This short memoir was written by my wife, Tara McCarthy, about 1989. It’s a beautiful example of her creativity.
During a Wartime summer, my father made the mistake of moving us from our real home–a small green village of New York–to the gunmetal-gray city of Akron, where he went to work for a giant rubber-tire factory.
The Akron street was not a proper street at all: it was enormously wide and marked off this side from that side as definitively as a state border drawn on a map. The stern brick houses opposite us looked miles away. To find someone to play with, I could no longer dash across a little road or sit humming on the lawn, my jacks in a drawstring bag, bouncing a rubber ball nonchalantly to tempt a passing friend into a game. No, Akron was different: your mother had to call up the neighbor to find out whether it was convenient for the children to play, and then your mother had to talk you across the street and then you had to call your mother when you were ready to come home so that she could come over and walk you back again. My mother could not do any of this walking, because her left leg was in a cast, so I could not even get across the street to check out likely-looking jacks aficionados.
Photographs of our time in Akron show me with as tragic a face as a well-fed six-year-old can muster. I was, I felt, in a prison, with only my invalid parent and my little sister and my great-aunt Inez and a maid named Jello for company. My dog had deserted me, dying on the sofa of the Pullman roomette as we crossed some dismal farmland on the way West.
My mother had broken her leg back in New York, slipping on the ice while walking my dog at dawn. “I was walking Honeybunch’s sweet little Mickey,” my mother said to my father’s new friends as she looked at me wistfully. “I almost lost my leg, didn’t I, Dan?”
“Yes, she almost lost her leg,” my father agreed. “She was very brave to make this trip.”
“I did it for Dan,” my mother said. “This was such an opportunity for him. I couldn’t let something like almost losing my leg stand in the way of his work, or of the War Ever.”
It was in almost losing her leg that my mother had acquired Jello and conjured up Aunt Inez from remote towns hear her childhood home in North Carolina. They were to be our helpers, allied forces moved in to succor the wounded and take over the battle of running the house. And tattered troops they were! Jello was sixteen years old and so terrified by the city that she had to be cajoled into leaving the house even to empty the garbage. She wept constantly over a soldier named Francis who was fighting in Europe. Jello wept as she washed the stairs, wept as she made lunch, and wept as she showed me photos of Francis. Aunt Inez was in her eighties. She wore live birds in her hair–her parakeets Sweetie and Sillabub. She had, my mother explained, very kindly agreed to act as our housekeeper, a job which consisted mainly of ordering groceries over the phone.
“Yankees are so rude!” Aunt Inez always said when she hung up. When the groceries arrived, she would once again tell Jello how to make what became the culinary staples of our brief stay in Ohio–salmon casserole, apple Brown Betty, and pineapple upside-down cake.
“We had this last night, I think,” my father would say, arriving for dinner nattily attired in his office clothes and looking handsome as usual, giving me a wink as he used to in the old days and looking pained as I pouted at him and turned away. I hated him then. He got out during the day, as he always had, and as I never did anymore. How could he move me to this dreadful place?
“I hate it here!” I usually managed to say at dinner. “There’s no one to play with!”
“Maybe your Aunt Inez could walk you across the street to meet the neighbors,” my father suggested.
“Mercy, I can’t do that!” my Aunt Inez answered. “Yankees are too abrupt! Besides, this child has her little sister to play with.”
“I hate her!” I said, watching clinically as my sister’s face turned sad.
Sweetie and Sillabub fluttered in Aunt Inez’s hair. She would say “Blood is thicker than water,” or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” then ring the little crystal bell she had brought from Down South, summoning the sobbing Jello in to clear the plates.
“Oh, my land! I don’t know what to do! I just don’t know what to do,” my mother exclaimed. “Why can’t everyone just be happy?” Little tears would well up in her eyes, perfect little tears the sight of which made even Jello pause in her weeping.
After dinner, we would all move to our special places, moving in our special ways–my mother hobbling and grimacing into the living room to listen to “Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons,” and resisting my father’s offers of assistance, saying “No, I don’t want to be a burden. Painful as this is, I’ll do it on my own, thank you1″; Jello sludging tearfully out to the kitchen; Aunt Inez fluttering after saying “Waste not, want not”; my sister running merrily upstairs, her enviable yellow ringlets bobbing, to play “Elevator” with the sliding doors in the hall or “Goodbye, Pants” with the laundry chute, so that she would inevitably get a finger smashed or a leg scraped and require the attention of the entire family before the evening was over; me stomping up to my bedroom with a volume of Uncle Wiggily held importantly under my arm; my father coming up slowly after me, in another attempt to tuck me in.
“What’s wrong with my little Zaza?” he pleaded one night. “I haven’t seen one single smile on your face since we got here.”
“I told you,” I said. “I hate it here. I want to go home. I want to go to your office, like I used to, like I used to in New York, where we live. I never get to anymore!”
“Zaza, I can’t take you to my office here,” he said. “I’d like to, but I can’t.”
“Yes, I know, it’s about the War Ever,” I said cynically. As usual, I opened Uncle Wiggily to a picture that I recognized and pretended to read. Reading was a matter of moving your eyes back and forth and making understanding faces now and then.
“It’s the war effort,” my father said. “The war effort, like in trying. Because of the War Effort, I can’t have guests in my office, not even little girls, because everything is secret. For example, Firestone makes tires for the Army.”
I pictured giant tires dropping out of planes onto Hitler’s head. “I already know about tires, Daddy,” I said indignantly.
From out in the hall there came the shriek of my sister with her thumb conveniently caught in the sliding door, and from downstairs the plaint of my mother. “Now nobody should interrupt themselves, but I am in considerable pain,” and the sound of Jello snuffling and Aunt Inez, her birds twittering, singing “Look for the Silver Lining.”
My father said, “Sometimes it is very important to the War Effort to help out at home.” He stood up and tried to look very firm. He said, “You are my best and my brightest, Zaza, and I definitely think you can help out at home a lot more than you have been doing. You could be a big help to me. Just a little smile now and then would help me.”
