When it came to holiday decorations, my parents tended to be hoarders. I'm not talking about ceiling-support-beams-groaning-from-the-w
Although we never formally decorated for Halloween, my mother still maintained a large cardboard box crammed with October’s refuse. It included apple-head witch dolls that had reached such an advanced stage of desiccation that they resembled voodoo fetishes, leering pumpkins cut with pinking shears from construction paper, limp orange and black garlands of crepe paper, and a particularly hideous wreath made of macaroni and candy corn that I'd made in church kindergarten. I'd used more paste than pasta in the laborious construction, and the candy corn’s sugar had blurred into a vaguely coral haze, but my mom wasn't going to let it go.
For Easter, my parents used to tap pinholes into the ends of eggs and blow out the insides. (We weren’t a hard-boiled egg family. Nobody liked the texture.) We'd spend a night filling little bowls with vinegar, then dropping Paas tablets into the liquid and thrilling at the fizz. Delicate as the empty shells were, my parents loved them because they could be stored away in Styrofoam eggs crates to keep for succeeding years. Even when I was in high school, my mom was hauling out the eggs I'd made at the age of four. There they'd sit among the newly-dyed specimens that still smelled vaguely of pickles. Their purples and greens and pinks were nowhere near as lurid as the newer eggs; they'd acquired a patina of age that rendered their cracked and chipped exteriors gently mottled, like old marble. Old marble, that is, slapped with crumpled and fading bunny stickers.
It was with Christmas decorations, however, that my mother’s magpie tendencies really came to the fore. Nothing that ever had been employed as decoration during the merry month of December escaped the eternal grasp of her packing box sarcophagi—no mater how old or crumbling or non-functional they might be.
One of the very first craft projects I ever undertook was with out next-door-neighbor, an aspiring school teacher in the Lakeside apartment complex that was our first Virginia home. She had me squeeze a heavy white frosting-like substance from a piping bag onto wax paper, into which she pressed metal ornament hooks and then set to firmness in the oven. Though they were intended (I think) to resemble drifts of snow, these goopy blobs resembled nothing so much than dog turds ossified white in the hot sun. Still, my mother kept them wrapped in tissue paper in old Thalheimer’s boxes, year after year. Despite my protests about how hideous they were, she would pull them one by one from their wrappings and hang them on the lower branches of the tree . . . which in theory were the only branches sturdy enough to support the decorations’ cement-like bulk.
My sister and I, at some point when we were very young, received some kind of holiday craft kit from a neighbor or piano teacher comprised of very thin sheets of balsa wood and tiny tubs of cheap paints. The idea was that one was supposed to push out the pre-printed and perforated shapes from the balsa—various Santas, snowmen, Rudolph, and patrician New Englanders riding in sleighs while wearing top hats and muffs—then paint them delicately and cherish them as handcrafted keepsakes. Our problem was that the wood was cheap and so paper-thin that it disintegrated from the pressure of the paintbrush, much less the twenty chubby juvenile fingers attempting to separate them. No matter. My mother risked splinters to hang the garishly- (and not exceedingly accurately-) painted monstrosities year after year.
Likewise, she cherished a set of ‘stained glass’ ornaments we made by doling plastic pellets atop metal frames and then melting them at a high temperature in the kitchen oven until the house smelled like a Dow Chemical plant. Even years later, after the plastic had long fallen out, she'd still hang the metal skeletons.
Naturally, my mother had real treasures that she cherished. There were a few real eggshells that had been sliced open at an oblique angle and painstakingly hand-painted and decorated on the inside. The artist had set wooden figurines within to make miniature dioramas of manger scenes and Santa on his sleigh. My sister and I could be trusted to hang the white frosting turds or the more indestructible ornaments. The eggshells were so delicate, and so laden with gold braid and tiny pearl-like beads that when we’d decorate our tree, my mother would insist on hanging them herself. She had a handful of other ornaments from her youth she considered sacred; these she kept packed in layers of musty-smelling tissue so old that it crackled like wildfire and disintegrated at the touch. She’d hang her keepsakes high upon the boughs in places of honor, beyond the reach of little children and the packs of tree-climbing house cats that roamed our home.
The true valuables, however, were very much in the minority. They were buried in an avalanche of Styrofoam stars blotched with glitter, by halos fashioned from bent clothes hangers wrapped with sad lengths of pink garland, by plastic cranberries and kindergarten handprints in clay. They were outnumbered by the artificial pinecones encrusted with spray-on snow from a can, and leering felt elves, and tiny stockings given out as party favors at school.
And on New Year’s day, the family would pack away antiques and ephemera alike into the dozens and dozens of boxes from which they came, and store them away for another year, when they’d be rediscovered and treated like heirlooms of old.
Whenever I write about my distant and far-off childhood, I always feel uncannily like Laura Ingalls Wilder must have, sitting down to a rough-hewn old school desk with a scratchy fountain pen in hand, to nostalgically describe frontier life in the Old West. I always halfway expect, in my narratives, for Pa to come strolling in from the Dakota Territory bearing a rucksack stuffed with meat from a freshly-killed b’ar.
In the far-off antique lands of my youth, Saturday nights were game nights in my family. Well, most nights were game nights around my household, anyway, for some of us. During my middle and high school years in the nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, our household didn’t have cable and we didn’t have a hundred electronic devices to whittle away our time. When the sun set, our entertainments were books, the four channels we could receive on our primitive TV sets, telephone calls made on a rotary phone, or board or card games.
My mother and I both loved games and preferred to spend our free evenings matching wits at the kitchen table. My favorites were those with a detective theme that employed logic and deduction to arrive at a conclusion, like Clue, or the jewel-themed Sleuth, or the Eurogame Scotland Yard, or a primitive bleeping console called Electronic Detective. My mother’s favorites were spelling games like Scrabble or Word Rummy or Upwords, or card games from traditional canasta to the exotic, mahjong-based Mhing.
Once a week on Saturday nights, however, with a lot of wheedling and cajoling from his children and heavily-coached reminders that we, his next of kin, would soon be grown up and out of the house and eventually have the powers of attorney to put him in a particularly disreputable home of our choice for the aged and decrepit, my father could be persuaded to join the family around the kitchen table for an hour or two of jolly competitive fun. We would sometimes play a few super-vicious rounds of Pit or the much calmer Probe, another Parker Brothers word game.
But mostly we played contract bridge.
I was eleven or twelve when my parents decided they’d teach bridge to my sister and me. At seven or eight, my sister was able enough to count the value of face cards and add them up to thirteen—the magical number at which it’s permissible to start bidding. I was old enough to grasp a little of the deeper strategy. And besides, my parents assured us, knowing contract bridge was an absolute must for college. All the right people played bridge. If I had the knowledge to pull off a grand slam, doubled and redoubled, well, my mother said. That kind of derring-do would prove the key into any social circle I chose.
She sold me. Already I was apprehending that my likely social circles in college, if they resembled anything like those I’d enjoyed during my pimply adolescence, were likely to be fairly limited. Limited to the cootie-infested, the unpopular, and the new kids who hadn’t yet learned to shun me as a social leper, in other words. Inspired by my parent’s Eisenhower-era reminiscences of hot coffee, crustless sandwiches, and vigorous rubbers with the coed smart set, I threw myself into learning the game.
