Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Connecticut Yankee in Pope Pius XII's Court

So at Thanksgiving this year, I was talking to my friend’s father about traveling in Europe. He’d had a chance to see a lot of it when he was in the service as a young man. He particularly loved Italy, which from all accounts is particularly lovable. Of course he’s also of Italian descent, and in those cases it seems like one is almost genetically predisposed to love Italy above all other places.

“I got to see the pope too,” he told me. We weren’t sure which one that would be. One of the Piuses, we concluded.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked. “For mass? Was he addressing a crowd or something?” I remembered all the images I’d ever seen of tiny men on balconies, blessing throngs of the faithful in Vatican City.

“No, I got to meet him,” he said proudly.

“What, like a personal audience?”

He explained to me how they have this whole set-up where they allow people to come into a cathedral or something, and the pope is then conducted through to meet and bless small groups of people. It’s not a one-on-one or anything, but it’s as close as you can get without being a head of state.

“And they had these little areas based on your country where you stood,” he said. “You stand behind these little barriers and he passes by them. So if you’re from Italy, you stand with the Italians. Or Switzerland or France or the United States. Everybody was represented.”

“And then he just comes through?”

“It’s a whole procession. And then each country had something they’d prepared for him. One group recited a poem someone had written for the occasion. Some other group had a gift they’d brought from their home country. Some of them sang songs for him.”

“Really? And what did the Americans do?”

He looked disgusted. “Not a damn thing. Every other group had prepared something to present to the pope. We just stood there and said hi like he was another tourist attraction.”

I nodded and took a drink of wine. “Yeah, that sounds like us,” I said.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Ivan, Row the Boat Ashore

It was supposed to be a romantic boat ride under the moonlight. Weren’t boat rides under the moonlight romantic by definition? Yet Ivan was ruining it. He wasn’t talking. He didn’t take the opportunity to brush against her gently with small, playful pretenses of accident. He didn’t succumb to the simple fact of their being alone together in the tight confines of the rowboat. He just rowed, silent and persistent.

Pancakes looked toward the shore. It was impossible to tell if they were making any headway. They were too far out to get a good sense of where they were in relation to the land. Besides, it was dark. Ivan rowed, Pancakes watched, and the boat seemed to sit still.

Should she say something? She really wanted to. But it was his turn. That’s just the way it was. She could speak and relieve the tension, but they both knew how she felt. She didn’t need to keep going on about it.

So it was his turn. That much was obvious. Yet in spite of that, he just kept rowing. She couldn’t even see his face very well, although she could hear his labored breathing.

She felt herself getting angry. This was supposed to be their time to breathe a sigh of relief together. They were in this damn boat under the moonlight with a whole cooler of snacks and a couple of bottles of wine because this was a reward for hanging on during the last few weeks. This was supposed to be a giddy celebration after the tense silence of their little pregnancy scare.

So right about now, she thought, we should be laughing. Why the hell aren’t we laughing and drinking and eating cold grapes out of each other’s bellybuttons? Instead, here they were. Pancakes had gotten tired of making jokes and sharing her observations. Ivan’s responses short responses made her feel chastised. Plus, the wine was just making her tired. The whole affair was making her tired.

“I don’t think we are moving,” Ivan said. His tone was conversational, but the comment was so unexpected that Pancakes started as if he had just shouted in her ear.

“What do you mean?” Pancakes asked. “At all?”

He continued in his slow, studied manner. It always made Pancakes aware of the fact that English wasn’t his first language. “It’s taken me some time to make the determination, but I have been observing several different points on the shore. From what I can tell, we’re not making progress.”

Pancakes looked along the shoreline. “I can’t tell at all. What happens if you just stop rowing?”

“How will that help?” Ivan sounded almost petulant.

“Well, if you’re rowing and we’re not getting anywhere, then maybe there’s something moving us in the opposite direction of the way you’re pushing. So if you stop, then we’re not fighting it anymore.”

Ivan stopped rowing. He held the oars out of the water. Pancakes could hear the water dripping from them. “So I just stop? See where it takes us?”

Pancakes peered into the darkness. The moonlight illuminated the area, but the ocean was black, pockmarked by irregular glints of light off its choppy surface. “Unless you think it’s going to take us somewhere bad,” she said. “It might take us out to sea.”

“Or it might take us in to shore.”

Pancakes thought about it a moment. “So we just wait to see what happens?”

“I could continue to row, but that’s not having any effect. I don’t know if it’s better just to stay in one place and hope that things change or to try something new.”

Pancakes didn’t answer. She didn’t know the answer either, but she also felt anxious about making a suggestion in the face of so much obvious symbolism. It was over the top. There was subtext galore. Even though they were both too smart not to see what they were doing, they were still doing it. She felt like anything she said could push them toward some kind of decision they weren’t really ready to make. What could she say about the boat that didn’t sound like a vote yea or nay for the continuation of their relationship?

The boat was jarred by a series of waves created by some distant ship. She looked down. “Oh, shit, I think I got merlot all over this blouse,” she said, righting her plastic wine glass.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

at the sound of the beep

I’m in love with the girl who records the upcoming events message at the Fox Theatre. I just called to find out if there’s really a Panderers’ reunion show coming up there, and I got to listen to her talking about all the bands coming up for the next few weeks. It was the best two-and-a-half-minute conversation I've had for a while. And I didn't even say anything.

Part of what I like is that she’s a little unsure of herself. A lot of times she mispronounces the band names, and then she laughs whenever she realizes she's doing it. I just heard her say the word “guru” three times in a row, and it has to be one of the most endearing things I've ever heard. Plus, I now have a new fondness for that word.

As if that’s not enough, she has the info on the shows. All I could ever need to know. Plus, she always sounds kind of apologetic about the shows that are 21 and up. Like, I'm really sorry you guys who're younger. It'll be a cool show, and if it were up to me, I'd let you in. See? She cares.

