You’re trespassing! I’m calling the police,” and other equally neighborly but less printable salutations. Annie and her friend fled the area, and over the next couple of days a scene started forming in my vengeful and petty imagination.

Annie’s grandfather was a Commodore of the Yacht Club. Her family have been here since the mid 19th Century. She let her membership in the club lapse, but I couldn’t help thinking of an alternate world where Annie was not only still part of the organization but perhaps the head of the membership board. Wouldn’t it be lovely if this woman from Tuppency came, hat in hand, to the Yacht club -- longing to join, desperate for that final seal of approval from the Nantucket aristocracy.

What might Annie say to her in that fatal interview?

Actually, I’m sure Annie would be perfectly polite and then quietly cast her vote against the egregious woman, behind closed doors. And there’s no real interview anyway – just a big cocktail party where the potential newcomers are casually examined over drinks and canapés.

But this is my fantasy, not hers!

In my version there’s a star chamber with a tribunal of merciless Yankee WASPs and a suitably humbled interloper, standing under a harsh spotlight, trembling in her Dolce and Gabbana dress. And this is what she hears from my girlfriend, the avenging angel of the old Nantucket, the crusader of crumbling old houses and mud rooms full of scalloping waders and tilted kitchen floors with low ceilings:

"Why on earth should we allow you into this club? You have a nerve even asking! You represent the antithesis of everything this club stands for. You are actively destroying everything every member of the club loves about Nantucket. You tore down the geodesic dome house to build your trashy ostentatious eye-sore. That was a crazy place, eccentric and impractical, but it was a landmark and we loved it. It was a bulwark against the sub-zero refrigerator, Mexican tile, fan window, house gutting, money-poisoned tasteless status vultures like yourself. Well, you won that one, lady! The old woman who used to ride her bicycle to 'Sconset every day of the year, rain or shine, lost out and you leveled her house and put up your Grand Guignol Taj Mahal. Have you ever ridden a bike to 'Sconset? Have you ever walked in the moors? Don’t pretend you have because lying will just make things worse for you here. Nantucket isn’t a real place to you. It doesn’t have any history or tradition. It’s just a water view and five restaurants. It’s just a new stage for you to show-off on. Your cathedral ceiling is higher, your deck has a better grade of redwood, your house has more unused rooms and squanders more pristine acres than the house next door. You tramp through it like a kid in big boots, stomping through a fresh snowfall because you like to see your own tracks and its fun to make a mess. And then you have the gall to threaten people because they cross your sacred property line – people who have lived here for decades, who love and understand this place in a way you never will. As if it was even your property! You bought it and you can fence it in, but it will be here long after you’re gone, long after your greedy children sell the place to another load of self-satisfied millionaires. You’re the one who’s trespassing and you always will be. But not here. Not in this club. You’re never going to be allowed through these doors, even as a guest. So go back to your big air-conditioned, private, exclusive high-ceilinged mausoleum and gloat about your paint colors and hire someone cheap from off-island to decorate the guest wing. But never imagine for one second that anyone who really lives on Nantucket wants to hear about it. Because you have nothing in your life but the things you bought and the money you bought them with and that makes you boring and irritating and mostly just sad. All of which disqualifies you from membership in the Nantucket Yacht Club. And don’t try to steal any flatware or linens on the way out. We’ll be frisking you at the door.”

That’s in my world. In this world most of the people who belong to the Yacht club are new money ‘fork-lifters’ – people who don’t sail or even play tennis, and just come to eat and be seen by their fat-cat cronies. People just like the Tuppency lady. She’d probably be welcome these days. She’s probably already a member. She might even be on the membership committee.

