Friday, May 29, 2009

Why Our Stories Matter

The last time I called my father, he asked me what time it was.
“Don't you have a watch, Dad?” I asked.
“No, they always take those away when you travel, and the clocks in the train station are all wrong,” he answered.
“He thinks he's going on a trip,” said my brother, who'd driven down to Myrtle Beach from New York to visit Dad in the hospital. “He keeps trying to do up his seatbelt.”
Dad was going on a trip. It was his last journey, the same one we all eventually make. For him, the journey came just after Christmas. I'd been to see him the first week of December, and we'd managed to play a game of Monopoly, though his hands were so shaky that I had to move his little cannon around the board for him. Still, Dad's blue eyes gleamed with the hope of landing on Boardwalk.
He landed in the hospital two weeks later with pneumonia. Given his emphysema, his prognosis wasn't great. I wanted to fly down to see him, but Christmas and New Year's were in the way and our four children were coming home from college. Plus, the doctors were noncommittal. He might bounce back, they said. Let's get him into rehab. I made a reservation to fly down from Massachusetts to South Carolina the week after Christmas. Dad died the day before I arrived.
I flew down anyway, taking off from Boston in a blizzard on the last plane to have its wings de-iced for the day. I drove so fast out of the Myrtle Beach airport that a tiny, sunburned, Napoleonic cop handed me a ticket for $100.
“Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” the cop asked.
“Not fast enough,” I said.
I spent the next week helping my mother clear out Dad's closets and dresser drawers, marveling at how my father, a career Navy man who served his country during the Korean War and Vietnam, still folded his briefs and t-shirts in that tidy military way despite his palsied hands and lack of breath. The neat rows of shining shoes bothered me the most, clear evidence that Dad never went anywhere at the end. Only his slippers were scuffed.
I kept a soft flannel shirt and a few family photos. Otherwise, off it went, all of that detritus of life carted away to the Salvation Army in the mafia-sized trunk of my mother's lumbering American sedan. My last stop was at the funeral home to retrieve Dad's ashes, which weighed so much that I staggered when the funeral director handed me the brass box.
Death is seldom convenient, but for me, Dad's death has a peculiarly sharp resonance because I wrote a book about him that he never saw. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, is due out today by Harmony. To research the book required spending many hours with my father, talking about how and why he, a Navy officer, became so entranced by gerbils – “pocket kangaroos,” he liked to call them -- that he retired from the military and raised them on a grand scale. My dad was a world- renowned gerbil expert, a Gerbil Czar with nearly 9,000 gerbils housed on our 90-acre farm in Massachusetts. We kids were his first employees.
Despite what some readers might think after James Frey published his memoir-that-wasn't, A Million Little Pieces (which probably made more money because Oprah gave him such a sound scolding for faking it), most people who write memoirs are not fanciful liars, but dogged researchers. In my case, I interviewed family, friends, my father's employees, and anyone else I could get to talk to me about Dad, hoping to capture a life on the page.
At Dad's memorial service last week, our family gathered for an outdoor ceremony at a cemetery that is, literally and figuratively, on a dead end street in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Standing in this cemetery, you get no sense of the world beyond. There are no traffic sounds or children shouting, no ambulance sirens or buses honking their horns. None of that busyness of life to interfere with our contemplation of that last journey we all make, leaving behind our shoes and hats and families who love us. When the minister sang, though, a mockingbird sitting high in an oak tree above us suddenly started chattering and singing, too, louder and louder over the minister's fine soprano until we were all laughing.
“That's Dad, having the last word,” my brother said, looking up at the bird.
“I hope so,” I said.
For all I can think, as my book makes its way into the world, is this: what if I got something wrong? Dad read the book before he left for his last journey, but what if he missed something, too?
Ah, well. As the brilliant writer Jim Harrison says in his poem, “Larson's Holstein Bull” from In Search of Small Gods, “Death steals everything except our stories.” That's why it's so important to tell them as best we can.

Friday, May 15, 2009

American Idol's Lambert v.s. Allen: Good v.s. Evil?

My son, Blaise, an erudite English major at Bates College, recently caught me curled up in a chair, red wine in hand, watching American Idol. Blaise is a 21 year-old idealist taking a class in deconstructing the media, so he was quick to lecture me on the evils of falling prey to would-be Idols who are manufactured with their own little stories, just like those American Girl Dolls his sisters once loved. There's the Idol with the dead wife, the blind guy, the impoverished mother of three, etc. "Idol panders to the prurient interests of the masses," he said. "How can you stand to watch it? You have a master's degree in English, Mom!"

Exactly. With my pedigree, how can I stand NOT to watch AI? I was a reality TV show virgin until this year, when I accidentally stumbled onto one of the early American Idol audition shows while searching for a public television documentary on prison torture or plague viruses, I forget. I was after some mind expansion. Instead, I found people singing their hearts out in front of psycho judges who speak in tongues, using words like "dope" and "chops," or uttering playground insults like, "Your singing sounded like a cat being dropped off the Empire State building." I was hooked.