But then the message timed out. I never did get past the next month, so I still don't know what the deal is with the Panderers. But I don't blame her. It sounded to me like she was ready to read the whole bloody list, every single booking from now until Doomsday. But the recorder just couldn’t keep up. She's too much woman for it.

I wonder how I would go about tracking her down? Not really, but how would you ever find some random, wonderful voice like that? I could leave a message, I guess. That's how we'd always meet. I'd call the box office, and then she'd call me back in the middle of the day. Then I’d leave another message for her. Recording responding to recording.

We’d probably never meet in person. Maybe we'd arrange a time to get together for coffee. But by coincidence she’d be at the back of the coffeehouse dialing my number to let me know she'd just gotten there. And I'd arrive and look for her, but I wouldn't see anybody who looked like she was waiting for someone. Especially that girl back there who's ignoring the "no cell phones" sign and probably gabbing with her rock-star boyfriend, I'd think.

I'd go outside to call. Since she'd be on the phone, though, I'd go straight to voicemail, as would she. A freak of bad timing, but that's how star-crossed we'd be. In the end, we’d both give up in disgust and go meet people in the real world. There’s our whole relationship right there. I could show you pictures if we’d ever taken any.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Three-Cornered Chair

Scene: A little bistro in a seemingly European city. However, no distinct character is assigned to any set of features. Could be London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin. Hard to say. It’s probably Spain, but no one’s speaking Spanish, that’s for sure. The waiters are middle-aged, sleepy-looking, but still attentive. And to make matters more confusing, people with very particular national and regional dress from all over the world flit through every once in while, passing just in front of or just behind the central table where the four main characters sit. A couple in brightly-colored, contemporary African outfits, a mustachioed man in tweed, a trio of Japanese punks, a Micronesian fisherman, a Canadian mountie, an Australian rugby team, four strapping Swedes, an Indian man in cricket whites, two Inuit in apparent pursuit of prey, eleven backwoods West Virginians carrying shotguns, a Whirling Dervish, Ted Nugent and his son (both of their faces smeared with fresh blood from their bowhunting trip), nine young African-American men straight outta Brooklyn, that guy from that show that used to be on (you know that guy!), a Mexican vaquero astride a pony, an agitated group of Iraqi protesters, a quartet of Tuvans warbling their throat-singing tunes, Emo Phillips. All these and more parade at irregular intervals through the setting.

The four principals of the action sit around a small table in the middle. All of them have large mugs of espresso drinks. Three of them sit on standard-issue wood-and-wrought-iron café chairs. One, MIGUEL, sits on a brushed-aluminum chair which has a design based on triangles: the back rest is a large and elongated triangle, the seat a smaller equilateral one, each of the three legs slender and tapering triangles. Throughout, MIGUEL exhibits signs of discomfort in his chair. None of the others does.

For staging purposes, it doesn’t much matter where exactly the characters sit in relation to one another, just that they’re all around the table in conversation. And MIGUEL has the uncomfortable chair. Don’t forget about that. Otherwise the title has absolutely no relation to the story, and people who’ve sat through this will later return home, wondering what the hell the three-cornered whatever had to do with a damn thing. So the chair’s pretty important. We could even afford to lose a character or two before we lost the chair. We could even lose MIGUEL, as much as that might hurt him to know. But the chair stays.

That established, here are the other three characters:


All four characters have similar styles of dress. They all obviously come from the same peer group, the same general socioeconomic background. They’re comfortable with one another, get each other’s jokes, and use their eyes a lot in their exchanges. Come to think of it, this would probably all work best if shot on video, so we could get some closeups. I also recommend a lot of jump cuts to refract some of the narrative structure, but only because Paul mentioned that to me when he was reading over my shoulder a few minutes ago. That’s really a question for later, though, so don’t focus too much on the medium right now.

Here’s how it all begins, after a minute or so of general bistro hubub. Consider playing over the action until just before the first lines a scratchy recording of Nirvana’s live performance of “Pennyroyal Tea” on MTV’s Unplugged. Or maybe something else? What about X doing “The Have Nots”? Neil Young with “Sedan Delivery”? The Mekons performing “If They Hang You”? Or, ooh, better: Wire doing “Reuters”!

Well, whatever the final choice, here’s how it all begins:

KIRAN: I can’t believe it took so long to get down here. It seems like half of downtown is totally blocked off.

BRAD: Some of the subway trains aren’t running either. Miguel and I walked more than half the way.

ALLY: If you guys would just move a little closer to the cool area of town, you wouldn’t be having these problems. I walked here in, like, five minutes.

MIGUEL: We can’t all just up and move, Ally. I’ve got a lease. And it’s not like I really want to pay the kind of rent they charge around here.

BRAD: Do you think that guy forgot my biscotti?

KIRAN: I bet he did. It’s not like he wouldn’t have brought it with the coffee. I’d go check.

BRAD: Maybe not. I bet it’s just a minor plot complication. If I wait a few minutes, it’ll probably come.

KIRAN: Uh, okay. Whatever works for you.

ALLY: What are you even talking about?

MIGUEL: He’s just being weird. (To BRAD:) Yeah, man, and do you think if I just wait here I’ll get a complimentary muffin? Will that fit with the plot?

BRAD: Why are you asking me? I’m not composing all this. I just think my biscotti will come soon. Are you guys okay with that? It’s my biscotti. You don’t have to worry about it.

MIGUEL: I’m not worried about it. I just want a free muffin, if that’s possible.

BRAD: Well, maybe it is possible. Let’s see what happens.

KIRAN: Look, whatever, you guys. I’d rather know about what the hell’s going on in the middle of downtown. Was there anything on the radio or TV? I haven’t seen anything.

ALLY: Oh, yeah, I was wondering about that, too, but this guy at the video store was telling me it was just some kind of apocalyptic struggle.


ALLY: I think it’s going to be on Pay-Per-View. Isn’t that right?

