Covid-19 Diary, part 63: What an attempted coup looks like.

14 Jan


What a week. Jesus. And I wanted to write about music.


Every New Year’s Eve, I do a little djaying, often just for Beth and myself. I let the spirit move me. This year I felt solemn and wintry and isolated, so I went with Americana and folk music, starting with Simone and Garfunkel’s “America,” Lucinda Williams’s “Right in Time,” Justin Townes Earle’s “One More Night in Brooklyn,” with appearances by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and always, always a song or two by Aretha Franklin. 


(They aren’t always thus. One year I played hair metal: Van Halen, Def Leppard, Cinderella, Warrant, with an appearance by Aretha. Another year I played dance music: Kanye West, Fat Joe, Wyclef, Beyonce, Sia, Rihanna . . . and a couple by Aretha.) 


I always listen to Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell in January. It’s heart-breakingly beautiful, a sumptuous melancholy banquet of ache and loss. I also listen to a record of medieval songs, To Chase the Cold Winter Away. The sleeve has a drawing of Santa on it. 


I listen to The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears.” I love it. God, I can’t get enough of his album, After Hours. He’s one of the great artists of the 21st Century, carrying the eighties synth-dance-trash banner Kanye West delivered with 808 and Heartbreak. The video is fucking wild.


The Weeknd remains one of my bright spots for music. My other discoveries were Cannonball Adderley—especially his album, African Waltz, and Ravel’s “Spanish Rhapsody.” (I know I’m late to the game with both of these artists; Adderley died in 1975, Ravel in 1937.) 


While I write this, protestors are barging into the Capitol building, threatening police and attempting to intimidate our senators and representatives. It’s a sickening display, egged on by our soon to be ex-president. Trump said, just minutes ago, that his supporters should force their way into the building. So far they’ve slashed at police with batons and banged doors with metal poles. 


They’re waving Confederate flags and Trump 2020 banners. They’re wearing red caps and camouflage and face paint. The whole thing has the feel of an SEC college football game gone sour, the drunken fans on the razor’s edge. 


Only it isn’t. It’s a planned event, a coordinated attack inside a mob. They’ve torn down barricades, clashed with police. It’s a fucking powder keg. One of the protestors screamed at the police, “You’re a communist! You’re a fucking traitor!”


Mitt Romney yelled at his fellow Republican senators in the chamber: “This is what you’ve gotten, guys!”


Due to bomb threats, buildings all around are being evacuated. Protestors barged into the chamber and yelled “Trump won the election” on the dais, while secret service had their guns drawn. They had zip ties, kevlar, helmets, and other weapons. One rioter had eleven molotov cocktails in the truck bed of his truck.


The protestors run amok in the chamber, rifling through the Senator’s desks. The police were overwhelmed. Jesus, this is terrifying. The Senate chamber is historically seen as one of the safest places in the entire country.


We’re Rome circa 410. We’re witnessing the breakdown of our country. The barbarians have breached the gates. The barbarians are us. 


I keep thinking of when Trump ordered the protestors dispersed so he could walk to the church and hold up a Bible upside down back in June. Now he’s siccing his followers on some of those same police. 


Where are my law-and-order people now? 


He’s moved us so far into dramatic irony he’s created a new post-ironic irony. We don’t have words for his depravity, mendacity, or myopia to his own flaws. We don’t have the words for the situation we are in: a sitting president urged his supporters to attack his own government. Are we beyond shock? Are we beyond redemption?


Like other cult leaders, his followers have glommed on to his insecurities and character flaws. He was historically unpopular, never breaking a 50 percent approval rating. Yet his supporters believe he won by a large margin, even though he’s lost by one of the largest margins in the history of our country (tallying by the popular vote). 


Damage is being done. Trump is causing it. He is responsible. Our entire country is being degraded. People are being hurt. I am furious. You should be, too.


Look: he lost. The train has left the station. The ship has sailed. The fat lady has sung. All that’s left is the shouting. His supporters don’t like it. Who’s the snowflake now? 


If you’re cool with this, if you think this madness is good or justified, then you’re lost. You exist in the upside down, and I doubt you’ll find your way back. Drawing false equivalencies between the social unrest after the murder of George Floyd and the attack on Congress is just more evidence of mass derangement. How can the most powerful man in the world be the victim? And if Trump is so tough, why is he always whining?


Sixty-three percent of Americans believe Trump is personally responsible for the attack. Six to eight Republican senators have called on him to resign. His cabinet is evaporating with resignations, he’s been banned from Twitter and Facebook, and the white house counsel, Cipollone, has told many of his aides not to speak to him, for they will only be subpoenaed for the inevitable trial. Cipollone is also considering resignation. 


Trump still has his defenders, but his failures are multiplying. He’s the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose both houses of Congress and the White House in a single term. Does anyone praise Hoover as a good president? We are losing 4,000 Americans a day to Covid and the economy is in ruins. He’s failed by any and every metric or standard we could employ. 


The death toll, the dyspepsia, the vitriol, the wounded, the scared, and the weary—Trump was angriest, according to sources inside the White House, when he was banned from Twitter. His narcissism is remarkable for its durable elasticity. Of course five people dead and riots in the Senate chamber are really about his accountability-free Internet megaphone. 


Of course the rioters were white. Of course they assaulted police and killed a cop. Of course they blame the media for the violence. Of course Trump turned his back on them and said they would pay. Of course of course of course 


Today he was impeached for the second time. He will be remembered, by every historian, as the president who was impeached twice. It isn’t a small thing. He’s facing a cascade of legal and financial troubles on January 21 and his circle of allies has shrunk to a few Fox pundits, right-wing radio nut-jobs, and a few dumbass members of congress. Even Bill fucking Barr—perhaps the most conservative man in DC—has criticized Trump’s behavior!


I find a note Pearl wrote to me a few days ago. “Dear father,” she writes. “This letter is from your daughter Pearl. I do not like the way you dress in jeans. Love, Pearl.” 


(I rarely wear jeans.)


On the book front: I did a radio interview for the NPR affiliate in Birmingham. I have a live-stream of a talk at a public library in Alabama, and another at the Georgia Center for the Book. I have reviews coming from two journals. Things are cooking. 


I watch Stand by Me with Simone and Pearl. Beth opts out. Five minutes in she says, I remember: I hate this movie. Despite her criticisms—it’s yet another movie about boys, she says—the movie holds up, in part because River Phoenix and the rest are so believable. It’s the holy grail of popular cinema: a literate movie for both kids and adults. 


I watch The Midnight Sky. A friend of mine categorized it as space plus sadness. An apt description. George Clooney wanders around Antarctica with an abandoned little girl, while astronauts head back to Earth, unaware of the cataclysms that have made the planet uninhabitable. Plus, Clooney has cancer. It’s a sad and lonely little picture. 


I read As I Lay Dying. It’s a masterpiece, probably Faulkner’s best book, lean, strange, wondrous, bewitching. The story follows a dirt-poor family as they try to carry the body of their mother to her burial place. The very earth seems to bedevil them, with storms and floods. And the old wounds of their youth bubble up to the surface. Why did I wait so long to read it? Faulkner’s best novels speak to us right now through the alchemy of fiction and his insights into deranged minds, the suffering of impoverished people, the cycles of history as they play out in tiny hamlets in forgotten places. 


Beth picks up a new book off my nightstand.
Beth: This jacket copy is terrible. Listen to this. Oh, God. I hate this book, a priori.
She reads the first sentence.
Beth: This makes no sense.
Me: It isn’t supposed to be scrutinized like that. Just let the prose carry you.
Beth: I’m going to write a book about this book, about how I don’t know the author and how she can’t write.
Me: That doesn’t sound like a book-length project.
Beth: I’ll talk to people who also don’t know her. I’ll go to events and parties that aren’t about her. (beat) I can’t read this. It’s so boring. And self-involved. This is one of the worst books ever written. (She hands me the book.) Here, you can read it.

Covid-19 Diary, part 62: I read a bunch of stuff . . . and review Tenet.

