Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beat the Devil

William is writing a graphic novel about two post-apocalyptic characters, one named Father and the other Son. These two ride around on their choppers and sit by campfires and try to survive in a dark world. Son, who has never known anything before the apocalypse, is very romantic. He wants to fall in love, but he has never met a girl. Father remembers the world the way it was. He recalls television shows and commercials and the internet and frozen dinners and things like owning a house, which, after the apocalypse, being only a dream, seems absurd. But still, he remembers.

William writes a scene in which Father and Son are chased by a horde of invaders. They agree to split up and meet at the old camp, but as soon as Son takes an exit, Father pulls his bike over and dismounts. He kills many with his war club, but eventually is subdued and beaten to death.  

“He needs to be killed so Son can become a man,” William explains.
But still, I don’t like this newest turn.
“So, the son becomes a man because he gets away?" 
"That's not the point." 
"But what about Father?" 
"He's dead, man." 
I don't like this turn at all. 
"Maybe he can come back as the undead or something,” I say.
“But that sort of ruins the metaphor,” says William.
“Who cares?” I say. “It’d be cool! Besides, anyone who sacrifices their life for something bigger, in this case his son, becomes, like, greater than he was before. Look at Jesus. Joan of Arc. Martin Luther King.”
And I go on to name a bunch of other martyrs. But William hates it.

“Okay," I say, “How about this? I’m not telling you how to write it, but the father should meet up with a character that seems to be his ideal. This big, strong, quiet guy who knows everything about engines and the father should compromise himself in some way. You know? He should compromise himself and that will be his bargain with the devil. Because the guy he thinks is his ideal is actually Satan. That’s how Satan operates. You need to be the one who chooses him. He has no power other than that. So, the father is fooled into this deal with the devil, and then the father needs to die, but the son is innocent so he’s unaffected by the deal. And his whole mission is then to get even with the devil. Because these post-apocalyptic stories are perfect for God and the Devil. Right? There’s always God and the Devil. I love that shit.”
“But the father still dies,” says William.
“Yeah,” I say. "I guess." 
“And he doesn’t come back.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Does he come back? Can he come back?”

These days I spend with William are more than I could have hoped for. We work out twice a week – 150 pushups, 50 pullups, 75 dips, curls, crunches, military press, and jump rope. William has boxing gloves and headgear from his kickboxing days, and on the off days we try to spar. Four rounds at three minutes a round. Punches pulled. No haymakers. And we write together sometimes. Sometimes we split lunches at the Cactus, a small Mexican restaurant in Coralville, or the China Garden. Last weekend, we raked the lawn together. Yesterday, he helped me change out a water heater. Next month, he’ll be moving to New York City with his brother, Sam.

I never got to spend time like this with Sam. Sam and I never had a mature relationship. It was always father / son. I’d tell him to clean his room to no avail, and to avoid drugs to no avail. There were a lot of things I told Sam to no avail. But I didn't listen much. And then he moved out and he hasn’t moved back. Lucy, my only daughter, is sixteen years old and hates me for being old and disgusting. And she probably will hate me for the foreseeable future.

I had a dream that the children were young. We were hiking in the woods at Squire Point. We were paddling the canoe down the Iowa River. We were inspecting the ruins of a tarpaper shack on some abandoned stretch of highway. We were in Arizona climbing Silly Mountain. Moving through North Dakota by train. Swimming in the Atlantic. Swimming in the Pacific. Lucy’s body bright red due to the cold. But all these things, of course, actually happened. Not that they are in any way distinguishable, now, from things that didn’t actually happen.

Mounted on the walls of the stairway leading downstairs are a series of self-portraits done by my children when they were each in kindergarten. Sam’s is square and robot-like. William looks like a half-formed human. Maybe in a pupal state, arms and legs forthcoming. Lucy is standing beneath a tree with tulips. Beside her self-portrait is a small crayon drawing of a small person and a large person, both smiling like maniacs, with the words “Me and Dad.” When she did it, I thought it was very cute and didn’t think much more about it. But Deb, having a feminine sense of history, framed it and hung it. Now, seeing it in the midst of this other life where Lucy dates a baseball player who owns a truck and works at Noodles and Company and has been drifting farther and farther away, as I head downstairs with a load of laundry, the little crayon drawing makes me want to cry.

Last night, I was an eagle. I was released in one level of a video game. The idea was, I needed to fight some evil force. The devil. But the devil would appear as many flying creatures yet to be released into this particular level. I flew to a lighting fixture, high up in the clouds, an enormous window behind me. Another eagle joined me, an ally.

“There’s no way they’ll miss us here,” I said.

I thought of the two of us, perched on the lighting fixture high up in the air, backlit by the window, an easy target. Looking down, I saw a dark barroom with a grill. I couldn’t make out much else, it being so dark. So, I flew down and huddled up next to the exhaust hood, loud music, the smell of stale beer, the patrons shouting, and was invisible. My eagle friend joined me. And we waited for the devil so that we might subdue him and beat him to death.  

