Ida

At first glance, “Ida” is the sum­ma­tion of a movie I was cre­at­ed on this earth to hate. It’s a peri­od movie shot in black and white*, it’s about a nun, and it fea­tures a road trip and a sax­o­phone play­er. I almost choked myself out in a rage just typ­ing that sen­tence. Nonethe­less, “Ida” held me cap­tive, and my opin­ion of it has only risen in the days since. (“Ida” wasn’t shot in black and white. It was shot in col­or dig­i­tal­ly and con­vert­ed to black and white using col­or grad­ing soft­ware. This is the case for almost every­thing released in black and white in the last decade at least. I under­stand and appre­ci­ate the rea­sons for shoot­ing this way, but the deci­sion to make a black and white movie feels arch and orna­men­tal in a way that ear­lier direc­tors choos­ing to shoot on black and white film stock did not. While the black and white grad­ing in “Ida” is of the high­est qual­i­ty, the images bear the unmis­tak­able crisp­ness and res­o­lu­tion of the dig­i­tal era.)
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Reli­gion is like a load­ed gun. You don’t show it unless you’re going to use it. The gun is going to go off — the only ques­tion is will it end well or not. And when a char­ac­ter is defined by her reli­gious devo­tion, you can be that her faith is going to blow up too. The only ques­tion is will it end well or not. When we meet Ida in Poland in 1962, she a week from tak­ing her vows to become a nun. She vis­its her Aunt Wan­da — home she’s nev­er met before — and learns she is actu­al­ly a Jew. This kind of plot wal­lop usu­al­ly bores the hell out of me, because it means for the next 90 min­utes, I’m going to be sub­ject­ed to end­less ver­sions of “who am I real­ly?’

First, “Ida” is only 80 min­utes long, and sec­ond, while it feels almost like a folk tale at times, the film is very aware of itself. That aware­ness man­i­fests itself in what “Ida” doesn’t do : it doesn’t ask ques­tions like “who am I?” and it cer­tain­ly offers no answers. It is more of a reflec­tion on the lim­its of guilt and anger and accep­tance. The film is made with long, still takes where the cam­era seems to resists mov­ing and instead set­tles itself into the scene at hand. Dra­mat­ic sto­ry points are treat­ed almost as an after­thought, but sus­pense and desire build as the cam­era remains on Ida and/or on Wan­da longer than we are used to, longer than we expect, and the ten­sion con­tin­ues to build when they leave the frame : we see only ner­vous fin­gers stick­ing out of win­ter coats as relics of grief and tragedy are pulled from the ground ; lat­er, in the most mem­o­rable scene of the film, Wan­da puts on some music on the phono­graph and movies in and out of frame with a fran­tic ener­gy . She returns with so much verve that when she leaves the frame the last time, so casu­al­ly and ter­ri­bly, we are com­plete­ly emp­tied. It’s this self-imposed set of bound­aries, struc­tural­ly and the­mat­i­cal­ly, that allows “Ida” to become tru­ly cin­e­mat­ic.movies-ida-050214-videoSixteenByNine540

And that’s where the two Agatas come in. Agata Kulesza plays Wan­da per­fect­ly. Oth­ers have said that the film should be titled “Wan­da” because she is the more ful­ly drawn and com­plex of two char­ac­ters. When she first invites Ida into her kitchen and asks her what the nuns told Ida about her, she’s relieved when Ida tells her that the nuns didn’t say any­thing. Wan­da is disheveled, wear­ing a night gown and smok­ing a cig­a­ret­te, and she has a lover who is get­ting dressed to leave, so it’s easy to imag­ine, stand­ing in for Ida, that Wan­da is a pros­ti­tute. That she is a once respect­ed judge who turns to drink­ing and sex to stave off the shame of her fad­ed career is only one sur­prise about Wan­da that makes her a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter and the per­fect guide for Ida through the land­scape of Poland and of sin.

Agata Trze­bu­chowska is the 23 year old star of the film. She has nev­er act­ed before the direc­tor Paweł Paw­likowski dis­cov­ered her in a café, but she was the per­fect choice for the old of Ida. Wrapped up in her gray habit for most of the film, Ida’s expres­sion­less face must tell a sto­ry with­out being a blank slate. Like every­thing else in this film, what’s beau­ti­ful about Ida comes from our inabil­i­ty to know if her calm expres­sion is a sta­sis of oppo­sites that can­cel each oth­er out, a bal­anced uni­ty of her many con­tra­dic­tions, or just a bull­shit mask that she’s dying to take off. And Trze­bu­chowska is so great at car­ry­ing all the­se pos­si­bil­i­ties in her stun­ning, love­ly face and in her per­for­mance that it isn’t until after the film ends that we real­ize the answer is D all of the above. The final, hand­held, shaky track­ing shot of Ida walk­ing in the mid­dle of a dirt road, her eyes full of every­thing — an unknown future, a past either rec­on­ciled or roil­ing, a heart either full or bro­ken — while the head­lights of pass­ing cars throw dull halos across her face, is the kind of thing I was put on this earth to love.

