No kids. No dog. No Heather.
Just a big empty house with a ticking clock on the wall. Counting forever as if such a thing were possible.
What the hell did I do with my time before them?
No kids. No dog. No Heather.
Just a big empty house with a ticking clock on the wall. Counting forever as if such a thing were possible.
What the hell did I do with my time before them?
Sometimes, people tell me I should find an illustrator and pair these sketches up with Klee-like line drawings and publish a book.
I’m flattered. Even a little proud.
Then my mind runs: Yeah, I think, I could make a living off this reflected life.
And pretty soon I’m on talk shows and podcasts and taking Hollywood meeting and my life is full of airplanes and foreign cities and breathless importance.
No, really, this happens in my head.
But I know better. I know if I even think it possible, if the thought that it will need to meet the expectations of others (anyone), to satisfy their purchase, another thing will creep in. And the value I think they need to get out of it will pollute the value it brings to me to get it out where I can see it plain as a diagram on a whiteboard.
This is why, when I think of all the plays and screenplays I wrote for money — under commission, for a fee, on spec, to get “made”, to make someone else happy, to bring an audience in; all the plays and screenplays I gave to the dramaturg and producer and manager and agent to help me “sell” — that work so often is marked with striving and, to me, comes across as both flat and crooked: Unsatisfying.
And it’s why the plays I wrote for myself are more successful than anything else I’ve done, even if they gather dust on the shelves of the unproduced.
Which is why when the Artistic Director of a prominent NY house told me she couldn’t put the script down, that I had to get it produced, but that I had to change the ending because her audience would riot if it was made as is, I said, no.
And others heard the same.
This is not a book in the making, a career in hiding, a backdoor to Hollywood, a manuscript to be edited and proofread and forced into standard boring blah blah English.
It is not something to be monetized anymore than you could monetize an AA meeting or a Quaker gathering.
That makes it simple. And selfish, too.
Even in the sharing of it, which helps me see I’m not all by myself in my mind’s corner.
Which is to say, I know what the art is for. And not.
G drove a 1960 hunter green Mercedes with three on the tree. Once, while steering the car through the hills of southeastern Pennsylvania, I watched him take a long pull off a Rolling Rock he was nursing and breathe in the smell of the mushroom fields that drifted up from the south in the evening air from Kennett Square. He glanced back at the empties clinking around loose on the backseat floor and made some sort of decision.
He suddenly tossed the bottle out the window.
“Dude,” I said.
“Don’t throw stuff out the window. Someone’s gotta pick that up.”
“It was the Stevenson place.”
“They have a nice lawn. When you throw them onto nice lawns, you know someone will pick them up.”
The old bookseller used to go back in the stacks and move things around. He’d put poetry from Ashbery in between volumes of Manchester’s biography of Churchill; Bowlby’s books on attachment theory found themselves next to Kerouac and Tolstoy and Agee and Wright. And the art books? Oy, what a mess. The Art of Florence shared shelves with Klee and Mondrian; Mapplethorpe mocked Jansen’s History of Art; Skrebneski lived with Caldwell and Klimt and Bloemart.
Sometimes I’d go back there and try to rework it, alphabetize it, organize it, catalog it.
But just as soon as I was done, he’d be back there mixing it again, putting Jung with Orwell together; the How To’s about gardening with the collected works of Odets.
Once I said, “You know you’re making it hard for anyone to find anything.”
He scoffed. “No, I’m making it easier for people to find themselves.”
I wasn’t going to settle for self-help pablum today. I pointed out the sales loss he was exposed to when people couldn’t find what they wanted. How they’d go across the street to Kroch’s, or Rizzoli.
It just pissed him off.
“What good is a bookstore if you only find what you came in for? How can anyone discover anything new within themselves if they aren’t surprised by the world? I don’t sell books for money. I sell them because I love them. What are you here for?”
This is why, 30 years later, I can tell you with certainty: The algorithm is shortchanging you.
It’s cold when we pull up to the pumps. The night is tough with an unwelcome chill. The blood made soft by the easy Bay Area weather makes it harder, more rigid. No one should be outside, I’m thinking.
So I’m startled when the knock on the window comes and I turn to see a pockmarked face behind the glass. She is young but there is no youth in her features. Her skin is scabby and sore filled. Her eyes plead.
“Sir, I need to get to my grandma’s house. Can you help me? I have no money.”
The boys in the back stir with uncertainty. What is this? What’s happening? I am frozen. I want her to get away.
“I have kids in the back,” i say. “You have to step away.”
The fragile wall of tinted glass between us does not protect me from her humanness or myself. It just allows it to get closer. More dangerous.
