Escapism

I keep telling people that I can’t handle anything right now except completely escapist reading and miniseries — the sci-fi I teethed on, the fantasies and Sherlock Holmes pastiches and Marvel action movies.

Except. I’m not at all sure it’s escapism. Sometimes it seems like reframing.

There’s a monologue written by J. Michael Straczynski, spoken at the end of the third season of the shoestring-budget, turned-showrunner’s-hair-white cable series Babylon 5. Prosthetic aliens, space station, plywood star-fighter ships, all of that.

Straczynski grew up in a horror show like you read about. Superhero comics were his only escape; if you want a hair-raising read, pick up his memoir Becoming Superman. There was not a sound mind or a moral compass anywhere in his birth family (I could relate). Superman became his role model instead — someone who always used his power to help, did the right things, saved the desperate, thwarted the cruel and destructive. Full circle, JMS went on to write for the comic in the 80s and 90s, after writing for more TV shows than I can count, and eventually came up with Babylon 5, which at heart is a parable about how much individual choices matter. Some other guy isn’t always going to fix it. Apt in any time, critical in times like these. It’s been pointed out a good many times that J. K\. Rowling was doing something similar with her Potter books.

Here’s the Narn ambassador G’Kar, a complex character (brought to life by the amazing character actor Andreas Katsulas, of blessed memory) who evolves from hedonistic buffoon to prophet, speaking over the end credits of the pivotal third season:

“G’Quon wrote, There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way.

The war we fight is not against powers and principalities – it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation.

No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.”

Here we are, I think. This is going to hurt for a long while. for the rest of our lives really, and I only hope that the world learns something about the important of choices.

I recommend the whole series. The writers of space opera and comics and invented-world fantasies and children’s books have gifts for us.

 

 

 

Dangerous Dancing

Joker-2019-joker-2019-42995571-300-222

Possibly the most compelling thing about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the just-released Joker movie is the dancing.

Yes, I realize it’s not the first thing you associate with the character — one for which I’ve always had a fascination. If you are a comics nerd (I have been one on and off throughout my life), your notions of him are era-dependent: it could be Cesar Romero’s near-buffoon with makeup in his mustache; Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson (he did, I grant, deliver the line about dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight); the cackling killer who kept getting locked up in DC comics’ enchantingly named Arkham Asylum because he was so obviously evil in the key of Nuts; Mark Hamill’s voice performance, or Heath Ledger’s Protean and disturbing figure who had many conflicting stories about his origins, all true of course. There was also a Frank Miller version who smooched Dr. Ruth on camera during a broadcast of David Letterman. I guess it had to happen.

All I can say is that if you wanted a Joker more disquieting than Heath Ledger, there was really no choice but Joaquin Phoenix. I was practically camping out in the queue the minute i heard about the casting. Have you ever seen what I think may have been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, The Master? If you haven’t, well just set aside an evening when you can afford to be creeped out. Not by Stephen King riffs or Twilight Zone cantrips, but an everyday character who telegraphs deeply wrong in the head with every nuance of his manner, movement, speech pattern and even the weirdly disjointed relationship of his body parts. This is the guy sitting next to you on the bus who asks a question that tells you he’s not in the same world you are; the person who turns a polite time-of-day encounter into a crocked exegesis of his Theory Of Everything; the girl firmly certain that she has fleas that no one else can see. We’ve all felt that ripple under our own skin when people like that crossed our path. In The Master, without any frankly delusional lines, that’s Joaquin Phoenix’s character, and the performance overshadowed Hoffmann’s, which is saying something.

The new film’s Joker character starts out as the same tune in a higher octave: a just-scratching-by guy who’s been to clown school, lives home in an enmeshed relationship with Mom, is on seven different psychiatric medications and chain-smokes. He’s not the popular vote winner for supervillainy. He can’t talk to women, he’s a magnet for people who treat him like shit, his relationships with anyone other than Mom (and an overburdened therapist) exist almost entirely in his head, and his ambition to be a standup comic is… well… ambitious. But every so often, each time circumstances nudge him a little closer to becoming the Joker — when he goes off his meds, when he acquires a gun — he hears a music that other people don’t hear, and dances. And it’s riveting. Phoenix’s body, especially emaciated by losing weight for this performance (to an extent I find actually a bit frightening), inhabits the Uncanny Valley primarily occupied by androids, CGI versions of human characters, and Momo. (Don’t click on that last link if you tend to have nightmares.) When he slides into dance steps — in his own living room, in a public lavatory, on a car hood — he looks weightless, confident, ecstatic. Your mileage may vary but I envied that fluent movement, wanted to be carried along with it,  yes my man you are madder than six hatters, but move over and make room for me. I want that.

