Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembering Irvin Kershner

Film director Irvin Kershner died today, at his home in Paris. He was 87 years old. I hadn’t seen him since an extraordinary pair of meetings twenty-eight years ago, but he remains one of the most vivid figures I ever encountered in Hollywood.

I didn’t know much about him when the producer of my little family drama movie script set up the meeting, but I could tell he considered it a major coup. I did some research and found out that Kersher had directed some great television shows during what I would refer to as the first ‘Golden Age’of TV (we’re in the middle of the second one, now): episodes of Naked City, Kraft SuspenseTheatre and Ben Casey, before going on to make such extraordinary films as The Luck of Ginger Coffey, A Fine Madness and The Flim-Flam Man. Of course he is best known today for directing what most aficionados agree was the best of the Star Wars movies – The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed he was just coming off that career high success, looking for a new project, when I got the chance to meet him.

It was quite an intimidating set up – the luxurious office on the Warners lot, the giant photograph of Yoda that dominated the wall behind his desk, and the man himself – craggy, bearded, sharp eyed, a true Jedi Knight in his own brand of creative warfare. The rumor about him was that he was difficult, contrary, obstructionist – he could “turn a go project into a development deal” with one meeting. He was tough with me, but I found his criticisms stringent and illuminating, like a semester of film school in a single afternoon.

The main problem he had with my script was the long passage in the middle during which the father character and his oldest friend reminisce and re-litigate their lifetime of conflict over a series of excellent meals and walks on the winter beaches of Nantucket.

“This isn’t a movie!” he barked, dropping the script on his desk liker something dead that had just twitched alarmingly.

“Right,” my hapless producer agreed. “It’s – it’s a play. All that dialogue …”

Kershner turned that beady stare on him. “It’s not even a play! It’s nothing!

There’s no drama, here. It’s just two geezers chewing the fat. A movie is about what happens next. Don’t you get that? Look, I say to you – this script is shit. You can’t write. Get out of the business while you still can. What do you do? That’s insulting! That’s abusive! What are you going to do about it?”

“I,uh –“

“Are you going to break into tears? Run out of the room? Stand up and slug me? I don’t know – but you’re going to do something. That’s a movie! Here’s how EVERY SCENE in a movie should play. Pay attention to me, kid. There’s a nail sticking up out of this desk. I wrap a red rubber band around it and start pulling. The rubber band starts stretching, it pulling thin, turning pink, it’s about to snap, you’re flinching in advance … and then – pow! The nail comes out of the table. That’s what I’m looking for -- that kind of reversal, that kind of surprise.”

He didn’t like my ending, either.

“The father admits the son is talented, and they kiss and make up. It’s shit. It’s a TV movie. Do you watch TV?”

“Sure,” I said “I mean – sometimes, I guess, but –

“Well as long as you’re working with me, you don’t watch TV. Not one second of it. It’s all shit. It’s written like shit, it’s acted like shit, it’s directed like shit and if you keep watching that shit you won’t be able to do anything else.”

A silence fell. My producer, he seemed near tears – he had no idea how jazzed I was – said, “So… we’re done here?”

But Kershner wasn’t done. He didn’t think much of the father son relationship that made up the core of the story.

“It’s all in the past,” he said. “it’s all memory and back story and no one cares.”

“So … what do you think I should do instead?” I asked.

“Give them some real conflict, something that’s happening right now. The kid has a girlfriend – let the dad be fucking her. That should heat things up a little. Write me that draft – and cut thirty pages out of it.”

We reeled out of there, into the dry heat of a Los Angeles September afternoon, and my Producer apologized profusely for his old friend’s rudeness – over a sumptuous lunch at a nearby Taco Bell. He always was a big spender. I told him not to worry about it. I was already framing the re-write in my head and when I met Kershner, two weeks later, I had a new draft that ran 90 stream-lined pages.

He hefted it with a grin “Fighting weight,” he said.

I was dazzled and star struck – I had just seen Sean Connery coming out of his office, wearing a track suit … the meeting before mine. I figured out later what that meeting signified: Kershner was about to direct his own version of a James Bond movie with Connery, a re-make of Thunderball.

His decision had already been made, and I wasn’t even in the running.

I probably didn’t deserve to be.

So I didn’t get a movie made that year, and I didn’t get a screen credit an entrée to the Writer’s Guild or a big slab of screenplay money. But I got a lesson in writing I’ll never forget, and every time I ratchet up the conflict in a scene or somehow manage to pull that nail out of the table, I think of Irvin Kershner and bow my head in gratitude to thewild-eyed genius who played Yoda to my humble Padawan.

It was definitely Kerhner's voice I heard in his movie when old Jedi said "Do, or do not. There is no try."

I was lucky to have met him, and I’m sad to see him go.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Defense of the MFA

Poets and Writers magazine features their second annual ranking of the top MFA programs in the country, and “new for 2011’ a list of the ten best low residency programs. My school, Vermont College of the Fine Arts, is ranked number one among them, beating such distinguished competition as Goddard, Bennington and Warren Wilson College.

The issue hits the newsstands in the midst of an impressive anti-MFA backlash. This form of graduate education produces a blandly competent but uninspired, academically homogenized prose that just kind of sucks the life out of you – that’s the consensus of articles I’ve been skimming lately. From Anis Shivani writing on the Huffington Post about overrated writers, to one of his prime targets, Juno Diaz, everyone is piling on the poor old Master of Fine Arts degree. Publishable prose simply can’t be drilled or cajoled out of the untalented, that’s the gist of it.

John Fowles compared the teaching of writing to equipping a fisherman – you can have all the best gear, a state of the art rod and fresh bait, but none of that helps if you’re standing in the middle of a cornfield. “What matters is having a river to fish in,” Fowles pointed out.

Well, true enough. But knowing a bit about fishing can’t hurt; and especially if you have a good trout stream in front of you. Sloshing around in the shallows grabbing at them bare-handed just doesn’t work very well.

Trust me, I’ve tried it.

Still, the idea of going to school, particularly graduate school, just to get an education seems increasingly quaint and eccentric. My own original plan was relatively pragmatic: get the degree, publish a book (the most minor publication would suffice), and then take those letters after my name and the ISBN number after the title of my book and get myself a college teaching job. The first part was relatively easy. I got the degree, but I remain unpublished as of this writing. Nor is this a unique predicament. As the nay-sayers will tell happily tell you, few MFA graduates ever achieve substantial literary success. In a world where you read about six-year-old kids getting book deals, this can be mildly disheartening. One of my own professors, Douglas Glover, put it best, in the first lecture I ever heard him deliver:

Now more than ever, it is possible to get a doctorate in creative writing, and it is possible to get degrees in non-fiction writing, editing, playwriting and screenwriting. And, sad to say, it is possible to obtain one of these degrees without writing a publishable sentence, paragraph, story, novel or essay.

Going to writing school has become a bit like take piano and water color lessons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular outward sign of bourgeois cultural accomplishment, a commercially available testimonial of creativity, the public stamp of approval. You know how, in The Wizard of Oz, at the end, the scarecrow gets a diploma. Well, here’s your diploma, you are a licensed creator, the equal of Joyce and Homer. But it doesn’t mean you can write a book that is publishable, let alone a work of art or, dare we say it, a masterpiece, a classic, that you read with intensity and wisdom, that you love your tools as if they were your children.

Ironically, it was this lecture that convinced me to attend Vermont College in the first place. Regardless of the statistics and the glum professional forecasts for Master of Fine Arts graduates, I wanted to work with Glover. I was sure I could learn some valuable things from him. Indeed, I already had, just at that first lecture. The bulk of it concerned the use of verbs, and the dangers one verb in particular, the ever-present “To be”, that ghastly centerpiece of the passive voice. Why did Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales say “Mistakes were made”? Because if he given up the passive voice and introduced a real verb into his sentence, he would have had to acknowledge who exactly made those mistakes. “I made mistakes,” for instance: a much stronger sentence, but not nearly as cunning and vague. Doug called this lecture “Attack of the Copula Spiders” – referring to his habit of putting a dot in the middle of a page and drawing lines to all the ‘to be’ formulations, covering student papers with giant spider diagrams.

Doug is obsessed with verbs. He counts them in sentences and paragraphs, balances them against the articles and nouns, cherishes them, collects them, celebrates them. As F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out (in a letter to his daughter that Doug quoted in the course of the lecture) verbs carry sentences. An inert sentence like “The rabbit was on the lawn” can become something beautiful in the hands of a great writer. Fitzgerald says:

Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes”. A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass” is so alive you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement – the limping, trembling and freezing are going on before your own eyes.

When I say Glover counts the verbs, I mean that literally. He has made a science of it. In the lecture he discusses this text from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart:

“That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together, or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam. The islands stood in frozen woody brown dusk: it was now between three and four in the afternoon. A sort of breath from the clay, from the city outside the park, condensing, made the air unclear; through this the trees around the lake soared frigidly up. Bronze cold of January bound the sky and the landscape; the sky was shut to the sun – but the swans, the rims of ice, the pallid withdrawn Regency terraces had an unnatural burnish, as though cold were light. There is something momentous about the height of winter. Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks. This weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight.

This is a landscape opening that also tells the reader where and when the novel starts and what the weather was like which, in turn, establishes a certain atmosphere… astir with life and movement. How is it done? Well, there asre eight sentences, one hundred and forty seven words and twenty-three verbs, verbal adjectives or verbal nouns (Note the one deft use of the passive voice.) You can express this again as a ratio: in this passage, Bowen writes a 23/8 verb to sentence ratio, three verbs per sentence … simple ratios don’t tell the whole rhetorical story, but they begin to tell you about verbs. Beyond the ratio you should immediately notice the quality of the verbs: three copulas (“was,” “is,” “were”), one passive voice (“was shut”), three generics (“left,” “had,””made”) and one slightly abstract verb (“set in”) against fifteen precise, concrete action.

