Thursday, December 31, 2009

Californication Redeemed: Hank Moody Faces the Music

“That’s the thing about lies. They always come out eventually.”

So says the devious Mia, Hank Moody’s ex-girlfriend and plagiarist, in the final episode of Californication’s third season. The lie in this case is that Hank had an affair with her when she was sixteen – he didn’t know it, but made no effort to verify her age. He wrote a novella about the experience and she stole it, securing his compliance with the threat of full disclosure. I waited through all of the second season for this time bomb to explode, wondering when Karen would read the book (she would know Hank’s style instantly, just as his agent Runkle did), when the lie would be exposed, when the truth would hit, when the birds would fly into the jet engine and bring Hank’s life crashing down. It didn’t happen and I wrote a post about it here, chastising Tom Kapinos for narrative cowardice, accusing him of being too soft on his characters, comparing him to the great Jenji Kohan of Weeds, who flenses her hapless creations with the glee of a drunken sushi chef every week. I had one comment on that post that struck me as odd – it was so strident in defense of the writers, and so detailed in its knowledge of the show, that I wondered for a deluded moment if perhaps Kapinos himself had posted that response. Well, whether it was him or not, someone must have gotten through to him, or perhaps he had this plan in mind all along. In any case, the last episode of this season was a heart-wrenching triumph and a total vindication of the show: a powerful return to everything I loved about it from the beginning. It may have even been the best episode ever. And the questions teem to mind: can Karen ever forgive him? Can his daughter ever forgive him? Can he somehow reassemble the meaningful life he’s been taking for granted for so long? Will the truth help his career? Will he be able to write in the glare of publicity? Will he beat the assault rap for punching Mi9a’s manager? Will she press statutory rape charges after all? Will Hank go back to New York? Suddenly all these questions have taken on a new urgency. Standing in the light of an unforgiving truth, all these people seem lovely and fragile and precious again, even Hank himself. Even Mia becomes more human, with her bewilderment and regret, living a lie, famous for nothing, unable to write a second book wounding everyone around her as her falsehoods metastasize.

I had heard that the final scene between Hank and Karen was played without audible dialogue, under the soundtrack of Elton John’s Rocket Man. Not presenting the actual scene felt like a cop-out, at least in theory. In fact it worked beautifully. We know these characters so well, and understand their crisis so intimately, that we can write the dialogue ourselves. If I taught a creative writing class, I would assign that scene to my students, and hope they would address the one remaining mystery: why Karen didn’t read Mia’s book long before (or even glance through it); and why she didn’t recognize Hank’s style at the bookstore reading featured in the final episode. At first it seemed like a plot hole. Then I thought about it a little more, and wound up writing my own version of that last argument.

Hank: It’s about Mia

Karen: Is she all right?

Hank: No, no, she’s fine. It’s –

Karen:What? What is it?

Hank: I never wanted to tell you this –

Karen: No.

Hank: I knew there was no way you could –

Karen: You slept with her.

Hank: Karen –

Karen, Oh my God., You fucking slept with her. When did this happen. Two nights ago, you said you were Runkle, but –

Hank: No, no, it was long before that, Long before we were back together

Karen When I was with Bill.

Hank: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, it was –

Karen: She was a teenager, Hank.

Hank: Wait a second, I –

Karen: She was sixteen years old!

Hank I didn’t know that., I swear. I met her in a book store, I thought she was just another lit groupie, I had no idea –

Karen: So it was you. In the book. Punching and fucking.

Hank: That was fiction, that had nothing to do with –

Karen: Oh Jesus. Now I get it.

Hank: Karen –

Karen: I knew it! When we were sitting at that fucking reading and she was reading your words and I was telling myself no it isn’t possible it can’t be, she’s a disciple, she’s a mimic, it can’t be Hank’s book .I can’t be. What an idiot I am. I should have just read it when you practically begged me to, at Bill’s house. Then it disappeared and you never mentioned again and Mia was suddenly a writer, and … I almost looked at it so many times. But I just couldn’t. I must have known. Some part of me must have known. I just couldn’t deal with it. I looked away and I was going to keep looking away, go to New York start again and pretend I had no idea, make myself believe I was crazy because I couldn’t stand the thought that –

Hank: I wanted to tell you –

Karen: The hell you did! She blackmailed you, Hank! That’s the only explanation, that’s why she backtracked at the wedding after she scared the shit out of everyone. But it doesn’t matter if you talk now because she can’t write another book. Isn’t that it? She’s going public so you had to tell me.

Hank: I didn’t want to hurt you –

Karen Well too bad. Too fucking bad, it’s too late you piece of shit, you fucking worthless prick, you --

And this is where she starts punching him; they run outside with their daughter Becca chasing them; and then the police arrive to arrest Hank for assaulting Mia’s manager. He's in the biggest trouble of his life, all of it well-earned.

What happens next? I don’t know.

I’m just glad it finally matters again.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mustapha Mond & The Turkey Button:My Brave new World

There’s a new meme going around the foodie circles: turkey is bad.

People only eat it once a year – they choke it down at Thanksgiving along with the fruitcake and the minced yams in a perverse attempt to actually climb inside a Norman Rockwell painting and live there. They’d be better off dressing their kids in boy and girl scout uniforms and having them say the pledge of allegiance in front of the liberty bell, or letting some avuncular doctor put a stethoscope to their doll’s chest. In real life, turkey is stringy(white meat) and greasy (dark meat) and you’d be much better off with a veal chop.

I resent this new dogma because I’ve always loved turkey. It’s the perfect poultry: more savory than chicken, less fatty than duck, less gamey than goose. And it extends itself beyond the holiday, into sandwiches and hash and dinners reheated in the left-over gravy and then finally, after thirty hours of slow simmering reduction – soup! That veal chop is gone the next day. And I eat turkey more than once a year. I have it on Christmas, also – and any other day, as often as my family permits. Someone else must be doing that also – there are always Butterballs in the grocery. Not that I buy factory turkey – we get ours from a little farm in Vermont. There are no weird hormones and anti-biotics in the feed, and no creepy little button on the breast to tell me when the bird is done. I was talking to my mother about this yesterday, over another sublime turkey dinner “(The best one ever!,” she enthused, as she has every year since I was old enough to eat solid food), and she has a theory to explain the turkey haters.

It’s the button.

The button pops when the turkey is over-done. So people have gotten used to over-cooked turkey, with its tendency to fall apart when you lift it from the pan and its dry breast meat. Why does the button work this way? For safety, for security, for uniformity: to avoid law-suits and to standardize the cooking experience to extract faulty human judgment from the process. I prefer Erma Rombauer’s guideline of fifteen minutes a pound, an experienced eye and (in the last resort) a meat thermometer.

But the button bothers me. It’s like the single serving coffee machine in my insurance agent’s office. It makes ‘perfect’ coffee every time: perfectly consistent, that is. The machine looks cool with its blue back-lighting, it’s easy to use and it’s kind of fun. There’s just one problem with it: the coffee is weak. It produces a baseline average of what most people probably like and the result is bland and watery. It makes you want to dump a heap of fresh-ground coffee into a pan of boiling water, the way the cowboys did … or, failing that, get a French press.

The machine is a metaphor, just like the button, a synecdoche for the larger society with it’s meticulously unadventurous school curriculums and toxic fertilized lawns, its cookie cutter housing subdivisions, its machine-processed pop songs, action movies and romance novels.

Maybe it’s all about comfort. I think of the great argument between John Savage and Mustapha Mond, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Mond explains this theory in detail – a happy population requires drugs (theirs is called soma) and immersive films (feelies) and comprehensive brainwashing from an early age. John Savage prefers to remain sober; he chooses Shakespeare over the feelies and wants the right to be ecstatic – or miserable. The narcotized middle ground doesn’t interest him.

Mond’s response – you want that stuff? You’re welcome to it. And he exiles Savage to an island.

From my own island, where narrow cobble-stone streets unravel into sterile subdivisions and each new building,( like the renovated and expanded airport, or the police and fire department fortress going up on Fairgrounds Road), diminishes the beauty and charm of an historic village thirty miles from shore, I side with John Savage, even when I’m lost in the moors at dusk, running low on gas and praying for some sign of that over-development everyone’s complaining about. As we inch ever closer toward Huxley’s prescient dystopia, I’ll take my stand for mess and rough edges.

John Savage says, “I don’t want comfort. I want god, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Sounds good to me, but my list is a little longer. It includes strong coffee, weedy lawns and Christmas turkey, cooked right.

Your tags:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Guide to the Best of Open Salon, 2009

There was a lot of excellent writing on Open Salon this year – much more than I got to read, I’m sure. For any one new to the site, I would suggest the eerie and compelling stories of Sandra Stephens, like Peter Bird

and The Call

along with her lovely and sometimes harrowing autobiographical pieces, especially Writing Down the Bones her anorexia post:

There are many stark insights in this short essay, but this one struck me particularly hard:

Like many addicts I was a sly creature - a double agent. Even as I lashed myself with deprivation and rigid expectations of titanic accomplishment, I took a secret, gloating pleasure in the pathos of my appearance. I liked imagining that when I returned home for the holidays and attended church with my family, that people were noting my weight and looking with disapproval at my parents. My starved body was testimony to the fact that something was wrong.

I liked the way my appearance belied our happy family picture – a picture we were too-well trained not to project. You can scream with your mouth and nobody hears, I learned; I also learned that you can scream with your body, and people can hear with their eyes.

On a lighter note, I have consistently enjoyed John Blumenthal’s Hollywood posts. He’s a veteran of that crazy world and his anecdotes have the ring on truth. I would especially advise all aspiring screenwriters to read Why Writing a Spec Script Will Get You Nowhere

and Why Disney Studios Was a Screenwriter’s Nightmare.

Here’s a sample of his astringent advice:

More harsh reality: Knowing that you are desperate, most producers who option a script will pay you nothing, the idea being that he will shop your screenplay around on spec to the studios for an agreed-upon period of time, say six months. And if he actually buys an option for money, the amount will usually be peanuts. The Writers' Guild has a special term for this arrangement: Robbery.