4 Jan


I just finished Lawrence Wright’s forty-page reportage on how the U.S. screwed up our Covid response so badly. It’s riveting, heart-breaking, hair-rending stuff. Wright walks us through the series of mistakes, missteps, and bullshit emanating from the Trump White House.


Dr. Birx emerges as an unlikely hero. She spent much of the pandemic criss crossing the U.S., attempting to convince governors and mayors to put mask mandates in effect. All the while criticized by the media and threatened by right-wing trolls.


I read Wright’s piece with a growing sense of alarm. We’re nowhere near the end of all this.


We are nearing the end of Trump’s reign. He’s given us cruelty, meanness, incompetence, a roaring deficit, a staggering death toll, nativism, racism, and an unending cascade of goddamn lies. 


He lost, and he can’t let it go, and his brittle, childish ego is pulling our country into chaos. His repeated attempts at a coup are causing enormous damage to our country. He has roped in millions of people into his delusions. It’s a collective, dangerous madness.


I watch Tenet. It’s a fascinating movie, a kind of partner film to Inception, filled with intriguing ideas, jaw-dropping effects, and a mediocre screenplay. 


Nolan obsesses over time—both movie time and the flow of time in the real world—and worries over the issue in most of his films. In fact, his movies are, in a sense, all exploring how time can be sped up or slowed down, manipulated and controlled.


Tenet follows John David Washington (listed as, groan, Protagonist) as he starts working for a secret organization fighting Sator (a Russian mobster played by Kenneth Branagh). 


Sator has a bizarre future technology that allows for retrograde movement, a kooky kind of time travel. Protagonist works against Sator in a series of chic spy setups, allowing Nolan to indulge in his love of exotic locales and fancy suits.


Nolan clearly starts with the images then builds a story around them. So with Inception you have the city folding in on itself, the explosions freezing in the air, the spinning tops that never topple. In Tenet you have events flowing forwards and backwards at the same time.  It turns out the future has declared war on the present, and it’s a kicky, tricky, oddball idea.


The film, like The Matrix Reloaded, hasn’t quite worked out the underlying logic of its ideas, which means the movie doesn’t have a grasp of the consequences of those ideas. 


It isn’t always clear if time is moving forwards or backwards; it isn’t explained how Sator seems to go farther and farther back in time, as the machinery seems to have no gauges or levers; some events reveal their retrograde actors as you watch them, others seem to add new elements the second time around; and so on. 


Look, it’s sloppy, but I kind of like its loose, jangly weirdness. It has a better handle on itself than Inception, and I prefer Washington’s insouciant acting style to Di Caprio’s wild histrionics. (I despised Inception.)


Does it amount to much? I don’t know. It’s intricate and twisty and puzzling. It’s diverting. For 2020, I’ll take it.


We start Sound of Metal, one of the buzzy little films rattling around in the digital ether. Lots of awards talk. Beth makes it three minutes in before saying: So far, I hate this.


Beth: Is that woman going to yell in our ears the whole movie? That isn’t music. I’m sorry. I know I sound old, but that isn’t music. Do you think that’s music? (beat) Can we watch him make coffee again? (beat) I like that lamp. I hope we can just watch him make coffee again. (beat) This is the kind of movie that people watch so they can sound interesting. I don’t need to watch movies like this anymore. I don’t need to prove to myself that I’m the kind of person who watches indie cinema. 


I shut it off. We are ten minutes in. We watch Chinatown instead. I’ll return to Sound of Metal later, on my own time. 


I read half of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, Death in Her Hands. It’s pretty good, but one-note, too similar to Eileen for me to finish. It follows an elderly woman in the woods who thinks someone has been murdered on her land. 


“What use was there in poems, when people had television now?” — Ottessa Moshfegh


I read Massive Pissed Love, essays on art, literature, and film by former punk rocker Richard Hell. It’s a strong collection; Hell writes with a confident ease. He’s a bit of an outlaw writer, happy to offend but decent company. 


“I’m as pretentious as the next guy and I care more about books and writing and beauty than just about anything, but no more than I do about people wanting to have sex with me.” — Richard Hell


I listen to The Sunset Tree, my favorite album by The Mountain Goats. On my wedding day, my cousin Keith played the song, “This Year” eight or nine times. He said every time I heard it, for the rest of my life, I would remember the day I got married. He was right. Every time I hear the first beat of the song, I remember the two of us heading down Lake Shore Drive and seeing the gridlocked traffic on the warm October afternoon. 


“I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.” — The Mountain Goats


My daughters watch Wonder Woman 1984. I catch a few minutes here and there. It is terrible. Just a sloppy, ill-planned movie peppered with eighties references for humor. 


I find a note Pearl left for herself: “Okay, I am so mad at my sister. She was outside with my baby sister when I say, “Hi, Simone!” Through the window. Then she points the middle finger at me! I am outraged! Jan. 1st, 2021.”


I’m entering the new year feeling melancholy and adrift. My book is out, at least some people are reading it, I’m working on the next project, my children are healthy, I still have my job and I’m in good (enough) health. I’m lucky. But I feel that existential gnaw on the soul. Let’s call it fear. 


I read Tana French’s The Searcher, the fourth novel I’ve read of her in the last two months. It’s solid. A Chicago cop retires to Ireland and finds trouble in his tiny hamlet in the form of a poor pre-teen hanging around his cottage. French writes well, but it’s really the calm, methodical process of her novels that lures me in. They’re soothing. 


Beth and I watch the preview of the re-edited version of Godfather, Part III. Beth gets up halfway through, saying, Still bad!


I read Thom Jones’s short stories, “The Pugilist at Rest” and “Break on Through.” They’re excellent, explorations of violence and war and drugs and madness. “I committed unspeakable acts,” his narrator says, “and I got medals for it.” It feels of a piece with Jesus’s Son and the novels of Tim O’Brien. Druggy, gauzy, Vietnam-haunted fiction, and really fucking good. 


“Has man become any better since the times of Theogenes?” — Thom Jones

Covid-19 Diary, part 61: A near-religious experience, and I review Mank.

26 Dec


Back in January, some forty years ago, the U.S. had just assassinated a high-ranking Iranian general, Soleimani, and my extended family was weathering its own crisis. Everything felt loose, disconnected, crumbling; the forces of entropy tore at the bonds of existence. It was a tiny premonition of the crushing horror of 2020.


I was reading Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. It tells the story of an unlikely romance between a traumatized American soldier and a Chinese immigrant living in Queens without immigration papers. It’s a superb piece of writing: tough, compelling, visceral. I remember it in vivid detail; it remains one of the best books I read this year.


Pearl (chatting with friends via zoom): Gingerbread people make houses out of their own skin!


Pearl: Dad, I have a movie idea. A guy sells his soul to the devil. He has to kill someone, then he can go to the past or the future. Only, the devil transports him to the far future where everyone is dead. And he’s stuck.
Me:  . . .


I’m interviewed on the great radio show, Watching America, trying my best to be witty. Here is the link.


A few days ago, I was writing, and a glowing orb of yellow light formed a gaping phosphene hole in the middle of my vision. A splitting headache, nausea, and exhaustion followed. 


It was a near-religious experience of excruciating discomfort, bizarre dreams, and isolation. The only letters I could see, as I shut my eyes against the glare, were r, t, and w. It feels important. For a brief moment, I thought a divine intelligence was trying to communicate with me. I tried meditating on the letters. 


But it was just a migraine with aura. 


I watch Mank. It’s a strange, beguiling film. Half-great, half-terrible, Mank has a delicate, subtle story to tell, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it.


After a disastrous opening, the film is often marvelous, if also a bit inside baseball. I’ve probably read 40 books on classic Hollywood, and I couldn’t always tell who was who.


Ostensibly it’s about the writing of Citizen Kane, but it’s really about the wounds inflicted on Herman Mankiewicz during the gubernatorial election between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair. Mank—as everyone calls him—supported Sinclair, but the industry he works in backed Merriam.