Never once did it occur to me to question my parents’ faith in bridge as the primary undergraduate social lubricant; enough of their own generation still played the game that at the time it was still an everyday commonplace. The Times-Dispatch carried bridge columns both by Goren and by Omar Sharif. The local library had a whole shelf of books on the game that saw enough circulation so that they weren’t yanked and replaced by something more current.
We were all fairly competent at playing out the hands. Slapping down cards, selecting the proper club or diamond from the dummy, and collecting tricks occasionally requires a little finesse, but for the most part it’s a pretty mechanical process. The problem with our Saturday night bridge games was that we were all wildly different in our approaches to bidding. Omar Sharif, listening to our bridge-table banter on a typical Saturday, would have walked away scratching his handsome Egyptian head and permanently swearing off the game.
My father, for example, was a small-potatoes player who aimed at plucking fruit from the lowest-hanging branches—and plenty of it. He was happy to stop bidding at one spade or two diamonds, tops, so that he could play out the hands quickly, hit his low contract, and insist everyone toss in the rest of their cards so he could reshuffle and move on. It might take him more hands to get a win, but when you’re only playing out half the deck, they surely didn’t take long. Very practical, my father.
My sister was usually his partner; her approach to bidding, given that she was four years my junior and playing contract bridge at an age most kids were still mastering Candyland, was pretty much to state exactly what was in her hand. If my father would open with a conservative bid of one diamond, my sister, with all the subtlety of Norma Desmond auditioning for Salome, would crazily bat her big eyelashes over her cards and intone, “SIX HEARTS. I mean, FOUR SPADES. I mean, two DIAMONDS.” Which all of us quite correctly interpreted to mean that she had a hand containing six heart cards, four spades, and only two diamonds, leaving my father to pick whichever suit he thought he could best handle. The American Contract Bridge League would’ve hounded her out of any tea room, but as she was only in second grade, we were a little more forgiving.
Ever since I learned that bridge was my certain in among the undergraduate beau monde, I applied myself to a study of the game with infinitely more vigor than I displayed for any actual school homework I ever did. I checked all the books out of the library multiple times, read the daily columns and did the puzzles, subscribed to the American Contract Bridge League newsletter, took notes, and memorized every trick and convention that I could cram into my noggin.
Playing with me was likely excruciating. If I had a partner bid one no-trump, I would agonize for long minutes over whether to respond with a Jacoby transfer or a weak two, or whether I should bank on my partner understanding what I was tell them when I resorted to the little-used Chittleton defense. Post-hand autopsies with me were a form of torture on par with anything Guantanamo Bay inmates might have known, as I’d splay out the tricks and lecture everyone on what they ought to have played, according the Hoyle. I might have known my stuff, then, but I surely didn’t know my audience . . . though they were more aware than I how irksome I was.
My mother was usually my partner. We were singularly ill-suited for each other. I was mathematical, precise, and by-the-book; she relied heavily on the psychic bid. I could feel my blood pressure slowly rising right from the evening’s first hand. I would make a calculated and reasoned opening bid of one spade, based on the count of my face cards, the length of my suits, and the probability of our being able to make book plus the requisite number of tricks to win a rubber. My mother, on the other hand, would gaze at the bottom of her coffee cup as if contained tea leaves she might read, then close her lids and attune herself with the great spirits of the universe and consult some internal Ouija board, and finally, with veiled eyes and a dark, eerie, hollow, oracular intonation, respond, “FIVE SPADES.”
Of course my father and sister would instantly pass. When my mother would lay out her hand for the dummy, I’d discover that she’d have no spades at all to support me, perhaps one or two jacks at most among the face cards, and a multitude of low diamonds that were of zero use. Then, smoking heavily throughout my squawkings, she’d ignore my outraged postmortem and my appeals to Omar Sharif and say mysteriously, “I thought you were sending me five spaces telepathically.”
“Telepathy has no part in bridge!” I’d yell. "Bridge is a science!"
“Hush now,” she would whisper, curling the new hand that my father had dealt. “I’m trying to be in tune with my cards.”
“You should try to COUNT your CARDS!” I’d shriek. “There is no way that five spades—“
“One club,” my father would say.
“Pass. There is no way that anyone could bid five spades when her partner—“
“SIX DIAMONDS,” my sister would say. “I mean, ONE DIAMOND.”
That would get my attention. “Are you really going to let her—“ I’d try to protest.
My mother, in the meantime, would have studied her hand deeply, gazed through the bathroom plumbing and the second floor ceiling and the house’s roof to the constellations above, decided that Mercury was in the seventh house and that her internal I Ching had fallen onto the thirty-second hexagram, and announce, out of the blue, “Four no-trump.”
It’s something of a wonder I emerged from that particular cauldron with a working knowledge of bridge at all.
The sad punchline to devoting my adolescence to contract bridge is that when I arrived at college in nineteen eighty-one, none of my peers played the game. Not at all. Whatsoever. My vision of a spirited repartee and crustless sandwiches among the college smart set was quickly erased by the mundane reality of being on a beer-swilling freshman dorm hallway full of drunken frat pledges throwing keggers in the lounge across the hall, new Asia LP blaring at rib-rattling volumes, while I sat solitary, holed up in my room trying to brush up on my overcalls and Blackwood convention.
A couple of times I attempted to place ads to see if anyone else on campus might be interested in forming a bridge club. The only responses I got were from kids pastier and pimplier and even more fantastically less popular than I—the sort of kid who would look at me and think that I was the smart set they’d been promised to meet by their bridge-playing parents and grandfolks.
If someone was desperate enough to think I was the beau monde, they clearly were not the kind of person with whom I cared to associate. I bit my tongue, put away my Goren, and licked my wounds. I took up gin rummy instead. It was a simpleton’s game, but hey. When in Rome.
Sometime when I hit my forties I started encountering a symptom I’d never in my life before experienced: the ever-present notion that I had to burp. It was heartburn, of course. All through my twenties and thirties I’d eaten what I pleased, without remorse or a thought to the aftereffects. Suddenly I was being required to consider the potential pH level of my digestive system at every turn, and to cast dark, suspicious glances at that innocent glass of lemonade or an innocuous marinara, lest they disrupt my tummy’s delicate balance and leave me sleepless and belching all night.
Pills helped, of course, but who wants to pop pills all the time? Over time I found I could regulate my system more effectively by both watching my diet and eating yogurt. The yogurt seemed to settle things down considerably, thanks to its probiotic bacteria and its dairy. I found that when I’d go on vacation, especially, where I’d not have full control over what was going into my meals, eating a little cup of it in the morning would keep my stomach calm and steady for most of the day.
Then a few years ago, I discovered kefir in the grocery store. Like yogurt, kefir is a form of fermented milk. It’s simply less like pudding in consistency, though, and more like a slightly melted milkshake. I grew to prefer the stuff over yogurt, actually—I liked the slightly tart taste, and preferred swigging the stuff down to dealing with all those little plastic yogurt cups.
When last year I started on a medication that expressly forbade me from using any kind of antacid medications, I had to step up my kefir ingestion. I was bringing up two quarts of the stuff from the store rather than one. The weeks when I couldn’t find any at all—it’s in most of the supermarkets, as I said, but it’s still not so mainstream a product that store managers would panic when they run out—would send me into a tizzy. So although it very much sounded like the sort of thing the hippie-dippy parents I knew growing up might do, I started looking into making my own.
