Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No.17”

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press

I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.

But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I”  — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.

Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.

The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.

Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.

We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:

     It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.

There, there. So there.

Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.

There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:

It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?

How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.

This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.

Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.

 

Reading: Genre Love – A Good Read is a Good Read is a Good Read

In this blog post I discuss One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline and My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

When it comes to books, some people find genre a dirty or disparaging word. I confess, I once disdained fiction not labeled literary. Then, after having worked seriously and for years on what I thought was a piece of literary fiction, I became discouraged, stopped trying to waken my inner Didion, and went into a writing-funk, during which a dear one suggested since I was such a raconteur (by which she meant, I never shut up with my inventing of back-stories about people we knew) I should try my hand at mystery cozies or romance novels. I thought, “Hmm, how cinchy. YES!” And, like your typical ignorant-of-the-skills-required fool, I read a couple of crime/mystery thrillers, British mystery cozies, Regency romance novels, and so-called chick-lit, and I was gobsmacked.

And addicted. And knew, right away, those writers who mastered genres had a gift I did not and would not ever possess.

There is so much wonderful, inventive, entertaining writing by an overabundance of skillful artists of the word out there, one never need want for a good read. What I have found especially comforting is that each time I discover a “new” (to me) genre expert I can rely on their having a backlist to which I can look forward when I need a reliable pleasure. When a Twitter friend introduced me to M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series and then sent me all of them currently in print, I was thrilled to have in reserve those many episodes. Too, there is the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache series, the writing in which rivals anything labeled literary fiction. I’m also a fan of John Sandford. And Harlan Coben. And the GLORIOUS Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal. And Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell glories. And Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane Regency romance series. And Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness delights. And …I think you get the picture.

So, I am always delighted when someone I trust suggests a new genre writer I ought to sample. Thus it was that I was led to Lisa Scottoline, who, it turns out, is not only a powerfully talented and prolific writer of mystery/crime thrillers, but, too, an inordinately friendly and gracious Twitter pal. Thus, I was eager to get my hands on:

One Perfect Lie, Lisa Scottoline, Hardcover, 384pp, April 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Chris Brennan — who is not, in fact, Chris Brennan — is the new government teacher and assistant coach at a high school where we know, early on, he is targeting three teen boys — Raz, Justin, and Evan — for some scheme he’s been sent there to accomplish. The three boys, troubled and struggling in their own ways, come from very different circumstances, each with a loving mother suffering her own complications and growing pains. All of these well-developed and sympathetic characters and their individual threads weave into the breakneck paced plot, coalescing in a breath-taking climax for another grand slam Lisa Scottoline thrill-ride.

This is my fourth Lisa Scottoline read, and it is great to know I’ve something like twenty-five more (so far) waiting for me.

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella, Hardcover, 448pp, February 2017, The Dial Press

This is the first book of Sophie Kinsella’s I have read and I was lured by the cover design and jacket copy, particularly this: “…this sharply observed novel is a witty critique of the false judgment we make in a social-media-obsessed world.” Other than what I consider to be a misspelling of judgement (when did they delete the e after the g? NO!) that pretty much sold me as I am lately all too aware of my own false judgements and media-obsession.

Plot synopsis: youth leaves small town for big city dream; big city dream not so dreamy with some big bad monsters; youth returns to roots; youth discovers lots of things about roots and monsters; love blossoms; happy ending.

I read it in one sitting. The writing is smooth, occasionally deliciously funny, and moves with buoyant pacing and graceful alacrity. I had a great good time reading it, finding comfort in knowing what to expect and being provided it with neat mastery.

So, a weekend day of genre reading — and label as you will, the only genre that really matters is a good read, and both of these were.

Reading: “Days Without End” and “The End of Eddy”

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry, Hardcover, 259pp, January 2017, Viking and The End Of Eddy, Edouard Louis, translated from the French by Michael Lucey, Hardcover, 208pp, May 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

There comes a certain responsibility when one is the 46,000th (almost) most popular reviewer on Amazon.com as well as being in the bottom two per cent (almost) of most visited of the 3 million (or more) blog posts daily clogging the virtual world, not to mention having two thirds (almost) of the average number of Twitter followers, many (almost) of whom have not muted me (yet) and a few (almost) of whom find my Tweets and my blog posts to be interesting/amusing (almost) — such media penetration combined with so large and loyal (almost) a following weighs heavily on me as I resist my genetic otiosity, force myself off the couch and skivvy my way through crafting my thoughts and feelings about what I’ve read into cogent (not even almost) essays which are honest — so as to fulfill my duty to the reader, and respectful — so as to recognize the efforts of the writer, for there are few people in the world I respect more than those who give us the gift of words shaped into story; and all of this I do for no remuneration or profit (in fact, I incur debt in the effort), because I love reading and writers and my many (if by many one means hardly any) followers.