Mea Culpa

I am a reformed anti-vaxxer. My old­er boys were vac­ci­nat­ed in the late 80s and ear­ly 90s, but when Oskar was born in 2002, our pedi­a­tri­cian dis­cour­aged us from vac­ci­nat­ing. He cit­ed the increase in the num­ber of vac­ci­nes as well as the dan­ger of side effects, etc. and we went along with it. I also had my old­er sons cir­cum­cised (despite their mother’s protest), and by the time Oskar came around, I had come to see the error of my ways, so I prob­a­bly con­sid­ered my ear­lier atti­tude toward vac­ci­na­tion to be part of my cave­man ways that need­ed to be reformed. I’m a smart guy, but I admit that I didn’t do my home­work or even con­sid­er things like herd immu­ni­ty.
Oskar got whoop­ing cough last year when he start­ed mid­dle school and since then he’s been vac­ci­nat­ed for every­thing except HPV and menin­gi­tis. The menin­gi­tis vac­ci­na­tion comes in high school. I have done much more research and have come to real­ize that I was very wrong. It’s impor­tant to be able to admit your mis­takes and change when you can, and it’s just as impor­tant to speak out when what each of us does can affect all of us. 
I live in the heart of the anti-vax move­ment (San­ta Mon­i­ca), and our pedi­a­tri­cian, Jay Gor­don, has been at the white hot cen­ter of the debate for years. But when I sched­uled vac­ci­na­tions with his office, they were very hap­py to provide them. They real­ize that the risks are high and real (though they prob­a­bly don’t acknowl­edge their role in cre­at­ing the risk through the years). 
There are no intel­li­gent argu­ments again­st vac­ci­na­tion for peo­ple with healthy immune sys­tems. Zero. There is no point in pre­tend­ing both sides of this argu­ment have good points. They do not. Those who argue the sci­ence isn’t in on vac­cine safe­ty do not under­stand vac­ci­nes. Live virus/bacteria vac­ci­nes do not make you sick. They are atten­u­at­ed, which means they are not vir­u­lent but they are alive. This allows your body to devel­op immune respons­es with­out hav­ing to get sick. Like any­thing else, there are poten­tial side effects, but the com­mon ones aren’t seri­ous and the seri­ous ones are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly very rare. 
Some­one above post­ed that doc­tors came to her 24 hours after the birth of her child to vac­ci­nate her baby. That doesn’t make sense, and I can under­stand why that would be extreme­ly upset­ting. Your baby is brand new in the world and is per­fect. Babies also have their mother’s immune sys­tem for sev­er­al weeks, so there’s no need to act that fast. I’m sym­pa­thet­ic to par­ents who want to pro­tect their chil­dren and not just do every thing doc­tors say to do with­out ques­tion­ing. I was like that and I still am to a degree, but not about this.
When Oskar got whoop­ing cough, though, it was incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to watch him suf­fer, know­ing if we had vac­ci­nat­ed him, this wouldn’t have ever hap­pened. Night after night, he woke up ter­ri­fied and pan­icked, unable to breathe, mak­ing that awful ‘whoop whoop” sound that just breaks your heart. He missed weeks of school, he had a high fever, and even after the worst of it passed, he had a raspy, wet cough for more than three months. And if he had it as a baby or a tod­dler it could have killed him. 
I’ve come to real­ize it is the height of irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty bor­der­ing on crim­i­nal­i­ty to not vac­ci­nate our chil­dren. The state can­not and should not com­pel peo­ple to do it, but the prob­lem with schools refus­ing to enroll unvac­ci­nat­ed chil­dren is that schools are not equipped to be pub­lic health police. They don’t have the resources. And that doesn’t address home­school and pri­vate school stu­dents.
This is where it real­ly does take a vil­lage to raise every child. Each child is impor­tant to all of us, and her wel­fare is in our best inter­est as well.

Lovers Night Out

Under the larch­es and lark shit
and the woo they lay down —
a canopy of bad ideas and chuffed promis­es —
Bethany slept and Paul count­ed
the things he want­ed to do
before he died.
Bethany the heart, Paul the vein.
Like Chi­ne­se beryl or blas­tomeres,
they’re cleft and uncleft, twins who mim­ic
twin­ning. They make every­thing
that they believe.
Bethany the anchor, Paul the chain.
After dark, they unfurl and slide
into town. Paul prongs oys­ters
onto her dusty tongue, and she
chirps and licks him clean.
Bethany the mem­o­ry, Paul the stain.

The Aubergine

This is then, when they stepped out, right ?
down the steps from the hotel to the Aubergine –
more like black bruise col­ored,
the con­crete ramp they call the Aubergine
to make being old or in a chair not stink –
and across the Checker­board –
the reg­u­lar board­walk paint­ed black and white
so get­ting to the sand is a game not a drag –
and to the sand. Before this is when
they were in their room for two days
only some steps and the Aubergine
and the Checker­board away from the sea.
This is after the fight at El Patio
and the fire and the red tag on the door –
so you know you can’t live there any­more –
after the first hotel in Carls­bad –
this is Lagu­na, right ? this is when we freaked
and didn’t know if they were in jail
or in TJ or they killed each oth­er,
which she did, him, when they stepped out
and down onto the cool blue gray sun­down sand
after two days in that room with a rock
she picked up on The Aubergine
and the hotel said their room was real­ly clean
and the bed was still made.

Good and Bad

A cou­ple days ago I quit my Face­book account to take a break from all the noise. For some­one who lives and works alone, some­thing like Face­book can be a qui­et and effec­tive way to stay in con­tact with col­leagues, friends, fam­i­ly, and the var­i­ous zeit­geists going around. But for some­one like me who lives and works alone, it can also be a Dopamine Pez Dis­penser, a ClikN­Lik that licks my brain with every click. It’s so easy to pour my heart out in posts and com­ments, much eas­ier than slog­ging care­ful­ly through my work. It’s not the first time I’ve quit FB, but it’s the first time that I am hap­py about it. That’s good.

But the slog­ging through work — that’s bad. Ever since I blew out my career and my life with addic­tion and oth­er mal­adies a decade ago, I have been unable to com­plete any­thing. No nov­el, no screen­play, noth­ing. Recent­ly, a good friend and pro­duc­er asked me to write a project she and a direc­tor had begun to devel­op. I hes­i­tat­ed because I didn’t want to let them down, but I liked the project enough and I like her ener­gy and pas­sion, so I said yes. But I have strug­gled for weeks with the most basic tasks of screen­writ­ing and haven’t been able to come up with a com­plete out­line. Yes­ter­day, I had to let her know that I couldn’t do the job because I was slow­ing them down.

This is incred­i­bly dis­cour­ag­ing. I have to won­der if I ever can write again. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly, I know I can, because my mind is full of great ideas. I read vora­cious­ly, and I watch films with the same curios­i­ty and excite­ment I had twen­ty-five years ago, but I can’t trans­late any of my ener­gy and dri­ve into a com­plete project. I feel like I’m at a dan­ger­ous inter­sec­tion, but I can’t just sit at the light forever. I have to go some­where.

Let’s Come to An Understanding

Let’s come to an under­stand­ing. The party’s over. There’s not going to be any more of that elec­tric hard-on music. No more of you and her pop­ping out from behind fur­ni­ture and mess­ing with me when I’m just try­ing to answer the door. All that hec­tic prat­tle she invent­ed, that baby talk, that’s fin­ished. You want to say some­thing, use Eng­lish. It works a twat­load bet­ter than your squeals and chirps and what­ev­er that shit is she does with her cheeks. 