The primary thing that convinced me to take the plunge was the cost. I was shelling out four to five dollars for a quart of kefir at the supermarket. Milk, on the other hand, is local and fresh here, and can be had for about two dollars a half-gallon. A starter culture of kefir would only cost a couple of bucks. Sold! So in the spring I purchased some starter grains (grains are what the bacterial cultures that make kefir are called) and was on my merry way.
The grains arrived in a tiny Ziploc bag. They didn’t look like much. The instructions informed me I should pour the contents into milk and let them hydrate. I did so, feeling all the while like I was embarking on raising sea monkeys.
For a couple of days I strained out my tiny little grains as instructed, and changed the milk. I’d cover the jar with a rubber band and paper towel and leave it on the kitchen counter overnight to ferment. I was waiting for that moment when magically the grains would expand and start turning the milk into delicious (and slightly alcoholic) kefir. It didn’t take long in coming. By the third day, the grains swelled from pea-sized globules of nothingness into all-consuming colonies of sticky bacteria that looked very much like glossy heads of cauliflower. The kefir they produced, as they consumed all the lactose, came out thick, whiter than white, and sweet-smelling. I was on my way.
After a few days I had enough to start making smoothies for my breakfast meal. All I had to do is drop some frozen fruit in the blender, add a little sweetener, fill it up with kefir I’d been collecting every morning, and let it blend. The result was even better than the stuff I’d been buying in the store. If I get bored with strawberry, I can switch to raspberry. Or blueberry. Or pomegranate. Or I can just squeeze in some chocolate syrup. Or I can add coconut, or honey, or vanilla. It all tastes good.
So I’ve been very satisfied with this particular aspect of kefir making. It’s healthy, it’s easy, it’s cheap, and I get the satisfaction of having done it all myself, with the aid of some friendly bacterial colonies.
What I didn’t count on, however, is how rapacious the kefir grains are, or how rapidly they reproduce. It really only takes about a tablespoon of the grains to produce a quart of kefir a day, and I usually only make a pint. The little quarter-teaspoon of starter grains I used rapidly burgeoned into roughly a half-cup of huge, hungry, slimy cauliflower heads that were demanding, Audrey II-fashion, that I FEED THEM, SEYMOUR.
I’ve gotten ruthless in culling the colonies. Originally I was trying to give the things away to locals—I was even willing to attempt to dehydrate grains in order to send them long distances, if necessary. Apparently no one is as crazy enough as I to grow his own kefir, however. (Wonder why?) So now, when the grains get too big and aggressive, I’m ruthless about splitting the colonies in half and tossing a good deal of milk-hungry bacteria into the garbage can.
Even with that, I’ve still got kefir coming out of my freakin’ ears, man. I have enough to make more smoothies than I can possibly drink in a week, and still have leftovers. So every new recipe I’ve tried lately has used kefir out of desperation and a fear that the stuff will take over the kitchen more than it already has. Anything that requires kefir’s cultured cousins, buttermilk or sour cream, I now make with kefir. Kefir ranch dressing. Kefir gingerbread. Chicken stroganoff with kefir. I make pancakes with kefir. Brownies with kefir. Scrambled eggs with kefir. It’s gotten to the point where Craig will sniff with suspicion at anything I make and ask, “This has kefir, doesn’t it.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love the stuff still. But my nightmares now all involve alien bacterial colonies, ruthlessly replicating as they stretch out their cauliflower-like tendrils to force mankind to do their bidding. Their quest: world domination. Their headquarters: my kitchen counter.
I was at a performance of the musical If/Then at the Richard Rodgers theater, Friday night. The place was packed to capacity; we were shoved up in some mezzanine seats with our heads basically scraping the bottoms of the outside gutters. They weren’t the best seats in the world, but I didn’t mind too much. It was kind of exciting to see an original musical not based on a book or a movie property still getting buzz several months into its run.
It was about halfway through the first act when a thought occurred to me: You know, I thought to myself, this is probably the one and only musical I’ll ever see in this lifetime that’s all about urban planning. Here you go, publicists. A free quote for your placards. THE BEST MUSICAL EVER ABOUT URBAN PLANNING FROM THE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT YOU THAT OTHER MUSICAL ABOUT SCHIZOPHRENIA!
If/Then is a vehicle for Idina Menzel that has a premise similar to Sliding Doors, the Gwenyth Paltrow movie of several years ago. At a point somewhere in the the show’s first ten minutes, the show’s superstar urban planner Elizabeth faces a choice of whether to leave Madison Square Park in order to accompany Anthony Rapp to a housing protest, or to follow a free-spirited LaChanze to listen to a hunky guitar player. (I’d always go with LaChanze, given that choice. I mean, the lady is seriously fierce.) From that point on, the musical splits into two timelines. In one, she’s Beth, a single and lonely career gal climbing the ranks of local and state government; in the other, she’s Liz, wooed by a handsome and determined soldier.
Since both timelines play out in the same spaces, weaving in and out of each other over the course of five years onstage, figuring out which life is which can be a little bit of a chore. The director and designers, however, have made it a little easier by bathing the stage in warm oranges and reds whenever we’re with Liz and in dark purples and blues whenever Beth’s on the stage. At some point it apparently wasn’t enough, and the costume designer stuck a pair of Tina Fey glasses on Liz that Beth never wears. Just in case there was any doubt.
Everybody in the theater was there to see Menzel. The show wouldn’t have the legs it apparently has without her wry and slightly acidic presence. And everything about If/Then seems structured around her. The songs showcase her voice, the comedy is custom-built for her style, the very plot seems to be engineered to expose her to as many shades of Tony-nomination-culling experience as could possibly be wedged into three hours of stage entertainment—romance! pregnancy! job satisfaction! near-death experiences! sadness, sorrow, and loss! Minus a Shirley Temple-style tap number with performing seals, If/Then pretty much packs in everything it can for its star.
Except, that is, perhaps some memorable songs. I take that back. There was one catchy number Menzel sings as both Liz and Beth when her characters go to bed with the wrong people. “What the Fuck,” it’s called. I’ll remember that one for a lifetime not only because it’s a plucky ain’t-I-adorable little ditty larded with the most obscenities in a musical number I’ve ever heard outside of South Park: The Movie, but because of the reaction of the couple sitting next to me, during it.
“I don’t like this,” moaned the man of the couple, who had to be in his mid-eighties. “You don’t like this?” asked his wife. “I really don’t like this!” he moaned, rocking back and forth. “You really don’t like this?” she asked. “No, I really don’t like this!” he said, in distress. Back and forth they discussed whether or not they liked this while Menzel what-the-fucked her way across the stage. Finally they both agreed they didn’t like it. (They left during intermission. More leg room for us.)
However, every other single musical number in the show is agreeable enough, but even while I listened to any individual song I found the memory of its melody draining away. The songs are the Olestra of musical theater, slipping in one cavity and out the other without contributing any nutritive value whatsoever. The fact that just about every song is a folk-inflected Wicked-y, Frozen-y power ballad meant to showcase Menzel’s pipes gives them all a homogeneity that, no matter how pleasant, doesn’t leave much of an impression. I found If/Then intellectually engaging and mature in a way that’s rare with Broadway material, but no one’s ever going to walk out of it humming the songs.
