Abraham del Court and his wife Maria de Kaersgieter (detail), 1654 Bartholomeus van der Helst
Here are a couple of thoughts on novel endings: Several years ago, the show Six Feet Under, concluded the series by showing the deaths of all the main characters. It was the only ending for a show about a funeral home that began each episode with a death (or deaths), and it’s brilliant because, well, in the narrative and larger sense, death is the end of the line.
But every novel cannot end with, “So, everybody died.” If you, the writer, did that you would find yourself in possession of the sort of reputation that few writers really want: You will be the predictable writer. You will be the, if-you’ve-read-one-you’ve-read-them-all writer.
A perfect ending is one that is both complete and yet open. It’s an ending/not an ending. Everyone will one day die, but not right now.
Many readers have the experience of reading a novel that begins so promising, becomes great, then goes into decline somewhere around the three-quarter mark, finally grinding to a ham-handed halt. How could this happen, cries the reader?
This is my theory. I once read where Cezanne said the hardest thing to paint was the human hand. The ending of a novel is the writer’s human hand. It’s just so hard to paint.
There was the accidental OD last summer that resulted in a near-death experience that segued into another issue where Otis ended up being shaved from the hips down, revealing his previously disguised lineage to a pterodactyl, accentuated by his prehistoric bone structure and lack of a tail. He also looked a little one of those carpet covered armatures that the sadistic behavioral scientist, Harry Harlow, pawned off as mother figures on infant rhesus monkeys in order to illustrate something completely obvious while torturing small animals. (I’m not saying that some mothers don’t resemble carpet covered armatures, but that’s another story.) My eighth grade class was forced to watch one of Mr. Harlow’s films where confused, motherless baby monkeys clung fearfully to a little piece of low-pile shag, too afraid to hope for anything better. I realize now that this was simply an educational film preparing us for our future work lives.
Back to Otis who decided that it wasn’t enough to get us up twice a night to let him out, then back in (and, for anyone suggesting that we ignore his loud, insistent meowing when inside the house and out, let me just say, “Gee, we hadn’t thought of that”); he added to his nightly repertoire by demanding to be fed at two am, every night, like he owned an iphone with a preset alarm. And it wasn’t enough to feed him—no, he wanted me to watch him eat, as if he is suddenly a dinner guest at Downton Abbey.
(Side note: I have a friend who had a cat that got her up at 2:15 every morning to turn his food dish a little to the left. I used to laugh at this story.)
This was around the time I added cursing to my repertoire, since refusing to feed, observe, and open the door was not an option (Otis possesses the single-minded tenacity of a toddler in a grocery store.)
Then one day, about six weeks ago, after his observed two a.m. meal (clearly the inspiration for Taco Bell’s “Fourth Meal” ad campaign) and exit from the house, Otis did not cry to be let back inside at five am. John and I didn’t even notice his absence until later that night—something I can only chalk up to the short-term memory of the chronically sleep deprived.
Otis was missing for thirty hours and when John finally located him under a bush. It turned out that he had a punctured lung, front claws ground down to nubs (the vet said, they were probably dragged across concrete or asphalt), and six broken ribs. And, Reader, hesurvived. Otis was Hit By A CAR, then went without any medical attention for THIRTY HOURS, and is EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD. (FYI: Most outdoor cats are lucky to make it to five years old, especially if they live in a city; Otis lives in a city on a well-traveled street so his life span in pretty impressive. If only he were a lottery ticket.) To put his age into people terms: If Otis were human he would be graduating from high school and making bad decisions in Cabo.
Here is the abridged version of Otis’s last year:
Spring 2012: Diagnosed with bone cancer. Prognosis: seven months.
Summer 2012: Despite the cancer prediction, Otis is Otis. As a matter of fact, his appetite is so healthy that his food isn’t enough. He eats the dog’s food and, in the process, swallows enough codeine for a 42 pound canine. Prognosis: ”We’ll know is a couple of days.”
Summer 2012: Diagnosed with failing kidneys. Prognosis: Seven months, with regular fluids.
Summer 2013: Car accident. Prognosis: Death within forty-eight hours, or he will survive.
And he’s never been on regular medication, nor is he now. The fluids? He’s received them twice. Unless by fluids you mean our bank account. Maybe next year we can take a vacation…
I was asked by the three people who read these posts what I thought of the final episode of Downton Abbey. Now I know I said in my last post that I was done until the Christmas special but, as it turns out, in the U.K. the death of Matthew Crawley was the Christmas special. So.
How does a young, healthy, sober man get into a car accident on an empty road on a sunny day with a milk truck that I can beat in a foot race? It isn’t as if Matthew was eating an eclair, then took a swig of coffee that spilled down the front of his impeccable shirt causing him to take his eyes of the road in order to gauge the magnitude of the stain, then decided that perhaps he could get it out with saliva, whereupon he began gnawing wetly on his own button placket, all the while fiddling with the radio trying to find a station that wasn’t playing ”Hotel California” and failing that, propelled his Stutz Bearcat into the nearest available obstruction (milk truck) in an attempt to, dear god, make it stop.