I've watched every show since then. With the help of my DVR, I can zip through the drearier performances, like those by Matt in the Hat, kind of like skipping some of Proust's descriptions of his bedspread. Now that we're down to the final battle between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, I've come to believe that American Idol is like great literature everywhere, offering us the classic conflict of good v.s. evil.

In this corner, Ladies and Gentlemen -- let's just call it the "right" or the "red" corner -- we have good boy Kris Allen, the cute and humble guitar picker from Arkansas who has already landed himself a Barbie trinket of a wife. He sings white boy mood music kind of like Jack Johnson, well suited to animated children's stories. He's exactly the boy you hope shows up at your front door to take your daughter to the prom.

Facing off Chris in the opposite corner -- yep, you got it, that's the LEFT or the blue corner -- we have Adam Lambert, a favorite of the judges, because hey, guess what? As Randy would say, "You can sing, dude." In fact, whether Lambert is singing Johnny Cash or Led Zeppelin, he sings like he's on fire, or maybe just his pants are smoking. He's Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger and Cher all rolled into one. Without a doubt, he should win.

But will he? Perhaps not. Remember that, in the greatest works of literature, there are unreliable narrators and multifaceted characters who are never just good or bad. For many, I expect Kris Allen represents all that is good and whole and milk-fed, right down to his lucky jeans, business major, and that weird curling tongue thing he does when he sings. Meanwhile, Adam Lambert is the sort of guy whose unrevealed (yeah, right) sexual identity has landed him on magazine covers and provoked the likes of Bill O'Reilly to try and knock some common sense into us before our poor innocent children can all start wearing black nail polish and cutting their hair in crazy ass polygons. But Adam has a big sexy body, he's from California, and he looks good in LEATHER. Scary good! Any girl (or boy) who went to the prom with him would have a night to remember.

What will America do? That's really why I'm watching. I want to know how the story ends.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Still in Love with Spock After All These Years

May 11, 2009

Still in Love with Spock After All These Years

My love affair with Spock is no passing fancy. I was starstruck at age 11, when I first watched Star Trek on TV and hid under the coffee table because I was afraid of having the salt drained from my body by an alien and being covered with red welts, just like Darnell in “The Man Trap.” I wanted to be Spock, whose blood was immune to such things. I vowed to live long and prosper, and I wore a red turtleneck every day of sixth grade because I wanted to be mistaken for a member of the Enterprise crew. (You can imagine what this did for my popularity.)

I could only do that weird split-finger Vulcan salute with my right hand and never my left, due to some genetic quirk. Despite this minor physical shortcoming, I persevered. Whenever my best friend and I played Star Trek, with our very own cardboard box Enterprise bridge and my pet gerbil as an extra crew member, she was always fearless Kirk to my rational, conflicted Spock.

Spock was the first man to whom I wrote a love letter, and in return for it I received an autographed photograph. I pressed that picture inside my favorite horse book, My Friend Flicka, for the next six years or so. (I would still have it, but my father was a Navy officer, so nothing was forever.)

I thought my lust for sexy Vulcans was gone for good, too, until I went to see the latest Star Trek movie with my youngest son, now 11, exactly the same age I was when Spock first ignited my passions. It was Mother's Day, so we saw Star Trek in a sold-out IMAX cinema north of Boston. It was a digital, full body experience far removed from the pale, flickering television of my youth. This theater had a towering screen, rumbling seats and a sound system that made me feel like the theater was being nuked the minute before the opening credits.

But I didn't think about the theater at the time. While my husband and son were entranced by the battle scenes, I had eyes only for Spock. Or should I say “Spocks”? Leonard Nimoy was the Spock of the future, a grand old man who can still do the most famous split-finger salute in the universe and say “Live long and prosper” and make you think he means it. Our present-day Spock was played by Zachary Quinto, who had to have his fingers glued because he couldn't do that funky Vulcan finger thing, either. Must be the same genetic quirk I have. (William Shatner used fishing line to perform the trick in the original series. Check out,23739,25459863-5012980,00.html)

I first noticed the actor Quinto as Sylar ( on the brain-bruising Sci Fi conundrum that is Heroes ( . He is perhaps best known as the villain who can open the craniums of his victims the way you or I might lift the lids off of yogurt containers. Could Quinto possibly pull this off, I wondered? Could he reignite my passion for all things Vulcan and make me remember why I loved Spock?

Yes, yes, yes! Quinto plays a brooding Spock with such loyalty to his human mother that he does unVulcan things like clock whatever dumb ass insults her. He has the classic arched eyebrow, the ability to easily subdue lesser men with a single shoulder pinch, and says “fascinating” with authority.

Did I care whether the Federation, with its courageous Enterprise crew, subdued this latest rebel ship of the Romulan Empire ( Not one whit. On Mother's Day, I cared only that the movie brought my first love back to me.