All of which is circumlocutory procrastination because I have spent two three four five days unsuccessfully trying to figure out what I really feel and mean to say about these two books which I coincidentally read back to back and which have everything and yet nothing in common.

Don’t be misled by the Albert Bierstadt cover painting; this novel takes place on the Western frontier, but it is not a Western.

Days Without End was recommended to me and so I got it from the library. Once gotten, however, I could not recall who had suggested it and I was so put off by the cover-art and jacket copy (both of which turned out to be very poor predictors of what the book was about), I kept moving it to the bottom of my stack and was considering returning it without reading.

Then, I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible [click here], which I five-star-plus adored, and I knew from past experience that when I love a book that much, the next one (or two or three) are going to get short-shrift, not measure up in comparison, and so I thought, “Well, okay then, let’s go ahead and start this since I probably won’t like it anyway.”

Was I ever wrong. (Well, yes, in fact, I am often wrong — but wait, that’s another kind of blog post. Or, maybe, not.)

In the 1850’s Thomas McNulty, who watched his entire family succumb to the to the Great Famine in Ireland, emigrates to America when Irish immigrants suffered the sort of bigotry Muslims now suffer from the ignoramus-tr*mpist class(less) hordes. In his early teens, he dives under a hedge in Missouri to escape a rainstorm, and it is there fate throws him up against the even younger John Cole, who, too, has been living on his own, having left his family and home at age twelve. From page two it is clear their connection lasts a lifetime:

Thank God John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter. He was with me nearly all through this exceeding surprising Yankee sort of life which was good going in every way.

McNulty lives in this nearly comma-free, rough-hewn, plainspoken reality, the patois of which Sebastian Barry has artfully crafted so the deceptive simplicity of the voice in contrast to the depth and emotional complexity of the story is exultantly atonal, inviting the reaction, “what is this unexpected, unusual, and jarring, yet beautiful music?”

McNulty and Cole love one another. From their early employment as faux-female barroom hostesses selling dances and sexual favors, to their faux-adoption of a Native American child whose people they have had a role in slaughtering, to their attempted escape from a lifetime of mercenary soldiering to a farm life as husband and wife, McNulty unapologetically and without angst in skirts, they are quietly lovers, partners, companions, a couple.

While McNulty and Cole’s union might have felt anachronistic in less capable hands, Sebastian Barry manages to make it as believable and visceral as he does the haunting brutality of the lives his characters lead, the milieu of violence and hunger and the treacherous landscape of fealty to the truth of one’s self.

The story is deftly relevant without being sententious, a poetic exploration of the shapes family, love, gender, and violence can take in a life, and the rewards and losses of one’s odyssey through that life in an often unfriendly world.

The End Of Eddy is an international sensation, translated from the French, about which I have been hearing for months so I begged for and received an advanced reader’s copy.

Honestly, I am torn.

Luckily, Garth Greenwell, author of one of the finest novels I have ever read, What Belongs To You [read what I thought and wrote about it HERE, from February 2016], has written one of his customarily comprehensive and insightful exegesis of The End Of Eddy HERE, in the New Yorker Magazine [click here] which explains and illumines this translation brilliantly.

You can stop here, now, if you’re looking for me to shed any light on this novel’s technique or the author’s background. This is a book hewn from personal experience and, for me, a gay man of a certain age who was obviously, inescapably effeminate as a youth in a time when being so was guarantee of abuse and rejection, The End Of Eddy was a painful revisiting of a difficult and often terrifying youth; a revisiting made all the more excruciating given the current political climate of a return to the hate and bigotry and inequality we’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much to change for those who’ve come after us; that we now have in power in this supposedly civilized country a group of cis white men who are determined to belittle and demonize women, people of color, LGBTQ, and all others who are not THEM, is a harrowing reality — and makes this novel not just relevant, but required.

But, maybe not required for people who’ve lived through it. Which means, in my case anyway, the rest of this “review” will be an unabashedly personal confession.