Instead, Matthew’s death reads like the work of ne’er-do-well, marginally embittered writers who were tired of Dan Stevens (Matthew) bursting into their office, interrupting whatever time wasting activity in which they were involved in the name of “research,” demanding to know exactly when he would be available to pursue “other professional opportunities.” Thus serving to remind the writers how lucky they were to have this opportunity because “marketing departments dictate the literary marketplace,” leaving them so few options in the book world, that their response was to write what can only be described as a “just fucking go already” scene.
Question: Is Downton Abbey a scientific experiment in “life out of order”, or the most impressive example of job security ever for older actors ever? (Subset question: Did they turn Downton Abbey into an officers’ military hospital to test the viewers’ willingness to accept Downton as a high end retirement home?)
Downton is a place of death. Specifically, young, untimely death: the randy Turkish fellow, the virginal footman who loved Daisy and died of something that I believe is called We’re Tired of Writing Dull Dialog For You disease; the beautiful Lady Sybil who channels her inner Chatterley by taking up with the chauffeur; Miss Swire who was interchangeable with Lord Grantham’s dog, Isis, in terms of her dramatic impact, and, of course, Matthew. (Eighteen year-old Cousin Rose was at Downton for two days before she got shipped back to Scotland. Let me just say, Whew! Close one.)
I don’t know quite how to say this so I will just say it: The key to unexpected turns of events is to make them unexpected. For example, if you predictably only kill off anyone under the age of thirty, you thereby establish what is known as “a pattern.” A pattern could be considered the opposite of the unexpected. Just something to think about during all that free time the Downton writers now have due to spending exactly three seconds coming up with Matthew Crawley’s death.
Question: Why Don’t The Crawley’s Ever Go Anywhere?
They’re rich. They’re retired. They have great clothes, and no one needs to lose ten pounds before attending a social event, and yet the only place they ever venture is to the drawing room and the dining room in a house the size of the nearby village. The last movie I saw that was historical and set in a mansion where no one ever left the premises, was The Others, with Nicole Kidman. All I’m saying, Downton, is it’s been done.
Just when it seemed that the Crawleys shared a genetic disposition to some sort of agoraphobia, they went to visit Rose’s parents in Scotland—no doubt with the intention of “inviting Rose back to Downton” once they realized she had craftily escaped with her young life. I can’t quite imagine how the Crawleys all came to be sitting around in the drawing room (or dining room), having a family meeting on where to take a week’s vacation as if they only have seven days of vacation left on their time cards, and no one suggests “Paris.” Or “Cairo.” How does “Let’s go see Shrimpy and Lady Shrimpy (aka The Bickersons) in the desolate north in that forbidding manor with the DIY rifle-flower wall art and no central heating” win? Did someone have a wager to settle?
Question: How old were the Shrimpys when they had Cousin Rose?
Odd chronological familial relations is a kind of mini-staple in visual entertainment, to the extent that more than a few casting decisions look more like someone calling in a favor than actually paying attention to the reproductive cycle of the average human female. How else to explain:
1. Marian and Winthrop Paroo
In The Music Man we are introduced to Marian (The Librarian) who lives with her widowed mother and her younger brother, Winthrop. Marian is old enough to be considered a spinster and looks about thirty years old. Winthrop is maybe six years old. I believe Mrs. Paroo’s heavy Irish brogue is a diversionary tactic to prevent us from “doing the math.”
2. Mitch and Kathy Brenner
Mitch Brenner frequently visits his widowed mother and younger sister, Kathy, in sleepy little Bodega Bay, soon to be a vacation spot for The Birds. Ages run crazy all over the place. Mitch looks to be pushing forty, so in 1960s years he’s probably more like thirty-two years old. Kathy is twelve. The Widow Brenner looks about fifty. It’s possible for her to have had Mitch at eighteen and Kathy at thirty-eight, but who plans a family with an entire generational span between siblings and no one in between? I mean, don’t they sort of cease to be siblings and become more like a guy and his mom and “that girl.”
3. The Von Trapps
Nothing seems amiss, until Liesl ‘I-am-sixteen-going-on-forty” von Trapp shows up in the whistle line-up. It’s a testament to Julie Andrew’s acting that when she’s introduced to the children, played by actors who all look age appropriate with the exception of the young matron, Liesl von Trapp, stomping out their names and ages, that she waits until the toad scene at the dinner table to accuse them of “pulling her leg.”
Question: Why Do I Expect The Actors Playing The Servants Only To Leave Their Acting Job at Downton Abbey If Asked To?
