Most nights for the first two months of my wife’s chemotherapy, I found myself wide awake at 3 or 4, but my mind was empty, or easy enough to empty out. I’d lie in bed thinking of absolutely nothing for two hours, or pick up a novel and read for 40 minutes and forget everything. Any novel would do: Tom Perrotta’s Election, about a race for class president at New Jersey high school taking place at the same time as Bill Clinton’s first run. Or Gayl Jones’ The Healing: I loved the way it made sense for the narrator to talk about absolutely anything that came into her head, song lyrics, news items, cable channel gossip, as if it was all part of the same story, a story that was its own frame of reference. I didn’t think about cancer: There was plenty of time to do that during the day, and to let the physical details of each day (“How are you feeling?” no longer casual, but a request for specifics, for facts when none are present) keep the looming questions at bay. “I’m tired of people saying ‘Oh, you’ll do fine,'” she said recently. “I wish someone would say ‘I hope you don’t die.'”
February hasn’t been like that. I still wake up in the middle of the night, but obsession arrives instantly. The impeachment trial had something to do with it. When that got too bad, I’d say, There must be something else I can worry about, and there always was. My older daughter quitting a job that had become impossible and now—what? A column that I’d put off until it turned into a bad conscience: You can’t write me. You’ve waited too long. I got away. This was perfectly reliable—a neat if horrible game. Every night I traded off, one scare to the other. But this last week I woke up with my skin crawling in a new way, thanks to Law & Order and Homicide running a two-part, Wednesday and Friday show with mingled casts.
The premise was cops and district attorneys vs. the independent counsel—the one we’ve still got, named Dell but otherwise precisely the “Pink Monster,” as a friend called Kenneth Starr after watching him before the House Judiciary Committee. In a show that even brought back Joseph Welch’s rebuke to Joe McCarthy, “Have you no shame? At long last, have you no shame?”—here not as a lawyer’s attack but as a witness’s cry for help—the man was indeed a monster: a monster of smugness, the smugness of absolute power.
It should have been some kind of satisfaction to find my own fears and hatreds dramatized so perfectly, in a story told as at least a good part of the republic listened in. In fact it was too perfect. I had never drawn a picture of the monster half as real, as cruel, as sadistic as the one that for two nights walked the airwaves of NBC as if he knew he was invulnerable even to the attack on him that as a character he himself embodied. For five nights now I’ve been trying to think my way out of that one.
A new way to kill time in the middle of the night: write this diary. Especially after a bad day all around. A column I’d managed to convince myself was soaring and lucid is extraneous to itself when it comes out of my editor’s computer on the other side of the country; this is a regular occurrence, and every time I convince myself there’s no chance to say what I want to say before starting over. My wife is slammed by chemo. Her fourth treatment was last Friday, the toxins accumulate, her face is all self-dread, her head feels like it weighs a hundred pounds, and on top of that it’s shot day. Her treatment is meant to suppress the immune system, but hers crashes, so she needs shots to boost her white blood cell counts; under our health plan you administer them yourself. Her oncologist showed us how (“I’ve taught 4-year-olds to do it,” he said; we believed him, but plenty of 4-year-olds can do plenty of things we can’t). He gave my wife a shot of saline, he had her give him one, he had me give myself one. It was easy—until we got home and had to try it again. Luckily our one close friend who’s an M.D. lives five minutes away and is the rare sort of person you believe when he says something is no trouble. But the shots carry their own aversion and their own side effects, and this time it’s slam on slam.