Edouard Louis has said that everything in this novel actually happened to him. An eerie amount of his ordeals were also mine. I had family members who found my effeminacy embarrassing and suggested with a tone of distaste I stop acting like a girl. I was targeted by bullies in school, daily abused by the same people, and was blamed for it by administration, told I should try to be more like a boy, fit in more. I too had crooked teeth, stained by medication my mother took while carrying me, which were never fixed because braces hadn’t worked well enough for my brother and there just wasn’t money to take care of my teeth — which are still a mess. I too underachieved in school, was constantly told I should use my genius I.Q. and excel, but was so terrorized by the abuse I suffered each day in school, the amount of time I spent ducking the people who’d call me names, throw me into lockers, dunk me into toilets — all of which I KNEW was my fault for not being more of a boy — that I couldn’t focus at school; being smart only made me more of a target. I too was afraid all the time when I was with my family or walking down a school hallway or out in public that someone would call me one of the many derogatory names that were shouted and whispered and graffitied at me throughout my life and humiliate me by naming my shame and flaw in front of others. I too had no idea how NOT to act like, walk like, talk like, think like, want like a girl — it was who I was and it was clear that me was a freak.

So, whatever the artistic merit of The End of Eddy, I cannot fairly measure. I was overtaken by the tsunami of pain in its story, near drowning in my own memories of the assaults on my humanity, the degradation and angst in which I lived and which I have worked impossibly hard to escape but which is there, part of the foundation of who I am, always ready to come at me and make me feel less than at the slightest provocation.

And the November election was a provocation not at all slight, a seeming affirmation of all the hateful ignorami whose own insecurities and idiocy lead them to revel in making the lives of we “other” so difficult to navigate.

Look, I can hear (and have heard) some of those who have not had this experience saying, “Get over it.” Hell, even some people who have experienced the bigotry are impatient with those who still suffer the after-effects of the trauma — although I often suspect those people are in denial, having never quite processed their own traumas — but that’s another blog entry and book review.

I would like to get over and get past it, as I’m sure Edouard Louis was, but you can’t get over or past what was carved into you during your formative years. You can only adapt, and the brutal truth of adaptation is that you will always need to spend a certain amount of your life-energy being on the lookout for the early-ingrained self-hatred and adjusting past it and its effects. You simply cannot live in a bigoted, misogynist, racist, homophobic world/society without some measure of it infecting you.

Even when I’ve found a group of people who I feel accept me — like theatre, like writers, like gay men, like, most recently, a warm and wise community on Twitter — I still feel outlier, other than, less than, never among the elite. For me, there is always what feels like an awareness that I don’t really belong, I am just visiting, having been given a visa which might at any time be revoked. I am always certain there is a secret world and cabal among them, an insiders circle and parties and events where the ones who really like each other gather, to which I will never be invited; an echelon membership in which  I will never achieve. I will never be quite enough, there will ALWAYS be something not okay about me — my teeth, my body, my income, my history, my age, my inability to ignore this dysfunction I’ve just spent paragraphs describing.

So, when I reached the last page of The End Of Eddy — which considering the short length of the book took me a very long time because all the similarities made it rough going for me — I was destroyed by the knowledge that this Eddy, no matter how far he traveled from the circumstances of his youth, whether his teeth got straightened or he wrote an international best seller, this Eddy would always bear the scars and need workaround his early years.

And it made me sad. Very, very sad.

IN CONCLUSION …

These two books, like I said some two thousand words ago, could not be more alike. And, more different. They both describe with brutal, violent truth, the lives of men who love men. Yet, the lyrical Western-ish tale set in the 1850’s, was a more hopeful, less horrifying (for me) story with an ending suggesting some resolution. While the Bildungsroman of Eddy’s story, set in the near past, was terrifying, traumatizing, and with nary a hint of happy end. Two novels exploring the realities of men loving men, both worth reading, neither easy to read, and obviously — five days and two thousand words later — difficult for me to process, and I suppose this conclusion has a lot to do with my mood, my sorrow, my loss of hope (I’m trying to get it back) since the November disaster and its aftermath, but what feels the saddest to me, what made me weep having finished these two novels and spent five days trying to figure out what it was that devastated me so, is this: the sneaking suspicion that maybe, after all, things DON’T get better, because in many ways, McNulty and Cole’s 1850’s life was far better than Eddy’s 1970’s life.

And, with that, here I am, going.

Reading: Elizabeth Strout’s “Anything Is Possible”

Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, Hardcover, 254pp, April, 2017, Random House

Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Strout, is one of those writers whose work conjures the feeling one had as a child when first discovering the magic ability of books to draw you into worlds not your own, and yet, worlds where you discovered and explored parts of yourself you’d not known about before; one of those writers who introduce you to your own soul by illuminating with truth and insight and glorious, marvelous, extraordinary language the souls of their characters.

One of those writers who reminds you in your jaded, worn out from having so many mediocre to meh books thrown at you that this is writing! This is why I read.