“I know, Daddy,” I said.
“Then why don’t you help me?” he asked.
“I don’t want to,” I said. “I just want to go home.”
“This is a very important job to me,” said my father. “It is an opportunity. Do you know what an opportunity is?”
“Yes, Daddy,” I said. I didn’t, of course. “But I don’t care.” with his big words and funny problems, he sounded just like that hapless fellow Uncle Wiggily.
We glared at one another across the shiny picture of Uncle Wiggily where Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy is helping him across something called a stile. My father left, and I listened contentedly to my sister wailing as Mercurochrome was applied to her arm. A feeling of power was washing over me as I fell asleep, a feeling that I could somehow now move my family back East to the town where I belonged, with my jacks.
How I was to accomplish this began dimly to emerge a few days later, when Aunt Inez suddenly turned off a radio program featuring Great Organ Hymns. Aunt Inez said, “Why, this is so depressing! All these songs about death! I simply cannot abide thoughts of death, can you, Jello?”
Jello stopped crying and looked at Aunt Inez quizzically. “Yes, ma’am,” said Jello. “I like hymns. I was raised with hymns. I like hymns very much.”
So at this point I enlisted Jello and the piano as my allies. I had always circled the piano warily in New York, but my parents had hauled it to Ohio anyway, perhaps in the hope that I would somehow attack music with miraculous gusto in the smoky air of Akron.
This I did do now, conscripting Jello to help me learn to play “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “The Old Wooden Cross.” Her eyes brightened up considerably during our piano sessions.
Since Jello was about as inept as I was, the hymns took endless practice. Aunt Inez cowered in the kitchen, her birds drooping. “Why is the child always playing hymns?” she asked my father as soon as he came home from work. “I am so depressed. That child is always playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I can’t abide that piece. It’s about dying, and I am getting on in years, Lord knows!”
My father confronted me. “Why are you depressing your aunt with hymns about dying?” he asked.
“You wanted me to learn the piano,” I said, “and I’m learning the piano and these are the only songs Jello and I know.”
“Is that so, Jello?” said my father.
“Yes, sir,” said Jello, clear-eyed.
“Well, there it is!” said Aunt Inez. “Catering to the whims of a child and a servant! Times have changed surely!”
“Now, Aunt,” said my mother, jiggling her cast impatiently. “Now, Aunt, the child is showing some gift for music, and we have every right to be happy about that.” She fell sighing back into the chaise which my father had found for her at the same store where he had found a gas stove. An actual modern stove was hard to find during the War Ever.
The stove was supposed to be delivered on the same day that Aunt Inez and the birds were huffily scheduled to leave because of the hymns. My father was driving Auntie and the birds in their cages to the railroad depot, with Jello along just to help with Sweetie and Sillabub, after she was assured that she would not have to get out of the car until it came back to the house. “Now, Zaza,” my father said to me warily, “I am leaving it to you to look out for the delivery men. Just look out the window for them, and direct them around to the back door. Don’t have them come up the front steps, because they’re too high. This is probably the last gas stove in Ohio, because of the War Ever.”
“A stove, a real stove,” exclaimed my mother, stomping about on her cast with unusual vigor and clapping her hands as I used to do back home after a superb jacks play. “A stove just like I had back East! Thank the Lord I won’t have to feel like a pioneer lady anymore. I’m so tired of that ol’ coal stove, aren’t you, Jello?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Jello happily as she toted the birds out the door. I settled down to my ally, the piano, and attempted to pick out the cheery “Country Gardens.” my sister screamed from the basement that her hand was caught in the laundry chute, but my mother was too absorbed in her delight about the stove to hear her. Would my plan have a bonus? Would my sister be silenced forever in a mass of soiled linen? But her piping Shirley Temple voice yelled very soon from an upstairs window. “Men are here with something!”
I dashed to the front door. “Bring it right up here,” I hollered. “Bring it right up these front steps!”
I leaned out the window and watched with satisfied anticipation as two men edged a gigantic stove up the first of several cement steps. By step five they had, of course, lost it. The Last Gas Stove in Ohio crashed definitively down the stairs and landed with a crumped bash on its side.
“Oh, my land!” said my mother, maneuvering out onto the stoop. “That stove’ll never work now. Now you just take it back and get me a new one!”
“Can’t do it, Lady,” said one man sadly. “This was the very last stove.”
“ Oh, my Lord,” said my mother. She was literally hopping mad when my father got home from the depot. “I am up to my neck!” she told him. “I am up to my neck in this part of the world!” She tugged Jello into the kitchen, where the two of them somehow managed to construct a meat loaf and baked potatoes for dinner.
“I cannot abide Ohio,” said my mother later, vigorously slicing meat loaf. “It was bad enough I had to give up my New York frigidaire for an icebox, but now I am fated to that awful coal stove for the duration of the War. And,” she added, “it may have escaped your attention, because I have been very silent about my pain, but I have been very unhappy here.”
“Is that so?” said my father. “And how about my little Curly Top?” he said, turning to my odious little sister, with her bright smile and her millions of bandaids. Do you like it here?”
“No,” she said.
He never asked me. I don’t think he said one word to me until long after we got back home to New York. I can’t remember that he ever even told me about what my mother said was the marvelous new opportunity he had discovered back East. But I remember being sadly and smugly patient, as Nurse Jane always was until Uncle Wiggily came round.
When Jello and I were sitting in the roomette on the east-bound train, I asked her, “Is the War Ever over yet?” And she said, “I don’t know, but Francis came home. He’s down at Fort Bragg.” She smiled as she hugged me.
This essay was first published in “Woodstock Originals” in 1990, an anthology of writing by people in the Byrdcliffe Writers group. I was in the group too, although not at the same time as Tara, and I had a story in the anthology. Tara also had two poems, the only ones she ever published. I’m reviving the essay because I admire it so much and because I thought others would enjoy it, friends and strangers alike. The uncanny recall of childhood demonstrated in this essay was genuine. She often told me stories from her childhood going back as early as when she was 2 or 3.