Snaking inside this is the sort of nagging rebuke that can subvert a day more insistently than anything worth the time. A friend had passed on a new magazine containing a long, you could say comprehensive, piece on my last book: In substance, I was a racist and a closet Republican. I learned years ago not to even think of responding; I’ve always hated those pompous “The reviewer must somehow have neglected to actually read my book” letters to the editor, and the snarling reviewer’s comebacks when they’re caught out in some significant error: “I may have misidentified Trotsky and Queen Victoria, though that the author chooses to stress the point only further confirms his inability to… ” But this piece got under my skin by attacking not only my arguments, such as they might be, but my dedication and acknowledgments: In both cases I was accused of attempting to drape the reputations of others over my own. So I sent the writer an e-mail asking why it would have been more honest not to recognize friends whose help I had relied on—and received in reply a few lines of the sort of Stalinist criticism I thought got used up in the ’30s. The dedication, he wrote, lost any presumption of innocence because I had once publicly disagreed with the dedicatee over a film; the acknowledgment in question was suspect because the person acknowledged has a different approach to writing history than I do; claiming affinity with others in the face of such contradictions cannot hide the intent to exploit them. This came with an invitation to contribute to the magazine. I thought of writing back Dear Mr. X, you are a fascist moron, but hey, that would only make things worse. Better to do it in public.
“The 1940s” were in the post office today. “There’s Jackson Pollock without the cigarette,” the postal clerk said disdainfully. I ran my eyes over the sheet: Citizen Kane, teenagers jitterbugging, Uncle Sam rising like God over a company of GIs with bayonets fixed, Jackie Robinson sliding into home, the Slinky…
If you remember the controversy in 1992 over the Postal Service’s putting out an Elvis stamp—how could they honor this moral degenerate? etc.—then you have to realize that Elvis moved on in death to spread the message of democracy wherever its call might have yet to be heard. Without the Elvis stamp, no Slinky stamp: “80 feet of coiled wire that can ‘walk’ down stairs,” and then, around 11 on Christmas morning, got tangled up and never walked again. You could say Elvis brought everything—so much of the country, as it responded to him in the 1950s, and our official culture, as it shows up on our stamps—down to his level; you could say that today as from the start he made it possible for us to accept the stuff of our everyday culture as real culture, to accept the design of drugstores and the noise of movie posters, the discourse of commercials, and the humiliation of bureaucratic forms as the means by which we explain ourselves to ourselves. No Slinky stamp without Elvis, but also, I think, no Jackson Pollock stamp, and not just because Pollock was the Elvis of American painting. (Well, really, he was the Steve McQueen of American painting—the suspicious, taciturn, wiry, jittery, pissed-off guy who would do anything if the moment called for it and when it didn’t work knew just what to say: Fuck it.)
What the Postal Service discovered when people of all description lined up early at post offices around the land on Jan. 8, 1992, was that stamps with pictures that in some degree are pictures of the people who might buy them sell. Thus, in short order, sheets of blues singers, comedians, Popular Front folk singers, country musicians, and then the decade series. Starting with the 1900s, you might not recognize every image; as the century moved on you sensed some great visual DJ spinning the pictures, and you knew more and more of the tunes. The problem is in that recognizability. I like the 1940s stamps—especially the killer one, Harry Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune on Election Night 1948—because as a white person in his 50s who went to good public schools, I see myself in the greater picture they draw. The culture I cobbled together out of my parents’ New Deal politics, Life magazine, classroom decorations, and the pop marketplace is precisely where the culture drawn in the sheets of decade stamps is taken from. But by now, by the 1940s, there is nothing present someone like me would not recognize: no surprise, no booby trap, no bad news and, weirdly, no future. The decade as the new stamps describe it seems frozen in place, complete, with no room for doubt, nowhere to go, no need to hear any voice but its own. And that is the ’40s talking: the smiling, resolute, terrified, frozen attempt to maintain normal life during the war and then somehow paste it back together when the war was over, always saying, It’s OK, this is right, this is enough, don’t ask, don’t tell. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Often I write with comedy records on: old Firesign Theater and Monty Python LPs, or lately CD reissues of Robert Klein albums from the ’70s. Unfortunately, I don’t know any comedy albums with Grammy Awards parodies. I watched the first two hours of this year’s show, went out to see a band, then came back at 1 a.m. and ran the rest on tape.