I’m not becom­ing “impe­ri­al” or what­ev­er. I’m just try­ing to get back to the way it was. It was fine. We were always say­ing how it was hor­ri­ble, that we rode the horse into the sea. But you know what ? It wasn’t that bad. Not like this. 

First there was Dad­death. There was lit­tle Bethdeath in the pool — I was the only one home, and I had to fish her out and car­ry her through the orchard, and you think that was easy, that I wasn’t tear­ing my skin off while Lena keened and Bryce puked in the gar­den ? Then that ass­hole bik­er laid his motor­cy­cle down in my lane going eighty. I remem­ber his hands flut­ter­ing like moth wings, that’s how hard he was try­ing to stop before I ran him over. So that was the first year. 

And then what ? Some bac­te­ria got aggres­sive. Thou­sands dead. Every orange in the state gets incin­er­at­ed. But that’s all it was. It passed, but you can’t let it go. All that oth­er shit you and her have been say­ing, it blows up easy on everybody’s feed, but it’s not real.

Stop. I’m just try­ing to catch my breath. How can I hurt you, Don­ny, when all I do all day is try to avoid piss­ing you off ? You. Her. Both of you. I don’t know — look at my hands shak­ing. That start­ed two nights ago and it hasn’t stopped.

She was hun­gry and you got out of con­trol again. I tried to get away, but the truck wouldn’t start, so I ran out into the orchard, and you and her chased me. The fuck you didn’t, Don­ny. I tripped and rolled into the irri­ga­tion ditch. You ran right past and nev­er saw me. But I saw you. She was on your shoul­ders, whip­ping you across the eyes. You couldn’t see but you yelled my name, and when you ran by, I saw your feet, and they were two inch­es off the ground.

I know you can’t fly, tool. It’s her. 

Being Patient is All About, Pt. 1

Lor­na saw her father com­ing from across the street. The sun was behind his head, but she knew his shape, his lope, that old big man who brought her from Cochin to Kowloon and then all the way to Okla­homa, just to leave her alone in Bartlesville. She was sit­ting on the hydrant at the cor­ner of John­stone and Fourth with her sheet music at her feet. The only thing that could shake her up her more than see­ing Father, our Father any­where out­side in the day­time would be if Chi Chi ever came close to pick­ing her up on time. That will hap­pen, but Dad­dy-man was cross­ing the street right now.

Stand­ing beside him was a lit­tle girl with yel­low hair. She was wear­ing a sat­in Roy­als jack­et and pink tights, and she came up to her father’s rib cage. Lor­na imag­ined the kind of moth­er that would make a kid dress like that, a gray house dress with soft legs and soft arms stick­ing out, fat fin­gers pulling stringy yel­low hair and forc­ing small pink tights onto kick­ing legs, pulling lit­tle hands through the lemon sat­in sleeves. She imag­ined TGWYH walk­ing to school in her tights and her coat, and the soft arms dri­ving slow­ly a hun­dred yards behind her to make sure she didn’t take the jack­et off. TGWYH seems obe­di­ent if you looked at her from behind, but spin around and get a good look at her face, you can see vol­cano eyes, and you know there will come a day when nobody would ever touch her again. Lor­na looked up again, and that’s when she saw her father take TGWYH’s hand.

She pan­icked. She tried to slide back­wards off the hydrant and run away, but her knees buck­led, and she rolled on to the side­walk. Did he have anoth­er fam­i­ly ? Did he have anoth­er daugh­ter that he loved more than he loved her ? Lor­na duck­walked behind a bus bench, hold­ing her skirt so her pleats wouldn’t flap in the wind. She couldn’t remem­ber hold­ing his hand ever in her life.

When they stepped out of the street up onto the side­walk, Lor­na saw that this was no lit­tle girl. She was an Oom­pa Loom­pa with hips and tits and pink lip­stick. Lorna’s ridicu­lous heart ham­mered again­st her ribs. She closed her eyes and wait­ed for him to see her and ask her ques­tions.

Where is your moth­er?” he’d ask. “What are you doing here?” She wait­ed for her heart to slap twelve times and she opened her eyes. He was gone. He and the pink dwarf had passed by his own and only spawn, passed by her tar-black bowl of hair and her over­sized port­fo­lio of sheet music, and now they were walk­ing into the Cop­per Bar.

Lor­na stood up and wiped her palms on her skirt. By the time La Madre pulled up to the curb in the Naz­i­mo­bile, she under­stood she had the pow­er to dis­ap­pear, and she couldn’t stop think­ing of all the ways she was going to use it.

#

Chisato Aoiki will steal your heart and play it like a Kawai. Chisato Aoiki doesn’t have a key to your heart — she has 88 of them. Chisato Aoiki plays the Kawai Mod­el 500 Grand Piano, so shouldn’t you ? Chisato Aoiki sat as still as a stone while she played watered down jazz at the Au Lap­in Agile in Yoko­hama in 1985. She could play. She could play Bill Evans on a good night, but she nev­er had a good night. The Phillips engi­neers who came into the bar want­ed to hear Burt Bacharach and Ray Charles. She’d made a record, she’d played on tele­vi­sion, she was the face of a piano com­pa­ny all over Japan, but she lived at home and her moth­er still tied a braid­ed cot­ton rope that was sta­pled to the piano leg around her ankle every after­noon until she prac­ticed for three hours, as she had done every day since Chisato was sev­en. So when Paul Mal­loy bought her a Long Island Iced Tea and told her she was bet­ter than Toshiko Ashiyoki, she knew this was her chance. She was twen­ty-nine, he was six­ty-two, she was a vir­gin and he’d nev­er been mar­ried. She went out for air between sets one night and nev­er came back.

Were you a beau­ti­ful man?” she asked him as they board­ed a plane to Ban­ga­lore. He didn’t reply. “When you were younger, I mean.” He walked down the aisle until they found their seats. He let her have the win­dow and he wedged his long legs into the aisle and ran his hands down the front of his aran jumper, straight­en­ing the weave before he closed his eyes. She began to feel bad for ask­ing him the ques­tion. He hadn’t seemed sen­si­tive about his age before, but she knew noth­ing about men.