“I’m cold.” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I say back. “This isn’t the place to do this.”
Even as I say the words, I want to reject them. I want some other option.
Then she’s gone.
Later, when we are leaving, I see her in flip flops, hunched and shivering on her way into the station. I am hoping she finds help — the ride to her grandma’s — inside.
Then L, the youngest says, “Dad, why didn’t you give her the Wookie jacket in the back?”
When I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my school days, one of the things that stood out was how the first thing he bought on release from prison was a watch. His life behind bars had made him keenly aware of the true value of time.
Many years later, I heard a CEO tell an audience that he never wore a watch because no matter where he went, it was “now” which meant he was always on, whatever the hands on the clock said.
It seems to me, these days, it’s the CEO’s viewpoint that the world has come to live in. Every buzz and bing and glance I take to see what is happening proves it. Push notifications from apps, emails from colleagues, meeting notices, and robo-requests from conference rooms where all guests have declined jostle for attention with calendar reminders and asks for resource help and gchat popups that simply have pics of people I work with eating dinner at extravagant steak houses. And they all compete with simple texts about being missed from my wife.
So when I get home and my kids are on iPads, I tell them turn it off. And I put my phone in a time lock container that won’t open until they are in bed. I want to give them all the “now” I have.
But I wear a watch because I know that “now” is not forever.
I see you in the green dress and I am suddenly there on your shoulder in my mind. Your blue marine eyes look into me and call me forward, all of me. And I think: What can I do for you?
I have an ex-girlfriend who does monologues at theatres, coffee houses, and public libraries. Long after we broke up, she worked up a bit about our relationship which had left her feeling sour. We’d been complementary in so many ways but one, and when I told her I was willing to work on it, she turned me down. Now years later, in her piece about what happened, she described me as “a man who’d had too much couple’s counseling.” In the video I’ve seen of the performance (she’s quite good), this gets a great roar from the audience.
And if you know me, you’ll laugh too.
H and I go see one these days. Though the need for the first session was born in crisis, it has become casual and irregular. Sometimes she wonders why I feel the need to keep going.
Even the counsellor, who is old and wise, occasionally asks aloud what keeps us coming in. I say things like, even when its good, it’s good to take some time together.
But in those weeks when it’s inconvenient to find a sitter, get away from the office, fit it between pediatric appointments and the necessary dental work, I think I really am a fool.
Then the hurly burly comes and the calendar feels like a deck of cards I’ve been asked to play a hand from even though they have been tossed into the air.
The dog gets ticks.
The kids break bones.
The phone vibrates with random office requests for help on things for which there is no help.
Mother-in-laws visit and extended family send long, alarming texts from hospital rooms about spouses with mysterious and serious symptoms.
Children refuse to do homework, hate their birthday cakes, and don’t come when they are called.
The piano teacher is late.
And I’m too tired at night to be the man, the partner, the companion you need and that I want to be.
And I’m happy to be called “a man who’d had too much marriage counseling” because I need that 50 minutes when the only thing I’m paying attention to is my own heart syncing with yours while the hurly burly rages on the other side of the door.
I was maybe 15. Gangly and awkward. Just like you’re supposed to be at that age.
But just like I was supposed to be, it was exactly what I didn’t want to be.
And to prove how much my all elbows and knees body was really svelt and cool, when the kids in the cabin passed the Genessee Cream Ale, I hugged it like it could transform me into a someone else. A magic 16 ounce elixir.
The sweet foamy liquid made me laugh and bounce. A rowdy joy fill my bones. I didn’t think twice about pouring a can of it over the top bunk that was old Martha Hamilton’s bed. Everyone thought was a crone a good lesson. I’d show her.
Ha, ha, ha, I remember thinking as I waved the open can over her sheets. Serves her snooty face right.
But later when I’d woken, groggy and hung over, it was found out it was me, and I felt a hundred eyes looking at me in the kitchen dining table. That’s the one. He’s the boy that doesn’t belong.
And that is when I remember my mother best. Upset and angry, she sat me down in her still clean hunting jacket and I cried and apologized. And told her all that was within. And for a moment I felt deeply close to her as I had rarely before.
He is impish and clever. His energy has a keen zeal that runs with intentional starts and stops. His blue eyes see the world in hard lines and direct shapes. Even on crutches, he seeks to zip into your focus and steal your attention. His things are his things and that is all there is to that. He is the second, and last, but he wants you to see him first.
At night I read Bone with him, a long epic tale of dragons and dreaming; ghost circles and a locust spirit; of curious brothers who frustrate each other but won’t run to abandon. I cannot follow it because it holds no interior meaning for me, but for him it is real and powerful and I am glad I can give him that.
