Sunday, February 24, 2013
Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those movies that gets under your skin without really working too hard. It does a sort of slow, sad, hallway walk into your soul. Based on his novel from a decade or so ago, the movie lovingly cannibalizes John-Hughes movies for its textures and rhythms, and somehow deepens those moments through a misty-eyed adherence to the importance of nostalgia. It makes being in a psyche unit feel like going to Sundance and having hot chocolate with a bunch of other sad kid actors. Glamorizing sadness and depression is an old movie staple, but Chbosky gets it so right you feel a sort of gorgeous depression slowly seep into your consciousness as you watch the movie. There's something about lead actor Logan Lerman's wide-open but still a little closed-up face that allows us to feel that self-involvement is an artform, and Emma Watson and the ecstatic Ezra Miller playing Lerman's Island-of-Lost-Toys sidekicks gives the movie's atmosphere a stylish, kinky kick. Whoever lit this movie must know how to write extremely effective love-letters, because the lighting in every scene has an unbearable lightness of being to it; you feel yourself aching to ache in those suburban houses these kids live in, and in the penultimate scene, the three of them riding through a tunnel blasting David Bowie's "Heroes," you truly want to become a part of their miserable little clique. Perks is a masterpiece of sad-sack outsiderness, celebrating those feelings you often just have to shrug off in order to get things done. This movie wallows in beautiful self-pity, and that somehow is its genius.
I read "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick aloud in class on Monday. Damn. It's one of those stories that make you want to stop as your surge forward but you can't stop because every part of what you're reading and seeing inside your head is so diligently inevitable you feel tossed aside and yet pulled within, caught up in something that destroys and disappears and destroys and disappears. Ozick's story gives us direct access into horror, and yet at the center of everything is a sort of insanely beautiful sensuousness, evidenced by this last paragraph:
"All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly toucan a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arm splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her mouth with it, stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up, the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried."
You earn that kind of poetry by staring violence and ugliness and vileness right in the face. You suck in the putrid air of what people can do, and you exhale the grace they are capable of. As I read out loud I felt the room get quiet and uncomfortable, and the whole way through the discomfort increased. No room for laughs, just recognition. When you can create something this humorless and yet so incredibly accessibilie, you find other ways to connect outside of "likability" and "relatability." You find the core of every one's existence, all of it guided through the consciousness of Rosa, and you locate morality in the death of a baby you truly feel is your own.
Above is a drawing by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who died in 1945. Her drawings, prints and paintings have the same mysterious and effortless clarity as Ozick's writing, so clear and pure it feels like the world is about to disappear.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Last night we had an opening at Thunder-Sky, Inc. for a show Bill curated called, "Glory Be! (a Historical Romance): Works by Britni Bicknaver, Paul McGurl and Matthew Waldeck." It felt like old times somehow. Like 12 years ago in fact. Bill and I first curated a show of "outsider" art back in 2001, at a place called Base Gallery. That show featured Antonio Adams, Raymond Thunder-Sky, Paul Rowland and Richard Brown, all artists we had met doing our regular jobs helping people with developmental disabilities. That gig was titled "Art Thing," and it truly was a groundbreaking moment for me because I realized how art can allow you intense moments of grace and happiness that can sometimes push you forward to do bigger things. Without "Art Thing," we would not have started Visionaries and Voices, and without Visionaries and Voices we would not have opened Thunder-Sky, Inc.
What has changed in the last 12 years for me, though, is an evolution of trying to figure out how to do shows and projects and events featuring great art by artists often consigned to the background without having to frame their work with their diagnostic biographies: without having to say what they've accomplished is a product of what a doctor says they have, or has happened "in spite of" this or that diagnosis. So in "Glory Be" and in every show we do now, the idea of "disability" and "outsider" gets critiqued through stone-cold silence. That stuff just does not get mentioned because you don't need to know how "outsider" the artist is in order to enjoy the beauty and peculiarity of the art. Major case in point is "Glory Be," a show featuring three artists whose works have a lot of things in common, but whose demographics aren't really in sync. Matthew's intimate, playful drawings of famous presidents, Paul's text-infused drawings of the names of presidents and other historical figures, and Britni's sly, sleek, blithe sculptural inventions cracking the code of historical gloss and pomp -- all these works belong together, and we can relish the way they fit and knock into each other, creating both mystery and meaning. And we don't need to know who went to art school and who didn't, and we don't need to know IQ numbers or socioeconomic indicators. We just need the work to be here, pulled together succinctly, given room to expand.