This was a revelation to me. I started counting verbs myself doing it everywhere, even at breakfast. One day, I was reading the cereal box and the milk carton in front of me as I wolfed my morning meal: Alpen and Stoneyfield Farms. It occurred to me that the milk was much more engrossing, so I turned to statistics. Alpen: “Organic rolled oats and crispy whole wheat flakes containing all the bran and wheat germ are combined with toasted hazelnuts and roasted almonds for a rich, hearty taste.” 28 words, one copula (in the passive voice), two verbal adjectives … two verbs.

Stoneyfield: “We started Stoneyfield Farm milking cows and making quarts of yogurt at our little hilltop organic farming school in 1983” 21 words. Three verbs and a gerund.

28/2 vs. 21/3: Case closed.

I know this sounds suffocatingly technical and abstract. In fact, it’s vital – even visceral. But at first this raised consciousness simply paralyzed me, as learning to drive with a stick shift had done, so many years ago – lots of stalling and flooding. Still, I eventually internalized Glover’s analytical perspective, and started to enjoy driving my own prose, down-shifting through its twists and turns, finally starting to take control.

So I applied to the school, got in and followed my girlfriend into the most rewarding and exciting two years of my whole catch-as-catch can educational life. I worked with Chris Noel, author of the beautiful and moving grief memoir In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing; with crime fiction maestro Domenic Stansberry and with short story writer and political activist Diane Lefer. I went to dozens of lectures during the ten day residencies, worked and got worked over in the workshops, found brilliant poets like Brendan Constantine, extraordinary memoirists like Andrew Hood, word-slinging jazz-riffing novelists like Barry Wightman.

The residencies reminded me of those British holiday camps, sometimes: you never had a moment yourself. The days were packed: the longer you’d been there the more people whose final lectures and readings you had to attend. Not to mention the faculty readings, visiting writer readings, student readings and of course the renegade reading, late at night in Noble Hall, where you could try out anything if you didn’t mind being pelted by ping-pong balls. The sense of community thrilled me. You could sit at any table in the Dewey dining hall and start a conversation with anyone – you all had the same things on your minds, had just been to the same lectures, just worked with the same professors.

Finally, in my last semester, I took the leap and signed up to work with Doug Glover. Here’s what I wrote in my final evaluation:

Doug’s approach can best be described as surgical rigor. His first move was to throw out my original lecture plans, assign me a pile of books and explain the new lecture: read these books, figure how the authors did what you’re trying to do, and write about it. As I worked through draft after draft I was always impressed and inspired by the painstaking relentless devotion to clarity and intelligent analysis his comments revealed.

The same is true for the difficult fiction project I was attempting – a group of related stories actually ‘written’ by the various characters in the novel. As Doug pointed out, first things first: learn how to write one publishable short story, learn the basics of story construction, start from scratch. Doing seven stories in seven different styles and voices will have to wait. So that’s what we worked on: conflict, inciting incidents, image patterning, plot structure. Am I an expert craftsman of the short story now? No, but at least I know what I need to work on, and I have a direction to follow in the years ahead. I think I’ll have Doug’s sharp-witted jovial acidic voice in my mind for the rest of my writing life. If it ever starts to fade, I have the lectures on tape!

In other topics, Doug was always supernaturally prompt with his detailed critiques and we spoke often on the phone, as well as e-mailing at various times. He couldn’t have been more accessible or cooperative.

The faint of heart had warned me about Doug, but the nickname ‘shredder’ reflects a basic misunderstanding of Doug’s methods. That would be like calling me “Chaos man” when I help my kids clean their rooms. We invariably start out by making the mess worse, emptying the jumbled drawers and pulling all the clothes, games, old ipods and Dreyer horses out of the closet, retrieving the food, books, mismatched shoes and long-lost band instruments from under the beds. That’s the chaos part, and it’s essential if you ever want to get organized. Doug works the same way – hey, the Marines work the same way. You have to break down the old bad habits and clarify the problems if you ever want to fix things.

Is this fun? No. Is it an ego-boost? Hardly.

But the truth is I entered for the program for the chance to work with Glover, and I’m glad I took it. I said to someone, doing anything else would be like going to the Labyrinth and not bothering to meet the Minotaur. So: a great semester; a great teacher. I emerge battered and humbled but more enthusiastic than ever about the work at hand; and more prepared than ever before to actually succeed at it.

Since I graduated, the first question everyone asks me is how the degree has affected my finances. Did I get a teaching job? Did I sell a book? Do I have anything – anything at all – concrete to show for the time and money I spent? Well, I did write a much better book than I could have written before, and I did find an agent for it. That’s a start. But my real answer to the question of what I got out of Vermont College remains the stubbornly quaint and eccentric one: I got an education.

I highly recommend it.

9/11 Letters: Rage, Hope and the American Jihad

My memory of 9/11 has been shaped by all the events that happened since – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance state that legislation initiated; my greater understanding of the Middle East and Islam; a broader historical awareness of America’s role in that part of the world, going back almost sixty years. But I wrote a letter to my local paper that day, and the paper came out two days later. This was raw, uneducated, unfiltered reaction; I suppose it had to be reactionary. I was vilified by my friends and embraced by people I despised. It was a strange moment. My son, who returned this Spring from studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, just shakes his head at the overheated rhetoric of this crazy broadside.

But I don’t think I was alone, even among liberals. There was a reason George W. Bush had a 90% approval rating in the angry, war-mongering days after the attack; a reason why he could leverage his own catastrophic blunder into an opportunity to attempt the neo-conservative strategy of imposing our way of life on people who hated it. It’s worth taking a look at this troubling snap-shot of outraged patriotism, if we want to understand how the 9/11 attacks led us to where we stand today, fighting two wars and on the brink of a third. Will Yemen be next? And is there any way to pull back? Maybe, by repudiating the knee-jerk vengeful rage of the first letter that follows.


I don't know what this makes anyone else feel, but I'll tell you what I'm feeling tonight: sheer red-eyed rage and fury. The amputation of the World Trade Center, the violation of my home town, the sheer senseless, blood and cant-soaked religion fuelled hatred of the act make me feel about the whole world of Islam what they have been feeling about us for decades. They want a religious war? I say give it to them. I say let them find out what happens when they awaken this sleeping giant. I say carpet bomb the whole Middle East -- every one of those countries, with all the innocent people in them. This has to be a calamity for them, an act of God, a typhoon, a tidal wave, a rain of toads. They have to learn that they cannot let their lunatic fringe declare war on the most powerful country in the world because if they do we will reach over and crush them like the puny desert bugs they are.

What no American politician has ever understood is that you cannot fight these people in a civilized way. Jimmy Carter never grasped this. He tried to negotiate with a culturally institutionalized mass psychosis. He talked about the energy crisis as the 'moral equivalent of war' and then failed to notice when the real thing actually happened. Iran declared war on us, and we refused to fight it. That sent the terrorists a message they've never forgotten. George Bush Senior only made things worse when he refused to deal decisively with Saddam Hussein. And the same thing is happening again.

George W. is talking about 'hunting down' and 'punishing' the perpetrators. This is just bombastic noise: The ones who committed the act are dead. The ones who gave the orders are impossible to hunt down. It's like finding the one mosquito with the West Nile virus. You don't capture a million mosquitos and give them each a blood test -- you wipe out ALL MOSQUITOS .. or at least you do the best you can. You spray. That's what we have to do.

The sad fact is there's no middle ground between the pathetic nothing of the President’s rhetorical outrage and the ruthless everything of total war. To fight terrorism effectively, innocent people will have to be killed. Beautiful historical sites will have to be destroyed. A whole sick culture will have to go down in flames. It's our God against their God, and Jesus can warm the bench on this play, folks. Because we need the Old Testament God now. We need someone in the White House with the guts to enact the towering rage that is exploding in the American people tonight. If Bush and his geriatric cold warriors can't do it, I volunteer.

It wouldn't cause world war III -- Putin is ready to fight and that's one thing the Russians are good at. If there is a World War III, it will be the whole civilized world united to wipe out this insane cancerous society which has been metastasizing for a thousand years. And we can take out the Taliban while we're at it, and take over the Saudi Oil fields, too. Those towel-heads have been robbing us blind for decades.

The thing that really broke my heart was watching those towers collapse. I know that the actual crash was the true tragedy; the explosion killed the people. But the utter destruction of the buildings just levelled me. It was like ... the terrorist killed your lover, but before that he yanked out her two front teeth. The death is horrible, but the brutalization and disfigurement is worse somehow. That's the thing that gives you the rage to kill in your turn. And I'm in a killing mood tonight. I just wish our President felt the same way.

A wrote a sort of retraction the next week. Its open-hearted optimism strikes me today as even more naïve and tragic than my jingoistic tantrum:

Several people have told me they thought last weeks’ letter in the Inquirer and Mirror was “insane.” They couldn’t believe I was advocating unilateral military attacks against civilian targets in the Middle East. Perhaps I was insane when I wrote those things. But to take a reasonable position on the most appalling attack on our country since the war of 1812 at that moment, before the dust from the ruined towers had even settled on lower Manhattan … that would have been a different kind of insanity. Obviously, I have nothing to do with making military policy in this country. That gives me the luxury to vent my feelings. We all expected Colin Powell and the President to be more measured and – gratefully – they were . But in raving at this murderous outrage I was also trying to articulate feelings that many people shared. My hope was that seeing those raw emotions clearly stated in print might allow others a moment of relief – and a sense of perspective. An aggressive “Right on!” followed by a flinch reaction of “Oh no.”, hate and horror separate but profoundly connected – the lightning flash of bloodlust; and then the slow thunder of rational thought.

