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When I was four I read my first word aloud as I rode in our 1939 Buick whom my parents had named “Brenda.” The word was café but I pronounced it with a silent e, rhyming it with strafe or waif. It was 1949, the war was over and I had two loving parents who quickly and proudly corrected my pronunciation.

That same year, I began reading L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. I was too impatient to wait for my mother to find time to read them to me so I figured it out.

Along with breathing, eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom, reading is what I’ve spent most of my seventy-two years doing. I read all the Oz books, uncountable comic books, most every science fiction novel published between 1955 and 1962, all of Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Howard Fast (a mostly-forgotten left-wing writer of historical novels like Citizen Tom Paine) I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, Lawrence Durrell, Mickey Spillane, Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki and Jack Kerouac before graduating high school.

Reading was my escape from boredom and bullying, from loneliness and fear. It was my balm and inspiration. It was my mother’s most precious legacy.

U.Inscription

The inscription in my mother’s copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, given to her by a man I never met, five years before I was born.

In college, I read Sartre, Camus, St. Exupéry, Racine, Moliere and others, in French.

So far this year, 2017, I’ve read several books about Buddhism, two novels by George Eliot, Don Quixote, Six novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and four by Octavia Butler. I loved them all. Or: I loved reading them all, even those books I may not have loved in themselves

These days I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s part of aging; maybe it’s the medication I have to take since I had a couple of seizures in 2015. When I finally am able to rouse myself from the intermittent doze in which I nearly drown between the hours of nine and eleven AM, I rush to prepare my gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal and coffee with rice milk in order to begin reading. I read my current book or I read this week’s New Yorker or last Sunday’s New York Times. After an hour or so of crawling, running, leaping and swimming through a few thousand words, my morning depression loses its grip and I can begin to inhabit my body.

This morning I finished reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. It’s a memoir written in very short chapters, some of which are poems. The chapters dance circles around the life and death of Sherman’s mother, Lillian, on the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington, land of no-more-salmon, ubiquitous radioactive waste, alcoholism and internalized oppression.

How can reading about such pain bring pleasure? Is it because Sherman’s stories of his painful childhood on the rez – the poverty, the bullying, the violent chaos, the twisted love – are specific, lived experiences that most humans go through to varying degrees?

I’m getting nervous as I write this. Compared to Sherman’s childhood, mine was edenic. Like all good progressives, I sure don’t want to appropriate another group’s oppression. But Sherman happens to be a fucking brilliant writer who invites everyone into his story. For instance:

After neurosurgery, I have learned that my brain is a boardinghouse where my waking consciousness rents one room with a hot plate and a black-and-white TV while the rest of the rooms are occupied by a random assortment of banshees, ghosts, mimes wearing eagle feathers, and approximately twelve thousand strangers who look exactly like me.

I haven’t had neurosurgery, though it was offered to me once. But I sure know that boarding house. Mine is occupied by rabbis, untranslated yiddish poets, old vaudevillians and my own twelve thousand imposters.

And that’s why I can never stop reading. How else could I understand the ways in which the inner life of a middle class, old, L.A.-born Jew can rhyme with the struggles and revelations of a fifty-something urban Indian writer?

Is it a tired truism to say that reading promotes empathy? Maybe so, but if my life of reading has even partly balanced the human tendancy to draw lines around one’s own race, gender, nationality, species, and place everyone else outside that imaginary circle and call them “other” or “enemy,” then I sing its praises. Reading taught me how to praise and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is as full of praise and honor songs as it is of lamentations. As in my life, I’m not sure which is which.

 

 

Outtakes Continued: Memory Flood

I started making lists:

When I was two and a half years old, I learned to speak French fluently.

When I was five, on my first day in kindergarten, I cried and cried, breathlessly sobbing, “I want my mommy,”

When I was ten I dreamed that my father had died and become a bird perched on a telephone pole on Ventura Boulevard.

When I was eleven, on the first night in the desert town we’d moved to, I was so frightened by the large moths that kept flinging themselves against the window screens in that furnace of a night that I didn’t sleep at all.

When I was eleven I met a devoté of Edgar Cayce, a man in his thirties, who used “hypnosis” to put me into a “trance” in which I accessed my “past lives.” I couldn’t tell if I was making up all the things I said or not.

When I was eleven I read my first grown-up novel: The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

When I was eleven I acted in my first play, The Clown who Ran Away.

When I was fourteen I kissed a girl on the mouth for the first time while acting in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

When I was fourteen my Aunt Eleanor taught me the guitar chords to Careless Love.