At this point a personal confession is in order. I used to have all too soft a spot for people who were that damaged. I don’t bang on about it, but I could write a few chapters about having parents who hovered too close and were not right in the head. I could write an encyclopedia about being the kid that everyone wanted to bag on (and who always got made into the Bad Guy for cleaning the little bastards’ clocks, something Nice Little Girls are not supposed to do; let’s say I lift, these days, because punching people is frowned upon). If I met someone who’d lived through the same crap, even if they were manifestly coming unwrapped while I’d managed to hang on, there was a magnetic pull. (My ex-husband probably should be included in this group.) In the unwrapped cases, it always ended with me having to change my phone number, or write a please-stay-away letter — feature Mama Sled trying to make sense of a late-night phone call from someone full of beer and Prozac and melting down unintelligibly over her three-year breakup anniversary. Eventually you learn not to get sucked in, but it takes a while.

Once upon a time, just out of college, I worked in a place where the locals tended to get their coffee, and struck up a friendship with a gangly-limbed, dilapidated, obviously bright young man about my same age, who eventually turned out to be on Methadone after developing an opioid habit. (This was long before the Purdue Pharma people had turned the things into a national scourge; you had to kind of work to get those kinds of drugs in the 1970s). By the time I knew about that, I also knew that his father, a career diplomat, had had a habit if amusing himself by kicking his teenage son down the stairs. Nobody else would talk to the guy because he reeked of his job, which was frycook at a chain restaurant; even in the coffee shop we called him the Crisco Kid.

So of course I talked to him, and offered him an old coat of my decamped father’s that wasn’t marinated in cooking fat, and predictably he crushed out on me, and predictably went bananas owing to the fact that I was already assembling the Interesting Past I now have with gentlemen I’d known long before I met him, and first he said something about how one day he was going to get a gun and finish off everyone who’d ever hurt him before taking himself out, and then took to calling and making my phone ring forty-two or fifty-seven times because he had nothing else to obsess about, and peering in the window when I was sewing, like Ophelia, not in my closet but the dining room, and leaving large ornately wrapped packages on the front step with verses from Omar Khayyam. Jesus Fuck. Every woman’s had one. And I assure you that in the 1970’s, the cops did not give a flying crap about a stalking report, even if you brought up gun threats and past residence on a mental ward. I believe they found it kind of cute.

(His best friend from high school — who described him as “the smartest guy in the whole school, possibly ever” — eventually met and married my best friend from high school, after running upstairs and banging her senseless within an hour of their meeting. They’re still married so far as I know and have a grown daughter. But I digress.)

The point being, I know all those signs that someone’s fucked in the head, and have had to outgrow, not to mention survive, an attraction to it, and it’s unbelievably unsettling when you see someone bring it to life in what’s generally minimized as a comic-book story. If you can live with some violence — not in the Quentin Tarantino class, but getting up there — you really should not miss it. The subtexts about inequality, how we as a society care for mentally injured people, and attitudes of privilege work better at some times than others, and of course Batman stuff is now in the Robin Hood territory where all the stories are true no matter how they conflict with each other. In some ways those are the best stories to work with.

The coffee shop guy. I should close that loop. About a month after I heard from him last, my best friend sent a note that her new boyfriend had told her Coffee Shop had shut himself in the closet of his rented room and taken a whole bottle of Thorazine, and they didn’t find him for three days, more or less when, in Hamlet’s words, they nosed him as they went up the stairs. As I remember, we had guests in the house.

I think they were appalled when I explained what the news was, and then began to twirl about in a grateful dance.

 

 

 

 

 

I May Regret This

…but I felt like it. Rifling through my manuscript drawer has moved me to start typing some of my old stuff onto digital media, and more heinously, to share it here under the new tab “Short Fiction.”

First up, Confusion To The Enemy dates from 1978 when we were all going around with our hair quietly on end over the constant gamesmanship of the Cold War. Some of my earliest memories are of being taught how to duck and cover under my gradeschool desk and kiss my ass goodbye, so when we got perestroika and the Soviet Union fell and there was a peace dividend, I, like a lot of people, probably got too complacent. Anyway, here we are again, with everyone rattling their sabers.

If any coven members can manage this kind of thing in our advanced age of instant worldwide communications, tell me how to pitch in.