That was the reverse of the problem I had with Heathers. Lawdy. I walked out of Heathers: The Musical a couple of weeks ago with a good four or five of its tunes firmly wedged in my brain. They still haven’t worked their way out. The musical, of course, is based on the 1989 Winona Ryder/Christian Slater film of the same name, courtesy of the guy who brought us Bat Boy and Legally Blonde: The Musical. The movie has never been on any of my favorites list—it’s too dark and dated a satire really to work. I suspect it’d be largely unable to be remade at all now—would anyone, in this post-Columbine era, seriously greenlight a project in which a kid brings a gun to school and fires it at students in the first scenes and gets a mere two days of suspension? (In the stage production, the writers wisely change the confrontation to a slow-motion fist fight.)
The Off-Broadway version of Heathers, god knows, is no classic theatrical endeavor. It’s not aspiring to be mentioned with the same reverence as Gypsy or Company. It aims squarely to be the musical theater equivalent of a Hollywood B-movie—goofy, fun, and enjoyable without being remotely deep or artistic. On those terms it succeeds. Since it can use as diverse (or not) a cast as one has at hand, and since the stage set is minimal (at New World Stages, all they had were a couple of movable short staircases), it’ll have a long, long afterlife in college and regional theater. And the show’s not without its shivery pleasures. The moment when Veronica’s classmates line up to form a welcoming arch of three-ring binders to introduce the three Heathers, complete with heavenly chorus, was magical.
But oh my god, the songs. Although a lot of the rhymes struck me of the “Let’s Put This Super-Obvious Rhyme Here As A Placeholder But Let’s Try To Remember To Make Up Something Better Before It Hits Off-Broadway Okay? Ooops!” school of songwriting, the music itself at its best is a pop-Broadway amalgam designed to assault those portions of the frontal lobes devoted to musical pleasure. The Heathers’ anthem of high school totalitarianism, “Candy Store,” was the first to worm its way into my brain; before the end of the first act, “Big Fun” and “Dead Girl Walking” had joined it. I winced and kept my face covered during the dumb high school jocks’ anthem, “Blue” (you know, as in “balls”), but found myself whistling it over the exit music an hour later.
And the show’s big ballad, “Seventeen,” in which the leads wish for a more normal high experience with a significantly lower body count, is as lovely as anything I’ve heard in years. Where If/Then was a big production with big names saddled with sweet yet forgettable songs, Heathers is the show your almost-sort-of-clever best friends staged in a garage that somehow had all the cool songs with the killer hooks.
When we walked into Bullets Over Broadway at the beginning of the month, I kept telling myself, “The seats were cheap. The seats were really cheap,” and wondering if I could make it to intermission. (Which is the point at which I walked out of the nadir of my theatrical experiences, Mamma Mia!)
Bullets Over Broadway is, of course, based on the Woody Allen trifle of the same name, and features a score consisting solely of 1920s period songs. It rolled into town at the peak of the Woody Allen Oscar controversy earlier this year, and the buzz around town was that its star, Zach Braff, was anxious to get out of his contract before the thing opened. To say I went into it with low expectations is something of an understatement.
Then I found myself utterly charmed by the damned thing by the middle of the first number. That’s when Heléne Yorke stumbled out of a gaggle of chorus girls during the “Tiger Rag” and started braying in a Brooklyn accent at the top of her considerable lungs and I shed my curmudgeonly reserve. By the time she presented “The Hot Dog Song” with all its phallic subtlety, she’d won herself a new fan.
Yorke (whom I’d only known as the sweet blonde from Masters of Sex) and Nick Cordero as the poetic mobster are the two standouts of the production. Zach Braff, the show’s nominal star, was so witlessly frantic in the Woody Allen stand-in role that he was almost an absence, but I would watch Yorke and Cordero in anything. Another revival of Guys and Dolls would’ve been perfect. Still, consider how little I thought I’d enjoy it, Bullets Over Broadway turned out to be as lightweight and effervescent as champagne bubbles, and nearly as much fun.
Low expectations were also what I had for the Marsha Norman/Jason Robert Brown musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. I’d avoided the book at the peak of the mania surrounding it. I’d seen the Meryl Streep movie and thought it pretty good, but somehow a musical didn’t really sound all that appealing. Given the pedigree of the book’s author and the composer, however, I expected to be pleasantly and prettily bored all evening.
My friends were equally appalled as well at my attendance. When I posted on Facebook that I was at the theater for the performance, the comments began to pour in asking what bet I’d lost, or wouldn’t I’d rather be having a nice root canal instead?
But you know what? I found The Bridges of Madison County absolutely ravishing. Just breathtaking. Kelli O’Hara was beautiful and in lovely voice as the Italian housewife stranded in Iowa one hot summer, and Steven Pasquale sang strongly as well as the photographer who sweeps her off her feet. The fact that Pasquale removed his shirt at regular enough intervals to keep audience interest from flagging didn’t hurt.
I suspect that the musical, which closed quickly, was a victim of our own pop culture prejudices; the original The Bridges of Madison County novel wasn’t good, and people bought it by the armfuls anyway. It’s still a cultural punchline. It’s uncool. Theatergoers everywhere had the same reaction to Bridges as they might have had to a musicologist’s serious plea for the reconsideration to add back into the musical canon the works of Milli Vanilli: Too soon. It’s simply too soon.
The last show I’ve seen in recent months was also the one about which I knew the least: the Roundabout revival of the Jeanine Tesori musical Violet. We settled on it purely by chance at the TKTS booth—we’d heard it was good, but despite the fact we knew zip about it, we went to see it anyway out of whim.
I’m glad we did, because it was unabashedly lovely from start to finish. Violet stars Sutton Foster as a young woman taking a bus trip across the South to beg a faith healer to remove a hideous axe scar from her face. (I know, it sounds great, right?) She’s accompanied, then befriended, then eventually wooed, by a pair of Army soldiers returning from leave to their base.
The music’s a mix of folk and gospel, and the numbers range from the comical to the heartbreaking. Cast members play multiple different roles in the title heroine’s cross-country journey, and there’s scarcely a misstep in the entire production.
It’s difficult to explain what sounds like a wandering, plotless story so gem-like and special. Sutton Foster had a little something to do with it; she glows in the role. In Violet’s first moments, she steps center stage into a pool of light and looks heavenward, saying nothing. The girls sitting immediately behind me, whom I am pretty sure were fans of Foster’s show Bunheads (with their attenuated frames and long hair pulled back into ponytails, they looked the type) immediately burst into tears, and the chick hadn’t even done anything. By the end of the show, when Foster’s Violet was truly aglow with the light of love and a newfound faith, the girls and their mother were bawling loudly.
So was I, girls. So was I.
In the last collection of my reviews, I bemoaned the fact that all the non-fiction I’d read in the previous year had been soapy tell-all celebrity bios. I’ve certainly turned around that unfortunate trend in the last six months. A biography of Wilkie Collins, who isn’t so much a celebrity as Charles Dickens’ also-ran, just doesn’t count.