When I was fourteen, standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed the corpse of a man who had killed himself with a shotgun in his mouth. It didn’t look real.

When I was fourteen I imagined, for a few months, that I would become a rabbi when I grew up. i urged my secular parents to keep kosher. They didn’t.

When I was fourteen standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed a couple having sex. The man was naked except for a pair of wing-tip shoes – the kind my father wore. The woman was also naked and quite hairy. It looked too real.

When I was fifteen I heard a Ravi Shankar record for the first time and felt completely disoriented, unable to tell where the music began and ended.

When I was sixteen, at the start of my senior year, I discovered that I had become the tallest person in my high school, faculty included.

When I was sixteen, in home room, I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. The kid behind me pulled me upright by the collar of my shirt.

When I was sixteen I started smoking.

When I was seventeen my friend Betsy and I hot-wired her father’s 1939 Buick convertible and drove the deserted desert two-lane highways all night long.

When I was seventeen I got a small part in a professional play.

When I was nineteen I had sex and marijuana for the first time.

When I was nineteen I went to France for my third year of college.

When I was twenty I met a blind Algerian student in Bordeaux who, when I asked what it was like in Algeria, said, “Ça chie,” which means, literally, “It shits.”

When I was twenty, hitchhiking alone through Algeria, a small truck I was riding in had its windshield shattered by a large watermelon hurled from an oncoming car

When I was twenty one I got my first acting job on television.

When I was twenty one, at my draft board physical, I sat in my jockey shorts in front of an army psychiatrist who kept an unlit cigar stub in his mouth while asking me how I expected to amount to anything if I continued to use illegal drugs.

When I was twenty two I moved into a group house in Echo Park. My roommates smuggled large quantities of hashish from Lebanon, built a sauna in the laundry room, introduced me to intravenous cocaine and methedrine and to vegetarian cooking.

When I was twenty two I appeared as a “bachelor” contestant on The Dating Game, simply because, as a union actor, I’d receive a hundred dollars for a day’s work. A “starlet” was to choose one of us as her “date” on a whirlwhind trip to Bangcok. The “bachelors” were hidden behind a screen and the starlet had to bas her choice on the answers we’d each give to her questions. She asked us to “imitate you favorite hero.”   I was high on grass and speed and heard myself paraphrasing, in French, Jean-Paul Sartre. Something about “L’éxistence précède l’essence…” She picked me.

When I was twenty-three I was cast in the film, M*A*S*H.

When I was twenty-four, I read The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel and understood how little I knew about brutality and despair.

When I was twenty five, a roommate said that I was the most selfish man she had ever met.

When I was twenty six I spent a day watching crows in the snow in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

When I was thirty, I called a phone number I saw in an ad in an alternate newspaper from an institutionalized Jewish man who requested visitors. He asked me to bring him a pastrami sandwich. I said I would. I never did visit him.

When I was thirty-one I turned down a small role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in order to tour the country with a political theatre ensemble.

When I was thirty one Joseph Chaikin invited me to join an experimental workshop he was launching in New York.

When I was thirty three I started Traveling Jewish Theatre with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg.

When I was thirty nine I stopped using alcohol and marijuana.

When I was forty one I stopped smoking cigarettes.

When I was forty two I got married.

When I was forty five I walked from Mill Valley to Bolinas and back.

When I was forty nine I sang to my mother as she took her last breaths. Later that year I made a solo performance that told the story of her dying.

When I was fifty I woke up one morning seeing double, the result of a small tangle of redundant capillaries in my brainstem.

When I was fifty one I moved my father into a dementia-care facility

When I was fifty three I sat with my father’s lifeless body and sketched his face

When I was fifty four I took up scuba diving, completing 300 dives in kelp forests and coral reefs during the next seven years.

When I was fifty five I adapted the Israeli novel, See Under: Love, for the theatre.

When I was fifty five I met my first grandson, River, born at the turn of the millennium.

When I was fifty nine I had open-heart surgery to repair a prolapsed mitral valve.

When I was sixty two I played Willie Loman in TJT’s Death of a Salesman

When I was sixty-nine I experienced thirty minutes of “transient global amnesia” and began developing a music-theatre piece about memory and aging.

When I was seventy I had a seizure.  I lost consciousness, fell and tore a ligament in my thumb. Six weeks later, I performed my music-theatre piece about memory and aging for friends. Two months later, I had a second seizure.