It has been my third devil dream in a row. Once he appeared on my daughter’s computer screen, a series of colorful lines and the sound of static, and although I was almost paralyzed with fear, I walked into her room to protect her. And then, once, he was in the closet beyond the TV set as I slept on the couch, and although I didn’t want to look, I had to use all my energy to turn my head. And then awoke to find that my neck was very uncomfortable and at an odd angle on the arm of the couch. And although my heart was racing, the devil had once again disappeared.

But it’s hard to believe in such things when I'm not sleeping. And the spring has just begun, the best part of spring when there is yet to be even one leaf on a tree and the crocuses have just now poked their purple and white heads up and fifty degrees feels like a beach day. How long ago was it when I first saw a crocus make its through that frozen soil? How long ago when I hated to step out of my truck, the cold wind pulling at me like a vengeful spirit? A week ago? Two weeks ago? And I would have given anything, then, for a day like today. 

I’m raking again. Alone this time. The sun bright. The wind at bay. New shoots rising up from the roots of the old crabapple tree. And I filling my certified paper bags with dry leaves and lining them up on the curb to be taken away. Those leaves that have been so long covered with snow so that I imagined they might not be there anymore. Unraked last fall when my father lay dying and I crisscrossing that familiar stretch of highway again and again, unaware of what death might look like. Of what it might be like to be in a world without a father.

All this talk of death. And loss. When the season is so new. It’s ridiculous to maintain focus on this dark ending. To imagine that death is any more final or absolute than life. What could be more absolute than life?   

“I have four kids,” said the woman I met yesterday morning in Brueger’s Bagels. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“At the time?" I said. "Not about kids.” 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Leap Frogs of the Rhoudenbush Community Center

The Rhoudenbush Community Center in Westford center had three large, steel frogs painted green that we were supposed to leap over and, even when I was very young, they bored the shit out of me. I leaped over them each once and that was the end of my interest in the leap frogs. The swings were cool. I got a lot out of them. That heavy feeling in the stomach on the bottom of the arc, and then the zero gravity at the top, the chains suddenly free from their load. I don’t think they had a merry-go-round. Those were deemed dangerous. But whoever deemed them dangerous should have also deemed the teeter-totter dangerous too. Who puts a fifteen foot plank with a fulcrum in the very center of it and doesn’t expect kids to #1 try to launch a lesser object, like a smaller child, into the air by leaping on the other end, or #2, stand in the middle and pretend you’re surfing while two other children go up and down, or #3 step off at the perfect moment so the other kid free-falls six feet and lands on the plank? What’s dangerous about that?

But I guess it didn’t matter. When we weren’t provided with dangerous things, we provided our own dangerous things. We tipped our bikes upside down and spun the wheels as fast as we could while “working on” the chains. I got my finger caught once. A trip to the hospital. And then we flipped them right side up and took big jumps on them. I don’t know how many times I crunched my nuts when I was a kid. Or how many times I suffered concussions from first climbing trees and then falling out of them. A trip to the hospital. One time, while getting bucked on the back of a ten speed, I somehow got my bare foot caught in the spokes. Another trip to the hospital.

But this was nothing. The guys down at the corner of Long Sought for Pond and Dunstable Roads, Danny Carlo and Big Mike Bomal, and and Vinnie Dorsett all bought switchblades and were always talking about street fights with what they called the “Ricans” so Dave and I asked for switchblades for our birthdays and ended up with Swiss army knives. We were proud of them, but when we showed them to the guys, they were not impressed. “What’re you going to do, blunt them to death?” I never saw any street fights going on, but was eager to become involved. This was the time of the film, The Warriors, where there were a bunch of gangs all wanting to kill one another. And it was always the time of Clint Eastwood, the man more responsible than anyone else in the history of mankind for the idea that one guy could and probably should kill ten or twelve other guys all by himself. My brother, Dave, took this theory to heart. He was always getting into fights with whole groups of people, but he didn’t have the poncho or the leather hat with the wide brim or the beard or, more importantly, the six shooter in the holster, or even more importantly, the script or the camera nor the film editor. Dave got his ass kicked regularly. I must have been more cowardly because I rarely went for the whole crowd. I’d go one at a time. But Dave and I were alike in that we both had some oversized sense of justice and, at the same time, a vulnerability to the world, to other kids calling us faggots or saying something about our red hair (red on the head like the dick on a dog) or mentioning something about us being identical twins, or saying anything at all that might be construed as a slight. We held a wild and ferule desire to be placed in kill-or-be-killed situations.

In most civilized societies, there is a line drawn between one person saying something to another person, and punching that other person in the face. But such a line did not exist in Westford, Massachusetts in the mid ‘70s. People punched each other in the face all the time. And if you weren’t punching someone in the face, you were getting punched in the face. And if you had the lowest of impulses, the impulse that has allowed our race to survive climate changes though the millennia and the end of the dinosaurs and tribes of invaders, you had a better shot at waiting at the bus stop or smoking cigarettes before class or walking down the hallway without being hassled. But of course, we were hassled. We were red heads. And twins for god sake. And we weren’t the biggest kids in our grade. So, there were fights. And all the classical music our parents listened to and all the foreign films they saw and all the books our mother read to us and all the art museums they took us to lost out to Sergio Leone. We knew there would come a time, because it came all the time, when we would be alone against the many. And we knew that, in order to do what was right and good and maybe not pure but necessary, there would be bloodshed. And it was always better to shed someone else’s.