MIGUEL: An apocalyptic struggle? Like literally? This wasn’t just a boxing match? Did they mention anything about Don King?

ALLY: No, I’m serious. It was all some big battle between good and evil. For, like, the redemption of the world or something. But there’s a new Desperate Housewives on tonight, so whatever…

BRAD: That is so weird. Why wasn’t this on I checked it just before I left the apartment.

MIGUEL: I really, really don’t think that can be right.

KIRAN: Wait, I sort of remember something about that. I think that’s the event that Joan and Melissa Rivers were doing the pre-show for on E! This sort of explains why there were such weird celebrities there. And that whole line of theologians. They looked so out of place. Their gowns just couldn’t compare to some of the other ones there. Bjork had on the weirdest thing. All made out of tiny origami animals folded from squares of colored hemp cloth. She looked like a big party favor…

A waiter ambles over to the table, sets down a small plate heaped with biscotti. He puts a bright orange muffin in front of MIGUEL, nods casually, and wanders away again.

BRAD: Okay, that’s more like it.

MIGUEL: How did they know what kind of muffin I wanted?

BRAD: I don’t think anybody did, man. It’s just that you want the one you got.

MIGUEL: No, I remember wanting this kind. Now the guy brings it. I didn’t even order it.

BRAD: Yeah, okay. Eat your muffin. You worry too much.

KIRAN: I just don’t know what the hell Bjork is thinking with those gowns.

ALLY: I like her gowns. They’re daring. But I have to say, I’m also intrigued by the fate of mankind. Is that what’s really going on here?

KIRAN: We both heard it, right?

MIGUEL: Well, we didn’t hear anything. Don’t you think this would rate top-story status? Wouldn’t this have been pretty hard to miss? God, especially if they’re going through all the trouble to organize for it and to show it on TV.

ALLY: Pay-Per-View.

MIGUEL: Whatever. That’s even more complicated.

BRAD: I don’t really like the Pay-Per-View thing. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve spent about half an hour on the phone, trying to get the cable company to verify that I should be seeing the thing I paid for. There was this one Mike Tyson bout where I missed the whole thing because it was over in, like, 91 seconds.

KIRAN: Well, I think we should probably watch it. This is bigger than the Olympics or anything. I’m kinda surprised there hasn’t been more marketing.

MIGUEL: That’s not what Burger King was giving away those collector glasses for, was it?

KIRAN: No, that was the Winter X-Games, I think.

MIGUEL: Oh, yeah. I’ve got two glasses with the same snowboarder guy on them.

KIRAN: That’s because one of them’s mine.

ALLY: Well, hey, we can watch it over at my place if you want. I’m nearby and everything.

BRAD: Maybe. I almost kind of wonder if we shouldn’t maybe go down there.

KIRAN: Oh, they’re totally sold out by now, Brad.

BRAD: I know that. It’s just so monumental, though. It seems like it should be a bigger event than you’d want to watch on TV.

ALLY: What do you mean?

BRAD: Well, if I remember it right, it’s supposed to be the end of the world. Apocalypse? The fight between good and evil? Mankind’s redemption? This isn’t just some show. The outcome matters to us all.

ALLY: I don’t see how that’s different from a show, but fine. You want to go down there?

MIGUEL: Aw, but if we can’t even get in. I still don’t think this is right. This can’t be the way the final days of the world go. And I don’t want to go hang out in the street just to find out everyone was watching a heavyweight bout.

KIRAN: I don’t know what to think, but we should at least watch.

MIGUEL: Yeah, watching’s okay. I just don’t want to stand around outside for hours.

BRAD: Okay, I guess. Fine with me.

ALLY: Yeah, then we better get out of here soon so I can order the show. I think the apocalypse starts at, like, eight o’clock.

MIGUEL: Fine with me. (suddenly frustrated) God! This chair is the most uncomfortable piece of furniture I’ve ever encountered. Who designs like that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Very Pancakes Thanksgiving

Emiliano looked up as Pastina pushed open the swinging door from the kitchen and came into the living room where he sat near the fireplace. Her arms were crossed defensively, and she had left the kitchen in such a hurry that she still wore the full apron protecting her holiday dress against the messes involved in helping prepare the holiday meal. The girl looked annoyed, and Emiliano knew, as he often did, that his daughter Pancakes was the cause. “What’s she saying?” he asked.

“She’s on the phone with them right now,” Pastina said. She shook her head. “I had to walk in here before I hit her with a meat tenderizer.”

“She really told them not to come?”

Pastina’s blue eyes widened in momentary exasperation. “Not exactly. I think she knows better. You don’t just tell somebody they’re uninvited for Thanksgiving.”

“So how did she put it?”

Pastina adopted a mock-pleasant tone in imitation of her friend. “Well, they’re perfectly welcome to come to dinner, but she can’t promise there’ll be anything for them to eat.”

“What?” Emiliano knew that his daughter was opinionated and headstrong and sometimes a little bit self-righteous. Plus, she was fifteen now, and she often let her emotions get the best of her. But he liked to believe that she knew better than to be rude. “What does that mean?”

“That’s what she said! ‘I just can’t promise there’ll be anything to eat.’ As if there’s a shortage. As if we’re having to use up ration tickets.” Pastina sat heavily in an armchair and hunched down in passive defiance. It was all too much for her. Pastina’s sense of hospitality was, once again, being trumped by Pancakes’s sense of outraged personal justice. She wondered why she didn’t find herself a new best friend.

“But … but why wouldn’t there be enough to eat? We have plenty of food here.”

“It’s a technicality she came up with. Since she decided she’s mad at Will and doesn’t want him and his friends to come over, she got a couple of the others to agree with her. So now she thinks she’s doing right by everybody.”

Emiliano stepped over to the kitchen door and listened. He could hear Pancakes’s voice. The words weren’t clear, but he recognized the tone. It sounded remarkably like her mother’s when she was mad about something but didn’t want to admit it.