The best page-turner of this lot was The Museum of Extraordinary Things. The best re-reads were Brat Farrar and Bab: A Sub-Deb (of course). My nomination for most dreadful book of the year, so far, is Havisham; my most disappointing re-reads were Thank You, Jeeves and And the Band Played On.
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ME: Okay, we’re leaving tomorrow morning, so let’s go over your checklist of things you wanted us to do while you were here.
MY FATHER: Sounds good.
ME: Planted garden, check. Trimmed bushes, check. Took you to Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Bought you a Kindle Paperwhite . . . Check. Are you really going to still keep your old Kindle?
MY FATHER: Why in the world would I get rid of a perfectly good Kindle?
ME: Are you going to read the new one and the old one simultaneously?
MY FATHER: No.
ME: You could give it to your sister, or to one of your friends. . . .
MY FATHER: Why would I give away a perfectly good Kindle?
ME: Because you’re going to use the new one more?
MY FATHER: It’s a perfectly good. . . .
ME: Anyway. Bought you a new Kindle. Drove you to where you’re giving a talk next week. Anything else?
MY FATHER: We need to look up my old classmate on the college alumni website.
ME: Okay. That shouldn’t take long. Let me find the website . . . and log in. . . .
MY FATHER: How did you find the website?
ME: I went to Google and I typed in the name of the college and ‘alumni website.’
MY FATHER [making notes}: . . . type in. . . .
ME: Okay, what’s the name of the guy you’re stalking?
MY FATHER: I am not stalking! I am merely curious. . . .
ME: Yes, that’s what stalkers say.
MY FATHER [with dignity]: The last name is Edmunds. The first name is Erik.
ME: Erik Edmunds. Class of 1961. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Is that the one?
MY FATHER: That is indeed the one.
ME: Okay . . . screen grab . . . let me send it . . . all right. Captured and sent to your email. Now I’m going up to bed because tomorrow we. . . .
MY FATHER: Actually, I was hoping you’d show me how to do it so that in the future I could more effectively. . . .
ME: . . . . stalk people yourself.
MY FATHER: I was not. . . .
ME: All right. I will make a profile for you so that you can log in and do it yourself. [I poke at the iPad screen a bit.] Your first name . . . Last name . . . B . . . R . . . I . . .
MY FATHER [helpfully]: C-E. . . .
ME: I know how to spell it . . . address . . . Richmond, Virginia . . . zip code. Class of nineteen . . . sixty-one. Okay. Username and password?
MY FATHER [stares blankly]
ME: You need to create a username and password.
MY FATHER: A ooooser . . . name?
ME: A username. And a password.
MY FATHER: I thought I heard you put in my name.
ME: That was your actual name. You need to come up with a username in order to log into this website.
MY FATHER: A user . . . name?
ME: What would you like to use as a one-word user name?
MY FATHER: Is that like a password?
ME: No, it’s not a password. I said ‘username and password.’ Two different things. Think up a username that you’ll remember.
MY FATHER: Is that like my email?
ME: No. It is not your email.
MY FATHER: What should I choose as a username?
ME: It’s got to be something that you will remember.
MY FATHER: What is the philosophy behind choosing a username?
ME: We are not going to discuss the broad philosophy of choosing usernames. Just pick one.
MY FATHER: What is your username?
ME: It’s . . . no. I’m not playing that game.
MY FATHER: I just wanted to know your username!
ME: It’s a secret.
MY FATHER: If you were to pick a username for me. . . .
ME: Look. This really isn’t supposed to be difficult. Your username can be ‘MrPenguin’ or ‘NPRLover’ or ‘HistoryNut.’ You can use your initials. I don’t care. The database doesn’t care. It is not going to ask your reasons for choosing what you choose. It is not going to question you on your methodology and philosophy of selecting a username. It’s just a username. All you have to do is pick some name so you can user it. Use it, I mean.
MY FATHER: So I don’t need a password?
ME: It's not the same thing. You will need to pick a password.
MY FATHER [opens his mouth]
ME: Not the same as your email password.
MY FATHER: Oh. How about—
ME: Not the same as your Amazon password.
MY FATHER [dejected]: Oh. Well. What’s your password?
ME [ignoring him]: It says ‘passwords must be at least eight characters in length and contain at least one numeral and one non-numeric character.’
MY FATHER: One numeral—
ME: —and one non-numeric character.
MY FATHER: What’s a non-numeric character
ME: Something that’s not a number.
MY FATHER: Like an asterisk?
ME: Or, you know, a letter.
MY FATHER: Oh! So they want a password with a number and a letter.
MY FATHER: B5?
MY FATHER: B5?
ME: Are you calling bingo? Passwords must be at least characters in length. . . .
MY FATHER: What are those on your feet?
ME: What? Sneakers.
MY FATHER: What kind of sneakers?
ME: They’re Converse, why?
MY FATHER: Are you planning on going running?
MY FATHER: Are they fancy Converse?
ME: These are the most beat-up shoes I own. I think I bought them for twenty dollars.
MY FATHER: They look like old-fashioned tennis shoes.
ME: They are. And they have nothing to do with your username and password.
MY FATHER: But what is your. . . .
ME: Never mind.
MY FATHER: What do you mean, never mind?
ME: I mean never mind, I just this second made up a username and password for you.
MY FATHER: Well! We might have discussed it a little, first!
There’s a haunted portrait hanging in the church next door.
I hope you appreciate the matter-of-fact, almost blasé manner in which I deliver the news. I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to encountering ghosts, however. In fact—and I say this with a considerable amount of modesty—I’m kind of an old hand when it comes to spirits. A spook wrangler, you might even say.
I grew up, of course, on the same ghost stories as everybody else my age. You know the ones. They end with someone shrieking “GIVE ME BACK MY GOLDEN ARM!” or “. . . and when she stepped out of her car, hanging from the door handle was a bloody hook!” These stories use to send a thrill up my spine, particularly when we’d swap them at church youth group overnighters after midnight, or in the long evenings leading up to Halloween. (This would have been in the days before the web, naturally, when we fifth graders didn’t have online gambling and internet porn to keep us occupied.)
But did I believe them? Not whole-heartedly. I believed there was something compelling about the power of a story told by whisper in the dark. I believed we all enjoy the sensation of giggling at the end of a gruesome tale and pinching ourselves to make sure all of our parts were still there. Even at a young age I believed that the world is full of scary things, and that channeling our fears into storytelling was a way to cope with the darkness. But in actual, ectoplasmic, wafting-around harbingers of another world? Listen, a golden arm would’ve had to have weighed a ton. Nah. I didn’t believe.
Not, that is, until the great misadventure of The Rapping Ghost of Williamsburg.
The College of William and Mary had ghost stories. Hoo boy, did they ever. The theater department alone had enough spirits haunting its hallways to have cast all the supernatural scenes in both the original Ghostbusters and its (less original) sequel. The specter of a lonely senior, mowed down by a car before her premiere as Emily in the college production of Our Town, was said to walk the stage of the Phi Beta Kappa Theater, searching for the spotlight she never enjoyed. Upperclassmen in the program passed down to incoming freshmen warnings not to linger alone in the scene shop after dark, where another unidentified spirit would graze the necks of the hapless with an icy-cold kiss. There were dozens more, but they all tended to blend together in a hotpot of spookiness.