But not on my blog.
On my blog she’s stumbling out in tears, selling that pretentious pile of a house and moving back to Brentwood. And not a moment too soon.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Excerpt #1

From Paranoid
The Bloomingdale’s Sequence

She woke up in the morning, knowing she needed a plan. There were two Secret Service agents posted in front of her building. That was the team she knew about. It was more than enough coverage under normal circumstances. But she was their best link to Tom, now. She would lead them to him, or they would be ready to pounce when he found her. Either way, they couldn’t afford to be short-handed. That meant there was going be at least one other team, maybe two or three other teams, involved with her surveillance today.
She had to find a way to lose them.
But that was Tom’s department, not hers. She walked over to the living room window and looked down at the street. They were there. She considered the short list of alternatives. She couldn’t out-run them, that was for sure. She couldn’t fight her way past them. Even threatening them with a gun would be foolish -- they would surely know how to disarm a nervous twenty-two year old girl. No, she had to out-think them somehow.
Something Jake said came back to her -- that business about going to ground on your home turf. Someplace you were comfortable and they weren’t, where you knew the lay of the land and they didn’t. At the time she hadn’t been able to think of any such location ... except perhaps her home town in Vermont -- especially her old high school. Now, if she could just lure the Secret Service up to Bennington! She knew all the ins and out of that old building better than anyone. She had sneaked around to make out and smoke cigarettes in hidden store rooms and abandoned stairways for years.
But there was no building on the NYU campus she knew that well.
It was kind of sad and weird to realize this, but she’d probably spent more time in Bloomingdale’s, between shopping and working there part time, than she had in any of the NYU buildings where she’d been getting her education. Of course, Bloomingdale’s was a kind of education itself: a virtual symposium in the reality of capitalist economics, human relations and stress management. Not to mention critical things like which designers got the biggest mark-ups. Her lips were sealed on that one -- but she was sticking with Donna Karan.
She wondered if Bonnie Traynor was still the third floor manager (She had been hoping for a promotion); if her gay friend Raoul was still giving our perfume samples in cosmetics on the main floor.
She had quit just before Christmas and she knew Bonnie had felt abandoned. She had felt a little lost herself. The place had become a kind of second home to her over the last couple of years and --
But that was it.
If any place in the city was home turf, it had to be Bloomingdale’s. It was perfect: all she had to do was lose some guys in a Department store. Men were sure to be clueless there, anyway. They sort of went into zombie-mode, waiting for their wives to do whatever it was that women did in such places, instantly exhausted and miserable. Her Dad even had a word for it -- “Department Store Foot.” It was real. His feet would start aching after as little as fifteen minutes. All men suffered from it -- that’s why there were chairs and couches near the changing rooms. She smiled to herself -- if you thought American soldiers seemed lost in the Vietnamese jungle, wait until you saw the Secret Service stumbling through the Bloomingdale’s lingerie department!
She felt a rush of new energy.
This might even be fun.