Last night, too, I felt a weird, beautiful reconnection with the idea of congregating around art. I have a major fear of groups of people, but at the opening reception last night the groups of people felt organically okay somehow, as if they had come together to feel better about being people, not so they could feel charitable or sympathetic. Matthew's family brought enough food for a huge family reunion. Britni had a sweet soulful crowd of her own. It all just came together. And I got it: this is what we're supposed to do, what Thunder-Sky, Inc. is. Gatherings of people with lots of food and art and that's enough.
Like "Art Thing" back in the day. We did a full-color catalog for that show, back in 2001, and below is the back-cover, our mission statement at that time. I wish I would have known then what I know now: I would have taken out "disability" and "outsider" from the get-go. As in: "The Art Thing Project Is... ART and helping artists gain access and credibility and success on their own terms." Why do you need "outsider" or "disability" slapped onto any of these concepts and ideas? Is it the idea that first you need to assess/label/diagnose people prior to helping them? Like a doctor? Bill and I are not doctors. I don't really know what we are. But I truly understand, I think, what we're supposed to do here on out, and it has nothing to do with systems or charity, and it has everything to do with what happened last night, and what happened 12 years ago: finding ways to allow everyone to leave all the bull-shit behind, and proceed accordingly...
Below are photos of last night's opening of "Glory Be! (a Historical Romance): Work by Britni Bicknaver, Paul McGurl and Matthew Waldeck," and from March, 2001's opening night of "Art Thing: Drawings, Objects, Paintings and Words by Antonio Adams, Paul Rowland, Raymond Thunder-Sky and Richard Brown."
Sunday, February 17, 2013
I read Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon" aloud to my class last Monday, part of an ongoing thing I'm doing to figure out how great short stories work and feel when they escape your brain and go out into the atmosphere. In a compressed yet voluminous manner, Barthelme's tale builds not through scene or character but pure rhetoric, as if the story is a speech at some dreamworld political convention. It's absurd but grounded in a space inside your mind where all the bull-shit of being an upstanding citizen in an overly informed republic lingers and sprouts into narrative/non-narrative, a story that moves forward without moving. As I read it I felt the students get a little unnerved, but then the whole room began to understand: it's a joke. But right when the joke gets good, the joke transforms into a proverb. The titular balloon gathers meaning and blankness simultaneously. It is a potent symbol and a huge piece of crap filling our lives with mystery and boredom. Nothingness becomes the engine by the end. But the final words let you know there is no ending really:
It was also argued that what was important was what you felt when you stood under the balloon; some people claimed that they felt sheltered, warmed, as never before, while enemies of the balloon felt, or reported feeling, constrained, a 'heavy' feeling.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Movie reviews get on my nerves. Just googled A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth Die Hard movie that debuted last night on every screen in America, and ran across bitchy, pissy little critiques about a movie that truly is just what it is: silly, sleek, pointlessly violent, with the brain of a dog and the heart of a high school football coach. We went to see it last night, and I loved it. Bruce Willis looks fantastic as an elderly gent still rocking the working-class blues, and his son, played by Jai Courtney, is his reluctant prodigal CIA son with a penchant for gritting his teeth all the time. The plot, the visuals, the situations are all rote, but comfortably so. It's exactly what is required, and then some. There's a setpiece inside an old decrepit Russian hotel ballroom with a helicopter hovering outside the glorious windows that simply is too stupid and wonderful for words, crafted by John Moore the director to look like a crappy-chic music video from 1988.
1988 was the year Die Hard came out. Seeing it back then was a revelation. I was snobby at first but then when I saw it I got mesmerized. It had an elegant machine-like veracity laced with blue-collar discontent. The tall gleaming skyscraper during a Yuppie-pretentious Christmas office party was the perfect setting for Alan Rickman's prissy villain to sashay into. Willis played John Mcclane with a sort of exhaustion burgeoning on fury. He was pure white-trash, bare-foot and gun-toting and over it. He became iconic.
Good Day is not iconic in anyway, but it is not a piece of shit either. It's just what it is: a way to revisit McClane, now an old grumpy guy wanting to help his grumpy young son out of an international mess. By the end of this one, you don't fee let down; you feel just happy and content. Bombs and guns went off. McClane and his kid saved the day. Time to go home.