Just out of high school, we spent most of our time in Lowell, the closest real city to Westford. There was a big man outside glass window of Captain C’s sub shop one night. My friends were eating steak and cheese subs. I didn’t know why the big man kept looking in the window. Why was he looking? My friends didn’t seem to notice, eating steak and cheese subs as they were. But the big man kept looking. He didn’t appear happy. He was four or five smaller men. I didn’t like the big one.

I was with Gary Nosek, perhaps the best athlete in Westford, Massachusetts, who could throw a baseball in the mid-90s. On the football field, you could hear him growl from the sidelines, and when you hear him growl like that, carrying the ball, you knew someone else was going to fall to the turf in pain. Gary never seemed to be in pain. And then he took up karate. In a fight, nobody could beat him. And the less-smart among us had tried. In third grade, I tried. It was the only fight I had ever lost at that tender age. When it came time to shake hands, as was the custom of vice-principles to make students do in those days, I refused to do so. He had beaten me in a fight. And I didn’t know how to respond. Steve Johnson, whom everyone called “Hyper” due to his high energy in football practice, was there as well as my buddy Doug Delillo, the man with arms like tree trunks, and there were three or four other guys at Captain C’s when the big man, who was standing outside glass window of Captain Jason's Sub Shop in Lowell, Mass, put his foot through the glass. And the glass didn’t just crack and craze and fall out in chunks the way safety glass does. It shattered, tiny crystals all over us. And, because I had been watching the big man, I was ready for it, out the door before anyone else had fully realized what happened, and down the street after big man and his friends.

I circled around the corner by the viaduct to a side-street where one lone streetlight cast a very dramatic pool of orange light on the pavement. Other than that, tenement apartments. Parked cars. Dogs barking. The ghostly flicker of TVs from inside the windows. And distant sirens. And the smell of piss and cigarette smoke. And someone shouting something from somewhere. Other than that, darkness and silence. And emptiness. And I was all alone on the empty street. Heart pounding fast. Blood lust up. Nobody behind me. Nobody in front of me. Until my friends caught up, now running. Now walking. Gathering around me, my friends. Who were indomitable. And I was surprised to hear myself shouting for big man to come out. Calling him a pussy. Calling him a coward. Telling him was going to kill him. And why was I going to kill him? Why, in this world of classical music and art films and punching and kicking and stabbing and shooting, was I going to kill this one particular big man? Because he kicked glass on my sandwich, which I had paid three dollars for. That’s why. He had kicked glass on my three-dollar sandwich.  

It was pretty badass to see the big man step out directly beneath the street light, about thirty yards up the hill. A black silhouette stepping out of the other blackness. Stepping out. Sub sandwich in hand. He was big. His shoulders were broad. And he gave a shout. And then the others stepped out of the darkness, all along the street. Maybe six guys in all. And they just stood there like guys in The Warriors. Just like we would expect them to do if we were in the darkness of a theater. And the big one was walking toward us, and I stepped out front the way Achilles would do. And the big man stepped up to me the way Hector would do. And there was a silence that descended upon us, neither of us sure of what would come next if this were a story, and, at the same time knowing that something certainly would come next. We couldn’t just walk away. Every film we had ever seen demanded something of us.

“What’s up?” said big man. 
“You like kicking in windows?” I said.
“What?” said big man. 
“You like kicking in windows?” I said.
“What?” said the big man.
“You heard me,” I said. 
“Where’d you get that sub?” shouted Doug Delillo.  
Big man looked at the sub in his hand.
This was not a cool thing for Doug to say. He was engaging in deductive reasoning. We weren’t there for a class in deductive reasoning. We were here for some other reason.  
“I’m going to kick your ass,” I said to big man.

Big man looked at all of us. My friends a few steps back. And then he looked at me. The skinny red headed kid. He could tell my friends weren’t keen to fight. We were just kids from a little suburban town somewhere. We weren’t jailbirds or tough guys. We had lawns. And moms.

“Oh yeah?” said big man, tossing his sub to the side of the road.
“He threw his sub away!” shouted Doug Delillo, victoriously. “That’s good enough! He threw his sub away! Let’s go.”