The plot revolves around a stray comment Mankiewicz makes. He supports Sinclair but his boss, Louis B. Mayer, is behind Merriam.


Sinclair makes headway with California voters, and has a chance to win. Mankiewicz, who can’t keep his mouth shut or his wit to himself, says a bitchy, errant comment, and the consequences are disastrous. The studio bosses tar Sinclair with cinematic propaganda, Merriam is elected governor, and worst of all, one of his friends commits suicide. All because he had something clever to say.


It’s a minor sin, but he can’t forgive himself, nor can he forgive the power barons all around him. He’s a decent man working in an indecent industry, and he knows it. He’s sold his gifts to a callous moneyed elite and lives with himself through heavy drinking and biting bon mots.


The party scenes are superb, beautifully lit and veering into Fellini’s territory, with touches of grotesque drunks and distorted faces, a patch of cinematic headspace I never thought Fincher would wander into. (Fellini is intuitive, warm, and personal; Fincher is calculating, chilly, and technical.) 


The demonstration of raw political power—money buying ads manipulating minds—hits like a punch to the gut. Mank takes the cynical position that Hollywood exists in part as a massive political tool, molding millions of American minds, and has always operated in this way.


But the movie also makes the absurd and distracting argument that Mankiewicz was the sole author of Citizen Kane. This is preposterous; Mankiewicz made other films, and so did Welles. You can see continuity from Kane to The Magnificent Ambersons, and on to Touch of Evil. You can’t see any continuity between one of Mankiewicz’s screenplays to the next.


The better read, really, is that Mankiewicz was writing in part about Welles, a man he knew well and could see was headed for disaster. Welles was a boy genius driven by ambition and artistry, swimming in a shark-pool already bloody with chum. He was brilliant, idealistic, narcissistic, and oblivious to the manifold failures that would hobble his grand talents and enormous ego. 


(Like all cinephiles, I like and admire Welles. I think The Trial is criminally underrated, and F Is for Fake is a great little film essay. He never stopped experimenting, and wanted total control. He likened his work, often involving long stretches, to a novelist. Art takes time. He was also a first-rate painter and illustrator. There’s a marvelous movie about his art, The Eyes of Orson Welles, by cinema wunderkind Mark Cousins.)


Mankiewicz is similar to Robert Towne, the brilliant screenwriter who never forgave Roman Polanski for improving his superb script for Chinatown. Towne and cowrote, doctored, and fixed dozens of screenplays in a career notable for its lack of great films. Mankiewicz’s best post-Kane film is probably Pride of the Yankees. (Towne’s best screenplay is probably The Last Detail.)


The movie’s bigger sin is its misuse of Gary Oldman, a good actor completely miscast as the lovable, rascally drunk. Oldman is too sinister and too strong to play the ruffled nice guy. He should have played Thalberg, Mayer, or Hearst. I want Oldman snarling and bitter, and I know I’m not alone.


The best scene—the movie’s tortured heart—has William Randolph Hearst escorting a drunk Mankiewicz out of his house. Mank has just ruined the party. Hearst and Mankiewicz were friends, but now they aren’t. Hearst tells Mankiewicz a little parable about a dancing monkey who in its sense of self-importance, has begun to believe that the organ grinder plays the music because the monkey is dancing. 


The monkey, Hearst says, believes it is in charge, but it is not; it is just a foolish dancing monkey. And, Mankiewicz is the monkey. As we all are, really, all of us struggling through our daily lives, trying to work and provide for our families, and make meaning of the disorder all around us.


He is allowed into the corridors of power because he is amusing. But he has stopped being amusing. Hearst closes the door in Mankiewicz’s face. Their friendship is over. 


The story is in part about how a powerless Mankiewicz tries to assert power. What can a writer do, really, when the rich can do whatever they want? The movie argues that they wield fiction as a higher truth, entombing real lives in the amber of make-believe. 


Fiction, Mank argues, always wins. 


I see parallels with Roma: master director, lush black and white cinematography, set in a distinct time and place, and personal. (Cuaron told a story from his own family lore; Fincher’s deceased father wrote the screenplay to Mank.)


Ultimately, it’s too inside baseball, too subtle, for most viewers. I’ll watch it again, but I’m a sucker for Fincher and for the era. 


We watch White Christmas. At the end, when Dean Jagger comes to the party in his uniform, I say, Maybe I should start wearing my uniform to parties.
Beth: You could wear your Securitas colors.
I laugh and laugh. 


(This needs explaining. Back in Iowa City, I worked for Securitas as a security guard. For a single week. At a toothbrush factory. I worked one midnight shift and then quit when I learned they were only paying me training wages, which was three bucks an hour. It was the second-lowest point in my professional life, when I turned in my uniform to the disapproving manager, who was a few years younger than I was.)


Today it’s sunny, chilly. Bernadette is napping. Pearl is holed up in her mini-circus tent. Beth and Simone are out. Our apartment is quiet. It all feels so normal. As if we don’t have a pandemic raging out of control, a one-term president pardoning all his cronies and attempting a coup, a disastrous economic situation coupled with a climate crisis worsening with each passing year. It’s the kind of calm ease that poets in their dotage write about, where you could be convinced the world is safe and kind and stable. 

Covid-19 Diary, part 60: Borges and I.

15 Dec


The book is out! The journey of eight years. Fittingly, my buddy Robert was the first person to let me know he got it. If you want a copy, please try and get one from a local bookstore. If you don’t want to pay, request a copy from your local library. If you can’t read, just flip to a random page and highlight a couple of lines. They’re sure to be brilliant.


That’s a joke. Sort of.


I’m struck by a short-lived wave of immense loneliness, and a deep melancholy, cutting right into my gut. Not sure where it came from. It’s a chilly, isolating feeling, similar to how I feel every time I finish the first draft of a novel. It’s an eerie feeling, like short-term possession.


A memory: I go to a branch of the Pensacola library to meet a friend. I’m 18, we are going to check out a foreign film, and I get there early. I walk through the stacks to the photography section, hoping to see some nudes. (This was the pre-Internet era.) Instead I find a book of mummified corpses. In the slanting sunlight, I leaf through page after page of the desiccated dead, appalled and hypnotized. The world, I realize, is so much stranger than I imagined.


I watch Mank, but will get into it next post; I’m still digesting it. 


We’ve lost 300,000 Americans to Covid. That’s 100 9/11s. That’s more dead Americans than each war we’ve fought in, including World War II. We’re losing 3,000 Americans every day. The soon to be ex-president is doing nothing to stave off the death toll. He abdicated is leadership months ago. It’s appalling.


I read Jay Parini’s Borges and Me, his coming of age tale of meeting Borges as a young man and driving him around Scotland. It’s superb, funny, evocative, moving, and intellectually excited. I devoured it, and recommend it to anyone interested in writing, or in Borges.


“I prefer whatever is authentic, as long as it’s invented.” — Borges


I have a radio interview, this time with Jacksonville’s public radio. We talk about Florida movies: Cocoon, Magic Mike, Cool Hand Luke, Scarface, and Junebug. Here is the link.


I’ve been involved in a songwriting activity with students. It’s been nothing less than electric. In another life I would have taken guitar and drum lessons as a child, been in punk bands in high school, learned how to mix music and released sci fi synth concept albums no one but a select few were interested in. Live a life of reckless selfishness. Retire to a basement apartment in Pittsburgh, listen to records and study clouds.


We watch Last Christmas. Scripted by Emma Thompson, it’s better than I expect, which is faint praise. It follows a young woman with a replacement heart, stumbling through early adulthood during the holiday season. It isn’t . . . terrible, but it’s a bit run of the mill. In the middle, Beth whispers to me: You know what his movie needs? Ass and titties.


(This comment needs explaining. Back in Iowa City, some 13 years ago, a friend of ours wanted to watch Lawrence of Arabia, while eating ice cream, for his birthday. A group of us joined him. Beth was bored to tears. An hour in, Ashley out of nowhere called out, “Man, this movie needs some ass and titties!” When a movie is slow or boring, we often make this same exclamation.)