I also enjoyed JK Brady’s intelligent posts on Canadian health care, missed her when she left for the ashram, and enjoyed her photographic essays. Her recent hilarious cry of feminist despair is worth a look, to get you started:

For political commentary here, I generally turn to Saturn Smith, one of the few bloggers who regularly migrates to the main Salon home page. Her comparison of California to Dubai, as that country teetered on the edge of collapse was particularly compelling:

Think of it: one state in a group of united states that has had to make its fortunes mostly on real estate, tourism/entertainment, and the goodwill of celebrities looking for a place to have a good time. It spends lavishly to create a place that's unlike any other within the country, a place people mark not only as a travel destination but as a desired dream locale. It's able to highly leverage what money it starts with because, even when its spending seems out of control -- beyond any means it might have -- everyone knows that its debts must be (wink, wink) guaranteed by its sister states.

People are antsy about what a Dubai World default might mean because it could signal that somewhere, a government is willing to let a state-sponsored entity fall. When you shift "entity" to "state," though, the conversation gets more complicated and, I think, closer to where it should be. What do you do, as a country, when your shining star goes supernova?

A relatively new blogger I find compelling – I fist noticed him when he commented on my Ayn Rand essay – is a lawyer who calls himself Neilpaul here. His gritty street stories of life in Boston are toucvhing and sometimes scary, always scalpel sharp, Real ‘screen scrollers’ , since ‘page turners’ seems a little outmoded here. This hopeful reflection on of his low-life legal clients gives a good sense of his stubborn blunted optimism:

As I walked back to my car I started to picture it. He would call me with a problem he couldn’t solve. Some issue he didn’t understand. Maybe he would need some money, not a fortune, just a couple of bucks. A minor amount of money that I wouldn’t miss, one less dinner in the South End, a slightly smaller 401K, one less day in Cozumel or in Europe. And I started to look forward to playing that role in his life. Not a major role, but a positive one just the same. All he had to do was call me, or hit me up, as he put it.

But he never did.

All these bloggers are wonderful and there are others Emma Peel who everybody seems to know, Connie Mack who’s less prominent here, Lisa Solod Warren who publishes on Huffington Post as well; but I want to save the end of this round up for my all-time favorite Open Salon blogger, Silksotone. She’s the one whose posts I look forward to the most. Maybe it’s because she’s writing about Mad Men, my all-time favorite television series, but really it’s the way she writes about it, the surgical brilliance with which she deconstructs every episode. I’ve long felt that Mad Men was more like an intricate novel than a normal TV show, but after my years in an MFA program, Silkstone makes me feel like I’m in a workshop again – that sinking feeling when the smartest student makes a comment on the piece in front of you that makes your own carefully worked-out critique seem puny and shallow. I hasten to add – that’s not a bad feeling! In fact, it was the feeling I liked most at Vermont College: listening to someone much smarter than me unlock all the connections and leit-motifs and image patterns and thematic sub-text in a story I hadn’t studied hard enough, or thought about deeply enough, on my own.

Silkstone did that every week this year, showing me new facets and giving me new insight into Matthew Weiner’s remarkable on-going narrative. I admit that sometimes I read her analysis before I watched the episode in question, just so I could feel smart in real time.

Here are some links and examples

From her essay on The Hobo and the Gypsy episode

While the focus is on Don, Betty reveals herself as well, saying that she’d always assumed that Don was “some football hero who hated his father” and that she’d known he grew up poor because he "doesn’t understand money," a comment which carries echoes of her father’s sneers to Don that “you people think everything is about money’ as well as Roger’s rich-boy country club put-downs. Like those two men, Betty thinks people don’t understand money if they don’t see it exactly the same way she does, as a signifier of class and position, rather than as merely a useful tool (the way Don does).
Similarly, Don and Betty have differing views of identity. Don, seeing identity as a tool just like money, argues facilely that “people change their names, Bets. You did.” To which she retorts, “I did, I took your name” – a name which she now knows is false, and thus an affront to the deep familial and social meaning that names have for her (as they did for her parents).

From her analysis of Episode 9:

Having recently hallucinated about his father (in the motel room with the two proto-hippies who robbed him) and having been sideswiped by Betty’s sour mood after their rapprochement in Rome, as well as chafing under his many contractual obligations (both at home and at work), Don grasps at Hilton’s approval, despite having just recently explained to Betty the art of keeping people wanting you rather than the other way around.

Don’s famous elusiveness that seduces all who encounter him is being eroded by his increasing commitment in all areas of his life, but never more so than when he finally lets himself want something: Not just Hilton’s approval but his love (as Hilton astutely notices). Having been as smoothly seduced by Hilton as he has seduced countless others, Don experiences a karmic turnabout when Hilton also mimics Don’s own withdrawal and parsimoniousness of feeling. Don has failed to give Hilton exactly what he wants and while that’s not an unfamiliar experience in his marriage, being rejected so soundly by a client is clearly foreign to him, leaving him scrambling and uncharacteristically clumsy, telling Hilton: I’m sure there’s a way to fit that into this.

But there isn’t. Hilton acknowledges that the campaign Don has produced is clever -- it just isn’t what he wants, which is literally the moon. Having shared moonshine with this gruff paterfamilias in the wee small hours, as well as having been made an honorary son, Don is blindsided by the rejection, as well as confounded by his rare failure to understand what a client wants. Interestingly, while missing the aspirational “man on the moon” idea, what he heard was the domestic side – about turning exotic places into home – a neat symbol of how Don himself is being tamed and domesticated.

And finally, from her most recent essay, deconstructing the season finale:

TThe episode begins with Don waking up in the spare room that we’ve seen both Grandpa and baby Gene sleeping in, making Don a cross between a newborn and a dead man, which is exactly right for someone who in the course of a couple days ends one life and starts another.

This brief note clarified so much for me, as did all her posts.

All in all, I’ve probably spent way too much time, reading and writing on Open Salon – it refines the internet’s genius for procrastination to a new level. But’s a fascinating cranky and oddly supportive community, so I’ll be sticking around, looking forward to 2010.

(Maybe Silkstone will write about “Lost” this winter!)

Living in Stephen King's World: 34 Years Under the Dome

I go back a long way with Stephen King.

I feel like I was there in the beta testing days, as I was with Open Salon. It started pretty much by accident. I was in book store on Union Square in Manhattan in the early Spring of 1975, just out of college, prowling for something fun to read and eagerly judging the books by their covers. One paperback in particular caught my eye: a close-up drawing of a girl’s face, with oval holes cut into the cover where the eyes should be, The holes showed flames, and when you turned this first layer of the cover, you saw a full page aerial-view drawing of a town on fire.


The book was called Carrie. It was Stephen King’s first novel.

I opened it up and read the faux newspaper stories and was totally hooked. At the time I had no idea who the writer was or if he’d ever write another book. But I kept my eyes open. And the books kept coming. Boy did they keep coming: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, all compulsively readable with a vivid philosophy, perhaps I should say a fully worked-out theology reverberating through their kamikaze plots and horrific set pieces. Good and Evil were going at it in these books and in the best of them the battle lines were drawn through the heart of each character, and not between them.

Jack Torrance, in The Shining was struggling for his soul against the hive of evil his son’s telepathic powers awakened in an old hotel; that an actual hive of virtually un-killable wasps figured prominently in the books early scenes struck me as a natural and effortless literary flourish worthy of at least grudging respect. But respect was precisely what Stephen King could never get in those days. Critics jeered at him and in all honesty, he jeered at himself, calling his books literary Big Macs. He spent way too much feuding with the mandarins of literature, calling them dull and pretentious, which many of them were. In his novella The Breathing Method the story-teller’s club motto says, “It is the tale not he who tells it”. That was King’s guiding principle, but even then he was subverting it, creating a style unique enough to be wittily mocked in a parody called “Id”, in The New Yorker. The target of that pastiche, It remains a nuanced masterpiece as much concerned with nature of growing up as it is with the monsters that haunt children and adults alike. None of that mattered: regardless of his best efforts, King remained a literary laughingstock, an easy short hand for mass market mediocrity.

I remember a spirited argument with someone, back in the 80s. They called King’s novel predictable. I invited them to read The Dead Zone and predict the ending. It was kind of a trick question since the climax of that novel both defeats and gratifies your expectations in spectacular fashion. The situation seems like a classic narrative box canyon, one of those narrative moments where the world is reduced to a pair of equally uninspiring choices.

During a routine campaign rally, creepy Sarah Palin type Congressional hopeful Gregg Stillson made the mistake of pressing the flesh with Johnny Smith, King’s clairvoyant hero. The touch gave Johnny a vision of Stillson becoming President and starting a nuclear war. Johnny has decided to nip this apocalypse in the bud by shooting Stillson, as he might have strangled Hitler in his crib.

So Johnny is perched in a high church balcony with a rifle between his legs, waiting for Stillson;’s big speech to begin. Will he go through with it, or chicken out? If he does go through with it, will he succeed or fail? Those seem to be the only options on the table, along with some incidental matters like, will Johnny be killed or captured or escape?

But King understands the complexity of his characters, and the bizarre random twists life can take, too well to settle for such boilerplate.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read the book.

Johnny takes his shot, and misses, and Stillson grabs a baby from the arms of a local woman campaign worker, sharing the stage with him. He uses the baby as a human shield and the moment is captured by a free-lance photographer covering the event. Johnny falls from the balcony, mortally wounded, but lives long enough to grab Stillson’s ankle and see the appalling picture on the cover of Newsweek. Stillson survives the attack, but his realm self is revealed and his political career is over.

Maybe you have to spend a lot of time plotting stories and coming up against trite conclusions and predictable forks in the narrative road to really appreciate the elegance and bravura of this climax. I’m happy to say my friend finally acknowledged King’s skill.

The critics remained aloof.

