Sunday, July 12, 2009

The One Who Got Away: April Fools

t seemed like the beginning, but endings often do. That’s optimism at work – the technique we use to shape the present with the future, sharpening it into an illusion of progress – kind of like using a knife to whittle a stick, until it’s pared away to nothing.

You’re not wandering around, lost in the dark: you’re a man on a mission. But here’s the problem: If your present needs so much help, there’s probably no future in it anyway.

If you’re confident you don’t need optimism; if you’re happy you don’t need hope.

So when I say that going to visit Sophie Zambarano “I was full of bright hope and boyish optimism,” does your spirit sag a little? Does the flicker of impending tragedy make you flinch?

Good for you. I wish I’d been as smart. Part of me does anyway. The rest of me envies that guy, flying in Byron Crane’s Cessna over Nantucket Sound on a bright May morning, with new life over the horizon line -- heading for the second calamitous heartbreak in the space of less than a year.

Ignorance may be bliss. But bliss is a great thing, maybe the greatest thing. Bliss has its own prerogatives, it stakes out its own territory, no matter what else happens. Cherish the bliss: that’s the lesson of this story, if it has one: cherish the bliss. You don’t get much of it and it never lasts.

So anyway …

I was flying to Northampton full of bright hope and boyish optimism. And I was already in trouble, I just didn’t know it yet. Without much effort, I had sowed some serious chaos at home. I couldn’t ask Lisa to take care of the kids – I didn’t even want her to know what I was doing. But trying to keep a secret in a small town is like trying to keep a Chihuahua in a no-pets apartment.

My friend Jack had agreed to take the kids for the day, but couldn’t pick them up until noon. Until then, they were staying with Caroline’s best friend. I had been involved with the mother briefly, before my divorce was final. My affair with Sasha had ended badly, but she retained enough compassion to do me the favor. Mostly she just liked my kids. Still, she drew her boundaries strictly: she had to be at work by twelve o’clock, and couldn’t afford to be a minute late.

I flew off the island at nine, after hurried thank-yous and an awkward hug. I left a message for Jack, reminding him of the schedule, but It was all very tenuous, very much on-the-fly.

These kinds of arrangements, with so much required co-ordination and so many emotional cross-currents, seem to have failure built in to them -- some kind of inherent chaos, like the the alcolholism marker in a drunkard’s DNA.

So of course Jack was two hours late and it cascaded from there. Sasha had to call in sick to work and she finally lost her temper. She upset the kids, and Caroline called Lisa, who had to pick them up, and the whole roiling swamp of resentment, anger and frustration was waiting for me when I got home that night, after one of the most joyous and carefree days of my life.

Lisa called it ‘instant karma’ – a song she’d always hated by the way. But maybe she was right.

Those were the innocent days before I got a cell phone, so I could still enjoy that exotic, nearly extinct luxury: being out of touch.

It was a perfect day to be on my own –- an early Spring afternoon that turned the dingy brick stonework of Northampton gay and glamorous, transformed like my Mom, some evening when I was ten and she was a crone of forty, dressed up for a date, dancing around the apartment like a teenager.

Love will do that to you.

Sophie met me at the airport in her battered Volvo. She jumped out of the car and ran to meet me, wearing a light summer dress short enough to show off her slim runner’s legs.

We embraced, I felt the length of her against me, the heat of her body through the thin fabric, the scent of her hair in my nostrils.

“You came,” she said.

I spoke to her neck: “Air mail special delivery.”

Byron slugged my shoulder. “You have six hours, Cap. Meter’s running.”

“Do you need a ride somewhere?” Sophie asked him.

“No, I’m good. I like airports.”

He gave his watch one more warning tap and started off toward the main hangar.

We climbed into the car and I sat back on the warm vinyl, folded into the scent of Sophie's Bearnese Mountain dog, as we took off in a cloud of dust. Sophie drove fast, but efficiently, with both hands on the wheel. I closed my eyes for a second and the sun pressed down on them like a warm towel.

When I opened my eyes again to look at her I felt weightless and dizzy. Maybe it was the mild air, or the rush of travel, the sudden jolt as anticipation banged up against reality, like rear-ending another car at a cross-walk, in front of an unexpected pedestrian. More likely, it was the sight of Sophie’s thighs, caressed by the hem of her skirt in the breeze from the car window.

“You’re staring at me,” she said, lightly. She didn’t seem to mind.

“I prefer ogling. It’s funnier.”

“Ogle. What a crazy language to have a verb like that.”

“Actually, I was thinking of starting a porn magazine called Ogle. And then opening a newsstand just to hear people ask for it.”

She drove in silence for a while, and I continued to watch her: the beautiful, but vaguely simian profile: high forehead, snub nose, big lips, the mane of hair thrashing in the wind the car created out of the still Pioneer Valley air. We were driving between wide ploughed fields and the sharp smell of fertilizer spiked the breeze. I could feel her mood changing. The sun passed behind a cloud, throwing the road into shadow.

“What?” I said.

“Nothing, it’s just – I didn’t want to seduce you today. Then I wear this dress. And the sexiest underwear I own. See?”

She flipped up the edge of the dress. I looked and then looked away.

“You’re such a gentleman,” she said.

“A gentleman wouldn’t have looked at all.”

“I took you by surprise.”

“I won’t have that excuse next time.”


She slid the skirt up again and this time I let myself stare at the sheer, pale blue triangle: she was a micron of transparent silk away from naked. The urge to dive between her legs was overwhelming. But her playfulness had vanished as quickly as it arrived.

“You see? I can’t help myself. It’s pathetic.”

I was about to say, Pathetic? Most women would kill for legs like that; but I thought better of it. She didn’t need a compliment and it sounded like flirting was part of the problem. I studied her; she watched the road. The silence felt foreign, an un-translated pause, like eavesdropping on the Dover-Calais ferry: some tense Finnish couple catching their breath.

Sophie started to speak and then stopped.

“Most people would like being seduced,” I said. “I don’t see -- ”

“But I do it with everyone. The lady at the drug store counter, The paper boy, the old man next door. Everybody. I even know why, I’ve had the million hours of therapy, I know all my syndromed and issues and pathologies. I learned them by heart. It all comes from my father – seduction was the only way to please him, and it worked really well, so I never learned any other techniques. But knowing that stuff doesn’t help me. It doesn’t get me anywhere. It doesn’t change anything. I’m still flashing my old boyfriend when I should be just – just talking to him, getting to know him getting to know – us. Whoever that is, those people, that couple, I mean –- if we were ever going to … if this ever works out.”

“We’re talking now.”

“I’m just dumping on you. Telling you crazy stuff no one wants to hear. That wasn’t the plan, you know? This was supposed to be a fun day and then -- ”

“— we got to know each other. Which really is fun, Sophie. At least for me. I want to hear it and so do you.So, okay -- my turn. I realized the other day, I lied to my wife about everything, every minute, every day for years I prided myself on being honest – I never cheated on her, things like that. Big things. But I’m talking about then little things—what I was reading, what I watched on TV when she was out with her friends, what I was thinking, who I was talking to on the phone, where I got gas, what I had for lunch … what I thought about politics and movies and Brussells Sprouts and women’s tennis -- everything. I just didn’t want her to know. I knew she’d have an opinion and I didn’t wan to hear it. So I took the easy way out. But I’m still doing it. That’s what kills me. The other day Tommy was with me and he was too sick to go to school. I was working alone, painting this nine-bedroom house. The owners show up once a year for two weeks in August and that’s it. So I took Tommy with me and set him up in the downstairs guest room. I didn’t tell Lisa and when the school called her to check about getting him his homework. She freaked out. She had the number of the house where I was working. I picked up when I heard her voice on the answering machine. I told her that I had stayed home most of the morning with Tommy, that I had been planning to call her in a few minutes, that I’d tried to reach the doctor and left a message on his office voice mail – all lies. Tommy had a cold – that’s it. No need to waste money on a doctor. I knew it would get worse if he went to school, and he’d pass it around to all his friends. But for Lisa, you drag your ass to school unless you’re so sick you have to be hospitalized. Nothing in between. I told her he was drinking orange juice and I’d given him some children’s Tylenol, because I knew that’s what Lisa would have done. I hate those drugs, especially Tylenol. And orange juice gives Tommy indigestion. But I didn’t want to argue. I told her what she wanted to hear and hung up. The words just flowed out – I didn’t even have to think about it, I was so practiced, so expert. Regular little lying machine. And I realized I’d been doing that constantly, for more than a decade. It was a weird little epiphany. It kind of made me sick. I couldn’t think of a single true thing I’d said to her since – since, I don’t know when. Now that’s bizarre. You want to talk about crazy? That’s crazy. I didn’t even tell her I was coming here today.”

“It sounds like you’re scared of her.”

“Are you kidding? I’m terrified. She’s a monster and you tip-toe past her lair. You don’t want the dragon to wake up.”

“Why would you marry a person like that?”

“Well … she wasn’t like that when I married her. I guess we built this particular monster together. I’m sure she could give you a complete list of the ways I hurt, frustrated and disappointed her. For one thing, I was supposed to be a successful writer who could give her an unlimited number of houses to fill with art and furniture. That was the real betrayal. All those un-purchased three thousand dollar couches start to add up, after a few years.”

“That’s so sad.”

“I guess But what’s even sadder is that if I had succeeded? We’d still be married now. I know that kind of Hollywood marriage. I saw a million of them when I was growing up. Nobody talks, everybody cheats. The men work and the women shop. That’s it. These huge ostentatious houses jammed next to each other on Benedict Canyon and Doheny. Rich people watching other people being rich, playing who’s richer. Ugh. I have friends out there living that way now. I called one of them the other day and got his answering machine. ‘Hi, you’ve reached the Feldmans. Bill is out making money and Ellen is out spending it.’”

Sophie laughed.

“It’s like Bill Feldman always says – ‘it’s only funny because it’s true.’”

We drove along in silence for a while, in the bright morning air.

“So have you stopped lying?” she asked, finally.

“Absolutely. I made a decision – from now on, only new mistakes. I‘m tired of the old ones.”

“I don’t know. That sounds good, but it doesn’t really solve anything. I’ve been making new mistakes for years, and I never seem to run out.”