So, you might just as well stop wasting time reading my thoughts about Elizabeth Strout’s latest magic act and go get the book. Right now. Read it for yourself. Go on.

Are you still here? All right, well then, I warn you there is little I am going to or can say that hasn’t already been better said by others. So, if you must read a review, I suggest Jennifer Senior’s from the April 26 edition of The New York Times. [click here] Go ahead. Click. Read a real review.

And STILL you’re reading me? Well, it’s not exactly what I am known for, but I will try to keep this brief so you can go read the book.

The novel is a hybrid, a beautiful, cohesive portrait composed of stand-alone pieces which coalesce into an emotional chiaroscuro of such depth and subtlety and artistry, one wants to spend forever exploring the shades and shadows and light and dark therein.

There are many themes woven through Anything Is Possible, but the thread which mesmerized me most was the unmasking of all the ways in which humans can misapprehend and misconstrue what looks and feels like and seems to be reality, and how the discovery of those misunderstandings or deceits or ignorances result in disappointment, anger, sorrow, and, almost always, more confusion. Anything Is Possible illuminates in breathtaking, devastating accumulation of particularities that even with all the details and gossip and glut of information we have about each other and the world, we really know very little about anything at all; including ourselves.

This book illustrates the crushing loneliness and ultimate solitude of being alive better than anything I have ever read. It captures the ways in which even the people we love the most are mysteries to us, and we to them, all of us with secrets, and how the distortions caused by the things we haven’t told and the stories we don’t know disrupt and limit and often destroy our lives.

I promised I would keep this short and I considered quoting the novel at length, but, while nearly every sentence is chiseled and shaped like something Michelangelo has wrought into life from marble, they are each more a masterpiece in context. So, I won’t quote. I will simply tell you one more time: GO! GO NOW! READ THIS BOOK! Because Elizabeth Strout is indeed a Michelangelo of literature, and she has made from the marble of our lives, a thing of such beauty it rivals his David.

Go. Read. Marvel.

 

Reading: Before Everything by Victoria Redel

Before Everything, Victoria Redel, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2017, Viking

It is distressingly easy to find books dealing with friendship, love, loss, and death that are mawkish, manipulative, and moribund in soapish excess; so what a gift to discover a novel that limns so honestly, clearly, and cogently the arc of the sort of deep friendships that define a life, as important and vital (maybe more so) than any romantic or family bond: these families we make on our own.

From the publisher:

Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of women who have known each other since they were girls. They’ve faced everything together, from youthful sprees and scrapes to mid-life turning points. Now, as Anna, the group’s trailblazer and brightest spark, enters hospice, they gather to do what they’ve always done—talk and laugh and help each other make choices and plans, this time in Anna’s rural Massachusetts home. Helen, Anna’s best friend and a celebrated painter, is about to remarry. The others face their own challenges—Caroline with her sister’s mental health crisis; Molly with a teenage daughter’s rebellion; Ming with her law practice—dilemmas with kids and work and love. Before Everything is as funny as it is bittersweet, as the friends revel in the hilarious mistakes they’ve seen each other through, the secrets kept, and adventures shared. But now all sense of time has shifted, and the pattern of their lives together takes on new meaning. The novel offers a brilliant, emotionally charged portrait, deftly conveying the sweep of time over everyday lives, and showing how even in difficult endings, gifts can unfold. Above all it is an ode to friendship, and to how one person shapes the journeys of those around her.

Anyone who has ever lost a friend will recognize themselves in these beautifully written pages resonant with meticulously detailed emotions, articulated in a time-leaping mosaic which reads much in the way life is remembered and experienced as we age; in a non-linear sort of time grounded in experiences and impressions, connections seen and discovered, how this thing in this moment reminds us of that thing from another moment, the threads sewn through the fabric of a life, and how keeping track by measuring seconds, minutes, hours, years, yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows gives way to an order dictated by emotional weight and impact — this song takes you to that moment, and suddenly your heart is seventeen again.

With artful technique — not show-offy or obvious — Victoria Redel renders luminously the accumulation of events, truths, lies, pains, apologies, compromises, surrenders, victories, and discoveries that make a person who they are and shape relationships.

From page one we know Anna is dying, the virtuosity of this novel is the way in which it illuminates how the process of someone’s dying doesn’t begin with the diagnosis or end with the death, but, rather, like someone’s living, goes on forever in the ways it affects others, the changes it makes in the world — even in the world of the past and memories, the echoes of the moments of connection — death reshapes all of those things. And, through the accumulation of detail achieved by short pieces of narrative so one is never mired too long in a place too melancholy — the mixing of past and present, the concatenation of voices and perspectives — we, the readers, become as hopeful as the friends that somehow, Anna will survive. We, like the friends, wish for magic realism — a little miracle.

