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Wednesday
Apr012015

The Wisdom of Solomon

Donald and Evelyn had been affixed to one another for almost thirty-two years. To say that they loved each other would be overstating things – even calling them attached to one another by anything stronger than habit would be a stretch. Their allegiance, such as it was, consisted more of a kind of adamant fixity on the condition of being married, rather than any abiding or personal stake in each other.

Their definition of themselves as individuals, to the extent that they thought with any frequency or care about such things, was in large measure dependent upon being a married person. Golfer. Gardener. Spouse. These formless conceptions of themselves, these predigested descriptors – these provided them some minimal degree of clarity and comfort.

Donald had one time thought, to his own rueful amusement, that their marriage was like a dog turd that had spent a long winter inside a snow bank – when the spring sun melted it free, it retained something of its form, but was blanched and ghostly and odorless.

Evelyn, for her part, regarded Donald’s presence in her home as a low-level nuisance that was decades now in duration – he was an infestation, almost, of some lumpy mammalian pest that she could never bring herself to drive away.

They had raised an unspectacular child who had long since moved away, and who, if they were honest, was fading in their memory.

What passed for conflict was when they both slept, and the dog ambled off the foot of their bed – there would be a listless jockeying of feet to lay claim to the warm patch vacated by him. In the morning, in the wake of this listless maneuvering, there was a slight increase in how clipped were their exchanges.

On the whole, though, they just marked time in proximity to one another – Donald on aimless walks, leash limp in his hand, staring blankly at the dog’s asshole; Evelyn absently reading middlebrow books that never stuck in her memory. They would dine on sensible portions, stay informed about world events in a resigned and tongue-clicking way, and would gaze unblinking at their own flickering screens while seated not far from each other.

In all, theirs was a tidy and arid little life. They were both flat-footed and glassy-eyed, pear-shaped and settled, in body and mind.

But when Donald awoke with the cold ring of a gun barrel pressed into the meat of his left cheek, the way they had been was snuffed out completely.

Evelyn’s eyes flew open, as a voice – a hellish, robotic voice – said “Wakey-wakey.”

And, for the first time in long time, Donald and Evelyn were awake.

“You know who I am?” said the voice behind the mask, digging the gun barrel into Donald’s face, then lifting it and resting it on Evelyn’s forehead. There was a smell in that room, now, like cordite and something musky.

Donald and Evelyn nodded furiously, tearfully. They knew who this was.

They had fretted in their low-intensity way over reports of a string of home-invasion killings throughout the region. The press called him the Solomon Killer, after the king in that baby-splitting story. He would break into the bedroom of a sleeping couple and force them to choose which of them he would shoot in the face. He would only shoot one of them. If there were kids in the house, he would leave them alone – he would only shoot a spouse in the head while the other one watched.

Profilers claimed that it was this compound suffering – the survivor’s guilt, the traumatizing spectacle, the visions of blood-spattered pillowcases persisting long after he had committed the crime – these were the real goals of the Solomon Killer. The production of a corpse was, for him, just a means to these. On the television, on the Sunday morning programs, the profilers conjectured soberly that the Solomon Killer’s… gratification resided in this “long tail” of grief and misery.

“So,” said the voice. “Which of you is it to be?”

Without hesitation, in the span, really, of a flinch, Donald and Evelyn pointed at each other. Fiercely, and with purpose.

And, in those trembling and wide-eyed instants before the gun went off and the room filled with the ferrous smell of blood, Donald and Evelyn, their index fingers stabbing vehemently at the air between them, saw one another more clearly and understood each other more fully than they had in a long, long time.

Friday
Feb202015

Love, Man. Love.

When we turn to the subject of love, we think too frequently of love’s consuming and blood-quickening first blush. We think in terms of ardor and longing, of desire, of yearning.

“Love” is a Cthulhu kiss – a pair of tentacle-faced demons, enslaved by their hunger, lapping and yanking at each others slurping mouths – a kiss that sounds like you’re trying to drink a milkshake through a tracheotomy tube, or a Shop Vac shuddering as it guzzles up a puddle of greek yogurt. A dentureless grandma in a pie-eating contest.