Pastina continued. “I think Pancakes does kind of want Will to come over, but who can tell? They break up so much that I never know if I’m supposed to like him or not. Anyway, the situation in the kitchen is out of control. Thanks to Pancakes, Emily’s decided all of a sudden that she has a backbone. And the first issue she decided to use it on is this holiday stinginess.”

“Emily? What happened to the neurotic we knew?”

Pastina shrugged. “New meds? I don’t know. Even when she’s her normal self, I don’t get her. Or any of Pancakes’s friends from the reading group, really. They’re like her little cheerleaders or something. And now they’ve got Vincent siding with them.” Pastina shook her fist. “Sometimes I just want to punch him in the eye. “He’s the lamest boyfriend on the planet.”

Emiliano tried to think of something fatherly to say, but he came up empty. His daughter was spreading bad holiday cheer, the kitchen was full of Pancakes’s oddball friends, Pastina was uncharacteristically angry and sarcastic, and somewhere in the house his mother-in-law was clucking over the fiasco that the Dunst Thanksgiving was becoming.

Suddenly Pancakes came out of the kitchen, the swinging door nearly hitting Emiliano in the shoulder. She still held the mobile phone loosely in one hand. “I told them that it wasn’t going to happen,” she announced to them both, “so that’s three fewer places we’ll have to set.” She looked at both of them in turn, as if expecting a response. “And I don’t want anybody bugging me about it anymore, okay? I swear, if Torvald in there doesn’t shut up, I’m sending him home without any turkey at all.”

Emiliano adopted his sad-dad look and put a reassuring hand on Pancakes’s shoulder. “Honey, you didn’t really tell those boys not to come over, did you?”

“Dad!” Pancakes yelled, brushing his hand away. “In the first place, I only invited Will! Then last week he said, no, he had these other guys he was hanging out with for Thanksgiving, so fine. And then yesterday they suddenly leave me this message, asking when they should be here. We didn’t plan on their coming.”

“But has there ever been any Thanksgiving meal in your memory where we didn’t have twice as much food as we really wanted?”

Pastina rolled her eyes upward toward the vaulted ceiling. “Does ‘Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown’ mean nothing anymore?”

Pancakes looked at both of them in disbelief. “What? Are you telling me that I’m wrong? I should just let anybody crash our party?”

Emiliano looked troubled. He didn’t want to arbitrate this. He’d told Pancakes she could host Thanksgiving this year. He should have expected a few bumps. “Pancakes,” he said at last, “I’m just saying that it’s Thanksgiving. You’ve seen the TV specials. It’s supposed to be kind of a free-for-all.”

“God, Dad, whatever!” Pancakes yelled, turning on her heels and heading back into the kitchen. “I’m just trying to make everybody happy!”

“Congratulations,” Pastina muttered as the door swung shut.

Emiliano sat down again and picked up his book. “I’m just going to stay out of this,” he said. “There’s no winning with this today. I guess at least we can be thankful that her mother’s not here this year, or then my precious daughter might start throwing giblets at people.”

“The night’s still young,” Pastina said. She stood up reluctantly and followed Pancakes into the kitchen.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Hair-Raising Adventures of Pancakes Dunst!

Midnight Clambake on Rich Boy Island
During the America's Cup races, Pancakes and crew are blown wildly off course to a remote island. But instead of teeming with noble natives or tacky tourists, the place is populated by wealthy young white men! What is the secret behind their late-night beer busts, their dismissive comments about world affairs, and their primitive wargames? Pancakes vows to learn the truth. If only she's in time to save the bookish boy the other swaggering heirs call Piggy!

Win a Dream Date with John Updike!
At the Norman Mailer Invitational, fighting young novelists meet to match their muscular prose against the toughest literary competitors in the world. Covering the event for the school paper, Pancakes Dunst falls in with a reporter from a glossy teen magazine. Soon she's barred from the event for helping to organize an unsanctioned swimsuit competition between some of the most gifted wordsmiths of the day. Yet when controversy breaks out over the authorship of a prize-winning novella, only Pancakes Dunst, the cleverest girl in the world, can cut through the Gordian knot. If only someone hadn’t stolen it from the trophy case!

Alright, Mr. Rajagopal, I’m Ready for My Closeup
Asked to appear in a new film by director Sanjay Anil Rajagopal, Pancakes travels to Nova Scotia to try her hand at acting. But soon emergency meetings on the General Agreement on Tariff and Trades have led to angry strikes by fishermen worldwide. While the shortage of smoked salmon at the catering tables creates panic on the set, an escalation in fish piracy threatens to destabilize global seafood markets. Pancakes Dunst likes a good shrimp cocktail as much as the next cleverest girl in the world, but what to do? Mediate a divisive trade issue to end the immediate crisis, or get her screentime while allowing the market to find its own economic balance? No matter what she chooses, one thing is clear: Craft services will continue to use that stringy imitation crab meat she hates.

Pancakes Dunst vs. the Sense of Detached Irony
Markets are plummeting! International tensions are rising! The environment hovers on the brink of disaster, political abuses run rampant, and all the summer movies are blatant vehicles for branding and merchandising! Yet the world’s population seems resigned to it all. Can Pancakes Dunst raise the level of discourse? Will the dark humor and exaggerated understatement finally cease? Might she divert global catastrophes by waking up the world’s leaders to the mess they’ve made? And what does it all matter—I mean, ultimately?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Many Several Thousand Words

I have this whole series of pictures from the year I was four. They map out the story of the big stuff that happened in my life around that time. Not that there weren’t pictures from earlier times or pictures from later times. We’re a modern family. There have always been way, way too many pictures.

But that seems to be a time when my dad went kind of shutter happy, in part because he was secretly freaking out about my mother leaving her domestic life and going back onstage. I don’t know why he ever thought she'd be satisfied sticking around the homefront and playing happy homemaker. From what I can tell, no one else ever really bought it, even Mom. It just wasn’t in her nature. It’s like if I tried to be a diplomat or something. It’s not like I wouldn’t know how to begin, but it’s just not how I’m wired. International incidents would ensue.