Which is what this novel is, a little miracle of wonderful writing, interesting and human characters, and a heartfelt, moving window into loss and the ways in which even epic sorrow can bring new light and life into being, and teach lessons we might otherwise not have learned. This exchange when Anna is advising Reuben, her estranged but still very present husband, he ought to pursue a relationship with her hospice nurse:

Then, out of nowhere the other day, Anna told him he should marry Kate. “You’ve definitely noticed her,” Anna teased. “I know your taste.”

“Wow, now here’s an excellent line,” he shot back. “My dying wife thinks I should date you.” He was taking apart the four-poster bed. She’d refused the hospital bed until she could no longer refuse. “I’m a real catch, Anna,” he said.

“You are a catch, Reuben. You’re my only regret,” Anna said. “I should never have let us separate.”

“Please, we both screwed up.”

Still, it felt good to hear Anna say, “I abandoned you first.”

How sorry and petty a thing was vindication. The ice trays needed filling.

Such a trenchant, insightful journey in Reuben’s mind, and a powerful realization: there is always the quotidian waiting; an ice tray to fill, a trashcan to empty, a next breath that need be taken. We go on.

And as Anna’s best friend thinks, near the end:

Looking at the faces in the room, she understands that this is what we do. We are here. And then we are not here. For a little while, we are a story.

Yes. This. And the story is both the enormous metaphysical and existential concerns, and, too, the ice trays. Victoria Redel captures this truth by telling one story of one particular death and life and the people it affects, in resplendent style. Truly lovely.

 

 

 

Lest He Forgets

They did not do the biopsy.

Which is a much longer story than he felt capable of telling or texting or speaking or emailing. A story the beginning of which he could no longer point to with any certainty. He wasn’t sure if he’d missed the beginning, its signs, or mistaken the beginning, its sneaky invasion, or lost the beginning.

He had always known how to lose — he’d been raised to it; but this loss had the whimpering whisper of The End.

Perhaps it had started with losing words? Or, it was when he began to lose words he began to realize something was amiss inside him. He, who had always had too much to say, who in his kinder moments had thought himself somewhere between loquacious and prolix, but in his more truthful moments knew himself to be a self-involved, babbling pedant poseur, a someone who spoke in long, digressive tangles of uninteresting babblings meant to distract from his lack of education, income, and lifelong inability to choose an other who was interested in being known as his significant, he who had, finally — almost — accepted that he’d spend his declining years as he’d spent all those earlier decades sharing his bed with the pages of books and the words and worlds of his beloved authors; his mind was beginning to go.

He was losing words.

He meant, before language abandoned him completely, stranding him in some wordless hell he could not imagine, would not tolerate, would determine the boundary-line on the way to which he would not cross, where he would stop and end the journey, surrounded by Parker, Bowles — Jane and Paul, Didion, Isherwood, Adler, Hanff, Isherwood, McCracken, Patchett, Strout, Williams, Greenwell, Capote, White, Penny, and, yes, Susann’s Valley of the Dolls — NEEEEEELY FUCKING O’HARA!!!!!; all of those dear ones there for his final recline, he meant to write his won ending.

Briefly he considered making a funeral pyre of all these books he’d loved, but he couldn’t bear the thought of their incineration, even in the service of his self-immolation. They were treasures and should be passed on, vibrating with the love he’d invested in them, to comfort and sustain and educate another as they had him.

All of this must be done, remembered, planned, before what was left of him drifted — petal be petal, word by word, cell by cell, thought by thought, love by love — away.

First, it had become harder to read. He began having difficulty keeping track of who characters were from one day to the next. He would re-read and still not remember having read it the day before. Then he started stumbling for words when he spoke. And names. And shared memories: people would say to him, “Remember when we…” and he did not. At all. They might as well have been talking about a stranger. Like he was losing track of characters in books, he was losing track of his many selves.

So, before he forgot all of the I’s he had been, he meant to remember them. Before all of him was gone, he meant to remember all of the hims he’d been.

Then his hands started getting weaker. And hurting. Some days he could barely move his right thumb. It hurt to hold a book. His hands ached after he’d cleaned or baked or done laundry or typed, or held a book to read. He just — that it hurt to hold a book to read — this seemed almost too much for him.

