Month: January 2012

Sacred heart

It is hard to imagine anyone other than William H. Macey playing Frank Gallagher. Bringing the same unexpected pathos to this dark, complex character that he has brought to other characters throughout his career—most notably Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo—Macey fully inhabits the role of the liquored-up, fallen patriarch in the Showtime series Shameless, now in its second season.

As funny as it is disturbing, the series revolves around a working-class family struggling to make ends meet on Chicago’s South Side. To be sure, we’ve seen this story line before, but it would be wrong to think that there is anything derivative about the show. Macey is no Archie Bunker, the bigoted pater familias of the 70s sitcom All in the Family. Whereas Archie is predictable in his circumscribed life as a blue-collar worker who, despite his many flaws, loves and provides for his family, Frank is an unpredictable, hapless drunk who all but abandons his six children.

It is difficult to see how such a selfish, unapologetic alcoholic who leaves his children to fend for themselves could be a headliner for anything other than a Greek tragedy, but Frank’s shadowy schemes draw plenty of laughs and fetch equal amounts of outrage and compassion. In spite of his despicable behavior, we find ourselves accepting him, even caring about him, in part because we see his humanness and vulnerability when he cannot.

At one point, Frank bets a local gang banger $10,000 that he can’t be tased twice and stay on his feet. The thug lets Frank zap him and, naturally, he remains standing. Not surprisingly, Frank can’t pay the debt, so he hatches one crazy plan after another to come up with the money–including allowing his toddler son, Liam, to be held as collateral until he can pay what he owes and showing up in a gay bar to exchange sex for cash. We are so horrified by his behavior that we think he can’t possibly be more reprehensible. He can.

After finding out that neighborhood floozy Dottie Coronis, played poignantly by Mollie Price, will die unless she receives a heart transplant, Frank contrives to get his hands on her pension by offering to help her with household projects and by asking her to marry him. After the proposal, we see Dottie in the distance stepping naked into the shower, while Frank, in the foreground, hears her pager go off and surreptitiously answers it. When he learns that a heart is available, he tells the person on the other end of the line that “she doesn’t need it anymore. She passed last night.” What follows is an unspeakable sex scene that defies description.

Yet, Frank is someone we almost know: He’s just a few degrees the other side of the feckless fathers and hooched-up husbands who live with us, sleep in our beds, eat at our tables, and pilfer our savings. We hope they will change but fully expect they will not, just as we hope every lapse will bring Frank closer to salvation and every moment of self-justification will bring him closer to a moment of self-awareness.

That moment seems far off, though, when we later find him at his local watering hole rationalizing his behavior to anyone who will listen. “If you are waiting for a new organ,” he bellows, “you are interfering with God’s plan. If you have a bum heart, that’s your lot in life. Don’t take someone else’s.” Since Shameless trades in gallows humor and asks us to question our notions of morality, this rant, like all of Frank’s other rants, should make us laugh. It doesn’t. Because Dottie is such a sympathetic, even sacred, character—more so than any other in the show—it’s just too hard to find any humor in her tragic end.

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The bloom is off the yaris

When I was 28, my then-husband and I went to hear a storyteller who, throughout the evening, sang each of his tales in a winding, high-pitched voice. We were as captivated by his delivery as we were by his stories, and one, about Colette’s mother, has stayed with me all these years. The song was about a letter Sido, as she was called, wrote to her second son-in-law, Henri de Jouvenel, after he invited her to Paris for a visit. In it, she refused the invitation because she feared she would miss the flowering of her pink cactus, an event that happened only once in four years, and was concerned she would not live to see it bloom again.

Several weeks ago, the clutch on my 2001 Echo began slipping and I knew I would have to replace it for an amount that was more than the car was worth. Since I couldn’t get financing unless I bought a new vehicle, I was pretty limited in my choices and so decided on a no-frills, though peppy, 2012 Yaris. Almost immediately, I found myself wondering if it would be my last car and if I would want to leave the planet without ever having had electric windows.

Although it’s possible, but unlikely, that I will live another 30 or 40 years, it’s just as possible, and more likely, that I will live only another 10 or 20 years. And, of course I could die much sooner than that—and at any time. Because I have always been afraid of death and have never wanted to think much about it, it seems almost lawful that I should now feel a sense of gravity, even finality, about each choice I make, no matter how prosaic.