She showered and dressed, had a dry handful of grape nuts and a glass of water. Then she went downstairs to greet the Secret Service. She saw them from the lobby -- One at the curb, leaning down to talk to the other, behind the wheel of a Chevy Nova parked in front of a fire hydrant. She shrugged -- they didn’t really need to be inconspicuous any more.
She stepped outside into the cool bright sunshine, crossed the pavement and tapped the agent on the shoulder.
“Hi,” she said. “How are you? Beautiful day, isn’t it? Listen ...I have some shopping to do, and I’m heading uptown. I thought, you know -- since you were going to be following me anyway? Maybe you could just give me a lift. Would that be okay?”
He stared at her and she gave him her most flirtatious smile.
“It would save me a cab fare. And we could get to know each other a little.”
“Uh, sure, I guess so. Let me just call it in.”
On the ride uptown she found out that his name was Tim Evarts. The driver was named Mike Dalnegro. Mike was new on the job; Tim was breaking him in, “Showing him the ropes,” as Tim put it.
Amy squinted at him. “I’ve never understood that phrase,” she said. “What are these ropes, exactly? And why does he have to be shown? Can’t he see them for himself? Is there something special about them? Are they like ... trick ropes, or something?”
Tim was non-plussed. “Uh ... I’m not sure, Ma’am.”
“Call me Amy. I’m younger than you are.”
“Okay ... Amy.”
“But I’m serious -- I mean ... how much rope do you actually use in the course of a given day?”
“Uhh ...none.”
“That’s what I’m saying. It’s bizarre. We use these phrases all the time and we have no idea what we’re saying.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Like -- dog eat dog. What is that about? Have you ever seen a dog eating another dog? My dog wouldn’t even eat kibble.”
“I know what you mean. ‘A tough road to hoe’ I never got that one.”
She laughed. “But that one’s easy -- it’s a tough row -- like in a garden, when you’re planting seeds. A hoe is a tool -- you sort of chop the ground with it. If the soil is rocky that would be a tough row to hoe.” She patted his knee. “Guess you haven’t spent much time in the country, Tim.”
“No, Ma’am.”
She gave up after that. Whatever else they had been trained for, these guys had never learned how to keep up their end of a conversation. Which was actually just as well -- she needed a little silence now, to think about her tactics.
They parked in front of another hydrant.
“Can you do that any time you want?“ Amy asked. “Because it would be worth joining the Secret Service just for that.”
“This is official government business, Ma’am.”
It was hopeless; but she wouldn’t be saddled with these stiffs much longer. As soon as she walked into the mirrored ground floor of Bloomingdale’s, with its perfumed air, muted clatter and dinging elevators, she began to feel good. This was possible. Raoul was at his old post, dispensing puffs of Obsession. Amy broke free from her escort to give the tall, impeccably dressed queer a hug. He liked the word queer; he said it described him perfectly. And he was odd, there was no doubt about it, one of those intensely affected homosexuals who seemed to be pickled in their own lisping precision. Then there were the body piercings and the tattoos, but Amy didn’t need to dwell on that stuff right now. She threw her arms around him and said quickly, into his ear, “Raoul, you may have to help me lose the two suits behind me.”
“Good to see you, too, sweetie.”
“Sorry, how are you?”
“Same as ever. Dispensing Obsession -- isn’t that perfect? I’m the poster boy.”
“Speaking of Obsession -- how’s Claude?”
“He got a restraining order last week.” Raoul sighed dramatically. “I just don’t know what to make of that.”
“Well, my guess is ... the first flush of romance is over.”
“Don’t be so negative -- I think he’s playing hard to get.”
“Yeah -- but you think pepper spray is a form of flirtation.”
Raoul laughed and held her shoulders to study her affectionately at arm’s length. “Oh, Amy,” he said. “You always call me on my bullshit. Why couldn’t you be a man? Oh, well -- with my luck, you’d be straight.”
She stepped back, took his hands and squeezed them.
“Maybe I’ll see you later,” she said.
“Be sure to stop in and see that cute little Billy in shipping. Remember him? The one you wouldn’t kiss under the mistletoe at the Christmas party? You said it was ‘used up’ and he believed you. I just loved that. Stupidity is so cute.”
She squeezed his hands once more and then she was moving past him towards the lingerie department.
“I’m buying some bras,” she said to Tim when he had jogged into place beside her. “You should get something nice for your wife -- or girlfriend, whatever.”
“Uh, I don’t think -- “
“I’ll have them put it on my charge, no problem. Shelley can help you.”
She had a bad moment, thinking Shelley wasn’t working, but then she saw the tall blond walking away from one of the fitting rooms. There was no one in the world better qualified to distract, stall and befuddle two strait-laced civil servants.
‘Strait-laced,’ she thought -- that’s another one. What the hell does ‘strait-laced’ mean? What are they lacing up? And what kind of person does it crooked? Her kind of person, she was willing to bet.
She caught Shelley’s eye and broke away from the two Secret Service agents.