I have a special fondness for Borges, one of the 20th Century’s most intriguing people. His short fiction reads like essays, and his essays often feel like fiction. His lectures, mostly on poetry, are some of the finest things he produced.


He loved poetry and wrote oodles of it, but he’s not a very strong poet. (It pains me to write that.) But he’s a master of the short story and a fascinating mind to interact with: playful, obsessive, brilliant, polymathic, urbane, and deeply strange.


His central metaphor is the labyrinth. He constructs his stories as labyrinths, often entrapping readers in their bizarre logic. “The Garden of Forking Paths” leaves you thinking maybe you’re a character inside the story.


(Weirdly, the gaucho culture of the Pampas is another major influence.)


Borges often used science fiction as a way of digging into his philosophical obsessions; “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius” tells the story of Tlon, an imaginary planet foisted into obscure history books as a real place. Unseen writers and thinkers have given Tlon a complex, rich and significant history. On Tlon, their language has no nouns, but rather series of independent acts. The implications of this result in a civilization that is vastly different from ours.


The whole thing reads like an academic essay, with a terrifying postscript. The real world begins sinking into the fictional world of Tlon. Fiction is stronger than reality. 


The point with Borges: fiction and reality are intertwined. The real world is fake; the fictional worlds are real. This is one of his central conundrums, and why he’s so important in our era of cascading digital worlds and disrupted realities.


He’s easy to understand, yet challenging to read. Or, put another way, he’s easy to follow but hard to accompany. He’s pleasant, yet horrifying.


He often writes about stories as opposed to walking the reader through them. He installs barriers to his plots, intermediaries to his characters, and there’s always the sense that what you’re reading is an old myth, damaged by the passage of time.


For neophytes, I would point to “The Immortal,” (the closest thing to an action story you’ll get from Borges) “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths” (just two pages, a dark parable), or “The South” (a story of regional misunderstandings ending in violence).


More fun to read that Cortazar, stranger than Casares, more erudite than Arlt and more accessible than Aira, Borges is important in part because he seems to encompass, prefigure, and absorb them all. Or, put another way, these celebrated authors seem to all be creations of his mind.


This is a very Borgesian idea, that the present dreamed the past, that the reader invented the writer.


“I always imagined paradise as a kind of library.” —Borges


A memory: I’m 23, and checking out classical CDs from the downtown branch of the Montgomery Public Library. The idea is to educate myself on the actual music, listen to forgotten composers, find hidden gems and build up an appetite for classical and orchestral music. I only partly succeed; I realize I admire Bach, but I knew that already. That was the end of that plan. 


A memory: I’m 18, in the AUM library, bored and lonely. Leafing through the stacks, I find a copy of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer. I sit on the floor and read through it, laughing out loud. It’s a formative experience. Leary’s druggy misanthropic schtick is exactly what my hungry heart needs. (I watch the standup later, and don’t find it as funny.)


Borges loved books, but he went blind. For most people this would be a tragedy, but he embraced his condition with humor and aplomb, relying on his prodigious memory to recount poems he had read throughout his life.


Parini met Borges in the early 1970s, and his book details the strange week they spent together driving around Scotland. Parini is an evocative writer, capturing his own mental instability, his unrequited love-lust for another student, and his desire to be a great writer and worthy poet.


A memory: I read “The Library of Babel” in my library grad program. It tells of a library that contains every book every written, as well as every book that might be written. The result is everything anyone would ever want, but no one can ever find anything. The students debate its merits, but our group can’t agree on why it was included in the curriculum. I’m baffled by its inclusion. My buddy, Matt, tells me that the story gets to the heart of what a library is, or could be. 


Borges wrote a short story titled, “Borges and I.” In it, he draws distinctions between Borges the man and the Borges the writer. It’s as if they’re two different people. The man always loses out to the writer.


Which is exactly right. Borges doesn’t exist, not anymore, except in the minds of people who read him.


In late 2020, I read Borges and Me.


I created Jorge Luis Borges.

Covid-19 Diary, part 59: The monoliths are here to judge us with their silence.

8 Dec


Holy shit, Batman—another monolith appeared, this time in Romania. It’s that wild and crazy tribe of artists, the least trustworthy of groups. (I count myself as a member.) 


Either it was planned ahead of time, with two or more artists working in tandem, or there’s a prankster copycat. Or, ancient aliens are revealing their plans for us, so we can find a celestial gateway to our future evolved selves.


Beth dumps gold glitter all over the kitchen floor.
Me: Back home we call that, “Screwing the pooch.”
Beth: We always called it going on back to Pensacola way. (in a teacher’s voice) “Did you go on back to Pensacola way again, little Jimmy?”
I admit it, this is hilarious; Simone, Pearl, and I laugh and laugh. 


The South Never Plays Itself is back from the printer, and any day now will be out in the world. It is an exhilarating, terrifying feeling. I’ve been second-guessing the entire project, how I structured it, the movies I picked, even the locales I zoned in on. I’m a bundle of nerves. What if I suck? What if I’m just a dumbass charlatan? What if I’ve deluded myself?


No matter. The book doesn’t belong to me, not anymore. I can talk about it, frame people’s reading of it, but the book no longer resides in my head. I’m trying to let it go. 


I have a radio interview with Jacksonville public radio some time next week. I’m getting more comfortable with being the interviewee. 


I’ve been reading like a motherfucker—The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein’s 800-page cultural history of the mid-1970s, focusing on the rise of Nixon and Carter and the dissipation of Ford; Made Men: the Story of Goodfellas—a history of that seminal film, although the book wasn’t as interesting as I was hoping; Fraternity, a short story collection of linked stories following a frat house, and it’s titillating, transgressive, and fascinating. 


In the dock, Borges and I, Jar Parini’s memoir of his time with Jorge Luis Borges, one of my heroes, as he wandered into old age, and Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, a cannibal dystopia.


I watch Conduct Unbecoming, a terse and unsettling film from 1975. It follows a group of British officers involved in a military tribunal. Millington, a new officer has been accused of assault. Drake, another new officer, is ordered to defend him. The setting is colonial India. The movie is really good, creepy and biting. 


I have a running dialogue with James, a friend and neighbor, about whether movies are better now than before. He thinks yes. I say no. 


My argument: dramas, melodramas, detective stories, musicals, and westerns were better before. I cede to him that comedies to the present; humor rarely ages well. And we agree that science fiction tends to get better with the passing years. 


I don’t think art progresses in any kind of linear way. Novels aren’t better now than they were 50 years ago—or maybe they are. I don’t know.


I catch Beth struggling with the fitted sheet on our bed. 
Me: They didn’t teach you bed-sheeting at Harvard?
Beth: They taught us how to make a bed. Step 1: Hire a maid. Step 2: Order the maid to make the bed. Step 3: Fire the maid if she makes a mistake.


I watch Underwater, a white-knuckle horror movie set entirely in the Marianna trench. The film begins with a collapsing deep water drilling rig. The survivors have to suit up and walk across the ocean floor. They hear noises, see strange, threatening things, including eyeless monsters. It’s not a good movie, but I can’t stop thinking about it. The cold, black isolation of the deep waters. 


Simone: Dad. You’re really strong. And you have a six-pack. And you look really young, too.
Me: Why are you being so mean?


280,000 Americans have died from Covid. That’s 70,000 Benghazis. It’s horror beyond words.


On right-wing radio, I hear pundits dismiss the pandemic as overblown, exaggerated, some tool for socialist oppression. I don’t understand people. Even with the good news coming from England’s rollout of inoculation, we might lose another 200,000 people by January. It’s beyond belief.


I watch Make Way for Tomorrow, one of the most haunting and moving films Hollywood has ever produced. Directed by Leo McCarey (famous for his slapstick comedy), the movie follows two older parents who lose their house and have to separate; their grownup children won’t take them both. It has the look and feel of a light melodrama, but the hard nugget at its center—society really doesn’t care about old people—is heart-breaking. It’s a fabulous film. 