Plus, the rash. Which wasn’t a rash. It had started as a few red spots on one arm, spread to the other arm, and eventually covered his body from the neck down so he looked like some sort of hybrid of human and red-spotted leopard. After many, many trips to the physician’s practice to which his low-end affordable-care-act insurance assigned him,  during which he’d been put on anti-anxiety/depression medication, steroids, topical creams, and one or another thing he couldn’t quite remember, a picture was taken of his rash (which wasn’t a rash) and texted to the actual physician who owned the practice who texted back that a biopsy needed to be done and he would do it. Three weeks and three canceled (by the doctor) appointments later, he went to his 8a.m. appointment at 7:45, waited until 8:30 to be seen — he’d brought Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel — which he loved — and which he set on his lap because his hands really hurt that morning and he couldn’t use his right thumb without grimacing  — and when the doctor finally did come into the examining room he took one look at the rash which wasn’t a rash and said a biopsy would tell them nothing, he needed to go to a dermatologist, figure out the trigger/underlying cause as to why his body was attacking itself in this way and be put on immunosuppressants.

This is three and a half months AFTER his first visit for this condition, which, at the time, was only on one arm and now covered nearly his entire body.

And he thought: Immunosuppressants? I’ve heard — I fucking remember — what those are for. Holy shit.

And so it became all the more important to remember who he’d been. He knew his memories were already fading, defensively constructed, the peculiarity of detail edited and shaped, it’s light focused and gelled in soft colors and design to show him in the best possible way, the carefully aimed shadows thrown to complement the strong points and obscure the flaws of his character.

Which he’d started to forget.

And so on that morning when they did not do the biopsy, as he sat in the waiting area while they called all over Maryland finding a dermatologist who accepted his low-end insurance, insurance the doctor told him was “the worst possible insurance in the Maryland pool, there’s nothing lower,” on that morning, in that waiting room, he suppressed his fear and his tears and his anger — which he didn’t quite understand — and he started this. In third person. Close.

Before the forgetting overtook him completely.

Mom, Rash, and Cumming. (That sounds bad.)

MOM

The Mother Unit

Long/short and without invading her privacy — not that I haven’t Tweeted her from here to queendom come already — my Mom was to have a procedure on Friday which is normally done in the doctor’s office, but because of her age, heart, and other medical concerns, it was done at the hospital.

As is always the case, she takes these things in stride. As is also always the case, we, her children, and she, end up amusing and entertaining the medical staff,and on departure we are hugging everyone. We are a family of huggers. I am, in fact, well known for my hugs both by those who have been shocked and put off by my embrace and those who yearn for my long, tight, back rubbing, soothing caresses, being enfolded in my love and light.

The outpatient surgical waiting area, complete with grand piano that plays itself. And the EVITA balcony. I wanted to, I really did, but I didn’t.

Once Mom went under, sister and I were sent out to the GORGEOUS waiting area, handed a buzzer like one gets when waiting for a table at a restaurant, and informed that the procedure would take about an hour.

Imagine my surprise when ten minutes later it started to vibrate. Imagine my horror when I went to the volunteer desk and said, “I think you buzzed the wrong buzzer, my Mom’s operation takes an hour.” And they said, “The doctor needs to speak with you right away,” and led me to the consultation room.

Short/long. She is fine. The procedure was unnecessary because the condition is a result of her aging, there is nothing to be done about it except make a few adjustments in behavior, and it is what it is.

Thank goodness I had listened to her when she’d INSISTED on getting her hair done the day before the procedure. I am less worried about the condition killing her than I am about her head exploding if her beloved Baltimore Orioles lose one more game to the Yankees she hates so much. Her screaming at the television is likely to result in burst blood vessels or a stroke. Or, maybe not, once again the medical staff each and every one did some variation of, “You are in amazing shape and health for an 89-year-old.”

She is. And it gives me hope that despite my recent medical travails, if I keep living, I’ll be able to keep living, in the way my mom, example for us all, has thrived and gone on. But speaking of my medical issues … there’s my …

RASH

My beautiful rash. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror when I take my clothes off, shower, etcetera, and I have to hide at the gym, which has DESTROYED my sauna game.

By this time tomorrow, I should finally have had the skin biopsy which has now been postponed three times, and be on the way (I hope) to solving the mystery of this ever spreading (well, it’s stopped now as everything from the neck down is covered — PLEASE don’t move up to my face), ever morphing in shape and texture, un-diagnosable (so far) or treatable rash (that is not really a rash) which has been going on since January. I will also, no doubt, have had my vasovagal syncope reaction to the numbing needles and passed out. I’ve been told the biopsy leaves only the tiniest of scars. Look, a tiny scar after months of being covered in dots and splotches seems a little thing — as long as it leads to a cure.