Read more about Who Was I?  by clicking here

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Petit

“… even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Philippe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Philippe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d been hearing about Colum McCann for a while but hadn’t read any of his novels. Then, at a friend’s house, I saw a copy of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  I asked my friend if I could borrow it. He’s one of my few male friends who has as much love for fiction as I do and probably reads even more than I. He has given me many books over the years, though sometimes his tastes run ahead of my own into the works of writers I find rather difficult and opaque, like Boltano.

I started reading Let the Great World Spin as soon as I got home. I didn’t devour it the way I once read novels as compelling as this one. I don’t know whether to blame my changing reading habits on the internet or on old age, but I don’t seem to be able to read for hours at a time as I used to. There were even some days when I didn’t pick the book up, though I never went very long without thinking about it.

The book’s central image is the 1974 walk by funambulist Philippe Petit on a cable suspended between the top floors of the World Trade Center towers.  He used no harnesses, nets or safety gear of any sort. He and his support team went to great lengths to get themselves through the building’s security, rig the cable (an archer was involved) and remain in the building until the following dawn when Petit began walking. His walk was, by all accounts, flawless, elegant, breathtaking. It excited the imagination of thousands – perhaps millions – of New Yorkers who stopped, wherever they were, and watched a man walking in the air a quarter-mile above.

McCann begins the book with a three page prologue describing the walk and returns to it several times later, either directly or through the peripheral vision of the several characters who all witness it. McCann never names Petit,  a choice that reinforces the walker’s distance from the other characters whose lives we come to know intimately. Yet, McCann’s funambulist is intensely corporeal, never an abstraction, a symbol, or a literary device. Here’s how McCann gives us the beginning of the walk:

One foot on the wire – his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nestled between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide… He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water…

His body loosened and took on the shape of the wind. The play of the shoulder could instruct the ankle. His throat could soothe his heel and moisten the ligaments at his ankle. A touch of the tongue against the teeth could relax the thigh. His elbow could brother his knee. If he tightened his neck he could feel it correcting in his hip. At his center he never moved. He thought of his stomach as a bowl of water. If he got it wrong, the bowl would right itself. 

He felt for the curve of the cable with the arch and then sole of his foot. A second step and a third. He went out beyond the first guy lines, all of him in synch.

petit 2Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

All the characters are struggling to awaken or to resist awakening. We meet the first  two characters as young boys being raised by a single, devoted mother in Dublin: John Corrigan, called simply Corrigan or Corrie, already in a constant dialogue with God, and his brother, Ciaran, who tells their story.  Corrigan becomes a radical Catholic monk and ends up in the Bronx, ministering to a group of African-American prostitutes who are on “the stroll” beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, across from his housing project. Missing his brother, Ciaran follows him to New York where Corrigan has become a sort of patron saint to the hookers, giving them round the clock use of his apartment for showers and self-care.  Corrigan, in spite of his vows, has fallen in love with a Columbian woman with whom he works at a nursing home. Later, in a section written in her voice, we experience that all-encompassing love from within the relationship, revealing everything that Ciaran struggles to understand about his brother.

Throughout the book, the narrative is handed off from character to character as McCann’s layered edifice gains depth and power.  Corrigan and Jazzlyn, an eighteen year old hooker he watches over, will not live past the first section of the novel. Yet, like the twin towers themselves, the space they occupied continues to shadow the rest of the book.

The other characters, whether they understand it or not, are affected by them. But to simply enumerate these connections does McCann’s talent a disservice. The book is in no way schematic. The relationships between characters are unforced and asymmetrical; as messy as life.

“Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

It’s worth noting that three of the most important characters are black women. Two of them narrate their respective sections of the book.  First, there’s Tillie, , the daughter and mother of prostitutes, a heroin addict, and, thanks to an eccentric Middle-Eastern client in her early days as a high-priced uptown call girl,  a reader of Rumi. Her daughter is the eighteen year old Jazzlyn, already a mother herself. Tillie narrates a long chapter from jail on Riker’s Island after Jazzlyn and Corrigan’s death. I’ve not been able to shake a certain discomfort with this section of the book. Interestingly, I had no discomfort at all with the chapter voiced by Gloria, an educated black woman from Missouri who is a neighbor of Corrigan’s and plays an important role in the second half of the novel. I was able to accept Gloria as a unique human who happened to be African-American, who was shaped, as we all are, by her experiences, and yet, like all of us, could not be reduced to her socio-ethno-economic profile.  So my discomfort isn’t merely a response to a white author writing in the voice of a non-white character.  After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to see my discomfort with Tillie as a sign of McCann’s uncompromising integrity. To follow McCann into Tillie’s world of sexual slavery, addiction and violence should not be comfortable.  Tillie can’t forgive herself for not preventing her daughter from becoming exactly what she once was, a heroin addicted, teen-age mother who sells her body. Though McCann never lets us lose sight of Tillie’s boundless love for her daughter and granddaughters, her internalized self-hatred remains devastating. For it to be anything less, would be false and sentimental.