I could have written a letter with the opposite viewpoint the next day, and twenty others in the days since. Like everyone else I know, I have felt every possible emotion from helplessness and fear and guilt to the indignation and anger I described last week. The situation is too large and evil and unprecedented for any single reaction, and no one would want the snap-shot of one instant’s emotion to stand as a permanent record of their grief. Even the media, with their relentless ability to hype and exploit and over-dramatize any event, have been outstripped by the reality here.

The tactics I suggested were impractical as well as draconian. We need to find the actual culprits; killing thousands of innocent people in senseless bombing raids would please the terrorists more than anything else we could do. They would love to see us reduced to their level of bloody-toothed grinning barbarism; and even more than that, they would love to see us diminished in the eyes of the world. Because the fact is that we hold the moral high ground against them, for the first time in decades. Even Yassir Arafat is on our side. We have the chance to literally unite the entire globe in a confederation unparalleled in history and unimaginable before the eleventh of September. There might even be greater benefits to be gotten from this alliance than the eradication of terrorism.

Looking up from the smoking rubble of an insane act of war, we can see – if we’re willing to squint through the smoke – the astonishing possibility of a world at peace.

Of course, the future I glimpsed there was quickly and brutally foreclosed by the Bush administration, and continues to dwindle under Obama. I now have little hope and only occasional flickers of anger. A numb despair prevails: buckle into the harness and trudge forward. The situation is bad today, but it wasn’t great when we installed Saddam Hussein in Iraq – or the Shah in Iran. Systems unravel, empires decline. Things get worse; it’s a kind of geopolitical entropy that feels inevitable, now. I feel nostalgia today for the outrage and the optimism that animated those letters. I have very little of either one left … which may be the real legacy of 9/11.

And that’s the saddest thing of all.

Novel (or Memoir)-in-a-Box Contest

My great professor at Vermont College, Douglas Glover, has a website now, called Numero Cinq, and he has been running interesting contests for the last six months -- an aphorism contest, a villanelle contest, and most eccentrically, a translation contest in which absloute ignorance of the language (Dutch, I think) was a prerequisite. You had to make up your own story based on the sound of the words, coaxing out any repititions, finding parallel sentence structures, writing your own lyrics, as it were, to the music of a foreign tongue. Wild. The new contest is below, and Doug says anyone can enter and in my opinion, not enough people have.

My entry (memoir) is at the bottom of this post.

Doug says:

Augusto Monterroso is perhaps most famous for his short story “The Dinosaur,” which is said to be literature’s shortest story. It reads in full:

When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.

In an 1996 interview with Ilan Stavans for the Massachusetts Review, Monterroso recalled some early reviews of “The Dinosaur”: “I still have the very first reviews of the book: critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn’t a short-story. My answer is: true, it isn’t a short story, it’s actually a novel.”

Brevity was, to say the least, an important concept for Monterroso. His essay “Fecundity” is included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It reads in full:

Today I feel well, like a Balzac; I am finishing this line.

—from Tom McCartan’s Crib notes on “What Bolaño Read”

The Contest

Okay, the long-awaited next Numéro Cinq literary contest, The First Annual Numéro Cinq Novel-in-a-Box/Memoir-in-a-Box Contest. The rules are pretty simple this time. You have to write an entire (don’t cut corners) novel or a memoir (personal narrative) consisting of 9 (a mystic number) chapters and each chapter can be no more than 5 lines long. (By lines, I mean the number of lines that appear on the comment box on the blog.) Fewer lines if you can. Try to remember what a novel is like: at least a couple of characters or more (usually), a conflict, development through a series of dramatic actions, etc. Alternatively, try to remember what a memoir looks like: a first person narrator (and a couple of other people or more), a thematically continuous narrative line often based on a conflict and or theme, development through a series of dramatic moments or incidents, etc. Indicate on your entry whether it is fiction or non-fiction (there will be separate prizes). (Note that in the Monterroso story quoted above there ARE two characters, the guy and the dinosaur.)

The contest is open to any living, sentient being in the universe. It is not limited to people who are already on the blog or VCFA students or former students. Everyone is welcome, and also welcome to join in other conversations or suggest topics.

Entries will be accepted between September 1 and September 15, 2010, and should be written in English (Gary) and attached as comments to this post (the usual practice at NC).

Remember the values we hold dear here at Numéro Cinq: WIT & ARROGANCE. Remember Gordon Lish’s phrase ATTACK SENTENCES!

P.S. Anyone who mentions the insidious phrase “flash fiction” will have his or her comment deleted from the blog. I mean this! Delete it from your minds. This is not a flash fiction contest.


My Memoir in a Box:

(The actual Memoir ran here last year ... this is the Greatest Hits, ADD version ...)


It was finally over Didn’t I know it already? Wasn’t it obvious?She was right, too – I had no business being surprised. We had been in the middle of the unspoken knowledge for years. It was like living in Chernobyl as desperate Russians were starting to do again now: ignoring the obvious and waiting for the symptoms to show.


How did I figure out that Ned was sleeping with my ex-wife? I wanted to sell my wedding ring. Nick freaked. Kim said, “I’ll keep it until he’s older.” So I gave it to her, in front of her friends. She called, furious: it was a spiteful thing to do. Ned agreed. Ned? He had to be fucking her. Only one way to be sure: read her diary.


Why stalk my ex-wife? I wanted to be fully included in my exclusion, in complete control of my helplessness. I found Lisa’s diary in her underwear drawer. Reading it was like a Krav Maga demonstration: pulled by the back of neck into a series of blows, the brutal parody of an intimate embrace. The only solution: walk away.


The agent said: “When are you moving to L.A?” But I had kids. I couldn’t leave them and I couldn’t take them. But I could resent them and I did.. Then Caity got sick and cleaning her puke off the bathroom walls at two AM I realized: this was what I wanted to be doing. This was where I wanted to be.


The advantages of divorce: time off, silence. The dishes in the sink are no longer a passive-aggressive statement. They’re just dishes. And no more nonogomy. A much needed new word: being sexually faithful to a woman who’s not fucking you. Happily married, I was the one guy at a party not smoking weed. Now I’m one of the guys. Pass the doobie.


Maybe divorced men should be quarantined for eight months. The first relationship is always bad – the first pancake you test the griddle with, and invariably throw out. Sasha was a good Catholic girl, so the more obvious erotic encouragements were out of the question. She didn’t want to put anything strange or unusual in her mouth.“I don’t even eat sushi,” she said.


I was happily alone when I met Annie. Solo flights – that was my kind of flying. Solo cups – that was my kind of cup! Han Solo, that was my kind of corny outer space smuggler with a heart of gold! O Solo Mio – that was my kind of Mio. Then we read each other’s work and she kissed me under the Chekhov moon.


So we moved in together. She endured Caity’s pack of friends she battled Nick over his dirty dishes and won. She went to Grad school and I followed her like a horse clopping after another horse. I was no longer living in the past. It was a physical relief, like taking off a bulky coat I should never have been wearing in the first place.


My Mom and my brother Peter came to Nantucket for Nick’s graduation. He walked into the house with a bag of groceries. Mom offered to help. He gave her a baffled look, said “I’m fine Mom,” and started unpacking the food. I said, “I guess that’s a look I’m going to have to start getting used to.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you never will.”

Beach Rules

Looking back on it, the crucial moment occurred when she noticed she was still wearing underwear.

Normally that would have been a good thing -- modest and prudent. She wasn’t the type to ‘go commando’, especially in a sun dress. But the beach trips with her sister and brother in law had developed their own rituals, and changing into her bathing suit at the beach was one of them. After the first time, when she had been caught unprepared for the decision to actually go swimming (the surf was high and it was almost sundown), she had been more careful. On that occasion, she had been wearing bulky shorts and a flimsy t-shirt. She decided to wear the shorts into the water, but she didn’t want to go home in wet panties, so she slipped them off, sitting on the cool sand, and then struggled back into her shorts. The question was: had David glanced over at her during that unguarded moment? She had stood on her knees to wiggle into the shorts, naked from the waist down for a few seconds. He could have seen everything – or did the sightlines limit him to a view of her bare ass? She would normally have said bottom, or tush or even backside … but something in the way David had been looking at her lately, even fully dressed, made the raw single syllable more appropriate.

Bigger question: did she want him to have seen her? She certainly didn’t care any more if Sam looked at her, and she was supposed to be in love with Sam.

More troubling still: the night after that beach day she climbed on top of Sam and really made love to him for the first time in … well, a long time. Too long. So Sam was happy. And so was David: he had certainly been staring at her after that swim, when she bobbed out of the water with her soaked t-shirt clinging to her breasts, as close to naked as he’d ever seen her, stiff nipples showing pink through the pale membrane of cotton.

Funny, she had caught Sam glancing at her in that shirt a few weeks before – it was a little immodest even when it was dry -- and said something like “I’m never wearing this shirt in public again.” Well, so much for that resolve. She hadn’t just worn it, she had sat on the beach a foot away from her extraordinary brother in law, damp and brazen, and let him stare. Carol acted as though it meant nothing. Maybe it did mean nothing. Beach rules were different. You were supposed to show a little skin there. Anyway, David and Carol’s marriage was strong, supernaturally strong, or so it had always seemed. A moment of permissible summertime indecent exposure couldn’t change that.

She had worn the wet shorts home, and the next time she wore bikini bottoms under them. Still, she had to change into the top on the beach. She would have called it another oversight, then; now she knew better. She had stood a little apart, facing away, while David turned and Carol made a note in the margins of her book, and bared her back to him. But she had left her top on the sand and she had to lean down sideways to pick up the scrap of fabric. David’s could see everything. She could feel his eyes on her, memorizing the slight droop of her small firm breasts.

Their eyes met and he didn’t look away.

That was the sexiest thing of all: that he didn’t look away.

It felt strange and spooky and ambivalent. She didn’t want to cheat on Sam; she certainly didn’t want to seduce her sister’s husband.