It is also a testament to the veracity of Downton Abbey that only the people upstairs seem to be able to leave the show; downstairs it seems they are lucky to have that job. I mean, I have to remind myself that they aren’t really servants with prescribed lives but actors who are playing servants with prescribed lives. Yet somehow I find myself reading about Matthew or Lady Sybil getting other acting opportunities and thinking, well, of course. Yet I somehow know that if O’Brien suddenly showed up as a Broadway lead, or Jimmy the Footman was the new regular on GIRLS I would find myself thinking, Really? Who knew? Followed by a good for them!, as if they had, by sheer luck, escaped their sad little basement life.
My prediction: Jimmy and Thomas will fall in love, though Thomas will tire of him because all those cute little things that were once so endearing—monkeying with the lobster spoons, threatening to call the police—will soon become quite tiresome. But I will leave that for another season.
In the meantime, I’d like to sort out the upstairs mysteries of Downton Abbey.
Money & the Lord
For me, Lord Grantham has been a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a dinner jacket, then wrapped in his old military uniform when he believed he was being called into service during the Great War, only be embarrassed back into the real world, and so returned to being rewrapped in a dinner jacket. But I now think I may know what Lord Grantham is about: He is lazy. Not just lazy, but full-on, lard-ass move-it-mister lazy.
He thinks his financial advisor/lawyer/whatever is some sort of pest and tells Matthew not to let this man “bother him,” as if he’s someone’s funny uncle that must be tolerated. He spends like someone on a bender, What? An investment in railroads? Oh, because of the war and the destruction and the reality they will need to rebuild? And, let me see if I understand, you want ALL my cash? Canada? Well, what can I say except put me down for one hundred percent of everything I own, in a country without a single battleground! No, no. All of it! Baby needs new shoes!
Did he go into the study that he never leaves, inside the house that he never leaves, spin the globe near his desk and invest in the place where his finger landed? Lord Grantham didn’t even need to mention Charles Ponzi in the last episode for us to know that he is eighty years and one Internet friending from sending funds to a Nigerian prince.
Is it possible to be too lazy to even pick up a newspaper? Just how indolent is indolent?
Case in point: Lord Grantham’s quasi-affair with the new housemaid last season. He lives in a castle the size of a castle yet insists that she come to his room, the one separated from his wife’s by one of those connecting motel doors, because it would be asking too much that they meet in one of the other 425 chambers of Downton. He would rather risk his marriage than walk down the hall or a flight of stairs. One can only imagine who would be doing all the heavy lifting had that relationship ever progressed; I’m guessing it would be a lot more take and very little give, if you get my drift.
The servants of Downton are really like Lord Grantham’s sloth beard. Bates dresses him, listens to him prattle on until he’s incarcerated (hey, maybe that’s why Bates was such a hair trigger in the gaol?), then Thomas takes over. Everyone else brings him food and information (unless it’s financial information and then even listening becomes too much work). There’s nothing like a phalanx of servants treating you like a veal to mask your lazy ass self.
He even has beard friends—Dr. Clarkson, the vicar, Tom Branson’s brother who, unfortunately, recalls nothing so much as a pedophile with anger issues—but no real friends because the effort required just to pick up the phone is simply too much. In short, Lord Grantham is that guy who comes to spend a weekend on your couch in San Francisco with no plans and an open plane ticket.
His utter lack of ambition does explain his entire 3-point financial strategy of:
1. Be born into wealth.
2. Marry wealth.
3. Accept gifts of wealth.
A program, I should say, I am totally down with.
The Trials of Lady Edith
The narrative of Lady Edith in Downton Abbey is eerily reminiscent of Zero Dark Thirty: the torture scenes. My confusion here is, when they finally break her, what is it they want her to say? Hey, thanks for making me the plain, resentful sister when being the plain sister would’ve been sufficient? Are you not familiar with the term “overkill?”
That Downton never stops torturing Poor Lady Edith is impressive. It’s like she’s a heroine in one of those Victorian novels that involves a kidnapping and a snuggery. First, she rats out her own sister (evidence of her bitterness, which is an admission of her lack of desirability and popularity, you know, in case we missed the point). Then she’s helping out on some farm where she ends up kissing a farmer who, I’m pretty sure, has never been into anything dentally related. Then she tells her ancient fiancé that not only does she want to take care of him, but that he will be her “life’s work” as if she’s suddenly Vincent Price, while he smiles wanly, his eyes darting around for a door as he happens to mention some recently widowed duchess that he dated back in the 19th century.
Let’s see, Lady Edith…the plain one (check); overlooked daughter (check); left at the altar (check); spinsterhood (check); no meals in bed (check)—What fresh hell is left? What can possibly continue her pattern of humiliation, rejection and heartbreak? What profession (a word that makes her father retire to his study and imitate the vocalizations of a howler monkey) would provide all that and more? Could it be…a writer?