Missed his shadow when he was gone. He was a silhouette mostly. Sometimes though I caught him whole, looking down, like a bear wanting into a cave.
Still think about him when I'm down there, looking up from wires and cables, breathing in that damp-rat smell. One night it was cold as hell, crystal-clear sub-zero cold, and we were working on laying in new cable-pipe, and I remember just looking up and I could see him almost floating up there like he was stuck in glass, motionless, just staring down at me. I saw his eyes, open wide like he was taking in all in, his brain just a big camera inside his skull. He needed to know. You got that feeling, and I looked up there and said something hey buddy or whatever and as soon as he heard me say something, as soon as he realized I was looking back he was off.
But then he'd be back an hour or so later and I understood.
This was our relationship. I didn't even know he drew pictures. Just thought he was interested in the work we were doing.
Still miss him. Even now.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Dont't worry about what happens next. Simply walk through the door, and you'll find all that you once feared has turned itself inside out. I used to be like you. I used to fall into that same trap, but birds don't need restrictions. They need sky. They need air. They need destinations. This isn't makebelieve either. I wore myself out getting here, blistered and cut, scorched and frozen, a little bit pissed off. I've flown over wars, carnivals, traffic jams. My eyes are smaller because of it. You came out of that room and you were terrified, but then it all went away. I came at you like you knew it was about to happen, the fury and finesse pulling itself out of the moment and into our convergence. Birds don't belong indoors, but I wasn't a bird anyway, just a flicker. Then you knew. It wasn't really over particularly, just a rought start. You continued walking but you were already laid out on the floor.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Let's not forget that one day when we went across the fence into the field and we found that American flag bundled up into a hobo's suitcase, nestled in some old brown weeds near the off-ramp to the interstate. Cars and semis flashed by. It was cold and then it was warm because of the wind. We stood above our find, dumbfounded. Then you got that grin on your face and bent down on your knees and untied the flag and there it all was: four dirty magazines, a half-emptied carton of cigarettes, and a big shiny Zippo lighter. You picked up one of the dirty magazines and opened it and three ladies were spread-eagle on a large heart-shaped bed. It felt like we were seeing something we'd always wanted to see but we only could get at it alone in dreams.
You just nodded your head.
"That's filthy," you said.
You had wanted to blow somebody's head off before we took off earlier in the day, and I was like I always was, calming you down. But now you were feeling great. You had just uncovered treasure. We took that stash back to your house. We saw your brother fixing his truck, his head under the front of it so all we could make out was his headless body on oil-stained concrete. His legs were twitching a little. The truck's hood was up. Your mom was upstairs sitting in her chair. Big and fat, she had bronchitis and could barely breath but she was in a deep sleep. When she was awake, she had a loud-mouthed psycho old-lady way about her, her laugh always loud and forced, like she was trying not to be depressed as hell but she was. Right now she was Nyquiled into another world. She didn't even see us take the stash upstairs.
Your house smelled like bacon and gasoline and septic-tank and lilac spray.
Your room was a miniature landfill. You never seemed to wash your clothes, and you had unopened action-figure packages and eight-track tapes you had shoplifted all over the place. When you shoplifted, I was your lookout. Once I saw that no one was looking I'd give you the okay and you would grab this or that and then back your way up into a wrack of big coats, disappearing and then coming back to the world with whatever you wanted stashed inside your pants or jacket. Every time walking out the hissing electronic doors of K-Mart or whatever store we targeted I would feel like I was about to lose it. You just kept walking.
Nobody understood why I hung out with you, but if they could have seen inside my head, and make out the way I saw you they probably would have been horrified. You were the only person worth being around is all. Everybody else was always so worried about getting through the day. Worried about hallways lined with kids looking at them. Worried about what their parents thought about them. Worried about grades and sports and girlfriends and here the two of us were, 14 and stupid and wandering around fields, pretending to be little boys because we did not want to have to do anything else. Or maybe you just couldn't grow up. That was probably it. It wasn't about will. It was about what you had to work with. In school you were always downstairs near the boiler-room in Special Ed. Shaved-headed, skinny as a pole, old flannel shirts and dirty corduroy pants and untied hiking boots. I was always hiding from everyone but you. Me some fat pale white-trash kid who could get through classes without saying one word and still make Bs and Cs, one of those kids nobody really wanted to know, but he was still there taking up space.
You let people know who you were. You could not hide it.