“Like today?”

She smiled. “No I would categorize this as an old mistake.”

“But it feels right.”

“It always did.”

I reached out, brushed her skirt aside and pressed my palm to her bare thigh. She, pressed my hand down with her own, a perfect physical haiku of her ambivalence: she was welcoming me, affirming the touch; and at the same time restricting a further caress.

We pulled into her driveway, screened from the house by an untrimmed hedge. The house itself was big but teetering, like some tall, old-money Nantucketer, walking up Main Street with excruciating caution, after a night of drinking at the Club Car. The house sagged a little, its big second story bay window leaning down to interrogate the visitor. The place needed a paint job badly; but I always notice that stuff first and chose not to mention it today. The porch tilted a little, but it was nicely arranged with Adirondack chairs and a hammock. Inside the house smelled of herbs and old books and of course the dog, who greeted us effusively, despite his age. The furniture was old – big couches, deep arm chairs, antique tables, most of it scavenged from yard sales. The house felt comfortable, though we never made it upstairs and I didn’t get to see her bedroom. We had tea in the kitchen and then set out to see the town.

We wandered down Riverside drive past the ball fields and through the Smith College campus. The lawns were greening out and the pond which Sophie told had been dredged the winter before, looked inviting enough to swim in. Some boats were out on the water and we could see the boathouse on the pond’s little island, through the screen of trees.

“They say Emily Dickinson wrote poems on this lawn,” Sophie said, leaning back on her elbows, squinting into the glitter.

“So maybe ‘Paradise’ was written about the pond?”

“No, it was about her. Like all her poems. ‘Eden aint so lonesome as New England used to be.’ She probably never came here at all. Everyone claims Emily Dickinson in the Pioneer Valley. She’s our only celebrity. We're so puny.”

We walked up Elm Street to Child’s Park; Sophie wanted me to see the lion fountain. The flower beds hadn’t begun to bloom yet, but we had the quiet little park to ourselves and the lion was definitely worth the trip.

“He reminds me of you,” Sophie said.

“Stony-faced, in need of a hair-cut and drooling?”

She punched me. “Proud and handsome. Leonine.”

“But male lions are lazy shits. They lie around and let the lionesses do all the work.”

“I’ll have to check with your ex-wife about that.”

“Please don’t.”

We stood and stretched, and kept walking. I was getting hungry. She took my hand as we window-shopped on Main Street, and led me to Spoleto for lunch. We shared a thin-crust pizza and she let me talk about my kids. By the time our coffee arrived her mood had shifted again.

“Eric called last night. He knew something was up. He could hear it in my voice.”

“Did you tell him the truth?”

“I told him I was sick. I did sort of feel sick, talking to him.”

I sipped my coffee, not wanting to make the obvious point. After a few seconds and shook her head as if she was coming up from underwater, and let out a long breath with a little smile tagging after it, like a day-dreaming younger sibling.

“Yeah, okay. I’m lying all the time too.”

“It’s a big club.”

She sighed. “Is there a club house?”

“Today it’s your house.”

She looked down. “I’m going out to Alberta to see him next week. April 5th.”

“That’s actually just four days from now.”

“’next week’ sounds further away.”

“Can you get out of it?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Do you want to?”

“I have to see him, Steve. I can’t sort this all out until I see him.”


“It’s okay. I really don’t want to go. But it’s all decided. He pulled string to get me a discounted ticket. I can’t imagine any possible excuse. You’re a writer – and an ex-liar. Any ideas?

“I’ve got nothing. And anyway you’re right. You need to see him.”

I paid the check and we left.

We were lying in her hammock when the subject came up again.

“I guess I’m a little scared of him, too. I don’t want to hurt him … and you never know about men. They turn into stalkers. And this guy hunts with a bow and arrow.”

“You mentioned that. Through the thorax.”

“Not that I’m really worried …”

“Lying is just easier.”

“The lazy lioness.”

“You said it, not me.”

“It’s true.”

We rocked back and forth.

“I bet you’ve broken hearts all over the Pioneer Valley,” I said

She shifted herself over to face me. “Not just men, either.”

I must have looked surprised. “I experimented a little. Years ago. I’ve actually made love in this hammock.”


“It’s difficult but possible. If the spirit is willing.”

I rolled over, and kissed her, grabbing the edge of the hammock for leverage. She kissed me back, but pulled away when my hand cupped her breast.

“Steve -- ”

“It feels wrong.”

“It feels confusing. And you have to leave any second.”

She was right. Byron was waiting at the airport. The day had evaporated.

We disentangled ourselves and found our way out to the car. On the way to the airport I said, “You know, if you had told me not to come, I would have come anyway.”


I nodded.

“That is so cool.”

“But a little stalker-ish.”

She said “Shhh,” and pulled over just to kiss me.

We came up for air and I felt flimsy and flapping, clean and sunshot, like a sheet on a clothesline. I was catching my breath when she said, “I got you something. It’s on the back seat.”

She reached back for a little box, wrapped in flowered paper, and handed it to me with mock ceremony.

“What is it?”

“Open it.”

I pulled the paper off and opened the lid of the box. Inside, on a bed of tissue paper, was an delicate knife with a narrow slanted blade and an intricately worked ivory handle. It was lovely but puzzling.

“It’s an eraser knife. People used them for scratching out fountain pen ink. You still write with a fountain pen, don’t you?”

I nodded. There was a note. I folded it away to read later.

Byron was annoyed with me when we finally pulled up – as was everyone else in my life, though I didn’t know it yet. We got out of the car together. A quick hug and a hasty kiss, just brushing her lips; then I was jogging toward Byron. The plane was ready to go.

Sophie waved as we took off toward the mountains, a diminishing figure on the grassy airstrip. Byron wasn’t in the mood to talk for the moment, at least. The silence suited me. I unfolded Sophie’s note.

A secret weapon for you, she wrote. To eradicate the indelible.

But that had never been my mission. Was it hers? The phrase struck an ominous note. I looked down into the early spring dusk, the hilly landscapes shrinking as we gained altitude, and realized with an irrational shiver that it was April Fool’s Day.

Urgent Questions for Superheroes

These issues have been troubling me lately. The comic books don't provide the answers and the comic book movies don't care.

How can Batman be a super hero with no super powers? All he has is an attitude and a garage full of cars. Jay Leno has that stuff. Is he fighting crime?

Captain America isn't much better. Why doesn't he retire already? There's no more Nazis to fight, un less he wants to break up some Aryan Brotherhood meeting in Podunk. He doesnt even have a car. He's a defrosted acrobat in a flag suit. Philippe Petit is much cooler.

Ant man? I mean seariously -- that's a power? You get to shrink to the size of an insect. Yikes, I just stepped on the superhero! I want to be powerles and icky but be able to lug crumbs of bread from the villain's pic nic. I don't think so.

I guess they figured this one out. Now he takes a pill and becomes "Giant Man" Ask any giant about that gig (like that "Jewish Giant" that Diane Arbus photographed). Also -- do his clothes shrink and grow with him? Because he could make a fortune just with that gimmick. Your wardrobe shrinks with you when you diet! Alternatively ... it would kind of blow the "I wear the same pants size I wore in high school" bragging rights. "Yeah -- because they expanded eight sizes right along with you, Blimpie."

The Justice League of America. Is this for otherwise unemployable superheroes, or are they just getting desperate? Metal-Easter Lad? I mean, seriously -- how much metal really needs to be eaten in the course of an average day?

Does Spiderman ever have the uncontrollable urge to eat bugs? Maybe he wants to eat Ant Man.

Fantastic Four, Avengers, at al: where do all the supervillains come from? Do you get your own supply with the powers, kind of like a starter kit? Because real superheroes would juat sit around most of the time. "Ooo, there a shop-lifter. There's someone jay-walking. Let's sweep down on them with our superpowers." What a snooze.

And if you were a guy like Dr. Doom, would you really call yourself that? If you represented the dark side of things in a comic book universe, would you really call yourself Darkseid? You think you're going to fool people who can't spell?

Aquaman: How much crime really needs to be fought underwater? Illegal salvage operations? Abalone poachers? Basically he's just a lifeguard.

And Namor, the King of Atlantis -- why not just stay there? You're king. Hire AquaMan to run security for you. On earth you're just a guy with wings on his ankles.

Or if he has to bother us, why do the villain thing? It doesn't suit him. There's other jobs available. Talk about Abalone divers! Or he could be the best big wave surfer EVER. I'd like to see that.

What happens to the actual Thor when the puny Doctor guy isn't being him at any given moment? Does he just sit around watching TV somewhere -- Survivor Asgard and Valhalla's Funniest Dragons on Animal Universe?

Superman: what's with the Krypton? Hello -- it's chunks of his home planet and it can kill him? No wonder he left.

Also -- he has x-ray vision which means he has the incredible luxury -- I would kill for this! -- of being able to read with his eyes closed when he's exhausted and lying in bed after a hard day of doing Good Deeds.

So ... if you're reading with your eyes closed using x-ray vision ... are your eyes really closed? Inquiring minds want to know.

Finally -- would Iron Man win an Iron Man compettition? Clanking when he runs, wobbling along on a bike .... and swimming? In that metal suit? He'd sink like a stone and rust on the bottom.

All the sad ironies of super-hero-dom.

All the questions that will never be answered.


Celebrity Dregs: David Brenner Applauds a Gymnast Parrot

So my dog watches Animal Planet.

He particularly likes "Meercat Manor". I stopped home for some tools and saw him watching a cute pet trick game show and yes, David Brenner was one of the celebrity judges, and yes there was a parrot doing flips on the rings.

I tried to put myself in his position. A stand-up has-been who hasn't really scored since the Johnny Carson days, whose syndicated comedy show barely registered in the ratings, whose last film credit was 1989 ... if someone called up and said "Here's some money, judge the pet tricks" -- wouldn't I do it? In a heartbeat! I'd do it in a heartbeat now, as a totally anonymous never-was failure. But of course no one would ever ask me. Anonymity is a stigma you can't escape, whether you're a needle-in-the-cyber-haystack blogger, a first time novelist, or just a guy trying to get a restaurant table on a busy Saturday night.

