@

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1. To see all 30 stories, start here.

For anyone who hasn’t figured it out yet, today’s the last day of this story-a-day challenge (MATH!). As I have done every day of this challenge, I woke up this morning without any clue as to what story I would tell.

Before I begin, I just wanted to say thanks to those of you who have followed along, cheering and commenting–some of you even participated! And extra thanks to Brad Listi, for putting up with my daily emails and for posting a couple stories that were less than awesome on your awesome site–all for the sake of my personal writing challenge.

See you guys in 2012!

 

Day of the Donkey Punch

I made it all the way to the end before I had to explain the donkey punch.

Puberty: The Movie was as juvenile a script as its title suggests. It was chock full of funny, grown up, dirty words said by children (which made them even funnier). In one scene, an 11-year-old actor was asked to say the line, “Donkey punch that bitch.” Out of context that seems uncalled for, but I can assure you, it was almost completely called for.

Parents were informed during casting that the movie would require some potty-mouthing from their children. Only a few objected and passed on the project. The rest gave the material a thumbs up and issued their sons and daughters a license to swear.

A few weeks before shooting began, we gathered all the child actors together in a small theater space to read through the script together. The moms watched as their future superstars pretended their little hearts out for us. When our lil’ guy got to the “donkey punch” line, the directors and I held our breath and waited for them to continue.

“What does donkey punch mean?” he asked, nervously. He knew that whatever it was, it was dirty.

We looked back into the expectant faces of six teens and tweens, staring at us, waiting for an explanation. One of the moms chimed in from the sidelines: “Yeah, I’d like to hear what it means, too.”

As producer, one of my jobs was to keep the talent happy, and in the case of child actors, that means keeping the parents happy. There was no way I was about to explain the mythical donkey punch to a room full of children and their parents.

“It’s probably best that you don’t know.” I said, and we moved on.

I continued to dodge that bullet over the next few weeks. But as the fun of filming wore off, the moms in the green room became less accepting of the “best that you don’t know” line. When I was in the room and I heard someone–anyone–mention the dreaded donkey punch, I found somewhere else to be, quick.

I can’t say it was best for them not to know what it meant, but I am certain it was best for me.

My last day on the set was maybe my least favorite. The small Massachusetts town in which we were filming had been hit by a record-breaking blizzard. All weekend long the entire crew both began and ended our 15-hour shooting days by digging our cars and trucks out of snowbanks. When half the city lost power and parents wanted to take their kids home to safety, we said, “No,” which I’m pretty sure was illegal. And the built-up stress on set led to a pretty ugly blow-up between one of the directors and me.

Well, he blew up. I walked outside, lit a cigarette and prayed that he would get hit by a bus.

I did not wish hard enough, so we made amends and wrapped up all the producery business I had stuck around for. Then I said my goodbyes and headed to the green room to grab my coat and my keys. No amount of icy highways had kept me from the set, and none were going to keep me from getting back home to New York, either.

Our costume designer was leaving the green room as I approached it and she laughed a little when she saw me. “Have fun!” she teased.

I stopped her. “What did you do?”

“I just explained donkey punch to all the moms,” she said, smiling, and left me to manage the fallout.

So close! I almost made it! I suddenly knew exactly how those buddy cop characters felt when–just two days before retirement–they got handed some dangerous murder case! I took a deep breath and entered the room.

The moms saw me and began to circle. I was very quickly surrounded by stage moms who all of a sudden cared what garbage we had been making their kids say on camera.

“Is that a real thing that people really do?” one Mom began. She didn’t even bother saying “donkey punch”–one look at my face and she knew that I knew that they knew.

“No. It’s not a real thing,” I assured them. It’s a silly made-up expression that seventeen-year-old boys think is funny to talk about. But no one really does it.”

“Is that your target audience? Seventeen-year old boys?!” another mom asked, accusingly.

“Kind of?” I answered. “You’ve read the script, right?” (HAD SHE READ THE SCRIPT? My guess is no.) “Besides, I think it’s funny, too. I mean, your son is eleven, and his character is so sweet and innocent. And then he says something so shockingly inappropriate. That’s the joke.”

She thought about this for a second, but was still concerned. “I’m just not sure I want my son to think that this is an okay thing for a person to do to someone.”

“Right.” I said. “That’s called parenting. That’s your job. My job is to get a pre-teen to say ‘donkey punch’ on camera.”

And with that, I left the room, the set, the state of Massachusetts and the stage mothers of Puberty: The Movie speechless.

 

In discussing Stanley Kubrick and his influence, I often point people to three interviews with renown French film critic Michel Ciment. After 2001, Kubrick gave very few interviews and these serve as his only extended statements on Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Recently, audio portions from these conversations turned up.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Day 29! Day 29! I’m so close I can taste the end of this silly experiment, and it tastes deloycious!

Today’s story is one I’ve told too many times before–another from the set of Puberty: The Movie. Hold on to your drawers. It’s about to get shitty in here.

 

The Shit We Do To Make Movies

Every once in a while, someone asks me about the movies I’ve worked on. Often they want to know, “What exactly does a producer do?” I tell them there are different kinds of producers, but on the low-budget, independent films I’ve worked on, a producer’s role is to do “whatever needs to be done.”

Sometimes it’s kind of cool. A producer is like a boss and it is sometimes fun being the boss. It includes being part of the casting process and putting together a crew and making some major decisions about the script and the locations and it can be pretty fun stuff.

But being the boss also means being responsible for everyone and everything. If something needed to be done and no one else could do it, I’d have to. I tried to remember how fun those casting sessions were while I was cleaning off tables, running errands, making sandwiches and acting as a human suggestion box for complaints.

On the set of Puberty: The Movie I tried to absorb all the drama to protect the directors so they could work. I couldn’t shield them from all of it, but I could sometimes postpone their involvement until our nightly production meeting. Those meetings lasted as long as the day’s shooting, making sure none of us ever got any sleep, which led to more and more mishaps.

By the second day of shooting, I had completely lost my cool. I vaguely remember biting the head off our Assistant Director in front of the rest of the crew. In my defense, she completely fucked up. But in her defense, no one should ever have to hear, “YOU’RE NOT HERE TO THINK, YOU’RE HERE TO DO WHAT I FUCKING TELL YOU TO DO!”

Not cool, boss-lady. Not cool.

The next day I got all yelly again, this time with our Unit Production Manager, who made the small mistake of forgetting to call in all of our extras and the giant mistake of interrupting me while I was talking. That was the same day I realized that I hadn’t peed in 24 hours. It’s a fucked up thing to sit on a toilet and realize that the last time you urinated was “this time, yesterday.” But bathroom breaks were a luxury I couldn’t afford on day three. That’s how crazy day three was.

After the fourth day, I took a break from the shoot to go back to my regular day job. By that time, the eight hour round-trip drive and three days of full time employment was like a vacation. I still took calls all day and night, and continued to work on administrative aspects of the production, but at least I could sleep in my own bed and urinate on my own schedule.

It was during these first few days away from the set that I took a breath and realized that I needed to learn to keep my cool. I didn’t want to be the person who yelled all the time. I wanted to be steady, unshakable and in control. So I made a promise to myself that I would roll with the flow, no matter how totally insane the flow rolled.

Frankly, the degree to which things were falling apart had long since passed “shocking” or “upsetting” and were instead becoming “hilarious.” Once I was back on set, I was Ms. Cool, rolling with the punches (there were literally punches!) and calmly taking on whatever problems arose.

