Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Chemical Episode

A Short Story

On the Lam

We returned to our home later that same week. They never did determine what had caused the whole thing in the first place. It had indeed been a chemical plant, and it did explode. The evacuation had been precautionary. They didn’t know exactly what had been released into the air. The newspaper reported that any additional details about the incident would be withheld pending an official investigation. Needless to say that was the last any of us ever heard about it. So it remained a spontaneous incident that happened for no good reason, without any warning at all, and was not repeated.

None of that seemed to matter, though, because what occupied our minds in the Meegan family when we got back home was what had happened to Dad. He had not come back, still.

My mother did what she could to provide reassurance. But her face was flushed and her eyes were puffy most of the time. The last night Dad was at home was the night of the explosion. They had had an intense discussion late, my mother admitted, but she insisted it hadn’t been a knock-down argument. The next day she spoke to him on the phone at work and told him about the evacuation. After that, nothing.

Tommy and I decided to press her for some real information. There had to be more to it than that. On the second night after we came back, a Friday, the four of us sat down for some pizza – myself, Tommy, Katie, and my mother – and while we were eating, Tommy said:

‘You know Mom, Terry and I, we’re 23 years old. And Katie’s big enough too. What’s really going on here?’

My mother didn’t seem surprised. ‘I’ve told you what I know,’ she said calmly. ‘I haven’t heard from him.’

I stepped in. ‘But Mom, you seem pretty sure he’s not lying out there dead somewhere, or injured. If you really thought that you’d be doing more.’

She stared at me. Katie looked down at her slice of pizza. Then she raised her brown eyes, sitting not two feet away from my mother. She was starting to look an awful lot like Mom, but with a different hair color. I suspect she would have ended up looking almost exactly like our mother did. But she only had about four months left to live.

My mom gave up any attempt to consume her food. ‘You’re right, Terry,’ she said. ‘No, I do not think he is dead or hurt. I believe he will come back. But I don’t know where he went, and I don’t know when he will come back. Does that satisfy you?’

‘No,’ I said flatly. ‘Does it satisfy you?’

She said nothing.

‘Is he with somebody else?’ Katie asked.

Mom’s head was shaking before Katie’s question was out of her mouth.

‘Absolutely not,’ she said resolutely.

‘How do you know?’ Tommy asked.

‘Because he told me twenty-seven years ago he wouldn’t do that, and your father holds to his word. That’s how I know.’

‘Look, Mom,’ I said, and I even reached out and lamely patted her hand. ‘We’re sorry, but we thought there was stuff that you weren’t telling us. We thought you were trying to protect us from some unpleasant truth. Especially because you’re not really talking to cops every day or whatever to hunt Dad down. Tommy and I were talking about it, and we just wanted to tell you you don’t have to shield it from us. But now I believe you. You don’t seem to know what’s going on either.’

My mom seemed to think about what I had said for a while. She looked at each one of us. It seemed like she was going to cry, but she didn’t.

Katie took her hand. She had talked about possibly becoming a nurse one day.

Finally my mom spoke again.

‘I said I don’t know where he is, Terry. And that I don’t know when he’s going to return. But I never said I didn’t know what was going on.’

Tommy and I looked across the table at each other. We had this way of talking without actually talking, entirely through our faces. One of the advantages to being twins, I suppose. We’d been doing it since we were little children.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

—Hell if I know.

—Ask her about it.

—You ask her. You’re the one who made her say it.

—But you started the conversation.

—Somebody had to.

My mother looked up and saw Tommy and I staring at one another.

‘Listen, guys. What’s going on here is that your father has been under immense strain lately, more than he knows how to deal with. His career is not going well. They’re talking about forced retirements. He’s unhappy about some other things. We’ve been on edge with one another. He’s having difficulty seeing things straight. I think he’s lost his way a bit.’

‘Well, that’s all well and good for him,’ Katie said bitterly. ‘But he left you holding the ball.’

Mother and daughter locked eyes. Then she just smiled sardonically.

‘So you think he will come back?’ Tommy asked, to break that up.

‘Yes. He will be back.’

He’ll have some shit to answer to.

—Yeah he will.

‘What do we do next, then?’ Katie asked.

‘We do the one thing none of us is really interested in,’ Mom said. ‘We wait.’

So we waited. But for the next few days it was like living inside a piano. Everyone high-stepping all the time to avoid tweaking the strings, wound up tight as trip wires.

Baby Love

We were seven weeks along. It hadn’t even fully sunk in yet. But it felt a lot different than the first two.

Rebecca had called me at work three weeks before. She told me to come right home. Clueless as always, I asked her, ‘Is everything all right?’

‘I’m not really sure,’ was all she said.

That was not a fun commute home. As soon as I walked in the door, Claire, my younger girl, grabbed me and I almost tripped. She was home from her half day at kindergarten. Rebecca was seated in our one decent recliner. Her eyes looked like a harbor on a foggy morning. I knelt down next to her.

‘I’m pregnant,’ she said, and started to cry.

The doctor told us things were fine, and we were due around Christmas. He lectured Rebecca imperiously about birth control. I was not in the room at the time. I had gone out to the lobby to stop my spinning head from knocking everything off the walls.

The timing was almost hilariously awkward. It felt like we were in the absolute worst position to have a third baby. But it wasn’t as though I could transfer the blame. And I didn’t want to. Part of me was thrilled. Right off the bat, I’ll just say it, I knew he was my first son. You can ask me how and I could never tell you, but I knew it. Rebecca agreed. She told me she could just feel it. I believed her because, somehow, I could too.

But in weaker moments, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that the pregnancy was some kind of cosmic joke. Work was always stressful and we were way behind on our bills. It felt a little bit like God was enjoying a bit of a laugh. ‘You thought things were stressful before,’ He said, ‘let me toss this into the mix.’

I know how terrible that sounds – and believe me, today I regret my selfishness and lack of faith. I paid for it.

One Thursday night at the end of her seventh week my wife started complaining that she didn’t feel well. She made a few trips to the bathroom and spent a lot of time there. I thought she was being sick, but there was no noise. She came out subdued. She said she was feeling off. The next day she started bleeding, but not in great amounts. She felt nausea and lethargy. ‘I think something is going wrong,’ she told me on the phone. I stared at my cubicle walls, as the correct words might be posted there with the other nonsense. ‘I’m going to try to get in to see the doctor,’ she said. I offered to go with her.

It was a Friday. The doctor was unable to see her at all until the following Monday. She was told that if she had major bleeding before then we should go to the ER. Then the doctor herself called on Friday night. She asked a lot of questions.

When Rebecca hung up she said, ‘The doctor says this could be a lot of things. No need to over-react, she said. The fact that I’m not bleeding a ton is a good thing.’

‘But you are bleeding off and on?’ I asked.

Rebecca nodded, and looked at me. Her eyes had something in them I couldn’t put a name to.
We went through the entire weekend trying not to think about what was going on, yet we also had a thorough discussion about names. Our girls took care of most of the rest of the time. When you have small kids and you need distractions, it’s not too hard to find them. Rebecca made more visits to the bathroom. When she came out I would interrogate her on how she felt. She said, ‘About the same.’ Any blood? ‘Some,’ she said, but she didn’t quite look at me.

I never really believed it. I know I didn’t, because of my reaction later. My wife had been trying to let me know.

We found ourselves in the office the following Monday. The technician smeared that clear gel stuff on my wife’s stomach. I stood in the far corner while the ultrasound was in progress. Where the hell is the father supposed to stand? There was too much machinery, plus the technician herself, surrounding Rebecca’s head. So you end up standing in the corner somewhere in full view of the business end. I stared at the gray shadows on the computer screen. The technician said something to my wife that I didn’t hear while mopping off her stomach. Rebecca nodded and sat up.

‘What?’ I said. ‘What happened?’

The technician took us down a hallway and into a vacant room. ‘The doctor will be down in a little while,’ she said. ‘We’ll give the two of you a little time though.’ She shut the door.

That’s how I finally found out. It never existed as a legitimate possibility to me before that moment. As soon as I looked at Rebecca in that cold and barren room, however, I understood that she had been telling me, or trying to, since the previous Friday.

What happened to me next never happened again after that morning. I grabbed my wife and I bawled, exactly the way my daughter Claire does when you punish her. Rebecca cried too, but more quietly, knowledgeably. I blubbered like an idiot. But I wasn’t thinking about that. That was my son. That was my only son.

I pushed back from Rebecca, coughing. I bent at the waist with both hands on my knees and made some groaning noises. I guess it’s going to sound ridiculous now, on paper, but it sure didn’t feel that way. I looked straight up at the tile ceiling, not seeing the tiles or the ceiling or anything, and I stammered, loudly, ‘We’ll see you when we get there!’