But celebrity has a half-life roughly equal to Plutonium. A moment in the public can keep you going for a lifetime. Andy Warhol was so wrong about this -- or maybe times have just changed. Everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes? No: fifteen hundred people will be famous foreveer, in ever-diminishing venues, whether their eating bugs on a tropical island or selling reral estate on late night television.

So I should be happy for old Dave. He's making a living and people like to watch him work. But it strikes me as sad, somehow. Our craven lust for the familiar marks so much of society now: remakes of movies we've already seen, that were based on Tv shows anyway, writers forced to churn out the same 'branded' novel every year while their real talents wither, fast food 'comfort' mels that are quietly killing us as we shovel them in; the fear of change that keeps us gridlocked in our cars while railway lines across the country rust and crumble .

Personally I'd like to see someone new doing something different for a change. I guess the best thing to do is just turn off the TV and avoid the mall bookstores and take a nice long walk with my dog.

He likes that even better than 'Meercat Manor.'

A Reality Check For Madoff's Victims

I've been listening to them for quite a while now, posting their sad stories on The Daily Beast and complaining to the soft-eyed CNBC reporters with the whiffle-ball questions. At first I thought -- yikes! That would be horrific: losing your retirement, or your parents' deed to the retirement condo. The equivalent for me would be less impressive but no less traumatic. In fact a number of my customers bailed on me last fall for financial reasons and I felt the economic slowdown in a very visceral way. So that's bad. And I thought ... Madoff fed into a certain kind of fantasy. We all feel we should have known about the Dot com bubble. I remember wondering, in a lucid moment, whether Jeff Bezos was a billi0naire ...or broke. And how could he tell the difference? But I didn't give it much thought. AOL buys Time Warner? The question slipped through my mind -- shouldn't that be the other way around?

Or the housing bubble -- in retrospect that's an easy one to call. So what if there was someone just a little smarter than you, someone who actually did see the bad stuff coming, and was shrewd enough to navigate the market so you didn't crash with everyone else when the booms collapsed? That's the Madoff mythology: he was that guy. You were almost that guy -- you saw it all coming (afterward). But you also saw Mine That Bird winning the Derby --afterward. And the only people who know the winner of a race horse beforehand are the ones who fixed it.

So, Okay, I said... they fell for the fantasy.

But the fact is,the guy was giving them ten to fifteen percent returns year in and year out (even when the year was 1989), and no one is smart enough to do that. You can't spin it and you can't evade it.

It's impossible.

They had to know it. They didn't want to admit it, they didn't want to deal with it, they didn't want to think about it. But they had to know it. And they were making a lot of money in those years and decades. Joseph Heller writes in his great, underrated second novel, Something Happened, "I know so many things I'm afraid to find out."

They may have been afraid to find out -- but they knew, and they were complicit. To paint themselves as innocent victims is disingenuous at best and mendacious at worst. They were spending other people's money. They were weak and they were greedy. Now they're paying the price.It's not pretty and and it's not fun. But justice rarely is. It can be poetic though.

And this cruel farce is worthy of Jonathan Swift.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Improved to Death: Why Movies Suck

Everyone wants to know why so many movies are so bad these days. The answer is simple.

They’ve been improved.

They’ve been fixed. They’ve been re-written and ‘developed’; their ‘story arcs’ have been ‘clarified’, their characters ‘focussed’, and skewed toward a younger demographic. ‘Beats’ have been added to the second act; lines that were too ‘on the nose’ have been removed. Copious ‘notes’ have been made and expounded upon. Endless rewrites have been paid for, whether they were needed or not.

And most often, they’re not.

This is the frightening secret that producers and studio executives and develolpment people have been keeping from each other and from themselves for years. Most scripts are far better and more interesting before the ’improvement’ process than they are after the work is done. Committees don’t help. Large groups of people with little or no creative talent or even editorial skill will only ruin a piece of material. And that’s what we see on the screen today, for the most part -- ruined material.

Why does this happen? It’s the corporate culture of Hollywood, in which the writer has been traditionally disdained. But to dismiss the writer is to dismiss the writer’s contribution, and that means dismissing the foundation that every movie, and every movie mogul’s fortune, is based on -- the story. It’s difficult to write a good story; it’s even difficult to understand the structural laws that govern good story-telling. So it’s hard to know when you’re making a crucial error of judgment -- when a bad piece of editing or casting might do damage that can’t be fixed.

Three very different examples of the problem crossed my desk on the same day. The first was an independent film whose director had ‘mentored’ and ‘coached’ the young first time writer, giving him dozens of pages of detailed notes and finally rewriting the script, scene by scene over a period of years. The initial script was loose and untidy, but it had heart and pace. It had suspense because it had characters you cared about. The final draft had been literally rewritten to death. It was over-populated, under-developed, muddy, dull and incoherent. It still hasn’t gotten distribution and it probably never will. That isn’t because film studios demand stars and this film is strictly C-list in the casting department; it isn’t because studios are afraid of independent films (they’re not). It’s because the movie sucks now.

I saw it at The Nantucket Film Festival with several generations of an intelligent, well-educated family. None of us had any idea what was going on. “I didn’t like the fat sister,” the twenty-year old son remarked. “That wasn’t the sister – that was the boss guy’s lesbian lover, “ his Dad corrected him. “The boss guy?” I asked. ”The guy with the beard?” “They all had beards,” The Mom complained. “No,” the Dad said, “The boss was the bald guy who kept shooting people.” “No, that was the crazy renegade priest.” “I thought the priest was having a sex-change operation.” “I thought he was the fat sister.”

This is not the kind of conversation you want your movie to inspire.

At the other end of the spectrum we find a writer named Stephen Hunter, who wrote a brilliant piece of pulp fiction called Point of Impact. Anyone who read it could see that it was not just the potential basis for a kick ass action movie -- it already was a kick-ass action movie. It was perfect.

Kind of like Julia Child’s ten-page illustrated recipe for croissants: all you had to do to come up with a great product was not screw it up.

Follow instructions. Pay attention.

Accept that you’re dealing with someone who is much better at this than you are.

Show some respect, and then take the credit.

As simple as that.

But the culture of Hollywood forbids that kind of workmanlike humility. If you can’t change things, and develop things, make notes on things, what are you there for? How long do you expect to keep that personalized parking space? That leased Lexus? That prime table at Citrus?

So even Stephen Hunter has to be fixed.

I haven’t read any drafts of the script, I saw the movie. They changed the title to Shooter and cast Marky Mark in the lead. There was no reason to change the title. The protagonist is a sniper, so perhaps they were afraid the audience wouldn’t understand that without a little help. Development executives all think the audience is as dense and witless as they are. This is a primary miscalculation. Audiences are pretty sharp as a rule, and they don't enjoy being patronized. If these executives ever saw a movie with a real live audience in an actual theatre they might begin to understand that.

Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of Point of Impact, is a Viet Nam vet -- an Army sniper with an unequalled kill record. He is also a red neck Arkansas hillbilly gun nut, equal parts squint, gristle and attitude. He’s much more than that -- the kind of hunter who’ll wait eighteen hours before the first day of deer season not to kill a deer but to shoot a great stag with sedatives and remove his antlers ... to save him from the trophy crazed gun slingers in orange vests.

Who would make a plausible Bob Lee? Clint Eastwood? Fifteen years ago. Kris Kristofferson? Maybe. Billy Bob Thornton? Excellent.

Marky Mark? No way.

Nothing against Mr. Whalberg, but I don’t buy him as a grizzled Viet Nam vet. I won’t go into the details beyond that catastrophic piece of miscasting, but the movie was an incoherent mess – improved beyond any hope of repair. There’s a similar fix-it job in the works for Michel Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and producers have been sniffing at Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield novels, as well. So many stories to ruin, so little time.

It’s a shame, but not a total waste, if it drives people back to the original books. Any random novel by Connelly, Hunter or Perry is guaranteed to be infinitely more entertaining than Transformers 2 or GI Joe.

Plus, you can take books to the beach, and underline your favorite parts, and pick them up for a quarter at a thrift shop.

I was leaving a really bad movie in Brooklyn one night several years ago. The man walking behind me through the lobby summed it all up perfectly:

“I can’t believe it took six people to write that piece of shit! Moby Dick – one guy. Am I right?”

Dead right, buddy. Dead right.

Weeds Vs. Californication: Learning From Jenji Kohan

Weeds is back -- it just started again on Showtime -- and it's as wild and crazy and compulsively watchable as ever. I love this show. But what makes it so much fun?

I started thinking about that question during my MFA workshops. So many of the stories we had to critique shared a flaw I came to think of as "Fear of Narrative". Pages full of lovely description and elilptical conversation would trundle by, but notthing would actually happen. People in the stories would remember things that had already happened, or contemplate making things happen in the future, but the writers struggled with a kind of inertia about real time events. Events have consequences. Trying to deal with those consequences causes more unpredictable things to occur. If you're not careful, causes and effects can start to cascade, like an avalanche ... with characters and relationships swept helplessly into the accelerating chaos, tumbling toward new catastrophes. Yikes!

But here's what Jenji Kohan, the sublime and magisterial guiding genius of Weeds understands that my fellow students never did: the avalanche is good. In fact it's the mainstay of Western literature. It even has a technical name, a single syllable whispered in the higher conclaves of the masters of fine arts. One word that the mandarins of prose -- from Shakespeare to Faulkner to Ian McEwan, speak with wary reverence:


Jenji Kohan understands plot. More happens in one half hour of Weeds than in all the stories I read at Vermont College put together. Terrible things happen, people over-react and even worse consquences crash down on them ... and they respond, and the response makes things even more awful ... and on and on. You wonder sometimes ... how can more disasters and calamities descend on poor Nancy Botwin? For instance ... she's been sleeping with a Mexican drug lord, and the police know her bridal store is a conduit for Mexican drugs, they've cornered her and she's ratted out her lover and he knows it and he's brought her to his house to show her the photograph of her with the FBI agent and kill her. What can she do? How about ... show him her own photograph: the ultrasound of his baby inside her. So now she's pregnant with the drug lord's kid and her own kids are running away from home and starting their own drug businesses and her brother-in-law is in love with her and her best friend Celia Hodes has been kidnapped and no one has the slightest interest in paying the ransom ...Well, that's the first half hour. God knows what will happen next, but you can sure something will. In fact you can be sure that A TREMENDOUS amount will happen, week in and week out. Because Jenji Kohan understands that's what makes for good story telling.