When no one answers the birthday invitations, he steels himself and his eyes look past it. But I know this is all a front and that the river inside runs deep and swift, strong, and that if I just look at it right, it will break through the banks and flow in tears down his cheeks.
I love this boy and his desire to control it all. I love him more than I can understand. And if i were a swimmer trying to find the bottom of it, I would be crushed under the watery weight of it before finding it (since there is none).
In him, I feel the echos of myself as I once was. But I also see him as he is.
Tomorrow he is 8.
I will remember the night he came into our world, delivered with gentleness and ease by a woman doctor who told me just to breathe. I will remember the joy and the sense of sharp focus he had immediately.
And I will celebrate all of this and the power he has over me to give him everything with just a smile.
You are 3,000 miles away and I can only offer my voice to you. Inside it, I hope you find the life line that will help you out of the well you have fallen into, but you are despondent. You are in a place I have never seen you in. And I am too far away.
Oh, I love you. But it is not enough.
You pad around the house in the small hours looking for the kid’s clothes and I am crazy for you in your t-shirt and underwear and bare feet. You sit in the afternoon light at the kitchen table working at something on the computer, and I am crazy for you as you look over your glasses at me and smile. You sit next to me watching television and I am crazy for you with even just a glance. I wander between offices in a building of glass and my mind flashes on your marine blue eyes and sweet freckles and I am crazy for you.
It is the kind of crazy that holds the heat of the first embers of us that were once a fire. I know you felt it too, once, but now I am not sure. Sometimes I fall down a well of wondering if I have simply made it up. I just don’t know. But it is certainly still hot for me.
Sometimes you seem to show annoyance at it, but I am not sure. There are kids and dogs and people coming to trim the trees; lunches to be made and auditions to go to and mom’s to take care of; sleepless nights that make me tired and grumpy and hard to deal with; school events with social drama that is pointless. There is so much that I can understand it is hard to fit this craziness in. I buy flowers and set up dates to breakthrough the world’s concerns and find the ember together again as we once did in the beginning, but it’s too often like trying to hold back the tidal wave on the beach by holding my hand up.
it is alive in me and I am trying to keep tight on it and so I wonder, Are you?
The question makes me shy and I think it is better not to wave at that wall of water that is coming down, but then I feel impotent and alone. And I’m lost for a moment searching for your hand, grasping at air where I hope to find you.
I remember once a play written by a friend where the husband confessed to his wife that even after all the years of marriage his desire for her was still deep. He had thought it would wear off, but it hadn’t at all and now he was alone because she had grown to stand apart, full and complete. What for him was a need, for her was a choice.
It might have always been that way, but the romance he’d felt in the beginning had bitten him and never let go.
It made him a sad and pathetic character. Too much.
I am alone in the hotel I was supposed to share with you.
I watch the Game of Thrones where the dead chase the living through dark castles. I think about the resentment I had about you not coming when our littlest hurt himself on a trampoline at a birthday party. I reflect on the realization that you would not be coming when, a day later, he slammed his finger in the kitchen door and I took him to the ER.
Our time would be his time. I would not be reunited with you and so reunited with someone who was me years ago, before I was called Dad.
But in the hotel room that is just a room that is not home, I find I am the person I need to be. A parent. Because this what I need to be for a kid who broke an ankle, and smashed a finger.
What I need to be for you. And me.
And this is what I need to be in this moment.
If you really want to know who you are, what you are made of; to see each and every husk of yourself nested like onion skins within each other; discover the contours of the faces of the Russian Dolls of your true self — get married and have a couple of kids and pay close attention to yourself in the waiting areas of emergency rooms and the stands of Little League games; listen to your whispering heart at birthday parties and car rides to Oregon; watch closely your twitching mouth during quiet kisses with your wife who is thinking of the yelling that is happening over the iPad in the room next door; sit quietly with the joy that jangles and dances with laughter over fart jokes you’re not supposed to hear or like; remember carefully the moments when you wish something else was true but are accepting of the truth before you.
Then you will see who you truly are.
And if you are good to yourself, you will forgive all your faults of love and expectation to let the ones who are are showing you who you are… be themselves.
My mother is driving a Range Rover and she says suddenly that we’re gonna take the back roads. She doesn’t say to where, but just swerves the hulking metal vehicle off the pavement toward the cane fields.
Then the grass parts and the wheels are bouncing like crazy across an ancient lava bed where molten rock has hardened in black ripples. They are thick and tall and make me think of mangrove roots.
This isn’t a back road, one of the other kids yells, it’s off road.