But here she was, on the way to yet another beach afternoon, with her bathing suit in her big straw purse, along with the sun screen and bug spray and other practical supplies, wearing her sexiest panties, knowing she would have to slip out of them at some point, or go swimming with them on.She could have pulled over and changed; or just put her suit on in the bathroom at the cottage. But she didn’t want to. Her psychiatrist had said, “Find the thing that excites you, and then do It,” when she complained about her dormant libido.

Well, she had found the thing that excited her.

And she was doing it.

Carol was in Connecticut; Sam was working. This was going to be the first two- person beach picnic ever. Just like a date, except of course it wasn’t because David was like a brother to her. It didn’t have to be a problem. She’d just ask David to turn around while she changed. The beach at Squam was always deserted this time of year. She could have her dip in the water, modesty intact.

Except, she wasn’t going to ask; and she wasn’t sure he’d do it, anyway. He wanted to see her strip. Might as well just say it: he was hot for her and that made her hot. And feeling hot made her feel alive, connected to a world of possibilities, even if they were dangerous possibiulities, forbidden ones, destructive ones

Maybe especially if they were.

As to David, God knows why he was interested -- maybe his sex life was as arid as her own. Maybe he was just cool and adventurous. Maybe he had an open relationship with her sister. She had shared boyfriends with Carol before, when they were in high school and college, though they had usually shown the decorum to wait for a break-up.


This is how it happened:

She stood on a chair to reach the picnic basket won from a high shelf, and let him look up her dress; handed it to him and let him look down the front. She let him put his arm around her waist on the way to the car and walked closer to him when his fingers slid down to cup her ass. All she felt at that moment was a raging frustration at the two layers of fabric between skin and skin.

That was the first time he had ever touched her, beyond the occasional brotherly hug or peck on the cheek. Some boundary had been broached. After that, it was easy for him to rest a hand on her knee as they drove, and to slide it upward, gathering the fabric as he bared her thighs.

And then, on the beach, after a glass of wine, she said “I guess I’ll just change then,” and stood in front of him and started unbuttoning the dress. When the two sides were hanging loose, shifting in the breeze from the water, she saw his sharpening attention, and thought about turning around. Instead and eased the fabric off her shoulders and let it fall, glancing up and down the empty beach. They were alone. The sun was warm on her exposed body. She was so white in the private places. It made her pause.

“Go on,” David said. His voice was rough.

She pushed down her panties to mid-thigh and then to her knees, finally letting them gather at her ankles and stepping out of them. When she reached for her bag he grabbed it.

“Let’s just skinny dip,” he said.

She ran for the water as he pulled his clothes off, and plunged into the icy grip of it. He was right behind her, his arms around her again, this time pulling her to him and pressing against the length of her, no fabric between them, skin slippery with the cold water. He was huge and she could feel him growing. He found her mouth and they plunged into a deep briny kiss. They went under for a few seconds and broke the surface laughing. He spread her legs in the dense, charged undertow and slipped into her and thrust once and she was coming instantly, crying out, biting his neck.

Then he carried her out of the water and laid her out on the beach towel. He paused over her for a few seconds, just looking, then lunged into her and her orgasms fell into each other like plush dominoes and she cried out “I can’t stop coming” and he said “Let me join you” and she could feel pulse as he drove himself into her in a last frenzy of lust.

When he rolled off her, he said “That was incredible.”

And she said, “Just wait.”

She slid down his stomach to give him the most intense, committed gluttonous grasping gulping blowjob either of them had ever experienced. She sucked harder when he finally came and he was shouting and screaming as she slipped her finger up inside him and found the spot she had read about in the sex manual when she was still trying to fix things with sex manuals. He arched up like a fish on a deck and twisted and writhed and pounded the sand with his fist.

Finally she slipped him out of her mouth and smiled sweetly.

“You’re mine now,” she said

She knew that she meant it, but she had absolutely no idea what it meant. She was about to find out at least part of what it meant, though. Sam had just crested the dune grass and was running toward them, across the beach.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bullies Win (Mostly)

What do Calvin & Hobbes author Bill Watterson, country singer Merle Haggard, and Gulf coast fisherman Mike Frenette have in common with my hapless next-door neighbor on Nantucket? They’ve all stood face-to-face with the bully culture of money in America, and felt the hand of power at their throats.

Merle Haggard, like so many musicians, signed brutal, confiscatory contracts with record labels just to get his music heard. He had no choice: they controlled the business and with that power came the opportunity, even the imperative, to exploit him. Musical artists who made millions for their labels died in poverty because of this rapacious disregard for their rights and disrespect for their talents. It’s still happening – only the rise of the internet threatens this hegemony in any long-term way: hence the Verizon/Google deal, and other scams, to control the freedom of the net and turns its immense potential for freedom of expression into profit. You can feel the fuming rage of the stymied power-brokers in the proposals they write and the bills they draft in Congress: how dare some nobody just post a video on YouTube and think millions of people will watch without having to pay for the privilege! The thought that some cocky little John Doe with a cellphone camera can post a picture that contradicts the news stories and the media narrative about some crucial event must make their blood boil. I remember when the video of Stephen Colbert’s Press Corps dinner speech was posted, amid the media spin that he had bombed: ten million hits on the video later, that particular lie was just another Colbert punch-line.

And now I read this on the AP news wire:

The latest guidelines for BP's $20 billion victims compensation fund say the nearer you are geographically to the oil spill and the more closely you depend on the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources, the better chance you have of getting a share of the money.Also, a second set of rules expected this fall will require that businesses and individuals seeking compensation for long-term losses give up their right to sue BP and other spill-related companies -- something that could save the oil giant billions.

The new rules for the claims process were released Friday by Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who was picked by President Barack Obama to run the fund and previously oversaw claims for 9/11 victims. Beginning Monday, the claims will be handled by Feinberg rather than BP, which is still footing the entire $20 billion bill.

I can’t think of any new story I’ve read in the last year that made me angrier than this one. “A second set of rules expected this fall” --?? Rules written by who? BP can just write new rules whenever they want, with no oversight? These people should be in jail, or better yet tarred and feathered (you can skip the feathers); instead they get to re-write the rules of their own reparations? Can’t the government stop this outrage? Isn’t the government supposed to be sticking up for the fishermen and business owners and ordinary citizens whose lives have been blighted by BP’s arrogance and ineptitude? No one stuck up for Merle Haggard or Frances Ballard, but this isn’t the back office of some cheesy record company, this is the United States of America, and the whole world is watching to see how we deal with the worst ecological disaster in modern history. But it turns out that it was the government itself, through Kevin Feinberg, the President’s hand-picked intermediary, who mandated these new rules. My sophisticated friends with PhDs laugh at me when I ramble on about “The Proprietors” –the corporations who seem to have turned the US Government into a wholly-owned subsidiary. But even these academic thinkers were given pause by the blatant collusion of Government and industry shamelessly paraded in the newspapers on Friday. And why should BP and the President be ashamed? No one condemns their actions, no one questions their motives, no one puts up a struggle … except the odd, ‘angry left’ blogger. We just get some Domino’s take-out and turn on the TV, instead. The Jersey Shore was hilarious this week. The Louisiana shore, not so much.

Which brings me to my neighbor, a smallish, humble, woman who rents one room in a chaotic house that could be the setting for Grey Gardens. You sense that she’s suffered a lot in her life; she’s accustomed to being a victim. How else could she endure the black mold on the walls and the black temper of her landlord? She’s not allowed to open her windows, she’s not allowed to clean up – any effort to turn the squalor around her into a livable home sends the owner into a howling temper tantrum, with insults -- and pots and pans -- flying. My neighbor says she can’t afford to move out. It may be true; I think she can’t afford to stay. The place is affecting her health. But her landlord senses this paralysis and preys on it with a relentless gusto that somehow reminds me of the much bigger predators at large in the world today. My son says I shouldn’t be surprised. We live in a country where the Founding Fathers obviously debated and compromised over what fraction of a human being a slave should be. You don’t get to “3/5ths” in a casual discussion. Perhaps we’re all just baboons, guarding our territory and shrieking at the intruders. The homeowners on Nantucket who build fences with locked gates on public- way paths to the beaches are no different than the Vanderbilts and Posts, using armed guards to keep city folk off the Long Island coastline in the 1920s. Sometimes it seems that nothing ever changes and the good guys never win.

Then you read about Bill Watterson.

When Calvin and Hobbes became hugely successful, the syndicate that sold the cartoon to the newspapers decided that they wanted to license the characters for merchandising: Calvin hats and Hobbes plush toys, and a million other iterations and trinkets. Watterson balked. He made the point that he didn’t want the issue of whether Hobbes was alive or not decided by a stuffed animal in a store window. Was he being a Prima Donna or a snob? Maybe, but it was his cartoon and his choice. The syndicate disagreed. They suggested he look at his contract – and indeed he had signed away all merchandising rights, just as the musicians signed away their royalties and the Louisiana fishermen will not doubt sign away their right to sue BP. Watterson tried to explain that when he signed the contract he wasn’t worried about the consequences and ramifications of Calvin and Hobbes becoming THE MOST SUCCESSFUL CARTOON OF ALL TIME. He just wanted to get one strip in one newspaper and pay his rent. Like Merle Haggard wanted to record “I Saw the Light” or that fisherman wants enough money from the people who destroyed his way of life to just keep on living.

The syndicate appreciated Watterson’s point, but told him it was moot. Watterson disagreed. What could he do about it? This: if they merchandised his characters, he would stop drawing the strip. He’d rather never do another Calvin and Hobbes panel than watch his work be hi-jacked by greedy corporate suits.

The syndicate said, fine, then -- we’ll get someone else to draw it.

And Watterson said – Good luck with that idea.