If there are any typos, please forgive me. I had to copy it from the book.–Leslie Gerber
I had no hint from the announcement that an intense new love affair awaited me. It was called “A Performance Unwritten,” for an event on May 31 at a venue called MAMA Arts in Stone Ridge, New York. Its premise was that artists in various media and forms, most of whom had never worked together before, were going to create an evening of entirely improvised art. Well, no thanks, but that doesn’t sound like my bag, man…
…except that my poet friend Judith Kerman was one of the artists involved. And it was on an evening when I had nothing else planned. And it might be something that my wife, who has Alzheimer’s Disease, would enjoy, since it sounded as though it would be visually stimulating and she usually enjoys music.
When we got to Stone Ridge, my suspicions were immediately aroused by the venue. I’d never been there before, and it didn’t look like a very well-organized place. But the event attracted a fairly good-sized audience, and as soon as the trio of musicians started to play I knew I was in for an enjoyable evening, since they were quite good. As the performance progressed, some of the spoken word improvisations were involving (especially, I must say, Judy’s), some less interesting, but the music kept things lively.
And then there were the painters, one on each side of the hall. One of them was doing some pretty interesting work. The other looked at first as though she was just splashing and dabbing paint on a large black board, using several methods to get paint onto the board not including a brush. Just as I decided the work was going to be nothing but abstraction, she put her hand into white paint and pressed it down, and as she lifted it off I realized that her handprint was at the end of an arm and she was creating a figure.
That moment of recognition threw a shock into my system. I was reminded of the time, half a century ago, when I heard my first Cecil Taylor record. A jazz critic friend played it for me, telling me he thought Taylor was the next great thing in jazz. I listened with increasing puzzlement as some guy seemed to be throwing his hands at random around the piano keyboard, until I suddenly realized that an impossibly complex figure ran up and down the keyboard and was then repeated exactly. The understanding that Taylor was in complete control of everything he played forced me to listen with different ears.
I had that same realization about the work of Nancy Ostrovsky. Throughout the remainder of the performance I couldn’t take my eyes off her. After she finished the first painting, she took it off the easel, rested briefly, and then started throwing paint around again. This time, she was creating a picture of the musicians and some dancers who briefly participated in the performance.
It was art love at first sight. At the end of the performance, I rushed over to Ostrovsky and asked how much she wanted for the paintings. The price she quoted seemed quite reasonable. I handed her some money as a down payment on the one I had decided I wanted. (It turned out, not surprisingly, to be a little less than it’s costing me to frame it!)
Perhaps I should have bought the figure. It was the painting that gave me that thrill of discovery. But I decided I would have more fun looking at the musicians. I look forward to having them as companions for a long time, and to seeing a lot more of Nancy Ostrovsky’s work. When I went to her studio to collect my painting–she wouldn’t let it go immediately because she wanted it to dry properly–I saw a lot more of her work. One impressive item was a copy of a poster for a Dizzy Gillespie concert, inscribed to her by Gillespie.
This is an original song, from a large group of songs I wrote and performed in the mid-1980s. It comes from a concert at a local store, Just Alan, on Route 28 in Shokan.
Press the play button to hear “Isn’t It Fun” written and sung by Leslie Gerber at Just Alan, 1985.
My friends and I were really looking forward to the new Coen Brothers film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We’d all been involved with the subject matter, the early 1960s folk scene in New York, to some extent. Critics had been enthusiastic in their praise. And we were all Coen Brothers fans, most of us having seen most of their previous films.
But we all came out of the theater with scowls on our faces. None of us liked the movie very much. This was in spite of its obvious virtues: convincingly written, well acted, well directed, well photographed. So, what was wrong. Basically, none of us had wanted to spend two hours in the company of the title character, a narcissistic jerk. Try analyzing the plot of the film and you’ll see that Llewyn, a modestly talented musician, spends most of his time trying to find ways to take advantage of people–friends, lovers, other musicians, people in the music business. He starts out that way, wastes a lot of time and effort taking actions that are of no benefit to himself or anyone else (like a stupid, quixotic trip to Chicago). If some of the action or events in the story had inspired some change, some insight, some improvement in Llewyn’s character, I would have been pleased with the story. But no, he starts off a jerk and finishes a jerk too. The guy who plays Llewyn, Oscar Isaac, is distressingly convincing in his character.
(As an aside, I didn’t like most of the music in the film either. Llewyn and his friends are what I used to consider in the ‘60s fake folk musicians, people who took folk material or folk styles and sanitized it to make it more palatable to naive audiences. Peter, Paul and Mary, for example, used to make me sick. Too damn pretty. Oddly enough, Showtime broadcast a concert given in New York called “Another Day/Another Time” which was supposedly an offshoot of the film but had much better music.)
This kind of story seems to have enduring popularity with film makers and, sometimes, with audiences. Not with me. I consider it nihilism. I gain nothing from an experience like that, not entertainment, not insight, no revelations, just an opportunity to feel scornful towards some of my fellow human beings. I get enough of those reading the daily newspaper.
Another recent hit was a surprising adventure in nihilism, Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Allen, when he hasn’t just been out for laughs, has often made remarkably powerful and moving films about our efforts to make connections with each other. “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” were very effective depictions of people trying to make contact with others. And “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which I consider his masterpiece, tells an ugly story in a way that invites us to understand people who act out of bad motivations without endorsing them. But “Blue Jasmine,” apparently based on Allen’s fantasy of the post-conviction life of Bernard Madoff’s wife, is a hideous little story about human defeat. Cate Blanchett does a remarkable job of portraying Jasmine. But she is a weak person whose best idea about how to cope with her personal defeat is to take drugs. Not a very good idea. Like Llewyn, she learns nothing from her situation and does nothing useful or worthwhile throughout the movie. Nothing.