But this is the deeper secret she embraces: you have to be cruel to your characters. You have to hurt them and abuse them and make them suffer. I saw the lady herself in a little post-Weeds premiere interview. "I feel kind of bad for Celia," she gloated.You could tell she actually enjoyed torturing Elizabeth Perkins' character. All writers could benefit from a study of this fearless narative sadism and its effects.

One writer who might benefit more than most from such a schooling is Jenji's colleagueTom Kaponis, the head writer and creator of Showtime's Californication. He spent the entire first season building a narrative bomb, and then refused to set it off. We watch blocked writer Hank Moody trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend Karen while he deals with the appalling Mia -- the daughter of Karen's new lover, Bill. Hank actually winds up working for Bill and sleeping with Mia. He has no idea she's only sixteen, or that she's Bill's daughter; he just thinks she's one more bookstore pick-up. Later he writes a short novel about the experience. Mia steals it and plagiarizes it.

Clearly the elephant wired with explosives in this room is the fact that Karen would drop Hank like a turd she mistook for a tootsie roll if she ever guessed about the statutory rape. The threat of this revelation hangs over the first season, but the bomb never quite goes off. Hank wins Karen back -- right in the middle of her wedding, no less. Everything seems perfect. What could wreck this idyll. Hmmm ... Hank sleeping around? Hank hanging out with a sleazy music producer and ghost-writing his autobiography? Really? Is that the best you could come up with, Tom? That's all you could find in the Californication room?Nothing else? No elephants strapped with dynamite anywhere? Honestly? Because, think about it: Hank has A VERY DISTINCT PROSE STYLE. He's famous for it. His agent recognizes it instantly when he reads "Mia's" book. Karen USED TO EDIT HIS WORK. No one knows Hank's writing better than she does. Doesn't this seem like the most obvious avalanche ever, just waiting to happen? As soon as Karen reads the book she'll know everything. Then what will she do? And what will Hank do? These are the kind of questions that matter to the audience -- and to Jenji Kohan.

But apparently not to Tom Kaponis. Sounds like Fear of Narrative to me.

Because you know what Jenji would have done in season two of Californication. In THE FIRST EPISODE Karen would have read the book and figured out that Hank wrote it, and figured out that he slept with a sixteen year old girl, and left him flat, and the scandal would have broken and Hank would have been arrested for stautory rape, and Bill would have fired him, and his daughter would stopped speaking to him, and ... and ... and then what? I have no idea, and you probably have no idea either -- and Tom Kaponis clearly has no idea.

But I'll bet you my MFA degree and all the money I paid for it that Jenji Kohan does. She would have blown up that elephant. She would have charged forward, made the worst things happen, tormented her characters, forced them to react, worked out the jumble of dire consequences on the fly, with a wink and a smile, as always.

I just wish she had gotten the chance, because Hank Moody deserves to have his real story told, with all its disgrace and loss and humiliation, however harrowing and crazy it might be.

And I'd really like to watch it.

Saving an American Dream: An Open Letter to President Obama

Francisco DaSilva is being deported.

The immigration lawyer who helped him secure his green card eleven years ago turns out to be a scammer and a crook. Homeland Security busted the man and now all his clients are being kicked out of the country. So Francisco DaSilva has to go.

This is an appalling miscarriage of justice, a tragedy -- and an arbitrary vandalizing of the American Dream. Because no one could be more American than Francisco. I’ve known him for more than twenty years and he has always been an icon of what the concept of America means to millions of people in hundreds of countries around the world.

He came to Nantucket from Brazil in 1986, determined to make a better life for himself, using the tools that hardy immigrants have always carried: determination, hope and an unlimited capacity for hard work. I’ve never met anyone who worked harder than Francisco. He started putting in long hours for his father’s San Paulo construction firm when he was nine years old. By the time he was working as a housepainter here, his days routinely clocked in at fifteen hours. He got to the job site before dawn and left long after sunset. In his spare time he built things for our boss, for free: a rolling cart to carry paint supplies, a set of elegant drying racks for the paint shed where we coated trim stock. Every spare penny went back to his family in Brazil. Throughout these years of relentless grueling labor, Francisco was always easy-going, funny, helpful, charming. He knew wild stories of Brazilian street life and extravagant legends of upper class crimes of passion (I’m still haunted by the jealous adhesives magnate who glued his wife and her lover together naked while they slept); he told us those stories and heartwarming stories of his large rowdy family, and he showed me tricks of the trade (“Push the putty into the hole and slide the putty knife under your thumb” “Try cutting-in using the back bristles of the sash brush – they bunch up and you can draw a clean line.”) with a generous good humor that made me feel we were a private fraternal order of tradesmen.

But of course Francisco wasn’t really a painter. He had been trained by his father as a carpenter and soon he was working for one of the premier builders on the island. I was disappointed to lose his unflagging energy and good humor on the job, but those drying racks should have been a give-away, Eventually Francisco got married, got a dog, found a decent place to live, got himself a lawyer and a green card. All the while he was working from four in the morning to ten at night, seven days a week. He went out on his own and for more than a decade he paid good wages to a large crew. He paid every penny of his hefty tax bill every year with a charming naive pride, a kind of raw, unfinished patriotism that jaded penny-pinching American natives don’t quite understand. But Francisco felt the connection, he knew where his money was going. Paying his taxes was an act of patriotism for him, a victory and a vindication. Sometimes I felt he would have been glad to underwrite the whole government, single-handed.

In all those years he ran afoul of the law just once. He got a late night speeding ticket, and he paid it the next day. Apart from that one slip, he did everything right. He was more than a model citizen. To me he was America itself, a man who had come here with nothing and devised a vivid American life, turning himself into a trusted, respected member of our small diverse community.

Now that’s all going to be taken away – including all the money he put into Social Security for his retirement – because he chose the wrong lawyer. With his usual indefatigable energy, Francisco has struggled against this Kafka-esque verdict, talking to ever more high ranking and evasive Immigration officials and then the people at Homeland Security who really control his fate. They required proof that he had been employed as a carpenter in Brazil. He gave them boxes and boxes of family business records – invoices and contracts and tax returns. But the company folded twenty years ago and the Brazilian government only keeps business records on file for ten years. So there was no official validation and Homeland Security came to the bizarre conclusion that this meant Francisco had invented his father’s business and falsified all the paperwork. Anyone capable of perpetuating such an exhaustively detailed hoax should be given citizenship instantly and signed up with the FBI as a consultant of criminal fraud. But of course he didn’t perpetuate a hoax – he just worked for his family’s business. A few phone calls to any of its thousands of customers would verify Francisco’s paperwork. No one bothers to make the effort, though; and this absurdity stands.

Francisco built a Senator’s summer house here a few years ago. The Senator’s lawyers told him the same thing the bureaucrats at Homeland Security told him: there was nothing he could do, no appeal he could make, no way he could reverse the decision. One cubicle dweller remarked with a cynical laugh that the only person who could over-ride Homeland Security was President Obama himself.

The Senator’s lawyer said the same thing, without a speck of humor or the shadow of a smile. He didn’t mean, “Write to the President”. He meant “Give up”. And Francisco has given up. That’s why I’m writing to you, Mr. President. The America that would callously deport this man is not your America. It’s not the America we wanted to revive when we voted for you. It’s a cruel bureaucratic paranoid America that befouls its own legacy in the name of senseless fears and institutional procedures.

You’re the only one who can fix this, Mr. President.

You’re the only one who can save this particular American dream of hard work rewarded and citizen ship earned. Don’t let Francisco DeSilva be exiled from the country he made his home, a home he created with faith and thrift and ingenuity and hard work, every aspect of our national character, every quality we admire, every virtue we salute when we pledge allegiance to the flag.

Please help Francsico DeSilva stay here. I know you can do it.

And I hope you will.

Island Lessons: Noise and Anchovy Pizza

Nantucket taught me to appreciate silence.

I didn't really understand what silence was until I came here. I had a sort of amused contempt for the whole concept. I grew up in Manhattan, among growling buses, howling sirens, screching burglar alarms, unexplained detonations, the grinding clatter of construction, deafening subways, shouts and screams and street musicians, probably half-deaf themselves from all the racket, playing out of tune. To me, noise was home. It marked night and day: sirens were my crickets, car horns sang cock-a-doodle-do. As far as I was concerned, people who didn't like the sounds of New York didn't deserve to be there, even as tourists. So what if a bunch of hicks from Iowa or somewhere thought my city was too loud? Let them go back to the midwest and listen to the corn rustle.

That was how I felt when I was fourteen, and I suppose there are Manhattan fourteen-year-olds now who will sneer at me (one more tedious hick) when I say that the noise level in New York -- and in all our cities -- is debilitating and unhealthy. It makes people violent, it makes people crazy, it makes people sick. It armors their nervous systems against constant assault, closes them down, pulls them tight and occasionally snaps them like the cat gut on an over-strung tennis racket.

That may be the central difference between this island and a big city: there is a blissful, unemphatic sanity to the silences here. They heal the chafing nerves, unclench the heart, ease the calloused mind.

And they teach you, also. You can learn a lot about the nature of silence. sitting on the steps in front of a house on Darling Street on a late afternoon in July, or walking into 'Sconset on a February night. Silence isn't just the absence of noise: it's the collective voice of all the fragile sounds that noise conceals. The silence of that July afternoon turns out to be intricately composed, full of the wind in the leaves, the mutter of occasiponal cars heaed for the beach, distant voices, bird song, the conversation of territorial dogs, all bound together with the thread of our own breath. It's a different mix in 'Sconset on a winter night -- branches rattling on the east wind, the distant rumble of surf on the south shore; but it's essentially the same coarse weave, lively and detailed.

If you're willing to pay attention, it seems as if you can hear something more, a faint vibration in the air, a vast whisper beneath the skin of things: the machinery of the seasons, the engines of the wind.