What sets it apart is an underlying decency. The children want to help their parents, but they have their own problems; life keeps getting in the way. I believe it’s the inspiration for Tokyo Story, but that might just be some false trivia I’ve picked up over the years. 


A third monolith appears in California. According to reports, some young men pulled it down and dragged it around the foothills, calling it “gay.” 


We clearly failed a test there; our super-advanced alien overlords are going to leave us be for another two thousand years. No more monoliths for us. 

Covid-19 Diary, part 58: The one about gnosticism and not getting haircuts.

30 Nov


Beth: Maybe you could get a haircut before Thanksgiving?
Me: Sure. I’ll just . . . risk my life to get a haircut.
Beth: Don’t they wear masks there?
Me: They’ve closed all indoor eating in the entire state!
Beth: If you loved me . . .


A state employee out in Utah found a 12-foot high metal monolith in the middle of the red rock desert. It could be an artist’s prank, some space junk, or a message from ancient aliens who seeded our planet with life. 


Clearly the work of some prankster-artist, the metal plinth soon disappeared. There isn’t enough mystery in the world. 


Or maybe there’s too much. 


Researching my new book, I came across a strange factoid. Thomas Dixon, the author of Birth of a Nation, made a sequel to the smash film adaptation of his book and play. It’s titled, The Fall of a Nation. The film follows a German invasion of America. Dixon adapted it from his own novel. It’s lost. There are no existing prints. 


Shit like this makes me wonder. About what is saved and what is lost. Only about a tenth of silent cinema was saved. 


Things Beth and I have argued about the past two weeks:

How to pronounce Hegel (I was wrong)
The colors on the Italian flag (I was wrong)
When I first started making my own bed as a child (I was right)


We get a Christmas tree. I water it. 

Beth: Is the tree taking up any water?
Me: Yep. 
Beth: Are you sure?
Me: Um, yeah. . . . Why would I lie?
Beth: Because you’re a liar. You love to lie.


“Writing being the spectacularly powerful form of the word, contains at one and the same time, thanks to a lovely ambiguity, the being and appearance of power, what it is and what it would like you to believe it is.” — Roland Barthes


I discuss with a student the gnostic Gospels. He wanted to do it. It’s a strange world to peer into, the castoff Bible verses informed by mostly forgotten mystery religions in the ancient world. They are very strange texts to interact with. They feel important, and full of wisdom, but it all seems just out of reach.


From The Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said, ‘Become passers-by.’”


From The Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world.’”


From The Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said, ‘Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone.’”


I started a novel with the monks who hid these scrolls. The book is a hot mess, all over the place, kind of terrible, a crime novel and a supernatural thriller, with absurd occult symbols and borrowed mythology of the Nation of Islam. The title: Sons of the First Man. Here’s the first couple of lines:


“Thus it came to pass that in the scriptorium, where the holy books were writ. Before the plague years, before the new religion unleashed a purge upon the lands, before the new royal dynasties and the nation states, this in the old years, the waning days of the Roman Empire, when the citizens lived about the Mediterranean chubby from the spoils of war but knowing, knowing, knowing that things could not last and that the high times were nearing their end.”


I always choke up when I listen to “Puff the Magic Dragon.” There’s a line: “Dragons live forever, but not so little boys.” God. That line gets tougher and tougher as I watch my daughters get older. I’ve never admitted this to anyone. 


I’ve never made it through Harry and the Hendersons without crying. That’s another thing I’ve never told anyone. (I’ve only watched it once.)


I’ve dipped into Gnosticism for the last two decades, stemming from a friend’s throw-away comment (about the comic Preacher): “That’s so Gnostic.”


I read Elaine Pagels. I read Hans Jonas. But the greatest distillation of Gnosticism is Philip K. Dick’s last couple of novels: Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. These are slightly fictionalized accounts of his interaction with a pink beam of sunlight—a delivery woman wearing a Christian fish necklace reflected sunlight into Philip’s eyes; he later realized it was a divine being communicating with him, through raw cosmic information—the defining event of his adult life.


(He was also a hardcore amphetamines addict, with a history of hallucinations.)


I buy into some of the basic concepts. That good and evil are equal forces, locked into eternal conflict. That existence is a mistake, or if not a mistake, a flawed construction. (I’m not fully onboard with the Demi-urge.) There’s some kind of spiritual realm. Wisdom is attainable. But there are strands of false and dark knowledge. The material world cannot be fully trusted. 


Or put another way: reality is so much weirder than most of us think.


It comes back to writing in a way, that being and appearance of power. Writing is an alchemical act. So is reading. When you read a novel by a person long dead, you are interacting with a mind that no longer exists. Only, it obviously still does.


 I challenge anyone to read Caesar’s The Gallic Wars and not feel the spark of necromancy.


I used Hans Jonas a character in a novel, tentatively titled Crow and the Stone Machines. It follows Joseph Cambpell, Hannah Arendt, and Jonas through their professional and personal travails in the 20th Century. It’s my take on the intellectual novel. I think it’s great. Here’s the first line:


“Prague, 1939, and Max is fleeing.”


My hallucinations are exclusively auditory. They can be disturbing or haunting, but I feel fortunate to have something like this in my life, despite how troubling it can feel. It’s my own little corner of the hard to explain, a reminder that the brain isn’t the ultimate arbiter of reality, and often can’t be trusted.


Beth would agree. About my brain, anyway. 


I embrace the irrational.

Covid-19 Diary, part 57: Doldrums, nothing to see here and wildlife.

24 Nov


Beth stares at me for a few moments, her eyes glazed over. 
Me: You okay?
Beth: I’m so bored


The doldrums are back. We’re struggling through the Groundhog Day sameness of one day looking just like the next. Only we’re not mastering skills or saving people. 


Meanwhile, Trump’s abdication of his job continues unabated. He hasn’t attended a Covid strike-force meeting in months. He isn’t doing anything outside of tweeting, hate-watching cable news, and pushing his subordinates—people who work for us—to destroy our democracy. 


(And he’s golfing. A lot. Immune from the consequences of his tantrums, Trump is out in the sun, doing his thing.)


It’s classic demagoguery, and I am so fucking happy that we voted him out of office. Enough about him. He’s in the rearview mirror. And that’s where he belongs. I’m moving on.


Still, we have 255,000 dead Americans, with no end in sight. 


“People are assuming that the U.S. is a constitutional democracy,” a French defense analyst said. He’s speaking of our image around the world. Trump isn’t just hurting us, he’s hurting the whole concept of representative democracy. Putin, just today, declared American Democracy flawed and unreliable. 


I watch Wildlife. It’s superb, an evocation of 1950s Montana filmed with great skill and beauty. It follows a teenage boy and his mother, struggling to get by when his father/her husband leave to fight fires.


It’s adapted from a Richard Ford novel. Ford is a very fine writer, mining the mid-century with economy and skill. His books will haunt you. He writes how I thought Walker Percy would—there’s an enigma at the heart of his stories.


Carey Mulligan plays Jeanette, and it is a jaw-dropping performance. Needy, punishing, angry, brittle, a woman pushed into isolation by her husband’s pride, desperate for a way out. It’s some of the best acting I’ve seen in years. She’s scary, wounded, predatory and vulnerable.


Bill Camp plays a local bigwig who flirts with Jeanette. Camp has been on an absolute tear for the last decade. He has roles in Lincoln, Birdman, Midnight Special, Loving, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Molly’s Game, Vice, Joker, Hostiles, The Queen’s Gambit, and The Outsider. Goddamn, it’s a character actor’s dream. He’s marvelous in Wildlife, too, playing a wise but needy older man, living alone in his Montana home.


I can’t stop thinking about the movie. It has elements of This Boy’s Life—where the adult world is slowly revealed as a place of mendacity, danger, and perpetual misunderstanding—and the great novel of isolated fire-watching, Black Sun. For a brief moment, I traveled back in time and across the country.


Dano is a very fine actor who hasn’t quite recovered from his great performances in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood. He’s got superb directing chops. It could be the beginning of a fascinating directorial career.