Time went on. I got my hands on a manuscript copy of Pet Sematary at a time when King’s wife had apparently forbidden him to publish it. When it finally came out, it made a bright spot in a disturbing career downturn. Some of the rap on King was right, and I had to admit it: he wrote too many books, using too many drugs, and he did it way too fast. By the time he noticed that The Tommyknockers was senseless crap, he’d already written five hundred pages in a cocain-fuelled fugue state. Why not just finish it? He had momentum, but so does a tractor trailer careening down the Monarch Pass with a ruptured brake line.

I rode out the bad times and read the bad books, and things improved again. Amid talk of his imminent retirement, novels like Misery, Delores Claiborne, and Bag of Bones seemed to make a case for King as a literary novelist all over again. And then a strange, disturbing, unhealthy thing happened.

King got discovered.

Not by the shaggy teen-agers and pot smoking college students and middle ged housewives who had loved him for years. No, King got discoivered by Literaryt high society.

He had stories printed in the New Yorker (real stories, not parodies of his books)

He got respectful reviews.

He even won the National Book Award.

He wrote a craft book about writing.

He had arrived.

There was just one problem: the new books kind of sucked. They had lost both early pulp vigor of Firestarter and the focused writerly craft of The Green Mile.These new books – written over a long period, from Dreamcatcher to From a Buick 6, from Rose Madder to Lisey’s Story were bad in a much more depressing way than something like Christine or The Tommyknockers had been. These books were actually boring. And the worse they got, the more the high falutin literary snobs praised them. Suddenly he could do no wrong, at least with that crowd.

For the rest of us, the only spark left of the writer we loved was The Dark Tower. This projected series of seven books, begun when King was in college, seemed to live at the heart of his oeuvre, animating and connecting books as diverse as Desperation, Insomnia and The Talisman. The iconic tale of the Gunslinger and the Dark Man, moving fluidly between the ruined twilight wasteland of his world and the ordinary daylight of our own (The flower that can save his world is growing in a vacant lot in ours; he has to travel between worlds to rob a drugstore for antibiotics when his monster-inflicted wounds infect) jumped off the page. But we had to wait. Each book took longer than the one before. Only four of the seven were finished and it seemed like the rest would be stillborn.

Then King had his accident.

It was as shocking to me as if a relative had been hit by that van. In or out, up or down, the man had been a major figure in my life for decades – we had even corresponded from time to time (I sent a condolence letter when Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining came out). But I must admit, my first thought that day was, “If he survives this, he’s going to finish the Dark Tower.”

Well, it turned out that this Constant Reader(as he calls us die-hards) knew the old man pretty well. As soon as King could sit up comfortably to write again he started churning out the pages at the old pace – an 2,400 of them in 18 months. And these books had the old vigor, the old craziness, the old headlong story-drunk gusto. Probably the New Yorker snobs didn’t like them.

That was fine with me.

Still, in the mainstream of his work, things were still feeling lackluster. The books were selling well but something was missing. Cell? Duma Key? Meh: familiar tropes (magical paintings, technology spawning end of the world), tired prose. Maybe he was actually winding down to that retirement, at last. How many more stories could he tell? He certainly didn’t owe us anything.

With a shrug at mortality, and the inevitable waning of even the most exuberant gifts, I wrote my old pal off. I toasted the old times: that night reading Pet Sematary in a creaky old house when the power went out -- my girlfriend and I shrieked like children. Fighting with wife, years later when I bought It in hardcover when we were broke, and reading in secret, late at night. Waiting like a Victorian hooked on Little Dorritt for the monthly installments of The Green Mile to arrive. Good times.

But it was time to walk away.

And then I started hearing about a giant new novel, one he had started and abandoned back in the good old days, and the rumors made it sound wonderful.

It was called Under The Dome.

It came out, and I bought it. I just finished reading it this afternoon.

This book is everything I hoped it would be –reiterating King’s favorite themes of enclosure and redemption, good versus evil, order versus anarchy, with all seven of the deadly sins and quite a few of the mildly toxic ones on full display.

A mysterious force field seals a small town away from the rest of the world and in one week the tidy little community of Chester’s Mill is reduced to virulent anarchy and then annihilated by the greed and arrogance (and automatic weapons and meth labs and propane cannisters) of its inhabitants. There are brilliant set pieces – the visitor’s day catastrophe, the supermarket riot, the burning of the newspaper office. There are murders and jailbreaks, lost envelopes of incriminating evidence, dogs who hear the voices of dead people, dead people who torment the living as the self-made holocaust descends. There are brawls and conspiracies, mean Selectmen and smart kids. There’s a real live hero and a actual heroine and they manage to both fall in love and save their small encapsulated part of the world. You learn how if feels to smoke methapmphetamine, breathe out of tires and commune with aliens. You tumble through the rush of events and walk out of the book with the same lung-filling sense of stunned exuberance that the surviving characters feel as they finally rejoin the world.

The book revisits many King achetypes, but deepens them. Big Jim Rennie is no single-minded ‘evildoer; like Gregg Stillson, or Randall Flagg. He actually believes he’s doing the right thing, working for the town, taking over when no one else has the brains or the nerve to do so, Colonel Dale Barbara (Iraq veteran and small town short order chef) brings to mind a long line of other tough minded, quick thinking King heroes, from the British Secret Service agent Nick Hopewell in The Langoliers to Stuart Redman in The Stand. But he;s his oown man, tormented by his own failures and mistakes; and it is that very ambivalence that winds up being central to his survival.

So King didn’t retire and I didn’t walk away and I’m very happy for both of us. This book is a spectacular return to form, an authentic gut wrenching page-turning, corpse moldering, firestorm igniting, corruption revealing, serial killer rampaging nobility celebrating masterpiece, and it brings me back full circle, even with it’s dust-jacket, unnerving for its complete lack of text: two blank flaps that continue the ominous cover illustration, nothing more.

It made me think of that day in a quarter of the way back into a different century, when a striking cover seduced me into buying a Stephen King novel for the very first time. I have another memory to add to my scrap book, now: sitting on my couch as a blizzard roared around the house outside yesterday, with my pug in my lap, quietly turning pages, in a calm pool of lamp-light, my phone turned off, with no one to bother me nothing in the world to do but read.

The good old days may be gone, but on that long snowbound afternoon, thirty-four years after I bought that cool paperback edition of Carrie in Union Square, they were back again, better than ever.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's Missing From "Mad Men": Silvio Dante and the Ducks

Is Mad Men the new Sopranos?

The shows have a lot in common: a changing world, a fraught nuclear family – ambitious, dissatisfied wife, cheating husband, stunted kids. A powerful charismatic patriarch involved with morally questionable business, surrounded by dubious cronies; plenty of drinking and smoking; characters who ‘disappear’ when their usefulness ends or they become a threat. You can even play a sort of colorforms game, putting the heads from one show on the bodies of the other.

A few obvious examples come to mind --

Tony Soprano is Don Draper of course. Betty.

The kids are the kids.

Christopher Molisanto? Ken Cosgrove

Bobby Bacciolini? Harry Crane

Paulie Walnuts? Roger Sterling.

Junior Soprano? Burt Cooper.

Richie Aprile? Jimmy Barrett.

Dr Melfi? Peggy Olson?

Adriana? Joan Holloway?

Yes, you sensed it, the comparisons start to break down a little as we go down the lost. The real gap is Silvio Dante. Mad Men has no Silvio. Don Draper has no Consiglieri. This goes to the heart of the differences between the two shows. Tony Soprano was an honest man. He grew up in the mob, lamented the good old days of organized crime, lived like a king and died like a thug (yes, he died in that last episode). Carmela knew him inside out. She even knew where the money and guns were hidden. His kids had no illusions (Meadow figured out on that memorable college visiting trip). Betty is confused an unfocussed, a not overly bright sorority girl who supposed went to a college for the best and brightest, where they don’t even have sororities; an equestrienne who can’t really ride; a mother who dislikes her kids. Carmela feels so solid by comparison: affectionate, forgiving, but utterly ruthless at the same time, more than a match for her blustering husband.

Livia is missing also. Tony’s monstrous mother, the ruling, tyrannizing spirit of the first few of The Sopranos , the woman who plotted her son’s murder when she found out he was seeing a psychiatrist, has no parallel on Mad Men. Don’s mother died in childbirth. He fled his step mother – and the rest of his family -- as soon as he could. Nd he only looks back – as in the “Hobo and Gypsy”episode -- when he has no choice.

By contrast, Tony Soprano was a family man, and the extended family of his friends and colleagues had been with him all his life. Don couldn’t be more different. He has no close friends. Could Pete Campbell be his Silvio? The kid who tried to blackmail Don, who wants his job? The craven little spoiled rich kid? I wouldn’t trust him to pick up a pack of cigarettes, much less kill my nephew’s stool-pigeon girlfriend. The junior ad men look all like a boy scout troop in Don’s shadow, and he likes it that way. The accumulated weight of lies and secrets squeezes the life out of Don’s relationships. He pays a price for being an enigma, and the audience winds up paying, too.

Tony Soprano was a full-bodied, passionate, open-hearted sociopath you could love as well as hate. He pulled you into that meaty embrace. You could almost smell the garlic. Don Draper keeps you at a distance. And that distance is the precise surveyor’s measurement of the troubled territory between an excellent show and a great one. Don started to come clean last week, and Mad Men pushed itself farther than it has ever gone before. I hope they keep it up, across that last difficult acre and across the border and into a country few shows have ever approached. It’s like Conrad Hilton told Don in that crushing final meeting: when we ask for the moon, we want the moon. Or perhaps just the ducks in the swimming pool.

Nothing less, no matter how quick and clever, will do.

Cheating, A Love Story

They met on the third day of the Marriage Reconciliation Boot Camp, by the dumpsters where people smoked forbidden cigarettes, and it was love at first sight.

“I hate this place,” he said.

“Me, too.”

“Travers Houghton. What a miserable prick.”

“And he’s fat. If he wants to convince me he know the secret of life he should skip a few meals.” She blew out a tight cone of smoke.