Until shit happened. Literally. Someone took a shit. In a middle school. On the floor of a janitor’s closet.

We were filming for most of the weekend at a junior high school in Sharon, Massachusetts. Our directors had to beg for permission to shoot there, but once granted, they opened the doors for us and left us to our own devices. We’d need to return to the same location two more times, so we had to be on our best behavior and leave everything just as we found it, so as not to lose our privileges.

I don’t remember who found it–the production crew, when not on set or running an errand, spent most of their time exploring any open door they could find. All I know is that in the evening on our second day at the school, two of the kids from the art department found me to report that there was shit on the floor of the janitor’s closet.

Human shit?” I asked.

“Has to be,” one of the kids confirmed. “There haven’t been any dogs here today, and besides, it’s too big. Want to see it?”

I could already feel the barf forming. I did not want to see it. If I saw it, we’d have two messes to clean up. I didn’t lose my cool (or my lunch), but I did wonder who could have done it and why. The janitor’s closet was right next to the boys’ bathroom. Did somebody open the wrong door and just run out of time?

But the real question was what to do about it. The one thing I knew for sure is that it had to be cleaned up before we wrapped for the day. And I couldn’t in good conscience ask one of the production crew to clean it. We were already overworking and underpaying them all–I refused to ask them to do a job that a toilet had already turned down.

But I couldn’t do it myself, either. Until that moment, I had been a real go-to gal. I was up for whatever challenges faced me. No job was too big, too small, or too humiliating. I was willing to get my hands dirty. But not this dirty. This was a line I couldn’t cross. I could take a lot of shit, but I could not clean it up.

I found Eric, one of the directors. I laughed a little as I explained our predicament and he made, I thought, a pretty reasonable suggestion.

“Start at $40 and go up in increments of $20 until someone agrees to clean it up.”

We were so low on money, but this seemed like an extremely affordable plan. I was about to spread the word when Steve, the other director, came around the corner and asked, “Where’s the shit?” Eric and I pointed at the closet door and Steve went right in, without hesitation.

A minute later he was carrying a wad of paper towels into the bathroom. Then he walked out, clapped his hands together the way you do to communicate “It’s finished” and headed back to the set.

“Let’s wrap this up!”

The shit was all we talked about the rest of the night; we all speculated about which one of the crew members was responsible for leaving it, and eventually agreed on a suspect. But we never mentioned it to him. The shit was a punchline to countless inside jokes for the rest of production and since, but as far as I know, no one has ever brought it up in front of the probable culprit.

Of course, no one has actually talked to that guy since production, either. I mean, shit in a closet once, shame on him, but shit in a closet again, and shame on everyone for letting him into our closets, right? I’m pretty sure that’s how that saying goes. I’m from Texas.

Steve told us later that the shit was full of rocks. ROCKS! And that it was still warm when he cleaned it up. I was really proud of him for stepping up that day. When I was refusing and Eric was bargaining, Steve sailed in and TCB’d like nobody’s B. And that, to me, is what makes a great filmmaker.

I don’t know if Dennis Weaver shit in a closet while filming Duel, but I’m almost positive Spielberg wouldn’t touch it if he did.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I will fare when my mother is gone, how I will deal with her absence, if I will crumble or if I will rise. It does absolutely no good to play this game, because that’s what it is. It’s a game of magical thinking, trying to imagine one’s reaction to a life-changing event. I still play it anyway, believing at some level that it will prepare me for what is to come.

I ponder the word grief a fair amount too, sometimes feeling like everything I do in a day is layered in this concept, except those days where it lifts and the beauty of the moment shakes off my inevitable future without her.  But even those moments are bittersweet, as it feels like I’m cheating somehow or betraying her in those seconds that I don’t look or feel like a person who is losing her mother.

When I think about what I should look like, what grieving looks like, the first person I think of is my grandmother. This is ironic, given the lengths she went to avoid grief and pain. My grandfather died when I was 12 from a heart attack. She was 65.  For years, she told me this: “He died laughing. Can you imagine? He had just won a golf game and was ribbing his friend Chuck in the car, and then he was gone.”

At the funeral, I remember her walking to his graveside stiffly, leading his mother there gently by the elbow. My great-grandmother wore a pink polyester house dress and stood bravely on her thick legs as the preacher put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Parents should never have to bury their children.” I wore a new blue and purple dress and suede ankle boots for the occasion and as the coffin sat in the open air, I held on to my mother’s  hand for dear life.

After the service, because it was what you did in my grandparents’ world, my grandmother hosted what felt like hundreds of people at their house: pigs in a blanket, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini pork sandwiches, gallons of white wine and buckets of martinis. She told us to smile, to greet people, to pass the hors d’oeuvres, because this is what you did in my grandparents’ world.

The strange thing is when I think of those few days, I have no memories of my mother’s grief, only my grandmother’s. I can picture what happened when we found out my grandfather had died, as my dad brought my sister and me home early from our monthly weekend with him.  Our mother told us and we sat on her lap and cried.  My father cried too, but stayed outside, standing just beyond the screen door. We all stayed like that for what seemed longer than possible before my father stepped off the porch and disappeared. Yet from those two days around the funeral, nothing in terms of my mother. Only my grandmother’s face has stayed with me, the sharp edges of her body, the quick moves she made from one room to the next, never standing still, as if trying to outrun her husband’s death. She remained in near constant motion for the next 15 years trying to outpace it, in part by traveling the world. When she wasn’t on a trip in those subsequent years, she drowned her grief in bottle after bottle of chardonnay and an affair with my grandfather’s best friend.

My grandfather’s absence was palpable to me in those years after, but I never fully absorbed the magnitude of her loss until the year I turned 25. She offered to take me to New York for Christmas and my birthday, which was just a few days before the holiday. I was single and trapped in a miserable job at a mutual fund company and jumped at the chance. She had her own reasons for wanting to leave town for the holidays — I realize now it had much to do with the fact that the wife of my grandfather’s best friend had recently died and this hadn’t changed dynamics of their relationship. My grandmother wanted to get married again and cook for someone every night; he wanted to live alone and eat hot dogs for dinner.

Bits and pieces of the story had come out over the years, but what I could see clearly on that trip was that my grandmother was incredibly unhappy. It didn’t matter that he paid for our trip and sent everything from martinis to a miniature Christmas tree to our room that week — what my grandmother wanted, he wouldn’t give her. As the days passed, I realized that what she missed most in that city was my grandfather. They had often taken trips there together, and she showed me the places they had been: the famous post-theater spot Sardi’s, a speakeasy called Chumley’s, the restaurant Josephine.  We went to a drag show in the Village after having dinner with Julie, a woman they had met years ago at a San Francisco Cabaret. She was 75-years-old at the time and invited us to come see her perform.

My grandmother was buzzing with life at 2 a.m. afterwards, laughing like a teenager, telling me what a crush my grandfather had always had on Julie. All week, whether we were headed to see Chicago or coming from a showing of Scorsese’s Kundun, she would tear up in the cab and say, “Bob Greig would have loved that,” or simply, “Bob–” clearing her throat and putting on her dark glasses to hide her crying. She would usually take my hand at some point, squeezing fiercely. I squeezed back, helpless.