She sort of laughs and I can see she’s nervous about how little control she has at the wheel. You think? She says sarcastically.
And then the lava field is suddenly a red rock ramp up from the bottom of a ravine. Big flat ocra colored stones lay perfectly fitted together as if placed there by some cosmic mason in pre-history.
The landscape becomes lunar and southwestern with dead scrub running up the canyon walls.
When we crest, we are suddenly on a wide horizonless plateau and there are rivers and water everywhere. It is like a natural water park, with falls and greenery.
We’re in Denver, mom says.
But I’ve been to Denver and this is nothing like it.
The kitchen had a faux red brick linoleum tile floor. In the dim light, between dishes coming in and out of the oven, she paused and saw I was upset. It was my birthday and I’d been given a shirt from the cousins that was brown like burlap that I didn’t like but had had pretended to appreciate. But with all the people moving in and out like bees in a hive, I felt unnoticed. Except, in that moment, to her. And I remember that tenderness.
I still think about how much I learned to like that shirt. I wore it forever and a day until it nearly fell off me in rags.
She becomes stock still. He recomposes himself.
I’m sorry. I… but… Jesus. I mean… I can’t… I can’t… take this really anymore… I feel… I feel… so frustrated. I mean just… completely… You know? (she nods) Oh, this is so hard but I can’t just… Oh, honey… Aren’t you… I mean, aren’t you… just… I want to make love to you, you know. Love. And… and… and… and… I, I want you… I want you to want to make love to me. But you look at me like… like… I don’t know. Like… you don’t know me. Like you don’t… and then, you know, I kiss you and you know, I can tell. I can feel it. Right through the lips. Right through. It comes through. And I think, maybe, maybe like if I just keep trying this and maybe if I do that that that that maybe something will change and but you… in the dark I see your teeth, oh my god, your teeth, it’s so… I mean, white like in the dark, like Jesus-good… the briefest little thing of a thing and I am, I am there, I am totally 100% really there, and I think maybe you are too, maybe, but then I’m up against you and I don’t know and I love you but I love you but and I’m doing things, things I don’t like, doing things… (to himself) STUPID things… (back to her) mixing salad with my fingers, you know, throwing Raisinettes on the theatre floor and well, things that just aren’t… me… aren’t… I mean, because I want to see your teeth in the dark, or anything, just see you, you know and then I am coming, coming… and I open my eyes and there you are with those exquisite white teeth, so perfect so… but still and I’m…
They are quiet a moment together. She looks out like a zombie.
So you’re not… going to Paris with me?
At my mom’s house I look at all the pictures of us, myself, from ages ago: I smile happily from beneath the brow a Yankees cap that is still new as I lean back on the couch.
In my head, I still look like this 35 year-old guy. Bright and ready. Confident. But I know my head is a liar, because my shoulder aches and when I woke this morning plantar fasciitis had me limping to the bathroom like a cowboy with a broken hip.
I also think about what I believed then — more often than I'd like to acknowledge (yet, not all the time) — that I was ugly and damaged and needed to struggle to prove myself. All for reasons that happened decades before the camera's shutter caught the image I see today.
I close the picture album hoping I can help my boys see themselves without the kinds of distortion I brought to myself and curved my life invisibly.
I want them to see themselves as they are: beautiful and good and worthy.
I start by getting up and finding the baseball gloves: Hey, guys, want to toss the ball around?
Somewhere in college, basketball sneakers with velcro snaps got hot.
I bought a pair and the first morning I was putting them on, my dad saw me in the kitchen adjusting the adhesive bands.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I wish you wouldn’t wear them.” His voice was flat, dull.
Just like, Dad, I thought. Never likes anything I do.
Then he said: “It reminds me of my Dad after his stroke. He couldn’t tie his shoes so they made him wear shoes like that.”
I glanced at him and saw a son with his face turned away. And I had a vision of him as a young man helping his father with braces and shoes at the bedside. I felt him aching with the yearning-to-be-understood-babble of the man who’d once painted and talked and charmed with the terrible beauty the Irish were known for. I felt the loss behind the curtain that this now man, my father, kept shut away from me, and maybe himself, so successfully that I did not even know it was there until those words.
It was the most personal thing he’d ever told me.
I wrapped the shoes up in tissue and put them back in the box. I returned them the next day.
I listened in the dark as she told me about the time she played Cassandra in a small town production of Troilus and Cressida. A roomful of men listened with arms crossed and “I gotta see this” faces. Then she tilted her head back and took the burning sword in her mouth, swallowing the blue flame like an easy cupcake.
She couldn’t see me, but I know she felt it: My incredible wonder that I was laying in bed with such beauty and power and courage.