I guess they tried for a while. That’s the part I find most revealing and absurd and grotesque. These bean-counters were so blind to everything but money, so debased, so scrubbed clean of any vestige of aesthetic sense, so coarse, so mercenary and just so dumb, that they thought someone else could draw Calvin and Hobbes. It was just a product to them, a tool to generate income, a notation on the bottom line. But of course they couldn’t find anyone else to draw Calvin and Hobbes. And so eventually, they backed down. Amazingly, the little guy won. But as Watterson points out in the introduction to the boxed, three-volume edition of the cartoon, he had become pretty big himself, by then. And the victory was a costly one:

In hindsight, I see that, with so much money at stake, the artistic issues I argued about were irrelevant. In the end, it was simply might makes right. I was an unknown cartoonist when I started, and my contractual disadvantage reflected my nonexistent bargaining power when I got the job. Five years later, I was a big enough gorilla that I could turn the tables. Even though I finally got my way, the whole mess is depressing to recall, even all these years later. The fight was personally traumatic For several years it poisoned what had been a happy relationship with my syndicate, and in my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend the rest of my life cartooning. Both sides paid a heavy price for this battle.

I feel bad for Watterson, and I miss his brilliant cartoon, but I still find his triumph thrilling. It cheers and inspires me on my most angry despairing day, and I’m sure Mike Frenette and all the other fisherman fighting BP and the rock bands posting their albums on the internet, and even my sad and oppressed next-door neighbor would feel the same way if they knew what Bill Watterson did all those years ago, and they’d join me to celebrate what accomplished, and redouble their efforts to keep that accomplishment and the spirit of that victory alive. The bullies really do lose, sometimes.

It’s nice to remember that.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Paint Whisperer: Disaster and Rescue

The axis of evil in the house-painting trade: toxic liquids, divided attention and gravity. Not quite as deadly a trifecta as angry red-neck, cheap tequila and large automobile; not as insidious as uneducated citizen, PAC money and partisan TV ad … but still quietly awesome in its own way.

Here are some of my favorite paint calamities …and the inspired emergency responses that saved the day (or at least the final payment on the job)

The most common involve a bucket of paint tipping over on a redwood deck. Usually there’s a drop-cloth under the bucket, but unless the drop is backed with vinyl, the paint will soak right through (think: red wine through a silk table cloth). These calamities are also time sensitive, since the owner or the General Contractor could show up at any moment. The normal response is just to stare at the white puddle in dumb-founded panic. This is not the best clean-up strategy. It wastes precious seconds, and even without the imminent arrival of disapproving employers of one sort or another, every second counts. Paint is drying, soaking into the grain. ‘setting up’, doing its job. The solution, and this applies to any porous surface – bricks for instance, or cedar roof shingles – is dirt and paint thinner. Cleaning up with dirt – every kindergarten boy’s dream. But the dirt absorbs the paint and the thinner breaks it down. You get filthy, you waste several pounds of rags and a few quarts of mineral spirits (It’s always good to have several pounds of rags and a quart or two of mineral spirits on hand for just this purpose), you get a killer fume-headache …but it works. A friend of mine who didn’t understand this simple technique wound up digging out and turning over every brick in five square feet of sidewalk one summer morning. This was unnecessary and kind of crazy. It did work, though. An idiot who worked for me tried this system on grass – not a good idea. The grass got clean, but to call that a ‘superficial view’ of the situation is charitable at best – kind of like giving the Wicked Witch of the West a nice hot bath. The thinner soaks into the soil and kills everything. In that case we had to dig up a giant patch of lawn and dirt and re-sod the whole area before the customer showed up. This is a guy who looked at a can of Benjamin Moore “Navajo White” trim paint and said “What does Nava-joe mean?” You may say – well, sure, he was a house painter. Did you expect him to have an advanced degree? Well, everyone on my crew does, these days. That MFA in writing really helps when you have to improvise. And we all know that painting is a job, but the painting on your wall is a gerund. You can’t put a price on that.

A friend of mine slopped some paint into a new cedar roof. He took thinner and rags and spread it out over the whole surface, effectively ‘pickling’ the shingles. It sounds crazy, but so does punching a shark in the nose.

Years ago a summer kid was using a white pigmented shellac product called Bin to seal the knots on some second-storey trim. He had the quart can on the window sill, the window was open, there was beautiful couch right inside …and you can probably feel your stomach rolling already. The situation has a cartoon inevitability to it. And things get even better: we were at the far end of our little island, with no solvent alcohol on hand; that’s what you use to thin or clean up Bin. Oh, and in case you were wondering: this was before cell-phones. We were on our own in the middle of nowhere. The quart went over into the house, spilling white paint all over the couch. I thought we were doomed, but my boss knew a few things that I didn’t know. He had snooped the house and knew the owners had stocked it against some nameless emergency, with cans of soup, and bags of flour and other staples, shelved in the basement. Among the supplies were several cases of white vinegar … which he somehow knew was a viable solvent for shellac. This guy was old school: he didn’t panic, he just started shouting orders, while the crew dashed out to the van for rags and into the basement, up the stairs, racing against time: nothing dries as fast as Bin. That’s why carpenters like it so much. We flooded that couch, and cleaned it, and shampooed it … and got away with it.

I know it sounds like fun, but don’t try this at home, kids. This stuff is for professional stooges only.

The first dozen times paint catastrophes happened I freaked out; but I’ve gradually learned to take control of the situation and try to fix it, however hopeless things seem. Last summer we were painting a big house on one of the main streets in town, next door to an expensive restaurant. I had given a bid to the restaurant owner for his paint job, but he is spectacularly, radically, famously, comically cheap (He has a house in Montpelier and ignores the great restaurants there to eat at the Vermont College cafeteria, crowing that it’s “the best deal in town!”). He took my bid mainly to gloat over the money he was saving by using his dishwashing staff to do the work for minimum wage. They made a number of basic mistakes: painting with full buckets, not using vinyl-backed drop cloths, and not being careful about ladder placement. One of them set a step-ladder at the top of the steps, on the little deck by the front door. One leg was dangling in the air and when he started to climb, the whole thing went over, spilling oil paint on the stairs, the shingles and the bricks. His response: to run away, in his paint soaked sneakers. Working next door, I screamed at him to stay still. My friend and I swung into action – with the usual thinner and rags and plenty of dirt. We had it all cleaned up before the owner arrived. Weeks later, and I mean weeks, the thought occurred to me that we should have just let them try to fix it themselves: it would have been an excellent lesson for the cheapskate in the value of hiring professionals. But in the moment none of that mattered. Twenty years of dealing with these calamities had created a kind of lizard brain reflex in both of us. We could no more not clean up a paint spill than we could not take a breath coming up from under water. I thought we’d gotten away with it, too. But I saw the restauranteur at my next VCFA residency, waiting on line at the cafeteria. He winked and said “Thanks for the clean up.” His smile seemed to say “I’m cheap but I’m not stupid.”

But don’t get me wrong, this stuff can happen to anyone. One of the most experienced painters I know – from a family of painters – did exactly the same thing on the deck of what was, at that time, the most expensive house on Nantucket. The paint flooded the planks, the decorative stone work, the lawn and the lawn furniture. This time we didn’t have enough thinner or rags to fix the mess. Our boss had to buy new decking, new furniture, new sod, new stone work. The only good part was that this particular culprit, who had always been insufferably smug about his qualifications and pedigree as an old world tradesman, never said a dismissive word to anyone again.

Which wasn’t really fair. These disasters not only can happen to anyone, they will happen to everyone. That’s a guarantee, that’s the fate and predestination of physics, the merciless fact of life when you combine those three hilariously volatile elements: toxic fluids, divided attention and gravity. I always think of another friend, first day on the job: he didn’t attach his paint hook to his regrettably over-full bucket properly, and it fell twenty feet off the ladder to the sidewalk below. Even before it exploded onto the antique flagstones, all of us were thinking the same thing: There but for the grace of God go I. And Grace of God or not, it was only a matter of time before we wound up going there ourselves. Fortunately we didn’t have much time to ponder that idea.

We had some serious cleaning up to do.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie?

The ludicrous, appalling news came out on Saturday:

After nearly four decades of development hell, a movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's doorstop novel Atlas Shrugged finally went into production this past weekend. If you're a Rand fan who had been patiently waiting for years for a quality film based on the book, prepare to be disappointed: The picture, which will tell only half of the epic story, is being helmed by One Tree Hill actor Paul Johansson, who will direct and star as the mysterious industrialist John Galt. Johansson took the gig at the last minute, since producer John Aglialoro would have lost the rights to the novel if the film hadn't entered production by last Saturday, with almost no prep time, a rushed production schedule, a relatively tiny $5 million budget, and a cast of unknowns.

I sighed when I read that press release. But I go back a long way with Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.

Like many people I first read the book in high school, where I was swept up into its binary view of human existence -- the geniuses versus the boobs. Of course, I identified with the genius contingent – the Hank Reardons and Francisco D’Anconias, rather than the boobs, whose very names were a form of moral onomatopoeia: Wesley Mouch, Kip Chalmers and – my personal favorite – Balph (“Not Ralph,” he tells everyone around him, “Balph!”) Eubanks.

I sensed even then that the book had major problems from a screenwriter’s point of view as well as a literary critic’s – all the geniuses fleeing the world seemed to sound exactly alike, in ways that say … Leonard Bernstein, Lee Iacocca and Pablo Picasso, probably wouldn’t. Or, as a random update … take Steve Jobs, Billy Collins and Philip Glass – what are the chances they’d be standing around in some top secret Colorado valley barking out Ayn Rand’s philosophy and finishing each other’s sentences?

I’d say, close to zero.