“My wife made me come.”

She smiled at that. “Sounds like grounds for divorce, right there. Intolerable cruelty. Irreconcilable differences. Or whatever.”

“She’s having second thoughts, believe me.”

“Does she know you’re smoking?”

"Does your husband know you're smokin g?"

"We both know and pretend we don't."

"Sounds like you have come communcation problems."

"That's why we're here."

"No more secrets."

She shrugged. "I like secrets. So do you. Obviously."

“I was going to bring mouthwash but we never kiss anyway.”

“Which is all supposed to change now,” she said.


He looked across the half empty parking lot to the woods. “I wonder what the statistics are, at this place. I mean, does this shit ever help anyone?”

“I don’t know. Now you’ve got me thinking about divorce. That would be a quick fix. Half of what we’ve got would set me up for life.”

“That’s the difference – you’d be getting half. I’d be losing half.”

She shrugged. “So what? You’ve got your share and you’re out.”

They smoked in silence for a few moments. Rain clouds were piling up at the northern edge of the sky. No spousal intimacy bag races today.

“So,” she said, dropping the last of her American spirit and stepping on the butt, “When was the last time you got laid?”

“Do infidelities count?”

“You’re telling me you cheated on your wife?’”

“Don’t you believe it?”

“You’re not the type.”

“Hey -- I take that as an insult.”

“Sorry, but it’s true. You would have made a move already.”

“Because you’re so attractive?”

“Because that’s what you’d do. People like you. Players.”

“Which I’m not.”

“So not.”

“Oh well.”

“It’s charming. It’s intriguing.”

“My aura of smug virtue doesn’t put you off?”

She laughed. “You’re not virtuous. You’re not even faithful, not really. Except by default. If an attractive woman came on to you that would be it, buddy. You’d be gone. One kiss and out. You’ve been standing on the brink for years.”

He dropped his own cigarette, crushed it with the toe of his shoe. He stared at her.

“Prove it.”

She took two steps and kissed him, mouth open, arms twined around his back. He fell into the kiss as he remembered falling into swimming pools on hot summer days when he was a kid: the bliss of submission, the thrill of immersion, the soundless splash into enclosing silence.

Finally he had to come up for a breath.

“I want to go somewhere and fuck you,” he said.

She smiled. “Pushover. I knew it.”

They wound up in an empty room on the third floor of an unused dormitory. The college rented out the campus during the summer to organizations like Travers Houghton’s Boot Camp. The bed was just a bare mattress on a plank. They didn’t care. They had no idea how long the Testimonial Assembly was going to last and they didn’t care about that either. As long as couples wanted to stand up and ‘speak their hearts’ to the crowd, they were safe. It could take all day.

Both of them were sure they wouldn’t be missed – especially by their spouses. This place made you glad for a few minutes to yourself – like trying to cure claustrophobia by trapping you in a stalled elevator.

After the first frenzied missionary style slam she rolled over and said “What does your wife refuse to do?”

He laughed. “We just did it.”

“She must have been willing to fuck you at some point. Did she give you blow jobs?”

“Yeah – no, not really. Sort of.”

“How do you sort of give a blow job?”

He propped himself up on an elbow, turned on his side to face her. She was alert, bright-eyed, gorgeous. And impossibly, supernaturally easy to talk to.

“She treated it like Mount Saint Helens. An interesting spot to visit, but make sure you get the hell away it before it goes off.”

“Oh. The blow job that turns into a hand job.”

He took a deep breath and nodded – more with his eye-brows than his chin, which was resting on his palm. “I only had one real blow job – some one night stand just before the girl got married. Those were my favorite one-night stands back in the day. No loose ends, no hurt feelings. You get to be the last fling. Anyway. She kept sucking as I came, harder even. Is this too …”

“No, no, I’m fascinated. Nobody tells us this stuff.”

“Well … they always talk about swallowing, as if that was some big deal all by itself, or some Male power trip or something. Turns out swallowing is incidental. If you’re sucking that hard you can’t help swallowing. And for the guy … the whole feeling is so much more intense. It’s insane, it’s like she was pulling my balls out through my dick, just convulsively draining everything and – I don’t know. I never tried to describe this before. It’s like crack, except I never tried crack. It’s what you hope crack would be like, what it ought to be like since people get so fucked up on it all the time. But I only had one time. That girl got married the next day and I never got a real blow job again.”

“Until now.”

“Are you serious?”

She slid down the bed. “It’s worth a try.”

“But what can I do for you? What won’t your husband do?”

“Well … you could take me to a Sandra Bullock movie.”

He laughed. “You drive a hard bargain.”

She paused. “But you promise”

“Anything. A double feature.”

“All About Steve? Miss Congeniality?”

“And Miss Congeniality 2 -- a triple feature, Ok? I’m begging you now.”

“You really are. And for some reason I find that incredibly sexy.”

So she slipped the rest of the way down and gave him the totally committed blow job he’d been longing for since he was twenty-two years old and it was everything he remembered and more and when they slipped back into the auditorium each of them stood up and gave heartfelt declarations of love for their spouses and they were so convincing the other couples gave them standing ovations.

The rest of the week was all sex and subterfuge: slipping out of bed when everyone else was asleep and making love on the lawn of the big quadrangle, pleading illness or (best of all) a headache for a secret rendezvous on the bird watching path behind the Chapel.

Once they walked down the steep hill into town and ate an illicit lunch at the bad Mexican restaurant on State Street, drinking 2-for-1 margaritas and ducking their heads when anyone they knew passed the big picture window.

“So what went wrong?” She asked him, over the second slug of crushed ice lime juice and tequila. He pushed his cooling enchilada across his plate. “I haven’t been able to give her the life she expected. She doesn’t get to live in the manner she wanted to become accustomed to. Like they say in celebrity divorces. When the woman is trying to explain why she needs ten thousand dollars worth of cut flowers every day.”

“So it’s just money?”

“It’s money and couches and new cars and a bigger condo and the freedom to travel, and no stress about her spending habits. I was supposed to take the price tags off the world for her.”

“So all you need to do is win the lottery.”

“Until she spends it all. And believe me, she can spend.”

“It’s just the opposite for me,” she said. “I just wish he could do what he wants. Really paint for a while try to get a gallery. Instead of the crap he does. Story boards. Free-lance art directing for d-list agencies. Drawing dancing teddy bears from some peanut butter account. They’re all going to cgi now, anyway. And he can’t even open his own e-mail.”

“So tell him to bail.”

“I’ve tried. He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t get it.”

“That’s why you’re here. Talk to him.”

“And say what?”

“Say – I don’t know. You want him to be better. Be all that he can be, that’s appropriate for boot camp. An army of one.”

“What a weird ad campaign. I was hoping for an army of two.”

“Whatever. You want him to be happy. Tell him that.”

“Or I could just send a Hallmark card.”

“I like mixing them up – sending a nice condolence card when people get married.”

She laughed. “Or a get well soon when they start a new job.”

“That’s the idea.”

“He never even tries to make love any more.”

“Maybe he’s given up. Seduce him. I know you can do it.”

She smiled. “Maybe all it takes is one good blow job.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

In between their assignations they duly played all the touching games and the trust games and the confessional games; they allowed themselves to be video-taped and sleep-deprived. They stripped naked in front of strangers, and cried in front of strangers and confessed their sins and and everyone forgave everyone else and said the worst thing they could think of and shared their most bitter regrets and most shameful secrets and then everyone got one good night’s sleep and they were on their way back home.

He met her on the steps of Dewey Hall. For a moment they were alone. No one was watching them. He set his suitcase down.

“Well, this is it,” he said.

“You’re my last fling and I’m off to get married?”

“Or vice versa.”

“What a shame.”

“I don’t know. It was a tough week but I think it worked.”

“Did you fall in love with your wife again?”

“Did you fall in love with your husband?”

They both nodded, smiling.

“So all that role playing actually worked,” she said.

“Just like Bev and Marty said it would.”

“—as long as we threw ourselves into it.”

‘”Yeah. That’s what they said.”

“I hate admitting they were right.”

“Me, too.”

Travers Houghton strode past and lifted one fist, his signature greeting. They returned the salute.

“Because he really is such a pompous asshole.”

“A rich pompous asshole. Thriving by word of mouth.”

“So we do have to tell them.”

“I guess. But first I want another sublime blow job or two.”

“And we’re going to have the complete oeuvre of Sandra Bullock on our netflicks queue.”

He bowed his head, nodding in mock defeat.

When he looked up she was smiling. “You’ll do some real painting, too, won’t you, Mike? I’ll model for you. Any pose you want.”

He pulled her to him and kissed her.

“I feel like marrying you right here and now, Houghton is an ordained minister.”

She put a finger to his lips, shook her head.

“Been there, done that,” she said.

Then she picked up her bag, took his hand and started lightly down the steps to their car.

The Homecare Diaries: Surreal Life

It looks like my mother is going to have to move in to the nursing home. We just can’t do what needs to be done any more. Every day we are faced with our own ineptitude and clumsiness and ignorance. I can read to her from Tim O’Brien and make her cry, I can tell stupid jokes and make her laugh. But I can’t adjust medications and do physical therapy and take care of her around the clock.

So I spend my days now trying to find cards I don’t recognize with information I don’t know so that people I’ve never seen can fill out forms I know nothing about … all to get my mother into a facility where none of us wants her to be in the first place.

It’s Kafla-esque. Kafka would actually be amused by this situation. He couldn’t read The Hunger Artist to his friends without cracking up. Meanwhile I feel like my entire nervous system is being peeled one layer at a time like an onion and someone seems to have attached lead weights to all my joints. I can’t even read at night any more: my eyelids secrete glue. The centrifuge of illness and misery sends the separate parts of my life flying in all directions. Some neurologist I’ve never met changes my mother’s medication and sends her into a tail-spin and he acts irritated when I call him up in a panic, after office hours. He’s not the doctor of record. “But you’re the neurologist,” I say, and I’m thinking, they haven’t passed tort reform yet, you miserable prick.