A Chemical Episode

My father called it ‘a chemical episode’. That’s how the doctor had put it, and to him, naturally, the phrase made sense. Having studied chemicals in the brain and brain function in general for much of his life, he knew the terms. He must have had an idea of what was going on within his own head in a way that most would not. And yet, the fearful mystery of it is, even Dad with all his stockpiled information was powerless to counteract it.

He returned Sunday morning. We got back from Mass and there he was, sitting on the front porch of our house. It must have taken a lot for my mother not to whack him in the head, or scream, or something I haven’t thought of. As for myself, Tommy, and Katie, we were all just relieved to see him. To us the nightmare was over. For my Mom – and for him – it was hard to tell if it was ending, just beginning, or in progress.

Somehow, I think in a more or less dignified manner, my parents detached themselves and went into my Dad’s study to talk things over. There they argued. Tommy and I could hear them duking it out even upstairs. You couldn’t blame my mother for uncorking. It never got too bad, however. I think there was general acknowledgment of a problem, something that would require the involvement of another, objective party. I doubt this had ever taken place before. Tommy and I sat in the same room quietly, listening I guess; we didn’t even make a show of small talk or of doing some other mundane activity.

Katie had to work that afternoon, in the same library my mother had worked at once. Katie had been there since her freshman year of high school. Tommy and I putzed around the house for much of the day, and tried to interest ourselves in a Yankee game on TV. My mother went out to ‘run errands’, or something. I don’t really remember what Dad was doing, but after a long time, in the late afternoon, he wandered into the family room where Tommy and I were. He carried three Budweisers with him. He distributed them, sat down, and watched the last three innings with us.

That was a strange and not very comfortable afternoon. We knew he wasn’t going to say much. At least, not right away. And if he did, it wouldn’t be a big breakdown or an outpouring of contrition. Not from our Dad. There were times when he could get emotional, but he had to be very tired, or a little drunk – or a lot drunk – and that rarely happened. My father was a man of science. Things had explanations. He wouldn’t talk a lot about it until he had more facts. It went against his training and his instincts.

Sure enough, at dinner that night, he told the family he’d experienced some kind of mental event, a lapse of reason. He was going to see a doctor the next day to address it. ‘It’s something that may have become a problem,’ he said, with understatement. ‘I’ve got to find out what it will take to fix it. So that’s all I’ll say about it right now.’

Three nights later, however, my parents called a family meeting. It was held after dinner in our ‘formal’ living room, which meant the room we spent the least time in and the furniture was not quite as trashed as the rest of the house. My Dad sat in a large leather recliner. When we were younger we had called it ‘the throne’ or ‘Dad’s chair’. You couldn’t sit on it. It was better if you didn’t even look at it. It seemed appropriate for him to post himself there. My mother, looking stalwart as ever, but not saying much – she hadn’t had a whole lot to say since his return, really – sat on the arm. Tommy, Katie, and I all sat on the long sectional.

‘There are two problems at issue here,’ said my father without preamble. ‘One boils down to an imbalance of chemicals in my brain. The common term for this is ‘depression’. I seem to be developing a greater susceptibility to it as I age. My neurologist isn’t sure why it has increased over time. There isn’t anybody that could explain it, truthfully. What happens is that substances called neurotransmitters in the brain – serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine – become disproportionate. It has a great effect on a person’s mood and judgment.

‘I didn’t see it coming on, but it’s really not surprising that this was possible. My father almost certainly suffered from it before he died. And you remember my sister Josephine. She suffered from it for most of her adult life. Now it seems I am experiencing it, too. Stress also has a lot to do with what happened. But none of these are a complete explanation, nor are they the only causes.’

He waited, gathering his thoughts to say more. Maybe something he found difficult.

The thing is, we did not remember Josephine. Or Aunt Josephine, I suppose. We didn’t really know much about her. We had never spent time with her. I couldn’t even picture her face, and I still can’t. She had lived back in Ohio, never left, and she died when Tommy and I were teenagers. Nobody ever talked about her. She’d been married to an abusive husband, a guy that had traumatized her physically and mentally, evidently. When she died, all we knew was that she was not with this guy any longer, was living in some sort of home, and she had passed from some kind of cardiac event. Was that even true? We would have been the last to know.

Bringing up Josephine had always been good for one thing in our house: total silence. Thus, what my Dad said next was somewhat ironic.

‘The other problem here is communication. I’m not good at being open about what is going on with me or how I am feeling. I bottle it up. I must be the most inexpressive person of Irish descent in the world. But my mother was German, you know. Anyway, I’ve been feeling off for a while. But I didn’t tell your mother everything about it, and I sure didn’t tell you guys. Actually the one person who came closest to getting it out of me was Kevin. He said to me, about ten days ago, “Something is wrong with you.” Kevin’s smart. He was exactly right.’

Normally I would have gotten pissed off the reference to how together Kevin’s shit was. But this was not the time.

‘But,’ Dad continued, ‘I did not think that either of these struggles I just talked about would cause me to do what I did over the last several days. I wish I had a good way to describe the things happening in my brain …. how it was even possible for me to just up and leave and stay elsewhere and not to even feel as though I were the one making those decisions. But if I could do that, I’m not sure I would want to. I don’t want you, my children, to experience this. I don’t want you to know what it is. Yet at the same time, I cannot say for sure that one day one or more of you won’t. Because of heredity. And that’s another thing I will have to live with.’

At this point he looked down. My mother put her hand on his shoulder. I looked at Tommy. We didn’t know what to expect right then. It could have been tears, it could have been another rant, it could have been some kind of joke. Katie was looking at my father with a compassionate expression. For her, there were tears.

Dad looked up again. His face impassive.

‘One other thing,’ he said. ‘You may think I’m fine now, I look fine, this thing is over. It isn’t. I know enough about it. Everything went out of whack up here’ – he pointed to his forehead – ‘and I don’t know why. But a lot of things that I suspect contributed to it are still happening. And I don’t know when or if it will occur again.

‘The first thing I really wanted to say to you kids is that I apologize. To all of you. I’d like to ask for your forgiveness.’

He waited. We all nodded. He looked at my mother, who smiled at him wearily.

‘The second thing is that I know that what I need right now is to get help. That’s what I’m doing. And I will keep doing it until I get through this.’

Evacuation Part II

He lived up to that promise. That’s why I had forgotten the episode. My Dad never again acted the way he had after the explosion.

He died seven weeks ago. He had Alzheimer’s Disease, the very condition had worked so hard to find a treatment for. For the last five years, he had a very poor appetite, didn’t leave the house very much, suffered bouts of dementia, and a host of other ailments too numerous to catalog. He forgot all of his grandkids’ names. He asked for Katie frequently. It wasn’t terribly surprising that he would die. But it still shocked the hell out of Tommy, Kevin and I when it happened. There are only four of us left in this family.

Now I know exactly what my father felt. Everything I have written about here has brought me to this moment. I am seated in a nondescript hotel room in a tiny kitchenette. It’s not even a mile from my house. Why I am here I can’t even say. I guess it was his death, of all things, that triggered it. But it wasn’t only that, of course. Things have a way of stacking up. The money. Longer hours. My dead sister. My lost son. And then Dad.

I started to think about it all over these last few days, trying to discover out what I had done. And it finally dawned on me last night. This is exactly what happened to my old man. And I responded to it in basically the exact same way. That’s what really shakes me about this – the understanding that it wasn’t even really a decision I made. It was something that happened. An event. An episode.

Friday night, I got off work. My wife was out with our girls at a birthday party, and they were going to come home late. Christmas is not far off. Our son would have been due soon. My wife plans as much stuff as possible to keep her occupied, distracted, out of our house.

I was driving home, staring into space. A bank called my cell. I ignored it. Day had already vanished into dusk. I drove right past my own house, which was darkened. I kept going. I assumed I was circling the block, allowing the song I was listening to to finish. But I left the development altogether. I turned and headed towards the highway. Right before the highway picks up, a brand new Courtyard Hotel has sprung up very recently. I pulled in. I had never even really looked at it before.

I sat in the car with the motor off, watching the lobby entrance. My instinct prompted me to ask myself what the hell I thought I was doing. But something wasn’t working. I didn’t want to ask questions. All I wanted to do was sit somewhere innocuous and quiet and sleep for a while. Maybe write some things down. I went inside and came up here and sat down. They had this nifty little notebook just waiting for me. And I’ve been here, more or less, ever since.