Of all these pictures, my very favorite one is from our Easter party. Dad got Mom to help him plan it, and they went all out: a full lawn party with tents and ribbons and balloons. I don’t even know where all the kids they invited came from. Most of their faces are unfamiliar to me now. But there in the middle of the proceedings is me, hoarding a basket of toys and candy about three times bigger than I was.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part was our Easter bunny.

Mom had hired one of the actors from her show to come out for the day and mingle with the kids while dressed in a fuzzy bunny costume. He didn’t just run in and get us all excited, the way people in funny animal costumes usually do. It was an immersive experience. He hung out and played with us and told stories. He even helped us hunt for the harder-to-find eggs, because excited little kids have absolutely no attention span. I remember us finding brightly colored, rotting eggs in the yard all summer.

Since the bunny was there most of the day, just like the other adults he had access to the open bar on the patio. Most actors I've known can't turn down good alcohol. I think they’re afraid they’ll never be able to afford it themselves. The Easter bunny was no different, and he got pretty tipsy. Plus, it was an unusually warm spring that year, and those big fuzzy costumes get really, really hot. Sometime around two o’clock, it finally all got too much for him. The bunny fell over and passed out.

That would have been freakish enough for most kids, seeing the Easter bunny collapse. You can see just how much so on the faces of the kids who were in the immediate area when he went over, because Dad kept snapping pictures of the whole thing. This series contains one of my very favorite pictures ever: Seconds after the actor inside the rabbit costume collapsed, the huge, fuzzy animal head popped off and and rolled down the gentle slope of the lawn. Its oversized eyes stared in wonder, its toothy smile remained fixed. It was amazing and surreal. And how often do you get those kinds of pure moments? Okay, maybe when you're four you get them all the time, but this one was still special. Plus I have the pictures.

There are a few things that year's pictures don’t show, however. Those are probably as important—or more important—than what they do show. The main thing they don’t show is much of my mom. She’s there occasionally. For the Easter party, for some other big holiday events. But she’s a guest star, not part of the regular cast. I’m in there, the star. And Dad, his assistant, family friends, the household staff. When you look over the whole collection of shots, it's clear that Mom appears less often than, say, our cook.

Mom had taken a new role in a small musical. She'd been away from the stage for a couple of years, and she'd started showing signs of depression. So a new project seemed like it would be a good distraction. But the thing really took off, and she ended up being away from home more than expected. The commute got to be a problem, and more and more often she ended up staying at her old apartement in the city. The show’s run kept getting extended. “Just a couple of months” became “just another month or so” until a whole year had gone by Mom became a stranger in the house.

I’m sure this was all very good for Mom. She was born to the stage, I've been told. I’m not going to contradict public opinion by suggesting otherwise. But I was a four-year-old who only knew that whatever was going on in the city was a lot more interesting to my mother than I was. I don’t remember feeling that way, but I have some evidence that's what was going on. Some people have memories of their feelings at that age. I have pictures and stories.

Besides the remarkable absence of my mother in the hundreds of photos chronicling that year, what also stands out are the stories about my animal hallucinations. In hindsight, it seems obvious that I was so young that I wasn't able to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. But I know from what little I do recall that I wasn't making things up. I might have a vivid imagination, but I've never been one not to take credit for it. So even though I know for sure that these things couldn’t have happened, they still seem pretty real to me.

First there was the time that I was playing out on our lawn. We had these huge patches of tiny white flowers that kept popping up all over the lawn during that spring. I liked playing in them, but they attracted a lot of bees. One afternoon when some of my friends were over playing, someone got the idea of capturing some bees so we could make a bee village. We’d stomp bees when they landed on the flowers, and then someone would scoop them up with a cup and take them to some trenches we'd dug out in the sandbox. The injured bees would crawl around the trenches, providing our village with citizens. Kids are so cruel.

Eventually I stomped a bee when no one was around to help me. When I looked down to where my white canvas tennis shoe was flattening the grass and flowers, all of a sudden I saw the bee reach around the edges of my rubber sole and pull himself out! The bee didn't wriggle its way out from under my shoe the way you might imagine. I saw these two cartoon-like black arms, all muscley, reach out from under the shoe. The bee pulled himself free, and then he flew right at me, superhero-style, and stung me on the cheek. When I told the adults about it, but they thought I was just upset. I could hear them laughing when they told the story later.

A month later we were staying at the family beach house. I’m pretty sure Mom was supposed to come stay out there with us, but the pictures don’t lie. She wasn’t there. And it’s not like Dad ever forgot to point the camera at her. Next to me, she was his favorite subject, but the the photos of those weeks at the beach show only a smiling little girl, her doting father, and a few friends swimming, building sand castles, and clustering around bonfires.

One afternoon I was playing in the upstairs playroom. All the windows in the house were open to catch the ocean breeze, and a lot of flies had been getting in. Dad had repeatedly warned me to be careful of the horseflies, because they might bite. I'd been keeping an eye on every fly that came my way, watching for the dreaded horsefly. Then I saw a particularly large fly land on the window sill, and I knew I'd finally seen it. It had a fat, shiny fly's body, six thin hairy legs, and transparent wings, but its huge compound eyes were poking out of a narrow horse's face on a long neck. It wouldn't have seemed any weirder if it whinnied. I ran downstairs as fast as I could to tell Dad. I’ve ever really completely forgiven him for laughing so hard.

Everyone thought these were isolated incidents, and they made for good stories. But then I had two more hallucinations a few months later as my mom's absence from home went on and on. One night, I woke up suddenly and had the feeling that something was in the room with me. It was very dark, and I couldn't see much, but I was convinced that a bear had gotten into my bedroom. Its huge, broad shape shifted uneasily in the corner near the door. It sniffed the air, trying to get the scent of my fear. If it sensed my moving, it would kill me. But if I didn't escape, it would also kill me. I spent what felt like hours slowly inching my way off the bed, breathing shallowly and shaking as I made my way out the window and onto the balcony. I was out there for at least an hour before Dad found me shivering outside in the cold.