But I wouldn’t have it. I had been insulted in my primal soul. Glass has been kicked upon my sub and there was no civilized solution for such an uncivilized act. I knew that big man must fall. And he came at me. He was much bigger than I was. Taller and wider. And he knew he’d have no problem with me. I sidestepped his lunge and punched him once in the face and then twice more while he fell. Now I was straddling him. Now I had his arms pinned, his head completely vulnerable, my fist poised in the air, and then I recalled something I saw earlier in the year. A real big guy, even bigger than big man, named Johnny Damm, who moved to Westford from somewhere in New York, had some schmoe on the ground just like I had this schmoe on the ground, and he held his fist in the air the way I was holding my fist in the air, but he didn’t hit the guy. He said, “Listen, pal. This fist can put you in the hospital for a long time. You want to be in the hospital for a long time?” And I thought that was just about the coolest thing I ever saw. When in every other instance, for myself and every other fighter I had ever seen, the fist came down. And the blood splattered everywhere. And the fist came down again and again.

“This fist can put you in the hospital,” I said to big man. “You want to go to the hospital?”
The guy shook his head.
“What did you say?” I said.  
“No!” he said.  

And I stepped back and he got up, looking back at his friends. “Let’s go!” he shouted, lunging at me again. I put the guy on the ground once again, and his friends did not move. They simply watched their big friend hit the ground once again. But I didn’t put him in the hospital. I guess you could say it was my first act of mercy. Although it had more to do with trying to be like Johnny Damm than mercy. And we walked back to Captain Jason's. Spoke to the cops. Got free subs. Went home. Went through college or not. Got jobs. Had families or not. Lost parents. Moved on through that tidal wave of time that makes every big man little. Everything real a dream. Everything that seemed cool uncool.   


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Breakfast at IHOP

Years ago, when my four children were young, I wrote half a novel about a selfish, unintelligent guy named Bill who had a bad marriage and four children who were becoming aware that their father was a loser. Because Bill needed money, yet was unemployed and lacked any salable skills, he decided to go on a crime spree, ripping off IHOP restaurants at slingshot-point while dressed as Santa Claus. In the last chapter of the first half, in the heart of winter, teenage kids shouted names at him as they pegged him with loose pennies and nickels from their pockets. Rather than protect himself, our hero lay on his back trying to retrieve the runaway coins from under the grease dumpster. I couldn’t finish the novel because, search my mind as I may, I could find no redemption for my hero. Since he never had anything, he couldn’t regain it. And since neither he nor I had any idea what he might be looking for, he couldn’t very well find it.  

It wasn’t my only attempt at fiction. There were other half-finished novels, all of my heroes following the same spiral path downward. During my spasmodic attempts at writing, in those early Iowa days, I did bring in money for my family by working in the trades, and I did love my family the best way I knew how, and I had friends who were important to me, and I played golf and softball and listened to baseball on the radio and occasionally treated myself to breakfast at the IHOP, and I was happy from time to time. But my moments of happiness, when I was actually playing golf, for example, were always surrounded by my awareness that the good parts didn’t last. That was the nature of the good parts. It was the bad parts, consisting of either waiting for the good parts or regretting that the good parts were over, that comprised, I believed, the more abiding truth. I dreaded the good parts even when they were upon me, like spring after winter, because I knew them to be false. There would be lilacs one week and then they'd be gone and the brutal summer would press its white skies down upon us again, like The Truth. I had this idea of my life forging the original path for my fictional characters, circling the drain, and although I should have been happy with my life, blessed as I was with everything I could have dreamed of when I was a kid lying on my parent’s orange shag rug listening to the Herb Alpert album, I was miserable, forever waiting and regretting and then waiting again. I imagined there might be some way I could work against this continuous, inexorable Coriolis effect of misery. I thought there must be an answer of some kind that would solve the equation for my irredeemable character.

Professions of religious faith make me uncomfortable. If someone needs to invoke the name of The Lord after winning a golf tournament or an Oscar, I tend to change the channel. A Mariano Rivera point to the heavens, on the other hand, never bothered me. And I’m often moved when, during an injury time-out on the football field, a circle of grown men kneel to pray. So, how to explain my reticence when it comes to writing about the changes in my religious belief that has occurred over the past ten or fifteen years? Maybe it’s because religious fervor often goes hand-in-hand with bigotry and riots and murder and war. But the same can be said, I suppose, for many kinds of fervor. Maybe it's because so many religious leaders seem to be know-it-all, closed-minded, hypocritical assholes. I don't know. Maybe that's why. I guess I've never had what could be defined as religious "fervor." But I wonder if there can exist in a person a strong belief in a certain thing and, at the same time, a complete acceptance of all other beliefs? I hope these things can exist in me, although I can't say I've come that far yet. I do maintain many of the characteristics of my old anti-hero, Bill, but my story is different now. My struggle to accept the existence of a loving and merciful God has been the central narrative of my adult life. Still, I haven’t been able to approach it on the page without trying to sidestep it with sarcasm or irony. It’s a special kind of coward who receives something like forgiveness and redemption and refuses to acknowledge it for fear of how he might appear to his friends.

And so, I have to say I admire Matthew McConaughey for his acceptance speech last Sunday. It wasn’t easy for me to listen to, but it was important for me to hear.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Village

I never identified with the NO FEAR bumper stickers because I've always been scared to death of something. When I was young, I was afraid I’d never be able to buy all the stuff that was needed to be an adult. All the pots and pans and shoes and suit coats and coffee tables and stuff. When I was a teenager, I was afraid I’d never be able to do what was necessary to have a girlfriend. Or a career. Or a house. After I got married, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make enough money to do all the cool stuff I had always wanted to do. But the minute Mike was born, I had different fears.   