Order and Chaos

I have never really been able to decide which side I’m on. (Yes, I know there are really no sides and we need both, otherwise how would you get forex John Donne stuffing himself into the sonnet form and then banging it out of shape from the inside with a spanner, to magnificent effect? But I digress.) Sometimes I want to be the God Of Shenanigans that upends everyone’s stale and prissy expectations. Sometimes I want to be the White Tornado that puts shit away in the closet already and cleans the countertop and organizes socks by color.

Anyway I had a week to myself owing to the Engineer going six time zones away to nearly murder himself with watching plays day after day, a story for another time, but of course these are the times you roll up your sleeves to do projects, so naturally the Monday after he got back I actually did the last one I had on my list.

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I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, though nothing from earlier than my middle school years survives. Some of that shit was not bad. Actually I often wonder what adult was using me as a medium to write it. I tried thinking about what I wrote in college and it wrecked things for several years, so the novel I wrote in my graduation year is not in this drawer. Everything else, however, had been in a state of total disorganization for ages, with labels drying up and falling off of folders and a piece of dream fiction (it literally came to me in a dream, like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, all but entire) jostling an attempt at psychological criticism of Ian Fleming. There seem to be three collections of my poems and a half inch thick reboot of a novel that I never figured out how to bring to a conclusion and can’t remember rebooting. I have to make some time to read it.

Anyhow it’s now all in some sort of order. I even tried to get a sort of receding chronological organization. I really hate mess, but when I’m writing I can’t think of anything but that, so stuff ends up put away however. There’s another row of novels (and attempts at them) in binders on the bookshelves, but I couldn’t rise to more than labeling the spines. I love labels. They give me almost the same level of Zen tranquility as folding washcloths so that only the folded edges show at the front of the shelf.

I may put some of the shorter ones up here alongside the poetry selections, if my extensor muscles hold out.

Hope Never Dies

I am still here.

I honestly don’t know when I’ll feel like writing again about the antics of cats, garden insurrections, the droll wisecracks of my Engineer sweetheart or gym idiocy. The dumpster fire (yesterday I saw the term “diaper fire”) of our current rolling crisis has eaten my brain alive, what is left after adjusting for stubborn post-injury pain that I don’t even want to talk much about. I spend way too much time on Twitter, hoping to make an early catch of good news when it does happen. Concentration is hard.

But every once in a while something comes along:

I used to faithfully read a series by Elliott Roosevelt, yes, that Roosevelt family, featuring his mother Eleanor as the Miss Marple-like sleuth in a series of pulpy murder mysteries. They weren’t terribly good, but they weren’t terribly bad either, and featured striking cameos like a house party involving Humphrey Bogart, or an open air fish fry where poor Southern African-Americans dynamited or telephoned the fish (I forget which) and entertained the First Lady to dinner. They were just cute, friendly books, the kind that telegraph that nobody really got hurt, this is just made up, we’re playing let’s pretend.

Hope Never Dies is a lot more noir. But funny noir, even with its glum reminders of why our heroes Barry and Joe are private citizens now, free (except for a disapproving Secret Service detail) to be pursuing a string of clues in a suspicious death. The cliches are all there and they’re delicious: the surprise midnight appearance at Joe Biden’s home, the mysterious woman, the planted stash, the hard-boiled similes (“I crossed the yard as fast as a dog licking a dish”). Shaffer can write. I’m devouring this thing, but not too fast; I need some time out from the nonstop battering of the Trump administration. And having written local politicians into a murder mystery myself, I feel like I now have a posse.

On the other hand, there is this, from the same author.

Creepily, it was published before the 2016 election. What did he know and when did he know it? Can I stand to read it?

And I am really not sure about

I think it deserves a read for the pen name alone, though. News as I get it.

 

As I Was Walking On The Green

In the first volume of C. S. Lewis’ under-celebrated “space trilogy” — which I choose to regard as a passionate personal narrative riding under the banner of Christianity, rather than the didactic allegory I suspect Lewis himself thought he was writing — in Out Of The Silent Planet (that’s us), one of the three Martian races, the most arty and poetic (they look like glossy upright seals), tries to explain to the hero Ransom — a stand in for Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien — how there is a distinction in longing: there are things that everyone longs for in memory, though not in the same sense as one longs for a thing to manifest presently in one’s life (“no one longs for it in his senses”).

I miss my late and ex sometimes. The Engineer has been out of town for several days, and it lets my mind wander that way. No, I don’t want him back in my living room, with his freight of dysfunctionality and copelessness; but I long for a conduit back through time, to his wit and budget of knowledge of everything — recordings, films, basefuckingball even, and of nuggetty aphorisms that have receded on the tide that runs only into the past.