I found these stories about as credible as the notion that the pretty male theater majors with perfectly-moussed hair telling them all had ‘girlfriends’ who conveniently went to ‘some other college out of state.’ Nor did I buy the story I heard from others around campus that the cemetery out by the law school had a rapping ghost.
Wait. I can see how easily this story could head down the wrong path and lead only to inevitable disappointment. You’ve now probably got an image in your mind of a hip-hop apparition wearing big ol’ earphones as he hovers over a phantom turntable, scratching rhythmically about how it’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes him wonder how he keeps it six feet under. The Rapping Ghost of Williamsburg was not that kind of rapping ghost.
This ghost just lay there quietly in his coffin until midnight, when it would rap three times and—well, that’s all. I’m not even sure there was a story behind it—like some kind of demented Avon Lady denied her chance to make commission in life, attempting to sell that one last case of Skin-So-Soft after her untimely demise. Nope. Kind of boring, actually. And I know you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Oh, but Colonial Williamsburg! The cemetery was probably straight out of Sleepy Hollow with enormous gothic crypts and weeping angels and skulls rolling around on the ground like acorns in autumn, right?” But no. The cemetery by the law school was outside the colonial district. Its grounds were modern and dull and treeless, a grid of marble slabs rendered dull, regimented, and sterile.
One night during my junior year, though, my friends Perry and Melinda and I had been studying for finals in some of our psychology classes out at the law school. Back in the day, smart upperclassmen in the know scorned studying in the Swem Library on the main campus during finals; the law school library a quarter-mile away from the Old Campus was the place to be. The atmosphere was cosmopolitan, the seating was plentiful, and most important of all, I seem to recall they had a snack bar. We missed the bus back, or else stayed after the last return trip to campus. Either way, we decided to return to campus up South Henry Street, past the graveyard.
I don’t know whose bright idea it was to make the detour. We joked about the rapping ghost as we did it, though. Thought it would be ‘fun’ to prove the legend wasn’t real. Had we but known! The cemetery wasn’t lit at night, back then; there weren’t really any streetlights beyond its boundaries to illuminate the paths. The moon’s bright light made the asphalt driveway sparkle as we wended our way along the low, plain tombstones. I remember being in a particularly giddy mood brought on by too much sugar and the prospect of the semester’s end, combined with the silly bravado we all felt.
Then we heard it. Tap-tap-tap. Three rapid, but very distinct knocking sounds. “That was a woodpecker,” Perry said, uncertainly. None of us had really that much experience with woodpeckers, though. We heard it again. Tap-tap-tap. It sounded like someone rapping his knuckles on a wooden door. Which, to our imaginations at that late hour, was close enough to a coffin to make any differences negligible.
Now I can’t say, from a purely empirical standpoint, that it was exactly at midnight that we heard the rapping. (It probably wasn’t.) Nor can I say for certain that the noise wasn’t a woodpecker. Or a tree frog. Or some other fauna of Williamsburg. Or a distant hammer in a house on the other side of the graveyard. All I can really say is that it was late at night, it was very dark, we all heard it, and we all practically crapped our pants trying to clamber over each other and sprint the hell out of that godforsaken place. Then we made a solemn pact never to speak of it again.
Or study at the law school, for that matter.
It wasn’t until we moved to Connecticut that I had my second encounter with ghosts—this time with The Parsonage Kitchen Ghost. I might’ve mentioned that the first-floor flat in which we currently live is in an historic house that used to be the church’s old parsonage. It’s old. Very old. Not so old that staunch old New Englanders probably sat on its front porch drinking Cape Cods while watching the village burn witches on the green across the street, but just about.
Well, very early on in our stay here, I woke up at four-thirty one morning to hear noises in the kitchen. It sounded like a fan, followed by a beeping noise. Craig was snoring beside me, and the cats were both snoozing on the bed. Nobody likes to leave the bed at four-thirty in the morning, particularly to investigate a noise, but I got on my robe and padded down the hallway through the dining room and into the kitchen, where I looked around. Nothing was happening. I went back to bed.
It was maybe two days later that I heard it again. The sound of a fan from across the house. It was very early in the morning, but light enough that I could see. “That,” I said to Craig, waking him up from his sleep, “is the microwave.”
“Okay,” Craig said, then immediately conked out again.
I raced into the kitchen naked, where I saw the microwave oven’s light shining. When I walked through the door, the oven beeped at me and shut down. I opened it up. There was nothing inside. I don’t know why I thought there would be. It’s not as if ghosts need a quick baked potato or a couple of Hot Pockets.
Back in the bedroom, I announced to Craig, “A ghost turned on our microwave.”
“Okay,” Craig mumbled, drool running from the corner of his mouth into the pillow.
“FINE.” I harumphed under the sheets with a flounce. “If you don’t care that a malevolent entity is turning on the microwave and will probably burn down the house, I don’t either.”
The next time it happened, we both heard it. It was still very early in the morning, before dawn, but we were both woken up when we heard the sound of beeping, as if someone were punching a time into the microwave oven’s keypad. Then we heard the oven itself start up with a hum. Both of us ran naked into the kitchen, where the microwave was turning around and lit up. Where normally the time would’ve displayed was a digital mumbo jumbo. I’m not saying it actually read 666 4EVAH upside-down or anything, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“It’s the ghost,” I said, as we both stared at it.
“I think it’s just broken,” said Craig.
“Definitely the ghost,” I agreed.
There’s been some dispute ever since over which of us was correct, but both of us agreed it was probably better to dispose of the microwave oven in the dumpster. Sprinkled with, you know, a little holy water. I try to ignore the fact that from time to time still, water glasses in the cupboard over where the microwave used to sit have a tendency to fall out when the doors have been open for a while, even when the glasses been sitting there undisturbed, flat on their bottoms. It’s as if someone is pulling at them. My reflexes are pretty good, though, and so far the poltergeist hasn’t broken a single one.
But this business with the painting, now. That’s just creepy. At the top of the stairs right inside the church office entrance sat, for the longest time, a portrait of a former minister. I’m told it’s haunted. I don’t know why, or with what, or frankly even how a picture can be haunted. Frankly, if I were a spirit, I’d certainly find a better place to park my keister than some garage-sale quality rubbishy daub without much of a view or, for that matter, access to a room with a flat-screen and cable. All I know is that one of the associate ministers told Craig that he was walking after dark through the church auditorium where the portrait now sits and he felt something grabbing at his legs . . . even though there was nobody there with him.
We walk through the church hall after dark all the time, on the way from the parking lot to the back door of our home. At night it’s already dark, echoing, and creepy in there. Knowing there’s a bored haunted minister waiting to grab at my legs doesn’t make me relish the trip any more, let me tell you. I scurry through as quickly as possible, trying not to cast my eyes up the stairs in case I see those in the painting glowing back at me.
Post-mortem leg-pinching still seems like an unusual kind of hobby in which a minister well past his retirement could engage, but hey. Maybe my parsonage ghost could invite him over for a cup of microwaved coffee and they can compare notes sometime.
After a half-century of falling asleep at night and managing to wake up again in the mornings, I’ve finally become an expert on my dreams. I don’t always comprehend them, mind you—though there are times I understand them with more clarity than I’d like to admit. But I’ve reached a jaded point at which I can rummage through my nighttime musings over breakfast and think to myself, “Oh, it was one of those.”