I was if I’m beau­ti­ful now. I’ve looked like this forever.” He spoke with his eyes closed. By the time they were in the air and he was asleep on her shoul­der, she had con­vinced her­self that this was the best answer. Ever.

Chisato played the piano twice more before Lor­na was born, and then she nev­er played again. The first time was the funer­al for Paul’s trans­la­tor, Nal­in, who threw him­self in front of a train in Ban­ga­lore. The organ­ist was ill, so she played from the hym­nal in the Methodist Church on Myrtle Street, bored and resent­ful of the tem­pos. The last time was on roof of the Taj Mal­abar hotel. Some friends had thrown a par­ty for Paul when he found out he was being trans­ferred to Okla­homa. Some­body noticed an old upright piano under a tarp behind the bar. A few oth­ers rolled it out and asked her to play. Paul want­ed her to play. She want­ed to play too, some­thing grand and roman­tic for him, for them. But when she sat down, she couldn’t remem­ber any­thing. She looked at Paul, but he was look­ing up at the sky. She tapped some Chopin with her right hand while she tried to decide what to play, but she had trou­ble remem­ber­ing even those lines she’d played a thou­sand times before. She trailed off and began to tell Paul she didn’t know what was wrong, but a few drops of rain splashed across the piano and then a del­uge hissed every­one inside. When she learned she was preg­nant a few days lat­er, it made what hap­pened make sense, but she nev­er want­ed to play again.

She spent the last three months of her preg­nan­cy learn­ing to dri­ve a 1972 Mer­cedes 280SL around the snowy roads of Okla­homa. It had belonged to Paul’s broth­er in Kansas, but it sat for­got­ten under a hayloft for years after he died. The seats were cracked and brit­tle. The sus­pen­sion float­ed and rolled around each cor­ner. The heater only worked when it was turned to high. But Chisato had nev­er dri­ven before, and even if she had, she could nev­er have imag­ined the roads in north­ern Okla­homa. At first, she stayed close to home. She would turn south onto East Moun­tain Road, and then pull into the first wide dri­ve on the oth­er side of the road. She’d nego­ti­ate some mul­ti­ple of a three point turn and then head back home. Next, she found High­way 123. Then it was Nowata Road, then Bartlesville Road : all flat, fat, and emp­ty. On days when the roads were dry, she pushed past eighty and laid off only when her palms were too slip­pery to turn the wheel. She pulled over to nap for a while, and then she drove again until she was hun­gry. She didn’t eat any­where but in her own kitchen or pee any­where but in her own toi­let, so the mon­th before the baby came, she could dri­ve to the health food store north of John­stone for salt cod and dark tea, and then back again.

Lor­na was born in the spring, a day after her father’s 63rd birth­day. Lat­er, when she was six­teen and on the run, she liked to tell boys, “I wasn’t born as much as I fell out, and nobody seemed to notice me.” They didn’t get the ref­er­ence, but it wasn’t far from the truth. Lor­na was qui­et from the start. She made peo­ple uncom­fort­able because she didn’t cry or fuss, and she stayed still wherever her moth­er put her down. Paul got laughs when he pulled a camp­ing mir­ror from his coat to show guests that the baby was breath­ing.

On Thanks­giv­ing, Chisato tack­led a turkey for Paul and his fam­i­ly. She got up while it was still dark and began to chop and roast and bake. She put Lor­na in a nest of tow­els on the kitchen table and got to work rolling out pie crusts and truss­ing the bird. When she turned some sausages in the pan, grease splashed across her arms and onto the floor. She ran to the sink to flush her skin with cold water, but when she turned around the kitchen was on fire. She couldn’t reach the baby – with just one step toward the table, her lungs burned and her hair siz­zled again­st her face. She ran out the small ser­vice door behind her, across the breeze­way, and around to the front door. It was locked. She didn’t know what to do. Her palms began to blis­ter. She couldn’t hear the baby cry, but then the baby nev­er cried. Neigh­bors look­ing out their win­dows saw lazy puffs of smoke rise above the yel­low Chi­ne­se pis­tache trees, and they began to call for help. When the first engine arrived, Chisato was still try­ing to open the front door, and she seemed sur­prised that any­body knew what was hap­pen­ing inside her home.

My baby is inside.” She said it again to the fire fight­er who was pulling her away from the door. “A baby is inside.”

The fire fight­er yelled out, “We got a baby,” and he ran to the truck. The rest of the crew dropped the lad­ders and hoses and ran back for oxy­gen. Then they ran into the house. A moment lat­er, the Cap­tain stepped up behind her, his hel­met under his arm and his face The Cap­tain stepped over with his hel­met under his arm.

Ma’am ? Where is the baby?”

In the kitchen,” Chisato said.

My guys don’t see a baby, Ma’am.” The Cap­tain was wip­ing soot from his eye. Chisato turned to go into the house and he stopped her with the bill of his hel­met again­st her shoul­der. “Is there a baby?”

In the kitchen. On the table,” she said. He spoke into his shoul­der radio while star­ing at her with his good eye.

She says it’s in the kitchen. On the table.”

And a sec­ond lat­er the reply. “Neg­a­tive. Table’s gone.”

Chisato began to dig her fin­ger­nail into her chest, her gray skin bloom­ing yel­low like the smoke in the pis­tache trees.

What’s your name ? Do you live here?” The Cap­tain wasn’t angry, just tired. This wouldn’t be the first pyro wish-mom­my he’d run into, but it made putting out the fire that much slow­er. She wouldn’t look at him now. Instead, she brought her hand down behind her as though she were about to sit down. And then her knees buck­led under­neath her. The Cap­tain took her arm as she col­lapsed and helped her to the ground as gen­tly as pos­si­ble. “Easy. Easy. I’m going to get you some help.” He spoke into his radio again, call­ing for the EMTs and some water.

Chisato couldn’t let the idea of her daugh­ter being hurt or dead infect her mind, so she tried to visu­al­ize the sheet music she mem­o­rized as a girl, the pages of hand-drawn staffs and notes and dynam­ics. Which is why her respon­se was a low sfz to ppp moan – Bartok’s Sustenu­to ? Duke Elling­ton ? The Cap­tain was sure she was stroking out.

Where’s that water?” he asked. A fire­fight­er came around the cor­ner hold­ing some­thing tight to his chest.