And it's entertaining. It's what minimalist arts strives for and generally fails to achieve. In art the small event etched against emptiness feels hollow and cold because the whole idea of emptiness is a kind of judgment, a failure to observe. The emptiness that frames a pheasant's raucous take-off or a deer crossing Milestone Road in the powdery light of the new moon is actually full, even over-full.

Which is why I smile when a friend write me from New York that she's thinking of moving away but stays on because she "needs the stimuli". Perhaps it's coincidental, but she also over-salts her food. She wants to break that habit, too, but she needs the savor salt provides.

I met an old man years ago who had been a prison nutritionist for many years. He was deeply involved with the natural foods movement, and had no tolerance for sugar, salt or saturated fat -- the staples of the institutional diet at the correctional facility where he worked. One day he tried an experiment. He eliminated all the salt from the food preparation process. The results were drastic, worse than he could have imagined. There were protests, hunger strikes, riots. The inmates felt assaulted and outraged by this new humiliation -- the taste had been taken out of their food. Three months later, a delegation a delegation of prisoners representing the whole piopulation of the federal penitentiary -- warring gangs who had never agreed on anything before -- arrived at his office to formally thank him for putting the salt back in their food. Everything tasted delicious again and they wanted him to know how much theyappreciated it. He smiled and acknowledged their thanks and ushered them out. There was just one thing he failed to tell them: he hadn't put the salt back in their food. They were actually tasting food, not brine, for the first time in their lives.

Silence is an acquired taste, too, and once you have it you can't go back. On my last trip to New York, I found the noise unbearable. It made me tense, angry, hostile, paranoid, scared ... all the old urban insanity took over again. Everyone else looked crazy, too. I was glad to escape.

It wasn't much easier for my friend wheh she came to visit Nantucket. She couldn't sleep, tensed against the unnerving silence of the sea-bound night. "How can you stand it, all the way out here?" she asked, absent-mindedly salting her anchovy pizza. "The quiet would drive me crazy."

I didn't answer or argue, I didn't want tom sound like one of those smug down-easters who tell the befuddled city-slickers "You can't get there from here," and I didn't know how to explain what she was missing. Silence was better anyway.

So I let it speak for itself.

Leaving The Breakers: Escape From Assissted Living

My mother lives in a ‘retirement community’ in Long Beach California, on the fifth floor of beautifully restored hotel from the golden era of Hollywood called The Breakers. The ceiling of the lobby floats twenty feet above the marble floor, with intricately worked plaster panels that put the tin ceilings of Greenwich Village cafes to shame. The peaked red tile of its roofs and turrets lend it a Mission revival feeling, and the top floor restaurant, the Sky Room, earns its name with a spectacular panorama of the harbor, while retaining a heady whisper of old time movie glamour. The staff is charming and helpful, the suites themselves are spacious and sunny, sparked with period detail in the moldings and baseboards, with high ceilings and water views. The dining room is spacious and congenial, the other residents friendly and patient. You couldn’t ask for a more pleasant and professional assisted living arrangement.

And I hated it, with every fiber of my being.

I hated the way the impeccably courteous, and hard-working staff treated my mother and the other residents as a separate, feeble race, inferior but privileged like hemophiliac dwarf royalty, simultaneously catered to and patronized, deferred to and dismissed. I hated the smell in the hallways, some tragic perfume of disinfectant and decay – the sense, so much like the sense you get in a hospital, of a world where human volition and dignity have been sacrificed to the mechanisms of medical technology and routine.

I also hated the dining hall food, tasteless and generic as if the management actually calibrated how many of the residents had no working taste-buds left and arranged the meal preparations accordingly. I hated the weak coffee and the fuzzy sausages, and the cardboard pancakes, the sense that the particular texture of life, the look and feel and taste of things, didn’t really matter any more.

Most of all I hated the resignation of the people there, their palpable sense of loneliness and abandonment, the heartbreaking schedule of activities posted in the elevator (Exercise classes at noon, crafts at three, casino night on Thursdays), and the veil of stigma that seemed to hang over the lives shuffling across the frayed carpets of the upstairs corridors like the smog on the harbor: to be there was to be forgotten, warehoused, left behind and abandoned. Behind each stoical face there was the piercing awareness of a family prosperous enough to install an older relative in such a luxurious setting, and yet unwilling to include them in the daily life of the family.

It felt claustrophobic and unnatural, as perhaps an orphanage might feel at the other end of both life and affluence. For millions of years, in every country on earth, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages to probably just before the Industrial Revolution, the older members of a family lived with the other generations, offering guidance and receiving help, passing on oral history and family secrets and recipes and folk medicine and being eased out of life among their children and their children’s children. This lovely place was most of all unnatural, inhumane in its segregation of the aged.

It is cruel and mean-spirited to exile our parents and grandparents to such a place, where they are surrounded only by cheerful servants and other old people and a smattering of younger residents crippled with life shattering diseases like Multiple Sclerosis. It’s a world of decay and extinction. It wears you down, makes you feel half-dead already, padding through an upholstered necropolis infinitely removed from a daughter’s embrace or a home-cooked meal. Our elder relatives need us, they need to feel the continuance of life, the noise of rowdy grandchildren, the conversation of adult kids, the excitement of dogs, the easy welcome of people who love them.

And we need them, that’s what we forget in the busy rush of our over-scheduled lives. We need their shrewd intelligence and their hard-won experience and the connection they create to our own childhoods. We need to be part of the end of their lives just as we needed them to guide us through the beginning of our own. It’s a simple circle, the real circle of life, and it feels like we’ve broken it, ruptured it, for nothing more than convenience. Or perhaps it’s something worse and more insidious – the denial of our own mortality, the cowardly glance away just as we avoid the mirror, pondering the competing claims of botox and the ‘lifestyle lift’.

Three days in Long Beach, wandering the husk of that old hotel, so long past its glory days, as forlorn as its inhabitants, sitting in the empty bar where Clark Gable and Greta Garbo had once eaten caviar and toasted the New Year, inventorying the unused walkers, and the coffee dispensers on the sideboard, made all of this uncompromisingly clear, both to me and to my brother. When my Mom said she wanted to get out of there, that she wanted to divide her years between our two families and spend whatever time she had left with people she loved, with people who loved her and missed her and wanted to be with her, we scarcely had to discuss it. We just breathed a sigh of relief, grabbed each other for a group hug, and started planning her escape.

The logistics will be tricky – commuting twice a year between Nantucket and Australia won’t be easy, but none of that matters.

Only one thing matters to any of us right now:

Mom is coming home.

The Virtue of Gossip

I was raised to hate gossip. There were certain rules of decency that had been handed down through generations of my family like durable intricately ugly silver table settings, heirlooms of common sense: you didn't gossip, much in the same way that you didn't eaves drop, eat with your elbows on the table or call adults by their first names.

But the urge to snoop persists. Living in cities, I noticed that people had to make do with manufactured gossip, since they had no community to fertilize the real thing. Even a cursory glance at the tabloid newspapers, and their grimly consistent sale figures, proves my point. But there's always a nasty whiff of malice and shadenfreude in these stories. Happy couples and strong marriages are of no interest whatsoever; that's why Paul Newmman and Joanna Woodward stayed out of the Enquirer and the Star. If there had even been a hint of discord, Page Six and and 'infotainment' TV shows would have been all over it like slime on tofu. Look at "Branglina". I mean, finally you have to ask -- can Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie really break up tragically every single week? Don't they ever get a week off to just hang with their dozens of kids and eat pizza?

Coming to Nantucket altered my perception of gossip. It's hardly ever a question of people spreading falsehoods for spite (or profit) here. Instead, it's a form of communal story-telling that satisfies a collective hunger for narrative. A community's literary imagination is kept alive by these speculations, the nosy questions and the dramatic answers --

"Why did they do that? How could they even afford it?"

"Drugs. They've been dealing for years. How do you think he bought his first spec. house?"

Not that every tale features a drug dealer or nefarious land speculator (though we have our share of both) . Most involve ordinary things -- marriages and divorces, misbehaving children and on-going bankrupcies. We follow the ins and outs of each others' lives and they have the same "You'll never guess what he said next" rhythm that we love in books and movies. The variety of characters and situations in any small town is richer and more compelling than most novels. There are dramas that sadden or anger you ("Yes, they really did send their daughter away to boarding school because she was dating a black kid"), the few that spur you into action ("We just ten more votes at Town Meeting and we'll finally be able to pass the Domestic Partners agreement") and the shaggy dog stories that are just good for a laugh. ("So he thought he he was doing great, charming her pants off, complimenting her dog, making her laugh. Don Juan in painting clothes. Then she goes home and calls the cops. They show up, and chew him out for scaring off the rich people, and they also notice his registration's expired. So they arrest him and tow the car away. He thinks he's a player, she thinks he's an axe-murderer. Gotta narrow the gap there.")

Granted, there's a lack of privacy involved that can be claustrophobic and depressing. No one enjoys having fifteen neighbors and co-workers watching as you yell at your kids in the grocery, and knowing that the incident is going to end up as dinner-table anecdotes all over the island. But this knowledge has a civilizing force as well. Certain kinds of urban arrogance and pretense are simply impractical when you are seen -- and seen through -- this way, every day.

And yes, it's undeniably hypocritical, but even that serves a function. I've seen a whole house full of trademen insulting some absent electrician or plasterer, only to be as friendly as dogs or salesmen when he finally shows up. You never hear an insult directly, and confrontations are rare. By the time that electrician or plasterer finally hears those insults, they will have been smoothed by many voices. To act on them he will have to betray the confidence of the person who told him. And so rumor dismantles action and allows the truth to penetrate slowly, like water through limestone, until all is known and nothing is done and life continues unruffled.

The intimacy we share compels this behavior, and redeems it. There's a constant sense of human connection here among the people you've worked for, the people who picked you up hitch-hiking or protested the Iraq war with you in front of the Post Office; the neighbors, the parents of your kids' friends at school, the people who first knew you by the history of your house, or because your dogs made friends during a walk at the Pat Gardner preserve.

The lives running next to you flow into your own. This rarely happens in a city, where lives are walled away from each other, sealed into airless channels of oligation and routine. You don't know your neighbors and most of the time you don't want to.