My sick dreams, for example. No, not the ones involving a pony tail and a whip. I mean the dreams I have when I’m actually ill, perverts. They’re always mathematical in nature, or else involve me having to solve some kind of complicated puzzle. I’ll run imaginary math problems in my head for what seems like hours, or attempt to fit into a finite puzzle box a limited number of complicated shapes. Then I’ll start all over again. And over again. And over some more. I’ve actually gotten to the point at which if I find myself having dreams involving vast quantities of sums or complicated problem-solving that never seems to end, I’ll regard it as a harbinger of an illness to come and I’ll wake myself up, get out of bed, pop a couple of aspirin, and keep an eye out for cold symptoms over the next couple of days.
Then there are my reality show dreams. Although my nighttime fantasies usually have about as much of a life as a soap bubble, the reality show dreams exist in some kind of persistent alternate universe in which I’ve been a television star several times over. It all started in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when I started having recurring dreams about having appeared in the first season of MTV’s The Real World. Oh yes. I was part of the original cast! I lived in New York City with them for several months during filming. Heather was my best friend; we were inseparable during those long-vanished days. Julie and I got into some kind of feud right at the beginning and didn’t really have much to do with each other, even though Heather was trying to get us to reconcile. Eric Nies and I would stay up late at night and play cards.
But here’s the thing about that cruel experience, which has been verified time after time in that weirdly persistent alternate world, while I’ve slumbered: after I packed up my bags and moved back to Detroit to resume my life, I turned on the TV when the final cut of the show started to make its premiere and discovered that I’d been utterly edited out. The Real World wasn’t the true story (troooooue storrrrry!) of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE EIGHT. Apparently I was just too BORING to make the final show. Ooo girl, Heather was upset about it too, when we all found out. But it was done, and there was no turning back: I was just an odd little footnote to those in the know, the eighth stranger left on the cutting room floor while everyone else went on to make history.
Like I said, sometimes I can understand my dreams more than I care to admit, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this one.
However, because of my small notoriety, in my alternate universe I managed to get cast on a couple of other dream reality TV shows over the years. The first was Survivor, in which I managed to be the first male contestant to make it through the season without having ever removed his shirt, yo. Because that’s the way I play, y’all. I came in sixth place, having been voted off the island when one of my alliances went sour. However, in a subsequent Survivor All-Stars I managed to place third, which was fairly respectable. The gigs on Survivor directly led to my appearance on The Amazing Race, about five years ago. In the persistent dream universe there’s a very popular clip (over 3 million views on dream YouTube) in which I am in a Tokyo subway and say to Craig, who was racing with me:
We finished fifth. It’s because of the popularity of that clip that within the last three months we were cast in the dream version of The Amazing Race All-Stars, and at least once a show the editors include a little flashback to our most popular moment. And believe you me, since we’re savvy about why we were invited back, we play up the comedy.
Just don’t ask me where we placed, yet. The season’s apparently not over.
Of all my recurring dreams, though, the two most vivid have to do with my school days. The first involves a persistent reality in which it’s discovered that I missed a couple of credits in high school, not only invalidating my high school diploma, but my college and graduate degrees as well—unless, in the inexorable absurdity of dream logic, I go back to my old high school as an adult and matriculate again. You’d think that’d be nightmare enough, but there’s always a point in this dream in which finally the school day is over and I’m anxious to get home, but it dawns on me that I no longer remember the number of my school bus. This dream always ends with me not only trying to race from the back of the school to get to the school busses on time (apparently the lack of a math credit has invalidated my driver’s license as well, I guess), but trying to find the one bus among dozens that will take me home again and not leave me stranded.
Then finally is my most persistent recurring dream. In it, I’m usually an adult. Sometimes I’m younger again. I’m involved in a play. Sometimes it’s a play in which I actually appeared in my waking life, either from college or middle school. Sometimes it’s a play I’ve never seen. The point of the dream is that I’m inadequately prepared, and due to step onto the stage very, very soon. There are times in these dreams in which I’ve never seen the play’s script, and it’s floating around backstage always just out of reach so that I don’t have the ability to review it; in other instances I’ve got a vague memory of the lines I used to have, but I don’t at all remember my cues, or all the details. I’m always in a panic in these dreams. Will the lines come back to me? Will I just have to wing it? Or will I freeze and be exposed as a charlatan to the audience just on the other side of the footlights, staring at me?
I was thinking about this last dream in particular, a week ago. Craig and I accompanied my friend and former college roommate Eric to a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Eric had been involved with the troupe in years past; like the good supporter of the arts he is, he wanted to make an appearance in the audience in order to visit old chums and evaluate just how far they’d fallen since his departure. The production itself was fine. The woman playing Mabel was terrific. The fellow playing Frederic had a weird and awesome tendency, when he wasn’t singing his own parts, of very clearly mouthing the words of everyone else’s songs while onstage. Watching him broadly articulate the consonants of “Poor Wand’ring One” with his lips while Mabel was warbling away made him look like a master ventriloquist.
But there was one woman in the cast who was utterly out of her element. She looked as if she’d been pressed into service mere minutes before the show—like she’d been pulled into the auditorium parking lot to drop off her kids at the soccer field nearby and had been kidnapped, stuffed into leg o’mutton sleeves and a bonnet, and forced onstage in some kind of perform-this-goddamn-operetta-or-we’ll-k
During “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain,” for example, her increasingly-panicky inner thoughts were projected all over her face as plainly as the opening credits of Star Wars on a giant screen. Do I walk forward? She’s walking forward. I’ll walk forward. Not too far forward. Okay. Are we swaying? I guess we’re sway. I’ll sway. Shit! We stopped swaying! Is this one of those things where we join hands and swing our arms? Okay. I’ll grab those hands on either side of . . . SHIT! Hands back down! Hands back down! Did anyone see that? OH MY GOD AM I SUPPOSED TO BE SPINNING MY UMBRELLA?
Craig and I were in tears and hysterics. Eric is too cultured and highbrow to notice these things. He’s basically Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess steadfastly refusing to comment during high tea upon the fact that a footman’s next-to-bottom button has a fleck of tarnish.
For two hours that poor woman looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Even though Craig and I both were helplessly giggling over her discomfort, I felt for her. Every single moment of her distress took me back to those silly dreams of mine in which I’m wearing some foppish Restoration costume or the rags of some old man, and I’m trying to chase down a copy of the script so I can figure out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing before I make a fool of myself in front of an audience.
It’ll be just desserts, next time I enter one of my persistent dream universes, that to atone for my blatant and unrepentant schadenfreude over that poor woman’s stage fright, I’ll be edited right out of that The Real World: New York original cast reunion show.
MY FATHER: I’m glad you called. I was going to call you to tell you about my boycott.
ME: Oh dear. What are you boycotting?
MY FATHER: Your favorite restaurant.
ME: What in the world do you think is my favorite restaurant?
MY FATHER: It’s your favorite restaurant. You tell me.
ME: A restaurant that you would visit? Gosh. I don’t know. Is it that Thai restaurant we go to when I visit Richmond?
MY FATHER: No! I like that one.
ME: That barbecue sandwich place we tried that serves Cheerwine?
MY FATHER [with scorn]: No.