It’s Tuesday night now, very late. Of course, now that I remember what happened to my Dad, and I know what has happened to me, I have to go back. I must return home and attempt to explain to my wife what I have done and what I am going to do about fixing it. I cannot imagine how she will react.

But first, now, after writing this down, I will try to get some sleep. It hasn’t been coming the way I hoped it would. I have spent many hours here staring at these dreadful walls, these ridiculous paintings. Or the TV. I’d like to put down that I have had wild fever dreams, one or more epiphanies, extraordinary visions. That I’ve been visited, one by one, by all the people I’ve been close to who are now dead. First Mutt. Then Katie came by. Then my father stopped in. I even got to hold my unknown son for a while. They all, even the fetus, wanted me to know it was okay. I could go back home. All would be forgiven.

None of that has happened. I stare up at the ceiling. I find myself imagining something strange. I don’t think of all those other dead. I think instead of my own death. And I think of water. Gallons of water, lakes, a huge ocean.

I picture myself as the subject of a burial at sea. No Mass, no music, no eulogies, no grave. They wrap my body in whatever laundry is available on the ship and slide it off the quarterdeck. I visualize it, my body, with the soul removed to God knows where, drifting down, a big stone tangled in the cloth. It descends for a long time, in utter soundlessness, until it lands with a small puff on the bottom of the sea. Where, having no knowledge of the light let alone the inclination to move towards it, pre-cognitive creatures converge and scuffle blindly over what remains.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Never Say Die

OK I have to admit that that title is an inside joke between Mutt and I... I won't bother to explain it. But it's a good lead-in to some comments I have about Mutt's last post, "Die Trying," which you need to read if you haven't already. (Also, I like way it actually contradicts the title of the very post it aims to draw your attention to, with Spinal Tap-level absurdity, which also makes sense given one of the films he discusses!)

As anyone who's been reading these pages already knows, Mutt has been doing a yeoman's job keeping this thing going while I've just been too busy during the last few months to contribute... surgery for one of my children, and a personal injury for myself, certainly did wreak havoc on my schedule! But both my daughter and I are all healed up (more or less), I am happy to report. I'm going to try my hardest to keep up with Mutt's myriad posts...

The reviews he has posted up recently for Jim Sheridan's Get Rich or Die Tryin' and Sacha Gervasi's "rockumentary" Anvil!: The Story of Anvil really are worth a read. Since I haven't seen the first of those, I'll focus my comments on the second: I think Mutt makes a point about Gervasi's film that's an important one, and not one you're going to get from many - if any! - other film reviews you can read out there online or wherever. Yes, the movie is a celebration of friendship and perseverance, and yes, it is an inspirational real-life story about never giving up on your dream. But it's also, when you really think about it, a movie about gratitude.

Perhaps this is best summed up by "Lips" Kudlow himself, lead guitarist and front man for Anvil, in one of the film's many memorable moments, when he is driving and just musing for the camera about the work he and his band have just put in to record their 13th album (Tap-ishly titled This is Thirteen). He first reflects on their disastrous European tour and says optimistically "Well, at least there was a tour for everything to go wrong on!" And you can tell by the look on his face that he's not just being blind or "in denial;" you can tell he actually means it. The weariness evident on his face shows that it wasn't all fun and games (as if the footage shot by Gervasi along the way hadn't enough!), and that the disappointment Kudlow has experienced has taken its toll on him. But he somehow manages to find a ray of light in the experience anyway.

And then, as Mutt pointed out, he talks with evident pride about the work they've done on the new album, and how fortunate he is to be in a position to record at all. "I'm grateful," he concludes, with a sincerity that cannot be denied. I like how Mutt turned thaat question around on us, the audience: how many of us are grateful for the gifts we have been given? How many have the courage (and it does require courage, oftentimes) to use them, to offer our ideas and expressions to a world that will more than likely reject them because they're not deemed worthy of consumption by the popular masses?

That's the really remarkable thing about this film, that both Mutt and many others have stated - in the beginning of the movie, you're laughing at these guys, their appearance and music and obvious enthusiasm for something that seems, frankly, sort of childish. But as it goes on, and you get to know the people a little bit, deeper and far more admirable character traits emerge. These guys have loyalty. They have passion. They have courage. They have vision. They are willing to accept the risk of failure. They refuse to give up their right to express themselves as they see fit.

But most of all, they have gratitude. They recognize that it's a gift to be able to express themselves in the form of music. They want to revel in the joy of that. And if they can get paid for it, so much the better. But clearly, as thirty-plus years of hard struggle has proven, that's not their primary motivation. If it were, they would have flamed out a long, long time ago.

If you can't find something to admire in that, you ought to be checking your pulse. And that's why by the time Anvil! ends, you're loving every second of the success that they find - however fleeting, however irrelevant as per the shifting standards of popular culture. If movie theaters were bars, there would be raised mugs and shot glasses going up (and down) all over the place in tribute to Kudlow, Reiner and all the other struggling artists out there who manage to find, in their relentless pursuit of perfection in their craft for its own sake, something to be thankful for.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Chemical Episode

A Short Story

The Explosion

The only other time I have been forced to evacuate was that one night, almost twenty years ago now, when the chemical plant exploded. This happened over the summer, two years after college but before we left home for good. My twin brother and I were both back in River Heights with our parents and our younger sister, Katie, who is now dead. My older brother Kevin was living in Boston with his fiancée.

It was a sweltering night, thick with the kind of weighted silence that covers the earth after a scorcher, a shroud of exhaustion. All when I was growing up in that cushy suburb, our house never had air conditioning. The walls practically melted right off the beams. We jacked open the windows at night, accomplishing nothing. A battalion of sickly electric fans of nearly every variety, some older than me, was deployed strategically throughout the house.

I lay in a pool of sweat and moonlight, finally asleep, my body strung out from working all day and then cutting our grass. Tommy and I had flipped a coin. I lost. Suddenly a tremendous report thundered off of the roof of the sky, a single blast that was like the sound a battleship’s heavy guns makes in films. The concussion literally shook the house. It was this that woke me up. Some part of my consciousness heard the blast, but my body responded as if physically shaken. Woozy with fatigue, smelling ripe, I lifted my head up, then propped myself onto my elbows and stared out the open window.

At that moment the door to my room creaked open and my brother Tommy walked in, dressed only in a pair of underpants. His hair was sticking straight up and he had one eye closed. ‘What the hell was that?’ he asked, as if I could supply the answer.

‘Don’t ask me.’

Tommy shuffled across the frayed carpet to the window and peered out. ‘It sounded pretty close by. Did you hear it? Some kind of explosion or something.’

‘Hell yeah I heard it,’ I replied. ‘You could feel it, too.’

‘That’s the part that’s freaking me out.’

We both fell silent for a moment.

‘If this were about ten or twelve years ago, I’d say it was the Russkies, finally giving us what was coming,’ said Tommy.

‘It ain’t the Russkies,’ I said. ‘They waited too long, and now they got nothing to hit us with.’

A Cumulative Effect

I didn’t know I was headed for trouble until I was already in the middle of it. There aren’t many warning signs – at least, not if you’re not trained to see them. It doesn’t follow discernable patterns, and if it attacks, it does so without provocation. No wonder doctors and scientists are still essentially baffled by these matters.

Looking at my life from where I sit – I am 39 years old now – I’ve actually achieved many of the things I wanted to when I was younger. Sure, I’d like to be rich and have greater peace of mind. But I really am fortunate. The one thing that I’ve always wanted – aside from my literary aspirations – was to have my own family, and God has given me an absolutely beautiful one. My wife Rebecca and I were married in 2000, and we have two gorgeous daughters: Elizabeth, who is nine already, and Claire, who is five. The three of them are easily the most important things in my life. It might not seem that way once I finishing telling this story, but that doesn’t change the fact.

Tommy is married too, by the way. He has four children. He lives in Emmittsburg, Maryland, and works in the Marketing department at the College of Mount Saint Mary’s. I work in the sales department for a financial services firm, writing copy for various documents. Thus, he makes less money than I do, but he’s a better provider. He’s a more conscientious father than I am, and a natural member of a community as well. I’ve always believed that Tommy’s had a little bit of an edge over me when it comes to sociability. Whenever I’m in his town I meet a lot of people who tell me how terrific he is. I wouldn’t argue the point.

As I said before, though, I think I’ve done well enough for myself, especially in terms of what’s important. And I do have my gifts. I’m a better writer than Tommy is. That may not sound like much, but to me it makes up for a lot. Some might say that Tommy has more personality. But a writer rationalizes that he has a more dynamic inner life than your average schlub off the street. It’s bullshit, but it makes me feel better. I guess what I am trying to say is that I know who I am, at least relative to my twin brother. I can live with the differences.