Got it,” he said. But he meant the baby. He meant Lor­na. “She was wrapped up in a tow­el.” The Cap­tain lift­ed Chisato to her feet, and she pulled back the tow­el, still hum­ming. Lorna’s face was sooty and her eyes were red, but she didn’t make a sound.

Paul drove to the hos­pi­tal angry. Angry he had to learn about the fire from Mrs. Nunn across the street, angry that Chisato left the baby inside while she ran out onto the lawn (Mrs. Nunn watched from her kitchen win­dow ; she called Paul after she fin­ished clean­ing her turkey and could take off her rub­ber gloves). He was angry he hadn’t been there to help, that he’d have to explain where he was so ear­ly on Thanks­giv­ing morn­ing. He walked into the Emer­gen­cy Room wait­ing room and saw her sit­ting in the chair clos­est to the Intake win­dow.

Where is she?” Chisato didn’t say any­thing. She looked at him for a moment. Then she leapt up and hurled her­self into his body, cry­ing with her face buried in his chest. Paul could feel her sobs in his ribs. He put his arms around her and shut his eyes so he could visu­al­ize the worst : a tiny cas­ket, a grave stone with a small lamb perched on top, a dark and qui­et recep­tion back at the house. But Lor­na was fine. The Intake Nurse said her blood O2 lev­els were good and her res­pi­ra­tion was strong. She could go home with them lat­er that day.

She sure is a troop­er,” the nurse said, “She nev­er made a sound.” Chisato nev­er asked him where he’d been that morn­ing, only if he could for­give her. When he looked at her, her face seemed com­pact­ed by anguish ; her hands felt like they were wrapped in glassine. She’d suf­fered already. He had to for­give her, but he couldn’t for­give Lor­na for being too god­damn good a baby.

#

It start­ed as a joke. Chisato looped a Christ­mas rib­bon from the ped­al to Lorna’s ankle because it made her smile. Paul didn’t like it, but Lor­na didn’t mind. She stood on the bench and played the room like a cir­cus bark­er, wav­ing her hands and falling on her bum for laughs. When the laughs stopped, she turned around and start­ed on the piano. She machine-gunned a key until her fin­ger throbbed then climbed up to watch the strings vibrate. She feath­ered a key just enough to make the ham­mer fall. She crawled inside the piano and tapped down on the keys with a vio­lin bow. She sat high and played low, and then she hopped onto the vibrat­ing strings to mute them with her knees. She didn’t know her shins were lac­er­at­ed and bleed­ing until Paul yanked her out and car­ried her by her wrist to the kitchen sink.

After that, Paul locked the fall­board, and Chisato replaced the rib­bon with a short rope. Lor­na could slide across the bench, but she couldn’t stand on it, and she couldn’t walk away until she prac­ticed. By six, she was giv­ing recitals. By nine, she was bring­ing home rib­bons. She worked hard and nev­er com­plained, but the rope remained. Chisato nev­er knew Lor­na hat­ed the piano and hat­ed her until her audi­tion with Ted Sgam­bati at the Led­bet­ter Con­ser­va­to­ry on her twelfth birth­day. The piano room was small. Sgam­bati sat in a black club chair near the piano, and Chisato sat on a met­al chair near the door. Before she began, Lor­na pulled a rope out of her skirt pock­et and tied one end to the piano leg and the oth­er end around her ankle. Chisato want­ed to cross the room and squeeze Lorna’s arm, but she noticed the Mae­stro writ­ing in his note­book with a half smile, so she stayed by the door — Sgam­bati had a rep­u­ta­tion for turn­ing prodigies into stars.

Lor­na began to play, but her tem­po was errat­ic. Chisato didn’t know Sgam­bati also had a rep­u­ta­tion for fondling his prodigies, which is why he lived in Okla­homa rather than return to Rome where he faced charges and pos­si­bly pris­on. Lor­na was play­ing very slow­ly now, and too qui­et­ly, mak­ing Chopin’s Noc­tur­nes sound like a creepy hor­ror movie sound­track. Sgam­bati stopped smil­ing and shift­ed in his seat. Then Lor­na paused, her fin­gers an inch above the keys.

What is wrong with her?” Sgam­bati asked.

Lor­na,” Chisato said. “Lor­na!”

Lor­na and her eyes on the key­board. Chisato got up and went to the piano and snapped Lor­na on the back of her head. Sgam­bati was alarmed and jumped to his feet, his note­book falling to the floor. Chisato snapped her again, and Lor­na began to pound the keys as hard as she could. Her expres­sion didn’t change but her body bounced as she banged.

Mrs. Mal­loy!” Sgam­bati said. “That’s not nec­es­sary.” Chisato didn’t seem to hear him ; she tried to yank the rope off the piano leg. Sgam­bati pulled on her shoul­der, but she yanked again and Lor­na crashed to the floor. Chisato start­ed to scold her, but the old man stomped his foot so hard the win­dow pane rat­tled.

I’m sor­ry,” he said, but he meant get the hell out, because he had spun Chisato around and was push­ing her out the door. Lor­na pulled the rope off her ankle and rubbed her head and her leg until they didn’t sting any­more. They were talk­ing out­side in the hall. She saw his note­book on the floor and crawled over and picked it up. She saw a draw­ing of her­self, naked, with a rope around her leg and her hands tied behind her back. Her eyes were shut and her mouth was open like a dark round hole. She didn’t like her big eyes, but her legs were per­fect. She didn’t know what it all meant, but she under­stood it right away.

Sì sì,” the Mae­stro was say­ing as they came back inside. His smoker’s tongue made it sound like “Chi chi”, but when he saw the note­book still open in her hands his voice fell off to a whis­per. She stood up and looked at him. His eyes were small and dull and set deep in his face. She hand­ed him his book.

I’m sor­ry I’m not very good.” She walked out of the room. Her moth­er fol­lowed her out and they both got into the car.

Do you have any­thing to say to me?”

No, Chi Chi.”

You have to apol­o­gize to me.”

Chisato wiped some­thing from her eye. Lor­na leaned for­ward and could see some tears start­ing to grow.

I’m sor­ry, Chi Chi.”

Chisato laughed. “He was a strange man.”

I want­ed to eat his eyes.” Lor­na opened the visor mir­ror and opened her mouth like she was going to scream.

His eyes?” Chisato start­ed the car.