At that point Dad began to see a pattern. The bear thing came up shortly after my parents had had a big argument, and he knew I’d witnessed some of that. He made an appointment with a child psychologist and told my mom that he thought she'd been away for long enough. I don't know how she felt about the whole thing, but she showed up at the house that weekend. There's no way she could have been there if she hadn't turned her role over to someone else, so I guess she was convinced my problems were pretty serious.

Both my parents wanted to be there to take me to the doctor. We spent a couple of days together while we waited for my appointment, but despite how normal they wanted to make things, that's not how it seemed. Mom was back, but mostly out of guilt. And Dad was as happy as always to have her around, but he could always sense her desire to get away and resented it. We had some marathon icy silences around the house in those days, and those don't get filled in just because the cartoons on TV are turned up too loud.

The day before my appointment, I was watching afternoon kid's shows. The local station added a lot of between-show filler, kind of a Kid’s Show Helper, including a fake news report about an escape at the local zoo. Animals were everywhere, they said, and they instructed kids to be on the lookout for wild animals outside their windows for the rest of the day. It kept me at the window on animal watch all afternoon. Every once in a while they’d interrupt the shows with updates about the capture of some of the animals. But there was a lone kangaroo who had bounced so far away, they said, that they might not ever catch him.

I was completely convinced about the rogue kangaroo. They showed maps on TV of where he had been spotted, and even though there’s no way I would have been able to read a map, I was sure he was heading my way. Every minute or so I’d go over to the third-story window of the playroom to see. I was sure I’d be the one to catch him. I just had to keep looking.

Then while I was staring out the window into the distance, all of a sudden there he was! Not some little figure in the distance. No, instantly I found myself staring straight into the kangaroo’s eyes. He'd leapt straight up from the ground, bobbed into view for just a split second, and then disappeared again. All I knew about kangaroos was that they jumped really high and far. The whole thing made perfect sense to me. Of course a kangaroo could jump thirty feet in the air.

And of course a kangaroo could hop away so fast that you couldn't even see him go. I kept staring out the window, looking as far as I could see, but the kangaroo was gone. There was no sign of him, as if he'd never even been there. It made me very sad, and I decided not to tell my parents about it. Even now I remember how bewildered that kangaroo looked when he stared me in the face. The poor thing didn’t know where to go, but he knew for sure that he didn’t want to be caged anymore.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Quick Personal Favor

[podcast play for two voices]

Sally: Hey there!

Tom: Hey! I haven’t heard from you in a while.

Sally: So, so busy! I’m really sorry I fell off the face of the earth there. You know how it is.

Tom: Yeah. I was wondering about you …

Sally: Wonder no more!

Tom: So how you been?

Sally: [sighing] Oh, you don’t even want to know. One thing after the other …

Tom: That’s how things happen. In sequence like that.

Sally: [laughing] Tell me about it!

Tom: It’s been crazy here too.

Sally: I bet. God, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. But, look, I really have to ask a favor.

Tom: Sure, no problem. Whatever.

Sally: I can’t explain why or anything, but I need you to do something for me.

Tom: You know I will. What is it?

Sally: It’s going to sound weird, but trust me, okay?

Tom: When have I not?

Sally: [laughing again, this time a little forced] True, true! I guess I know who to call, huh?

Tom: I should hope.

Sally: Yeah …

Tom: So?

Sally: Okay, I won’t keep beating around the bush. It’s just that I need you to … well, bascially, I need you to set yourself on fire.

Tom: … uh …

Sally: I know, I know! I totally wouldn’t ask if there were any other way. I swear I wouldn’t! But this is the only thing left. Please?

Tom: Set myself on fire?

Sally: Just for a little while.

Tom: My whole self?

Sally: Well, yeah. But not like a total self-immolation or anything. I mean, that’s just crazy …

Tom: And this is what?

Sally: [sighing wistfully] A favor for me?

Tom: Well …

Sally: I swear I won’t ask you for anything else for the whole rest of the year! I swear I won’t. But I really need you to do this, okay? You’re the only one I can trust.

Tom: I … guess. I guess I can do it. For you.

Sally: [clapping] Yay! You are the best!

Tom: Hold on a sec.

Sally: Sure, of course.

[Liquid splashes unevenly to the floor. A match strikes.]

Tom: [tortured, anguished screams as flames crackle]

Sally: Oh, not now, not now! I meant later!

Tom: [voice quavering in pain] Not … now?

Sally: No, sorry I wasn’t clear. I meant tonight. Can you do it again tonight?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

update: the deal with Pancakes

People ask me questions. One of these questions is in essence this:

So what's the deal with Pancakes?

Yeah, the deal ...

In all honesty, it's probably not worth figuring out at this point. Pancakes is a character, yes. She's also a character in a story within another story about a girl named Pancakes. And she's kind of a ubiquitous concept in a lot of the writing I've been producing over the last few years. Hence her gracing this blog with her weird little name.

At this point, all you really need to know is that Pancakes is more of a she than an it (or a they). Don't think about it too hard. I promise I'm not. But I do know what I'm doing. Kind of.

Okay, you can all go back to work now. That's all we have time for.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Act Two

Pancakes never consciously recalled the first time she saw her mother onstage, but it made a deep impression on her nonetheless. In many ways, it set the template for the most important relationships and decisions of her life. But at two years old, Pancakes hardly knew what it meant to see her mother on a theater stage, in costume and under bright lights, speaking words and articulating movements scripted by someone else.