Our lives were nearly the exact same story until just after we got out of college. Then two tragedies occurred. The ripples from these two events prodded us in different directions. Our lives began to resemble one another less. Then we married utterly different women, at completely separate times. Twins must eventually drift apart, in some ways, while maintaining an inviolable bond in others.

For me, however, after the second tragedy – the death of my sister Katie by vehicular manslaughter – more bad things happened. Not all at once. Every two or three years. But they began to accumulate. The collective weight pressed down on me harder and harder without my even knowing it. Until I just gave way. No one saw it coming. Least of all me.

It wasn’t until the third night of the current evacuation that I remembered. There had only been one incident in my entire life that pointed towards what is happening now. And it had started with the chemical explosion, on that late summer night nearly twenty years ago.

After the Explosion

My mother seemed the most rattled the morning after. I didn’t understand why at the time. Katie was still asleep. I came down the stairs, seeking my father. She told me without making eye contact that he had left for work already. That was surprising since it was not yet seven o’clock. But I didn’t dwell on it too much because my mind was occupied with the strange incident in the middle of the night.

Tommy came stumbling down a few minutes later and we had some coffee. Seeing him all bushwhacked reminded me of the old times when we used to drag ourselves downstairs to go deliver The Newark Star-Ledger. Damn, I thought. Nothing changes.

My mother sat at the table with us. She seemed distracted but she wouldn’t talk about it. So we sat there for a while speculating on what had happened the night before. Nobody could even begin to determine what it had been. All we knew was that something had blown up. We wondered aloud whether it was somebody’s house, but we had seen no smoke and heard no fire engines, and it seemed unlikely that a residential home in the middle of a suburb would suddenly pop off like a Roman Candle for no apparent reason.

Another possibility seemed more likely. About a half mile down Arbor Street from where we lived, near the center of River Heights, the housing developments came to an abrupt end, right about where a set of railroad tracks cut across the town. Between all the houses and the downtown area there was a handful of warehouses and nondescript office buildings. A used car lot near there had been abandoned since I was a little kid. There was a UPS facility somewhere in there. It was a dirty, unappealing part of town. We used to joke that it was the Communist District because of the ugly buildings.

There was one small side street running perpendicular to Arbor that I had never once traveled down. It was called Industrial Road. It was probably about 1,000 feet long by the looks of it. From Arbor Street you could see curious smokestacks and cylindrical tanks full of God-knew-what, stuff that probably ended up in McDonald’s Happy Meals or something like that. Foul-colored smog chugged out from hidden orifices at odd times. This had always been a mysterious place to me, Industrial Road, because I never saw anybody actually coming or going down that street.

The only person I ever knew that actually worked there was my dead friend Mutt Ploughman. He had worked for UPS for a while.

I thought about Industrial Road while were sitting around the table that morning, with the sun struggling to hurdle the huge trees in our backyard. We all agreed that the explosion had to have occurred in that area. Wasn’t there some kind of chemical plant or something down there? Tommy wondered. My mother said she thought that there was.

What else could it have been? But it was so bizarre. Everything quiet, dead of night, all these washed-out people exhausted from carrying out the same old suburban routines lying asleep in their beds, and down there in the industrial part of town where nobody recognizes anything, something goes awry. All that matter bubbling along, or whatever it was that went on there day in and day out, week after week, until a moment arrives when something happens – nobody knows what – and the whole thing just kind of boils over. Ka-boom.

That night my father did not come home from work.

Experience with Death

The first of the tragedies was the death of our old friend Mutt Ploughman, the first summer after we graduated from college. We’d known Mutt since we were seven years old. He’d lived four houses down from our own up until the day he died. That day came in 1995. I don’t feel like I want to rehash all of the specifics. I’ve told a thousand different people the whole story about three times each.

He had been in the backseat of a car that another guy was driving too fast down a rain-slicked street in the middle of our suburb. Most of us didn’t have jobs yet and had nothing to do except tool around and look for a place to eat. Maybe the only reason Mutt ended up inside a chassis twisted around a tree trunk like a paper clip bent around a #2 pencil was because driving fast was the only way to milk a cheap thrill out of existence.

The craziest thing about that experience – the part that still festers inside of me somewhere like a hole in a tissue wall – was that Mutt had been the only one of us that did have a plan for the future. He could be such an asshole sometimes, so ridiculous and petty and full of himself for no reason whatsoever except to compensate for his own numerous liabilities. Half the time I knew him I did everything but wish him dead. But Mutt Ploughman was the hardest working friend and peer I had ever known. He had spent his entire 21 years of existence preparing to drag himself out of a hole he hadn’t dug, and when he finally got his head up out of the ground it was as if somebody came by in a huge truck and rolled right over it. For those of us left behind to figure that out, it was a real blow to our sense of equilibrium, a foot to the balls right as we were walking into the Grand Hall of Adulthood.

That was merely the prelude, though. Just two years later we encountered death again, and this time it didn’t even try for ironic humor, opting for flat-out injustice instead. Its victim this time was my own little sister. She was only sixteen years old. It happened in the winter time around 6 o’clock in the evening, when congestion in our little hamlet could get downright ludicrous.

Katie had had a driver’s permit and was behind the wheel of my mom’s brand new Honda with its owner in the passenger’s seat. She was paused at a stop sign near a blind curve, trying to turn right. Katie began her turn a little too slowly in a spot where you really needed to be more decisive. But the derelict who came around the bend doing 75 in a 40-mile-an-hour zone had no excuse but his own stupidity to be taking that curve so fast, no matter how tentatively Katie had acted. The guy had a prior record of other malfeasances to which, on that cold night, he tacked on vehicular manslaughter. He killed my sister. The last I heard he was still in the cooler. But that was some time ago, so he’s probably out by now.


Actually, I didn’t make it home that night either. None of us did. I had a buddy from work attempt to give me a lift home because Tommy had the car we were more or less sharing. He had a longer commute to his menial office job, so I didn’t gripe that he had the car more often. It was a piece of shit anyway, a Chevy Caprice from like 1986.

Anyway, when this guy Chuck from work tried to bring me home, we were coming up over the railroad tracks I mentioned earlier, not far from Industrial Road, when we came upon a police barrier. There were two saw horses positioned in the street and a squad car with the lights going. A lanky cop was standing there glaring at us. I recognized him right away as a guy who had been a few years ahead of me in high school, a real burn-out, once sang lead vocals for a garage band called Cut & Dry. Only now I had to admit he looked pretty cleaned up in his johnny suit. He held up one hand because I guess he wasn’t confident we’d get the message when we saw his Crown Victoria and the wooden horses.

When Chuck rolled down the window the cop said to him, ‘No outlet on this road.’ He left it at that, so we were forced to inquire exactly what the hell that meant.

‘No admittance. We’re in the middle of a contained evacuation process, due to an incident last night.’

Jesus, it’s like this guy memorized the textbook, I thought.

‘But I live just up the way. On Arbor Street. He’s bringing me home.’ I had to lean partway over Chuck’s lap to say this, which was slightly awkward.

The cop canted his head lower to stare at me. Exactly the way they do it in the movies, right before they say, Would you step out of the car please? Then they shoot you and steal your car.

For a minute, I thought he was going to recognize me too. But if he did, he didn’t let it slip.

‘Residents are to be advised that it is unsafe to return to their homes until further notice,’ he said, still quoting from that book.

‘We can’t go to our own houses?’ I asked. Chuck and I exchanged dumbfounded glances. The cop said nothing. Another car behind us, a Dodge Omni, honked. I canted around in my seat and gave a gesture with both arms, the exact translation of which would have been: Seriously, asshole. Where the hell are we gonna go?

Good question, there.

‘Where am I supposed to go, then?’

The cop stared elsewhere, looking up Arbor Street, as if he were Clint Eastwood scanning a forlorn horizon.

‘I guess you’d better find yourself a friend. If possible.’ He grinned.

That part probably wasn’t in the book.

The Meaning of Meaning

As you might expect, Katie’s death transformed our family. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. Everybody knows beforehand, in the academic sense: if you lose a member of your family, life will change. It’s going to be hard. Et cetera. But man – as only experience with death can reveal to you, you do not know the meaning of those words until it happens to your family. That’s because once it does, those words, and all other words, have no meaning.

This was the result of those two tragedies that surprised me the most: the way that they began, very slowly, to strip the substance out of things. It happened in an almost geological way; that is to say, over a period of many years after they happened, they remained coursing through me like some dark river, painstakingly carving a canyon through all that I had thought to be true. This process – obviously – continues.