A Final Musing
What is with that pathetic Grapes of Wrath farm Matthew and company keep visiting? And why is it every time the conversation turns to the vast holdings of Downton and how to make them work efficiently enough to preserve the estate for future generations, all roads lead back to that sad little Dorothea Lange farm? We’ve never seen a single person living there yet all Matthew talks about is raising the rent, which, if I’m not mistaken, requires renters to put into effect. And why is it that when the Crawley’s are considering a place for Tom Branson and Baby Sybil to live the only thing they can come up with is that same sad little farm instead of, say, the swanky manse that the Crawleys keep empty in case they lose everything (again)? Why can’t Tom and Baby Sybil live there? Why are Tom’s choices the sad little Dust Bowl farm or his pedophile-with-anger-issues brother’s garage apartment? And, if Tom does move into the sad little farm wouldn’t they be raising his rent? As part of the family, wouldn’t they be paying him to pay them, thus creating the sort of lazy ass financial scheme that only Lord Grantham could love?
Just when I had comfortably settled into Dr. Clarkson’s portrayal as a country doctor who is really a serial killer, along comes some celebrity MD from London to make Dr. Clarkson look like he knows what he’s doing. The tragedy is that even though this time Dr. Clarkson was one hundred percent correct in his medical diagnosis, the patient still died. Well done, Downton! Frankly, if the Crawleys aren’t careful no one is going to want to visit for a fortnight of shooting and cocktails.
I will say that I that I was impressed by Dr. Clarkson calmly hanging back from Lady Sybil when she was having seizures, since, as he said, “There is nothing to be done,” instead of racing over and pretending to “do something” in the same manner that certain mechanically-challenged motorists check under the hood when the car breaks down.
A high point of the episode was the London MD’s response to Dr. Clarkson’s observation of the very pregnant Lady Sybil that she seemed a “little off and her ankles were swollen.” The London MD replies, as any concerned physician would when faced with a not-unusual pregnancy complication, “Maybe Lady Sybil just has fat ankles.” Yes.The assessment of cankles now passes as a second opinion.
At which point I’m thinking, Did they even have medical schools in England, or just a grand tradition of surgeon-barbers?
It should be noted that I am refraining from all things cat-related even though Otis spent yesterday (and is spending to today) at the vet and returned to us wearing a red Ace bandage and a Cone of Shame. I know on the surface I seem overly interested in my own cat, but that isn’t really what’s going on here—this is what’s going on: For the money we have spent on him this year, John and I could’ve taken a vacation and then I would be writing about that. So, when I write about Otis, I am really writing about two weeks in New York.
While Otis was spending all our hard-earned cash, we were at Costco where I was signing books for two hours. The people were very nice and supplied me with nearly a dozen thin-tip black Sharpies, four more thin-tip colored Sharpies and, my favorite, an extensive rainbow of Sharpies with multiple shades of blues, pinks, oranges, greens, lavenders. I was also given two bottles of water and a large bowl of chocolates that I was expected to share with other customers, most of whom came up to my waist. They, it must be said, were not my readership which made sharing anything seem a tad unfair. I was also across from a set of Motion Detection Lights that swiveled their blinding beams to and fro every time someone walked by. They were like the electric equivalent of the boyfriend of an old co-worker of mine who was a heroin addict/breast man. The young employee who was helping me with the books made the mistake of walking over to the lights to see if they could be permanently turned from us, then looked directly into them as she tried to secure them herself, searing her retinas for several minutes. Her nervous conversation bounced between “I’ll be okay” to “I really can’t see anything” and back to “I’m sure this will be fine,” while struggling to avoid walking into the table of books. Blinded by her own merchandise—it really made me reconsider the hot dog I was thinking of eating when I was done at the book table.
There was a large poster with my author photo propped up on the table next to me. A man asked me if “that was my daughter.” Granted, I don’t think English was his first language, but being bilingual doesn’t make you blind (unlike Motion Detection lights). I said, “Excuse me?” I again heard the word “daughter.” Then, when I said, “No. That’s me,” he smiled the smile of linguistic confusion where he believes that only one of us isn’t getting it, and that one is the one who looks like her own mother.
Maybe it was the Santa hat, which I do realize can read “mature” but my photo is recent and not really touched just so I can avoid this sort of awkward misunderstanding. Really, between this and being mistaken for an Ewok at a Halloween party last month (I was a cat), along with being the only person over the age of 34 at a recent Moth StorySlam (another story and one that ended in tears), I’m beginning to understand the siren call of the plastic surgeon, which could be possible if sea monkeys Otis didn’t have all my money.
You’ve seen this scene in almost every crime movie: The hero is walking down the street when he passes a parked car with a crooked cop and his muscled sidekick and they invite the hero to “Go for a ride” so “We can talk to you.” Then, after traumatizing him with threats while circling several city blocks, the crooked cop and his muscled sidekick drop off the hero in the exact same spot where they picked him up.