As uncompromisingly bleak as Tillie’s chapter is, the book as a whole is anything but depressing. It fully earns its vision of reconciliation and recovery. Perhaps stories of descent, purgation and redemption are part of McCann’s Catholic spiritual and literary DNA. Dante’s spirit hovers nearby. We recognize that most of the characters are terribly lost in a “selva oscura,” Dante’s “dark wood,” and we can’t help but think of angels when McCann tells us about the man walking in the air. But in McCann’s cosmology, guilt and punishment are not imposed by a judging God. They’re part of the human story. I don’t think one has to be a believer to see the world humans have made as a fallen world, whether one bases that sense on the hundred years’ war, the ubiquity of slavery through most of our history, the holocaust or 9/11.

McCann has Ciaran describe Corrigan’s “theology” on the twentieth page of the book:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather, he consoled himself with that fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light, all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

Without minimizing the unbearable suffering we create for each other and for ourselves, McCann has the courage to celebrate the love we are equally capable of giving. Though it may, indeed, transcend our understanding, in this author’s uncommonly generous view, it’s as much a part of us as our breath.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Read This Book!


I feel compelled, as never before compelled by a book, even before I finish readi
ng it, to shout, especially to my male friends who, like so many American men, do not read fiction, you must read this book immediately! I’m talking about A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias.

In brilliant and transparent prose, Yglesias[1] fearlessly explores his own life as a husband, a stumbling young lover, as a devoted caretaker to a dying wife, as a man full of rage and helplessness and as a writer. Here’s one of the many paragraphs that made my heart stop:

“And in that paralyzed silence, he realized that there was something in his brain which — despite all the hours spent learning about survival rates and the nature of metastasis, despite closely watching his father die of prostate cancer — he hadn’t known he would lose, this something in his head that had been present since Bernard Weinstein rang his doorbell twenty-nine years ago. In this silence of her silent, flowing tears, he realized that it was something essential which soon would be gone and that it was more than simply the expectation that Margaret would stay alive. He had no word for it. A note of music, perhaps it was his name being called, something he didn’t always enjoy, something he had grabbed for rescue, something he had possessed with pleasure, something he had resented with anger. In the carpeted silence of this luxury room of disease, he felt it depart for a moment, a preview of his robbed future, and he understood that this was real in a way nothing should ever be real, that their marriage was a mystery he was going to lose, despite twenty-seven years living inside it, before he understood who they were.”

If time allowed, I would have inhaled this book in one reading. Instead, I find myself stealing moments that turn into hours, standing in hallways or at the kitchen table when I should be washing up and getting back to work, transfixed by one devastating recognition after another. I’ve been married the same length of time as Enrique, though, kinehora[2], my wife is healthy. Like Enrique, I could not believe my overwhelming good fortune in winning a beautiful, accomplished and loving woman, though I had to wait until I was almost forty. Enrique meets Margaret in his early twenties. By alternating chapters telling the story of their meeting and courtship in the “bankrupt New York” of the seventies, with chapters set in the novel’s present time of 2004, days before Margaret’s death from bladder cancer, Yglesias has found an ideal narrative structure that allows the reader enough relief from the inevitable arc of loss to keep reading what otherwise might be unbearable. Instead, by moving back and forth in time, he gives us a prismatic view of two lives growing together like wisteria and roses and coming apart as any living being eventually must.

Perhaps I’ll return to this after I finish reading the book, but my admiration, appreciation and sense that this book is answering questions that I had not known how to even ask, prevent me from waiting to post this.

 [1] Rafael Yglesias is a half Jewish, half Cuban and Spanish novelist and    

screenwriter who, like the protagonist of   A Happy Marriage, Enrique Sabas, dropped out of school when he was sixteen to write his first novel. He stands in the middle of three generations of writers. His parents were Helen and José Yglesias both noted novelists and non-fiction writers who were also part of New York’s left-wing literary culture for many years. His son Matthew is a writer and highly respected blogger on politics and his younger son Nicholas is also a novelist.

[2] Yiddish. Literally, a compressed pronounciation of the sentence: Keyn ayn hara, “No evil eye” used as a magical defense against bad fortune when the possibility of future good fortune or catrastrophe is mentioned