Beth and I make our way through season 4 of The Crown. Written and conceived by Peter Morgan, the show uses the royal family to dissect English society, it’s problems, foibles, terrors, and durability. It’s a marvel. We just watched the episode were an unemployed man broke into the Queen’s bedroom while she was sleeping, because he wanted to talk. 


It’s one of the most moving, and unsettling, scenes I’ve watched in years.


The man is unstable, wrecked by policies he has no control over. The breaking point comes when Margaret Thatcher commits troops and ships to the Falklands, barren and mostly useless and off the coast of Argentina, as a cost of billions of pounds. Why are we losing our sense of obligation and duty to each other? Why, he asks, are we spending money on that and not on the economic problems at home?


This is precisely the same argument Martin Luther King, Jr. began making near the end of his life, connecting our foreign policy, military spending, and domestic shortcomings.


(A line of thinking, by the by, that turned the bulk of white America away from King. It’s hard to believe now, but he was deeply unpopular after the Civil Rights and Voting Acts passed.)


Beth spends the morning looking up factoids about the English Royal family, calling them out at random times. “The Queen Mother died in 2002!”


I guess I really don’t give a fuck? I find the concept of the Royal family to be despicable at worst and pointless at best. The thing I like best about America is our rejection of bloodlines. I’m baffled, and often offended, by our fascination with royal weddings and the callow infighting of those inbred, brittle, spoiled brats.


When I was working in Spain, I met a lot of Basque people. They were great: friendly, funny, game. They’ve been fighting for independence for decades, and their beef is similar: they reject the royal family, and despise that any of their tax dollars go to the upkeep. They also speak a different language, spent decades oppressed and marginalized, and were victimized by Franco for decades. Why should they support some worthless king?


The federal government is going to execute three death-row inmates shortly before Biden’s inauguration. This will be the first federal executions in 17 years. Think on that.


Moving on. I do an hour interview show in Norfolk with Alan Campbell. He’s funny, generous, knowledgable, a fellow cinephile. He was wonderful. I’ll post the link when I get it. He started the interview this way: “It’s an interview show that lasts an hour. Have you done Fresh Air yet?”


It’s that yet that delights me. My first thought was, “Terry Gross just interviewed former President Obama.”


I got a rejection this morning. For a short story. Things have been going my way this year, and I’ve been betting on non-fiction, but it still kind of stings. Weird. Maybe I’m not post-failure after all. (I think the story is one of the best things I’ve written.)


I read Nothing To See Here, Kevin Wilson’s remarkable novel about childhood. The plot follows a struggling woman hired to nanny the step-children of her old friend. The twist: the children burst into flame whenever they get angry. The flames are real, but don’t hurt them.


It’s a heart-rending book, a moving meditation on caring for children, raising them with love and boundaries, dealing with trauma and loss. 


Wilson is a great writer. He’s cultivated the ease only great writers achieve, fun to read but challenging in its implications, its characters and emotions. 


Here’s a line, over halfway through, where the narrator considers her options while considering these two dangerous children no one else wants: “I wanted to shoot into the sky like a comet. I was a grown woman, crying, surrounded by fire children who were not mine. No one looking at this would feel good about it.
“‘Life is hard,’ I said. ‘C’mon, kiddos. Bed. Let’s go to bed.’”


I went for a walk late last night. Someone nailed a metal tag to a tree, and in the chilly wind it jangles, the sound echoing off the houses and following me for blocks. It is a forlorn sound. I move away from it. Someone has left a plastic gas can on the sidewalk. I step around it and head home. Beth and Simone are waiting up for me. I’m happy to be inside, away from the indecipherable symbols and the cold.

Covid-19 Diary, part 56: The Queen’s Gambit, Emily Dickinson, and a sequel to Mr. Belvedere.

18 Nov


I do a 90-minute podcast interview on the Kicking the Seat podcast last Thursday, with a live radio show on Houston’s NPR affiliate the next morning. The live show—that was weird. I jacked into the radio feed five minutes early, and waited, listening to the call-in talk show. I was petrified. I did get a semi-joke in, so that’s something.


I have another radio interview on Friday, this time in Virginia.


Beth: Where is my goddamn lipstick? I wonder how much time I’ve spent in my life looking for stuff. Days? Weeks?


Beth and I watch The Queen’s Gambit. It’s exceptional—Mad Men meets chess. It’s a filmed novel, something we’ll see more and more of, taking the propulsive Walter Tevis novel and adapting it, scene by scene, to the miniseries format.


Beth spends the weekend looking for her lipstick. I look too. It’s a futile undertaking. Beth can’t remember if the tube is gray or white, we have a 20-month old, and the thing could be anywhere.


Beth: I feel like I’m going crazy. Do you think a killer has broken in and stolen it?


(This needs explaining. I told Beth years ago—and it was a huge mistake—how the Manson family used to break into people’s houses to move stuff around and steal items. Other serial killers, including the Golden State Killer, did the same kind of thing. Now, when anything goes missing, Beth wonders if a murderous psycho is stalking us. She isn’t joking.)


Beth: First it was the filters. Then it was my sweatshirt. Now my lipstick.


I find the filters. I had moved them to my drawer and forgotten about it. I also find the sweatshirt. It’s hanging in the front closet. I sneak it in the bed under Beth’s pillows.


Beth: Very funny.
Me: What?
Beth: Where was it?
Me: Where was what?
Beth: My sweatshirt.
Me: Did you find it?

And so on. Beth isn’t amused. The lipstick remains missing. She asked Bernadette, who is 20 months old, if she hid it somewhere.


Tevis is a wonderful writer: fun to read, thought-provoking, taut, unpredictable, yet satisfying. He published six novels before he died in 1984. I’ve read The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Queen’s Gambit, The Color of Money, and Mockingbird. They are all, to a novel, exceptional, bouncing along with great dialogue and fleet storytelling.


I adore The Hustler, the film and the novel. The movie is directed by Robert Rossen, and has Paul Newman at his finest as a drunken rake of a con man, obsessed with defeating Minnesota Fats. 


Here’s an early scene, where Eddie (Paul Newman’s character) and his side kick Charlie, enter a pool hall in the early morning:

Charlie: It’s quiet.
Eddie: Yeah, like a church.


On Sunday, we drive out to Rockford to meet some family. The day is cold and windy, pushing the car around on the highway. We pass the Belvedere Oasis. It gives me an idea.


Me: It’s a sequel to Mr. Belvedere. The family finds out he’s gay, they kick him out of the house, and he ends up living in the Belvedere Oasis. He’s stuck there, maybe a drug addict, it’s Reagan’s America, and he hooks up with random men at the truck stop. Sometimes he’s robbed and beaten. The laugh track comes in and out at random times, disconnected to what is happening onscreen. 
Beth: I never watched Mr. Belvedere
Me: Oh . . . that doesn’t matter. I’m describing a hit show!
Beth: I don’t know about that. 
Me: The title: Mr. Belvedere’s Oasis.


Simone begins singing nonsensical lyrics utilizing the elements of Mr. Belvedere’s Oasis while Beth and I move on to other sitcoms from the 1980s.


Beth: Small Wonder was the first show I ever hate-watched.
Me: My sister and I hate-watched that, too!
Beth: What about Growing Pains?
Me: I loved that show. Kirk Cameron was a hero to me.
Beth: Because he was a Christian?
Me: No, because he was funny and a heart-throb. 


We go on and on. It’s clear I watched a lot more TV than Beth did, but we already knew that. The conversation peters out.


Rockford is a semi-busted out old manufacturing town. Beth keeps telling me how The Sting begins out there. I don’t remember and don’t argue. The wind stings our faces. We can’t really go inside anywhere for long due to Covid, so we walk around the block. Bernadette won’t wear gloves so I take her into a coffee shop and we sit in the almost-empty place. There is no music playing. It’s eerie. 


Mockingbird is a fantastic novel. It follows illiterate humans in a future U.S. run by idiot robots. Technology has advanced beyond anyone’s capability to understand it. The smartest being, a centuries-old robot named Spofforth, has a death wish, and is going to take the remaining humans out with it. It’s a dystopian love story, a bizarre character study, and a wild ride. 