The ironic thing is that it started with language. That was the first layer of ground beneath my feet that I noticed beginning to erode. This, of course, was right at the time that I was getting started in creative writing as more than a hobby. Rather, it was a serious endeavor that I really believed, as I still do, that I had a vocation-like summons to throw myself into. But a crippling thing occurred in the wake of my two experiences with death. The language itself started to lose the tight grip that had compelled me to write in the first place.

Even worse, there was no one to blame. It was just people being people. After Mutt’s death in 1995, he was showered with superlatives and his head heaped with laurels for his considerable achievements in life – just surviving; functioning in the world when he’d never had the love of his father or the emotional support of his mother; starting his own landscaping business. He’d earned that praise. The problem was that nobody gave it to him while he was still living. Myself included. Very few people gave a shit about Mutt while he was here with us. And that includes the people who conceived him.

Katie’s death – murder, to me – was two years later. Late in 1997, a half year after the chemical explosion. Fair or unfair, people didn’t treat Katie the same way they had treated Mutt – again, including me, Tommy, and everyone else in my family. She was the golden child inside our house; outside of it, everybody loved her. We all still do. My wife, who never even met Katie, told me once that she never could have done any wrong in my own eyes. That shocked me at the time, but she didn’t mean anything negative by it. She was probably right.

After Katie was killed, I noticed that the same thing happened that had happened with Mutt. People would come up to you and say things about your dead sister (or daughter, in my parents’ case) that had either no basis in fact (‘She was flawless’; ‘I never once saw her cry’; ‘She could do anything and do it better than anyone else’) or that had no basis in anything (‘She’s in a better place’; ‘It was just her time’; ‘These things are beyond the understanding of this world’). With most of us, you hear enough of these things, and you just start to tune out.

But I had developed an interest in words, language, and expression, and because of that interest, I was paying attention. It had a terrible consequence. For God’s sake, what had happened to my language? What did all of those words mean? The sympathy cards had their trite poetry. The eulogies had their overwrought superlatives and inaccurate recollections of qualities that couldn’t have been as pure as they were being ‘remembered’. Even the Catholic prayers we recited ad nauseam didn’t seem rooted in modern existence – not for me, not at that time. ‘May the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace…’ Faithfully departed? My sister’s teenage spine had been crushed by a Ford Bronco doing seventy-five miles an hour.

I had taken composition and literature classes in college, and I fell in love with novels, essays, and the idea of conveying one’s thoughts precisely in the appropriate arrangement of words. But after these tragedies, words began to seem like vapor no matter how they were arranged. This was a considerable problem, because I was still very much interested in writing! No wonder my literary career has been a non-starter. And yet to this day – as you see – I still try.

That’s not even the worst of it. Those two deaths actually led me to troubles even deeper than the literary one – and for an aspiring writer, that’s a mouthful. I noticed that once language began to lose its meaning, so too did the ideas and realities that it existed to serve. Things like: ‘career’. You struggle all of your life trying to advance it. What for? Where did that ever get my father? ‘Faith’. In what? In who? The rite of Mass was all words – prayers, readings, hymns. Did they mean anything? You still ended up dead. “Life”. What was it? What was Katie’s life, what was Mutt’s? When they only hung around for twenty-one years, or less, in the first place?

All of this slowly morphed, festered, evolved, or whatever word there is left to use, into an unruly mass in my brain over a period of years. I’ve said it many times before: how I got my wife to marry me in 2000, seeing as how all of this was rolling along in me like a massive stone gathering moss all the time, is still an utter mystery to me.

The Rant

I ended up at my old friend Rizzo’s house that night, since our entire street had been evacuated. It took a while to track down Tommy. Nobody was carrying around cell phones yet. Eventually he figured out to call over to Rizzo’s place to see if I had gone there. Rizzo was still hanging around town too, of course. We had spent so many nights at his place that it was practically second nature to his mother and father to walk into various rooms of their own home and see one or both of the Meegan twins sitting there.

We stayed at Rizzo’s that first night, the whole next day and night, and then, on the third day, we got the all clear to go back to our homes. Like everything else, it got boring quickly. I can remember shooting hoops that first night on Rizzo’s driveway amid rampant speculation about what had happened, whether or not there would be a toxic airborne event, acid rain, chemicals in the water, mutant babies over time, and whatnot. I don’t even recall what we did about things like brushing our teeth or changing clothes. We either figured something out or just neglected those necessities until we got back to our house. Most likely it was the latter.

It was during that second day that we learned that our father had not come back to the area the night before. In fact, no one even knew where he was. This may be why I can’t remember much about how we filled those 40 hours following the explosion. My father had never done anything like this. My mother was a wreck over it, understandably; but that alone was cause for alarm, because she didn’t get knocked off balance by much. At least, not before her daughter was killed. When we talked to her the next day, she said he had not called her, she had no idea where he had gone or what he was doing, and she didn’t seem to have any clue to what might happen next.

At first Tommy and I were flabbergasted. Something had to have happened. Had he rolled his car into a ditch somewhere? Possibly. Kidnapped? Please. In our town? But as we talked about it and kicked it around with Rizzo, we began to suspect what might have happened. Though you couldn’t call it worse, exactly, than him getting killed in his car, it was in some ways nearly as disturbing, inasmuch as it was a lot less easier to explain.

It was Tommy who first brought up ‘the rant’. That’s what we had already started to call it. We knew that there had been some strain in our household and particularly in our parents’ marriage over the previous one or two years. As far as we knew, it had nothing to do with infidelity or anything of that sort. Our family had been under a terrific financial burden for years, what with three college tuition cycles already having taken their devastating toll, and Katie’s still coming.

We also knew, since he was always counter-productively candid about it, that my father had experienced worsening frustration with his job. He was a scientist by education. He had spent years in classrooms and laboratories as a teacher and research chemist, toiling away in search of compounds that would become drugs used to treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. During my entire childhood, he had been employed by a large pharmaceutical company, where it was his primary job to develop these medicines and get them pushed through the extensive and bureaucratic process to bring them to market.

Evidently, advancing this was an endlessly frustrating series of tests, studies, applications, more tests, focus groups, data gathering, and on and on. But it hadn’t been until only a few months before the plant blew up that he had told Tommy and I – just casually, out of the blue – something that let us know just how exasperating the task really was. He said to us that in all of the time he had been working for his employer –since 1978 – they had not been able to successfully bring even one drug to market. Years of research, testing, and endless grappling with the Food and Drug Administration. Something – a lawsuit, an unexpected side effect – always got in the way in the end.

Then there were Dad’s health issues. Although he was never very overweight, he had developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and had been visiting a cardiologist with increasing frequency. In 1995, he had had a minor flutter of a heart attack while using a treadmill, more like a fainting spell, but it put an intensifying fear inside of him.

The doctor said he was under too much pressure, and that it was imperative for him to find activities and/or techniques to help him relax. But he continued to work long hours, attend research conferences, and strain against red tape and office politics. He would rarely participate in any social or community events with my mother, for it seemed his whole life was occupied with work and sleep. Katie had gotten really interested in drama in the second half of high school, but Dad missed all her plays. My mother would implore him to find ways to ease up, but he would end up yelling at her, asking her how the hell he was going to do that, when they were still paying the twins’ college loans, with Katie still to go, and a double mortgage?

Finally, one night – about a week before the chemical plant blew up – Dad came home very late from the office. Tommy and I had already gone up to our rooms. I was just lying on my bed, trying to fall asleep. The heat was absurd. He came in and immediately exploded. I had no idea what set it off and I still don’t. He just went nuts. My mother didn’t even try to prevent it from escalating. Every once in a while I could hear her interject a muffled comment, in a reasonable voice, and I had to suppose she was just trying to gently ease him back from the edge, like a cop in the window trying to talk down a jumper. But for the most part she just let it happen, and my father let it fly:

‘….all day long, all year long, I pound my head against a stone wall, I do all of the work, I mark all of the data, I follow every procedure, I cross every goddamn T, and something still gets in the way of it … I spent all of those years in the lab, I put in all the hours of research, for what?? I travel to Europe and I get up in front of those Swiss and Danish and Japanese executives and I make the case, and they pat my head and salute the spirit of my investigations, then they go back to their conference rooms and deny the funding, every fucking time …. I come home, the house is an utter disaster, the boys are loafing around, no drive to do anything, there’s no ambition anymore …. you’re running around all the time, Katie’s got this, Katie’s doing that, the bridge club, the library, the Band parents, it never ends, it’s all bullshit, no one can even stop to breathe, the bills are piled up on the desk, the college calls all the time, all I want to do is sit down …. then there’s Kevin’s up there doing God knows what, living with that girl, she calls the shots, she’s the one driving his life, where the hell is his initiative, what is he doing about anything … but young people always know it all ….'