Meanwhile, my mother’s head floats above the dining room table, the spitting image of a younger self, and we discuss the nature of confidence and the rules of grammar and the failures of the president (“I have only one question for him: When are you going to end the war?”) and she instructs me in the best way to dredge the scallops (seasoned bread crumbs and white corn meal after a quick dip in the milk and egg mix). Then she stands up and her legs won’t hold her and all her features pull down in pain and she’s unrecognizable and I can’t adjust.

I’m changing my mother’s diaper and she has no modesty left and takes it in good humor, and she has no idea of the shock wave it sends through my nervous system, like gunshot wound, the sonic boom pulverizing the soft tissue ahead of the bullet. Why is this so disturbing? It should feel natural, tending to the flesh of a parent, as she tended to mine and I tended to my own children and they will tend to me. And yet every fiber of every nerve screams in protest.

But even that is changing. The most surreal part of the experience is that I’m actually getting used to it. I woke up this morning early (Annie had to catch a 6:30 boat). When I I came downstairs Mom was on the floor by the bed. She had slipped down. Her robe and pajamas were wet; so was the bedding. After a split second flinch response and a sort of snap clenching, of the spirit (Time to wake all the way up, buddy!), I performed some internal recalibration and saw the scene as a set of logistical problems to be solved: get her off the floor, seated on the walker, into the bathroom; then change the bed, get the laundry in, find new pajamas, get her off the toilet, get her dressed, cheer her up, tuck her in … and make coffee for us. Annie’s alarm was set for five, and she was just getting up when I finished. So I’ve crossed a strange new rubicon now, into a twilight world where finding my Mom on the floor and fixing the nighttime mess just feels like another part of my day, a mundane routine like walking the dog or brushing my teeth: the new normal.

Still, bizarre things keep happening. After days of being unable to stand, Mom woke up in the middle of the night last week, certain she was all alone in the grand foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in our old neighborhood in Manhattan. She made her way to the top of the grand stairway and then decided she had to get outside to hail a cab. She walked across the whole downstairs of my little house, looking for a way out of the museum – I know this because I left my sneakers near the front door and she was wearing them when I found her: giant reeboks on her tiny feet. She almost got the basement door open (that actual narrow stairway would have killed her) before she woke up enough to realize that she was at home. How did she do that? The basement door is hard for healthy young people to open. And why aren’t we figuring out some way to harness the over-riding power of that dream in her waking life?

I don’t know. No one knows. She can’t taste food but she loves to eat, she can’t move but she can tour the house in a dream. The people who know how to help her don’t seem overly interested and the people who care the most are helpless. Life is upside down but I’m getting used to walking on the ceiling, skirting the light fixtures and high- stepping the door jambs.

I haven’t been arrested for no reason, as Kafka described in The Trial. I haven’t been turned into an enormous roach and neither has my Mom. I’m not spending my days trying to penetrate the faceless bureaucracy of The Castle—though it all sounds a little too familiar. I’m not living in Kafka’s world.

But I’m starting to understand it.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Homecare Diaries: Animating the Map

I spent half an hour this morning helping my mother put on her bathrobe.

The goal was to get her bundled up and across the ten feet from her bed to the kitchen table for breakfast. Like some hapless, out-numbered platoon trying to retake some anonymous numbered hill in Korea, ultimately we failed. We managed to get the robe on, with me bracing her trembling legs and holding her up from the back while we searched for the second arm hole – the second arm hole is the killer, elusive and maddening, always too high and too far back, so it seems as if she will have to dislocate her shoulder to fit her hand in. Suddenly in the closing hours of your life, you have to be a circus contortionist simply to get dressed. Still, we did it. But we couldn’t get to the dining room table because her legs simply couldn’t support her weight this morning. It’s particularly upsetting because she seemed to be making so much progress over the last week. Sometimes the physical therapy and occupational therapy and the exercises seem like nothing more than worry beads, a soothing distraction, a way to keep body and mind occupied before the next onslaught of the disease. Because when it happens, when the storm surge arrives, all the sand-bagging and levee building amounts to nothing, swept away by the greater force of an illness no one understands, not even the doctors.

We finally got Mom into her ‘cadillac’ walker – it doubles as an ad hoc wheel chair, and we maneuvered her to the dining room table where she ate cereal and drank coffee and talked the situation over. I remain awestruck by the tenacious ability of the human brain to accept an ever-narrowing world and inhabit it, accepting an ever shinking set of goals and small victories. Mom had hoped to start up her communications consulting business here, and go shopping, and move into the lovely assisted living home on Main Street. Now she takes it as a satisfying and hard won triumph when she can walk on her own to the bathroom late at night. I admire the stoicism with which she adapts to this contraction, but entering the claustrophobic world of her illness, living there with her even as an outside observer, takes a grim toll. It’s exhausting and frightening. At first I thought it was loosening and uprooting the structural supports of my own existence, but I realize now that I was mistaken. Instead, it’s revealing the structural supports of my existence, placing the realities of my life and life itself under the raw and unforgiving fluorescent lighting of mortal truth. It’s my illusions that have been torn up strewn about the ground: the illusion of immortality, the illusion of the ever-nurturing Mom, the illusion of a benevolent universe. I’m going to die as she is dying; I have to nurture her now and the universe, God-controlled or the product of random chance, really doesn’t care at all. The result is I feel old myself, inches not miles from my mother’s precipice, caught up and tangled in the same sticky web of decay and disorder.

It makes you understand how delayed stress disorders happen. During a car crash, or a wartime trauma, things happen too quickly to grasp the nature of the event. But here it’s all occurring in slow motion. You can feel yourself shoving your emotions aside, stamping them down, packing them like boxes into an overstuffed closet. You can feel the effect of looking down and pushing forward with each day, the stress building up like a toxin coating the nerve endings. It will take years to cleanse the blood of this sorrow, and it may never happen. I may not have enough time.

As a caretaker, the erosion of your world happens on so many levels at once – that’s what’s hard to grasp from the outside. Your time is shredded, days starting later and ending sooner and trimmed from the middle with new obligations. This means that money becomes an issue and even though the thought of a nursing home draining away a life’s savings feels grim and Dickensian, some fist inside me clenches and says “better her than me” I cannot go bankrupt here. I have to work. That’s not a debate point, it’s a fact. Having no choice simplifies decision-making. But I’m exhausted and that slows work down, also. I have no private time now; Annie and I have no time together except for a stolen cup of coffee or a brief talk in the car, parked in the driveway. I’m writing this as the visiting nurse works with Mom, tapping a few stolen sentences into the computer between consultations and conversations. The emotional wear and tear combines with my mundane practical worries and the inexorable presence of death, the grinning skull suddenly pushing out of the surface of everything, and the sadness and the pity, and the stupid childish anger and the guilt over that anger to create a separate disability that folds over and magnifies the effects of its own symptoms. It reminds me of baking bread, folding over the dough and kneading it, watching it double in bulk under a checked cloth on a warm window sill.

But no one wants to eat this loaf. No one.

Mom was in the hospital for a couple of weeks after a bad fall in the bathroom and we got the house back and dismantled her bed and tried to live normally. But of course life revolved around the hospital and we knew it was just the eye of the hurricane. The next storm wall was coming. I log onto Weather Underground a lot these days – the weather has taken on some mysterious new urgency. I see the blob but I have no idea what it means for me until I click on the ‘animate map’ button. Then I can see which way the weather is moving, caught in a half hour loop. I relax: it’s heading Northeast of us, despite the fact that the official forecast calls for rain. I need to click that same tab in my own life, in my mother’s condition. I see the blob, the angry yellow and orange of a harsh Nor’Easter. But what does it mean? Is this a brief setback, or just another bump in a bumpy road. Does it signify the beginning of the end, or is it the prelude to a miraculous resurgence? I have no way to tell.

But I take comfort in small things.

When I found my Mom on the bathroom floor that morning three weeks ago, and helped her to her feet, both of us thought it was all over.

She hugged me and said. “We had fun, didn’t we? Nobody had more fun than us.”

It was true. Some days, some part of each day, it’s still true.

So we hang on and hope for more of them. There’s nothing else we can do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Truth About Ayn Rand

In this bizarre historical moment, when everyone on the right is quoting Ayn Rand and the sales of her books are sky-rocketing, something needs to be said to this resurgent mob of Atlas Shrugged enthusiasts: they’re missing the point.

When she died, in March of 1982, “All Things Considered” ran a lengthy obituary that made the same mistake. Listening to it, you would have thought she was a marginal philosopher whose tracts, formulated as ‘novels’ continued to exercise a baffling influence on the young, the ill-educated and the neo-conservative. Of course they mentioned her most famous acolyte, Alan Greenspan, and there’s no better refutation of her simplistic theories than the gaudy Mardi Gras of financial malfeasance and economic ruin that his stint at the Federal Reserve created. He even allowed himself an endearing moment of innocent surprise recently. He recently admitted to feeling honestly shocked that greedy people would behave badly in the presence of enormous amount of free money. It’s hard to have much sympathy for such globally catastrophic naiveté. But Ayn Rand spent her life constructing a free market utopia in which none of the recent events (like the housing bubble, the sub-prime mortgage debacle or the default swap swindles) could ever happen. Ayn Rand capitalists don’t even need unions – they treat their workers so well that a union movement would be pointless. This brings to mind the literal Greek definition of the word Utopia: “No place” – a world most essentially defined by its impossibility.

Rand’s impossible world is a sharply divided one, parsed into the geniuses, the drones and the Collectivists. Of course, no one who reads her wants to feel like a drone (The good-hearted self proclaimed industrial serf Eddie Willers is hardly a glamorous role model; neither is the hapless store clerk James Taggart dupes into marriage); much less one of the dread socialist villains with their icky names – Kip Chalmers, Balph Eubanks, Wesley Mouch. Who wouldn’t prefer to be a John Galt or a Francisco D’Anconia? This urge to pick sides and stand with the cool group -- ironically so alien to Rand’s stated goal of self-containment and indifference to other people’s opinions -- often led to “Any Rand Syndrome” among teen-age boys. After a thousand pages or so, the average teen-ager would start sneering at his old friends and at least trying to laugh silently with his head thrown back. I for one could never quite figure how Howard Roark pulled that one off.