But I like knowing my neighbors -- even if they know more than I'd like them to about my love life and my bank account. It's often embarassing.

But it makes good stories, and that's what I care about most.

The Best is Yet to Come: Living at the Far End of Life

When I was in my mid-thirties, my mother fell in love and got married. She and her husband enjoyed an extraordinary decade- long romance before he became ill and died. Seeing them together caused a tectonic shift in my thinking about old age. Everything moved and grumbled; cracks appeared in the structures of assumption that had been standing since my adolescence.

Jim and my mom were happy, much happier than I was in the long decline of my marriage or the flailing half-hearted sexual liaisons that followed my divorce. I often remarked, in a casual way, that I hoped I might be as lucky as they were, but the idea of a vivid, fully realized life continuing into the last decades seemed stubbornly implausible. My mother is a remarkable woman, whose passionate energy has always stunned and enchanted everyone around her. Surely, she was the exception. I look around and see unhappy people everywhere – old age just compounds the burdens and miseries of their lives. Is such drabness and despair inevitable? I don’t think so. Avoiding that fate involves a great deal of luck – the genetic luck of good health, a capacity for bliss and a naturally optimistic outlook. It depends on the worldly luck of having a place to live, the chance for a manageable retirement, a loving support-system of friends and family. I have no idea how to create an exciting, whole hearted last act for – just an example -- a dour, impoverished loner with diabetes.

But for most of us, the goal is attainable.

For young people old age remains an era of life like the blank spaces on Medieval maps: here there be dragons. Old people don’t like talking about the ‘declining years’, stigmatized as disease and senility, the long painful decline into the ruinous ash-end of existence. Apart from the occasional pithy “It’s not for sissies,” few observations leak out into the general population. No one knows what goes on there and no one wants to; it remains secret by mutual consent.

Obviously the very end is tough, fraught with a failing body and a faltering mind, but there is another era between what one might call ‘late middle age’ and the final losing bout with mortality that remains mysterious.

That mystery, that enchanted secret realm of our lives, like a open glade in a dense forest, thrives and maintains its magic precisely because no one seeks it out. This sacred place can never become a paved over sub-division because no one ever looks for it, in fact they avoid it, and each person who actually arrives there discovers it by accident.

I was walking through the Cape Cod Mall a few years ago (I was in my early fifties at the time) and a group of teen-aged girls approached me, talking on their cell-phones, texting their friends, bouncing to their iPods, talking and laughing. They must have felt some atavistic awareness of a tall masculine creature approaching. They looked up expectantly, saw the actual middle-aged man in front of them – and flinched. A couple of them just looked away, as they might reflexively turn from the sight of a cripple or an amputee; the others let the recoil show on their faces – as if they’d just smelled something awful, a whiff of sewer gas or sour milk.

Of course I found it upsetting at first, feeling my age and older than my age, some leprous ancient hermit, but I knew I might still be called ‘young’ in some situations (If I was elected President, or killed in the street by a runaway garbage truck), and eventually the other side of the issue occurred to me: in a world where privacy is being eroded at every turn and from every direction, where we are spied upon and recorded and watched and judged and gossiped about by everyone around us from the Federal Government to our nosy neighbors, I had somehow reached the Age of Privacy. No one was interested in me any more. There’s a tremendous freedom in that, an almost giddy sense of liberation. Of course it stings if you want to be seen, if you need to be young, if you can’t accept the reality of your accumulated years and experience. But if you can truly accept who and what and where you are, the possibilities open up to the horizon.

Here’s the secret: the problem of growing old isn’t death. It’s romance. We lose the romance in our lives long before life itself, or rather, we misplace it. It’s easy to do, a careless mistake with devastating consequences because romance is essential to living a life of urgency and joy at any age, and after the first firestorm of hormones it requires effort and concentration, stringency and study. I always laughed at sober-sided adults telling me that a marriage was ‘hard work’, thinking, “Maybe for you,” but I didn’t work at my marriage, and neither did my wife and it failed catastrophically. Maybe that was a good thing – some situations are just bad and need to end. We’ll never know for sure, but I do know this: I’m too old to let anything remotely like that happen again. You only get so many chances to remake yourself and re-invent your life. At age 57 I’m running out of mine. I look around me and see marriages breaking up or running on habit. I don’t want a chum and a roommate. I want a lover, I want to feel worthy of the spring air when it touches my face in April. I refuse to look outward: everything I want is right in front of me. I want to create a secret society of two in that hidden clearing in the forest and I want everyone else my age to do the same thing. It’s the ultimate subterfuge, our private joke on everyone following behind us who assume we’re already dead, emotional zombies lumbering through empty routines, tedious lectures in our mouths, formaldehyde in our veins. Hey, that’s how I thought about people over fifty when I was a kid; my generation was determined not to trust anyone over thirty.

So how do you do it? How do you organize this clandestine carnal Freemasonry of the heart, how do you actually enact the ideal?

You identify the obstacles.

First of all, there’s menopause. During the actual process, there’s not much you can do, in my experience. Synthetic hormone replacement is too dangerous; patience and humor are available without a prescription and have no disturbing side effects. Ask your doctor if humor and patience are right for you. Once the storm has passed there are various options, from Revival Soy Protein to Kegel exercises and lubricants. It can be done; I know people who did it. My mother did it. Once again, there’s work involved and, more than that, conscious effort. The consciousness is more arduous than the effort.

Second would be stress. Job stress, family stress, financial stress. Nothing turns us away from each other more effectively than the struggle and frustration of daily life. The over-all solution is reduce the stress, somehow – working toward a more satisfying job, taking meaningful steps toward improving the conditions of your life. It seems too late. It isn’t. Distance learning graduate school is a great tactic, because it fits with your normal schedule. In the meantime, carve out time away from the tension and anxiety. Take Sunday off. Vent and commiserate; don’t blame each other. It’s frightening and sad and infuriating to realize the degree to which money, or the lack of it, sets the tone of our days, manages our moods controls our lives.

The third obstacle is physical decline. This seems overwhelming but it’s actually the problem most susceptible to forces of will and concentrated effort. You’re overweight? Diet and exercise together. A long strenuous walk in the afternoon has multiple benefits: you’re doing something positive, you’re out in the world among the blooming shrubs and the red-tail hawks cruising for dinner; you’re spending time with each other -- eventually, as your wind improves, you’ll even be able to talk; and of course you’re getting fit, feeling better about yourselves and each other. And you’re reintroducing the physical into a personal world that can become increasingly mental and isolated. Again it takes some discipline. No one wants to launch into a bout of exercise after a hard day’s work. But it’s worth doing, it’s part of the regimen that creates an authentic life at the far end of living. Anything that creates intimacy is good -- cook together, read the same books, sleep naked.

I know it’s attainable: you can come together in that obscure open meadow deep in the woods, unseen and unknown, you can stand on the rabbit-cropped grass among the wild flowers, listening to the wind in the high branches, and look into each others’ eyes, and begin again.

It’s certainly worth a try.

Urban Planning

Eleanor could see immediately that it was impossible. The box spring was not going to fit up the stairs. It was a queen size and it was just too big. She had an excellent sense of spatial relations, which generally annoyed people. She could fill grocery bags or moving vans with the same gratuitous perfection, fitting an end table or a box of pancake mix into the last little jig saw gap that no one cared about but her. It was the same with parking. She had a trivial genius for it that made David crazy. Whenever she tried to help him, he would turn icy and polite. Finally he’d say, “You do it then” and get out of the car. So she did it, but he never paid attention and he never improved. To learn something from her would be a defeat. Blaming her was better. Anything unpleasant made more sense to David if it was someone’s fault. She thought about those primitive tribes she had read about in Sociology class at college, where the king was celebrated if the crops were good, and killed when the crops were bad. That was David’s kind of world.

“I’m sure we can do this,” he was saying now, squinting up the stairs in the dim hallway light. It was a brilliant, sparkling early November afternoon outside. But not in here. The stuffy, overheated passageway felt like midnight in August. Eleanor yawned. The two moving men shifted from foot to foot awaiting orders.

“It’s not going to fit, David,” she said again.

He stared at her in the gloom. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “All we have to do is get it up to that first landing. Then we can flatten it out so it goes over the banister and just swing it around. What do you say, guys?”

The moving man, who seemed to be in charge, his name was Ted, nodded.

“Worth a try,” he said.

So they tried it. Eleanor could tell the corner of the box spring was going to snag on the bottom edge of the next landing, but she said nothing. Ten minutes later she was wedged against the wall with the plastic corner guard of the box spring pushing into her solar plexus. She could scarcely breathe and she could feel an asthma attack coming on. The hall was very musty.

“Just lift your corner!,” David was yelling at the other moving man. ‘It’s gotta go higher!”

“It won’t go any higher, David,” Eleanor said quietly. “It’s stuck.”

He made them try again anyway, but the cumbersome piece of furniture was simply too wide for the gap between the upper landing and the wall.

“David,” she began again.

“Fine! You win. Take it down, guys.”

They eased the box spring down the stairs and stood panting in the corridor.

“If we could just get rid of this banister,” David said. He sounded serious.

“We can’t do that, David. It’s not our house.”

“Obviously. I’m just saying -- wait a second. Okay, I’ve got it. What we have to do is -- we have to take it up vertically. What d’ya say guys? You think that would work? We just walk it straight up the stairs. It should go around that corner no problem.”

Why couldn’t he see that it was too tall? It seemed so obvious.

“Maybe we should measure first,” Eleanor suggested.

“No need to. I can tell it’s gonna work. Just look at it. We’re golden!”

That was one of David’s favorite phrases. He had gotten it from some old movie. It sounded tinny and false, particularly now, when his plan wasn’t going to work and they weren’t golden at all. She tried to think of a mineral depressing enough to describe this moment. Bauxite, perhaps. “We’re bauxite!” had a certain ring to it.

“C’mon,” he was saying to the moving men. Let’s give it a shot.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Driscoll.”

So they tried it. But there wasn’t enough clearance and the bed got stuck on the lower edge of the next landing. They tilted it, but it hit the spindles of the railing and blocked the stairs diagonally. It was jammed there and it took fifteen minutes to get it back down.