The Cthulhu kiss aims to give pleasure, but only to the extent that it permits the demon to continue pulling apart the face of its opponent.

At the dawn of love, your genitals form the needle on your compass, pointing always toward the bikini area of your partner, and guiding you thereto.

Which, yeah, is true in the beginning. It’s all Cthulhu kisses and the magnetized contents of your underpants.

But later.

After this kind of heat has died down, after the quivering has stilled. What, then?

Well then, as with everything, time lays claim to us. What you take to be love gets buried under the passage of time, and sorrow, and circumstance; submerged beneath obligation and worry, expectation and regret. It gets buried beneath the blizzard of our experience – those billion flakes of distraction and discontent, of fatigue and frustration.

The phrase “a blanket of snow” – this applies only to snow we look at through a window. When we are out IN it, snow never resembles a blanket. It is a stinging and shitty thing we must endure. We trudge through snow. We curse as our leaky boots pierce its crust and plunge down into it. We squint at the blinding featureless landscape and muse bitterly about how much more of this shit there will be.

This forbidding hellscape, this wasteland into which you have wandered, deceived by your wiener compass to die like Shackleton, having eaten the last of your sled dogs, staring in bafflement at your stiffened and useless fingers, blackened by frostbite. With your last breath you curse your wiener compass, which has led you to this bleak and sorry fate.

To be clear: in this metaphor I am torturing, the snow is not love, but the complexities and constraints of life under which it gets entombed.

I have been married for fifteen years. We have been together for twenty-five years. Over half our lives. We have had two children together. We have two pets – a dog, brimming obviously with love, and a cat, who is sociopathic enough to barely qualify as a mammal. We have signed auto loans together and attended funerals, we have endured flooding and poverty, overwork and bedevilments of every description.

And the love of which I speak is not marriage – though there is love to had there. It is not parenting, though love and fear battle always for supremacy there. I mean love. For her. Absent all other factors. I have still love that is hers alone.

But when you are atop the snow of circumstance that stretches to the horizon in every direction, it becomes too easy to forget that there remain morsels of love below your aching feet, down where the tall grass has been pounded flat by the pummeling weight of the snow, down by the permafrost. It is only the cunning and stubborn among us who can adapt to these punishing conditions.

So if we resolve to hold fast to what love we can harvest from such a forbidding climate, we must become like the fox. During the long and lean winters, the fox will stalk its quarry from above, its sharp nose plunged down into the snow, its ears fanned out to trace the scurry of the vole, the furtive travels of the chipmunk – creatures who will sustain the fox for only a little while. But failure to pursue and capture these bony little snack animals ensures the fox’s death.

So it is with love longstanding.

The wind-blasted blanket of circumstance and habit and routine threaten to snuff out the fast-moving and bite-sized tidbit scooting deep inside the snow underfoot. You must remain vigilant, ear pressed to the rutted crust, listened with all of yourself for the tiny and telltale footfall below.

And when the time is right, you must spring. You must coil your haunches, and describe with your body an orange-pelted parabola, driving your head and forepaws to drowning depth in the frenzied pursuit of the panicked morsel. You must close your jaws over it quickly, so as not to waste a drop of its blood. You must gulp it down fast.

And while it is true that you must remain thankful for the sustaining little nugget making its way down your gullet, you cannot stop too long. Because you must keep hunting.

Because these are lean times, and it is the hunt alone that gives us purpose.

Monday
Jan052015

In Which I Chronicle My Bromance.

The year was 1990. The place: New York City. The scene: a movie theater just off Union Square, for a screening – it almost goes without saying – of Robocop 2.

I settled into my seat with my then-girlfriend-now-wife Hallie, and there was a commotion several rows back from us. Not a ruckus, exactly, but a sudden uptick in murmurs and the kind of excitation one might expect to hear if a moose walked onstage at the symphony – there was a giddy quality to the hubbub, a buzzing, expectant babble.

The large group of African American teens that occupied the last couple rows called out:

“Spike!”

“Hey, Spike!”