“Amy,” she said.
“Shelley, hi.”
“Look at you! You are such a celebrity. Complete with Secret Service hunks. Just like it said in People Magazine. “Not that I read People Magazine -- but ... you know. When there’s someone you know, not that I even recognized you, you looked so weird in those pictures. Didn’t you have any control over that?”
“Not really, no. Listen, Shelley, I need to get rid of those Secret Service ... hunks. Show them some lingerie. Distract them.”
“You’re not in trouble are you?”
“Not yet.”
“Amy, I don’t know -- “
“Please. It’s for a good cause. And I’ll owe you one.”
“You already owe me, like -- twelve or something.”
Amy grabbed some bras and started for the changing rooms. The Secret Service guys were actually kind of hunky. Especially Tim. That might be enough for Shelley.
And it was. She turned to them and said, “Amy tells me you’re picking out bras for that special someone in your life. And you look like you could use some help.”
“Well,” Tim began.
“Are we talking about a wife or a girlfriend?”
“Uh, she’s my wife, but I --”
“What size is she? Would you say roughly ... my size?”
She arched her back; Tim looked down but she had Mike’s full attention. She handed each of them a filmy undergarment, smiling as they blushed. “Doesn’t that feel nice. Soft but sort of ... electric.”
“It’s -- I --”
“So ... is your wife a little smaller than me? I’m actually a little smaller, too. But I’m wearing the wonder bra. Do you know about the wonder bra?” She eased them behind a corner display of slips and nightgowns. “It sort of lifts and defines, but not in any obvious way ... it’s more like ... I don't know. I can’t describe it. Let me show you. I’m wearing one now.”
By the time she had the third button undone, Amy was long gone, sprinting for the street.
For one lovely moment she thought it was over; But, it was just as she had suspected -- there was another team waiting for her on Lexington Avenue.
She spun around in front of the revolving door and dashed back towards the escalators. She didn’t look back but she could hear them behind her, grunting and excusing themselves past shoppers and clerks. She looked around for Raoul, but she had come out on the opposite side of the cosmetics department. She reached the escalator and took the moving stairs two at a time until she was stopped by a clot of people. She edged past them as the Secret Service guys started up behind her.
“What’s your rush?”
“Kids today!”
“In a hurry -- going nowhere.”
She left the disapproving chorus behind. The next flight was clear. She needed to reach the dressing rooms near the DKNY section before the agents caught up with her. She grabbed a dress at random and slipped into the changing area just as they came in sight, bobbing their heads above the racks of clothes like dogs in high grass.
Amy caught her breath. The chase had winded her.
She hung the dress -- it really was awful, it had tassels -- on a hook in one of the cubicles. She was okay, they wouldn’t follow her in here. And this changing area was special: around the corner of the short, L-shaped corridor there was an employee-only security door. It led to the workers’ lounge and the freight elevators. It was supposed to be locked but most of the time it wasn’t.
She jiggled the handle for a few seconds, but it didn’t budge. Just her luck -- today of all days someone decided to follow the rules.
She was trapped here. Unless ...
She walked back out onto the floor and asked the salesgirl to help her. The Secret Service guys were there. One of them was talking into a cell phone.
Who was he talking to? How many more of them were there?
She got the girl into the dressing room hallway.
“The door back there leads to the lounge. You have a key. Open it.”
“Excuse me?”
“I need to get into the staff lounge and the door is locked.”
“Customers aren’t permitted in that area. That’s an employee only area.”
“I know that. I worked here for two years.” She grabbed the girl by the bicep and squeezed hard. “Just open it.”
“I’m sorry -- I’d have to talk to my supervisor -- “
“I have a gun. Don't make me use it.”
The girl’s eyes widened. Amy stared her down thinking it would probably be a good idea to actually have a gun at a moment like this. But the girl believed her. She unlocked the door. Before Amy let her go she said. “Don’t say a word to anyone. Or I’ll come back for you.”
The girl was on the verge of tears.
“I hate New York,” she blurted. “Everyone says ‘I love New York.’ Well, I hate it! People pretend stuff like this doesn’t happen but it does.”
Amy felt bad. “Sorry. I just needed the door unlocked. I don't really have a gun, if that makes you feel any better.”
“It makes me feel worse! I believe any crazy girl who says she has a gun! How am I supposed to survive here? I’m going back to Mahwah.”
Amy had lived in the city long enough to have developed a native contempt for New Jersey, with its smelly refineries, monotonous tract subdivisions and its blighted suburban mall mentality. But for the moment she kept her opinions to herself.
She gave the distraught girl a quick hug. “Maybe you should do that,” she said gently, then slipped through the door and away.