It was pretty astonishing. He’s losing it, I thought at some point. I don’t know if Katie was asleep already. But I knew Tommy was awake. He was in the next room, but I could tell he was listening just as I was. Maybe I fell asleep before it ended, maybe I heard the entire thing.

The next morning both of them acted as if nothing had happened, ridiculously. I came very close to bringing it out into the open, but at the last minute I decided not too. My intention was to talk to Dad alone about it sometime later. It wasn’t as though we couldn’t talk to him. He would have answered questions about it if I had asked. But I never got around to it. My mother held it together.

On Rizzo’s driveway, Tommy brought up the rant. For whatever reason, I had not thought about it until that moment.

‘I think the ol’ man might have gone off the rails,’ he said.

Rizzo stood there and said nothing. I stopped dribbling. I think Tommy was going for a wry spot of humor. But it fell like one of his bricks onto the pavement.

Do the Math

I have a problem with figures. I always have. Numbers, math, that stuff has never been my thing. I did terribly in every one of my math courses in high school, permanently hobbling my overall grade point average. When I got to college, I made sure I selected a major that had the absolute minimum of mathematical courses required, but I still had to take two semesters’ worth. Then I never took another course with numbers in it ever again.

I’ve never regretted missing out on taking more math courses in college, and I’ve always been candid with regard to my open loathing for numbers. But there’s one aspect of life where this has come back to haunt me, and that is the management of finances. The only times I have really wished I did have a head for figures was when I sat down with a checkbook. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t particularly have an aptitude for it either. This has gotten us into more trouble than I ever thought possible.

Money was always a major source of strain for my parents when I was growing up – as it is for a lot of couples. The only time they ever really had knock-down arguments would be when things got stressful financially. But one thing they absolutely never did was talk to us about it. We never knew a thing about where things actually stood, let alone how they worked out any problems. If I were to say anything at all about what my parents’ financial strategies were or how they handled even the most basic budgeting practices, I would be making it up. They never shared any of that with us, beyond commenting frequently that money was tight, that it ‘didn’t grow on trees’, that we should always be mindful of the size of our family.

I often wonder about that today as I have found myself embroiled in financial difficulties the likes of which I never would have expected. I knew it was going to be a difficult part of life as an adult, but I think there was a part of me that honestly believed that these matters sort of ‘worked themselves out’. Would it have helped me if my parents – my father in particular – had been more forthright when it came to financial management? Should he have taught me how they made it through those horrific times when Kevin and Tommy and I were all in college at the same time? I don’t know if it would have helped or not, but it never happened.

I understand that to even raise the question sounds like I am tapping my parents as partially responsible for my own failures. They are not to blame. I wouldn’t even have made it to adulthood were it not for how well they did provide. But I still think about it sometimes, especially when I consider ways to help my kids to avoid the calamities that have befallen me. For I never want them to experience the hellishness that financial mismanagement has caused for their mother and I.

My father was extremely old-fashioned when it came to money. That meant two things: 1) you didn’t discuss it with anyone who was not a financial advisor; and 2) the man, the husband, handled everything. You earned the money, you paid the bills, you doled out allowances to the members of your household, and you didn’t bitch about any of it. You also didn’t screw it up. Even the Scriptures said it was on you as head of the house. The book of Proverbs emphasizes it repeatedly. So I came out of my childhood with the understanding that all of it was my job, but with absolutely no idea how to do any of it. And this, to my wife’s misfortune, is how I entered into family life.

Combining this with my spectacular ineptitude with figures made for a deadly mixture as far as my family’s financial health was concerned. We were okay for the first four or five years, Rebecca and I, because we both came into marriage with a certain amount of savings, got a lot of generous monetary gifts for our wedding, rented our home for a long time, and had only one child for four years. But later on, after we bought a house, took out two mortgages, and had my daughter Claire, things got much more difficult.

We developed a dependency on plastic, the deadliest substance known to man. We became masters at spending money we didn’t have, like so many other Americans. I never knew how insidious credit card companies could be, but I was about to find out. Then an element of fate also interjected. The housing market collapsed in the late 2000s, and the rest of the economy followed it over that cliff. Gas prices soared. Raises went out of existence. Interest rates sky-rocketed. Before I could even turn my head I was tens of thousands of dollars in the hole. Creditors were calling me around the clock, at my home, at my office, and on my cell phone. The pressure that it put on my wife and I was unimaginable.

It was right at the time this pressure was at its peak, with the economy in a free-fall, that we found out Rebecca was pregnant with our third child. God forgive me, but my response to that information was a mixture of exhilaration and absolute terror – both in the exact same measure.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Die Trying

Mutt Ploughman on two recent films about musicians.

I’ve never been delusional enough to believe that I would become a successful writer. I have also never tried to hide the fact that doing so was something I aspired to anyway. If you’ll pardon the semi-spicy verbiage, why the hell wouldn’t I? What can you possibly expect to gain without aiming high? Better yet, what do you have to lose by it? One of my favorite expressions about my own literary career is that I have always intended to die trying. You may or may not ever read one of my books. But you definitely will not hear me say I am giving up.
The music business has been a sometime fascination of mine, and the subject for some of my writings that actually have appeared in print. I probably don’t need to say why I relate to struggling or aspiring musicians. The ones that conquer all the odds on the way to massive success are very inspiring to me. The ones that struggle long and hard without ever getting there are sometimes even more so.
The Irish film director Jim Sheridan knows all about overcoming the odds. He also knows about tragedy and struggle. He is the creative force behind some of my all-time favorite films. The Boxer, a love story set in Northern Ireland, is in my personal top five. The central performance of another Jim Sheridan film, My Left Foot, delivered by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis, is possibly the greatest I have ever seen on film. And one single shot from his beautiful and nuanced film In America – a close-up of a baby’s eye fluttering open for the first time – accounts for what may be the most moving moment I’ve ever experienced in a theater.
Sheridan is an extremely talented director and writer who as a knack for telling stories about individual souls struggling against long odds in a way that moves the audience while staying clear – I’m not exactly sure how – of sentimentality. Most of the stories he tells are either set in, or have something to do with, his native Ireland and the plight of its citizenry. Whether his characters are laboring to eke out a living on their own home turf, suffering in an English prison, or competing for a slice of the pie in the United States, they are unmistakably Irish, both in accent and in temperament. Jim Sheridan’s characters waver; they fall; but they do not stay down. It’s no accident that one of his finest films concerns a hard-fisted fighter with an oversized heart.

This celluloid history is one of the things that made his 2005 picture Get Rich or Die Tryin’, based loosely on the biography of its star, the famous and notorious rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, so striking. The idea of a rumpled, gray-haired Irishman giving direction to a muscular, street-savvy rap artist with a million-dollar smile and zero acting credentials was a fascination to cinephiles, and, I suspect, to insiders in the hip-hop community. Sheridan had made some amazing movies, to be sure, but 50 Cent was a world away from Day-Lewis, whose courageous performances made My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer so believable. How would the grizzled director who rose from urban poverty in Dublin make a screen presence out of the former drug dealer-turned-rapper who rose from the same in the Bronx?

As it turns out, he couldn’t. Sheridan isn’t God, after all. But even in the bottom line-driven world of cinema, there is such a thing as a noble failure. I would place Get Rich into such a category. The final product lacks a couple of things that would have been necessary to make the film more memorable.
A credible central performance, for one. As the orphaned Marcus, Jackson looks intense and compelling. He possesses a kind of natural charisma. But in the film, he is unable to shoulder the emotional weight of the story, even if it is based largely on some details from his own life – or maybe because of that. His face remains mostly impassive, no matter what the moment calls for; one becomes far too suspicious that a single tear on Jackson’s cheek during a particularly pointed scene with his childhood muse-turned adult love interest (a remarkable Joy Bryant) might have been added with an eye-dropper before cameras rolled. Another famous urban wordsmith, Eminem (who discovered 50 Cent, the rapper), was able to deliver a performance in a similarly-themed 2002 film set in Detroit, Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, within which the viewer could sense depth, turmoil, and a life-changing determination all roiling beneath the surface of his storm-tossed heart, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce. Jackson is a stone that even Sheridan’s gripping emotional sensibility couldn’t wring blood from.