It was best that Pancakes didn’t recall it, actually, because if she had, she would have been unable to avoid interpreting the incident as symbolic. She would have recognized it as the moment that set in motion many of the things that came later: her fascination with her Broadway star mother and their strained, distant relationship … her close, comforting relationship with her father and her tendency to overlook him … the seemingly predetermined career path she’d take between her mother’s connection with stagecraft and her father’s facility with the written word … her fixation on dazzle and spectacle … her ill fit in the company of others. And it all would have been too much, coming from her. She would have suggested that it hinted of destiny. Later, feeling intellectually foolish, she would have rescinded that statement entirely—all the while secretly believing it was true. If nothing else, she would at some point have written a play about it, and it seems almost a certainty that the ponderous heavy-handedness of the material would have consigned it to being one of her lesser works.

The moment in question occurred just a month after Pancakes’s second birthday, when she and her father flew for a two-week stay in London. There her mother, Lorinda, was nearing the end of a long run onstage in a popular revival of Lillian Hellman’s two-play cycle about a corrupt, avaricious family in the Old South. The flight so jetlagged Pancakes that she fell deeply asleep her first full night in England, while she and her father sat in the front row of the theater before the beginning of that evening’s performance. The play had begun its second act before she awoke for more than a few drowsy moments, and when she finally began to look around the darkened theater inquisitively, she eventually focused on the action taking place on stage. There, wheeling around with girlish delight and almost glowing with beauty and grace, was her mother! Pancakes was so surprised and excited that she cried out for her. A few members of the audience laughed quietly, a few others scowled in annoyance, and her father quickly hushed Pancakes before she yelled again. Lorinda, whose professionalism was honed up to and beyond a fault, seemed not to miss even a beat. Her sole glance of motherly concern toward the front row was so well disguised by her character’s animated mannerisms that no one other than she realized that she’d heard her daughter calling out for her at all.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Until suddenly one day, that’s all she could see. Dust was everywhere. In the end, life was a desperate bid to keep the dust cleared. Move it around, wipe it down, shake it off. But the dust kept coming, unrelenting. It was patient and slow and indomitable. And eventually one day it would overwhelm her, it would overwhelm everyone. And dust would cover the entire landscape. It would grow into a thick, heavy, swirling sea of grayish matter. In the end, the dust would win. It had only to abide.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

After the Four-Color Action Has Ended

They brought the medication at 10:30 and 4:30. He knew that. They were very punctual about it. Plus, there was little else besides the less consistent meals that he could look forward to each day. He watched the light spill in his window, watched the shadows lengthen across his spare hospital room, and watched the darkness retake the room. In between, medication and meals. Very little else to do before those things but lie back and wait. Very little else to do after those things but lie back and wait.

There was a lot of lying back and waiting. Hours and days and weeks of lying back and waiting.

But it’s not like he wanted to do much else. It’s not like he could do much else. He filled his time mostly with books. There were the books his mother and his cousin had sent, and often he found himself staring at their pages.

He couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a full page of text, much less a chapter or a full book, but some of the paragraphs he quite liked. He lay there, a book open on his chest, his eyes picking their way through the orderly regiments of letters. Letters formed words, a fact he liked, and words in turn formed sentences. It all made sense to him.

Plus, when enough of those sentences joined together in as a team, they asserted themselves as a paragraph. A tight unit of unified thought. Sometimes it described action. Sometimes it meandered through a pattern of thoughts. Some mixed it up a bit with both, but in any event the paragraph was self-contained. Why read more?

He enjoyed the paragraphs on thinking more than the ones about action. The action sentences used language that was quick. It was jagged to him. It was sharp. Those passages used shorter phrases, more dynamic verbs. Maybe they were more engaging, but they were stupid, he thought, pointless. Why would someone run across a field? What would make them drive a car? To what end would they fly a kite, swim a river, or argue with their spouse? Just a lot of energy dissipating into the air, as far as he could tell. No matter how much was done, there was always more to do later. It was exhausting, and it never seemed to end. Even completing a paragraph, he realized with sadness, only implied that another one was to come.

When he thought about it too much, he felt fatigued. He tried not to think about it, to let his mind be blank. He was no less fatigued then, but at least he didn’t notice as much.

The paragraphs on thinking were different. They weren’t so concerned with achieving a concrete end. They still had things to say. She feels lonely. He wonders about the existence of God. The people hope for a good harvest, a new goat, some way to keep the Cossacks from overrunning the village. All of it happens in the head, and this he particularly liked. It was about brains, not brawn. The action paragraphs were the other way around.

Another thing he liked: The paragraphs on thinking had a different philosophical outlook. True, they also implied that things would go on and on, paragraph after paragraph. But they did so with a difference. Yes, they seemed to say, every obstacle overcome only reveals another one on the horizon. So why rush and make a lot of noise about it? Better to drift toward deeper understanding, a more varied worldview. Consider all sides. Enjoy the linkages between proposition and supposition. Ponder the relationships between statements.

All of this was a neverending puzzle box that kept his hours between meds far fuller than anyone suspected. They say him lying there, nearly motionless, day after day. They saw how he scarcely turned the pages of his books, how he ignored direct questions, how he seemed not even to notice the massive manacles that restricted his arms’ range of motion to a scant few inches.

He heard some of the staff whispering, discussing his medical chart where they stood outside his bright little hospital room. There seemed to be some disagreement between them, but he wasn’t sure why. It kept drawing his attention away from the paragraph he'd been working on all morning. Why couldn’t he be left alone to recuperate? That’s what they said he should do. Rest. Relax. Take some time off to gather his strength. They told him that he had been through quite an ordeal. That was exactly how the doctor had put it when he had woken up in this room four weeks ago: “You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”

Quite an ordeal? They had no idea. Not a single one of them would have survived it. Not even a little of it.

As he listened to the conversation on the other side of the heavy door, his thoughts were drawn away from the paragraph he had been enjoying that morning. It irritated him to be interrupted in this way. How could he not hear them? There were three speakers, he noted. Two of them he knew. The other he did not, though something about it seemed familiar. Familiar in an uncomfortable way, like a half-remembered bad dream.