I need a cure, because, of late, I am also having issues with forgetfulness, a mind stutter where I seem to go offline for a few seconds, and there is joint pain, for example, this morning I can hardly move my right thumb, and I’m having chest constriction — which feels like anxiety but I don’t feel particularly anxious. Weird. I would like some answers.

But, look, I know I’m lucky. Look at my brave, amazing Mom who delivered six children, had three miscarriages, has had heart, kidney, and endless other surgeries, gets daily shots, has seen her parents, two husbands, all of her siblings, and one of her delivered children die, and  — she’s so dear — wanted to go with me tomorrow for my two-minute skin biopsy because, “I know how you feel about needles and you take me everywhere.”

I have, maybe, the greatest mother of all time.

And finally, CUMMING, of the Alan variety

Last night my dear A treated me to a night at the Kennedy Center where we saw Alan Cumming performing his Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, which A had already seen twice — once in its original iteration at the Cafe Carlyle and another time at Strathmore Concert Hall. A is a devoted fan of Mr. Cumming. I confess I had never seen him live, ever, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I can say with 100% sincerity, my experiencing of Alan’s one night stand was a great time.

The Carver Twins

More Carver Twins because … well, look.

I also must confess, I was a little disappointed that I did not see the Carver Twins, Charlie and Max, in the audience. I knew they were in D.C. for the climate march and I thought I’d heard they (or, at least Charlie) were going to be at the concert. If they were, they were well hidden. Alas. Although, probably fine because while I do have an undeniable appeal to young men with daddy-issues, with Alan being 52 and right there, clearly available and more than able (those pants were tight and obviously bothering him as he kept adjusting his estimable bulge), and considering my rash, why would they bother with me?

I was distracted by Mr. Cumming, though. (Aside from the bulge and its frequent adjustment.) He is a much better vocalist than I had thought and he invests each number with intense emotion, real commitment, and wraps it all up in a story, well told. And speaking of stories, his between songs patter was pretty damn glorious, near perfect. Funny, touching, interesting, shocking, moving, perfectly timed and delivered, and, too, his digs about the current state of politics and life in this country, well, they earned huge applause. His anecdotes about Stephen Sondheim, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Kay Thompson, and a fellow named Raven, are hilarious.

And, it’s the way he delivers that really makes it. He has a smooth awareness of just how cute and gamine he can be before crossing over into calculated and arch. The sideways glance, the slow take, the rim-shot moments, the flirting, the outright seduction are some near-lethal combination of charming and erotic, so you feel surrendered and a little naughty.

That said, I don’t trust him. HA! He gives me the vibe of someone who wears his sensitivity as a defense of his cruelty, and I’ve tried to avoid those types in which I once specialized — their magnetism and sensual aura sucks you in and makes you part of their defense team, you fall for their vulnerability and use it as an excuse for all the horrible shit they do to you. So, no, I could NEVER give in to my lust for him — really, I couldn’t. Go ahead, Alan, test me. And, too, being shallow me, I could never have sex with him — really, I couldn’t, go ahead Alan, ASK ME — because he has too much underarm hair for me and I haven’t ever liaised with a man in his 50s. Unless one counts my nights with myself. Which, I don’t. So, Alan, there’s no hope for the two of us. I mean it. Don’t try. Seriously, you’d just get hurt but, well, if you don’t believe me, JUST ASK ME.

Now if we could get the Carver boys on board … maybe … okay, gotta run, the world isn’t going to hug itself, now is it? Love and light, dear ones.

Zeitbites: April 29, 2017

9:30 a.m.

The voices in my head may have been less frightening than the voices in my life.

Noon

I’ve spent the last ten days worrying myself into perturbation over my memory loss, mental stutterings, and synpatic misfires: then my phone updated without my permission and forgot the auto-fill curse words and advanced-Charlie-specific vocabulary I’ve spent months teaching it; so, at least I’m not the only machine with disconnect issues, still, I liked it better when after I’d typed “gr” my phone leapt to complete me by filling in “Grey Gardens” rather than its post-update “great”. Blah.

2:30 p.m.

Today’s most used search term to locate me — yes, there is but one thus far in my stats — is a bit less elevated than the “existential longing” search that led people here April 26. But, of course, my hits are much higher. Oh, what a world.

My Uncontrollable Rash(ness?)

My day began with the cancellation/rescheduling of my skin biopsy. Again.

Let me go back to the beginning of my trying to cope with this monster without my head exploding. I think.