She ran down the corridor toward the freight elevators, but she could see that neither one was on this floor. She didn’t have time to wait. She burst through the door to the fire stairs and leapt down them. She got to street level, tore down a couple of right angled halls and ran out onto the loading docks.
She saw the pair of Secret Service guys -- of course they would be covering all the exits -- and Billy the shipping clerk at the same moment. Billy ... what was his last name? Raoul would know. Hardesty, that was it.
“Well, Billy Hardesty.” she said, walking up to him.
“Uh -- wow! Amy! I -- uh -- hi, how are you?”
“I’m a little rushed right now.”
“Too bad you missed the Christmas party this year -- I got some real fresh mistletoe. Hardly used at all -- the florist swore up and down on it.”
“I hope it worked.”
He gave her a thumbs up. Oh, well ... if he was really bright he’d probably have been doing something else by now. She moved a little closer to him and spoke softly.
“See those two guys coming toward us?”
“Uh -- what? Yeah ... I guess ... but --”
“If you help me get away from them, you won’t need that mistletoe.”
“Really? You mean it? Cool.”
“Thanks, Billy.”
“You go. I’ll handle them.”
She turned back inside, but paused to watch. The Secret Service guys were climbing onto the loading dock.
“Here fellas-- gimme a hand.”
Billy grabbed a big box and heaved it at one of the agents; before he could respond, Billy had slung another box at his partner. They were heavy boxes. Billy was strong. The impact knocked them off balance.
“Hey! Sorry!” Billy called out. He ran between them and seemed to lose his own balance. He tripped them up and as they fell his own arms flailed for a second; then his fists connected and they sagged to the pavement.
“Whoops! I think I knocked them out.”
Amy had come back outside. She was right behind him.
“Thanks, Billy,” she said, and when he turned around she went on her tiptoes to kiss him on the lips. She lingered for a moment, and moved back down a step, smiling up at him. “I’ve owed you that one for a long time.”
He stood there stunned with delight, but before he could think of an answer, she was gone.
Amy slipped back through another door near the pay telephones and moved at normal browsing speed through the store. For the moment she was in the clear. The trick was not to call attention to herself by rushing or pushing past people. This wasn’t a sale day at Filene’s -- it was an ordinary shopping day at Bloomingdale’s. No one was in a hurry. She was just one woman among hundreds-- it was perfect camouflage if she could control her need to run.
She was a few yards from Raoul’s position, almost at the doors, when he saw her and waved and called out “Amy!” to get her attention. That was all Tim Evarts and Mike Dalnegro needed. They had been quartering the store desperately -- they had grabbed three different women who looked like Amy and then released them with gruff apologies.
Team #2 was checking the third floor dressing rooms.
Team #3 had gone off the air. A team never went off the air, it made no sense. Tim knew he should check with team #2 and get them downstairs for back-up, but there was no time, Amy was on the move, almost at the street and anyway he could handle the situation alone. She had tricked them once but it hadn’t done her any good and it wasn’t going to happen again.
Amy slammed into Raoul so hard she almost knocked him over.
“Remember why they almost fired you last year?” she asked him.
“Well, of course I do. It was a moment of pure spontaneity. I have no regrets.“
“Well, have another moment, Raoul -- I have to stop these guys.“
“I’ll be fired for sure this time.”
“Good. You were talking about quitting this job a year ago. Take some time, get your modeling portfolio together. This is fate.” She knew he liked the idea of fate. The thought of life as a chain of meaningless coincidences demoralized him.
Mike and Tim were almost upon them. They had pushed some guy who pushed back. They had to badge him before they could move on. Raoul followed her eyes, saw the two big men shouldering their way through the last of the crowd. In a few seconds they’d be on open floor.
“You run along, sweetheart,” Raoul said. “I’ll take care of it.”
She squeezed his arm once and then dashed for the front doors.
Raoul blocked the path of the two Secret Service agents.
“Care to try Calvin Klein’s Obsession?” he asked sweetly.
Then he sprayed the perfume in their faces.
As he had learned the year before, it didn’t work as well as pepper spray and it didn’t work as well as mace.
But it worked well enough for him.
The men were on their knees, screaming and clawing at their eyes. Raoul bent down in a flurry of apologies. Another pair of agents who had been upstairs were bounding off the escalators toward the front doors. They veered towards their injured comrades as Amy pushed into the street.
Raoul felt a thrill of victory as he watched her vanish into the crowds on Lexington Avenue. He didn’t know exactly who these men were, but they looked like government men, with the short hair and gray suits and military demeanor that he had always hated. When America finally decided to round up all the fags, he was sure it would be one of these guys, formal and polite -- but with a gun in his hand -- who would come to his door.
Good luck, sweetheart, he thought as they hustled him away. You run like hell.
And thank God you wore flats.