The mention of 8 Mile introduces another quibble with Sheridan’s film: you’ve seen it before. There’s no disputing that 50 Cent’s personal story is remarkable, given that he survived being shot nine times in 2000, made it out of the drug culture, and was able to elevate himself in the post-Tupac universe. The re-enactment of his shooting in the film, though under somewhat different circumstances, is well-staged and horrifying, even though the audience knows it’s coming. But you feel as though you’ve seen many of the other sequences in other films. The triumphant ascendancy of the rapper onto a stage a la Hanson’s picture; ultra-violent thugs making aggressive power plays a la New Jack City or Scarface; a montage of revenge killings a la every Martin Scorcese mafia picture. Hell, there’s even a torturous payback scene that would please fans of the Saw franchise.

Much like another film that worked extra hard to spin gold from arguably straw-like talent (rather successfully), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the real star here is on the other side of the camera. Credit Jim Sheridan for recognizing and attempting to illuminate for us the shared humanity between poor Irish families struggling collectively for their national dignity and motherless children victimized by the drug underworld in New York City. In every frame of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, one can feel the emotional investment the director has made in telling this story. This is one DVD where watching the “making of” feature is a must, because it gives the viewer a chance to observe Sheridan guiding 50 Cent through his old Dublin neighborhood, choreographing a nasty knife-fight in a jail with his own physical stunt work, even instructing the rapper on how to express himself more effectively in the recording studio! In spite of the film’s debatable artistic success, the uncommon collaboration that produced it is special.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ may not have made an actor out of Curtis Jackson. But the man made it out of his own story alive. And he was smart enough to put the telling of it into the hands of a visionary filmmaker who, while perhaps looking like a fish out of water on the streets he shot it on, clearly could hear and feel the steady pulse hammering between and around them, and in his film he put his finger right on to it.


On the subject of tapping into a steady beat, there’s another kind of pulsing rhythm that has been marking time for decades now, and that – contrary to popular convention – still bangs just as hard as ever. I’m talking about the brain-throttling pulse of heavy metal. And nobody knows that better than the subject of the second film I wish to discuss here – the two founding members of a band called Anvil, singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who met one another at age 14 and are now in their 50s.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil, first released in 2008 and directed by newcomer and über-fan Sacha Gervasi, is a compelling and surprisingly effective documentary about nothing less than the unwavering pursuit of a lifelong dream. It helps if you go into this film with an appreciation for the under-sung cultural legacy of heavy metal music, which peaked in the 1980s. I happen to be of the correct gender (i.e., male) and the appropriate age (I was a teenager during that glorious decade) to have acquired as much.

I have written before [hyperlink to http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/99248] about my personal history as a trooper in the metal militia, and can report with all honesty that I have always resisted the inclination to denounce this heritage. What fun would that be? Maintaining one’s embrace on heavy metal requires one to keep a stranglehold on the last vestiges of juvenile bluster. My suspicion is that this is easier to accomplish for men than women. But I have not worked both sides of that particular aisle.

Another way to express the operative principle at work here is to deploy the motto from those old KISS concert t-shirts: IF IT'S TOO LOUD, YOU'RE TOO OLD.

Anvil, the documentary, opens with 1982 concert footage from an outdoor metal festival in Japan. Do not adjust your sets: people actually looked and acted like that once upon a time. The film points out that every single band participating in that show went on to sell millions of records – with one glaring exception. The viewer is introduced to Anvil doing what they did then, and have continued to do ever since, no matter who is or is not listening. The song “Metal on Metal” is performed in all its chord-crunching glory, and it becomes the musical and thematic centerpiece, illogically, to the entire film.

From there, we are transported to freezing Ontario, Canada, the hometown and current stomping grounds of Kudlow and Reiner. Kudlow works diligently delivering food to disadvantaged children as a day job, and in between stops he waxes rather hopefully about his undying rock and roll dreams. An inherent humanity and generosity of spirit shines through Kudlow’s foul-mouthed and simplistic monologues about what he has accomplished and what he still hopes to do. Reiner is revealed to be a less verbal and perhaps slightly more jaded brother in arms to Kudlow’s sometimes manic personality. But one eventually leaves the film having no doubt that “brother” is the appropriate term for both men.

Throughout the entire first half of this earnest and lovingly-crafted documentary, one’s gut instinct is to laugh at all the calamities and misfortunes that constantly saddle these aging rockers. Or, if a viewer is slightly more mean-spirited, to hurl adjectives such as “lame” and “pathetic” at the men. We witness the latest incarnation of the band, with its Spinal Tap-like turnstile of members (hardly the only nod towards the classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap directed by Rob – one “b” – Reiner to appear here), survive a disastrous tour of Europe in the hands of an inept manager. We wonder how long these full-grown men with spouses and children (in Kudlow’s case) can, or should, continue to fool themselves.

I said earlier that it helps to have an appreciation of metal music, but it is far from necessary for Anvil to rock your heart. The reason for this is simple, and perceiving it is the filmmakers’ triumph. The more you witness the degrading circumstances these men battle against, and observe the way they respond to them, the more you understand that Anvil – the film, and maybe even the band itself – is not really about heavy metal music at all. At each setback they encounter, we see Kudlow physically slump as though he has taken a pounding. But his attitude towards his failures is far from a defeated one. He expresses gratitude for those who helped him try, and renews his dedication to keep going – every time.

One realizes that, all along, Kudlow has never asked for much. All he wants is an opportunity to seize the happiness he has been yearning for his entire life, and he understands that the only way he can do that is to build something worthwhile with the tools he’s been given. He’s not looking for a handout. By the time we reach the end of the film, where Anvil takes one more crack at this elusive hope in an unexpected venue, we find ourselves caring for these men in a way we never would have believed possible. You may tear up before this film is over – no kidding.

After viewing Anvil: The Story of Anvil, one inevitably recalls the fact that all of us have been given certain gifts by a generous Creator. Are we as grateful for our own as “Lips” Kudlow is for his?

Or, I could summarize all of the preceding thoughts in another way. Here is a documentary that makes just about everyone who sees it aspire to be a little more like the lead singer of Anvil, an 80s metal bastion that flamed out long ago in a blaze of obscurity. If that doesn’t say something about the accomplishment of this film, I don’t know if I have other words that can.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What the #@&$ is Going on Here???

An interview with Mutt Ploughman.

Mutt, rumor has it that you have abandoned the novel you’ve been working on for almost 3 years. What the #@&$ is going on here???
I wish I knew. Do you know?

Is that your answer??
Nah. The answer is, that rumor is not true. But it is kind of “tabled” for the moment. I haven’t worked on for many weeks. Months, in fact.

What happened?
I’m not exactly sure, but I have some half-formed theories. It was a conscious decision on my part to set it on the shelf for a while. But I made that choice reluctantly. The fact is I had been working hard on a seventh chapter, and ended up just crashing into a brick wall in the middle of it. I didn’t worry too much about that initially, because that has happened with many of the other chapters, and I was able to muscle through it. And I think I probably could have made my way through it in this case, too, and completed some form of a seventh chapter. But for whatever reason, this time doing that didn’t feel right to me. I felt like I was forcing it too hard and the result would bear the marks of that. Although I had written six previous chapters and had a pretty good idea of where the whole thing was going, it got very hard for me to continue. I felt like I had lost something this time around, for some reason.

What was lost, in your opinion? Having had a few months to think it over.
It’s hard to say. But it’s a gut feeling that something went missing in doing that work. I thought about that question specifically for a while. Finally I realized it was my personal struggles interfering too much with my writing life. 2009 has been a very challenging year for me and my family. I have felt more stress this year than in any other year I’ve experienced as an adult. I’ve been struggling on many levels. And it finally dawned on me that my whole life was in too unstable a place to be in the right frame of mind to dedicate myself to this book. I was not able to focus as hard on it as it takes to do it right. Once I realized that I felt the only thing I could honorably do was set it aside.

What sort of things happened to you this year?
I prefer to answer that question in a general way. My wife and I experienced a personal loss early in the year, the kind that marks you forever. We have had a series of financial struggles this year, as many Americans have. And I have had a major health setback. Not the fatal kind, fortunately. It’s treatable. Ripples from all of these things, however, have made the seas rather choppy in my house all year long.

That is a lot to deal with. Are you disappointed with what has happened with your novel project?
Yes, to some degree. I had high hopes to cross the halfway point this year and really make strides towards getting the first draft done. It’s hard any time you fall short of your ambitions. But I have plenty of experience with that, as do most of us. But I believe God is in control of my life, not me. He may have intentions for me that are more important to what I aspire to in my own mind.