They looked like the olives in bread.” She stretched her mouth even wider and let her eye­lids relax.

Are you going to tell me what hap­pened in there ? Why did you play like that?”

I was ner­vous, Chi Chi.”

No you weren’t. You did it on pur­pose.”

Lor­na pushed her lips out and nar­rowed her mouth until every­thing looked per­fect.

#

A few days lat­er, Lor­na was behind the house mur­der­ing ants with her father’s mag­ni­fy­ing glass. She herd­ed them them to a crack in the cement and burned them as they tried to climb out. At first it wasn’t the killing she liked so much, but how a cir­cle of sun­light no big­ger than her fin­ger­nail could hide death inside itself. But soon a mass grave was grow­ing in the crevasse, evi­dence of her war crimes, and she decid­ed to see if she could wound rather than kill. She anchored her elbows and blew her hair off her cheek. Her skirt tick­led the back of her knees so she she scis­sored her legs up and down until it rode over her under­wear. When she looked back, she saw Chi Chi watch­ing her in from the kitchen win­dow. She left her skirt up and went back to mur­der­ing. Some of the ants in her pile were still alive, and she was try­ing to decide which ones deserved to live. She split a blade of grass to lift the wound­ed up to safe­ty when a hand yanked her skirt back over her bot­tom.

Get your sheet music and get in the car.”

No way, Jose,” Lor­na said, but she did it any­way. Chi Chi was too good at being qui­et. She grabbed the rope too, fig­ur­ing she was on her way to anoth­er audi­tion. Instead, her moth­er drove into down­town and pulled over at the cor­ner of Fourth and Dewey.

Go up to the sec­ond floor.”

What for?”

Your lesson. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

Why aren’t you com­ing?”

It’s not my lesson. Go.”

Lor­na had nev­er done any­thing like go into a build­ing alone or go up a flight of stairs to find some­one she didn’t know. Now she’d get slashed or killed because Chi Chi was too lazy to get out of the car and be a moth­er. She slid out of the car and shut the door with her foot walk­ing away. Chisato wait­ed until she was all the way inside before she drove away. Lor­na clomped her way up the con­crete steps to the land­ing on the sec­ond floor, its green car­pet yel­lowed by the sun and high glass atri­um. She walked down the land­ing until she came to a door with a small gold plac­ard that read The Right Staff with a tre­ble clef on one side and a bass clef on the oth­er. While she was deci­pher­ing it, the door swung open, and a kid and her moth­er pushed into Lor­na on their way out. Lor­na swung back­wards and almost fell, but the mom grabbed her arm and helped her get her bal­ance.

Sor­ry — the­se doors open out for some rea­son. Are you okay?”

A heavy guy and a girl with hair down to her waist came to the door to see what hap­pened. The girl had sil­ver rings on each of her fin­gers. The guy had blue pince-nez sun­glass­es. Lor­na hoped he was her teacher, because who plays piano with rings ?

Are you Lor­na ? Is your mom here?”

She dropped me off.”

Oh, shoot. Real­ly ? We need­ed to talk with her,” said the guy.

We can talk to her when she picks her up. Come on in. I’m Bina. This is Troy.”

It turned out they both were her teach­ers, grad­u­ate stu­dents from Tul­sa, and even though she tried not to, Lor­na liked them right away. For the first half hour, they just sat down and talked with her about school and TV and friends. Lor­na didn’t have friends or watch TV, and she didn’t know any­thing about her school because she was start­ing mid­dle school next fall. But it didn’t mat­ter. Troy and Bina went to Madis­on too, and they told her about the good drink­ing foun­tains and the bad bath­rooms. Bina told her about Mrs. Grady the art teacher who picked her nose dur­ing assem­blies and wiped them on her shoe. Lor­na snort­ed out a laugh so fero­cious that she had to blow her nose.

Then Troy and Bina each played some­thing on the piano for Lor­na, “so she could get an idea where they were com­ing from.” She didn’t know what that meant, and she didn’t rec­og­nize the music they played, but she could tell they knew what they were doing. When they were talk­ing, Troy blinked a lot and was always touch­ing his col­lar or rub­bing his fin­gers togeth­er, but when he played, he was almost still, and his eyes didn’t blink at all. He had huge hands, and his runs were so fast and per­cus­sive that the pen­cils on the book­shelf danced in their jar. (Lat­er in the sum­mer, he start­ed call­ing them “fuck you runs” because “If you got them or if you didn’t, either way they made you say fuck you.”)

But Lor­na liked Bina’s play­ing more, like she was look­ing for a secret in the music nobody had heard before. She played slow but with des­tiny. And she was beau­ti­ful. Her wrists were thin, her fin­gers cop­pery and cal­loused, and the way the light danced off her rings made her hands look elec­tric. When it was Lorna’s turn to play some­thing for them, she real­ized that she loved to play the piano.

They gave her Carl Vine’s Sonata No. 1 to work on first. She hadn’t heard music like that before, and she was sure she was play­ing it all wrong – the dis­so­nant runs, the sim­ple sap­py parts, the car­toon­ish dynam­ics – she was ready to give up until her moth­er walked past one morn­ing with a wrin­kled nose shak­ing her head. Lor­na now prac­ticed two times a day, morn­ings and after­noons. She dis­sect­ed the piece into small phras­es of a few mea­sures at a time and played them quar­ter tem­po dozens of times in a row until she played per­fect­ly. The faster runs had to be done one hand at a time until she could put them both togeth­er. Then all again half tem­po. It took the rest of June to get that far, and she knew Chi Chi had to be hat­ing it, because she didn’t ask what the piece was or how lessons were going ; she didn’t ask how Lor­na liked her teach­ers or why she start­ed wear­ing a sil­ver ring on each hand. Even when Lor­na wan­dered back to the piano one more time late at night after she’d tak­en a bath and was sup­posed to be in bed, Chisato was silent.