You threw the American-flag-wrapped stash onto your unmade bed. You untied the top and opened it up, and then you said, "This is filthy. It makes me sick."
Your face was lit up. When your mom was not sick she was always taking you and me to church, that little Baptist one that had a trailer next to it, where the preacher and his wife lived. The church itself was an old house they were trying to turn into a church. Me and you and your mom would sit in folding chairs with the sixteen or seventeen other worshippers and you always made a big deal out of being saved. You'd get saved every Sunday. You'd go up and get saved and because everybody knew you were retarded they just assumed you had forgotten you'd been saved the Sunday before so they just let it go. But I knew you just wanted to be saved over and over again so you could come back to being lost the next day.
You picked up the lighter. You kept working it, turning the little wheel with your thumb. You smacked the bottom of the silver lighter with your palm, and kept trying and trying, and then the thing lit up, a flame bigger than I thought it was going to be. And you picked up one of those dirty magazines and you lit it. The thing was a little damp so it was hard at first. But it caught. And you did that with the other three magazines and the carton of cigarettes that had been wrapped in the flag.
You stood back. The flames from the stuff caught your mattress on fire. I did not really care about the fire except that it was there and you had caused it. I remember thinking that this was it. I would never see you again. You were laughing, looking around for something else to add to the flames.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor to my class on Monday. It took about a half-hour. "The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida." What a great first line. The story zooms forth after that pronouncement. Flannery lingers but never stops, allowing landscape and sky to leak through, imitating what can't be said with words. As I read it I felt the pace kind of take over my mind. It's movement she's after in this story, a flashpoint in motion, and the vision comes from the speed being slowed down through translation: "The trees were full of silver sunlight," Flannery writes, "and the meanest of them sparkled." That's a jarring turn of phrase because in its elegant banality there is blissful and unnerving transfiguration. You know when the light in the trees gets mean you are on your way to something.
The whole sad show, as the family heads into danger, has a comic meanness to it that allows you to laugh without losing the seriousness of the journey. The grandmother, Bailey Boy, John Wesley, June Star, their feckless mother and the baby she carries -- they are all headed toward annihilation. The way they get there is a comic nightmare, but once they get to the hill after the car crash you begin to feel that sparkle turn into radiation. "The gaping mouth" of the woods across the road is just that. The Misfit just had to appear. No story without him, Flannery wants us to know. There's no use in trying to make a story out of the grandmother and her clan unless there's those gunshots in the woods. It would just be hundreds of miles of bitching and moaning and wanting and needing and mouthing off and slapping.
Everybody always goes to the very end to find the moment that matters most in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." That scene when the grandmother gets shot, the falling action as The Misfit tells his henchmen, and us, that there is no real pleasure in this world, "only meanness." This time, reading it aloud, I found myself lingering on another scene, right after Bobby Lee and Hiram shoot Bailey Boy and John Wesley, Bobby Lee dragging Bailey Boy's shirt along like a souvenir:
The children's mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn't get her breath. "Lady," [The Misfit] asked, "would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?"
"Yes, thank you," the mother said faintly. Her left arm dangled helplessly and she was holding the baby, who had gone to sleep, in the other. "Hep that lady up, Hiram," The Misfit said as she struggled to climb out of the ditch, "and Bobby Lee, you hold onto that little girl's hand."
It's chilling but also somehow a relief, that "Yes, thank you." It carries with it a grace that you can't really understand until you move through that moment when you are about to die, and you're treated with a sort of kindness and gentility by your killer. The mother and the baby up to that point in the story have been comic relief, but now, almost at the end, they become devastating angels. I almost got choked up reading that part aloud. I've read this story probably a thousand times, and each time it lets me know different things.
This time it was about that "Yes, Thank you." How exact and horrifying three little words can be.
I am in awe of a TV show on HBO Sunday nights called Enlightened. Created by Mike White and Laura Dern, and mostly written and directed by White, and starring Dern, the show is in its second season right now, and is so on-target and mystifyingly rich with meaning I often find myself remembering sequences and images from it all week long. White has become a sort of televisual Voltaire in his half-hour renderings of the life of Amy Jellicoe, a nobody who wants to be a somebody but who does not understand the odds are completely against her. Not knowing this, however, allows Amy to move forward bravely and humiliatingly into realms and realities she craves to be a part of, but without the credentials and the smug know-how she sticks out like a homeless person in a palace. Just her very presence, and the looks she gets from the people in almost every scene, satirizes the way the world works without one word.