Eleanor was exhausted.

“This isn’t going to work,” she said.

“Yes it is. We’re going to make it work and I’m counting on you to help.”

“But, David – “
“I’m so goddamn sick of your constant negativity! All you see is the problem. That’s the difference between us, Ellie. I see solutions. I solve problems. You just make them worse.”

Ted glanced at her – a small, sympathetic shrug. She would have thanked him but she despised the way David said “Thank you!” when someone agreed with him, as if he had finally found an ally in a world of idiots.

“So it’s my fault that the bed is too big for the stairs?”

“That’s not the point. The point is that winners keep looking for a solution when the losers give up.”

“David. It’s not a question of attitude or opinion. The bed won’t fit. It’s a fact. Don’t take my word for it. Measure it yourself.”

She recalled the day last Spring when they had gone to see Dr. Abromowitz -- standing on the street outside his office, arguing. David had wanted a second opinion; this was it. Medical evidence proved the problem had nothing to do with her. He couldn’t believe it. He wanted a third opinion. “These guys are all friends, they all went to medical school together, they’re not going to make themselves look bad. They’re in cahoots with each other!”

She couldn’t help it – she’d started laughing. “Cahoots? What are you talking about? No one uses that word. No one knows what it means. What is a cahoot, anyway?”

He had turned sulky. He never liked her jokes. “I don’t know,” he had muttered. “But they’re in it. All of them.”

It was just like architecture school. She had taken two jobs so that he could give up contracting and do his graduate work. But she had never much liked the buildings he designed. So she was ‘unsupportive’ and ‘cold’. He had abruptly decided to study engineering instead but he eventually dropped out of that program. Now she was still working two jobs and he was writing a book on twentieth century urban planning. “The big picture of how a complex, heterogeneous city fits together,” was the way he’d described the project to her.

Urban planning. She had to laugh -- he couldn’t even organize a box spring on a stairway.

“What’s so funny?,” he was saying.

She glanced up at him, red-faced and sweaty in his Red Sox t-shirt, leaning against the jammed box spring.

“I’m going outside for a few minutes,” she said. “I need some air.”

“Don’t take too long. We’re gonna try to bring it in through the basement and up the back stairs.”

The back stairs were even tighter than the front ones. It was as if he was suggesting they put a piano into his Volkswagen bug. She didn’t say anything. She was tired of ruining his day.

Outside it was bright and windy and cold. There was a tang of wood smoke on the air. There was traffic. People were busy. She walked toward the corner enjoying the captured moment of solitude. It was the way she felt in the bathroom sometimes, taking five minutes off from her life; the sad sanctuary of a closed door. David never followed her into the bathroom.

She stuck her hands in her pockets and wished she’d grabbed her coat. She winced in the sunlight. The frigid glare was merciless. It was noon and there were no shadows anywhere.

A line of cars was waiting at the red light. When she got to the corner she heard the woman and her elderly father in the first car arguing.

“ -- I’ve made the appointment and you have to go,” the woman was saying.

“It’s out of the question.”

“You’re sick. You need medicine. You need a doctor to write the prescription. I don’t see why you –- “

“They’re all quacks! I’ve never trusted any of ‘em. When I was discharged from the United States army in 1945 some pill pusher told me to stop smoking.”

“He was right.”

“The hell with him.”

“Doctor Braden thinks you should stop smoking, too, Dad. He’s told you over and over that you –- “

“I’m sixty six years old and he can kiss my ass.”

“Dad – “

“You’re on his side, Debs. You’re all in cahoots with each other. You and that doctor and those bastards at the VA hospital and that bitch from the Medicare office and all the rest of em. Why can’t you just leave an old man alone?”

Eleanor smiled. She had an urge to walk over and interrupt their argument. Maybe this old guy knew what a cahoot was. And she really wanted to know.

The old man finished his cigarette flicked it into the street and rolled up his window. Eleanor couldn’t hear them anymore but the light had changed anyway. The car stalled and the woman couldn’t get it started again. People started honking. It revved and revved and shuddered to silence; then again. Eleanor thought – she’s going to flood it. Then it happened. The car wouldn’t turn over. It just wheezed into silence. There was more honking now. Someone tried to cut around the line of cars and almost had a head-on collision.

The side door opened and the old man climbed out, slamming it behind him. He was heavy set in a blue suit. He had a full head of hair but it was silver. His nose looked like it had been broken and his face had the lop-sided look of a recovered stroke victim. He stumbled at the curb and someone tried to help him. He slapped the woman away just as his daughter climbed out of the car. She was overweight also, in unflattering slacks and a gray cardigan.

“Dad -- !”

“I’m walking.”

“But you can’t -- the Doctor said -- Dad -- !”

He turned away. She shut her door came around the front of the car to follow him. The light was still green. The blaring of horns was continuous now. The noise stopped her. She was poised for a moment between her father’s vanishing back and her empty car. She took a few more steps.

“Dad -- ?”

But he was out of ear shot.

She walked back to the car. She tried both doors but she had locked herself out. It was an older model Buick. You couldn’t lock the driver side door without the key on the newer models. But that didn’t do her much good. She yanked on the door and screamed “Shit shit shit shit SHIT.” She started pounding on the roof of the car, and finally she just put her head in her arms across it. The light turned red.

Eleanor stared at the scene. She wanted to help but there was nothing she could do. And she had to wonder -- how many times had this woman’s Dad done this to her? Browbeating her in some argument when she was trying to help him and then leaving her to fend for herself with a locked car, in traffic. It was a perfect little metaphor. But of course she couldn’t see it. People just didn’t.

Eleanor glanced at her watch. She had been gone almost ten minutes. David would assume she’d been smoking, though she hadn’t. If there was ever a perfect time for a cigarette, she thought ruefully. She considered going back, but the thought of starting another round of that same insane argument, one she was bound to lose even with the laws of physics on her side, made her stop in the middle of the sidewalk, as if she’d forgotten something.

Maybe it was something small like an address scribbled on an envelope; maybe it was something huge, like her basic human volition, the simple proprietorship of her own life. For a moment she admired the stubborn old man, stumping away down the street, ignoring everyone.

She could do the same. She could just walk away. Would it look weak? Would it look like quitting? Did she really care how it looked, what David would say, the little dismissive cough David’s father would make when he heard the news, the sigh of vindicated contempt from David’s mother? It wasn’t like she was ever going to win them over anyway. Maybe with a grandson. She shuddered at the thought: David barking instructions during the labor, maneuvering the baby down the birth canal.

She thought about his apartment – their apartment. What did she have there? Clothes, some books, those lovely Calphalon sauce pans. Her files were at her office, and so was her laptop; she’d been working late the last few weeks. There was her Lexmark printer; and she’d paid for the Ikea couch in the living room. But that was all: nothing she really cared about, nothing essential – just a lot of junk, just – accumulation.

She took out a cigarette, lit it and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. Then she turned and started walking, away from the cramped stairwell and the jammed box-spring and her waiting fiancée, into the sunny fall afternoon, and the bright conspiratorial streets of Boston, never once looking back.

The One Who Got Away, Part Four

This is a story about the practical applications of romantic verse.

It works.

It gets the job done.

I have proof.

It happened like this: Sophie Zambarano, a woman I fell in love with in college while my girlfriend was at home with her troubled family, a woman I walked away from to do “the right thing” and found again five years later when she was unavailable, in love with someone else; and then lost for almost two decades, while I married the girlfriend and watched the marriage fall apart like a piece of second hand furniture, was finally back in my life again. I had done it with one surprise phone call that went on for hours and an invitation to visit Nantucket. Sophie came, we talked, we ate dinner, we slept in separate beds and she told me the horrific story of her childhood, the father who abused hr and the mother who took his side, the sister she left behind when she ran away.

She dared me to love her after hearing that tragic confession, and I took the dare. In fact I loved her more after that.

I remember her coming downstairs late on Sunday morning. I had fresh coffee, bagels and the New York Times waiting for her. She wore a blue kimono tied with a sash. She was barefoot, her hair was tangled, her cheek indented from the wrinkles on the pillow, and she looked so gorgeous I felt big sections of myself separating, floating free like chunks of an ice-flow in the spring thaw. I knew Sophie could look spectacular in a designer dress, but I preferred her this way. Carefully gowned and coiffed and made-up, women’s beauty seemed like the result of hard work – a brilliantly mounted illusion. Looking at Sophie I saw something far more dazzling: the effortless truth.

We ate and kissed and lounged aroui8nd my little apartment with a bittersweet, spurious domesticity: it was so easy to imagine this morning as part of an ordinary weekend, one of a thousand casual moments in a shared connubial life.

We walked the island, I took her to thsw airport and she flew home to break up with her dreary boyfriend.

I kissed her and said “I’m glad you came.”

She held me and said, “I’m glad you called,” and walked out on to the tarmac in the hurrying crowd.

We had decided that I would visit her next time. She wanted me to see her house, her town., her world; the store where she bought her art supplies, the shop where she got coffee in the morning.

I had a friend who owned a little Cessna with two other people. He had been trying to get me up in the air with him for months. This would be the perfect opportunity to take him up on his offer: he could get to the Northampton airport in just over an hour, whenever I wanted to go.

Another friend had given me a standing offer to take care of the kids if I needed him to.

She called me that night, late, she always called late at night, and she said “I wrong not to sleep with you last night, and you were wrong not to sleep with me at Hampshire. I don’t want to die without that – without making love to you.”

And she told me the nightmare she had dreamed at my house that night: she is in a blank prison cell, with a guard outside in the corridor. But the door locks from the inside. When she realized this she slips out, but only to furnish and decorate her cell – she brings back chairs, lamps, rugs, pictures, books and bookshelves. The warden find out what she’s done and moves her to another blank cell for punishment. The locks are still on the inside, but she just sits quietly and waits for her punishment.

I said it sounded like her life. But at least she tried to decorate her cell, which is more than most of us do. I said I wanted to break her out; she said it might not be possible.

She said, “Is this wrong? Am I unfaithful?”