But the sad truth is that most of us will never run invent a new kind of metal or a new engine that converts static electricity into kinetic power. Most of us will go on kicking things when they break and feeling vaguely ripped of by the Geek Squad at Best Buy. We’re drones not geniuses, and the real men and women who constitute the ‘fountainhead’ of human progress are anything but the lock-jawed, slogan-mouthing puppets that Ayn Rand convenes at the end of Atlas Shrugged in a hidden Rocky Mountain valley. Rand finally ‘jumps the shark’ here, all but her most loyal devotees admit. In his New Yorker review, George Steiner remarked, “The last third of Atlas Shrugged is positively Swiftian in its social satire. I refer of course to Tom Swift.”

So what can explain the enduring popularity of this simplistic, quasi-fascist, leave-everything-to-the-smart-people doctrine with its heartless steely contempt for the average person and its almost carnal worship of the exceptional? Is it just because Ayn Rand’s strident free-market money-is-the-root-of-all good diatribes play into the political agendas of each new generation of avaricious Wall Street swindlers and tax-cut corporate minions in Congress?

I don’t think so. The same bad ideas have been advocated by many other voices, long silenced and forgotten. People, the vast majority of people, do not read Ayn Rand for her philosophy, such as it is. Those are the parts they skip. John Galt’s speech? Come on: it’s an endless turgid re-hash of everything we’ve already read in the previous thousand pages. Even Francisco D’Anconia’s money speech drones on for far too long, until even the most dim-witted Young Republican is shouting “We get it! We get it!”

No, people read Ayn Rand for a much simpler reason: she tells good stories and she writes them in a unique and entertaining style. The craziness that taints her ideas makes her pulpy stories fun. Like her hero, Victor Hugo, she is infatuated with the heightened drama of grand gestures. These are the moments that remain with you, years after the droning cant of her Adam-Smith-on-steroids sermons has faded:

Pirate Ragnar Danneskjold (he only attacks collectivist ships!) risks life and limb to give industrialist Henry Reardon a single bar of gold – the down payment and what the sleazy socialist morons have stolen from him over the years. They meet on a deserted highway (Reardon likes walking home from the steel mill) and though Reardon refuses the gold an calls Danneskjold a criminal, he can’t bring himself to turn the man in when the cops roll by. The slab of precious metal lying on the asphalt in the moonlight, the split second decision to side with the bandit against the police … that’s what we remember.

Or this:

Dagny Taggart hears Reardon’s wife disparaging her husband for the clunky gift he gave her – a bracelet made from the first pouring of Reardon metal. This is at a their Anniversary party. She says “I’d gladly trade it for a diamond bracelet – somethingf really valuable.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Dagny pulls her diamond bracelet off her wrist and makes the scandalous trade. Gotta love her for that. Like when her brother James’ new wife (whom he has conned into thinking he’s the hero of the railroad) says to Dagny “I’m the woman in this family now,” and Dagny casually replies “That’s OK. I’m the man.” Or when Howard Roark’s arch-enemy in The Fountainhead finally meets him in the middle of the night at a deserted construction site and says “I have to know—what do you think of me?” and Roark says, casually bewildered, “But I don’t think of you.”

I wanted to feel that way about so many people when I was a kid.

I still want to feel that way, I might as well admit it.

And there are so many more:

When a workplace disaster interrupts an intractable difference of opinion between Francisco D’Anconia and Hank Reardon and they have to work together to save the steel mill; when John Galt instructs the people torturing him on how to fix their torture machine, which had broken down; or when a starving hobo taken into Dagny’s private railroad car and offered dinner while he tells the story of the mysterious John Galt engine, refuses to wolf his food and eats with a quiet decorum; when a college janitor unceremoniously erases a whole lecture-hall blackboard a young physicist has filled with futile equations and scrawls a simple formula that solves the problem … just like Good Will Hunting. I’m sure that moment in the Matt Damon Ben Affleck screenplay was intended as an homage to John Galt. Maybe their next script will feature an homage to Hugh Akston, the philosophy professor who winds up running a diner in the mountains after withdrawing from the world as part of the “strike” that defines the book. He makes burgers now, but they’re the best burgers Dagny has ever tasted, which somehow makes perfect sense.

Beyond these iconic scenes there remains the stubborn fact of the writing itself. Rand makes a unique sound, partly the product of English being her second language, but primarily a function of her unique, even batty sensibility. I realized I was in the presence of something original and fascinating when I opened The Fountainhead and read this on the very first page: “He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone – flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion.”

A pause more dynamic than motion.

That blew me away at age seventeen. And I have to say -- it still sounds pretty good. One character in Atlas Shrugged greets another one he thought was dead with a “joyous anger of relief.” It’s odd and exact and wonderful, and there are sentences like that sprinkled throughout all her books. Whole sequences dazzle you – the trains taking two lovers to separate Siberian gulags in We The Living, the first run on the John Galt line in Atlas Shrugged, the ruin of Gail Wynant in The Fountainhead. Rand’s characters linger with you – doomed old architect Henry Cameron, abrasive Ellis Wyatt, self-destructive Leo Kovalensky.

It’s the writing that we love her for -- those of us who still love her, after our adolescent infatuations burned away to a doctrinaire contempt and were finally replaced by a stubborn affectionate admiration for the way she can rhapsodize the lit end of a cigarette or the sight of the New York skyline at night, for a character who calls his yacht “I Do” not to commemorate his many marriages (as the tabloids think) but to answer all the people who spent so many years telling him “You don’t run things around here”.

Like her hero Victor Hugo, her ideas are her weakness, her liability and her shame. Her greatness lies between the pronouncements and the opinions, the dogma and Doctoral fodder, the image she gives you of the harridan school teacher slapping your wrist with a ruler when disagree with her.

She was all of that, but she was also a writer, a wonderful, passionate utterly strange writer, and that’s the way I choose to remember her – especially now, when she’s becoming popular again with all the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons.

She deserves better.

Star Wars and the Surf Park: Waking Up from the American Dream

In early August 2006 I signed up for the waiting list at the Ron Jon surfpark in Orlando Florida. I was number 5166 on the list, with little chance of actually getting a membership in the first few years (only the lucky first 2000 could expect that); but I was thrilled anyway. It seemed like a kind of utopia to me. I toured the “Virtual Park” whenever I was on-line, giving new meaning to the concept of ‘surfing’ the net. I scrolled up from the learner’s pool (three foot waves, beginners only) to the advanced pool., where six to eight foot swells would be generated every six seconds, and the bottom could be re-contoured in a matter of minutes to imitate any break in the world, from the gentlest to the most radical. Along the way I paused to appreciate the restaurant, the bandstand (they were going to have concerts, too – maybe even the Beach Boys!) and the tiled channel that allowed you to paddle back out into the ‘line up’ at the far end of the pool, without bothering other surfers or struggling with the white water from broken waves. As someone who is frequently forced back to the beach on big days by wall after wall of churning water, this felt like the perfect final detail, the linen hankerchief in the breast pocket of a suit hand-tailored just for me. In the surfpark world you waited with the other five or six people in your group and took turns riding waves. I did the math --the longest you had to wait was 36 seconds. I’ve waited an hour for a wave, sitting in the ocean with all those jelly fish and sharks and kelp and other icky manifestations of the real world. The surfpark would get rid of all that. Clear water, lightly salted (served to order like a steak at Applebees); no sea life to squelch underfoot or bite or sting. I did more math. I could catch more waves in one session at the park than I’d caught in a year surfing the old fashioned way, in the ocean. My carpenter friend laughed at me. The whole point of surfing was appreciating the actual ocean – just being there. That was what made our sport unique. “No one ever sat around for hours staring at a baseball diamond,” he said.

Besides, there were to many moving parts, it was too complex, it would never work. He’d check the plans before he started building – any good carpenter would.

I ignored his Luddite cynicism. I dropped the subject. But I was still enthusiastic. The e-mail confirming my status invited me to keep track of the surfpark progress on their website, and I did.

It was slow. There were setbacks. The place was going to open in March and then June and then September; in 2007 and then in 2008.

Well, it’s 2009 now and the dream is dead.

The people who put millions into the place lost everything and it’s doubtful anyone else will try to build a surfpark for decades now. What went wrong? Everything went wrong. Water sloshing off the sides of the pool ruined every wave but the first one. The bottom contour-changing machinery was slow and cumbersome and made no difference, anyway. Most damning, the pool itself was only twenty yards wide. This fact sticks in my mind because even during my initial infatuation with the idea, the width of the pool set off a small alarm. But I figured I just wasn’t bright enough to fully imagine the set-up, even with the virtual tour. I forgot about it but I shouldn’t have, and neither should the park designers. For non-surfers, I’ll be brief: You don’t ride a wave straight in toward the beach. You slide parallel to the beach, across the face of the wave. Even an unsatisfying Nantucket shorebreak close-out takes you twenty yards. The pool would have to be as wide as the length of a football field to approximate a really good ride on the kind of waves they claimed they could manufacture.

So the whole enterprise was doomed from the start, but no one wanted to admit it.

I have to say, it all felt very familiar. In fact it felt like a classic American moment. So many of our big plans have come to nothing lately. The Bradley mini-tank,(twigs clogged the treads: no one took it off-road for a test drive?) the Star-Wars defense system (Ever trying shooting a bullet with another bullet?) that put our national security into the hands of computers (How often have the computers been down when you go to the bank? And that’s just for basic arithmetic). Or go bigger – The Iraq war we botched, the Afganistan war we’re botching., the Iran war we’re eargerly looking forward to botching in the near future with the same mixture of hope, hubris and blinkered, irrational optimism. We’re “can do” people! We watch Oprah. We build it and assume they’ll come. We believe in “The Secret” which boils down to wishing makes it so.