Mike was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis. He suffers from severe autism. He will never be able to take care of himself. Most likely, he will never have a job, cook a meal, or have a conversation about politics. Michael turned sixteen two weeks ago. He’s six feet tall, two hundred and ten pounds, about ten pounds heavier than I am.

He still gets out of bed when we say it’s time to get out of bed. He still takes a bath when we say it’s time to take a bath. But I’m afraid that one day, he’ll realize that he doesn’t need to do what we say anymore. I’m also afraid he might hurt someone. I’m afraid he might be taken away from us and placed in a state-run home, shot up with drugs, and parked in front of a television for the remainder of his life. And even if we can handle him for another thirty years, when we’ll be in our eighties, if he’s not taken away because he hits someone or escapes from us and runs around downtown Iowa City naked or something, I’m afraid of what will happen when Deb and I grow too old to care for him anymore; to play with him in the yard; to take him for walks in the woods with the dog; to go to the beach with him, eat dinner with him, lie down with him at night and wander off into sleep, cook waffles for him in the mornings, take long drives with him. I’m afraid what will happen after Deb and I die. I wonder who will take care of Mike then.  

These are a few of my fears. And I wish I didn’t have them. I wish I could buy a bumper sticker or maybe get a tattoo: NO FEAR, and all of it would be banished. But bravado won’t banish these fears. 

In a few years, when Mike turns twenty-one, there will be no state-run educational program for him anymore, and we’ll be on our own. If we do nothing, he will eventually be sent to a home somewhere. I know that homes for kids like my son are necessary and there are thousands of good and worthy people who have made it their life’s work to care for people who can’t care for themselves. And these people should be celebrated and held in high regard by our society and offered continuing education and paid a good salary with incentives and stock options and given healthcare benefits and vacation time. It’s a nice dream, but in Iowa, the going wage for a direct service provider is between eight and eleven dollars an hour. No benefits. No vacation. Both my sons have worked for Mayor’s Youth in Iowa City as direct care providers for a short time. For them, as for most direct care providers, the job provides stop-gap employment. It’s not hard to understand why most people quit. When you place the demands of the job on one side of the scale and the available compensation on the other, the two don’t balance out.

For the time being, during the fall and winter months, we send Mike to school every day. He’s in school for six hours and then he comes home. We’re grateful for the people who teach him. Mike has allowed us to be exposed to generous and kind people. One of his teachers, Michelle, was Mike’s favorite. She was kind to him and, more importantly, wouldn’t relent in her demands that he learn to zip his coat and wash his hands and say “Hello” and “Good bye” and “Please” and “thank you,” which were great leaps. Another teacher, Alexandria, took Mike on walks across the Iowa prairies and brought him to art museums and rock climbing walls and painted pictures with him. But these two teachers, like all teachers, moved on. They had their own personal fears to overcome and their own goals to achieve. But in these things, Mike is left behind.

If we do nothing, there will come a time when we have no control over what happens to our son. We will leave him behind the way everyone else does. And people will be paid a low wage to feed him and bathe him and switch channels for him. But who will talk to him and wrestle with him and tease him and sing songs to him and demand interaction from him and, in short, love him like a son? Mike will be cared for. But he will also be left alone.

If we do nothing, these are the things that will most likely come to pass. Of course, not all teachers are like Michelle and Alexandria. One of the aids hired to teach our son was, by chance, caught on tape winding up and slapping him in the face. Although this incident was difficult and hurtful, it’s also easy to understand. Children like my son test us.

If a child shouts constantly and doesn’t know how to use a toilet and paces frantically all night long and occasionally becomes frustrated and violent due to his inability to communicate, how difficult would it be for a care provider to maintain a calm and loving demeanor? What if, due to the child's inability to communicate, everything done in the child’s presence is done in complete anonymity? What are the chances that this child will be abused in some form at some point in his life? It doesn’t take research and statistics to determine the answer. The chances stand at one hundred percent. This child will suffer abuse.    

For the past year or so, Deb and I have been meeting with five other families who have children with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities. Our decision to band together and build a communal home for our children comes less by choice than necessity, as doing nothing is not an option. If we are to overcome our greatest fear, the fear that our children will be left behind, in the end, without the love of their families and friends, we must do something now. Fear, it turns out, has been our ally because it has brought us to this unavoidable conclusion. 

A common necessity makes for a strong bond. Together, we have decided to form a nonprofit corporation. We will buy land. We will build a village. We will plant a garden. We will cook and sleep and learn and grow as a family, all of us together, parents and children and grandchildren, a continuum of support and advancement, a stable place for those unable to do for themselves, a place that will exist long after we are gone.   