The series started with Amy having a major meltdown, going to Hawaii for rehab, getting majorly "enlightened" by self-help gurus and yoga, and then coming back to remake the world. Amy did not take into account that no one would want her to come back. Her place of business, Abaddon, Inc., a pharmaceutical mega-company, has allowed her a piss-ant position post-breakdown after she self-righteously threatened them with a law-suit. The first season mainly consisted of Amy trying very very hard to get back into the swing of things, while also hell-bent on showing the world how rotten it currently is and how she has seen the light and they will to if they listen to what she has to say.
Season 2 is much more plot-driven and incredibly watchable. It has morphed into a subterfuge story in which Amy and a co-worker (played by White) hack into Abaddon's computer system to show the world Abaddon's vileness. Enter Dermot Mulroney's Jeff, an accomplished, self-styled neo-muckraker from the LA Times. Amy contacts him so they can blow the lid off of Abaddonn. You know deep down Jeff is using Amy for everything she is worth, but Amy seems driven to be used, acting under the assumption that Jeff's reporting will transform her into the whistle-blowing savior of the universe, a superstar.
The satire caused by Amy's unending desire to be a part of "something" is deft and heart-wrenching. Case in point: last week's episode, in which Amy attends an very upscale, wine-fueled fundraiser at a glassy, cream-colored Southern California mansion. Invited by Jeff as a good will gesture, Amy arrives in her shitty little car, gets out, gives her key to the valet, and is automatically wowed by her surroundings. Well-dressed rich shiny successful people drink from large-stemmed glasses, mulling around the spacious interiors and outside by the pool, all there to raise money for the poor. The way this scene is shot you definitely understand that charity and poverty are the last things on these people's minds. It's status-porn in action, everyone beaming and networking, with Amy goggle-eyed and open-mouthed, starstruck by the ritzy altruism, the swanky "we-care industry" on display. As she walks up and tries to introduce herself to people, they look at her as if she has somehow stumbled in off a bus. But she does not recognize the snobbery. Her desire to be a part of the clean, sweet non-profit glamor overrides any sense of self-consciousness. These are my people, her voice-over lets us know.
As she curtsies at the site of such splendor I kept thinking about Carol Burnett's finest creation, Eunice Higgins, the loudest and angriest member of the white-trash family sketch that appeared regularly on The Carol Burnett Show back in the day. Eunice and Amy have a lot in common. They are caricatures that somehow blossom into tragic figures without losing their comedic/sardonic energy. Dern has the same go-for-broke elegance as Burnett. Burnett and Dern also have the agility and c oncentration to allow Eunice and Amy to be both satirical flourishes and cries from the heart simultaneously. You can't seperate the comedy from the tragedy; they fuel each other.
While Eunice may be a Southern Gothic harpy, Amy is a Southern California wannabe. Still their desires for fame and glamor overlap, and both their faces exhibit a hunger that far outshines the situation of ther lives. At one point, Eunice goes on The Gong Show (back in 1976). The whole sketch is about how awful her rendition of "Feelings" is, but she tries so hard and practices so diligently in front of Mama and Ed (wonderfully portrayed by Vickie Lawrence and Harvey Korman), that it is obvious her Gong Show appearance has become Eunice's only way out, an obsession that has overtaken her life, just like the Abaddonn-whistle-blowing has taken over Amy's. And when Eunice appears on The Gong Show, sings her horrible little song, and is summarily gonged by Jamie Farr, Allan Ludden and Jaye P Morgan, there's a moment of pure unadulterated tragedy. Eunice just stands there. The lights go out. Her image shrinks and dissolves. Right at that moment she realizes how meaningless her journey has been, and how she will have to return to herself and her family. She realizes right then that there is no way out.
I'm sure that moment is waiting on Amy. But I also have a feeling it may not be so tragic. The genius of Enlightened is not only its poignant use of parody but also how it is hellbent on championing someone like Amy. She's annoying and self-involved and just plain wretched a lo of the time, but she also always seems innocent, and just about the only person in the room worth talking to.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
I have a fear of groups of people inside conference rooms dressed up like this, talking like this. It's like self-importance has been given its own holiday, and the celebration entails gathering around a laptop and talking for three hours about absolutely nothing. And then lunch.