“Hey! Spike!”

"What up, Spike?"

Because Spike Lee had just walked in with his date.

The ringleader of the teens in back shut them down:

“Mr. LEE!”

By which he seemed to mean something like: “We have great respect for your work, AND we have no intention of interrupting your date with this radiantly attractive young woman, or compromising your enjoyment of Robocop 2.” Whatever his intention, this silenced all the other teens in his party – or at least contained them to urgent whispering.

Then, though – THEN: Spike Lee and his date sat RIGHT NEXT TO US.

Now. You gotta understand. This is New York City. And this is 1990 Spike Lee – the Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing, not the subsequent Spike Lee of Girl 6. So this is big. This is like coming across DeNiro lounging in a kiddie pool, or something – I mean, SPIKE LEE is RIGHT THERE. It goes me, Hallie, his date, him – if we wanted to, we could have held hands along the backs of the seats.

So we settle in to enjoy Robocop 2’s dystopian vision of New Detroit – which, given, its apparent population density and ready supply of private capital is a whole hell of a lot better than present day Detroit – and then comes the moment when Spike and I forge our connection.

You fans of cinema will recall that there is a grisly surgery scene in Robocop 2, a scene where the spinal column and brain of the psychopathic villain Kane are removed and inserted into a next generation robot intended to defeat officer Murphy, who has retained too much free will as Robocop to be of use to OCP’s ruthless bid to privatize law enforcement in New Detroit by deploying an all-robot police force. Naturally enough, Kane’s addiction to the narcotic Nuke – intended by the evil Dr. Faxx to be her means of controlling him – proves to be the undoing of the entire scheme, prompting the kind of ham-handed anti-corporate propaganda that you would never in a million years see in a Hollywood movie made today.

No reason to review any of this, obviously, as you are a fan of the cinema.

But the scene in question is admittedly quite gruesome. There’s a fair bit of slurping type sound effects, and the whine of a bone saw, and all the blood spatter and flaying one would expect from the removal of a spinal column and brain from out the back of a human body.

This. This was my moment of connection with Spike. And I don’t mind telling you:

It. Was. Electric.

Here’s how it went down: at an especially sickening moment of the surgery, BOTH Hallie and his date reflexively bowed down, covering their eyes and moaning softly in distress – as they did so, Spike met my gaze. We gave each other a knowing nod. We could take it. We could hang with whatever ghastly business Robocop 2 threw at us. Not like the women folk between us. We were made, said the gaze we shared, of sterner stuff.

Now, then. If this electric moment had been the end of things between Spike and me, then I would have just been relegated this to the litany of such serendipitous little episodes New York serves up with dizzying regularity. I could just toss it on the pile with the time I collided with Christopher Plummer as he came barreling out a revolving door on the Upper West Side, or the time I saw Matt Dillon at that bookshop on Spring Street. Or Hulk Hogan at MOMA.

But. It didn’t end there. Because as the credits were rolling, and we gathered our stuff to leave, Spike and I shared a little laugh about our moment, and he gave me his card. Then he locks eyes with me, peering over the rims of his round granny spectacles, and said – quietly but firmly: “You call me.”

I was still an actor back then. So I of course had visions of Spike launching my film career with a series of small but memorable roles where I play the dickish white guy. I have long since abandoned acting. Having settled into this single role. Of dickish white guy.

So, couple days later, with palms damp and mouth dry, I called Spike Lee’s office. I left a sort of garbled message with his assistant, over-explaining who I was and assuring her repeatedly that he had asked me to call.

A few days pass. Nothing.

Then I arrive home one night, pretty drunk, to a blinking light on my answering machine. Because land line.

“Yo, Ian. It’s Spike. I got tickets to the dog show in a couple weeks and wanted to know if you wanted to come. Call me.”

So as you can imagine, I am THRILLED. I don’t know if the Dog Show is a band, or a club, or what, but I am stoked to go hang out with my new pal Spike, so I call him back and we arrange to meet. HE SAYS HE’LL SEND A CAR FOR ME. Which, if you’re an artsy and desperately poor 20-something in New York City in 1990, is a form of luxury you can barely grasp.