We make this decision, if it can be called a decision, because there is no alternative. We must build a home for our children where they will be loved and protected from abuse and led toward some greater understanding of the world, of what is possible to be brought forth through the human mind and spirit. And we’re not alone. Although we conceived of this idea on our own, we have since discovered that there is already a community of people who are starting up cooperative homes like the one we’re in the process of organizing all around the world.   

Just as the rest of us must do, our special needs children must discover what it is they are capable of. And it's our responsibility, as parents, to provide a place for them in which they can do more than merely exist. We need to provide a place for them in which they can live.

I know it sounds like I’m running for office or something. I’ve written a few flowery-unicorn-fluffy-cloud sentences that need to be brought down to earth. But we will bring them down to earth because it’s what we need to do. We will do more than have a flowery vision. We will do something far more worthy. We will work to secure a future for your children. And it is this work that will banish our fear.   

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Great Craptastic

I was coming from Uptown Bill’s, where three men were playing their guitars and one woman was playing her banjo and thirty people were singing along. I hadn’t wanted to go, but Ethan and Barb were there, and I wanted to see them. It was one of those things where you don’t want to go and then you go anyway and then you’re glad you went because it was where you actually wanted to go even though you didn’t know it, and I was driving downtown to meet Xavier, a writer from California, whom I’d had lunch with a few weeks previous and liked very much. But it was only 5:15. I had 45 minutes to kill before the movie, so I parked on Dubuque Street across from Prairie Lights Bookstore. It had snowed earlier in the day, and the parking spaces hadn’t been plowed, so when I pulled in, I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to pull out again, but I didn’t care. I had been singing songs about The River Jordan and Moses going down and stuff like that for the past hour or so and I had entered into one of those phases where I didn’t mind the winter anymore because the snow was so beautiful and I loved everyone regardless of the long, cold winter and my abiding misanthropy. Jan, who owns the bookstore, and Paul, who is a fixture there, were lucky they weren’t on the job because I probably would have tried to give them both a big hug if I would have seen them, being so filled with goodwill, and they might have felt uncomfortable with that. Instead, I riffled through a book by Carson McCullers and then went next door to Daydreams where I riffled through a book by Jack Kirby. There was a whole section of Jack Kirby, and it seemed like a miracle, to have so much color and so much narrative so close together on the same shelf.  

The film was The Great Beauty. I had seen it once already and I had been astounded and also a bit dumbfounded by it. This time, I thought, I was going to figure out how Sorrentino did it. How did he make a film that moves like a novel? And if I couldn’t figure out how he did it, I was at least going to try and figure out what, exactly, it was about. I arrived at our new little fine arts theater and bought three tickets. One for me, one for Xavier, and one for my son, William, who had texted me that he and two of his friends were going to join us. The goodwill was fraying a bit at the edges, but it was still there. I could feel it. Partly, it may have been due to the caffeine. I’m not used to it anymore, having gone decaffeinated a number of years ago, so the large half-caff I had splurged on before the sing-along was certainly still jotting through my bloodstream.

The film, I think, is about a man who has denied his purpose for the past thirty years, and in doing so has become superfluous. Jep Gambardella, the hero of the film, is a writer who doesn’t write. He does, however, party a lot. He likes to dance and talk and smoke cigarettes and drink just enough to lubricate things but not so much that he passes out and misses the fun. He appears to be a success – devastatingly intelligent, handsome, socially astute, morally upright – but he feels empty. He questions his purpose. Why has he never written that second book?

He tells the one-hundred-and-three-year-old nun it’s because he was waiting for The Great Beauty. But is has never come.

Being among the first to arrive for the show, I have my choice of seats. The little theater, although much needed and appreciated, is lacking in one way: there is a class-structure when it comes to seating. There are two general sections, the upper section and the lower section. The lower section has a shallow pitch, which, in order for the patrons to see the show, requires them to slouch in their seats and crane their necks upward at the screen. In the first row of the upper section, there are eight or ten black, Naugahyde comfy chairs. These are the Brahman seats. No craning required. Behind the Brahmans are a few steeply-pitched rows of seats. Wanting to leave the Brahman seats for the elderly or overly fastidious, I choose two seats in the middle-class section behind the Brahmans, which are far superior to the lower section seats.

So, I’m sitting in the middle-class section feeling lucky as the theater begins to fill up, sipping on my cup of wine, waiting for The Great Beauty, when it occurs to me that Xavier, my writer friend from California, doesn’t know that I have a ticket on will call for him. I leave two coats to save my middle-class seats and walk to the lobby to watch the entrance.    

The beauty of art, even that anticipation of it, is that it allows us to rise above our lives and to view them from another perspective. I write this not to be pedantic or trite, but rather for the purpose of narrative. A cornfield in August, when you’re in the middle of it, looks like an impenetrable jungle. When you pass by it on the highway, it looks like a collapsing series of rows, as if someone has drawn a comb over the land. When you see it from an airplane, it looks like a square patch of green. 

After a few minutes, Xavier arrives with his wallet out. I tell him to put it away. I’ve already paid for the ticket and I’ve saved two seats for us.