"Groupthink" is dangerous but it has no way to be critiqued once it's given a room. Once you are inside of it you become a molecule inside an organism, and even though you know it is a waste of time you still proceed because nobody else is saying anything about it, and the bull-shit is on track to sucking the life out of the whole day, and once the life is sucked out of the whole day you are home-free: tabula-rasa baby. You are snug as a bug in a rug. "Complacency" isn't the word. It's more like "efficiency," I guess. Or one of those other businessy buzz words you can slap onto anything you want. Like "outcomes" and "metric" and "taskforce" and the ever popular "buy-in."
When you are in meetings like this you lose whatever momentum it takes to not be in meetings like this.
I looked it up, and the term for this phobia I have is "koinoniphobia," literally "fear of rooms full of people." It's a little different than claustrophobia and agoraphobia, because this phobia takes on the fear of the collective inside one room, which is what I'm talking about. "People coming together to solve a problem" may sound really nice and magical, but it also has a dark, crisp underbelly. When people come together to do such a thing a lot of complications are un-imagined or even dis-imagined, meaning simplified to the point of not really solving the problem as much as saying the problem is solved. Moving on. Shaping the narrative to fit the meeting agenda.
Which brings me to a movie I love that totally exemplifies what I'm trying to get at. It's called Shattered Glass, and stars Harden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard. Based on a true story, Shattered Glass gives us a fly-on-the-wall view into the scandal involving Stephen Glass, a reporter for The New Republic and other upscale magazines and newspapers. Glass was a hot commodity in the late 90s. His writing was snarky and hyper-original, but it turns out he was a great big liar, writing fiction and claiming it was journalism. The movie has a deft grim pace to it, and as you watch it you begin to understand how entrenched groupthink is not just to The New Republic (the self-styled "in-flight magazine of Air Force One"), but probably to every organization that has an office and a staff. It's the meetings that damn everyone to hell. In Shattered Glass, it is the pitch meetings where Glass rolls out all of his lies, and all the other writers and editors and managers sit and listen, captivated by the inner-circle bull-shit he's spilling. Sarsgaard plays Chuck Lane, Glass's editor and ultimate nemesis, a down-to-earth guy who has to wake himself and his staff up from Glass' spell once he finds out what the superstar reporter is up to.
In one of the final scenes, Lane tells another reporter played by Chloe Sevigny (who is trying to defend Glass after he has fired him):
After that speech, the movie pivots back to "happier times," the conference-room, no sound, just the image of a self-sanctified Glass pitching his bull-shit, and everyone in the room laughing and starry-eyed, loving what he is dishing out, probably a little envious too.
No one ever had any idea he was a sociopath. He was the most popular guy in the room.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
This old lady had a middle-aged daughter, and they lived in this house in a rundown neighborhood near downtown. Their house was way off from the street, but the other houses were close to the curb. There was a little sidewalk that led to their front door, and the aluminum siding looked sore and gray, as if it had a rash. The front door was a little off its hinges, and whenever I went in to pick them up to take them to her daughter's eye-doctor appointments it sounded like a pterodactyl screaming.
They were both fat in a jolly kind of way. The mother had bright silver hair and a round large nose, and she wore housecoats with huge pockets around the house. This was her uniform that she wore to work and her work was ironing people's clothes. She took in ironing, in other words: she had a big ironing board, and a couple of large clothes racks next to the ironing board hung with men's shirts. "Taking ironing in" seemed like a total 1950s thing to me, an anachronistic almost ghostly activity, now that there were drycleaning places in every strip-mall, but she still had clientele. "Mostly lawyers," she'd tell me, proudly. Her eyes were always lit up inside as though one of those lawyers were always whispering some sweet little joke into her ear. But I had a feeling that she just had those shirts there as a way to pretend she still took ironing in. One time she explained to me in one short unsentimental sentence that her husband and her daughter's father had left them years ago because the daughter had turned out to be what she was. "Just disappeared one day," she said. "He couldn't take it."
There was a huge industrial bag of starlite mints on the floor beside the ironing board, opened for easy access. The old lady explained that she put a starlite mint into every shirt pocket. Like a little treat for her customers. She said she had started it years ago for Christmas, but then they all started to expect it every time.
The daughter was retarded. I know that's not politically correct to say, but that's what the old lady always said to anyone they met, and the daughter went along. She was a little rounder and bulkier than her mother, with dirt-brown hair permed into a tight ornament atop her large head. Her eyes were tiny. Her mouth had a stubborn, tight set to it. She always wanted to hug people, and her mom was always apologizing for it.