“Jennifer, you look sick,” Jimmy Smits said to Jennifer Lopez, his co-presenter. She did, too. Someone had done his best to make her look like Madonna, who was doing her best to look like Vampira. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” Lopez said. “Watching this show makes you question your own self-worth,” my wife said, after the android Ricky Martin performed an acrobatic version of “Vuelve” without sweating. “This is so slick I feel like I need to take a bath. With soap. To get the oil off.” But in fact the Grammys don’t do slick very well. The Oscars know how to overdo, to get Bataille-deep in excess, expenditure, and waste; everything at the Grammys seems rented or made out of cardboard. Looking like Papa Bear with Goldilocks in his stomach, George Lucas came on to present a segment on movie music. A montage ran: Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” Kevin Bacon grinning in Footloose. For a few seconds a spark of life came through, but the film-to-film clips were so short, their focus so fuzzy, their color so faded, they canceled each other out. But it must have brought somebody in under budget.
Still, the Grammys have it all over the Oscars in self-congratulation, or false humility, which is the same thing, unless it’s vice versa. Oscar winners aren’t humble: For a moment, they rule. You don’t see any movie stars bending over like arthritics—because no one can be bothered to align the cue monitors with the microphones—to say “I want to thank God, and of course my manager,” as if they’re proud of their perspicacity in choosing both. Grammy winners live on borrowed time. They don’t even own their little gramophone horns; “The Academy” keeps the title. They don’t even get to pawn them when the moment passes.
To compare the Grammys with the show I went out to see would be a setup; comparing the Grammys with an abandoned car in the bad part of town would be a setup. What was interesting about the Scavengers—a reconstituted version of the Avengers, a San Francisco punk band that broke up 20 years ago—was that inside the nightclub there seemed to be no sense whatsoever that, simultaneously, a musical event attended to by a billion people (so one had been told) was even taking place. It was like renting Pandora’s Box on Oscar night and never thinking that Louise Brooks got robbed in ’29. A small blond woman next to me was singing every word of every song as well as the singer was; the guy in front of me, 5 feet 6, 250 pounds, a rolled ’50s collar and a sweeping DA, slammed left and right without actually injuring anyone. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to get knocked around in a punk crowd—how much fun it is to push and shove without any ill will. Then I went home and fast-forwarded to Lauryn Hill: “Thanks to God for honoring me with this huge responsibility,” she said, as if he’d taken time from his busy schedule to fix the balloting. But then, she talks to him, I don’t.
In the dream I just woke up from, excerpts from comments that, along with a lot of other people, I submitted to a weekly newspaper—in real life, is that how you say it?—have just been published (and in real life they have, though I haven’t seen the results). In the dream I do: My “going to” has been changed to “gonna,” “lasso” to “lassa,” “running” to “runnin’.” This is in the service of making my writing more accessible, less chilly and arcane. I am of course insulted and outraged, until, half-awake, I remember that my principal writing job apparently went south the day before over just these questions.
The occasion was a particularly tricky column, which stood in for the series of columns I’d written, each of which took an editing journey from over-detailed explanation to a certain abstracted, doomstruck, humorless drama. The book that was the occasion for the column was rich, complex, expansive, ambitious, and as driven by doubt as by certainty; I spent weeks looking for a way into the column, and finally found it in an early ’60s Twilight Zone rerun I couldn’t get out of my head. Premise of show: Guy wakes up hungover and fully clothed in his own bed. He starts to apologize to his wife for being out late; she has no idea who he is and screams at him to get out of the house. In the world at large no one he knows recognizes him, he thinks he’s going nuts, but then he wakes up again and everything’s OK—until he stares in horror at the wife he’s never seen before. Premise of book: Modernist painting from David in revolutionary Paris to Jackson Pollock in postwar New York means to tell us that the world is not as it seems, and neither are we—up to the point of suggesting that for all that matters, neither we nor the world may be at all. As Rod Serling summed up at the end of the Twilight Zone episode, smoke swirling around his head: “A simple bad dream, or the end of the world?” For me, something in between, since these days ordinary life seems pitched at one end of the spectrum or the other.
Every month, I dreaded being told the column I’d submitted didn’t come across, but in every case the editor would mention a line, maybe a throwaway, where the piece seemed on the verge of coming into focus. I’d start over there, and every time the column got better. We could communicate, we could even have conversations worth remembering, but we still didn’t really like the sound of each other’s language—or, like Rod Serling’s poor sap, couldn’t tell if it was him or them.
Slate, February 1999