“How did you save the seats?” he asks.
“I just threw two coats over them,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. “How. . .advanced.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about (he told me later, however, that if this were LA, the coats would have been gone by the time we returned), so we chat about the shitty winter as we make our way to our middle-class seats. When we arrive, I notice that the entire middle-class section is booked. Including the seats I saved. My coats have been thrown aside. I look at my discarded coats. A pretty, blonde woman, who is sitting where my blue fleece used to be, says, “We didn’t know whose they were.”

“Um,” I say, “they’re mine.”
A large, attractive man with a voice like Christopher Lee, stands. I stand. Xavier stands. We all look at the discarded coats.
“What shall we do?” says the large man in his booming, professorial voice.

I don’t say anything because I don’t like the large, professorial man and partly because I don’t want to tell him to “get his ass out of my seat” and to take his “tawdry hooker with him.” A few seconds go by in which I am silent. I know why he’s not saying anything. What I’m supposed to say is, “Oh, that’s okay. You keep the seats. I’m sorry. I’ll move.” But I’m not going to say this. Partly because it’s what the large, attractive man expects.

After a few beats, the guy says, angrily, “Well, that’s just craptastic!”

To this, again, I say nothing. Partly because, "Well, that's just craptastic" is such an unclever thing for him to say and I think the silence frames it nicely. I wait. The blonde woman stirs. The craptastic couple are gathering their things and preparing to move when two young people who are seated beside them suddenly stand. The large, attractive man places his hand on his partner’s shoulder and says, “Hold on a minute.” The young couple makes their way past us, saying something like, “Oh, that’s okay. You keep the seats. I’m sorry. We’ll move.”

I don’t know why I allow this to happen. If I were viewing this situation from an airplane, I’d recognize that it would be my place to tell the young couple that I didn’t want their seats. That we would be happy to sit in the lower section. That two seats in a little movie theater were not worth any ill will or inconvenience. But it all happens too fast and my mind isn't fixed upon them. 

The young couple move. The good-looking couple takes their seats. I pick up my coats and Xavier and I take our seats. The movie begins. It’s about a guy who has focused the attentions of his life on things insignificant.    

Friday, February 7, 2014

Death of a Lone Father

My father didn’t have a funeral. It was my mother’s decision. Maybe she saw it as a frivolous expense. She’d need to rent the space in the funeral parlor and buy the fancy casket. My parents didn’t know too many people in Burlington, Vermont anyway. They’d only moved there a few years before my father died. And they had never been what they described, sniffingly, as “joiners.” No bowling leagues. No church homes. No nothing. Their welcome mat said “Go Away.”

In the mornings, they’d read the paper together and my mother would cut up fresh fruit and serve it to my father in a bowl. When they got the urge to travel, they’d drive around together, investigating whatever area they lived in (Gold Canyon Arizona, Pleasanton, California, Boulder, Colorado). Nobody else was invited. They only wanted to be with one another. At a certain time of day, my father would mix the Manhattans. At night, they’d watch a movie. That would be one of the big choices. What movie would they watch? They have a few hundred DVDs to choose from, organized in categories. Westerns. Comedies. Drama. Foreign.

One of my father’s favorite films, near the end, was Departures, a Japanese film about a man who learns the ritualistic trade of preparing the dead for burial. Sheets are folded just so. The body is cleaned just so. And all the while, the family looks on.

I never saw my father in a casket. The last time I saw him, it was four thirty in the morning. I had woken up early in order to get a jump on the long trip from Vermont to Iowa. I kissed my father on the forehead and told him I loved him. He didn’t answer, but he took my hand and squeezed it. I told him it was just for a little while and I’d be back to visit him soon.  

I stopped off at Dunkin’ Donuts on my way out. Got a large coffee and two donuts. And took the back roads into New York and then down to the great interstate. It’s a comfort to set your mind on a journey. To know where you need to go and then to go there.

I’d been in Iowa a day when I got the call from my mother. They had already cleared the hospital bed out of the house. Two days later, they cremated dad’s body. That night, my mother and sister and brother sat around the kitchen table and drank a few martinis. These were the moments I missed.   

There were no eulogies or obituaries. Nothing was trending on Facebook regarding my father’s death. I’m sure he would have been pleased by that. He wasn’t a joiner, as I've said. He seemed, in fact, to grow less tolerant of people the older he got. I wouldn’t call him a lover of humanity. But I believe that he did love me.  

All deaths are personal. They can’t be anything but. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is personal. As a movie lover, I will miss him personally. Although I don’t know who we was. I’ve read a dozen pieces written about him by now. How he had children. How he shrank into his characters. I’ve read about what drug addiction is. How we shouldn’t judge him for his addiction. How our laws regarding drugs create problems where addicts are concerned. And I’m sure they do. If heroin were legal, for instance, we wouldn’t need to get our fixes out of the public eye. But I’m sure that’s where we’d want them anyway. Nobody trips in any way other than alone.