But it desn’t.

I haven’t mentioned any of this to my carpenter friend, but I know what he’ll say: They should have checked the plans. And his other mantra: measure twice, cut once.

But that stuff is for realists. And we haven’t been realists since the Eisenhower Administration. We’ll always go for the shiny treat, the quick fix, the cool gimmick that’s too narrow, too incapable of dealing with the chaos its orderly solution creates.

I feel it in myself, the national virus. I’m ready to sign up for the next surfpark right now (I’ll be higher on the waiting list this time), and no one has even been dumb enough to suggest it yet.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: The Private Salon

Maybe writers need their own social apartheid. We don’t really mix well with regular folks. They find it bizarre and disagreeable that we sit for hours in front of a computer screen, inventing gossip about nonexistent people. I spent one afternoon with the son of a woman I was dating, making up a story. The whole idea upset and disgusted her. Okay, it was a story about finding a magic stone that would make adults do anything he wanted, and he was asking his Mom to triple his allowance, make homework optional and sign a liability waiver for skateboard camp. But we were having fun. Incidentally, you should never read one of those liability waivers for skateboard camp -- they’re terrifying.

Another woman got annoyed when I complained about some film we’d just seen trashing the book it was based on. “Who cares?” was her final, exhausted verdict. “It’s only a movie.”

Only a movie? And the book they ruined was only a book. And books are what you read when the magazines run out. But they never do.

One girlfriend was furious because I used her in a story; another was mad because I didn’t.

Neither one of them understood that it wasn’t them, or wouldn’t have been … just someone who looked and sounded like them, with a few of their more annoying mannerisms Girl who over-filled every room she entered with show-off ballet moves, you know who you are. You, too, nail-biter who said “Totally,” every time you agreed with me and “Thank you” every time I agreed with you.

Other writers understand when you fade and stop paying attention because of some plot point you can’t fix; they shrug when some stray comment winds up in one of your characters’ mouths. They like to be alone just as much as you do, and need your critical attention when they read long passages of fresh-minted prose, just like you need theirs. They don’t mind if you eavesdrop in restaurants; they’re eavesdropping, too.

It’s a good set-up, if you can find a writer you respect that you actually want to live with. That’s the tough part, because let’s face it, writers are pretty much just as annoying as all those non-writers think.

Driving out to Annie’s cottage in Polpis on the night of our private salon, I couldn’t help wondering if she might be the one. But I had heard she was still wary after the break up with her crazy actor and I wasn’t quite as finished with her friend as I should have been. It felt like a potential mess waiting to happen, “a regular monkey’s tea party” as my grandfather liked to say. I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay starting an affair with one of her readers after a particularly well-written fan letter. That was the way to do it: translating the love of words into a more urgent carnality without ambivalence or complications.

The drive from town settled my nerves. After the last grasp of commerce – a liquor store tucked into the trees on the right, a ford dealership on the left – vanished around a curve in the road, and the last ostentatious real-estate boondoggle fell behind me, Polpis Road turned into one of the most beautiful drives in New England. With the moors on one side and the grand old clapboard mansions allowing glimpses of the harbor between walls and hedges on the other, I could feel myself escaping the gravitational pull of the busy town and the crowded ‘mid-island’ with its convenience stores and gas stations. Much of the island had been spoiled – even despoiled – but the farther out you cruise along Polpis Road the less it seemed to matter. These old houses weren’t going anywhere, though the cars in the driveway had changed (more Minis and smart cars, now; fewer Hummers and Expeditions). The moors and the bogs were protected by the Land Bank and the Conservation Commission. This was old money country, shabby with a haughty indifference to the granite counter top and the sub-zero refrigerator: no one was selling, or moving, or installing a climate controlled wine cellar or a state-of-the art digital screening room. They’re just going to keep on fishing in Coskata pond, drinking Bloody Mary’s on the deck and complaining about the food at the Yacht Club.

It seemed fitting somehow that Annie had found a place for herself out here, surrounded by the wealthy, but living hand-to-mouth, tucked away in a four hundred dollar a month cottage among the wild blackberries and the poison ivy. It turned out years later that she was actually related to the owner, going back five generations of landed gentry. The thought terrified his family when she mentioned it over cocktails one evening, as if she was going to rise up with a cold-eyed gang of Boston lawyers and demand her share of the old man’s property. Nothing could have been further from the truth. She had been living out there for twenty summers and it just pleased her to find an ancestral connection to her cantankerous but affectionate landlord.

I pulled into the bluestone driveway, rolled past the main house and down to the cottage. The lights were on in the dusk and when I climbed out of the car the silence of the place closed over me like water, like a tropical ocean, and I was breathing it like a fish, a new creature in a new world.

This place is gorgeous,” I said when she came to the door. “I could feel my blood pressure dropping about ten points a mile as I drove out here.”

She smiled, stepping back to let me inside. “I know,” she said. “But the problem is, you never want to leave.”

Her hair was down, a frizzy blond cloud that softened her sharp features, as the grey cashmere cardigan buttoned over a flimsy t-shirt and loose jeans accented the girlish allure of her body.

She pushed at her hair nervously, pressing the wild mane to her scalp. “I’m sorry. I look awful. My hair gets insane when it’s humid like this.”

“I think it looks great.”

“It looks horrible. It’s Ok. You can say so. It looks like I just stuck my fingers in a wall socket. The Mad Scientist look”

“I like it.”

“You’e insane.”

“Lucky for you.”

She squinted at me. “We’ll see about that.” Then she noticed the bag in my hand. “What did you bring? I’m starving. I was fine until about five minutes ago then my blood sugar dropped. I was about to start eating shredded wheat out of the box.”

“Ugh. That would definitely have spoiled your appetite for the picked lobster, home-made red cabbage coleslaw, and potato salad I have here. Plus the baguette and the raspberries. Oh, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. No wait a minute. Two bottles.”

“Sounds like a wild night you’ve got in mind.”

I lifted out one of the bottles. “Onward and upward with the arts.”

The cottage was a simple rectangle maybe fifteen feet by forty. I had stepped into a high raftered, open-stud living room, with yachting pennants, old quarter boards and fishing rods decorating the beams, 1920s Nantucket theater one-sheets (Rose Tremaine in Private Lives the ‘Sconset Casino), family photographs and equestrian prints tacked to the wooden walls. The cracked cement floor was softened by sisal rugs, set about with an old velour couch and some white wicker chairs. A dusty television sat on an antique desk between two windows, but it looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. Beyond the dining room table, a raised a step led to the kitchen, with doors leading into the bedroom and the bath. Annie had lit Candles and hurricane lamps. The place was cozy, lost in time.

I stood looking around, taking it all in.

“It’s like some relic of another era,” I said.

She smiled. “Just like me.”

We walked into the kitchen and I started unpacking the bags.

“And what era would that be?” I asked her. “The eighties?”

“Come on.”

“The seventies?”

She made a little puckered wince, as if she had just stepped into a cloud of gnats. “God no.”

“The sixties?”

“I kind of hated the sixties.”

“No Woodstock?”

“Too muddy.”

“But the bands! Jimi Hendrix and Joe Cocker and Creedence. Neil Young played with CSN for the first time ever that weekend.”

“I don’t know, My sister went and all she heard was crowd noise, Melanie and Iron Butterfly.”

I smiled. “Great band, Crowd Noise. Their older stuff was better, though.”

“The older stuff is always better.”

“What a drag though – I mean if you keep working, If you’re Coppola and all anyone wants to talk about is The Godfather. Or like – that scene in Cakes and Ale when Maugham’s unsuccessful friend is telling how great his crappy first novel was.”

“I love that book.”

“Most people have never even heard of it.”

“That’s why I didn’t invite them tonight.”

I put on my best English accent. “Most of us resent people when we treat them badly. Alroy Kear was far too big-hearted for such pettiness. He could treat you very badly indeed without afterward bearing you the least ill-will.”

“I love that. I always see him as George Sanders. That must be because of the movies.”

“They;lve made some pretty good ones. But they can’t seem to nail The Razor’s Edge.”

“That’s because they don’t understand that it’s really about Elliot Templeton, not that drippy woo-woo guy. I love Elliot Templeton. He’s so wonderful and so sad. Remember when he’s on his death bed and all he wants is to be invited to the Duchess’ party?”

“And Maugham lies to him and he dies happy.”

“Yeah. Poor Elliot.”


She handed me a cork screw and while I was working it she said, “I guess … the Fifties. No -- the late forties. Just after World War Two. Men wore hats and kids didn’t wear bike helmets. Cars had fins. People drank scotch out of little flasks at football games. The Giants played the Polo Grounds. Everybody smoked and nobody cared. John O’Hara world. That’s my era. Maugham was huge then, too.”

“He met my Dad once, at a party. He tottered up – that’s one of my Dad’s favorite words, ‘tottered’ …and he steadied himself and looked my Dad in eye and said, ‘Dear boy, I hear you are the toast of Broadway. I’m happy to say that I am too old and too rich and too drunk to give a shit.’ Then he turned and lurched off. One of my dad’s fondest memories. Meeting Maugham.”

“You must have had a cool childhood.”

“It was weird. I was a bi-coastal kid. I spent vacations in L.A. – enough time to get hooked on my Dad’s world, but not enough to really be part of it. I was always on the outside. Which was actually okay, because my Dad’s new family was seriously fucked up. My half-sister was over-dosing on LSD, my step-brother tried to drown me in the swimming pool and my step-mother was right out of Grimm’s fairy tales – the uncut German version. None of this smiley-face American shit. I think she secretly wanted to chop me up and stick me in a batch of cookies. But she wouldn’t be caught dead baking, and it’s not the kind of thing you can ask the Filipino chef to do, unless you’re planning to give him a really big bonus, which was not her style.”

She laughed. “It can’t possibly have been that bad.”