ME: My favorite restaurant? I admit, you’ve stumped me. All the restaurants I like are up here.
MY FATHER: Red Robin.
ME: Red Robin?! Red Robin is not my favorite restaurant.
MY FATHER: Don’t you want to know why I’m boycotting it?
ME: I could write down the names of a hundred restaurants and I wouldn’t even place Red Robin remotely close to. . . .
MY FATHER: I said, don’t you want to know why I’m boycotting it?
ME: I mean, we went there once, but I can’t imagine I said anything that could possibly have given you any indication that it was one of my favorite. . . .
MY FATHER: ANYWAY.
ME [sighing]: Go on.
MY FATHER: I went and had dinner there the other day. And do you know how they served the fries?
MY FATHER: They had them in a fancy ring that looked like a fancy napkin holder. . . .
ME: Yes, vertically. Craig and I had lunch there a few months ago at a mall and that’s how they served them.
MY FATHER [outraged]: . . . and they were stood up on their ENDS.
MY FATHER: Vertically! Did you say that?
ME: Several times. So you’re boycotting Red Robin because they served their French fries vertically?
MY FATHER: They used to serve them lying down, like normal fries.
ME: I’m . . . sorry? You know, you are allowed to take off the ring and allow them to lie down flat.
MY FATHER: But then they go in different directions.
ME: In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that it was constitutional for Red Robin patrons to align their fries in any direction they want.
MY FATHER: But the real problem. . . .
ME: Oh good, there’s more.
MY FATHER: . . . the real problem is that there aren’t as many as there used to be. The portions are smaller.
ME: But Red Robin is the place where you can have as many servings of fries as you want. Bottomless fries. It’s in all their ads.
MY FATHER: Yes, but.
ME: Yes, but, as in yes, but all you have to do is ask the wait person for more?
MY FATHER: No. Yes, but as in yes, but then I have to hurry and eat them all before I can ask for more, and then I have to wait for them.
ME: Why is that a problem? You don’t have to wait. Grab the waiter when you’re down to the last two or three and they’ll have them out to you by the time you’re done. It’s not a big deal.
MY FATHER: It is a big deal! If you ask for more before you’re finished, the waiter thinks you’re trying to be greedy and take the second portion home.
ME: But . . . but they offer you bottomless fries.
MY FATHER: From an economic standpoint it would be ruinous if everyone ordered extra fries just so they could take the second portion home.
ME: If it were that ruinous, they wouldn’t offer their patrons an extra fifteen cents’ worth of fries.
MY FATHER [loftily]: You know nothing of economics.
ME: So if theoretically the waiter brought you more fries, would you immediately ask him to box them up so you could take them home?
MY FATHER [offended]: No! I’d eat what I wanted.
ME: Okay then!
MY FATHER: And then take the rest home.
ME: I . . . I . . . I honestly don’t know what to say. Why do you care what the waiter thinks, anyway?
MY FATHER: The portions used to be bigger.
ME: Okay. When the portions were bigger, did you ever order more fries?
MY FATHER [even more offended]: I don’t need to eat that many fries!
ME: So you should be happy the portions are smaller! Good god, man!
MY FATHER [with affronted dignity]: This is a very serious boycott and you are deliberately belittling my problem.
ME: You are correct.
MY FATHER: I’m correct? That this is a very serious boycott?
ME: No. That I’m deliberately belittling your problem.
I must take a moment and murmur a few words about The Fourth Great Book Purge.
The First Great Book Purge took place sometime around the turn of the millennium, when I winnowed by half thousands of volumes from my home library. Its less ruthless sequel took place in 2010, when we learned that we were moving away from Michigan and our real estate agent firmly suggested that I pack up my books and hide them if I expected anyone even to consider buying our house. Apparently the whole ‘learned former academic gone wild’ decor thing doesn’t play well in the Midwest.
The Third Great Book Purge took place two years ago, when all my books were still in storage and didn’t seem ever to be coming out, and I decided to get rid of all the volumes I’d already replaced with electronic editions. Writing about it afforded all my friends the opportunity to assert I was a heathen and that nothing could replace the smell and feel of a real live book with real live pages made from real dead trees. I also had to withstand all manner of haughty statements about how electronic versions of books made literature as disposable and trivial as Wikipedia articles flickering upon the electron tube—which makes about as much sense as saying books are disposable and trivial because, like The National Enquirer or TV Guide, they’re printed on paper, but whatever. All I know is that I have over fifteen hundred books on my iPad and bitches, it doesn’t weigh any more than it did when I bought the damned thing.
I embarked on The Fourth Great Book Purge this month, when finally I got to unpack everything we’d hidden away in boxes four years ago. Of all the purges, it was probably the most ruthless. In the original book purge I was throwing away a lot of junk that I’d accumulated during grad school. It didn’t mean anything to toss a little-browsed volume on images of courtly love in The Canterbury Tales, simply because I hadn’t cracked the spine since ye olde medieval literature classes and I wasn’t likely to need it ever again. I love Robert Browning, but even a dozen years ago I could find his works online if I really had a hankering for them. What I got rid of back then was dross. The stuff that I still had mostly meant something. Getting rid of it was tougher.
But you know, even a lot of that could go. I didn’t mind letting go of the lesser novels of Fay Weldon, much as I love her style of writing; the really good stuff I already had electronically, and what was left didn’t reach her giddiest heights. I’ve always had a sentimental soft spot for the novels of E. H. Young, though for the life of me I couldn’t tell you the plots of any one of her novels, it’s been so long. Practicality won over sentiment, in that case. Ditto for the sunny country novels of Miss Read. When it’s possible to sum up the frantic buzz of activity in one of Miss Read’s slender two-hundred page novels as Gentle spinster schoolteacher bikes to her schoolhouse in a country village, helps a young lad with his sweater, then has tea and cakes with the vicar before going to bed, perhaps it’s just best to concede that the only reason I kept them around is that they were a favorite of my mother’s. And my mother isn’t around to read them.
I used to have a bookcase full of cookery books. I now have a single shelf. I used to have a very large bookcase dedicated solely to paperback novels; I had to lay them in four horizontal stacks across, three stacks deep on all five shelves to accommodate them all. That’d be sixty stacks of paperbacks alone, not counting the ones I crammed along the bookcase’s edges. I now have five little stacks of paperbacks that occupy two-thirds of a single shelf. In fact, every book I own fits in two bookcases, and the shelves are still so sparse that there’s plenty of room for artwork, picture frames, glass work, and baskets.
A casual visitor might inspect my shelves and walk away thinking that the only authors in whom I’m interested are Patrick Dennis and E. F. Benson, with minor flirtations with Ruth McKenney and John Dennis Fitzgerald. Maybe it’s true. The first three of those four are a big influence on my writing style, after all.
I have the books I want, though. If I accumulate a few more, I have space for them—which are words I haven’t always been able to say. If I shed some as they gradually come into public domain or as electronic versions are made . . . well, my iPad still won’t get any heavier.
(I should note that at no point did I get rid of any copies of my books. I probably have more author’s copies of my own novels than I have books by other people, at this point. They occupy their own shelves in the bedroom. I have a paranoid suspicion that they multiply like rabbits when I’m sleeping. I’m probably right, too—but let them breed, baby.)