A few months ago, she helped define grief for me again, albeit accidentally. My mother, step-father and I were headed to the cemetery where my mother will have a headstone. She’ll be cremated, but wants us to have somewhere to go when she’s gone. (My grandmother, gone 10 years now, did not allow us the same. She had an adjoining plot to my grandfather, but because the site wasn’t well maintained and his marker was chipped by gardeners and never repaired, she decided to be cremated and sprinkled out over the Pacific.) My mother recently procured a plot near a dear friend of hers, Christie, who died in 1999. “I couldn’t be happier knowing I’ll be near someone I know,” she said.

Death has always been a part of my mother’s lexicon. She worked in geriatric social work and hospice care for 25 years before she got sick, and has a library full of books on death and dying. She is a straight-up Kubler-Ross junkie. This is, to say the least, a little unusual. I have done my best to confront the issue of death on her terms, brave and clear-eyed.  A topic steadfastly avoided for most of my life, the concept crystallized when my sister was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at 28.   But there was always the possibility (and later, reality) of remission for my sister, which has never existed for my mother. What I mean to say is, after my sister recovered, I put death back on the shelf. There is no more shirking it this time around, so I figured I might as well get the grave site visit over with. I have not, however, taken my mother up on her offer to tour the crematorium.

Just before we left, I was looking through the bookshelf in the living room and saw the title, “Up From Grief.” Given my current fascination, I pulled it off the shelf. It was my grandmother’s book,  inside she had written, “Given to me 20 (underlined) days after Bob died and three months since Edward.” Edward was her friend Edith’s husband; Edith had given her the book. An accompanying postcard stuck inside the book by Edith read, “I don’t like this book, but everyone else does. Read if you want.”

From what I could tell, she’d made it about halfway through the first chapter, arguing with the book’s premise the entire way. On a particularly classic page, she has bracketed a passage about how “grievers are afraid to admit their real feelings to others and often to themselves” and written “Don’t think so.”  Next to the assumption that those grieving feel guilt, anger or shame, my grandmother has scribbled “NO” and underlined it.  Screw survivor guilt and feelings of doubt and confusion. Shirley Greig wasn’t having it. Even though her husband had died incredibly recently, I don’t think her view of this psychobabble changed much over the decades.

How does this change my understanding of grief? I’m not exactly sure, but I read the passages out loud to my mom and we laughed so hard we cried. Her commentary was perfect — entirely irreverent and a direct reflection of how she lived her life.

We visited my mom’s site on Memorial Day, as that is when she always visits Christie. It’s really not such a bad day to go to a cemetery, as the place is full of people and the headstones are bursting with flowers and flags. We drove up there under the threat of rain but the sun was out by the time my stepfather and I wrangled Ma out of the car. We stopped for a second and tilted our heads back, felt the rays on our faces.

She pointed at a spot on a gently sloping hill with sweet little tree just a few feet away. We rolled her over and she showed me Christie’s grave, a reddish headstone with an etching of a mother and three children. The quote there said something about how light shines on anyone who remembers those who are gone.

“So,” I said, after a few moments of silence. “Where will you be?”

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the ground beneath her wheelchair. My stepfather had managed to wheel her directly over her plot.

“You are fucking kidding me,” I said, and she shook her head. And then we cracked up, because we find this type of morbidity mildly hilarious. “Will your headstone look like Christie’s?”

“Yep,” my stepfather said.

“No,” my mother said. “Smaller, level.”

“Close enough,” my stepfather said.

“And what will it read?” I said.

She tried to get it out, but couldn’t find the words. This was happening more and more. My stepfather said, “It’s a beautiful day and I love you.”

As soon as he said it, I realized she’d already told me. Hearing it out loud was almost more than I could bear in that moment.

“So,” she said, “So–” She was stuck on the words, but gestured around her plot with her good hand.

“If we come, you’ll be here.”

“Right.”

“It’s good you’ll be here, Ma.”

“Huh? What?”

“Not good that you’ll be dead, but that you’ll be here. That there will be a headstone. You know what I mean.”  She nodded.

The sun, the flags, standing there looking at my still-alive mother perched on her future grave site provided an odd comfort. I wonder sometimes if my grandmother had been more able to confront her loss, to give in and express all those feeling she so denied, she might have died happier or at least more at peace.

Not long after all of this, I heard a piece of an old interview with George Burns on NPR. He said that even though Gracie had been gone for 30 years, he still went once a month to Forest Lawn to see her. He talked to her about everything and anything on those visits, told her what was happening in his life. He said it helped him miss her a little less. Here’s hoping.

 

My next novel, Proximity, has a high school football coach as its hero. As such, I find myself thinking lately about sports metaphors.

Thus I have this to share from great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

In the publication of Primacy, naturally, I’ve done some things right and also made some mistakes. It’s too early to tell definitively what the final outcome will be, but this is my last column on the subject. Thus, here is my moment for self-reflection.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

I’ve got three more stories to tell, and I’ve decided that they will all come from the set of the first movie I ever produced. It was called Puberty: The Movie and it is still technically in post-production, nine years after we shot it.

I recently spoke to one of the writer/directors on a podcast and we cracked each other up, talking about this project that almost killed us both. And even though I could probably talk about it forever, because the whole thing was basically a 24-hour emergency for three-and-a-half-weeks straight, I will try to concentrate on three major events, starting with the time I almost manslaughtered our star.

 

Killing Joe Lo Truglio

We should have known things would fall apart.

I was anxious the day I picked up the stars of our little movie. It was the night before we were scheduled to begin principal photography, and I was to drive our leading man and lady from New York City to the small town of Sharon, Massachusetts. I picked them up just after dark and we began the four hour drive, excited to finally get to the set. But I was anxious.

I was anxious because, as producer of this film, I needed to be a leader. I had never produced a feature film before, and I was a little bit terrified that that fact had escaped no one. I hoped to make everyone feel comfortable in my capable hands; to project a level of confidence and professionalism that screamed, “DON’T WORRY! EVERYTHING’S COOL! SHE’S TOTALLY DONE THIS BEFORE!” And I’d be flying solo with our film’s stars for four hours in my little car. That’s a lot of one-on-one-on-one time in which I’d be wearing my “Best Behavior” hat–the worst-fitting hat in my metaphorical hat collection.

I was also anxious because I was still a little bit star struck. Our movie’s lead actor, Joe Lo Truglio, is a super friendly, funny and warm guy. But when I picked him up that night, I had only ever spent an hour or two around him. He wasn’t my friend Joe, yet, he was a former star of MTV’s The State and Wet Hot American Summer –two of my favorite things, ever, and having a former star of MTV’s The State and Wet Hot American Summer in the front seat of my car was still a tiny bit hard to believe and totally fucking awesome. Especially since he turned out to be super friendly, funny and warm.

But I was mostly anxious because just a few days earlier I received a disturbing piece of information about my driver’s license. Apparently it had been suspended, both in New York and Connecticut. The story behind this is a really long one, so let me see if I can sum it up briefly: thought I took care of a ticket; turned out I was wrong; both states suspended my license without notifying me; insurance company discovered this and called to let me know they were canceling my policy.

It took years to straighten it all out. It was still very much un-straightened-out by the time we began principal photography on Puberty the Movie, which meant that the film’s two lead actors were being driven from state to state in an uninsured car by an uninsured driver with a suspended license. I was an outlaw; a rule breaker. I could have been arrested! I was paranoid.

I was anxious.