That’s how I feel about our country: it’s a dystopian love story. The Electoral College is such a byzantine and overly complex process. We don’t for candidates, we vote for electors, who in some states designate their electoral votes to state congress, in others to the governor. They then certify the results. Trump is trying to disrupt this process because he’s a. a petulant loser and b. a raging egomaniac.


Martin Scorsese directed Tevis’s The Color of Money. I just re-watched it. It’s one of Scorsese’s best films, perfectly paced, humming along in a series of superb scenes. It picks up Fast Eddie from the first film, some thirty years later, as he stakes a young hotshot (Tom Cruise) and hits the road as a hustler again.


My favorite scene involves Forest Whitaker. Excited by his protégé’s success, Fast Eddie goes back to the pool hall to try his hand at the game. He wins until he runs into Amos, a pool hustler with an I got lucky act. Fast Eddie pays Amos after losing three games in a row, asking, “Are you a hustler, Amos?” The hurt on his face is heart-breaking.


Newman’s performance is a wonder: nuanced, muscular, introspective. You forget how good he was.


Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, advised us today to stay in our homes. It isn’t a mandate, not yet.


Trump lost the election by at least 5.5 million votes and a significant electoral loss. He won’t accept it. He won’t concede.


His monstrous ego is dragging our entire country into the toilet. There are potentially disastrous consequences to his obstinacy. The Biden transition team needs access to the intelligence briefings, Covid plans, and the map for the vaccine rollout.


It’s so goddamn frustrating. Trump’s supporters cheered his win back in 2016, before it was officially certified by any states, yet now they’re claiming widespread fraud. Republicans are celebrating their hold on the Senate, but rejecting the presidential election, as if the same fraud wouldn’t taint both. It’s madness. 


We’re losing 1,000 Americans a day. We’re on track to bypass 400,000 dead by Christmas. So here we are, with a sitting president abdicating his existing responsibilities while knee-capping his successor, the goddamn third wave of Covid in full assault. 


Me: I never fell into a deep sleep last night.
Beth: If you don’t go into deep sleep, it can lead to Alzheimer’s.
Me: Don’t tell me that! I never sleep well.
Beth: Your hair has Alzheimer’s.
Me: . . .
Beth: Something happened in the night. Your hair . . . it turned. I don’t know if I want to stay married to a guy who has Alzheimer’s in his hair and in his brain. 


We drive back to Chicago in the fall gloaming, the near-winter light hitting the browning fields and leafless trees, the girls falling asleep in the backseat. Beth remembers an Emily Dickinson poem she studied in college, “There’s a certain slant of light.” It perfectly captures the mood we’re feeling. 


Here’s the poem: 

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference—
Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it—Any—
‘Tis the seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—


Goddamn, that’s beautiful.

Covid-19 Diary, part 55: Another sunrise.

10 Nov


Saturday was a good day. My neighbor had champagne in his fridge, and texted me Biden’s victory. After a valedictory drink, Beth the girls and I masked up and biked through Andersonville in a makeshift celebratory parade.


I watch Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. It’s a remarkable performance, cathartic, watchful, complex. It feels good. 


It’s often shitty music from my childhood that moves me the most. My buddy, Jason, calls and we talk about a lot of things, including how I mislabeled the old Eric Carmen song, “Make Me Lose Control.” I can’t stop thinking of Skid Row’s “I Remember You.” It brings flashbacks to the skating rink in Pensacola. I never couple-skated, but always wanted to.


In 1835, Gustave de Beaumont wrote: “The American remains unshaken by any misfortune.”


I great Biden’s victory with relief and cautious optimism. As a candidate, he did almost everything right, focusing on two key issues: healthcare, and Trump’s bungling of the coronavirus.


Biden received almost five million more votes than Trump, a historical repudiation of a sitting president. I have no idea why people are surprised at the outcome. Trump was historically unpopular, and never broke the 50 percent approval rating. 


The bulk of America has disapproved of his tenure, his antics, his policies, and his behavior. He works for us. And now we’ve fired him.


Why his supporters love him so much is mystifying to me—he’s an infamous flim flam hustler, notorious for avarice and cruelty back in the 1980s—but I’m no longer interested in trying to figure it out. 


His supporters need to do the soul-searching, not me. Ask yourselves—I doubt any hardcore Trump people read this, but still—why did so many Americans vote, during a pandemic, to kick him out of office? That’s a question you need to answer. Why did you want to stop the vote counts in Georgia and Pennsylvania, but insist on state-wide recounts in Wisconsin and Michigan, a state Biden won by over 100,000 votes. What lawsuit is going to undo the will of that many people?


We had 100,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day yesterday.


Biden has won more votes than any candidate in history. Throughout, he cautioned the public to stay calm and count all the votes.


Trump declared himself the victor before he even had leads in enough states to win. He’s threatened lawsuits, encouraged confrontations, and acted like a spoiled child sent to time-out. He’s claimed he was cheated—there is zero evidence of fraud, and he’s lost by five million votes—and is looking for a Supreme Court parachute.


We’re in for a rough ten weeks, approaching a very Hitler-in-the-bunker kind of vibe.


Here’s the first line to the Stereo MCs classic, “Connected”: “Something ain’t right.”


Trump’s had enough enablers. He lost. In a historic landslide, both electorally and in the popular vote. He has ten more weeks in the office, then his time as the most powerful human in the world is over. 


Any of his supporters still reading this should know: his legal challenges are slipshod, unfocused, and riddled with inaccuracies and outright lies. Republican poll watchers were present for the entire vote-count in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and the rest. A cursory internet search puts that conspiracy theory to bed. 


What is the Supreme Court supposed to do, overturn the legal vote counts of four states? Where is your vaunted Federalism now? Trump lost big time. In the final tally, Biden will have 306 electoral votes and five million more popular votes. 


Every president before him has conceded with dignity and grace. Every president before him has offered help and guidance to the incoming team. Every president before him has believed in the processes of America. Why is it okay for him to behave like a petulant brat? 


I do a live zoom book talk for the Wren’s Nest, the Joel Chandler Harris organization. The talk goes well, despite my nerves and anxiety.


Harris was one of the most popular authors in post-Civil War America. He wrote the Uncle Remus stories, a collection of folklore from enslaved Africans and their descendants. The most famous of these involve Brer Rabbit. The stories are light and often funny.


Walt Disney wanted to make a movie version of this for years. It was one of his passion projects. In 1946, he did it. It was a smash hit at the time, and is now one of the most notorious films ever made, half-hidden and very hard to see.


I’ve seen it multiple times. We watched it in my childhood and, according to my older sister, on the theatrical re-release all the way back in 1986. (I have only the vaguest memory of this.)


It’s a controversial film, for obvious and not so obvious reasons. Walt Disney hired Walter Bernstein to punch up the script. In his book, Inside Out, Bernstein relates how Disney said, in their first meeting, that he didn’t want to make an “anti-black” movie. Bernstein doesn’t have a screen credit. (His memoir is, by the by, absolutely fantastic.)


Disney also brought in Maurice Rapf. He supposedly told Rapf he wanted him because he was a left-winger and a radical. Disney was worried the movie would be slanted against the black characters.


This is a key point. The film’s racism is unintentional, which makes it all the more disconcerting.


It is a very troubling movie. To watch. To discuss. It sits at the nexus of money, race, history, representation, good intentions, and corporate cowardice.


It grossed over four million in its opening weekend, all the way back in 1946. It went on to earn over 37 million.


The movie costars Hattie McDaniel—who won an Academy Award for her role in Gone with the Wind—and James Baskett, who won an honorary Academy Award for his role as Uncle Remus and the voice of Br’er Fox.


Weirdly, Baskett and Walt Disney became close friends.


Baskett didn’t attend the premiere, as it was in Atlanta, which was segregated at the time. He missed the release of his crowning achievement and his final role. Baskett died two years later. He was 44 years old. He looks ancient in the movie, which is troubling, too. During filming, he was a year younger than me.