One very hot summer day, John and I were walking through our neighborhood on our way to lunch when we passed a utility pole stapled with the usual Lost Pet flyer. I did what I always do which is to stop, study the picture, learn the lost pet’s name and characteristics (“Cuzco is very skittish and may scratch” ”Lily is excessively shy and may bolt” “Buttons is deaf in one ear” “Arnold takes anxiety medication”). The personality portion of the flyer always begs a few questions: Maybe Arnold needs medication because he doesn’t exactly enjoy your company? Is Cuzco “skittish” or trying to claw his way to freedom? And why, seriously, do you want this pet back when the whole relationship just sounds like a 1950s prison movie with Susan Hayward?
It turns out that this Lost Pet was non-neurotic young tabby who was simply new to the neighborhood and somehow slipped through the door.
Later that same day, my teenage son and I were driving about a dozen blocks from the posted flyer when we came upon a group of young girls on a sidewalk, playing with a young tabby that was the exact image of the Lost Pet Cat. I say ‘playing’, but the scene more accurately resembled a dinner party of dissolute French aristocrats months before their unfortunate introduction to the guillotine, as they sat around ridiculing someone who had just left the room to use the chamber pot. That is to say, they weren’t handling the little cat as much as they were carrying on a kind of running commentary. I’m guessing that some think tank is studying this tendency of Children in the Computer Age right now.
Now I’m disinclined to involve with seemingly unaffiliated animals because of the possibility of the encounter turning into something like an adult version of Hot Potato at the moment when the music stops. I dread an adorable cat following me down the street, or making eye contact with some friendly dog on the loose. For some reason, ‘acting like you don’t care’ is kind of a cross-species turn-on; nothing says pursue me like pretending to check the gum on the bottom of your shoe.
It was with great resignation to the vagaries of life and loss that I leaned out my window (but compromised by keeping the engine running) to ask about the little cat. I am no expert when it comes to nine year old girls, but their excitement at being asked about the cat was pretty impressive. They all spoke at once. They didn’t know who it belonged to; it just showed up. Why did I want to know? Where was the pet flyer? What was it’s name? What was my name? Where did I live? Did I have any cats? They liked Persians. Didn’t I think it should have a collar? A diamond one, in purple. They told me their ages and pointed out their houses. This cat had a home. Was I looking to steal this cat? Someone used to have a cat. Could this be their cat? Could they have the phone number on the flyer? It was an exchange that made little sense, offered no concrete information, was frequently contradictory and was full of more than a little informational one-upmanship.
In short, they so exhausted me that when they offered to return the cat, I said, good and started to leave. Wait! They cried. Where was the flyer? Trying to follow their conversation was nothing next to trying to give them directions to the flyer. It was like talking to aliens. ("Walk up the street two blocks." "What street?" "This street." "This street?" "Yes." "What about that street?" "That street is the wrong direction." "But I live on that street." "But the flyer isn’t in that direction." ’Which direction is it?” ”Up that street.” ”Can I go down that street?” And so on, culminating with my favorite comment, "What’s a flyer?")
Their final remark to me, as I tried to pull away from the curb was that they wanted me to return the cat for them. Actually, they were quite emphatic about it. In popular parlance I believe this is known as “acting like the boss of someone.”
My son retrieved the young tabby, bringing him back to the car, where I had rolled up all the windows despite the blistering hot day. We had just begun our search for the flyer when the cat, docile up until now, let out a yowl and leapt from my kid’s hands while demonstrating a claw dexterity on par with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. All I could think was please,not the eyes.
If you have never been in an enclosed car on a very hot summer day with a really angry cat, then you really haven’t experienced the dual discomfort of cat pinball as all its hair is now being transferred to your sweaty self. And, as with most highly charged moments involving two or more human beings, someone is yelling directives (“Hold on to it!” ”Keep it away from the accelerator!!” ”I said, hold on to it!”) while the other is saying, “I’m trying” but really thinking, Don’t you think I would IF I could, if only to smack you with it. You have like, twenty seconds before everything devolves into petty criticisms that have nothing to do with the current situation.
We found the flyer. I got out to read the phone number, leaving my son in the car. Okay, before you judge, hear my reasoning: He’s young. He’ll heal faster.
No one answered.
The end of the story is that I brought the cat back to the place where I snatched it. A neighbor, who also knows me, explained that the little cat belonged to her neighbor and why was it in my car? This was when I realized that the answer was, Taking it for a ride.
All I could think about was the little cat telling its other cat friends, “Yeah, I was hanging around, you know how I like to do my business at the green house, when this blue car pulled up. I didn’t think anything of it, until this kid picked me up and there I was—in the car!!”
"No way!" said the other cats.
"I was cool with it until the car started moving."
"Where did they take you?" Then one cat’s voice drops to a whisper, "Was it the vet?"