I find films like this displeasing and inexplicably popular. One such movie which puzzled the hell out of me was “Thelma & Louise.” This was a story of two women friends who started off by making a spectacularly stupid and self-defeating (and unnecessary) decision, trying to hide the death of a rapist instead of reporting it to the police. They then go on a road odyssey, making the worst possible decisions at every juncture. Eventually they work themselves into such an impossible situation that they decide to escape by killing themselves, which they do in a ridiculous blaze of cinematic glory. And millions of women apparently reacted to this movie as liberating for women. Ridiculous!
I was just as displeased, and just as puzzled, by the great and continuing success of “Raging Bull. Sure, Robert DeNiro does a remarkable job of acting in this movie. But the story is about a brutish character, the real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, who starts off treating everyone around him badly and continues to do so throughout the story, ending up as bad a character as he was when he started. What am I supposed to gain from this experience? What made it even worse to me was that it’s false. LaMotta actually did change through his life and has wound up a much-beloved person in boxing circles where, in his 90s, he continues to make personal appearances and occasionally does stand-up comedy. And, by the way, the boxing scenes in this film were as ludicrously unrealistic as the scenes in the “Rocky” movies. Real boxing doesn’t look anything like that!
Incidentally, I am well aware that the kind of nihilism I’m describing is not confined to films. It’s quite popular in the theater too and has been for a long time. It’s why I avoid anything written by Harold Pinter, an ace nihilist who can write, or David Mamet, a nihilist who can’t write worth a damn. And of course nihilistic novels have been common since the 19th century.
This is not my essay in favor of being nice. I have seen, and been moved by, many extraordinary films dealing with unpleasant circumstances and ugly characters. Last year, some of my friends tried to discourage me from going to see “Amour” because they thought that seeing a film about a man trying to cope (rather badly) with his wife’s deterioration would be too disturbing to me. (I’m the chief caregiver for my wife, who has Alzheimer’s Disease.) But I was very glad I went. This film was so realistic, acted and directed with such extraordinary power, and so revealing of real human conditions, that I found it liberating to watch and I look forward to seeing it again before too long. I am not a Pollyanna. I just don’t like being invited to watch bad people acting badly and learning nothing.
When I was seventeen, I thought I should kill myself if I didn’t succeed in getting laid by the time I turned eighteen. I hadn’t had a girlfriend since I was fifteen. So I stopped spending all my spare time reading and writing science fiction, and started going places where I could meet girls.
I met Julie at a meeting of Mensa, the high-IQ society. Julie was short (an advantage to a short fellow like me), extremely attractive, and quite bright and lively, a contrast to most of the Mensans who took themselves very seriously and were generally a morose lot. She also had a pronounced British accent, which I found inexplicably enticing.
Julie shared some of my interests, including classical music, foreign films, walks in the park, even science-fiction. She accepted my invitation to see a Bergman film the following weekend. Later I spoke with a couple of the livelier guys in the club, and they told me Julie had a reputation for having Done It with more than one guy. I think they expected this to turn me off. Instead, it suggested that I wouldn’t have to convince her to Do It altogether, just to Do It with me.
We went on a few dates, all cultural events. I liked her company, and we found plenty to talk about. One of our dates was going to see a Saturday matinee of an off-Broadway play starring Jean Shepherd, the radio talker whose work we both loved. After the show, I took Julie backstage to meet Shepherd. I introduced us, saying, “Hi, Mr. Shepherd, my name is Leslie Gerber and this is my friend Julie.” Shep immediately realized what was going on, a teenager trying to impress his date, and replied, “Oh, yes, Leslie, of course. How are you doing? How are your folks?” He went on for a couple of minutes pretending he knew me. It was the finest act of spontaneous kindness I’ve ever received from a stranger, and Julie was highly impressed.
One night I brought her home to her apartment in Queens, an hour an a half away from my Brooklyn apartment. She was pleased that I was taking all that trouble, and she gave me a very tasty good night kiss.
The next weekend, we went to a party and drank a fair amount of wine. I told her about Ted’s place, a basement apartment in the Village which a bohemian friend of mine used as his writing studio. In exchange for paying a share of the rent, I had a key to the place It had a bed, although a somewhat grungy one. I invited Julie to join me at Ted’s place the following Saturday afternoon, when I had reserved time. She acted huffy about it, treating me coldly for the rest of the evening. But I still took her home, and at the door she kissed me again and said she would think about it. Thinking was hardly what I was hoping for, but I was encouraged when I spoke with her during the week and she said she was still thinking about it. Anyway, she would meet me for a movie Saturday afternoon and then we’d see. The next day I braved the embarrassment of going to a drug store to buy condoms, the brand an older friend had recommended because you could feel everything just fine with them. I even wasted one to make sure I knew how to put it on.
We met in the Village, and I told her Ted had left some interesting new jazz records at the apartment. We went straight there, and as soon as I had put a record on, Julie took over. She removed her shirt and bra, revealing a pair of exquisite breasts, and began kissing me. I became so excited I didn’t know what to do, but she guided me, undressing me gently, turning down the lights, and even helping me on with the condom.
My friends were right. Having sex, feeling that indescribable touch, was the most wonderful sensation I had ever experienced. Julie had saved my life. It was a week and a half before my eighteenth birthday.
Afterwards, Julie lay back on the bed and looked at me, smiling. “Was this your first time?” she asked.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Well, it was very nice.”
I carried that sweet expression of approval as a beacon through decades of adversities.
The doors to bliss remained open. Julie and I spent every weekend together. She told me that her experience had not been as extensive as I had heard; she had just had a couple of lovers for brief periods. Ours was her first real “relationship.”
Often we went to Ted’s apartment. If one of our apartments became available, so much the better. We spent as much time as before talking, going to movies and concerts together, helping each other with our college homework.