It is well known that Colette rewrote her mother’s letter before including it in her 1928 memoir, Break of Day, but this fact makes it no less instructive. As I write, I find myself wondering if it will be possible to live out the moments left to me with the wonder of a child who thinks she will go on forever and the quiet acceptance of an adult who knows she will not.

The seinfeld of blog posts

I live in a condo developed by a couple of charlatans, still free, and managed by a team of embezzlers, now jailed. I am less bothered by the fact that the swindlers made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars in condo fees from unsuspecting owners across the city than I am by my kitchen faucet. Every corner was cut when the building was renovated, but not every henny penny is visible to the casual observer. I loved my faucet when I first moved into my place because it, along with what I have since learned are unsealed marble countertops, is one of the few indications of luxury living in an otherwise unremarkable, underwater home the size of a post-it note.

The description of the faucet on the company website reads “stainless steel sanitary ware sink/kitchen faucet/mixer/tap,” and, the jabberwocky notwithstanding, I am most struck by the first three words. It is my understanding that “stainless steel” means the product is stainless steel and that “sanitary” means the product is sanitary, but this isn’t the case with my faucet.

The first time I noticed the odor I was eating my dinner, and, every time I brought the fork to my mouth, there it was. I sniffed my fingertips, the backs of my hands, my arms, my armpits, my only table, my one couch, my floors, my walls, my 39 utensils, my 20 plates, my 13 cups, my 12 bowls, my 2 garbage cans, my sole bathtub, my 1 toilet, my 1 closet, my 5 windows, my 2 book shelves, my tea kettle, and my printer. For the life of me I could not find the source of the smell, so the sniffing at meal time went on for weeks. One evening, when I was eating a cup of minestrone, I noticed that the smell was especially strong when the spoon was in my mouth. It was then I discovered that my palm reeked of mildew, and, sleuth that I am, I traced it back to the faucet handle.

A swiftlet in every pot

Bird's-nest-soup-Miri-MalaysiaIt takes a love-struck male swiftlet 30 days to build a delicate, cup-like nest from its saliva and attach it high up on a cave wall, whereupon it is harvested lickety-split. It takes the same swiftlet another 30 days of soldiering on to replace the stolen nest with a new one, whereupon it, too, is harvested lickety-split. I’m trying to figure out how the idea of bird’s nest soup, purported to clear up skin, improve lung function, and increase sex drive, came about in the first place. Was someone boiling a pot of water on the floor of a remote cave when, all of a sudden, one of these pearly things fell in?

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“…signifying nothing.”

More than 30 years ago I wrote an article for the first issue of The Threepenny Review, a literary magazine launched by writer and critic Wendy Lesser, who, at the time, was a friend. In the article, I reviewed Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, and writing it, as I recall, was a torment. Although I didn’t save a copy of this article, I think now that it was probably longer than it had a right to be and likely more bombast than substance.

Wendy and I met when we were doctoral students at UC Berkeley. She liked me, she said, because I was easy to talk to and because I was diplomatic, and I admired her for what I considered then to be far more important qualities: her wide-ranging intellect, determination, and self-confidence. Although I was intelligent enough and could be determined in fits and starts, my lack of self-confidence made me a dupe for a student and a dangerous literary critic.

Like a child who mimics the language and posturings of the adults around her, I learned in graduate school how to behave in ways that were imitative, empty of conviction, and cruel.  The truth is that I cared very little, if at all,  about the ideas that seemed to preoccupy others, and, even if I did take a fancy to any of my own ideas, they changed faster than you could say ticker tape.

My academic career ended before it started, when I took a seminar on the Renaissance from Stephen Greenblatt, whose star was very much on the rise. For the final paper, I wrote a critique of a Shakespearean sonnet and agonized over it as I agonized over everything I wrote. In the end, I had so parsed myself into a corner that the only conclusion I felt I could reach was that it was impossible to ever know the meaning of a poem or the meaning of any piece of writing, for that matter. As you can imagine, this didn’t bode well for me—or for my star. So, I slunk  away from the Department without even signing out, and, since I was a rabble-rouser, albeit a preemptive one, I don’t think I was much missed; yet, I wanted very badly for someone to come after me—to miss the particular brand of me—and, from time to time, I wonder how my life would have turned out had I been coaxed back to Wheeler Hall.