My anxiety intensified just outside of Mystic, Connecticut, when one of my passengers asked me to make a pit stop. Both Joe and Caitlin, his costar, were deep in conversation when I exited and I had to repeat myself a few times to get their attention.

“Um… Guys? GUYS? The car’s not stopping.”

“What do you mean it’s not stopping?” Joe asked. I tried to mask the abject terror on my face as we approached the intersection ahead.

“It’s not stopping. I’m pressing the brakes and it just keeps going.”

It was late and the exit was deserted, luckily, so I ran the stop sign and merged back onto the highway. I managed to stay out of the way of other cars as I called my roommate, Andrew, the only other person who had driven my car for the past year. He had no knowledge of any problems with the brakes, or anything else, for that matter. But he put me on hold and called his older brother who apparently knows more about cars than either of us.

As I waited for him to return to the line, I weighed my options. I could try to pull over on the side of the road and stop the car, but then we’d be stuck on a dark highway. Maybe a police officer would see us and offer to help. And maybe that police officer would ask for my driver’s license and insurance information. And maybe Joe and Caitlin would watch, helplessly, as I was handcuffed and carted off to a Connecticut jail (probably a really nice jail, but still…).

Or, I could exit the highway again and try to make it to a service station. But the next intersection might be more crowded. Had I watched enough Cannonball Run movies to successfully navigate a runaway car through a busy intersection?

Andy’s brother didn’t have any advice for me, so I decided to chance it. I don’t know how much is “enough” but I have seen a lot of Cannonball Run.

We all held our breath as I exited and rolled into the intersection. We were facing a red light and oncoming traffic from both sides, but the cars were few and far between, so I went for it anyway. I ran the light, turned right in front of one car, then immediately left in front of another. As I pulled into the gas station on the corner, I kept my foot pressed down on the brakes, but the car wouldn’t come to a complete stop. So I threw it into park and, with the engine revving loudly, turned the key.

DON’T WORRY! EVERYTHING’S COOL! I’VE TOTALLY DONE THIS BEFORE!

We solicited the help of a young kid who worked at the station, and who promised he could fix me right up when his shift ended at midnight. We decided to kill some time at a Friendly’s restaurant across the street. It was freezing outside, but I wasn’t ready to call in the cavalry just yet.

The three of us ate some food, played some cards and talked a lot. I assured them both that everything was going to be fine; that we weren’t stranded in Mystic, Connecticut and that I hadn’t almost killed us all with a Toyota Echo named “Magic Bobby.” I put on a brave face and pretended to have my shit together, but my shit was far from together.

After hours of Friendly’s coffee, several hands of poker and a few trips to the gas station to check the progress of our young handyman, I had to admit that we were stuck for the night. It had begun snowing and we’d missed the last train out of town. I left the car at the gas station and checked us all into a Howard Johnson’s within walking distance.

The woman who checked us into the HoJo was named Sparkling Water. She told me about her Native American heritage as I paid for the rooms, while Joe sat at a small table meant to keep children occupied while their parents checked in and out. He had a blank piece of paper and a pencil cup full of used crayons. When I walked over to give him his room key he handed me a drawing–a small car with a stick figure poking out one window, shouting “Help me!”

I said goodnight to them both and went to my room to call the film’s directors. Just after “Hello” I began to sob, uncontrollably–I was simply exhausted from wearing my brave face for so long. It’s the worst fitting face in my metaphorical face collection.

We were back on the road the next morning–in somebody else’s car. But in the weeks to come we’d look back on that night as one of our more fortunate ones. It was the only night I had to deal with one emergency, rather than twelve. Compared to the rest of the shoot, that death drive was practically a vacation. Or maybe it was just an omen of a shitstorm on the horizon.

We should have known things would fall apart. And maybe we did know. But even now I don’t suppose I would have done things any differently.

Except, maybe take the train.

 

I do not feel sad or overwhelmed.

I do not feel “over the moon.”

My vagina feels like it has been mugged, beaten, and left for dead.

The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.

The Skinny on Songbook

The November release of Chris Cornell’s album Songbook, recorded during live performances of his recent tour, is not intended for new fans. This album features tracks that date back to Cornell’s involvement with bands such as Temple of the Dog (a band that featured former members of Mother Love Bone, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, as well as a rising vocalist of the early 1990s, Eddie Vedder). The setlist offers long-time fans something from each Cornell era (from Temple of the Dog, to Soundgarden, to Cornell’s solo career, to Audioslave, and back to his solo career). Don’t be fooled, though — this is by no means a Greatest Hits-type compilation.

“Don’t cry for me when I’m gone,” my father recently told my mother.  “I’m ready.”

My mother relays me this at my upstairs apartment.  She and my father have lived downstairs from us since 1999, but my father no longer comes to visit because he can’t manage the stairs.  If we want to see him we go down there, which doesn’t sound complicated, though it sometimes is.  My life moves at the speed of light, and I often go days without seeing my dad. When we do visit, he’s usually listening to the television turned so loud that nobody can hear anyone else speak.  His TV is so blaring, in fact, that although my husband and I sleep on the third floor, when we go to bed we can hear the thumping voices of my father’s crime dramas vibrating through our floorboards, mattress, pillows.  Sometimes my mother makes him put the TV on pause when we come over, but since my father is essentially deaf, he doesn’t hear us when we speak anyway.

This is hilarious to my daughters, who are eleven and not yet afraid of their own decay.  “Hi, Papa!” one of them shouts at the top of her lungs to the other, and then the other hollers back in an old man voice, “Why don’t they ever say hi to me?”

At one point, my dad would have been the first one laughing at this joke.  When my mother’s mother was getting old, and someone would ask her if she wanted a glass of wine, she would jump up in alarm and shout, “Lion?  What lion?”  My father did imitations of her for years.  He used to chide her, too, for never eating anything but sweets.  Her pantry was jammed full of Little Debbie’s snack cakes, her freezer full of popsicles.  He thought it particularly batshit that she wasn’t just addicted to sugar, she was addicted to cheap, crappy forms of sugar.  At one time, my father would travel to New York for authentic cheesecake—even in my teens he was known to hunt for the best apple pie all over the state of Michigan, just because.  He knew which bakery in Chicago made the freshest doughnuts, and drove across the city for a particularly fine custard cake.  “If I ever get like that,” he would say of my old nana chowing on her pre-wrapped brownies and freezer-burned, neon-colored popsicles, “just shoot me.”

Now, a big day out for my father is a trip a mile away to the Entenmann’s warehouse, where he can stock up on enough processed coffee cakes and doughnuts covered in waxy chocolate that an avalanche falls out of his freezer when you open it.  He buys whichever ice cream is on sale.  If my husband and I go shopping for him and buy an ice cream he deems too expensive, he has a fit.

“Just shoot me,” he would tell us.

But it’s never that simple, is it?  You can’t snap your fingers that way.  Sometimes, you live to turn into your mother-in-law.   You remain trapped inside your body, unable to walk, unable to hear, taste buds faded, increasingly incontinent, napping during the day and awake all night, in chronic pain.  Waiting.

Lion?  What lion?  Indeed.