Then there’s the speeches … not two or three page soliloquies – I’m talking about ten or fifteen page slabs of indigestible didactic ‘kwonking’ – a term my father coined years ago for the sounds made by veteran bores …or the grown-ups in animated Peanuts cartoons. As the inimitable Sam Goldwyn remarked many years ago, “Arias went out with Shakespeare” And that’s not even counting the endless reiterations and redundancies of John Galt’s dreaded final lecture to a captive audience of American boobs reduced to the Stone Age by the disappearance of Galt and his elitist cronies.

Ever more problematical was the setting. In 1957, Ayn Rand was writing about the future … but that future looks as antique as an issue of Life Magazine from 1977 right now. Ayn Rand’s ‘future’ doesn’t work, and setting the book in the past is futile because the past never resembled her America, either.

What a quandary.

Ultimately, I stopped caring, because I got sick of Rand herself and her pre-Tea Party libertarian politics. But I always followed the film-making attempts with a mild rooting interest. There are great dramatic moments in the novel – when Dagny Taggart trades her diamond bracelet for the ‘clunky’ piece of Reardon Metal jewelry that Reardon’s icky wife is sneering at during a big party; Reardon and D’Anconia stopping the steel mill ‘break out’; the bum telling Dagny the story of the ruined car company where Galt designed his motor; the young physicist working on Galt’s unfinished formula seeing three months of work erased from the blackboard by a janitor …and replaced by a single perfect equation. Yes, Galt is the janitor, and if that sound suspiciously like Good Will Hunting, take it as an homage. There’s so much more: Galt’s torture scene, where the machine breaks and he instructs his clueless interrogators how to fix it; the first run on the John Galt Line, the perfect hamburger made by the exile philosophy professor in a Colorado greasy spoon, because he can’t doing anything .less than perfectly (even grilling a burger).

So, as various deals to make the movie rose and were shot down over the years (kind like skeet), I kept thinking g about arranging all these good scenes, cutting out the stupid stuff and the speeches, and stringing a tight, exciting story line out of them. Of course, I knew no one would ever hire me to do that and even if they did, the Rand estate would never allow such radical changes.


But I was particularly irked recently, when I realized exactly how they could update the story, using the railroads. We need our railroads now. They represent our greatest infrastructure investment and asset. Building the John Galt line would be a stroke of political genius today, and at least a partial solution to our connected problems of fossil fuel addiction and global warming. You don’t have to set Atlas Shrugged in the real past or Ayn Rand’s future. You could set in the present and make it unexpectedly relevant at the same time.

Oh well.

That’s not going to happen. No, they held out for the TV pretty boy’s five million dollar vanity project.

And I have to say, it feels like poetic justice.

Seriously: for thirty-five years, Ayn Rand herself, and then the Ayn Rand estate has guarded the book with such virulent orthodoxy and paranoia, turning down a virtual Who’s Who of talented writers and directors over the years because they threatened to change one word of the holy text, that no film or TV series had ever come close to production. Even the effort before this more recent one, with a script no less a screenwriter than Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and a stellar cast that was said to include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, fizzled over questions of length and content. And now, because of this relentless, almost feral posture of steely eyed unflinching integrity, the book is going to wind up as a hopelessly compromised piece of inept, straight-to-DVD trash.

Wesley Mouch would be proud.

But it makes me sad for Ayn Rand. That obsessed, brilliant, batty old dame deserves a whole lot better.

A New Demographic For the iPad

So I was sitting with my soon-to-be-ninety-year old mother in her room at Our Island Home, trying to teach her how to use her new lap-top. I had already failed with the iPod – the concept of turning a dial with your finger tip to scroll down a list may seem ‘organic’ and ‘intuitive’ to my twenty-five year old son. For his grandmother it’s simply impossible. The main problem overlaps with our laptop computer conundrum: she just doesn’t have the manual dexterity to spin a dial precisely, or guide a cursor from a touch pad. She has no conceptual difficulty – she’s no Luddite. She used the big Apple desktop computer my brother bought for her in Long Beach. She cruised the internet, e-mailed her friends, even downloaded the occasional symphony on iTunes. She could handle a mouse in those days.

She still loves the game; she just can’t pass the physical.

As a result, she’s off-line and even more isolated from friends and family. The problem seemed insoluble, just one more checkmate in her on-going chess-game with mortality. But the solution was right in front of us. Tired of the lesson I said, “Can you just go to the X in the upper right hand corner and close the program?” She abandoned the touch pad and simply touched the X with her finger. Nothing happened of course, except inside my head. It was suddenly so obvious. Her intuitive response was to touch the screen. My mom needed an iPad It’s the perfect technology for her, eliminating the ordered, indirect commands and physical manipulation of the controls. Yes, computing has gotten so sophisticated, so intricate and complex, that it’s finally simple enough for my mother to use.

This is a huge breakthrough, a tremendous liberation. I called my brother; he agreed to buy the iPad. Mom should have it in a week or two. We’re very happy, but somehow I don’t think this little story will ever make it into an iPad commercial. This is definitely not the cool demographic Apple is trying to seduce. Yet for most of the prosperous, college-educated consumers Apple covets – people who own a smart phone and a laptop and even a Kindle – there’s no real use for the gorgeous tablet computer, except as a high-end toy. The text doesn’t use e-ink; the movies are hard to watch in certain light, they don’t synch well to other machines, won’t charge with a USB connection to a PC … etc etc. None of that matters to my mother, for whom simplicity and ease of use trump every other consideration. It’s a shame Apple can’t run an ad about this – ‘The Computer for People Who Hate Computers” or “Think Young” or maybe, best of all -- “The Little old Lady from Cuppertino” (I’m sure Jan and Dean would go along, for a free iPad or two of their own).

I can’t get the song out of my head: go granny, go granny, go granny go.

Thanks to the brand new shiny red super stock dodge of a tablet computer, the granny in my family is on her way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why TV is Better Than the Movies

A few months ago I eagerly ordered a few seasons of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, one of my favorite television shows when I was a kid. I remembered sleek sets, cool villains, glamorous action set pieces. My memory was kind. The actual show looked almost comically cheesy and awful forty years later. Those were the days when television was derided as “the vast wasteland”, and though there were some quality offerings – The Defenders. Paladin, I Spy, The Twilight Zone – most of what the networks were offering between the cigarette ads was low-budget dreck. An actor who moved from films to TV was committing career suicide, and even in the mid-eighties, when unknown bartender Bruce Willis scored the lead in Moonlighting, the idea that he could jump to features – and for the impossible, unbelievable payday of five million dollars – was shocking and bizarre.

Well, times have changed.

As the quality of big studio Hollywood movies declines, television has become the venue of choice for the most talented writers, actors and directors in Hollywood. There are a number of reasons for this. Television has always been a writer-dominated business, with directors – especially in comedy – playing a secondary role. The rise of cable further enhanced this hierarchy. When the great Matthew Weiner, whose show Mad Men starts its eagerly awaited fourth season on Sunday night, said in the Emmy- award acceptance speech. “The difference between me and the rest of you is that I have complete creative freedom” it was like a battle cry. The quality of work that such unfettered inspiration produced over the last decade – from The Sopranos, Six feet Under and The Wire to Weeds, Dexter and Treme – has made most of the films produced in this era look puny and venal by comparison.

The idea of letting creative people do their work unmolested had gradually seeped into Network television, also, from The West Wing to Friday Night Lights, both of which are as good as anything on cable, and in some ways better since the demands of a network show are so much greater. Treme’s first season consisted of ten episodes, written by a brilliant team. A The West Wing season demanded more than twice as much work -- twenty-two episodes, most of them written by one crazy, drug-fueled genius, though Aaron Sorkin did have a staff of writers and a group of political experts to suggest story lines and make sure the details were accurate.

Now film actors are happy to do television. Glen Close had flourished on Damages and David Caruso was lucky to get back onto CSI Miami after a string of forgettable films.

This shouldn’t be anything new: the real explanation for television’s new ascendancy has been an intrinsic part of the medium, all along. The first hint of television’s narrative superiority over the movies came with the adaptations of two Irwin Shaw novels. An unjustly neglected writer these days, Shaw was a wildly famous and profligate best-selling author from the forties until his death in 1984. His big World War Two novel, The Young Lions, was made into a pretty good film with Marlon Brando playing a disaffected Nazi and Montgomery Clift as a Jewish soldier. Like most films made from books, it was inevitably a disappointment to both the writer and his fans: so much left out, altered, elided – so much lost in translation.

In the seventies ABC did a mini-series based on another Shaw novel, Rich Man, Poor Man. It was a huge hit an inspired other ‘long form’ productions – like Roots and The Winds of War.

Clearly, this was the way to honor a novel and do justice to the complexities of its character and story-lines. In the eighties Television started exploring this concept more and more, though without the burden of adaptation. Shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A.Law and E.R. seemed to be using the techniques of soap opera in their continuing story lines, but the hystrionics and clichés that characterized ‘daytime drama’ were wholly absent from these more sophisticated shows. They worked like literature, showing characters and situations developing over time, with multi-layered subplots, let-motifs and ambiguous resolutions to problems TV had rarely bothered with before – the aftermath of a police shooting, for instance, or the conflict of conscience for an abortion provider.

The great series we’re watching now, like Mad Men, are the logical continuation of this process. Though a contract dispute or a cocaine conviction can throw a series into confusion and mediocrity, though at the networks, ratings and censors and advertisers can skew the content of a show, for the most part these programs survive; and some of them triumph. We are living through a golden age of television right now – a mass medium that triumphed precisely because it chose to narrow the appeal of its shows, even as movie studios seek to reach the largest possible audience with the most possible explosions and the broadest narrative gestures. Television – whose early hedgemony was shattered by cable and the internet – has learned to embrace the niche audience. A million people watch Mad Men each week. That’s a slim movie audience and a catastrophically tiny network one. But it’s enough for Weiner. He’s not playing to -- or writing for -- the crowd, he’s not trying to hit every demographic, and every ‘quadrant’ of some hypothetical test audience.