I didn’t leave Berkeley just because I couldn’t find much meaning in what I was doing.  I simply didn’t have the temperament of a scholar, and this was nowhere more evident than in a course I took on eighteenth-century literature from Margaret Doody, a visiting professor who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. She was a very sincere and passionate teacher with a good sense of humor and with what I seem to recall was a compelling take on first-person narratives written by women of the Enlightenment.

All of the students appeared to like her very much, and I liked her very much, but I couldn’t bring myself to do what was required. For one assignment, as an example, we were supposed to make a presentation on a topic of our choice, and, while others offered what I think I thought were well-mannered, if dreary, responses to the task at hand, I broke onto the stage with some wild thing written in the voice of a heroine from a novel we had been reading.  I’m pretty sure I was proud of what I had done, and I had no idea that I had made a fool of myself or that others were tittering behind my back until I met with Dr. Doody for an end-of-the-quarter conference, during which she squared my shoulders and got down to it: When was I going to get serious about my life, she wanted to know. I was so shocked by this that I laughed involuntarily, which no doubt affirmed for her the necessity of having asked such a question. I didn’t know then that meeting with her was the most important experience I was to have during my short-lived life as an academic. Since that day, I have not stopped asking myself the same question.

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Occupy comcast

I confess. Comcast is not my favorite conglomerate. For a long time I have stewed about its price-gouging practices, but now I am at boiling point. Currently, if I wish to use On Demand, the company’s “free” service that offers viewers an array of TV shows and movies, I must endure an On Slaught of commercials. Previously, I could fast forward through them, but, recently, Comcast has disabled this function. Last night, I set out to watch an episode of The Closer, and here is the gauntlet I was made to run.

For the first eleven minutes of the show, a reeling-in period, there were no commercials. Then, for five minutes I was compelled to watch seven commercials from Weight Watchers, ParaGard IUD, Try Neat, Campbell’s, Cymbalta, Olive Garden, and TNT. Next came eight more minutes of The Closer, followed by another five-minute block of, this time, twelve commercials from DreamWorks/Touchstone Pictures, General Mills, AT&T, Pizza Hut, KYAK, Pepperidge Farm, MetLife, KFC, 1-800-Contacts, Birds Eye, Aveeno, and Nature Valley. Then, nine minutes more of the show. Then, five minutes of twelve more commerials from TNT, again; Chrysler; General Mills, again; T-Mobile; Campbell’s, again; the ID. Channel; MoneyMutual; QuiBids; Golden Corral; Allstate; Pepperidge Farm, again; and Weight Watchers, again. Then, twelve minutes more of the show. Then, a final five-minute block of eleven commercials from Olive Garden, again; KAYAK, again; Campbell’s, yet again; the ID. Channel, again; 1-800-Contacts, again; CVS; Advair; Coffee-mate; Nokia; PetSmart; and TNT, yet again.

Some would tell me that I don’t have to watch the commercials if I don’t want to, but they would be missing the point. Of course I don’t have to watch the ads; with the exception of last night, when I was counting them, I usually turn off the sound when they are on and busy myself with other things. But, the point is that, for all the money I pay each month to Comcast, I shouldn’t have to find something else to do 42 times in a 60-minute period just so I can avoid this deadening dreck.

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The hay who wore a toupée

When I was a child, I think I thought that words were more reliable than grown-ups but not as important as horses. Grown-ups were always gone or leaving, but words were right where you left them. Horses were passion, though, and nothing trumps passion. Just as I can’t remember a time when I was read to I can’t remember a time when I did not read. Any words would do so long as they were companion enough. I especially loved stories of young girls with a heap of derring-do. My favorite was Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library, and I smile now to think of the reason. At such a young age I couldn’t possibly have understood why a mystery novel about a grown-up who keeps trying to steal a book would have taken me so completely. Probably as soon as I mastered cursive I wrote my first poem. This is how it went: On a bright sunny day/he galloped away/his mouth full of hay/wearing a toupée.

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