A few times, he alluded to a quatrain which I cannot find mentioned anywhere on the mighty Internet.

As I was walking on the green
A tiny English book I seen.
[something something lives of? grammar?] was the edition,
So I left it laying in the same position.

That third line. I can’t think of the title, and it’s maddening me, because that’s a bit of my past that’s slipped its moorings. Is anyone else familiar with the cantrip? Anybody?

 

The Coverlet

I had a strange, wistful dream the other morning that will not get out of my head.

I’ve dreamed entire stories before — once, I preserved enough of the narrative to write the damn thing, for what it was worth — and it looked as if I might be about to do it again, only a Person from Porlock, in the form of a cat or traffic noise or something, broke in before I had really gotten started.

It seemed to involve my Transgender Ex.

Neither of us have all day so I will try to explain that as briefly as possible. In high school I set my cap for a brilliant, toothsome, Ganymede-like young thing who could play piano like an angel. In those days he embraced an intellectual conservatism that you could at least debate and dispute and had a sense of humor about it. The relationship was off and on and rocky, punctuated by moments of the kind of stupid drama that make me ever so glad I am not young any more, and eventually he owned up that he had always felt like a woman, inside. Fine. Whatevs. Except that he didn’t do anything about it, which is why I am still calling him He, and went on to various relationship disasters intertwined with a decently accomplished academic career. Somehow, every half dozen years, he would turn up on my doorstep or the other end of my phone looking for some form of tea and sympathy (I was  susceptible because long history, Beethoven, loves cats, intelligent conversation) and, quite often, to mooch dinner. Then he would eventually say something condescending and snarky about my liberal politics, zingers which got nastier as he began to sink to the level of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Don’t ask me what the appeal of such institutions might be to someone who identifies as trans. The last zing was, well, the last; at a certain point, you just have to tell someone to have a nice life. I wonder if he has ever put on a dress (you have to start somewhere).

Anyway the story in the dream was apparently about him and it was called The Coverlet, which was printed on the title page of what seemed to be a little booklet or perhaps an open book turned to that chapter. As I sort-of heard the narrative in my head it was simultaneously pictured like a film unreeling.

The Coverlet

The spare room had been empty a long time, but was still kept fresh and neat; on the bed was a quilted coverlet of flour-sack gingham. He passed it every day on his way out, and had stopped giving it much thought.

That morning a pair of gloves rested on the green-and-pink patch of quilting below the pillow, almost like a pair of  hands resting one on the other.

He went on out of the house.

The next day a neatly folded winter scarf lay under the gloves…

And that’s where everything stopped. Couldn’t get it back. But I can still see the morning light shining in on that quilt and the slightly forlorn looking gloves and scarf sitting on a patch of grass-green quilting with tiny pink flowers printed on it.

They weren’t his gloves and scarf, they were someone else’s; someone coming into his life? Someone who’d gone out of it?

Someday I’m going to go to Porlock and burn the place down.

 

Dover Beach

I have been sparse in the last weeks and months. Not all, but some of that owed to nail-biting over the election.

So here we are.

I don’t know what we do tomorrow. It’s not clear yet who in America will suffer most, or what government actions will most require our outcry. I am only here, in the improbable company of Matthew Arnold:

The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Is It Just Me?

Am I the only person who is depressed and disgusted that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in… Literature?

Does the word even mean anything any more?

I was never going to reach even the bar of being published for money, much less the Nobel committee, but this is like a shitbag in the face to anyone who ever sweated blood trying to make a work of fiction into a solid and living thing, or went back to a cycle of poetry year after year, shaping it like a bonsai tree.

I guess all of us who ever wanted to build something worthwhile out of words ought to just go fuck ourselves, or learn to sing in an abrasive, obnoxious tone of voice.

The Tip Of My Tongue

I dreamed that, while seeing two clients in succession out the door, I felt moved to recite to each of them one of the metrical English translations* of the Catullus verse that starts Ameana puella defututa. The version I was declaiming goes

Ameana, big-nosed twat,
Duns me for an awful lot…

But I kept blanking out on the third line. I could recall the concluding couplets but could not for the life of me remember what came in the middle, even though I thought it was very important for each of these people to hear the poem.

I hate it when that happens.

_______________
*I like the conclusion of the version I remembered better than the one I linked here.
Find out what the hell has shocked her,
Call her relatives, her doctor,
Give the kid a looking-glass
To show her face looks like her ass.