*          *          *

I’ve come to think of this past summer as a season of death.  An old friend of mine from grad school, blithely handsome and the youngest member of my first writing group, died swiftly and painfully of cancer that had been misdiagnosed for years as a blood clotting disorder.  Less than a week after his passing, one of my best friends, Kathy, was diagnosed completely out of the blue with Stage III-c ovarian cancer, spread to her stomach and colon linings as well as her entire lymphatic system. Even my husband’s longtime family dog, who’d never left his mother’s side as she wasted away from cancer and liver failure last year, was—as though part of a sick plot twist—essentially roasted to death in an Indiana heat wave when accidentally left inside a car.  Amid all this, I was reading the manuscript of my friend Emily Rapp’s luminous memoir (just sold to Penguin), about her son’s diagnosis with Tay-Sach’s Disease.  It was hard reading—not just because of the raw grief Emily so passionately captures and interrogates, but in part, too, because I found myself so floored by the potential horror of watching one’s child die that I began to undermine other things happening around me.  How could I call it “tragic” for fortysomething adults—people who had traveled, worked, fallen in love—to be diagnosed with cancer when there were babies trapped inside their own bodies waiting for death?  How could I dry heave on my bedroom floor over an elderly dog, or even fear losing my own dad—someone lucky enough to have already lived for nearly a century?

What is the continuum of grief?

One of my close confidantes, the writer Rob Roberge, would quote Baldwin to me at a time like this.  He would say that suffering “may be the only equality we have,” and that all pain is real and not easily quantified or measured.  Emily herself, when we have emailed about all this, wrote me a beautiful treatise on the importance of friendships, and how the culture often undermines them as trivial, making an impassioned case for my right to love, value and grieve my friends.  And on the one hand, these things are true—of course they are.  Who would want to live in a world where they weren’t?

On the other hand, emotions, even strong ones, are not equal at all.  I don’t mean this in a “privileged liberal guilt” kind of way, i.e. I could be starving in Kenya or a victim of genocide, so how dare I complain?, even if those things may be partially true.  I mean it, rather, in a literal, I would push my father under the bus for my children sort of way.  I mean it in the, If something were to happen to my kids, the first and most appealing thing I can think of would be to take several handfuls of pills and disappear forever, so that I would not have to live in that kind of pain.  I’m not saying I would do it.  There would still be my husband, my parents, my friends to consider.  I hope I wouldn’t do it.  But it would definitely be on the menu.  When I think of my father’s impending death, I feel sad—I feel, even, afraid—but I do not think of killing myself.

What does it mean to love by degree?  What does this say, too, about my place in my own children’s love-chain?  Is this the cycle of life, then?  To be prepared to be thrown under the bus, if necessary, by those you value most in the world?

My oldest friend, Alicia, sometimes tells me that if she had to live inside my spinning brain for half an hour, she would have an aneurism.  At moments like this, I suspect she may be right.

*          *          *

Lately, my father sees mice.  In addition to being on a dozen strong medications, he’s also got macular degeneration that can cause him to hallucinate spots.  For several months, he claimed to see mice scampering across the floor, or to have glimpsed their droppings in corners.  My husband would investigate these claims, but could never find a trace of the phantoms my father had seen.  My mother began leaving little pieces of Entenmann’s cake in the areas where my father claimed the mice had been, so as to see if any crumbs were missing, but all this resulted in was scraps of cake littered around my parents’ (already-not-winning-any-awards-for-cleanliness) apartment.  We even went so far as to call in my cousin Biff, who used to be a rat exterminator for the city of Chicago and now runs his own pest control business, and Biff confirmed that there were no traces of mice in my parents’ apartment, or even in our basement.

Still, my father reported on the mice’s activities almost daily.  They came out mostly, it seemed, when he slept.  In addition to sometimes seeing them, he also—at night—heard them making their little mice sounds, and sometimes felt them scampering over his body in the dark.

He began to sleep with the lights on.

Soon, he moved out of his bed entirely.  My parents have had separate bedrooms since I was five, but he proceeded to move into my mother’s bed, driving her out to the living room couch.  One day, when sitting on the toilet, my father called to my mother.  He was sticking his foot out in the air and pointing at it.

“Look at that!” he hollered.  “My big toenail was definitely longer yesterday.  That damn mouse must have been nibbling on it in my sleep!”

My mother then calmly informed him that if he did not recant the completely deranged thing he had just said, she was going to take him to the psychiatric ward immediately.

Upon which, my father sheepishly admitted that perhaps the mice had not given him a pedicure, after all.

After that, my mother called their longtime physician and got a prescription for an anti-psychotic medication, and my father moved back into his bedroom.

*          *          *

I suppose I should clarify here that my father was never exactly a normal guy.  He’s been institutionalized before.  Twice.  He’s been on antidepressants since I was about twenty, after sobbing at our kitchen table for a couple of days straight to the point that—although I may be misremembering some details because I later fictionalized this in a novel—he wet his pants, unable to get to the bathroom, and my cousin Biff, who then lived next door to us, had to come and forcibly put him in the car.  Before I was born, my father went through a period in which he was convinced burglars would break into our apartment, so he stopped sleeping with my mother and took up a vigil on the couch.  He became addicted to Valium, and ended up hearing voices that told him to kill my mother and himself—that time, he checked himself into the hospital, no assistance required.  While institutionalized, he begged my mother to leave him, but she wouldn’t, even though her hair was falling out in chunks from worry and her doctor had to give her B-12 shots.

Despite his Paxil, my dad has grown increasingly high strung these past twenty years.  He keeps a stockpile of food under his bed (mainly baked beans—I guess our family will be having a very gassy quarantine should it become necessary to live on my father’s rations in some futuristic emergency).  He keeps decorative cookie jars on every flat surface of his bedroom, though none of the jars contain actual cookies.  He spends his mornings reading Star and People magazines, even though he used to be a fan of Royko and Bob Greene in my youth.  He would be able to tell you every detail of Paris Hilton’s latest sex scandal or Lindsay Lohan’s rehabs and weight losses . . . except that he can’t actually remember the details because he’s on so much Norco.  He usually reads these magazines aloud to himself, repeating most of the words multiple times (Lindsay Lohan and and Lohan and Paris Paris Paris Hilton are no longer longer Linday Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to speaking to one speaking to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to one another) at the kitchen table, giving my parents’ apartment a distinctly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type of vibe.  If he watches old home movies of my children, and one of them happens to be jumping or running in the film, he yells out warnings to the television set, afraid they will bust their heads open on the corner of the coffee table, or poke out an eye, even though in fact they are sitting right next to him—the movie having been filmed six years ago—eyes intact.

Shortly after being prescribed his antipsychotic, my mother woke one night to a loud noise.  My father, who had dutifully resumed his place in his own bedroom, was writhing around on the bed sobbing.  When she asked what was wrong, he told her, “We’re all going to die.”  At further prodding he said, “The kids are going to get old and die too, and we’ll all be dead already—the kids are going to die, what’s the point of anything?”

My mother got his walker and brought him to the kitchen table and made him some warm milk and talked him down.  In the morning, she called the doctor again.  It seemed that my mother had made a mistake: when the doctor prescribed the new medication, my mother thought my father was to take it in lieu of his Paxil.  “No,” the doctor explained.  He has known my parents since I was in high school.  “John is never, ever going off the Paxil.  He’s on Paxil for life.  This is to be given in addition.”

My father had been off his Paxil for exactly two days.

*          *          *

How do you measure a life’s worth?  In laughter?  In orgasms?  In money?  In how well-loved someone is?  In how often they have been photographed?  In children borne or raised?  In the number of continents on which they have made love?  In number of books published?  In latest versions of iPads and iPhones?  In jazz albums filling a giant trunk in the basement?  In years?