Given all this though, it sounds like the book is pretty much dead. I’ll ask you again: is it?
It is not dead. It is on the shelf. I am getting distance from it. I hope to go back to it. My intention is to return to it and finish what I started.

I don’t know.

Do you think your father would be disappointed to know where things stand? It has a lot to do with his life.
Not really. It’s not his novel. There’s nothing he can do about it. For the most part, my Dad isn’t very sentimental. I think he’d want me to complete the novel, but I doubt very much he would be upset to know that I’m having difficulty. He was a scientist, he’s very black-and-white. Some things work out and some things don’t, and sometimes you just have to try again later.

What about your writing life in general? Is that dead?
Absolutely not. If my novel is not dead yet, my writing life is not dead yet. If my writing life is dead, check my pulse, because that means I am dead myself. I will always be writing or thinking about writing – working up to writing – something, until my mind fails. I know that much about myself by now.

Which of those are you doing now then? Writing something, or working up to it?
Both, actually. I wrote one short story a few months back called “Job 4:18” about a delusional angel who crashes to earth, literally, and attempts to enforce God’s will his own way. I sent it around to a couple places and collected the usual rejections. Then I took several weeks to work on an essay I was really itching to write, a critical piece about my relationship to the music of the singer and pianist Tori Amos called “Me and a Girl”. That took me a long time to get right. I got really into it. After that, for several weeks, late summer heading into early fall, I didn’t know what to do next. I had a few very loose story ideas. I thought about writing a book review. But then I decided to begin a short story called “A Chemical Episode”, and something curious happened. Although the very first glimmer of this idea didn’t reveal as much to me, I realized almost as soon as I started it that I was writing about characters I’d written about before. And it became clear immediately who they were – a big surprise for me since I had absolutely no intention of revisiting previous work. It was strange, but interesting too.

Who were/are the characters?
The Meegan twins, Tommy and Terry, from a collection of unpublished, autobiographical stories I wrote earlier this decade called A Son of the Suburbs. Mainly Terry – that is, my altar ego. But most of the stories were written about him anyway, with Tommy having more of a side role, especially towards the end of the collection.

Isn’t that a “diss” to your brother?
Of course it’s not a “diss”. [Looking around.] Who is this idiot!?.......[Turns attention back to interviewer.] Autobiographical stories are about yourself, by definition. If he wants Tommy to be the main character, he can write his own book of stories! And my brother understands that.

Why did you decide to bring back these characters?
As I indicated before, it was almost involuntary. But maybe it was similar to the way many of the previous stories in A Son of the Suburbs had come about – I was remembering various incidents and anecdotes, things that happened to me or to people I knew when I was growing up. I wanted to find some way to work these things into stories that, hopefully, would go a certain distance towards capturing the essence of my childhood, my upbringing. In this case, I had an idea to write a story about an incident that had occurred when I was a teenager or maybe just into my 20s. There was this weird chemical plant down the street from the house I lived in in New Jersey, and one hot summer night, in the small hours, it just blew sky-high. We never really found out why. There was some kind of bad reaction or some accident. There was a massive explosion that shook the house itself and woke up whoever was asleep. For a few days they evacuated our entire neighborhood; my family scattered. We slept with friends. I never knew where my parents went. It was such a bizarre thing, and all these years later, it still felt like something to try to capture in a story. But at the time I had the idea, several weeks ago, I didn’t connect it at all to the earlier stories I had written. After all, I wrote them anywhere from five to six years ago, and it had been some time since I had even thought about them. But as soon as I started the story, I realized I was back into that same fictional world. So I made the story about the Terry Meegan and the Meegan family, one more time.

What happened with the previous stories? A Son of the Suburbs?
They were just sitting on the shelf with all the other works of fiction I have written.

Did you try to get any of them published?
I only tried to get one published. It is called “The Races”. It’s one of my all-time favorite of my stories, if I can get away with saying that. Duke thinks it’s my finest short story. I might debate that, but I think it’s one of my best. I sent it to several places, but it was always rejected. The others didn’t really stand alone very well, and they probably weren’t as well done as that one story.

What do you mean by “the others didn’t really stand alone very well”?
Well, Suburbs was written as a series of connected stories. In fact, I call it “A Novel in Stories” on the manuscript title page. Most of the stories build off of information the reader has from the previous one. But “The Races” could stand with just a few tweaks.

Could the new story stand on its own?
I’m not sure yet. I hope it can. I haven’t gotten very far in it yet, but I am slowly working on it. I feel no pressure to rush it. Why whould there be any? I have a lot of fun saying to people that a fiction writer never really has too much to lose. No one wants to read your dumbass stories! There’s a kind of liberation in that. You’re free to try anything.

Where does the new story stand timeline-wise in relation to the previous stories?
The stories collected in Suburbs take place between 1978 and 1994. The most recent story, “A Chemical Episode”, jumps from around 1996 or so to 2009, the present day, and back again. It goes back and forth between Terry Meegan’s early 20s and his later 30s.

But it’s been six years since you wrote the last of the previous stories?
Well, I wrote the last one around 2005, so it’s been a good four years at least, probably more like five.

How do you feel about the stories in A Son of the Suburbs today?
The answer to that question is interesting. If you’d asked me as recently as three months ago I might have said they meant well, but were pretty weak. But recently I’ve had a feeling about them – maybe this started working on me subconsciously before I even attempted the story I’m writing now – and I wondered what it would be like to take a look at them again. Normally I really cringe through every time I make the ill-fated decision to read my older stuff. I always conclude that I understand why they were never published! Right now I am re-reading the entire collection in preparation to continue on with “A Chemical Episode”. And I have to say I believe in these stories. I think what I tried to do holds up pretty well even under scrutiny. They’re not written very well, but I see where I can make improvements to the writing itself. But the concept is not all that terrible, I think. What I wanted to do was create a series of stories that captured the general essence of my childhood. I remember having a kind of two-fold purpose: first, to work in the mode of fiction about “things I knew”, as the old adage for young writers goes; second, to create a record in stories about my life as a child. And I think I did that. The more time goes on, of course, the further away our way of living in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s and early 90s drifts into the past. I know how important it has been in my life to have some idea of what my own father’s childhood was like. At the time I began these stories, I had one daughter, and I was very motivated by the simple notion of capturing my youth in some kind of record so that she could one day read it and understand a little of what my life was like. After all – who else could do the job? But I also wanted to write stories specifically, and so I created characters that were based on people I knew, but let the stories kind of go in whatever direction they were going to go in. I wove in elements and anecdotes from my life, but I think I created a place and a central narrative of its own, and it all comes to a head fairly successfully, I think, in the last and titular story, “A Son of the Suburbs”. Now, it took me two and a half years to write the stories and most of a third to edit it down to a second draft. And by the time I got through with all that I felt very tired of them and sort of burned out. Having “The Races” rejected a few times instilled the usual doubts about the quality of the entire enterprise. So I just set them on the shelf, much like what I am doing with Only the Dying, my ailing novel. Starting into “A Chemical Episode” made me pull out the old manuscript, and as I read through them, I see a lot to wince about, but I think the stories have some life. Plus they have made me laugh.

Will you try to do anything more with A Son of the Suburbs?
Remains to be seen. I have thought about it a lot lately. Is there anything here which can be salvaged and reborn? The answer could be yes. But for now I am re-reading them as their own collection and thinking about the current story.

What can you say about “A Chemical Episode”? What’s it about?
It’s about darkness. It will be one of my darkest stories. It begins in the middle of the night and it will end in the middle of another night, in the middle of a much different, and even darker, sort of night – metaphorically speaking now. It’s a fictional work that will reflect very much the last year or so of my life, and that is a conscious decision. It’s not about wallowing in difficult times, rather it’s intended to be a kind of therapy for them. I drop a bomb on the reader in the first or second paragraph that would only make sense to those who have read the stories in A Son of the Suburbs, and it concerns only a minor character from the previous work, but it’s enough to provide a pretty good clue as to the tone of what will follow.

Given the subject matter you just described, are you anxious to continue to work on the story? Sounds like your year has been hard as it is.
I'm not really anxious, and I’ll tell you why. For me it’s not about going back to anything that has been hard and sticking my nose in it again. It’s about processing it, thinking about it, deciding what it means today and what it means for my future. In a way, it’s about facing it again and deciding how to go on. And I must say that although it has been a tough year, it could have been so much worse. It’s not that I suffered a great deal. At the same time, I did suffer a little bit, and, worse, I brought some suffering to others. I have to pick up from that, learn some lessons, ask God to see me through it and, more importantly, teach me through it. So this story to me goes a way towards taking that process on.

Good luck on the story, and thanks for taking the time.
You got it buddy.