It was filmed in Arizona and California, but it feels like the Deep South. Gregg Toland, one of the most famous cinematographers in Hollywood history, handled the cinematography.


The movie . . . reflects what you bring to it. It is on the one hand a sweet little live movie about nice people living in nice times, with ten songs and a number of funny animated sequences.


It is also a terribly racist depiction of simpleton blacks content to live in abject poverty. It’s set in a vague era, either right after the Civil War or right before.


The movie has its defenders and fans. In the main, they see it as warm-hearted and decent, with a great performances from Baskett and Daniels. The songs are good. The tone is reassuring. The folktales are strong. It’s a decent story of a special friendship, they say.


All true. But the movie shows the black characters as joyously servile. Combined with a times-were-better-back-then vibe, Song of the South is deeply unsettling. The economic oppression of segregation is elided. The violent backlash against black political power during Reconstruction is left out of the movie.


The result is a celebration of an era that never existed, ignoring the travails and suffering of the very people the movie is supposed to be celebrating.


That’s what I mean when I say the movie reflects back at you what you bring to it.  


Disney never released a DVD version. You can get one in Japan, because of the copyright laws there. Is it more racist than Birth of a Nation? No. That film led to death and chaos in the reforming of the KKK. Does Disney have other racist depictions in their films? Yep. Dumbo and Peter Pan both have troubling song numbers. So does Lady and the Tramp. These remain beloved films.


Movies have immense cultural power. Gone with the Wind, a movie that is over 80 years old, caused enormous shockwaves in our culture when HBO Max pulled it from its streaming site for a few weeks, so they could have an introduction by a film historian. People went nuts.


Hiding the movie gives it power, but Disney’s fears over backlash keep the film locked in their digital vaults, so semi-hidden it remains.


Back to Dave Chappelle. He remains a remarkable presence in our culture. He manages to be confrontational, insightful, cathartic, generous, and cutting. His monologue is a remarkable document: wise, heart-sick, probing. He is genuinely fascinated by people, his country, our foibles. He is not always gentle, and uses the latitude we give comics to often cut through our sensitivities. But his monologue is on fucking point.


I bike to the train this morning under a heartbreakingly beautiful sunrise. The air is warm. The streets are empty. I wait for the train with the other early morning commuters. Illinois has the highest spike of Covid. Everything feels weighted, dangerous. But that sky, the beauty of it.


Things are going to be okay. 

Covid-19 Diary, part 54: Election Day.

3 Nov


It’s election day, and I can barely breathe with worry. I’m home, feeling rundown, nauseous, and ill, but better than yesterday. Beth wonders if it isn’t anxiety over tomorrow’s election. It might be. I was doubled over and bewildered most of yesterday, in and out of sleep. 


I watched Bush v. Gore until 2 in the morning in my apartment in Montgomery, Alabama. I stayed on top of the twists and turns of the recount saga. Fidel Castro transmitted shots of him walking on the beach on their national television, a way of mocking our chaos. A friend of mine quipped, “Yes, sometimes an unelected autocrat is better tha


When Obama was elected, I stayed home sick. Beth met friends down at Grant Park and celebrated.


I couldn’t watch Obama-Romney. I went to the gym, bought some comics, took a long walk. I bopped into a shoe store to see the update. By that point Obama had it in the bag. I shared a wonderful moment with the shoe store guy, then I walked home. (I never saw him again.)


I paid close attention in 2016. I heard a waver in one of the reporter’s voices early on, and knew it was over. I started drinking wine, got drunk. Beth watched the little dial on the New York Times website, as it crept closer and closer to a Trump victory. She groaned. She sighed. She cried out. I tried to read in bed. The motion detector by our house kept tripping the light. I ran to the window to look out. This happened all night. I was convinced we were being fucked with by some hooligan. Turns out I was setting it off. The next morning, hungover, I lay in bed. Pearl crawled in next to me and said, “I’m scared.”


I ask one of my neighbors what he thinks. “I’m going with Vegas,” he tells me. “They have actual money in the game. The odds are on Biden.” Good news? I hope so.


I’m going to avoid the news as much as possible. Simone has piano. I’ll make dinner—grits and eggs with peppers. Then I’ll take a long walk as the night moves all of us into darkness.


Two nights ago, I watched a late-night reveler retch and vomit by his car. He staggered into the middle of the street and I watched, bearing witness, there to help if he needed me, which he didn’t.


I watch We Need To Talk About Kevin. God, it’s a wonderful movie, but harrowing, with the grimmest view of the human animal I’ve seen in a long time. 


It’s adapted from one of John Waters’s favorite books, a novel by Lionel Shriver. The novel is epistolary, a mother writing letters about her psychopathic son—who has committed heinous crimes. The book is a dagger of ice, frigid and cutting. Just holding it will scald your hands with a desperate chilly power. 


The film is pure terror. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a new mother who struggles with the strange behavior of her infant son, Kevin.


Told out of order, the film bounces back and forth from the present, where Eva is ostracized, vilified, assaulted, insulted, and completely isolated, and the past, with glimpses of Kevin’s erratic cruelty.


The hell of the film is how sweet Kevin is with his father (played by John C. Reilly) but is destructive, belittling and vicious when alone with Eva. 


Kevin refuses to speak to Eva for years. He won’t count until he knows it will bother her; then he counts to 100. He refuses to be potty-trained, knowing how unpleasant it is for his mother. He destroys her art project, claiming to his father that he was trying to make it prettier. 


The world sees him as adorable, if difficult, little child. Eva suspects the truth: that her son is a monster. Draw what metaphor you want for the current election. 


Shit, I’ll spell it out for you. Trump is Kevin, and his voters can’t quite see him for who he actually is: a cruel and petulant narcissist who confuses his own desires with the public good. Trump is mean-spirited, callow, and erratic. He is untrustworthy and avaricious.


In the present, Eva is lonely, fragile, haunted. On one outing, a woman punches her in the face. On another, the eggs in her grocery cart are broken. She is a complete pariah. 


One day two Mormon missionaries knock on her door. “Do you know where you’re going in the after-life?”
“Oh yes,” she says. “Straight to hell. Eternal damnation and all that. Thanks,” and then she closes the door.


It’s a staggering, knock you on your ass movie, reminiscent of Hereditary, but the horror is all real. The movie feels like a dramatic rendering of a Todd Solondz movie, but the characters are not vehicles for misanthropic humor. I can’t stop thinking about it.


(And its potency lingers; my youngest daughter was kicking her heels this morning into her high chair, over and over. I kept glancing over at her. There was something gleeful in her destruction. Are we all narcissists deep down?)


Lynne Ramsay directs. She’s a superb director, brisk and fleet, propelling her stories with looping images and sounds. She followed this with You Were Never Really Here, a superb thriller about a hammer-wielding hitman. It’s dynamite. 


I’m not sure why she hasn’t directed more films. She’s one of the best directors around, tough, unsentimental, hypnotic. If I were a producer, she’d helm my first movie.


We’ve lost 230,000 Americans to Covid-19. We’re spiking in dozens of states. Some municipalities have given up. Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, stated in an interview that the Trump administration wasn’t going to contain the virus, an astonishing abdication of presidential responsibility. 


Imagine, in World War II, if Roosevelt’s chief of staff said, “Well, we’re just going to let things happen and see where we end up with the Nazis on the other side.” 


We’re fucked. Even if the vaccine appears tomorrow, it will be months and months for us to manufacture and distribute. Meanwhile, Americans will continue to die. At the rate we’re going, we’ll lose 400,000 by Christmas. That’s almost as much as all the U.S. casualties in World War II. 


Beth is jittery, all energy and nerves, bouncing around the house in frenetic bursts. She keeps turning the news on, I keep switching it off. 


Wherever you are, whatever state you are in, stay safe, wear a mask, be generous and kind. We aren’t a dog eat dog society. We can get through this. We just have to remember how much we need each other. I’m betting on humanity today, we all are, really, and unlike Vegas, it isn’t money but everything on the line.