I didn’t show any of the symptoms I later learned as meaning one was “in love,” lying awake nights, having trouble concentrating on anything else, needing to feel like I was constantly in touch. Those unpleasant sensations came later. Life with Julie was idyllic. I thought about life after college, and whether I could settle down with Julie in an apartment of our own in the Village.
One afternoon, we had what started off as a particularly wonderful encounter. Julie’s parents were both off at work for the day. She called me in the morning and invited me to come out to her apartment for the afternoon. I was there by noon. I had brought lunch, and we sat eating quietly, without much to say for the moment. Then she took me into the bedroom, and we had our usual passionate encounter, which, if anything, seemed even sweeter than usual.
As I lay beside Julie, floating in post-coital bliss, she suddenly got out of bed and got dressed. Then she said, “I want you to leave.”
“Why?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“You bet there is. I never want to see you again. You’re horrible.”
“But why, Julie? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Yes you have. You’re a monster. I never want to see you again. You’re a monster!”
I asked what was bothering her. All she had to say was that I was a monster and she never wanted to see me again. I gave up and left.
I was certain we could talk things out on the phone, but I was wrong. That evening, her mother, who liked me, said that Julie couldn’t talk to me. I waited a day and called in the afternoon. When Julie heard my voice, she said, “Don’t keep calling me. I never want to see you again. You’re a horrible monster.”
“But Julie, what did I do? I really don’t understand.”
“Oh, yes you do. You know what you did. You’re a monster!”
I tried calling a few more times, but she wouldn’t speak to me. I knew where I could find her, so I went to the next Mensa meeting. She was there, as beautiful and appealing as ever. When she saw me, she said, “I was afraid you would come. Get away from me, you monster.”
“Won’t you at least explain what you’re so angry about? I really don’t understand.”
“Of course you do. You’re horrible. You know what you did. Leave me alone.” She wouldn’t say anything else.
We had a mutual friend in Mensa, the red-haired siren Marilyn who later got me under her spell and then broke my heart. I enlisted her aid in finding out why Julie was so angry with me. Julie wouldn’t explain anything to Marilyn either.
Julie was out of my life. I even stopped going to Mensa because it hurt me so to see her, laughing and talking and acting as if I didn’t exist.
Decades passed. I fell for Marilyn and suffered when she eloped with her psychiatrist. I married and raised children. One of my best friends killed himself. I left New York and settled in the country, more than a hundred miles away, where I could see the stars at night. I was divorced, and didn’t see my children for a couple of years.
One day, I got a call from Marilyn. She too was divorced, and she had found herself thinking about me. We met for lunch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art restaurant, where the food is almost as impressive as the surroundings, and we talked for hours. She told me about green light meditation and her delight in her ten-year-old daughter, and about what a perfect bastard her ex-husband had been, that shrink she had left me for.
She said that Julie had asked about me a couple of times. She was married and living in Maryland, managing the real estate affairs of a recreational complex. Marilyn thought that Julie’s husband was rather aimless and dependent. I thought how sad it was that her wild spirit sounded so tamed these days, but then, who was I to talk, no Dostoyevsky as I had dreamed of being in college but a small business owner instead. Marilyn asked if it would be all right to tell Julie how to get in touch with me, and I said I would be delighted to hear from her.
Two days later I received a call from Julie. It was the middle of summer, and she said if I were interested it would be the perfect time to visit. A friend of mine, a concert pianist, was giving a performance near her home in a few weeks. We agreed that I would come for a visit then, and that we would surprise my friend by showing up at his concert.
I wondered if I would even recognize Julie. But when I arrived at her home after a day-long drive, she seemed hardly to have aged. Her accent and her bouncy spirits were intact. She brought me inside her modest house and introduced me to her husband, who reminded me of a cartoon beagle, friendly but lacking in energy or conversation. He and I exchanged very few words that evening, or during the three days of my visit. Julie took up the slack, full of enthusiastic talk about her surroundings and her work. I was tired from the trip and went to bed early.
The next morning Julie took me to see her development. She even made a few gestures towards interesting me in buying or renting a place, although the age of my car probably made it obvious that I was in no position to take on a second house. We all had dinner together and went to see a movie. Her husband again said hardly anything.
On my last day there, we went back to Julie’s development and I watched her bustle about, then retired to a cabin and read a book until the end of her day. Back at her house, she changed her outfit. I took her out for dinner. Her choice was a mediocre Chinese restaurant, which she picked because she rarely had the chance to eat Chinese food. Then we went to the concert, at which my friend played as splendidly as always. I was pleased to notice that Julie appreciated his playing.
It was past midnight when we got back to the house. Julie’s husband was asleep. She took out a bottle of red wine, and we sat at the kitchen table, sipping wine and talking. Julie told me she was still devoted to her husband, but she despaired of his ever succeeding at anything beyond his modest work. They had no children and were not likely to have any. She sounded miserable. I was feeling the impact of my failures in life and love, and I told her frankly about them.
Sunlight was hinting outside when we started making our parting gestures. But curiosity finally overcame my reticence, and I told her, “Julie, there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to know from you. When you broke off with me, you suddenly got very angry with me.”
“You said I was a horrible monster. You said I knew what I had done, but I swear to you, I really didn’t. It would set my mind at ease if you would tell me what I did to make you angry.”
“Heavens,” she said with a perplexed look. “I’m happy to tell you anything, but I swear, I haven’t a clue.”
(Note: This memoir is as accurate as memory permits, but a few details have been deliberately altered to protect the innocent.)
After I told some friends about my great experiences at the Southampton Writers Conference, where I got to take a workshop with Billy Collins, I got puzzled responses from some people who aren’t typical poetry consumers. They were curious to know how anyone could teach you to write better poetry.
Igor Stravinsky once said that, if he were to create a textbook on orchestration, he would have to use only examples from his own music, because those would be the only ones where he could tell if the orchestration was successful. Similarly, my poetry is the work I am most intimately acquainted with.