"No. They drove to a far street corner."
The cats said nothing.
"Then brought me back here."
"Wait, I don’t understand," said one of the cats. "They took you for a car ride? On a ninety-three degree day?"
"Up by Cuzco’s house."
"Then brought you back to where they picked you up?"
Then there is more discussion of what it all meant, with one cat saying that he hoped you released more hair than normal, and what a drag it is being domesticated, and how they don’t find people as amusing as people finds cats entertaining, which led to the obvious theories of evolution and wondering what’s for dinner.
Here is what I wrote in an earlier blog about our former Manx, JB:
…[she had] an alarming, rather creative anal issue that would’ve been funny had it been happening to someone else’s cat. We were told it was a “Manx thing” but I really must call bullshit because I’ve since had another Manx and there was no alarming anal business with him.
All true—until yesterday when it seems the gods were screwing around at their desks, halfheartedly checking out bad plastic surgery on the Internet, while lamenting the inability to “discover anything new online” (a fundamental flaw with being all-knowing), that they stumbled across the above statement in my blog. Hmm, they said, perking up a bit, Doesn’t she have another Manx? And isn’t that Manx in possession of an anus? Then someone called out for martinis and tacos and the next thing I knew, I was headed back to the vet with our little Manx, Otis.
Now here I must digress. I’m currently in the second month of a Self-Improvement Program where, among other things, I’m trying not to mix-and-match my waking and sleeping wardrobe, while make an effort to get out more. I happen to be one of those people who gives the impression of being more social than I am because I’m cheerful and chatty and tend to enthuse over the prospect of “getting together.” I am sincere about wanting to see people; I’m just equally sincere about wanting to stay home. Socializing is one of those things where the more you do it, the better you do it, and the less you do it, the more you gaffe, which makes you not want to go out very often, which makes you more gaffe-prone when you do go out. In short, you become your own social problem.
For example, a couple of months ago some friends of ours, who live in a large and lovely Victorian that had once belonged to something like the richest guy on the block, invited us to a dinner party. Their house is a nice blend of a couple of centuries: The structural elements of their beautifully remodeled kitchen includes 19th century wooden columns salvaged from a razed school house, and a gorgeous, repurposed wooden beam rescued from an early 20th century barn, alongside shiny restaurant-style appliances. They also removed the wall between the dining room and kitchen, playing with the whole formal/casual thing, then added a pair of French doors opening onto a deck, secluded by landscaping that looks untouched by a human hand. The entire effect is actually transporting.
The main floor bathroom, located at the end of its own small, dedicated hallway is in keeping with the elegant-modern Victorian vibe. The vintage wooden door is inset with a large sheet of glass. A bathroom door. Sheet of glass. My first thought was This is kind of crazy. Then I considered the close attention paid to the rest of the decor and thought, Or is it crazy like a hip, happening decorator? Here I must digress from my digression for a minute—I had been in a very groovy downtown restaurant a few years ago and the one-room restrooms had sliding glass doors that, when the light came on, blocked the interior view from the people waiting outside. I could see them but they couldn’t see me. It was like peeing while observing a police procedural at HQ.
So here’s the inherent problem with a bathroom that resembles something in a design magazine: I’m not quite sure what is meant to be admired and what is meant to be used. Which brings me to the fancy drapes, held back on either side of the door by what I believe are called “holdbacks”, and pooling artfully on the floor. I stood inside the bathroom, examining the drapes as if I were one of the 2001: A Space Odyssey apes puzzling over the monolith. If my hosts wanted to obscure the view, why didn’t they use textured or frosted glass? And wouldn’t some sort of window shade indicate its purpose in a way that a pair of heavy, perfectly arranged floor-length drapes using holdbacks, do not?
Then it occurred to me that this wasn’t glass glass but trick glass; a kind of wink and a nod within all this Victoriana. After all, it wasn’t as if the toilet was tucked discreetly behind a set of thick Turkish towels on a heated rack, or a refurbished locker from a colonial men’s club that now served as a linen closet. The drapes were merely the frame for the cool window.
I should add that the only illumination in the bathroom came from strategically placed lit candles, lending the interior a soft, romantica glow. Having decided that the glass was the sort of trick glass that was activated by flooding the room with light, I knew the candles were inadequate for the task and flipped on all the lights.
There I was, using the facilities—attempting to use the facilities—panicking a little over a sudden attack of pee-shyness brought on by the sense of being on display when a male guest, who I had yet to be introduced to, came to the door. I didn’t panic because I was in a well-lit bathroom and I knew, per the groovy restaurant restrooms, that I was invisible to the exterior. When the guest reached for the no-lock doorknob I called out, “Someone’s in here!” not wanting, of course, to be walked in upon.
His response was to make eye contact before offering me a little “didn’t mean to disturb you” wave as he disappeared down the hallway.