He just wants the smart people.

And he gets them, like the rest of this new elite: Sorkin and the three Davids: Simon(The Wire, Treme) Chase (The Sopranos), and Milch (Deadwood). These are the new auteurs, and their work is the stuff that will hold up forty years from now, when the comic book adaptations, sequels and star vehicles special effects extravaganzas are long forgotten. It’s a tough truth to absorb, especially if you’re in the 100 million dollar movie business, but as Don Draper memorably pointed out to Peggy Olson in the first episode of Mad Men’s second season,

"Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You- FEELING something. That's what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can't do what we do, and they hate us for it."

But we love you, Don, and we await the next season of Mad Men just as we anticipate the new Jonathan Franzen novel or the American readers lined up on the dock for the next installment of Little Dorritt. The novel isn’t dead – it’s alive and dangerously robust, and television of all things, that ‘great wasteland’ that gave us Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, proves that extraordinary fact beyond the shadow of a doubt.

It’s an irony Dickens himself would have appreciated.

The Road to Publication, Part One

It’s a long, washed out, pot-holed road that goes in circles, or takes weird detours to cliff edges or turns into muddy dirt and disappears into the scrub. But I’m cruising it again now, for better or worse, and I thought it might be interesting to document the journey. If this particular stretch of cracked macadam winds up at a sinkhole or a chain-link fence with big NO TRESSPASSING signs, so be it.

The trip may still be interesting.

I’ve traveled this route before. Three years ago I cold-queried an agent with a different book: Owners, the one I’ve been posting on Open Salon for the last month or so. The novel was set on Nantucket and this agent loved the island. She asked to see pages but felt uneasy when I told her the book was incomplete. Still, she liked what she read. We worked together for a few months, but she was having a baby and getting out of the business. She passed me on to a New York agent she knew. I worked with this guy for a year, finishing and revising-- and then he sent my nicely buffed and polished 92,000 words out on auction to twelve publishers.

I was riding high.

Then they all rejected it … and he retired.

I went from having a hot book and a big-time agent to having an un-publishable pile of pages and no representation -- in less than two weeks. Career whiplash happens on the road to publication: fasten your seatbelts.

I’m obviously hoping this time will be different. I have a few more advantages now. Some I earned – like my MFA degree; some I didn’t: like my name. After many cold queries and very few requests for pages and no real progress I finally decided to query my father’s agent. I had met him at Dad’s memorial service and he seemed like a decent guy. A Google search proved he was a major player in Hollywood. It felt like cheating but I no longer cared.

Here’s the query letter I sent out to all those agents (It took slightly less time to write than the book itself):

HEAT OF THE MOMENT, complete at 78,500 words, tells the story of an ordinary high school English teacher whose obsessive sexual passion for a student drives him to statutory rape, blackmail, grand larceny and finally murder. Invoking novels like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Josephine Hart’s Damage, as well as a history of film noir movies from The Blue Angel to Body Heat, the hero of HEAT OF THE MOMENT is always at least two steps behind his teen-age femme fatale, never fully aware of her actual intentions until it’s much too late. At the end of the book, after destroying a man’s life and getting away with it, she has the bad luck to cross paths with the serial killer and snuff-film auteur whose exploits have formed a counter-point to the main story. His wry “You’re pretty enough to be in the movies” makes it clear she’s met her match, at last: barracuda vs. shark.

Part crime thriller, part cautionary tale, this journey into the land of worst possible outcomes would be a hellish trip to experience, but (I hope) a perversely entertaining one to read.

I'm a member of the WGA(west), with numerous script options and assignments( from such production companies as Hemdale, Tetragram, Concorde New Horizons, Howard International, and Arama) behind me, but no screen credits yet. I recently received my MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and have built a modest but discernible readership (as much as 3000 hits for my most popular posts) on Open Salon. Several of my essays have been featured at, including recent eulogy for Robert B. Parker and a belated valentine to the NFL. If you'd like to see all or any part of the book, let me know.

Thanks for your time and attention –

The query netted a variety of responses over the next few months, but the main reaction was silence. Personally, I prefer that. I send out masses of queries, to names picked out of a fat paperback guide to agents, and I promptly forget about them. If they’re not interested in me, the last thing I want is to be reminded of their irksome, critical existence. It’s a kind of arrogance, anyway -- this assumption that they’re important enough for me to be hanging on breathlessly to read their comments.

Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure, (and vicarious entertainment) here are a few of the more interesting responses:

Thanks for sending along those opening pages of HEAT OF THE MOMENT. The writing is great and it certainly held my attention, but this one is just a bit too creepy for most of the editors with whom I regularly do business and I worry that the lack of sympathetic characters will further limit its appeal. I’m going to pass with some reservations. Another agent may know just the right editor but unfortunately I don’t.

I am going to turn you down for strictly personal, arbitrary, some would say snotty reasons. I hope you receive my comments as nothing more damning than had I written "I prefer Indian food to Italian."

I think you've crafted a plot that would appeal to a number of agents.

But, as a reader (and thus as an agent) I am more steeped in reality based writing than a plot twisting page turner. The meeting one of Susan's previous victims in rehab and especially the revelation that the whole scenario was actually her machinations for someone else to take the fall for murdering her father may well work for a best selling novel and film, but it hits my reading taste buds as artifice I just can't buy into. I could say the same thing about 90% of the books on The New York Times bestseller list.

Please don't change a comma on my account. You simply need to find the right agent.

I appreciate your sending over the manuscript; I read into it, and you definitely do what you do nicely. But it feels much more like a modern thriller than the sort of classical hardboiled/noir crime fiction we look for, and these days we have so few slots that we really have to focus on books that fall right in our sweet spot. I wish you all the best with it -- but we're going to pass.

I made the crucial mistake of answering this rejection. On the road to publication that’s like doing a fast lane change without signaling or checking your blindspot. It tends to irritate the other drivers.

Here’s our subsequent e-mail exchange:

Thanks for the quick response ... I understand your view, but the story does evolve into much more of what I think you want ...and as the book came out a little too long for the series, some of the early part could be cut for pace. I don't mean to presume on your time or your patience, but I now regret not sending the 1,100 word synopsis. It would have to given a sense of the bigger picture. I'm pasting it below, so you can take a look if you have time. Anyway -- thanks for your courtesy and attention.


I don't doubt that what you say is true -- it might evolve into all sorts of things. But if the opening isn't right for us, our readers will never get to find out what it evolves into, since they'll put the book down, the same way I did. I don't mean to be harsh, but I figure it's best to be honest. I hear this all the time from people -- "The book has a great ending!" or "Just wait till you get to chapter 8, it's amazing!" Well, maybe. But I'll only get to chapter 8 if I find chapters 1 through 7 compelling.

Could it be cut? Could it be edited? Sure; any book could. But what I've got to look at is what you sent.

And in the 10 days since you sent the book to me, I've received 20-30 other books by other writers, all of whom as just as eager for us to publish them and all of whom have passion for their books, and most of whose books are also perfectly good (if not necessarily right for us). Most likely the answer will be no to every one of them -- and to the next 30, and the 30 after that -- and that means I can only spend so much time on any of them.

Apologies again if I'm coming across as a jerk -- I don't mean to -- but the only way I can survive the flood of incoming submissions is to read quickly, make the best decisions I can, and move on.


Note to self: don’t do that again.

The rest of the responses were just the usual “Not for us” rejections, but my final effort produced this note:

Thank you for following up with us. We're very excited to read the sensuous, drug-filled adrenaline narrative you've whipped up. Godspeed on any concurrent projects, Steven, and have a great rest of the week.

That sounded refreshingly positive. It was written by an assistant, but I Googled her and saw that she was a cool twenty-something with her own web-site and some sharply written flash fiction published in various e-zines.

To proceed with the submission, I had to download an agency document giving all kinds of waivers and permissions and promising not to sue them under a variety of what I can only call drastically litigation-appropriate situations. No problem: I’ve signed these release forms before. I never got around to filling this one out, though, because my Dad’s agent sent me this short e-mail:

I'd love to take a look at the first 100 pages - can we do that?

I didn’t have much hope at that point; nepotism usually backfired somehow, and it was frowned on in my family, anyway. I remembered my Dad’s favorite anecdote about Verdi’s son, who wrote a requiem mourning his father and gave it to the old man’s music publisher, whose devastating response was: “You should have died. Your father should have written the requiem.”

But it was worth a try, and it turned out to be the real beginning, the on-ramp to a road I hadn’t traveled in quite a while.

Pack a lunch -- we’ll start the trip together, next time.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

American Idol: Some Questions About the Finale

The show's two hour blow out rivals "Lost" for it's cluster of bizarre mysteries and unanswered questions.

Inquiring minds want to know:

How does Paula really feel about Simon Cowell and the show? She was teary-eyed, one minute, and insutingly bitter the next (What was that line about the man boobs?). Anyway, it was nice to see some unstable craziness back on center stage.

How is Brett Michaels even walking around? Wasn't he basically dead a week ago?

How many of the midwestern tween speed-dial monsters who made what-his-name the most forgettable Idol since Taylor Hicks have actually heard of Joe Cocker, or The bee Gees, or Hall and Oates ... or even Alanis Morissette (isn't she that actess from Weeds?)-- or even Janet Jackson? (She's so Twentieth Century).

How short is Ryan Seacrest? And how smarmy and annoying can he be without actually imploding?

Where the hell was David Cook? I mean --seriously. Did his Mom just die? Did his visa expire when he was in Africa with Idol Gives Back? Every winner from the show was there, except him, and he was my favorite. So what's up? They never mentioned him. He's an unperson.

What the hell happened to Kelly Clarkson? She looked fat and exhausted and miserable. And how did they coerce her onto the show? I hope it wasn't by force-feeding her Mars bars.