“His healing is much more accelerated than expected,” Voice One said. It sounded like the day nurse who sometimes opened the blinds wider than he would have liked.

“No, this isn’t unexpected,” Voice Two corrected her. “His case isn’t typical.” This sounded like the doctor who frowned a lot but rarely said anything to him directly. “What we have to consider aren’t the physical injuries. Those are easy to mend. It’s what’s happening in his head that concerns me.”

“But as badly as he was injured—” began Voice One.

“You see how much better he is, don’t you?” Voice Two admonished. “I would remind you that this isn’t your area of expertise, it’s mine. So listen to me when I tell you that the psychological aftereffects of his injuries are the concern.”

“Of his injuries,” repeated a third voice in a tone clearly designed to show weariness.

Voice Two sounded flustered. “Well, at the … ordeal. How he received them.”

“Let me sum it up for you,” Voice Three said. This was a voice of authority, no mistake. It was no faster than the others, maybe slower, but it had a way of hurrying things. “Yes, he’s healing nicely for the most part. But the fact is he’s uncommunicative, he’s lethargic, and he seems to have lost all interest in the outside world. We have to do something about that.” Still he couldn’t place this third voice. It was low and had a nasal tone. And clearly it invited no argument.

Voice Two outlined an intensive course of drug therapy, trauma counseling, and the slow introduction into his routine of small group encounters. “He needs to see that people need him,” the voice concluded. “To show him that he’s connected to others. If that gets through, things should take care of themselves.”

“How soon will all that take?” Voice Three wanted to know.

“A few months, perhaps. Depends. Several weeks if he has a breakthrough.”

“Make it two weeks,” Voice Three insisted. “That’s all we can spare. At the outside.”

Both the doctor and nurse tried to protest, but the Voice Three cut them short. Two weeks, it was decided, was the extent of his additional recuperation. After that, he would have to be back on the job, without fail. The rest would have to come to an end.

As he listened to the conclusion, he felt anger pressing on him like a great weight. He glanced at his book, but found that he had absentmindedly crushed the heavy, leatherbound volume in his balled fist. The thick novel had been reduced to a dense kernel of wood pulp, as small and hard as a marble. Disgusted, he held it up in front of his face with two fingers. He stared intently at it and the tight sphere shimmered with heat and burst into white-hot flame. A second later, only a curl of smoke and a scattering of powdered ash remained.

More paragraphs awaited him, one after the other. None of them about thinking.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

He’s Going the Distance!

He balanced between the parallel bars, holding himself up with minimal effort. His arms were locked, his weight pulling straight down. As long as he could hold the position, he could keep his feet clear of the ground. The moment he lost his poise, he’d have to drop. He’d been hanging there for eight minutes already, and some kids were starting to notice.

“He’s hypnotized!” Rudy shouted to the thirty-eight other kids playing on the blacktop beside the gym. “Bill’s hypnotized. He’s never coming down off the bars!”

Rudy always had to grab the attention. Here he was, holding himself in a perfectly balanced position for eight minutes, and Rudy had to be the one to blab about it. Rudy was always like that. Like when they played dodge ball. Rudy wasn’t even the best thrower. Not even tenth. But he shouted and made fun and acted like he was so great. Lucky for him he was great at least at dodging, because people aimed for his head sometimes.

Kids started to gather by the sets of steel monkey bars where Bill held himself suspended. His body hung between two of the handlebars, his hands wrapped halfway around each of the longer parallel support bars. He looked straight ahead, down along the south wall of the gymnasium toward the other playground, the one where the little kids in first and second grade played. Nobody ever went over there except after school hours. It was the enemy camp.

But Bill could see the kids gathering around without looking directly at them. He could see them out of the corner of his eye, and first there were just a couple of them, but then there were more and more. They kept coming until almost no one was on the other side of the blacktop anymore. A lot of the balls had stopped bouncing. Virginia and Betsy were still twirling their jump rope, but none of the other girls wanted to gain admittance to their inner circle for a change. Soon enough those two would return to power as the girls who set the standard for fun during after-lunch recess, but not at the moment. At the moment Bill was suspending himself into the grade-school history books. People were saying that he’d been hanging there now for nine minutes!

Tyler and two other kids, a boy and a girl, climbed up on the monkey bars near him. Tyler climbed up to his level and lowered himself into a position similar to Bill’s. He hung there in front of Bill, looking right into his face.

“What’re you doing?” Tyler asked.

“Testing my will,” Bill said.

The two other kids looked at each other. “What?” the girl said. She looked at the boy, then at Tyler. “What is he talking about?”

“What are you talking about?” Tyler asked. “It’s a test?”

“I’m testing myself,” Bill explained. “To see how far I can go.”

Tyler and the girl laughed. “You’re not going very far right now!” Tyler said. The other boy looked at Tyler and tried to laugh because others were laughing.

Bill felt his arms burning a little, but he still wasn’t exerting much force. He just kept himself centered, and he felt fine like that. He could see that Tyler had done it wrong. He wasn’t positioned right. He already kept shifting his weight from one arm to the other.

“That’s okay,” Bill said at last. He didn’t know what they wanted from him. He couldn’t help but look at Tyler from where he was, but he tried to look past him a little.

Tyler rolled his eyes and wiggled his head. “You’re crazy!” he shouted, and dropped to the ground. The other two kids with him laughed like he’d said the funniest thing in the world. They climbed down, and all three of them stepped back from the monkey bars to join the rest of the class.

Bill’s elbows felt wobbly. He tried to steady himself by looking out across the ball field on the school yard. He looked at Myrtle Street beyond that and watched a blue car drive by and out of sight. If he didn’t think about his arms very much, he kind of forgot about them. What if he stayed up on the bars even past recess? Would they make him go inside? What if he was going to break a record or something? He hoped they’d check first before they made him stop.