Friday, January 31, 2014

What's Your Screenplay About? Part II

A couple years ago, after my book was published, I did a number of interviews – print, radio and television – and somewhere near the start of each interview, the same topic would inevitably be raised. Either I’d have to listen to the host tell the audience what my book was "about" or I’d be asked to explain what it was "about." Of course, even before the book went to print, my editor informed me that I needed to write something for the book jacket describing, she said, what my book was "about." I was taken by surprise because I always assumed, having read many book jackets in the past, that someone other than the author must write the stuff inside the jacket. I knew that no author would be vain enough to write things like, 

“A riveting tale of murder and. . .whatever,” 
or “a heart-stopping, rip-roaring tale of. . .whatever,” 
or, “a heartbreakingly raw and brilliantly observed memoir about. . .whatever.” 

It was the worst writing assignment I could imagine. It’s like when you join a self-help group and you need to use three words that best describe yourself. How is that in any way possible? I mean, you could choose to appear humble and use words like, “unattractive, stupid, and selfish,” all of which might be true, but if you use words like these, your group will feel sorry for you and think you have some deep-seeded problems involving your mother. Or, you could say you are “gregarious, sexy, and humble,” all of which might be true, and the group will think you’re an asshole. The three words you choose will probably depend upon what effect you want to have on the people you’re in the group with. In other words, they’ll all be bogus. 

For my editor, aware that I had been paid an advance and wanting to do my part in the publishing process, I hacked together some bogus series of sentences I hoped would make people want to pick up my book, and the words weren’t just passing things, like thoughts or dreams or money. They still appear on the book jacket today and every day and each time I hear someone use my own horrible sentences to describe what my book is about, I feel my skin crawl. Because I know it’s all wrong. Here’s part of the blurb I wrote: “. . .a wrenching, unsentimental account of the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town life in the Midwest.”

Heartbreaks and ecstasies.

Here’s another: “Exquisitely observed and lyrically recounted, this is a compelling and often humorous account of an ordinary man’s struggle to live an extraordinary life.”

I’m surprised I didn’t just go ahead and write, “Gregarious, sexy, and humble. . .”

But then, what were my options? Was I supposed to be honest? If I were honest, in retrospect, I’d probably have written something like, “I wrote this book to get attention, and then I realized I didn’t actually want any attention because it makes me nervous. So, you can read this book or not. In the long run, it doesn’t matter. On the off chance that you do happen to read it, however, I hope you like it. But if you don’t like it, please don’t let me know. Because that will hurt my feelings.”  

To every interviewer who asked what my book was about, I’d give a different response. Not to be clever, but because I didn’t know the answer to the question. One time, I said it was a “middle-aged coming-of-age story.” Once I said it was about a guy who “learns what love is.” Once I said it was about a guy who “needs to learn how to participate in his own life.” And once I said it was about “freedom. Or, in other words, choice.” At this moment, if you were to ask me what my book is about, I’d say, “It’s a middle-aged coming-of-age story about a guy who needs to learn what love is, and to do that he needed to participate in his own life by making choices and, therefore, gaining his own freedom.”

And all the answers are bullshit. And now, since I’m writing a movie script for the book, I need to answer the question all over again. Everyone agrees that the theme is the first thing you need to identify before you write even a single word of your script because it will inform every scene and every line of dialogue. If, for example, your screenplay is about a woman who needs take revenge upon the people who killed her husband at her wedding (in which case, the theme would be revenge), it would be extraneous to include a page of dialogue having to do with how she hopes her nephew gets into the exclusive daycare program her sister has applied to.   

I’ve been told there are ten main themes in film and that mine is one of those. So, I google “ten screenplay themes,” and I get the following:

Man vs. nature                Yes.
Man vs. himself              Yes.
Loss of innocence           Not really.
Revenge                          Definitely not.
Death as a part of life      I guess. (Death of a relationship, etc.)
Triumph over adversity   Yes.  
Love conquers all            Definitely.

The list goes on. And it doesn’t help. There is no list that can help. Because my theme keeps spreading out like lard in a hot pan. If you go deep enough, you could answer the question, “What is cat food about?” by saying, “Because cat food nourishes and animal, and all animals are devoid of choice where morality is concerned and therefore inherently good and without sin and unable to tell even a single lie, then I’d have to say that cat food is about The Truth.”

The exercise of writing is for me a way of ferreting out what it is, exactly, I’m thinking. I’m never able to actually pin anything down because the things I’m trying to pin down keep changing shape and escaping between the words. Which, I know, sounds like a lot of poetic horse shit, but I can’t help it. If I’m bound to honesty, I’ll say that for me to answer for what I’ve done after I’ve done it is impossible. For me to proclaim what it is I’m going to do before I do it is no less difficult, both being impossible.  

All this rhetoric aside, I need to say what my theme is for this fucking screenplay. And so, what I’m left with is this. In stating the theme of my screenplay, I need to write something less than true that sounds like it’s not less than true. In other words, I need to bullshit my way through this like any middle-aged author of any coming-of-age story about finding one’s freedom and learning what love is bullshits his way through every moment of his life.  

The great challenged, Joe's great challenge, in the face of eternity and death, is a question of kindness. Can he love his son?