When I quickly returned to the party (if I was absent any longer Mr. Nameless Bathroom Guy may have thought he interrupted a far more involved activity—forget that I didn’t even get to do what I originally had gone in there to do so I still had to pee but didn’t feel comfortable excusing myself again when I had only just joined everyone), all the guests were at the table. I took the one empty chair to find myself next to Mr. Nameless Bathroom Guy; yes, sitting next to Mr. NBG who had last seen me…sitting.
Though we talked all evening I have no idea what was said because all I could think about was that he had seen me where he had seen me, all the lights on, while I was acting as if I were invisible—I had called out to him when he was staring right at me, like a Mistress Obvious of Indoor Plumbing—and that for all I knew he thought I was some kind of golden shower aficionado who opted not to use the very conspicuous and copious drapes that were clearly to insure privacy, and that maybe he played into my little Dinner Party Toilet Fantasy that I like to indulge in during social occasions with strangers because he had never met me before and so had no way to judge my behavior.
Back to the cat. Last week, the Cat OD prevented us from going to a barbecue that we had been looking forward to attending.
This week we had to miss out on another party for a friend of ours who had been living in New York for the past six months—all due to yet another, serious Cat Problem that I won’t elaborate upon here except to say that it was creepy, unusual, serious, and involved an anus, as was previously mentioned. And it cost $400, which I’m beginning to think is the exact cost of some recreational activity someone at the vet enjoys.
How much do I love Girls? I love it so much. I swoon a little over the rather brilliant dialog. I adore the perfection of the cast and characters. It’s breezy, oh-this-old-thing aspect is so convincing that it leaves no doubt as to how much work and artistry is actually involved. It’s a bit like the old Dolly Parton quote that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.
To be clear: I am not the demographic for Girls. If you want to locate my demographic imagine the weird wasteland that lay outside the house in the movie Beetljuice. Now picture Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin running in terror from the giant sand worm that roams this particular limbo. Now go ahead and replace the sand worm with that commercial about the woman who is portrayed as a stick figure of leaky pipes—you know the one where she goes to lunch, then rides an elevator, then walks down the street completely self-conscious because her entire urinary tract system is really just crappy plumping in a slumlord’s rental? Or try the commercial with the Cialis couple who spend their down time lounging outside in matching bathtubs while holding hands. (Fun Fact: When a friend of mine turned fifty, she asked her “landscaper”, a self-important, draw string pants-wearing, ah! India! feng shui gasbag if she could take a bath in the bathtub he had in his garden. So maybe there is a whole swath of middle-aged Americans with garden bathtubs that I was unaware of, though I suspect he had the tub in the garden for the same reason that we had an old claw foot tub in our yard when we bought our house: Because someone was too lazy or too cheap to haul its two-ton ass away. But, really, isn’t leaving your discarded bathtub on the lawn is really just one step from putting your car permanently on blocks.) Still not there? Then allow me to introduce Jamie Lee Curtis and her willingness to publicly announce her views on bowel evacuation. Really, toss in a Beano ad and I think all bases due south of your own personal border will be covered. In any case, it seems these are my people.
But the fact is that the emotional world of Girls is so sharp and true that it transcends age as it cuts to that elusive universal experience that is essential to art. The great thing about art is that it doesn’t just live in a single time zone or, to put it another way, the great thing about Girls is how much of it I recognize. It isn’t simply that these city girls and their adventures and sentimental educations recall my own city girl youth (that wouldn’t be art; that would be nostalgia) but that they depict a timelessness. You could probably find four young women in New York during World War II and one would be the girl who loves the man who loves her though she is no longer in love but is engaged to him anyway; the virgin; the glamor girl who is the resident free spirit; and the girl who is less definable because her primary quality is that of observer/writer/dreamer. Or, to take it back even further, the March sisters of Little Women comprise the pretty girl who finds love with the decent man (Meg), the adventurous, vaguely amoral girl trading on her pretty face (Amy), the saintly virgin (Beth), and Jo March, who is writing it all down.
So what else do I love? Hannah (“A voice of a generation”) who is involved with a guy who is all kinds of wrong with some aspects of all kinds of right thrown in, so what appears to be a questionable choice quietly becomes something less expected. The guy’s a terrific character, not to mention that the relationship is almost like a Rorschach in real time. In almost any other sitcom, Hannah would be limited to constant self-deprecation and irony, while the boyfriend would be less fundamentally strange. His actions and reactions would be tempered, as if his idiosyncrasies are no more than a persona he assumes; as if underneath all his sometimes difficult eccentricity is someone you could take home to mom. Dunham knows better. She understands that this character’s inner self isn’t less profane or selfish than we think—he is as he seems to be—but that along with the unvarnished sex and ego is tenderness. It’s an unexpected revelation when it comes, as is Hannah’s unexpected reaction. Their relationship, given what usually happens on shows like this, is realistic to the point of seeming almost radical.