The only time Paul said any­thing was when Lor­na start­ed yelling “Fuck You” while work­ing on a dif­fi­cult run. It was the Fourth of July week­end, and there all his work peo­ple over for pig and fire­works. Some of them brought their kids who ran around the yard with sparklers, scream­ing like Paul was turn­ing a small pig on a spit in the fire pit and Chi Chi was in the kitchen mak­ing pota­to sal­ad and drink­ing wine. Lor­na want­ed to watch the pig and see what hap­pened to its eyes, but she didn’t want any­body to con­fuse her with the reg­u­lar kids and tell her to run around like a mon­key for no rea­son. So she prac­ticed a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­so­nant pas­sage, fin­ish­ing with a Fuck­y­ou that grew loud­er each time she messed up. Some of the oth­er kids heard her through the win­dow and told the rest what was going on. Soon Paul and some of the work peo­ple wan­dered over to inves­ti­gate. Lor­na final­ly played the pas­sage per­fect­ly at full tem­po, and she yelled “Fuck You, Run!” and slammed her palms down on the key­board. She heard the screen door in the kitchen slam open, and she got up and walked into the den to see what was hap­pen­ing.

Paul and the work peo­ple were laugh­ing. Chi Chi was stand­ing behind him with her back to the house and her head up to the night sky. Paul tried to hand Chisato a beer : “Don’t make any­thing of it. It’s fun­ny, real­ly. You got­ta admit she’s get­ting pret­ty good.” A cou­ple of the work peo­ple were play­ing air piano and yelling a boozy Fuck you ! at the same time.

Lor­na felt nailed to the ground. She’d nev­er heard her father say any­thing about her before, good or bad. Now was Chi Chi going to kick the pig into the dirt and run away in tears ? Would she laugh and start say­ing fuck you to every­body ? She was in a no-win sit­u­a­tion and Lor­na began to feel for her. But then Chi Chi just turned around and gath­ered up the emp­ty plas­tic cups and paper plates on the table, and when one of the mon­keys told her the dip was the best he’d ever had, she thanked him by pat­ting him on the head before she went back into the kitchen.

The sum­mer was her ally. She felt a kin­ship with the cicadas and the dry light­ning and the long shad­ows of evening that gave way to sliv­ered moons and con­stel­la­tions that sparkled as bright as satel­lites. She played the piano. She lin­gered after her lessons, pulling sto­ries out of Bina about New Mex­i­co and the Apache way of things. Even after Chisato honked her horn down on the street, Lor­na would pre­tend she didn’t hear it so that Bina might keep going. But at the end of August, Bina asked Lor­na to play the Vine Sonata all the way through. Lor­na wasn’t ready and didn’t want to do it.

That’s okay, you don’t have to, but I thought it’d be nice to see how far you’ve come for our last lesson.”

It’s not our last.”

Well it is for now. Didn’t your mom tell you?”

Tell me what?”

Well, Troy and me have to go back to Tul­sa for school. We just teach the sum­mers in Bartlesville. We told her back in June, but may­be she for­got.”

She didn’t for­get. She’s a god­damn bitch,” Lor­na said. But she real­ized that may­be Chi Chi did for­get. Lor­na was start­ing mid­dle school next week, and she and Paul had been argu­ing a lot late­ly too. But so what, she was a bitch for for­get­ting.

Well don’t fall in love with your new teacher too much ; we’ll be back next sum­mer, okay?”

Okay.” Bina gave her a turquoise pinky ring on a chain, and Lor­na hugged her tight until she was sure she wasn’t going to cry. The horn honked, and this time Lor­na ran out the door.

Apples in the Coffee

red apple and coffee beans isolated on whiteI woke up an hour ago, about 5:30, hav­ing just dreamed about about Tom Cruise. What is upset­ting is that the dream wasn’t. If this were an off-the-shelf homo­erotic slog, I wouldn’t both­er to write. I woke up feel­ing calm and warm. My skin was warm. That’s my def­i­n­i­tion of a good dream. Just now, I hear Oskar in the bath­room shut­ting off the show­er and dry­ing off, and I can feel an anx­i­ety rat­tle around inside — soon he’ll be dressed and out here and what’s left of that dream will atom­ize into the ether. 

I was inside a big old house, a shab­by Crafts­man with dusty wood floors and hazy win­dow light. There were a few of us, men and wom­en, liv­ing togeth­er or work­ing togeth­er there. It was morn­ing, and we were all try­ing to get the house sort­ed so we could get on with the day, though what that day promised is already lost. Tom Cruise comes in the kitchen to make cof­fee and break­fast. Not for every­body, just for him­self. He’s run­ning late. He’s Tom Cruise, the actor, so we’re prob­a­bly work­ing on a film. Am I the writer ? The direc­tor ? I don’t know. 

The last time I had a direct­ing dream was the night before the first day of shoot­ing on Per­ma­nent Mid­night (or prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy, as Eric Jon­rosh would say). In that dream, I was lin­ing up a com­pli­cat­ed night shot, and Bob Yeo­man, Gen­tle­man Cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Esq., came over to tell me that Stephen Spiel­berg was vis­it­ing the set. Oh, and that I was naked. That’s right. I had a dream of direct­ing a shot entire­ly naked while the director’s direc­tor observed. Spiel­berg came over and said, of course, that I didn’t seem to know what I was doing. I woke up in a sweaty funk with a deep awful cough, and when I got in my car to dri­ve over to the loca­tion, I found the win­dow smashed and all the elec­tron­ics ripped out. Then a few min­utes before the first shot of the film, a crow dropped a warm shit on my right shoul­der. The rest is his­to­ry.

Any­way, dream cof­fee is dif­fer­ent than real cof­fee. The cof­fee mak­er was a large open drum, into which TC had poured about two pounds of ara­bi­ca beans along with some nuts and spices. He start­ed the grinder, but then he stopped it again, not quite ready. He grabbed two big apples and put them in the drum as well, and he turned to me with that mil­lion dol­lar smile.

Yeah?” he said. 

Well, they might work bet­ter if they were dried,” I said. He didn’t under­stand what I meant. “There’s a lot of water in apples.”

He took the apples out of the drum and threw them across the coun­ter toward the fruit bowl, but he missed. He tried to act like he was hap­py I saved him from sog­gy beans, but he was pissed.

David, nice. Of course.”

Some­body came in and said that we had to get going soon, and Tom got all bitchy and pursed of lip. 

I have to god­damn eat ! I can’t not eat!” he was say­ing as I left the room. 

That was it. It felt great. I felt great. It was a good dream. It prob­a­bly doesn’t have any­thing to do with that Spiel­berg dream, because I am not about to direct or any­thing, but fuck you, it’s my dream, and it means what I need it to mean.