So the day arrives, and I. Am. A wreck. I’ve cycled through like twenty-three outfits, none of which is satisfactory. And I STILL have like an hour and a half to wait. So I drink a pot of coffee and chain smoke. And I’m pretty wild-eyed when this town car slides up in front of my shitbox apartment. I casual-walk out of my building toward the car, so the driver won’t be able to tell how much my mind is blown.

“Where we headed?” I ask him.

He shoots me a look in the rearview, and shrugs, like “dumb ass.”

“Dog show,” he says.

Turns out, Dog Show is not a club. Or a band. Dog show is a fucking dog show.

As in, like, the American Kennel Club. Purebred. Dog show.

So I meet Spike in the lobby – he’s in a Knicks jersey and a sweet Kangol. And we go inside. To the fucking dog show. And he, apparently, is a HUGE FAN. Because he is storming around along the sidelines yelling at the judges the whole time, just like he does at Knicks games. In particular, he seemed totally rip-shit about how well this one Afghan was doing. And he is just SEETHING about how dogs shows have gotten too political, and how the Springer Spaniel should be taking this. I don’t remember much of what he’s yelling, but I do recall he kept referring to this Afghan as “that Barry Manilow-looking motherfucker.”

And as he’s stalking the sidelines, hurling abuse at these judges, he knows they’re not gonna eject him because he’s Spike Lee, and they will look super-racist.

Which turns out to have been my problem over the next seven weeks or so. Because I mean, when Spike Lee shows up in a track suit and takes you to the Russian Tea Room, or jingling the bell on a tandem bike, with – I shit you not – a basket filled with fresh-cut tulips. What are you supposed to do?

Because part of you is like “Man, I don’t really want to be doing this.” But you go along, cause you don’t wanna end up on Page Six of the Daily News as the racist who spurned Spike Lee’s offers of platonic and wholesome good times. And I gotta confess – I’m pretty taken with all this.

So we hang out. A lot. We log lots of time at cafés, and on roller blades.

It was like the montage in a Hugh Grant movie, you guys. Some say it was a bromance for the ages.

We confide in each other. I tell him my dad committed suicide near an Indian reservation, and Spike takes to calling me Johnny Wigwam. Or J-Wig. Or J-Dubs.

So anyhow, this one dazzling afternoon in May, as Spike and I are nibbling cucumber sandwiches by the duck pond in Central Park, I set down the crown of daisies I was braiding. The daisy crown’s not FOR him, you understand. But if he felt like putting it on, then OK, so be it.

I said: “Spike. What is this, man? What are we even doing?”

He puts down his glass of Prosecco, and stares for a long time at a swan turning lazy circles on the pond.

“Yeah, J-Wig,” he said, finally. “We kinda let this get away from us.”

We did some guy stuff a couple times after that. He took me to a couple Knicks games. We went to a steak house. Did some skeet shooting.

But it was never the same.

We could never recapture that dog show magic. We drifted apart. Lost touch.

You know those fruit bouquets from Edible Arrangements, though? Spike still has one of his people send me one on my birthday each year.

Which is nice. Makes a guy feel wistful, you know?

Wednesday
Dec312014

A Year Was Had

So here we find ourselves, tearing another page off the calendar.

Too goddamn many people and magazines and websites are compiling Best Of Lists and Stories That Mattered and that type of nonsense - another bid in the ongoing collective campaign to wrestle some sense out of the miasmic chaos that threatens to overtake us every damn day.

For me, it was a big year - I published my first book, which, no lie, is a dream come true. 

I wrangled more high profile gigs for WRITE CLUB - MCA, Poetry Foundation, etc.

I prevailed upon the generosity of people when I had need, and was humbled by the eager onrush of response.

I launched a cool new thing with Muscato - Pixiehammer Press, which has been fulfilling and creatively invigorating.

My son's baseball team, the Warren Park A's, snagged the league championship against all odds.

My boy has also been navigating with relative grace the clusterfuck pressure-cooker of selective enrollment high school applicaitons and testing and whatnot.