It was January 21, 2017, the morning after one of the darkest days in my life, a day I had spent every waking hour since November 9, 2016, convincing myself would never happen, happened, when first I realized the rash that had started as a series of red spots, each about a half-inch wide on my lower right arm, spread within days to my upper right arm, then to my lower left arm, and now had marched onto my upper left arm were not going away. I called my assigned medical practice. Long/short, after decades of resisting, I agreed to take an antidepressant. [You can read about that here, in an earlier blog post, At Long Last, Medication.]

Here we are, going, three months later, and while my depression is markedly improved, the daily weeping controlled — no doubt also helped by my rationing real life to near total retreat from social media, news media, and, well, most everything — my rash — which I have been told is not technically a rash — has continued its aggressive storming of all of my body’s fronts so that it now appears on torso, legs, soles, palms, everywhere except (so far) my neck and face. Too, where it earliest appeared as spots, it has now morphed into splotches and patches, their newest mutation being a slight raising of the flesh, which progression is now occurring on the chest patches, and beginning its descent to the legs.

I have been back to the doctor five times for this condition. I have been told I might have mange (nope), been medicated with creams and steroids, which did nothing, and, on my last visit, a picture was taken of my rash and sent by cellphone to the actual doctor who owns the practice — a man I’ve never even glimpsed let alone had a visit with — and from his cellphone, somewhere in the yonder, having been told it had been going on and getting worse since January, he directed that he must see me and would do a biopsy. This was early April. When I went to the desk and tried to make the appointment, I was told the first available appointment was in June. I explained the situation — which had been going on in an office not three feet away from this desk — and was miraculously fit in for April 27.

In the interim, another medicine which had been prescribed me was denied by my insurance. Much back and forthing between drug store and practice and insurance company and me, none of which resulted in anything but me wanting to scream. While I had to keep asking questions of drug store, my practice, my insurance — NO ONE bothered to tell me ANYTHING. At every step I had to keep calling and emailing to figure out who had said yes, or no, or appealed, or not, and what had to happen next — none of the provider types apparently thinking it important enough to tell me what was going on, each assuming another of them would be doing so or doing something.

Result being, I wrote a pointed email to insurer/practice saying that the combination of a three-month unidentified rash and repeated dead-end frustration and lack of communication from all of them was undoing the good my antidepressant had managed to do and returning me to suicidal ideation and could someone PLEASE help me? Or, at least, ANSWER me.

Within an hour my practice called, during which call they said, “And the doctor wants to schedule a biopsy of your skin condition — he had no idea it had been going on so long.”

WTF? I calmly explained that he did know, he’d said the exact same thing a few weeks earlier, and they’d tried to schedule me in June, only my objection had gotten me an appointment on the 27th. They then said, “Let me check.”

Well, yes, they said, I did have an appointment on the 27th. They’d see me then. So, imagine my chagrin (though, not surprise, because incompetence and disregard for me, the poor, bottom level insurance patient, seems to be standard operating procedure) when they called me on the 25th, yesterday, to say the doctor would not be IN the office on the 27th and I would need to reschedule.

Again, WTF? But, I did. I rescheduled for today at 4:15. This morning at 8am they called to inform me the doctor would NOT be in the office at 4:15 today and I would need to call and reschedule. I called, nearly in tears, trying to stay calm — you’ve no idea how terrified I am of needles and cutting ANYWAY which would tell you how desperate I am about figuring out what this leprous looking scourge covering my body is and doing something to get rid of it — and now, the only POSSIBLE time he can see me is Monday at 8am. And he is the ONLY one in the practice who can do the biopsy.

Stay tuned. I’m losing it. PS — since all my calls and emails on Friday about the denied-drug issue, not another WORD from this practice, drug store, or insurance company. So, I guess I am again tasked with calling around to figure out what is going on with that.

I hope when whatever this mysterious illness is kills me; or, conversely, the stress from dealing with it and these medical providers from drugstores to insurers to doctors kills me, all of you tens of readers I have will join forces to sue somebody and get the money to my sister to assuage her grief.

Argh.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I post without further comment this picture of the top searches landing people at my blog. Oh lord. If this doesn’t speak for itself.

 

 

few words

here we are, going.

… just give me one thing that I can hold onto … to believe in this living is just a hard way to go …

I’m lost again
I think I’m really scared
I won’t be back at all this time
And have my deepest secrets shared

So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
But now old friends they’re acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Leaving home years ago,
What was i looking for?
I don`t know.
I can`t recall well, anyway.
Soon i`ll have my days and nights of
Wonderful, glimmering, beautiful, shimmering
Colored lights!