I didn’t know. But there’s another kind of fidelity – not to a person but to a feeling. Biologists say love is an evolutionary trick, a hormonal illusion that promotes the propagation of the species. I said to Sophie, it was two in the morning by then and I was talking to much, but I said – to me it’s just the opposite, and this sounds crazy but I wrote a poem on the spot, and grabbed a pen and copied it down on the back of an envelope while we spoke:

Of course the truth is precisely the reverse.

Scientists, so astute about the principles

Of the Universe

Have once again missed the point.

In fact,

We crawled out of the ocean and learned to walk

To build tools and language

Solely to be the host for this emotion

Which is much finer than anything

The human race has done --

Greater than all the works of man,

However vaunted;

Greater than all the laws of man,

However wise:

This sacred thing

Which trembles in the haunted air between us
When I look into your eyes.

And yeah, it was corny and over the top and verbose, just like me, but it set her mind at ease and she laughed at me while I scribbled it down, and we made out plans for my visit and hung up happy.

And that’s not even the poem I want to tell you about.

The day before I was planning to visit her I had to go off-island with my son. My alarm was set for five, to make the six O’clock boat, but Sophie;s call woke me at four-fifteen.

“You can’t come,” she said. “I’ve been up all night, it’s making me ill, I’m losing Eric in my head, I haven’t b roklen up with him, he just moved out but all his stuff is here and he keeps calling and I don’t know what to say. He asked me to marry him, I mean, he asked so many times and I was thinking about it, I was actually talking about building my life around this man and now it’s all flying apart, and he doesn’t understand and I don’t either. I need time to think. I can’t stand to be this confused. It’s too much for me. I’m sorry, but I just can’t stand it.”

I was shaking as I listened, wide awake, trying to organize my thoughts. It was like trying to get a school yard full of antsy kids lined up for a fire drill. I told her we didn’t have to make love, it could just be a visit, just some time together, no pressure, no expectations.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said and I told her to just stop, and set it aside and let it rest until the evening. I was going off-island. When I got back I’d call her and we could talk again. If she didn’ want me to come at that point of course I wouldn’t. But I had to get my kid out of bed and get out of the house or we’d miss the boat.

Sophie agreed to the call and we hung up and I was thinking, no matter what I tell her, no matter what we decide, I’m going there. I’m showing up. If she sends me away I’ll go but I’m not giving up on her. Then I thought, that’s crazy I’m not stalking this woman. If there’s really a wall around her I’m not running face-first into it.

Stop. Let this alone for a day. Go to Hyannis. Enjoy your son. Call her when you get back. See what happens.

On the boat, Tommy found some friends to play with and this phrase kept running around in my mind: “This is what you have done to my heart:” The colon was a kind license, an open door to free association. What was she doing to me heart? Anything that occurred to me was fair game. So I started writing … phrases and images and metaphors-- five, ten, twenty little fragments, wjhatever crossed my mind. I made notes as we strolled throught the mall and waited for the movie to start. Then on the boat going home I started sorting through them, getting rid of the weak and the obscure and the nonsensical ones, putting them in order and trying to find some conclusion, some point to the list. The Ferry was bumping against the dock when I figured it out.

I scrawled the last lines as everyone pushed towards the exits. I dropped Tommy off at his mother’s drove home and called Sophie.

“Before you say anything,” I told her, “I want to read you something.”

Then I dug out my folded sheets of graqde school notebook paper read her the poem:

This is what you have done to my heart:

You have brought it fruit in the desert

You have kissed its eyes

You set the killer dogs on its scent

And sent its orphans away to the border.

You have shared silence with my heart

Like a palmful of stream water

You have fasted for its soul.

You have abandoned my heart

Danced for it in the candle-light

You have burned the houses of my heart

And made runes with the ashes

And watched your writing

scattered by the wind.

You have raised sunken ships

And presented my heart

with fragile glassware

From extinct graceful eras

Dressed in barnacles and kelp

You have heard me cry for help

With immobile pity.

You have taken my heart through streets

Of condemned houses

In the dark city

And washed grafitti from the walls.

You swam with my heart in the deep water

And drowned it in the shallows

Until it breathed the brine --

You whispered “Be mine”

Then you tied my heart with silk

And left it dangling from the high places.

You took my heart as a slave

And awaited its orders;

You made it speak to the waterfall

And wear the spray like armor

You have taught my heart that knowledge is empty

That rules are the stone-work of our fear;

That only the moment matters --

Keeping your grip

On the slippery thrashing heat of a human truth:

The seed of your youth

The body’s rage

The tortured breath that refuses

That uses all its strength to say no to death.

You taught me all of these things

You made me learn them for my sins.

So I must finally say

In the stinging silence of this yearning

In the last light of the last day

Before your other life begins

And you turn away, with these passions

Like clothes out of fashion

Stored on a dusty shelf

(Speaking to your noble soul

Speaking in the tongue of kings)

You taught me each one of these terrible things:

Now you must learn them yourself.

There was a long moment of silence on the line; for a second I thought she’d hung up, that I’d gone too far, that the flood of words was toxic.

Then she breathed a single word of her own:


And I did; and that’s the best testament I can give to the power of poetry, as we hit the half-way mark of National Poetry month.

It works.

Favorite Books, New Endings #1: The Princ e of Tides

And I could leave my story there, living the dutiful life I had somehow earned in the long drawing out of my family’s history. It’s a proper ending, with the chastised and humbled southern boy finally growing into the tangled corridors of his long-shuttered manhood, while the beautiful Dr. Lowenstein, freed at last from the pinched serfdom of her marriage dances off into the smog bound New York sunset with the faceless lawyer who replaced me in her heart.

And indeed I left it that way for more than a year. But Sallie wasn’t happy and neither was I and neither were the children, who sensed the loss inside me and the continents that had sunk out of sight in storms they couldn’t imagine, leaving calm sea of a sorrowing father behind, distracted and half-present. I would wake to attention at the end of their anecdotes, dream through their plays and presentations, smile and nod as the deaf do, hoping for the happy accident of a correct response.

Sallie and I were roommates only, sharing a house and a array of chores, going about our business as business people do, cost conscious and punctual and polite. But I think both of us would have been glad to be laid off.

We could have continued that way for the rest of our lives, as a man in a cycle trance can ride beyond the limits of his endurance, the body a machine until something stops him or wakes him up. A wall, a stop-sign, the shout of a frightened pedestrian … or in my case a letter with a New York post mark.

As usual, I had gotten home before Sallie, and I had first look at the mail. I tore this letter open and read one sentence: “I miss you.” And the name at the bottom: Susan. So the lawyer hadn’t lasted, after all! Her life, surrounded by the clattering energy of the insomniac city, was as pale and lifeless as mine, moldering in the sleepy folds of Charleston.

We had been given another chance, as Savannah had, as even my father had, and I could either take it or spend my remaining days (and nights) wishing that I had. It was wrong to leave my wife and children; sometimes being bad takes courage and being good is the coward’s way. At least that was what I told myself, driving with the top down in the Volkswagen, across the bridge over the harbor for the last time, crying “Lowenstein, Lowenstein – I’m on my way!”

Aesthetic Anomie: Why Good Books Don't Get Published

A lot of good books go unpublished. Of course, many more bad books meet the same fate. Ninety percent of the books submitted to agents and publishers are inept and unreadable and their oblivion is well deserved. But what about the other books? The good ones that don’t make it? Is there a reason, or is it just a matter of a too many submissions and too few readers to sort through the mass of material?

I think there’s more to it than that. Publishing professionals (and their peers in the movie industry) no longer trust their own opinions. There’s a famous story about Herman Mankiewicz having dinner with uber-mogul Harry Cohn. Cohn was explaining that he knew a film was too long because his posterior began to ache – and so would everyone else’s. “Imagine that,” Mankiewicz famously replied, “The whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!” Those were the good old days, and Harry Cohn’s test was probably more reliable than all the audience testing and focus groups studios use now. A more appropriate story for today’s world involves the agent who receives a script, takes it home over the weekend and receives a call from the writer on Monday. Their now-legendary (possibly urban-legendary) conversation:

Writer: What did you think of the script?

Agent: I don’t know. I’m the only one who’s read it.

So have industry professionals just lost their independent judgment? No, it’s something else, something more insidious. Harry Cohn watched a movie with a certain aesthetic innocence – he styled himself as one more member of the audience, who felt more or less like all the others, as the comedy writer assumes the audience will laugh at the same lines that crack him up while he’s working. Maybe it’s because the stakes are so much higher, or the audience has become so fragmented, but that connection has broken down.

In 1893, French social scientist Emile Durkheim devised the concept of anomie. It defines a kind social deregulation. Life becomes more urbanized and complicated, old mores break down and people no longer knew what to expect from one another. What we face now is a kind of aesthetic anomie, where an editor cannot simply read a book and experience it as a reader, with the simple, even carnal pleasure that brought him (or her) into the business in the first place. That initial response becomes obscured by layers of speculative venality: conjectures about the salesman in his or her own company and beyond them, desperate, intuitive guesswork about the mass audience. Hence the famous rejections based on false suppositions: science fiction was “dead” until Star Wars came out. Westerns were extinct until Dances With Wolves brought them back to life. Michael Korda, the Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Shuster, rejected a novel of mine, which he claimed to admire, because his sales staff “couldn’t sell it.” I got this second-hand through my agent, but my immediate response was – maybe you should fire your salesmen instead of letting them over-rule your judgment. When even someone like Michael Korda abdicates to the bean-counters, the cancerous anomie in our creative life has clearly begun to metastacize.

Thirty years ago, Darcy O’Brien was sending out a novel called A Way of Life Like Any Other to publishers and getting rejected everywhere. One editor wrote back that he couldn’t see who the audience was for this particular book. O’Brien wrote back that identifying potential audiences wasn’t his job. His job was finding good books and publishing them. The man wrote back, with this memorable phrase: “Your letter fell point first on an exposed doubt.” Then, in a heroic blow against the forces of aesthetic anomie, he published the book. It’s still in print.

It was a lonely gesture, and it seems more isolated and even bizarre every year. But until agents and editors – and film producers and studio executives – stop trying to divine the unknowable taste and opinions of an unimaginable crowd of strangers, and begin again, simply responding to the story in front of them, it’s only going to get worse.