“That’s why I can’t write about this stuff. No one believes it. No one believed the Mary Tyler Moore character in Ordinary People and I was like … that bitch is Mary Poppins next to my step-mother.”

“Well, my parents stayed married and I sometimes wish they hadn’t. My Mom deserves a better life. She – I don’t know. She chose it, I guess. She chose him.But I don’t think she really knew what her choices were. She could have walked away. She almost did a few times.”

“But she came back.”

“My Dad writes a mean love-letter.”

I poured two glasses of wine, handed her one and made a toast.

“To our crazy families, which made us the writers we are today.”

I cut the lobster into bunch of mescal greens Annie had in the fridge and made an olive oil and vinegar dressing while she put the baguette in the oven and set the table.

While we ate I told her that I regretted missing her plays – she had done a lot of theater on the island: a solo turn in The Belle of Amherst, leads in My Fair Lady and The Glass Menagerie, Linda in Death of a Salesman. Apparently she was great; but the only local productions I had seen were terrible – a clumsily staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a teeth-grindingly inept Odd Couple with women in the lead roles. I had acted a little, but I found the stage fright debilitating.

“I’ve never had that,” she said. “I always feel comfortable on stage. I have life-fright instead.”

We finished eating – I noticed that she wolfed her food almost as fast as I did – and cleared the table. We got out our stories and settled in for the salon.

My story began this way:

The worst year of Michael Gersh’s life started with a morning of easy victories and good omens. There were bad omens too, but like most people, he chose to ignore them. The good stuff was just too distracting. At dawn, he finally managed to get a tube ride on a ten foot wave; at breakfast, he sold a screenplay about the Intifada to a pair of Egyptian bankers; and at lunch he closed a deal with the biggest star of the late twentieth century to make his best friend’s movie.

He could hardly wait for dinner.

Mike didn’t much care for irony, especially when it happened to him, but looking back at that sun-splashed March morning, he would have to admit it made perfect sense: he was riding high.

And a downfall is just a stumble, without altitude.

Annie’s started like this:

Alison was sitting in her old black Ford pick-up, peering into the rearview mirror, inspecting a smudge of yellow paint that ran along the left side of her nose, when he leaned over and stuck his head through the open window.

“Would you mind not parking so close to my fence? See, it forces people out into the street, and we've had some close calls, so could you please--?”

It was a ridiculously hot, sun-battering afternoon in early September and the last thing she needed was some Brooks Brothers rolled-up shirt sleeve leaning in, some thinning blonde going to gray-ex-Hotchkiss-ex-Taft-ex-Andover cum Harvard cum Yale Law School cum, beautiful wife cum Polaroid-perfect family back-drop, asking her to ease the margin of infringement on his self-important existence.

The stories were long and it was late when we finished.

We had an awkward moment at the door, as I was leaving. We were both a little drunk. She brushed against me, seemed to lose her balance. I caught her and held her for a second. The immanence of a kiss trembled between us. Then she slipped free of my arm and stepped back. We wound up shaking hands.

“Thanks for a great night,” I said.

‘Thanks for the picnic.”

“I liked what you said about the repetitions.”

She smiled. “You can say something fifty different ways. You just have the choose the best one and file the others away.”

“You said get rid of them.”

“I don’t think you ever get rid of anything. I bet you have lines you’ve been trying to stick into stories for years. Orphans left over from high school.”

“The problem is, most of them suck.”

“Tell me one.”

“It’s late. I can’t remember any of them, and besides-- ”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Try mortifying. That was one of my favorite words in high school.”

She took my other hand, holding me in place. “Just one.”

“It would have to be a paraphrase.”

“I’m sure you’ll improve it.”

“I couldn’t make it much worse.”

She stared at me, eyebrows raised, head tilted down a little. Her posture said: Come on, let’s go. Spill it.

“I was really proud of this at the time,” I said.

“You’re killing me. I have to work tomorrow.”

“Okay, okay … let me set it up. The guy comes to the door, they haven’t seen each other in years, I was expert at true love tested by long separations in high school. I think I’d been on like one date at that point. Anyway, she doesn’t recognize him for a second, then she does.”

“Okay, so?”

“Ugh. Are you really going to make me do this?”

She just stood there, holding my hands.

“Okay, okay -- it was … ‘perception and response joined and separate: the lightning of recognition and then the slow thunder of a smile.’ Something like that.”

“It’s nice.”

“It’s awful.”

“I like it. Maybe you’ll wind up using it after all, now. When you write about tonight.”

She nailed me perfectly at that moment, as she always does. Of course I denied it at the time.

But here we are.

Anyway, it’s the next session I really want to write about.

And that night deserves a post to itself.

The Home Care Diaries, Part Two: Settling In

This is not a story anyone wants to hear. It violates the basic tenets of American optimism. It’s not Norman Rockwell picture; more like an Andrew Wyeth, with occasional torn fragments of Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon pasted over the canvas.

“How is it going?” everyone asks. And of course I say fine.

“Is it tough having your mother living in the house?” And I say no, of course not. Even to her.

Especially to her.

But the facts remain. That’s what facts do. There’s a mindless obstinacy about them. My mother is eighty-eight years old. She has a rapidly advancing case of Parkinson’s disease. She wants to go to the lovely assisted living place nearby, but she can’t really take care of herself, so I don’t see how that could happen. She works hard to improve her physical condition but the odds and the years are against her. Mortality mocks her optimism. Mortality mocks and diminishes everything. Its ruinous taint, the sheer poison of its proximity created every religion and philosophy on the planet. We forget that because we avoid it like the contaminating radioactive isotope that it is. Shunning death may be the one authentic human instinct beside the ability to suck. We come into life ready to take sustenance from the nipple, hardwired to travel forward ignoring the end of the trip. We build a culture based on youth, we shun the old, we spend a billion dollars on cosmetics and plastic surgery just to keep mortality at bay. I do it. I didn’t know I was doing it until my mother moved in and the awesome, appalling specter of mortality moved in with her.

So how does it feel to change your mother’s Depends undergarment? How does it feel to walk her from the bed to the bathroom, watching her legs tremble as she tries to find her balance? Well, first of all, it’s exhausting. It’s an illness itself, this new awareness of death looming everywhere, a leeching ailment like mononucleosis that saps the life out of your muscles and buries you in your bed. The fatigue is too complex to fight, and only certain parts of it can be solved by sleep. It’s spiritual as well as physical, emotional as well as mental. Part of it is about seeing someone you love so stricken, the penetrating unnaturalness (or so it seems, or so it feels) of your reversed positions, the upended role you have to play in the endgame of a parent’s life. In a way it’s like having a new baby in the house, without the sustaining thrill of a new life to protect. The needs are startlingly similar, but the joy is replaced with sorrow and dread. Of course I know I’m lucky in many ways. Things could be much worse. We have help during the week. And Mom is as sharp as ever, reading The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine from cover to cover, commenting on the news (“In this country we have Socialism for the rich and free market capitalism for everyone else”) dismissing her Doctors (“When you’re past a certain age, they just don’t care any more.”). She still loves life and her spirit is ferocious. Watching her do her physical exercises has shamed me into getting back into shape myself. She’s still herself, and she loves being here. She feels like she’s been sprung from prison. The used the term ‘evacuated’ the other day, as if we had plucked her from the midst of some natural disaster when we took her out of the “skilled nursing facility” where she had been living after a urinary tract infection almost killed her.

Annie is a huge help. Of course that has its downside also. Mom said something other days about being so grateful to me and my brother. I pointed out that some significant portion of that gratitude should be directed toward the one person in this situation who isn’t related to her. It’s an immense unfair burden for Annie, who provided hospice home care, spelled only by her two sisters, for the last six months of her mother’s life. The sight of a walker or a wheel chair, a bath seat or a bedside commode, brings back the most painful memories of her life, and that’s only part of the problem. My son is living with us now also, and he has dubbed the tiny, 200-year old apartment (Five rooms and two baths on two floors connected by a narrow stairway) the NoPrivacyHouse. The name made Annie smile, and she needed a light moment, but it’s another fact and it remains just like all the others: we have no privacy at all any more. Annie feels dislocated and displaced. The small comfortable life we had cobbled together for ourselves is gone. The disruption is temporary, but with no end in sight, some future restoration of our old routines seems far too abstract for comfort. For now this is our life. It’s constricted, as the lungs constrict during an asthma attack. It’s hard to breathe, impossible to relax. I found myself resting in a customers house for half an hour yesterday, just lying down in the quiet room, beyond the reach of obligation, feeling the vibrations of stress shiver out of my nerves like a struck piano string, wobbling to silence.

I needed that, but I couldn’t afford it. I need to work that job and I need to finish it. I can’t afford this new flimsiness, this swooning lack of energy. That’s scary. And my brother, to whom my mom feels such gratitude, is living five thousand miles away in another country, and generously sending an extra $300 a month to help out. That just about covers a week’s groceries in the most expensive town in America. Thanks for the gumball, Mickey.

So money is tight and living is tight; everything is tight, inside and out. A lot is happening just inside me, weird climate change in my frontal cortex and my limbic system. I feel simultaneously a wild howling sexual desire, the need to throw orgasms at death the way a kid might egg the factory owner’s house on Halloween. And at the same time a scrim of age and decay seems to cover both of us, making the whole idea feel creepy and repellent. The two feelings cancel each other out and nothing happens, which works well for us since sex is the last thing on Annie’s mind right now and we live in NoPrivacyHouse anyway.

So it’s grim and debilitating and the strange dark secret of it all is that I feel absurdly blessed and lucky to have this time with my mother, whatever the cost and however long the ordeal goes on. Because make no mistake, it is an ordeal and I can’t wait for it to be over and I hope it lasts and lasts, until I finally get enough of my mother to really remember her by, because soon enough the remembering will be all I have and I dread that day and I all have is the time until that day to prepare for it.

So we push forward, easing her end, taking the flickers of rest or pleasure when they present themselves, and hold her and hold each other and somehow make the best of it.

Maybe it could be a Norman Rockwell painting, after all.