I got to see my daughter perform an original piece as part of the culminating show for the writing class she took at StoryStudio Chicago. Which was a dream come true that I'd not realized I'd had.

I continued teaching - at StoryStudio, and started at Second City. It continues to sharpen my eye and writerly voice, so I'm glad I'm doing it.

There have obviously been setbacks, as well. Medical stuff. Financial stuff. Nothing so severe that it warrants special mention, probably.

But if there was any SINGLE thing that I did this year that will stay with me more than any other, it is having marched in a protest with my wife and kids and some friends this fall. It was in the wake of the Michael Brown's shooting, and Eric Garner's video strangulation. It was a cold fall day - not the crazy, face-hurting cold of tonight - and a group of well-meaning people congregated on a corner in Andersonville. We marched down the middle of Clark St, chanting and singing. We added to our number, as passersby joined us. We hung a ragged left on Bryn Mawr, stopped in the intersection of Bryn Mawr and Ashland, stopping four lanes of traffic. The pastors nominally in the lead of this group recited a humanist prayer or two, we sang "We Shall Overcome," and proceeded south on Ashland to Foster, where we stopped to chant, pray, and sing before disbanding.

Will this experience stick with me because I believe this modest and quite orderly protest will lead to substantive change? Nope. Not even close. 

Will this comparatively puny act of civil disobedience remain in my mind because it does anything to resolve my unjust position of racial privilege, or assuage my misplaced guilt about it? Not a chance.

Will it stay with me because it makes me feel - wrongly - that I am a good person, and that others will have taken notice of my sacrificing a Saturday morning in some ennobling fashion? No.

But it WILL stick with me for the following reasons and in the following ways:

  • We brought our kids. The boy is 13, and the girl is 11. So they're just developing a sense that the world is not the just and forthright place we all hope it to be. And though their grasp of current events is slight, they have a highly developed sense of right and wrong. And when they learned of police officers killing citizens without justification, they were rightly baffled and pissed.
  • The preceding year-plus of news about official misconduct, ranging from larcenous public officials to these recent state-sanctioned street executions, was as disspiriting as it was distasteful, and the pull of disengagement and inertia - always potent - grew more seductive by the day.
  • We were doing. Something. On our feet. Out in the world. The hermetic world of the screen and the illusion of action provided by clicking and sharing and posting, with its (obvious and predictable) lack of effect, is a coagulant of the soul.
  • We were not alone. By the time we hit Foster, we were a couple hundred strong. Enough to dismantle a police state? No, obviously not. But heartening in the face of too much isolation, too long a litany of bleak news, and too great a sense of futility. We met a family of friends there, who'd also brought their kids. As we marched, passing motorists honked support.
  • We were accompanied by cops - several of whom visibly disagreed with our impulse to congregate in this fashion and create hassles for them, but all of whom showed restraint. Even the obese one with the Ditka-stache nestled in a lumpy face like blanched sausage, who looked like he was biting his tongue so hard it was bleeding.
  •  I can't sing for shit. I mostly think chanting is hokey. I'm not by nature a joiner. But I was nonetheless glad to be among a crowd containing people of every age and class, color and creed, lifting voices together, hokey though it may have been. 

My native impulse is to hug the wall, to hang back. And make fun of the ill-advised and shoddily executed parade. My default position is folded arms and shaking head, my face in repose is a decades-long eye roll. But beneath this is the conviction that we are failing each other in critical ways, that we are slaves to our fear and appetite and vanity, and that we have a vast capacity to do so, so much better. I believe - and perhaps because we have kids I must - that our ferocious ignorance is not an inevitability, that our catastrophic failures of imagination and compassion are not foregone conclusions, and that our too-frequent lapses in civility and too-fitful decency are not ironclad. I recognize that we are stupid and afraid. But I cannot succumb to the belief that this is irreversible. So, I hope to keep lacing up my boots, and, where necessary, marching against the prevailing flow of traffic.

I hope you'll do the same. 

 

Tuesday
Oct282014

WRITE CLUB Anthology Due in December!