We are all specks of dust against the specter of Time.  Is ninety years so different from forty in the scheme of things?  We are all the walking dead of history.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, a failed actor named Paul Tomasello, showed us the movie On Borrowed Time, in which an old man chases Death up a tree.  Mr. Tomasello had gone to school with my father—the same school I attended as a girl.  He chain-smoked in the classroom.  School lore had it that Mr. Tomasello had been diagnosed with lung cancer years prior and given a few weeks to live, but in fact he lived to attend my wedding.  He outlived all but one of my father’s seven brothers, two of whom died as children in the flu epidemic and the rest of whom died of various heart and alcohol related ailments such as rupturing an esophagus open while binge drinking.  My father dreams almost every night of his brothers.  My mother and I rarely figure in his dreams.  In his dreams, his brothers are still young, his brother Ted playing the sax; his brother Joe a mildly powerful bookie; his brother Frank on the front porch smiling and waving. In one dream, my father is forcibly taken away on a wagon across a barren white landscape.

“I never took my father out to dinner,” my dad tells my mother, his voice thick with regret.  “He worked himself to the bone for us and I never bought him a meal.”

My paternal grandfather died before I was even born.  “You were a young man,” my mother assuages.  “You had your own life.  You didn’t know he would die young.  You thought you had time.”

Mr. Tomasello is dead by now, too, of course.

We are on borrowed time with my father, I think daily.  But of course, whose time isn’t borrowed?  My life moves on at the speed of light: adopting and having kids, teaching, editing, writing, cooking dinner, playing chauffeur to play dates and lessons, helping with homework, packing lunches, attending readings, planning continents on which to make love.  How many trips down the stairs will I regret not having made?

*          *          *

Last month, my five-year-old son, Giovanni, asked to see the house I lived in when I was little.

“Be careful,” my father told us on the way out the door.  “You don’t want him to get shot.”

It seemed a strange thing to say in reference to the neighborhood where he chose to raise me, despite my mother’s perpetual urgings that they leave.

I put Giovanni in the car, and we proceeded to drive four miles almost exactly due south on Western Avenue.  We passed the church where I used to be an altar girl.  We passed the funeral home where everyone I had ever met prior to the age of fourteen held their family wakes—where someday people will gather to pay last respects to my father.  We passed my first elementary school, Holy Rosary, which is now a vacant lot overrun with weeds.  We passed the Head Start program I attended when I was younger than my son, and the now-shuttered corner candy store where you could go to play Pac-Man or buy drugs.  We pulled onto my old street, which is narrow and one-way, flanked on the other side by the elementary school my father dropped out of in eighth grade to work at a factory, and from which I graduated: the first in many steps of running as fast and far as I could to flee my roots.  Four scant miles, and yet this is nowhere my son would likely ever be.  There at the west end of the street is where my cousin was murdered—shot in gang violence—seven years ago.  I pulled into the school playground, where all the teachers park, and Giovanni and I got out of the car.  We walked to the playground fence, surveying my old building: a brick two-flat with an awning that used to be green but now just appears a canopy of dirt and rust.

“Papa was born in that house,” I tell Giovanni.  “He lived here until he was almost eighty, and then he moved in with us.  I lived here until I was eighteen, when I went away to college.”

Giovanni stood silently at the fence.  When I was ten and my father was in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, on the verge of death as was often the case in my girlhood, my mother would come to this fence every day during recess to give me an update on his condition.  She and I would hold hands through the fence, even though this was the last possible thing a new transfer student should be doing at a rough, urban public school, and my mother must have realized that as well as I did.  She and I were apparently complicit in my social ruin.  One day, however, she did not materialize at the fence.  I deduced that my father must have died, and she was still at the hospital.  I ran screaming from the playground across the street to the concrete steps that did not seem nearly as short or ramshackle to me then as they do now.  I pounded on the door yelling, “Daddy!  Daddy!” even though there was no possibility that my father was home.  Mr. Tomasello, who was not yet my teacher, saw me and came across the street to fetch me.  Although he was a frail man with a long white beard—the sort about whom rumors of terminal cancer circulated—and I was a pudgy child, he carried me back across the street, where I was taken to the school office so someone could reach my mother.

Now, Giovanni touched the fence, staring at the little brick house.  The air was cold and the sky a dingy gray: the color palette I remember most vividly from my youth, since my father had convinced all the neighbors that their tree roots were getting into our sewerage system, so they all ripped up their trees and cemented over their tiny lawns.  That my father could have convinced an entire block full of people to do this seems preposterous to me, but indicative of his status in the neighborhood as a patriarch and a man of wisdom.  One of my most vivid memories from my youth is of my father outside with his hose, spraying down the sidewalk in front of our house until it glistened like a bone.

Memories collided in my head like a movie montage gone wrong.  A boy I grew up with was shot and killed on a bench in 1989, maybe twenty feet from where Gio and I stood.  But there, just across the playground, was where my cousin Laura and I would take her boom box and listen to Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” while lying on our backs looking at the few visible stars, playing the song over and over again until it became the template for both of our lives.  I held Giovanni’s hand.  He looked up at me.  The moment seemed ripe for poignancy.

“This place looks really old,” he said finally.  “It looks like zombies attacked it.”

*          *          *

How do you measure a life’s worth?  On December 14, 2011, my father will be ninety years old.  He never thought he would live to see his fortieth birthday.  When I was born, he said he hoped to live to see me graduate from elementary school.  Now it is possible that he will live to see my daughters graduate.  When he was a boy, Italian girls still didn’t go out without chaperones.  I would say that this was before people were shot and killed in our old neighborhood, but that wouldn’t be true exactly.  People were just shot and killed under different circumstances.  The neighborhood has a long history of crime, just as it has a long history of family.  What is true is that my father raised me there oblivious—or volitionally blind—to the neighborhood’s shortcomings, and conscious only of its strengths.  When I went away to college, he cried.  I had betrayed the family, in a way.  I wouldn’t stay put.  I would not learn what he was trying to teach me.  He believed I didn’t understand about loyalty.  I believed that too.  I believed loyalty was cheap.  I wanted to be Sabina, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  I wanted a life based on betrayals and escapes, and for a time, I created some sexy facsimile of that, although I felt it unraveling in my fingers even as I clutched at it ferociously.  In the end, despite years in Madison, London, New Hampshire, New Mexico or Amsterdam, I ended up back in Chicago with my parents living downstairs from me, just as my grandmothers—first my father’s, then my mother’s—resided in our house when I was a girl.  In the end, the only thing I was truly capable of betraying was my own fantasy of myself as someone else, someone other than my father’s loyal daughter, who would throw him under the bus for my babies just as he would have thrown his parents under the bus for me.  The night his mother died was Christmas Eve, 1980, and within hours of her death my father resumed our holiday festivities—though he was my grandmother’s baby, the one with whom she had lived after all her other sons left home, he did not take the time to mourn alone because he didn’t want to spoil my Christmas.  I have taken my father out to dinner plenty of times, but someday when he is gone I will nurse my regrets as he nurses his about his own father: the things I could have done, the more I could have given.

“Sometimes I see things that aren’t there,” I tell my father when I am in my late twenties.  “Figures walking into rooms and things like that.”

“Oh, sure,” my father says.  “That happens to everyone.”

“Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I hear someone calling my name.”

“That’s normal,” my father confirms.  “That happens to me all the time.”

We are the lion in the house, my father and I, waiting to pounce.  On anyone who threatens the family—but first and foremost, on ourselves.

*          *          *

Once upon a time, my father was a hero.  He was trained to drive a tank in World War II, but his ulcer and bad back got him sent home before he could be deployed overseas.  Instead, his heroism took place on quieter grounds.  Years ago, while hanging out at his men’s club shooting craps with his friends, a young girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, entered the club.  She claimed to want a few dollars for the bus, but it is clear to me now, from an adult lens, that this probably wasn’t what she really thought to achieve, walking into a crowded men’s club full of ex-cons and soliciting money, then failing to leave when all the men began suggesting to her the things she might do to earn it.  They were laughing, saying the things men say, and the girl was maybe laughing with them, the way some young girls have to in order to survive.  Amid this my father stood up, took out twenty dollars and handed it to the girl.  “You need to leave now, honey,” he told her, and walked her to the door.

Another time, many years later, my father was having some coffee in the little eating area of Target, when some scruffy teenagers came in.  He saw them go to the counter, where one scraped together just enough change to buy a tiny personal pizza, and they all sat around a table while the one who had purchased the pizza ate.  The way the others stared intently at the pizza was something my father recognized.  Although he always managed to keep his own head above water, he had seen hunger in his life, and it was something he understood.  He went to the counter and said quietly, “Give those kids whatever they want to eat, and I’ll pay for it.”  The counter girl went up to the teens and told them they could have what they wanted, and they all ran up and ordered food excitedly.  My father sat, drinking his coffee, while they devoured their food.  He did not speak to them or tell them that he was the one who had paid for their meal.  He waited until after they had been gone for a while before he himself left.  “I didn’t want them to think I was a masher,” he told my mother, laughing himself off.

He would never relay these stories to me himself.  It would seem to him like bragging.

My cousin Biff and his brother; my cousin Laura and her sister; my friend Alicia.  The litany of young people who have looked to my father as a stable force in their lives, a father figure, is considerable.  Even now, when we take him to a family wedding, men from the old neighborhood—middle aged themselves now—jump up to help him to his seat, to get him a drink, to hover around him talking about old times, to hold open doors.

My mother and I have tried to suggest having a party for his 90th, where all the many people who love him could gather, but he won’t hear of it.  “Oh, Jesus Christ,” he says.  The trappings of a party—having to maneuver around with his walker, possibly falling down as he often does, or not making it to the bathroom in time—have been added to the long list of things that make him anxious.  His world shrinks, month by month, day by day.  Recently he realized that although he can still read, he can no longer recite the alphabet or remember the order of the letters.  Only Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, on the pages of his morning Star, remain as some reminder of wider terrain.  Recently, I was on the nominating committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and nominated my father’s longtime hero, Mike Royko, for inclusion.  Although Royko was selected, there was no possibility of my father attending the awards ceremony with me.  Those days have passed.  When I told him about Royko’s induction, I had to shout and repeat myself several times to get my point across, upon which he simply said, “That’s nice, honey.”

He is on a journey across the white barren land, inside himself, from us.  We stand on the periphery and watch him ride away.

*          *          *

What is love?  Is it possible to love by degree?  If a love is not the greatest of all loves, is it love at all?  Is a life lived to ninety more “full” than one lived to fifty?  What if the life lived to ninety was consumed by anxieties, by illnesses, by complexes and regrets?  Where does quality intersect with quantity?  But what defines quality anyway?  Is existence itself “quality” enough?

Sometimes I wonder if I am grieving because I know I will soon lose my father, or if I am grieving for the facets of life my father has already lost.

*          *          *

“Kill me if I get that way,” I tell my husband and my surrogate brother Tom, after watching my mother-in-law die slowly, unable to speak, vomiting on herself if she tried to sit up, her flesh an empty sack loose around her bones.  After listening to my father scream at a god in whom he does not even believe, begging for death, that Christmas he broke his hip and my husband, mother and I had to change his diapers while the antibiotics ravaged him with explosive diarrhea.  “I’ll make sure I have enough pills in the house,” I promise.  “Do it quickly.”

They look at me patiently.  They know I seek to escape the indignity of Death just as I once escaped my old neighborhood.  They know I grew up with the mistaken impression that cleverness could exempt me from anything.  But I read Emily’s memoir; I go to chemo with my friend Kathy; our phone rings in the middle of the night because my father has fallen again on his way to the bathroom, and the truth is that nobody is exempt.  We are all the walking dead of history.  This goddamn place looks like zombies attacked it.

*          *          *

It is a day in late 2011.  My father’s oldest friend in the world, Mario, whom he has known since they were three years old, has had his leg amputated and has been convalescing at home.  My father has avoided going to see him because he can’t stand the thought of Mario without a leg, and it is easy to avoid things when you are almost ninety, disabled and incontinent and seeing nonexistent mice on the floor.  But now Mario’s sister has died and my father has to attend the wake.  My mother, who did not know how to drive until she was seventy and learned only when my father’s feet failed him on the brakes and he ran his car into a pole to avoid hitting pedestrians, drives to the funeral parlor.  At the door, my father sees Mario in his wheelchair.  Other men rush to get a chair for my father, and place it beside Mario.  They sit: two old men who used to play in front of the house we were all raised in, when they were younger than my son.  They talk: the two of them with legs that are missing like dead brothers, or that no longer work.  In the contradictory movie montage of my mind, I have no access to the specifics of their dialogue, but somehow I know there is laughter.  I know they call each other “Baby” like Frank Sinatra, as they always have.  They are historical relics from a day of covered bridges downtown and chaperones for young Italian girls.  Through some accident of mistaken identity or grace, they are still alive.

That same day, in another area of Chicago, Giovanni has his first kiss.  In the coat room of his classroom, like generations of boys before him, he asks a pretty blond girl he has known since preschool, “So, do you want a kiss?” and she says, “Sure,” so he leans in for the kill.  When I ask him if he kissed her on her cheek or her lips, he shrugs at me and drawls evasively, “Oh, I don’t know . . .”  Since beginning kindergarten in September, he has already had four fiancées.  As my father and his friend Mario sit in the dim fluorescent light of the funeral parlor foyer, my son gets ready for bed, excitedly reading aloud from the Magic Treehouse series.  We “snug” together in the darkness, and he twirls a strand of my hair around his finger absently as he makes the jerky breaths the precipitate sleep.

His life is contained in this moment.  In the moment of his first kiss.  In the moment of sleepy breath and Mommy hair.  In the moment of his brain’s voracious recognition of symbols on a page: letters that form words that form language that form story.  My father’s life exists within the single frame of laughter with his childhood friend, as they commemorate yet another death—“doomed,” as Faulkner wrote, to be the ones “who live.”  Now.  Buddhists tell us to live in the moment, but the moment already contains us, whether we want it to or not.  “When I find myself laughing at something now,” my friend Kathy tells me in the tenth week of her chemo, “I feel conscious of it more, and I’m grateful.”  She did not choose this gratitude.  In an instant, she would trade it back for her old, blithe ways.  But it is coming for us all: the recognition of the miraculous ordinary.  We ignore it as long as we can, until we can’t anymore.  We flash brief and bright against the sky just once, just a hundred, just a million tiny times.  Beautiful, singular, vibrant; full of love and pain.  Then we are out.