Here is the text of one of the poems I brought to the workshop for a critique. I brought it because I thought it was unsuccessful, but I cared enough about it so that I wanted to make it work:
She’d been very sick,
the neighbor across the street
whose husband died so young.
Then she was better again.
I saw her in her garden
just last September,
working with a younger friend,
Next summer you can help, she said.
I said I would.
Then I didn’t see her for a while.
Now I see strangers’ cars,
five or six at a time.
Some of the people wear badges.
They rush through the light snow.
They do not look like
they want to answer questions.
The people in the workshop, including Collins, were complementary about the first two thirds of the poem, pointing out its values of compression and good selection of detail. They didn’t like the stanza breaks for single lines, which I agreed were unnecessary. And the line “working with a younger friend” was too general, so I changed it to “pulling weeds with a younger friend.”
The last stanza, though, did not convey what I wanted it to. The image the readers got, except for one person who understood my intentions, was of emergency workers coming to help with a desperate situation. That wasn’t my intention, and it didn’t make sense in the context of the poem either. I explained that what I wanted to convey was my experience of seeing these people across the street and realizing that they were hospice workers and that my friendly neighbor was dying.
The first detail I got objections to was “five or six at a time.” I had actually seen that many at once, but truth in itself doesn’t justify its inclusion in a poem. Fewer cars was the recommendation. The badges didn’t compute for most people. They didn’t understand I had meant to indicate name tags that medical workers wear. And the detail of rushing through the snow, even though the people had actually rushed–probably just to get through the snow faster–contributed to the impression of an emergency. Collins’s remark, one he made many times during the course of the workshop, was that there were too many cards left face down on the table. It surprised me at first, since I aim at a plainspoken style without obscurity. But I realized that obscurity isn’t only a problem of language. In this case, it was a problem of the selection of detail, which had been so much more successful earlier on in the poem.
After I assimilated the various comments (many written out on the copies of the poem people had read), I revised the poem as follows:
She’d been very sick,
the neighbor across the street
whose husband died so young.
Then she was better again.
I saw her in her garden
just last September,
pulling weeds with a younger friend,
Next summer you can help, she said.
I said I would.
Then I didn’t see her for a while.
Now I see strangers’ cars,
two or three at a time.
Sometimes people sit in their cars
Some of the people
wear name badges on cords.
They trudge through the light snow.
They do not look like
they want to answer questions.
This version, I think, gives the reader a serious chance to understand my intentions, and to share in a small way the experience of discovery. If I find out there are other places in the poem which obstruct that experience, I’ll be revising again.
Incidentally, I recommend Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual, among numerous fine books on the writing of poetry.
The story of my last decade is mostly the story of my wife Tara’s illness. In 2003, after a couple of months of mysterious symptoms, Tara was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had a hysterectomy. The cancer was very early, stage 1C, and the surgeon told us that many doctors would not have recommended any follow-up treatment. He strongly advocated chemotherapy and talked us into it.
Halfway through her course of chemo, which lasted 4 months, Tara started having trouble writing (her profession for almost 50 years!) and with short-term memory. About that time the surgeon left his position at the hospital and Tara was sent to another hospital to complete her chemo, where she received no supervision and almost no attention. When she complained about the memory problems, she was told she probably had chemo-brain and it would eventually go away by itself.
It didn’t go away. After five years of attempted treatments and diagnoses, we finally wound up at Columbia-Presbyterian in New York, where a neurologist specializing in memory disorders sent her for some high-tech tests. When he showed us the results, they demonstrated extensive brain damage. He theorized it had been caused by an opportunistic infection suffered while the chemo was suppressing her immune system. There was no possible cure or treatment, he said.
She was still able to care for herself to some extent, and when my father was dying in February 2008 I was able to travel to Albuquerque for a few days. But her continuing difficulties forced me to close down my mail order business in October, 2008, and to sell the house I was using to run the business out of. I’ve only been able to do small amounts of part-time work since then. I still publish a few CDs (one DVD), sell some used CDs through Amazon, and do a little writing including my Woodstock Times column, now ongoing for more than 35 years.
During 2008, I learned of a treatment called neurofeedback which was offered by Dr. Steve Larsen in Tillson. I took Tara to him twice weekly for eight months, and she had a brief period of serious improvement. A neurologist she saw both before and after the treatments started said he had never seen such remarkable improvement in someone with her condition in so short a time. But by the end of the year the treatments had stopped working and we ended them.
We had another try with Larsen in 2010 combined with a woman he recommended named Barbara Dean Schacker, who has developed some effective treatments for stroke recovery. We tried them because strokes cause similar damage to what Tara had suffered. They had some beneficial effects too. We also went for some months to a speech pathologist for something called cognitive therapy. Both of these caused some short-term minor improvements, but they each stopped having any effect. By the beginning of 2012, in consultation with all the therapists involved, I decided to stop all treatments, all of which Tara had come to dislike, and simply focus on her comfort.
I had started writing poetry in 1999, as a result of a series of nightmares. I’m still not sure why they inspired me to write poems, a completely new activity for me unless you count the song lyrics I wrote in the ’80s. (I don’t.) But I had some success, and a lot of encouragement from Tara and from a wonderful local poet named J.J. Clarke, who took me under his wing because he’d enjoyed my radio programs.
I worked on poetry as a kind of mildly gifted amateur for several years, but then got more serious about that activity after I got to take two brief workshops at Omega Institute with Sharon Olds, one of my poetic idols. Olds was very encouraging and advised me to get into the local poetry community, which I have succeeded in doing. I’m now a regular at most of the local open mics and often a feature. I belong to a working group we call the Goat Hill Poets, which meets monthly to critique each others’ work. We’ve performed as a group several times. I’ve had some publications, planning to submit a lot more work, and I now have a daily work schedule which I keep up most of the time. In July, I will be taking a 12 day workshop with Billy Collins, who is probably aside from Olds the poet I would most like to work with. (Olds isn’t doing workshops any more, alas.)