One time when I went over to pick them up, the daughter was putting on her shoes in a La-Z-Boy chair, and as soon as she heard that door open she looked up and grinned great big and just stopped what she was doing and waddled over to me and hugged me so tight it felt like she was trying to hug her way out of her own life. I smelled shit, and then saw that there was a small piece of shit on the back of her blouse. The mother was going through her purse to make sure she had the right insurance papers, and when she looked up to tell the daughter so stop hugging me she instantly saw the piece of shit and scolded her.
"How did that get there?" she said, as if the daughter might have an explanation. The daughter just slumped her shoulders and walked toward the mother.
"Get in there and get that off of you," the mother said. "I mean it. That's nasty."
The daughter asked, "What?" She was mad.
"You got poop on your back," the mother said.
The daughter did a little circle dance, trying to see it.
The mother said, "Come on. I'll help you."
The mother was pissed, but laughed despite herself. I did too. It just seemed so sad and typical and perfect somehow, one of those moments when everybody is exactly who they are and everything is strangely okay. And for a few seconds the mother and I and the daughter looked at each other like, Lord have mercy.
One time I went over to pick them up to take them to the utility company because they had a huge bill and they couldn't pay it. It was late March, and there was a tornado warning on the morning TV show they watched. The lady meteorologist was standing in front of a mean-looking fluorescent weather map. Their whole neighborhood felt lit from within. I looked out the windows above their little TV and clouds were roiling and trees-limbs were flailing. They were both ready this time, and for some reason the mother and the daughter had dressed alike that day, as if going to the utility company called for it. Burgundy dresses, like maybe what they once wore to church. They didn't go to church anymore because the pastor came and visited them because the daughter had made a couple scenes during the Sunday services there. Burgundy dresses with black belts and black shoes. The house had a cinnamon-candle smell. I remember thinking they there was no way we could drive in this weather, and yet what if the tornado hit while we stood there?
A few months later the daughter died in her sleep, and the mother died a few months after that. It was like they never existed. I don't go into that neighborhood now. It's way out of the way to go by there. But I still see it in my head sometimes, just because they're gone, and I guess I need to remember them. I guess somebody does.
Paul McGurl uses words. Matthew Waldeck uses pictures. By "use," I mean both artists appropriate and deliver their ideas, feelings and subject matters in ways that are workmanlike and focused on a central purpose that's kind of mysterious and in-your-face simultaneously. There's no fooling around in either man's works, but there's a sense of off-kilter bliss, as these artists find meaning in the way they themselves take on what is symbolic and standard. The names of presidents fashioned into a optometrist chart. Historical figures lined up like Fischer Price figurines. Both artists are creating their own worlds out of the world they've been given, and in their drawings they are finding out that history can become an incantation: all those names and battles eventually become lullabies.
Paul and Matthew's works, along with the sculptures of Britni Bicknaver, will part of "Glory Be! A Historical Romance," opening February 22, 2013 at Thunder-Sky, Inc. Reception that night if 6 to 10 pm.
Friday, February 1, 2013
I read J. D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" aloud to the creative writing class I teach last Monday, and I can still feel the story swimming anxiously around in my head, like the banana fish stuffing themselves on bananas in a hole they won't be able to get out of. "Perfection" isn't the word. It's a tawdry sad little story that somehow sprouts as you read it into epic mythology. Reading it aloud made it even grander somehow. That hotel room telephone dialog between Muriel and her mother at the beginning really does have a dark mean bite cutting through the comedy, and then the scene with Seymour and the little girl at the beach. Something so innocent it's menacing is happening there, with Seymour's ghostlike presence, his disconnected singsongy voice, moving the story into regions outside of setting and plot. The humor isn't sarcasm or slapstick. It's just sadness giving us its last little dance. By the time you are in the elevator with Seymour and he's pissed because the lady is looking at his feet, you begin to understand what a short story, what all art maybe, is supposed to do: bring you closer to what you dread, bring you closer so you can love everything you fear. The last little scene in the hotel room with Muriel is a coda, a collapse, but sometimes you just need a bullet to set a broken heart free.
Salinger's clean mean words just came out of my mouth as I read as if I knew what I was saying even though I was just a stupid microphone. I was an authority on how to keep my mouth shut, reading that story aloud. I almost want to do it in every class I teach. Maybe it's all any writer needs to know.