 

In 2006 I was going through some identity issues. My upbringing was decidedly American, but my habits were infused with Filipino sensibilities. I had a lot of tension between by East/West selves. My solution was a summer in the Philippines to resolve the conflict.

When I mentioned the idea to my parents their immediate reaction was horror. They used their best tactics to talk me out of it. My father used terror: “You know they kidnap Americans over there? If you get kidnapped, I can’t come get you. ” My mother appealed to my fastidious nature: “Did you know not all the bathrooms have toilet paper? Some are pit toilets. It’s gross. You won’t like it.” Thing is, my folks walked away from their families to create a life for my siblings and me in the U.S. We weren’t the type of immigrants that returned for visits. Their split had been decisive. I wondered if they were afraid that I would rewrite the romantic narrative they authored. It didn’t have anything to do with that. I just needed to understand more about where I was born.

Because of my parents’ warnings, I was suitably paranoid and expected to be constipated for the duration of the visit. I lucked upon a great program, Tagalog-On-Site, that encompassed language, literature, history, and politics. It was geared towards students who wanted to understand the American influence in the Philippines. The classes covered topics from the American colonial period, the U.S. military presence from World War 2 and beyond, and the continued affects of globalization on the islands. I thought it a socially progressive program, my Dad called it leftist.

An added incentive to the Tagalog-On-Site program was its location near the University of Philippines, Los Banos campus. If Manila was equivalent to New York City than Los Banos was like Stamford, Connecticut, a low-key city with not a lot going on. It was the perfect, easygoing place to learn about Filipino me.

When I got to the Philippines, I saw that my classes were held in the middle of a suburban-style housing development that reminded me a bit of a neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey, save for the tropical foliage. At the time, I had been very athletic and since there was no gym nearby, I decided I would wake up early and run in the mornings.

No one in the dorm was awake as I put on my sneakers and walked out. At home I ran or hiked in the woods of upstate New York and took the trails in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, so I thought the easiest thing to do was to run in the nearby Boy Scout preserve.

The plan sounded benign, boring even, except in the Philippines there are wild dogs that roam the streets. In the U.S. that wasn’t a hazard I thought about. I had done some hiking in Yosemite, so bears I feared. And in my head I played out that if any wild dogs were to chase me, I’d punch them in the nose like a bear. Or just figure it out.

Since this is my loopy longwinded story, now is the time I disabuse people of the notion that Filipinos eat dogs. We don’t. That’s a myth created at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. At the time the fair organizers thought it a great idea to have a pavilion that showed the savages of the Pacific. They flew in a bunch of Igarot tribesmen in their traditional loincloths to populate the village. In a stroke of idiocy, xenophobic organizers killed and captured dogs to give the tribesmen to eat. Hence the legend persists.

It wasn’t lost on me that morning of my maiden run that I might be the food, rather than the dogs. Would the dogs avenge the memories of those St. Louis pups? I immediately dismissed the thought because the dogs barely looked up as I ran by them. Perhaps they realized my scrawny body wouldn’t be as tasty as the leftovers from the suburban homes. They couldn’t be bothered to chase me.

So to the Boy Scout preserve I made my way. The heat of the day hadn’t yet settled in but I could feel the warmth of the sun through the treetops.

I should have been startled by the gentleman wearing a diaper. He appeared about 10 minutes into my run. About sixty or older, he was also carrying a naked baby. Visually, there was something off.

From what I could tell, the diapered man came from a grouping of shacks within the park. It isn’t uncommon for the poor in the Philippines to do without shoes or a change of clothes. In the slums, the shanties are made of wood, cardboard or metal. And some of the homes have no roofs. Basic amenities like electricity, water, and sewage are not taken for granted. Without a doubt, the poverty is desperate.

In the moment, I didn’t feel unsafe but I wasn’t going to linger. I acknowledged him with my eyebrows to which he responded in kind. It’s a Filipino style of greeting that I only lapse into when I’m around other Pinoys. And then I was off.

On my trip back to the dorm, I ran the same pathways, through the woods, and up on the sidewalk. I showered and made my way to breakfast where I sat with classmates.

Immediately a rash appeared on my legs, my arms, my body. Ged, one of the coordinators of the program, looked at me and asked what had happened. We were only supposed to speak in the Filipino language, and mine was somewhat rudimentary, so in a terrible pantomime I explained.

Ged turned to the others. Their faces, once happy and animated, turned grave. I wasn’t quite sure what they were saying but I could tell it wasn’t good.

“You’ll need to show me the route. We need to go back and you need to apologize to the dwarves, the wood spirits,” she told me in English for emphasis. At this point in my Philippine experience I didn’t know Ged very well. Her official Tagalog-on-Site biography informed she was well educated and was involved in some indigenous music groups. My interactions with her at that point had been pleasant. I had no reason to be suspicious of the resolution she proposed.

The Philippines is a faith-based country. The main religion practiced is Catholicism. Other forms of Christianity pervade and there is a strong Muslim contingent in the south. Many of the religious customs combine animistic concepts that date back around 1565, the pre-Spanish colonial period.

Growing up, my parents only told me about certain Filipino superstitions like repeating the Hail Mary prayer when driving next to a cemetery. They never mentioned wood spirits. But could it hurt to make the apology? At the time I was participating in many healing modalities, experiencing many spiritual/new-age activities, so I thought – why not?

At various locations in the preserve, Ged and I stopped. We placed rice and money on the ground as an offering of appeasement and I’d apologize. She told me, in the future, to avoid any mishaps to say, “step aside little dwarf” because they protected the forests. If I saw a little dirt-pile, that’s where they were. I didn’t say it aloud but thought, isn’t that an anthill? Yet, Ged’s conviction made me take it seriously.

We finally came upon the spot where I ran into the gentleman with the diaper. I recounted events. “Oh, did he look at you?” she asked. A worried look came over her face. ” Yes,” I responded and repeated the eyebrow salutation.

Ged asked everyone in the vicinity about the guy. “If we find him, let me do the talking,” she said. I wasn’t quite sure of her concern. Turns out, Ged thought the guy put a love spell on me! And she needed to reverse the magic.

Filipinos have a lot romantic, dramatic and not especially realistic notions about love. Ill-fated lovers often reunite in heaven after stormy relationships in their lifetimes. It hadn’t occurred to me that the old man put a spell on me. Why? Was it because I was passing through his neighborhood? I didn’t look especially glamorous. And he was carrying a baby so somewhere there was a woman, the mother of the baby, in his life. I suppressed my inclination to laugh at Ged’s suggestion.

Then there he was. This time he wore shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t see the baby. And I noticed he had bad teeth but a big grin as they talked. I think Ged said,” She’s a student from America. She doesn’t understand. She’s sorry. It won’t ever happen again.” The only word I understood was “po,” which adds formality to the Filipino language.

Confident that we had accounted for my running route, Ged and I headed back to the dorm and a day of classes. Although I was mentally calm, my body was on fire. The rash had spread all over. When was my repentance going to stick? Didn’t the money and food help? And it was clear, at least to me, I wasn’t under a love spell.

Despite all the effort, Ged took me to the university infirmary for an allergy shot. I couldn’t handle the itching. As much as I tried to embrace the superstitions in the moment, I just needed the medication. It was the Western antidote to my Eastern ills.