Caring for Tara, who has now deteriorated to the point where she can’t remember my name or tell you hers, has probably been the most difficult task of my life, despite my having cared for my two dying children decades ago. It’s a lot more exhausting than it is ennobling. But there is at least some satisfaction in knowing that I am providing for this splendid woman the care she needs after more than two decades of the way she glorified my life. And I’m arranging for more time to myself so that I can write and do other satisfying things.
Tony Kushner (left) and husband Mark Harris
The chance to hear Tony Kushner speak again, a decade after his talk at Bard College, was too enticing to miss. Through a lucky coincidence, I also got to meet one of my few heroes.
I first became aware of Tony Kushner’s work when my wife took me to see the original Broadway production of “Angels in America.” We went to New York, checked in at the hotel we had booked for the night, ate lunch, and went to the matinee performance of Part 1. That part ends with a scene of epiphany when a man sick with AIDS is visited by an angel who proclaims him a prophet. I was so moved by that scene that I literally lost the power of speech. If Tara hadn’t been with me to guide me, I could never have found my way back to our hotel, just a few blocks from the theater.
Taking in the whole play in a single day might have been a mistake, since its impact was so overwhelming. But I’ve never forgotten the experience, which still ranks as one of the most powerful I’ve ever had, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. This might sound like an exaggeration but it’s not.
I got to experience “Angels in America” again when a filmed adaptation was broadcast over HBO. It was the kind of work that justifies the whole medium of television. I watched it on two Sunday evenings, surrounded by friends, and again was astonished by the power of this great writer. We had another showing a few years later, with similar results.
A few days before the broadcast of “Angels,” I ran into a novelist I know slightly. I asked her if she had HBO and she said she did. I told her about the coming broadcast. She said she was planning to watch the first hour, but it was running from 8 to 11 and she always went to bed at 9. I told her she would never be able to turn the TV off. She said I didn’t know her well enough. I bet her a dollar she wouldn’t be able to stop watching it. A couple of days after the broadcast I got a dollar bill in the mail.
While “Angels” remains his best-known work, Kushner is far from a one-hit wonder. Tara and I have been to see several of his other plays, including the more recent “Homebody/Kabul,” the musical “Caroline, or Change,” and the early “A Bright Room Called Day.” I’ve also read some of his excellent essays.
We got to see him in person when he was given an honorary degree by Bard College about a decade ago. The event was not, as usual, part of a college graduation but a separate event. Kushner performed in a brief one-act play, the title of which I cannot remember or locate. In it, Laura Bush, a former librarian, read a story to a group of dead Iraqui children. As usual with Kushner’s work, it was both funny and moving. Kushner, incidentally, took the part of Laura Bush. He then gave a brilliant talk, largely centered on current politics. Bard promised me a transcript, but it turned out that the talk had been completely spontaneous and Kushner had no text available.
When I received a flyer for a Kushner talk at Temple Emanuel in nearby Kingston, I immediately ordered tickets. A few days later, I ran into a woman at the Woodstock post office who was mailing out flyers with Tony Kushner in large type. I remarked to her that I had already bought tickets for the talk, but she told me that these invitations were for a “meet and greet” session earlier in the day, going out to a selected small list of people. I told her I would be interested, and she gave me one.
So it was that, through nothing but dumb luck, I got to go to the afternoon session. The admission price was $150, including the evening talk. But I don’t have many living heroes, and the event was two days after my birthday. So I gave myself a ticket as a birthday present.
The event took place at a private home in Kingston. While most of the attendees were admiring the view of the Hudson River from the back porch, or looking at the impressive artwork throughout the house, I realized I felt tired and sat down on a chair in the living room. Someone politely informed me that the chair and the one next to it were being saved for Mr. Kushner and Rinne Groff, the playwright who was going to be his conversation partner. OK, I said, and I got up and sat down in another chair right next to those two. Sure enough, Kushner and Groff arrived a few minutes later, shook a few hands, and sat down in those chairs, Kushner right next to me.
I introduced myself, thanked him for his work, and told him quickly the stories of my reaction to seeing “Angels” on Broadway and of the dollar bill. Then I explained that I ran a classical record label, and because I’d read that he loved Beethoven I had brought him some samples as a gift. “What’s your label called?” he asked. “Oh, it’s small, you won’t know it,” I said. “It’s called Parnassus.” “Don’t you have CDs by some famous pianist?” he asked. “Sviatoslav Richter,” I said. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “Those were favorites of my friend Maurice Sendak. He gave me one of them.”
After he chatted with a couple of other people, Kushner was introduced by the host of the event. Then, instead of circulating, as I had expected him to do, Kushner began a dialogue with Groff. He told some very interesting stories that were not, of course, repeated during the evening. Someone asked him how he wrote, and he showed off his antique glass fountain pen. “I like fountain pens,” he said, “because you can see the difference in the emphasis of the stroke of the pen on the paper. It shows how you were feeling when you wrote something.” He also explained that this particular pen didn’t leak or explode in pressurized airplane cabins.
As part of his work on a collected Library of America edition of Arthur Miller’s plays, Kushner met the librarian of the institution which bought Miller’s papers. The librarian told him of going to Miller’s home to help him sort through his boxes. Miller came across a batch of letters tied with a pink ribbon. “What are those doing here?” he exclaimed. “These were from Marilyn.” He immediately threw them into the fireplace, where they burned quickly.
He also said that he had been writing something about Sendak and visited him. Sendak showed him 70 volumes of journals he had kept for most of his life. Kushner said he would like to read them. “Oh, no” Sendak said. “Nobody else will ever read these.” They were gone when he died.
As the event broke up and Kushner rose to leave, he turned to me. “Thank you so much, Leslie,” he said, and hugged me.
After the evening talk, which was mostly about Abraham Lincoln and Kushner’s recent screenplay, my friend Judy Kerman suggested that it was time for us to watch “Angels in America” again. She’s right. But first I have to get to “Lincoln.”