Reclamation Points

I tend to put too much time and effort into respond­ing to provoca­tive arti­cles and FB posts. So I’m reclaim­ing my own detri­tus from the sea. This is respon­se to a friend who wrote that “I sup­pose its a hard thing for Democ­rats to under­stand but Repub­li­cans aren’t just for cut­ting pro­grams for aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures but rather desire gov­ern­ment effi­cien­cy.”

I’d just argue slight­ly with you when you say Repub­li­cans “desire gov­ern­ment effi­cien­cy.” That was true 40 years ago. It was true 20 years ago. There was a time that I can still remem­ber that a Repub­li­can was always the smartest guy in the room. They were hard­ened by tough eco­nom­ic real­i­ties in the late 60s and 70s, and their vision wasn’t cloud­ed by lib­er­al dreams of some utopi­an peace plan­et. They want­ed to lim­it, not destroy the gov­ern­ment. They want­ed to lib­er­ate, not dec­i­mate, the mar­ket­place.

Even when they were wrong, they were hard to argue with. They sup­port­ed import tar­iffs and farm sub­si­dies, and they couldn’t stop them­selves from see­ing war as a shiny eco­nom­ic get out of jail free card.

But those guys are gone. I’m nev­er going to be nos­tal­gic about Rea­gan because I tru­ly believe he was a dim and destruc­tive fool, and his administration’s “trick­le down the­o­ry” is still clog­ging the Repub­li­can toi­let today. Clin­ton was just as bad in many ways, so don’t think I’m only attack­ing the right. Clin­ton suc­ceed­ed because he basi­cal­ly co-opt­ed the right’s eco­nom­ic focus and strat­e­gy when they weren’t look­ing.

But as bad as those guys were in many ways, they weren’t polit­i­cal extrem­ists, the equiv­a­lent of a sui­cide bomber who just wants to make a mess and go out with a bang. I’m all for dis­rup­tive change, but it has to be change that is vot­ed for by the elec­torate.

There are mod­er­ate, smart Repub­li­cans around today still, and I respect them and learn from them. But they are not in Con­gress. The Jeff Daniels char­ac­ter in The News­room (a net­work news anchor) gets in trou­ble for call­ing the tea par­ty the Amer­i­can Tal­iban. But I don’t see how that’s wrong. They don’t desire gov­ern­ment effi­cien­cy. They want gov­ern­ment to dwindle and dis­ap­pear, like an umbil­i­cal cord. They’re con­vinced that lib­er­ty and indi­vid­u­al free­dom are the only prin­ci­ples that define Amer­i­ca. Not free­dom to do some­thing, but free­dom from some­thing, free­dom from being asked to coöper­ate, to rec­og­nize that as indi­vid­u­als, we are weak, but as a coun­try we can be not only strong, but effi­cient.

Rear View Mirror

I felt the need to replace Mor­monism when I left it behind. I found myself say­ing to peo­ple, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in kar­ma. I believe in some spir­i­tu­al force among peo­ple.” And I did believe that at first, but after awhile it became clear that I had replaced one cos­mol­o­gy with anoth­er. I’m not sure what the dif­fer­ence is between reli­gion and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. By which I mean that they are after the same result. Sys­tems like reli­gion and sports and nar­ra­tive provide the illu­sion of order and com­fort. They over­lay begin­nings and end­ings, rules and penalties, onto chaos and ran­dom­ness.

I don’t kid myself that I am wis­er or bet­ter than peo­ple who turn to reli­gion or yoga to cre­ate mean­ing and com­fort ; I love fic­tion and art and music and sports, so I par­tic­i­pate in that sort of self-decep­tion too. What I have a prob­lem with is when peo­ple use a false con­struct of real­i­ty like reli­gion or spir­i­tu­al­i­ty to con­trol and judge oth­er peo­ple.

Yoga and med­i­ta­tion cults are ram­pant in Los Ange­les. Oth­er cities too I’m sure — the same ascen­sion to pow­er on the backs of the believ­ers that you find in reli­gion. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good noble peo­ple who want to bring oth­ers up a lev­el. It just means they are very few. And far between. I med­i­tat­ed for a num­ber of years — Vipas­sana med­i­ta­tion, Dzogchen med­i­ta­tion — but I found that I was using med­i­ta­tion to cre­ate the illu­sion of calm and peace, nei­ther of which are very use­ful in the world. Instead I felt removed, blissed out, and my emo­tions felt inac­ces­si­ble. If that’s a taste of nir­vana, I’ll stick with the brats and beer. I’m sure I was doing it wrong, but I prefer not to strive to qui­et my mind. Reli­gion and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty seem designed to pull us from our brains and put us in touch with oth­er mys­te­ri­ous organs : trust your ‘gut’, lis­ten to your ‘heart’, cleanse your ‘spir­it’. The­se don’t exist. They are metaphors for “instinc­tive behav­ior free of ratio­nal thought.”

Some­times instinct is impor­tant — fight or flight respons­es, for exam­ple. But how can any­body real­ly say that the big prob­lem with peo­ple is that we think too much ? We do every­thing we can to avoid rea­son and care­ful delib­er­a­tion — we want to be instinc­tive, to see with our third eye, to dis­cov­er the god­dess with­in, to walk in faith. But none of that is real. It’s just a way of say­ing that some prob­lems are hard to rea­son through and syn­the­size. The hard­er, more hon­est path is to see all the mis­ery, inequity, cru­el­ty, fool­ish­ness, and sad­ness in the world, to see all the sweet­ness, the love, the tri­umph, and the hap­pi­ness in the world with­out imme­di­ate­ly assign­ing mean­ing and causal­i­ty — to see the world with­out serendip­i­ty, kar­ma, fate, bless­ing, luck, reward or pun­ish­ment.

I’ve nev­er loved life more than after I dis­missed reli­gion and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty from my mind. Each day is sweet­er, each touch more mem­o­rable, each meal more deli­cious. Each book, song, pho­tograph, paint­ing has more val­ue because they are com­plete in and of them­selves. They don’t lead me to a well-hid secret about the soul. They don’t reveal God’s fin­ger touch­ing my heart. They are and then they aren’t. So it’s impor­tant to make the most of them, and us, while we are and before we aren’t.