What the hell was Carrie Underwood wearing? It looked like the failed haut couture effort of some bitter Project Runway loser on the week when they had to make clothes out of kitchen items ("I started with tin foil and cut up some pot holders ... it makes a statement, I don't care what the judge think.")

Speaking of Carrie ... what was up with that horrible song? A stutter is not a hook.

And can Kara write music, or is that collaboration with Carrie really the best she can do? What would Simon have said about it ("If this was a thousand years ago, they'd have stoned you to death.")

Didn't Ellen deGeneres used to be funny? Or was that her evil twin. And why are the evil ones so much more entertaining?

What the hell was Simon saying about the audience being the greatest judges? From season one where they booted Tamyra Grey to last night when they snubbed a major talent and gave Mr. potato head the crown, they have proven themselves to be infantile, tone deaf and idiotic over and over again.

Speaking of Simon ...

How do they think they can have show without him?

The New Technology; Three Game-Changers

The new buzz word in the Silicon Valley is “Simplify” and these three astonishing innovations tackle that techno-geek mantra, update it, reboot it, up-grade it and turn it into a philosophy, a wikipedia of personal style and ultimately, nothing less than a cutting-edge, steam-punk state-of-the art way of life! The past is the future and the future is now. So let’s get started, before Wired Magazine scoops us!

First of all, the retro masterpiece I’m calling the MePhone. Are you sick of the brain-tumor causing, relentlessly nagging, ubiquitous bleeping and vibrating cell phone? Are you sick of being pestered anywhere and any time by anyone with your name on a call list? Do you long for the days when your telephone was stuck in your house where it belongs, tethered to the wall, and you could actually hear the person you were talking to? Have you ever thought to yourself … I’d gladly trade in all my GPS triangulations, fart apps and youTube videos just to be able to get a clear connection? If so, then the gloriously chunky new MePhone is the product for you. Featuring a heavy ‘receiver’ you can actually slam down on a ‘cradle’ to ‘hang up on’ people who irritate you (just like Mom and Pop used to do) and a old fashioned ‘dial’,complete with little metal comma that stops your finger when each number’s spin is finished. It lets you feel the weight of the digits as they rotate back to rest with that series of clicks that tells you – "speed dial is so totally over!” Press four if you want to speak Spanish? Not any more! The day of punching buttons to talk to computers and hang-up robots is ancient history. Dial up a new era.

But you say, the MePhone doesn’t store phone numbers. Our next device solves that problem handily! The iPen actually uses a flow of liquid ink – not e-ink, but real, messy, paper-soaking, finger- staining gallatannate ink – which flows out with pressure of the nib on paper. This amazing tool requires no batteries, no charge, no wireless connection. You can take it anywhere, drop it in the bath water or onto the sandy beach, and it keeps on working. You’ll discover that you have something called ‘handwriting’ – a unique shape to the letters of the words you form with your iPen, a personal signature more unique than the one you’ll put at the bottom of your iPen contract. Is it more slow and difficult than dancing your fingers over a computer keyboard? Well, that’s the point. Slow down, feel each word. Dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s – you can finally do that. You can also doodle in the margins, scratch words out and just play. The iPen is mightier than the sword (Just jab it in your enemy’s eye). The writing is on the wall!

Finally we come to the long awaited answer to the e-book revolution. Finally a reader that never needs a single erg of electricity, that you can drop off a ten story building with breaking it, one you can mark up with your iPen to your heart’s content. It’s called … wait for it … ‘The Book”. This durable, take-anywhere item brings back the forgotten joy of actually turning pages. Not animated pages on a touch screen, but real, paper pages hinged into a stitched binding that smells of dusty leather, old summer houses and your childhood. Does this radical innovation spell the end of the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad? I’d say the future is ‘booked’ solid.

Next week: The abacus!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Misunderstood American Masters #3: Thornton Wilder

When Annie told me she was going to play Mrs. Webb in a local production of Our Town, I tried to talk her out of it. She’s trying to get a story collection ready for a Memorial Day prize submission deadline, and plays eat time like stoners eat Cracker Jack. But it wasn’t just that. I had seen Our Town when my high school mounted the play in 1967, and I remembered it as corny, sentimental small town schmaltz – hardly worth learning all those lines, wasting two months of rehearsals and giving up all those balmy Spring nights for.

I wonder about that initial reaction now, having been marinated for weeks in the words of Thornton Wilder, running lines and watching various versions of the play. My memory might have been playing tricks on me; or maybe I was just too young to really appreciate the harsh truth and the austere beauty of what may just be the Great American Play. As the Stage Manager, says, discussing the time-capsule cornerstone for the new bank being built in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire:

…Y’know Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ‘m is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts and – the sales of slaves. Yes, every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney -- same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone, so the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us – more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight. See what I mean? So – people a thousand years from now – this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the Twentieth Century – this is the way we were – in our growing up and in our marrying, and in our living and in our dying.

The play is deceptively simple. Its three acts show a day in the life of Grover’s Corners New Hampshire, circa 1901; the marriage of George Webb and Emily Gibbs, three years later; and a graveyard scene nearly a decade after the wedding. The production design is minimalist, to say the least. At one point stage-hands roll a trellis into view “For those of you who feel you have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager remarks. He’s a curious conceit, this Stage Manager. He narrates the play, comments on the action like a one man Greek Chorus. But the characters on stage are aware of him; they talk to him. At his request, Mr. Webb, the editor of the town newspaper, steps up to deliver the “political and social report” on the town for the audience. Mr. Webb is aware of the audience, too, it seems – he even takes questions from them. His wife and her neighbor, Julia Gibbs come and go at The Stage Manager’s command. He thanks them for their ‘scene’ – at once a purely realistic conversation and a Pirandello-esque exercise in theatrical self-awareness. Are these actors talking to their “Stage Manager” – as actors? Or is it the characters themselves talking to … the author? Us? God? The mystery resonates through the play, an unanswered question that renders Our Town strikingly, almost abrasively, modern, for all its apparent folksiness old-fashioned charm.

The Stage Manager certainly has an omniscient point of view. Telling us about Joe Crowell, the newsboy, he says:

Joe was awful bright – graduated from High School here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech – MIT. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin to be a great engineer, Joe was, but the war broke out and he died in France. Yes sir, all that education for nothing. What business he had picking a quarrel with the Germans, we can’t make out to this day, hut it all seemed pretty clear to us at the time.

He sees the future, he leads the dead Emily Gibbs briefly back into the world of the living at the climax of the third act and most of all he helps us see the long view, the great context in which these characters lives are set. It comes out in so many details, at almost every moment of the play, from the Stage Manager (marrying George and Emily in Act Two) talking about the “other witnesses” – the ancestors, “millions of them” to George’s sister Rebecca telling him about a letter her friend got from the Minister when she was sick. She says the address on the envelope read like this: “Jane Crofut, the Crofut Farm, Grover’s Corners, Sutton County; Neew Hampshire; the United states of America; continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; The Solar System; The Universe; The Mind of God. And the postman brought it, just the same.”

In a letter to his friend Alexander Woolcott, dated January 27th, 1938, Wilder laid his intentions out clearly:

Our reviews say that it is a nostalgic unpretentious play with charm. But what I wrote was damn pretentious…The subject of the play I wrote is: the trivial details of human life in reference to a vast perspective of time, of social history, of religious ideas … if it had been written as a picture of rural manners, it would have been written differently … [Stage manager actor Frank Craven] is lovable and we’re grateful for that. But, oh, for that deep New England stoic irony that’s grasped the iron of life and shares it with the house.

In fact the play is anything but sentimental. It’s harsh, it’s brutal. It’s merciless, in a way. No one gets what they want. Emily Webb, who loves to give speeches (“It was like silk off a spool”) and thinks she’ll do it all her life, marries a farmer nowhere near as bright as she is and dies in childbirth at age thirty. Her brother Wally dies on a Boy Scout trip when he’s barely a teen-ager. Her mother-in-law, Julia Gibbs, never achieves her life-long dream of going to Paris, France (“Only it seems to me, once in your life, you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and they don’t even want to.”) She sells a valuable piece of furniture but that money doesn’t pay for a trip abroad. It goes to buying her son a trough for the farm livestock. She does get to make her husband French toast, though. We only realize the ultimate disposition of Mrs. Gibbs’ ‘legacy’ at the end of the play when both she and her daughter-in-law are dead and sitting in the graveyard and it shouldn’t matter any more. But it still hurts. Even the fact that Emily loves the trough, with its modern automatic drain and refill, wounds us somehow. She settled for so much less than she should have had.

But still she wants to go back. The other shades advise her against it, but she insists, and the Stage Manager with an inscrutable deference, allows her to re-live her twelfth birthday. In perhaps the most moving and justly famous moment of the play, she finds it unbearable, and flees back to the grave yard. She says:

I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first; Wait! One more look! Goodbye! Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Grover’s Corners – Mama and papa – Goodbye to clocks ticking – and my butternut tree! – and mama’s sunflowers – and food and coffee – and new ironed dresses and hot baths – and sleeping and waking up! – Oh Earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you. (to The Stage Manager) Do any humans ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute

And he says, “No. Saints and poets maybe. They do, some.”

Maybe the Stage Manger is right when he quotes the ‘scholars’ who believe there’s nothing living above us, among the stars, “just chalk – or fire.” But elsewhere in the play he says there’s “something eternal about every human being” and you feel that when you watch the play and you feel it in the play itself, still vivid and moving and troubling more than seventy years after it was written, thirty five years after the author’s death. Despite the harshness of life, despite its cruel twists of fate, its mean compromises and its relentless defeats, without a scrap or filament of the sentimentality for which it has so often been derided, Our Town shakes us awake for a moment or two, makes us really look at the world outside the theatre, feel the mild night air around us, take the hand of the person we love beside us, reach for that sainthood of awareness, that elusive poetry of now.