The first thing you notice is
the smell of what they use to chase away
the smell of illness and decay.
It’s not pleasant,
like over-ripe fruit blended with dollar-a-gallon vinegar.
The lights are always on.
The hospital’s trust fund invests heavily in utility stocks.
When the power blacks out
generators roar into action
keeping blood flowing through the building’s veins.
If you want to get a nurse quickly
push the panic button
and tell her a light went out.
Tell your visitors:
Hospititis lurks everywhere
and drugs don’t cure it.
For five bucks a day you see on TV
the same blurry people from antenna days
still saying the same things
only now you can’t hear them.
The basic food groups are:
dry white toast
stuff that spurts out of needles.
Nurses come to get you up and walking.
Then they put you back down like a dirty sock.
Most of the nurses come from far away.
Some of them have accents
that seem to come from outer space.
Those aliens are the nicest ones.
The billing department always gets something wrong.
Then, months later, more bills come
from ghost doctors who died years ago
but still have good reputations.
Four or five or six or seven times an hour
a loud tinny noise gushes from a box on the wall.
It sounds like it’s squeezed from a rusty tube.
Are those words?
All in black, the chaplain walks in,
introduces himself, mumbles, smiles, walks out
just like he did yesterday
and will do tomorrow.
Today’s the day!
It’s like getting out of jail.
They give you back your clothes
but where are the $20 bill and the bus ticket?
Every month, reminders arrive
from the Alumni Association
asking you to remember your vacation
with a generous contribution.
We contribute them to the recycling bin.
This poem is from my “Dystopias” series.
This post makes my 52nd week of weekly posts. I had promised myself I’d do it weekly for a year and I did. Since I am about to get busy for a little while, including a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival, this blog may become less regular for a while. However, I’m not quitting. And you’ll still get notices whenever a new blog is posted. Thanks for reading. –LG
Usually I don’t allow myself to have favorite artists? Do I prefer Bach to Beethoven? Or to Schubert? But I have to admit that Robert Altman is my favorite movie director.
This doesn’t mean I want to make a case that he is the “best” movie director ever. I don’t believe in such nonsense. I’d never say that Altman is “better” than Kurosawa, Keaton, Bergman, Carné, or many others I could name. But there’s something about Altman’s greatest films that makes me feel especially close to them, and that they do what I want to see more than anyone else’s.
Several years ago my local “art” movie house, Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, had a single showing of “Nashville.” I’ve seen that numerous times, but of course I hadn’t seen it in a theater since it was new. There is one glaring flaw in the film that gets on my nerves: the character of Opal, the British TV reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin. I don’t find her at all convincing, and although I know the stupidity of her reports is intended to make a point I think it’s too exaggerated to be plausible. (I hope.)
Aside from that, though, “Nashville” seems to me a magnificent statement of the state of American culture in the mid-70s (it was made in 1975), as seen through the microcosm of the country music scene in the city of Nashville. I’ve usually found that particular genre of music one of the few I don’t like, and I suspect Altman shared my opinion. As inventive as always, Altman hit upon the brilliant strategy of having the actors who play the roles of singers write their own songs and do their own singing. Some of them can sing, but only Keith Carradine could write a convincing song. (Ironically, it won an Oscar.) So most of the songs performed by these supposed icons of country music are pretty dumb, making in a subtle way a point that could easily have been overstated.
The interweaving of numerous stories in a single film is so much Altman’s invention that anything similar these days is immediately tagged as Altmanesque by film critics. “Nashville” was the first such Altman film to take on such an elaborate structure, although in a less complex construction it’s the basis of his first successful feature, “MASH” (Altman once stated that, although some of his films had lost money for the studios, they still owed him a debt of gratitude for “MASH” because it eventually earned a billion dollars for its studio through sales and TV royalties.) Other Altman classics like “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park” have similarly complex stories.
“MASH” is only the first of Altman’s great films. Although “Nashville” might be my favorite of all of them, I might also love “3 Women” just as much. That magnificent, mysterious film, not one of his best known, is an exploration of the female psyche so convincing that it’s surprising to learn that Altman himself wrote it. Another of my many favorites, almost unknown today, is “Images,” a suspense story with a stunning shock ending which seems obviously a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, an early mentor of Altman’s. (Before his successful movie career, Altman worked in television for a decade, directing episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Combat,” “Bonanza,” and other series. In his mature career he went back to TV for several excellent projects, the greatest of which was “Tanner ‘88,” made for HBO.)
I’m lots fonder of “Popeye” than most critics seem to be. It’s a bizarre musical, with great songs by Harry Nilsson, and Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are superb as Popeye and Olive Oyl. After that flopped, Altman had trouble getting funding for films for some years, and he worked mostly at making film versions of plays. Among those, “Secret Honor” is truly outstanding, with Philip Baker Hall as an amazing Richard Nixon. (“Beyond Therapy” is the only Altman film I’ve been unable to watch through. I find the Durang script unbearable. Durang didn’t like the film either.)
In the 1990s, Altman’s career had a renaissance. The post-1990 films are uneven, including such artistic flops as “Kansas City” (despite an amazing performance from Harry Belafonte”) and “Ready to Wear.” But they also include such masterpieces as “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Gosford Park” and even his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on the radio program and using some of its regulars (including host Garrison Keillor). When Altman died, he was working on a project called “Hands on a Hard Body,” based on the odd contests held by truck dealers in which the last person standing and still awake with both hands on a truck wins the truck. What a delight that would have been!
I haven’t been spending enough time with Robert Altman recently, but that’s going to change. While clearing out my collection of old VHS tapes I’ve found some Altman material I haven’t seen in years, including an interview done after “Vincent and Theo” was released and several TV projects including two one-act Harold Pinter plays (“The Dumb Waiter” and “The Room”). I’m going to copy all of the tapes to DVD and watch them in the process, and then I’m going start going through the features in a leisurely manner. It’ll probably take me two years or more. But what a trip that’s going to be!