Marnie is the responsible girl, self-supporting with the wonderful boyfriend. He’s the sweetheart who gives all the right gifts because he knows her that well and loves her that much; yet Marnie cannot admit that her love for him has lost its erotic charge and become familial. Even when she describes his touch as that “of a creepy uncle,” she’s still the Good Girl who can’t go back on her promise to love and cherish, unable can she admit that True Love just may have an expiration date after all.
Also radical is the nudity and the sex and the look of the actors—all of which play against the accepted (and expected) Hollywood-type. Not that the cast isn’t appealing by any standard, but the physical range is broader. In Girls, the writing and characterizations are the locus where we find attractiveness: no one is without his or her charms.
The best-party-of-your-life is the episode where everything shifts and deepens. Hannah moves beyond the tunnel-vision of how she is treated by her guy friend when she is forced to examine how she thinks of him (or doesn’t think of him). Marnie would rather whine and demand sympathy rather than acknowledge her own selfishness when it comes to the boy whose heart she just broke. Jessa’s cavalier attitude fails when she ends up in the emergency room with her employer who was jumped by two men that Jessa brazenly taunted. When she tells him, as thin consolation, that they can “still be friends,” he replies, now sadder and wiser himself, that they were never friends. It’s a sobering moment.
Shoshanna is the only one who isn’t made to face her flaws and is rewarded with the man who will finally relieve her of her virginity (her “biggest baggage”). That this cynical guy finds himself entranced by this sweet, slightly unconventional girl, is a terrific moment. It’s a sort of perfect illustration of how we fall for the least likely people in the space of an instant, when we weren’t even thinking about love at all. This is what makes Girls timeless. This is what makes it art.
(The List of Cats I Have Live With in My Life continued)
7. Kali Mountain: She was a two-year old snowshoe, rescued from the SPCA in San Francisco by John. She was also the hippest cat I’ll ever know. A party cat, a shoulder-riding cat, an engaged audience who looked as if she cared when someone was trying on all the clothes in her closet and complaining about the body that she now, many years later, wishes she still had because, frankly, it would’ve been bathing suit season all year long. Kali was also smart and beautiful and excellent company. She’s the cat I’ll never quite get over.
8. JB: Also from the San Francisco SPCA. We got her at six weeks. She was a little white Manx, totally tailless, with one blue eye and one green eye and a permanent expression of worry on her little cat face.
We nicknamed her Investment Kitty because of the sixteen years of vet bills. Her list of ailments were: Ring worm, loss of tiny patches of hair due to a flea allergy even though she seldom had fleas; a brief, youthful flirtation with worms, and an alarming, rather creative anal issue that would’ve been funny had it been happening to someone else’s cat. We were told it was a “Manx thing” but I really must call bullshit because I’ve since had another Manx and there was no alarming anal business with him.
JB was shy and skittish; to wit, you couldn’t read in the same room with her or she would react to the turning of the page as if you were trying to staple her to the wall. Bolting From a Room was her primary form of exercise. She didn’t know how to play so if you dangled a cat toy in front of her, she was both fixated and terrified, as if she thought, “It begins with the dangled cat toy then progresses immediately to animal vivisection.”
She adhered to her own personal seasons. Winter found her sleeping behind a specific chair in the living room. In Spring she made her way into the upper cupboards in the kitchen in order to curl up on the stack of dinner plates. Summer, her peak season of inexplicable behavior, had her refusing to come inside the house to eat; she would mournfully meow through the open door while looking longingly inside, as if there our bungalow apartment had become a space pod with an invisible forcefield that prevented her from entering. Her days were spent sleeping under cars parked out on the baking California street, their warm oil dripping all over her snow white fur, creating a kind of furry Surrealist ice cream sundae effect. Thank god for Fall when her preferred sleeping spots were the wheel wells of trucks, alternating with getting trapped in various neighbors’ garages.
For all her time spent outside, she still needed a cat box since she only liked to use her own bathroom. We could’ve gotten rid of the box, but that wouldn’t have meant that she would take the hint and go outside. Bascially, the cat box was like an extortion payment for being urine, etc. hostages.
One final note about JB: Being tailless she hopped like a rabbit, instead of running like a normal cat, causing people to ask us if she was a “cabbit.” A cabbit. Related, I believe, to the jackalope. That many people believed our pet was the spawn of a rabbit and a cat eventually offered a a great deal of unwanted insight into some of the voting preferences in this country.
9. Pooh: Pooh was my roommate’s cat. He was an excellent cat until he went after my roommate’s parakeet, Pinot. She was out of town when the attack occurred (witnessed by Kali and JB who chose to act like urban crime witnesses who “didn’t want to get involved”). I rushed Pinot to the vet who assured me that, a few missing feathers aside, he would be “fine.” The vet should have added “for the next few hours.” When I checked on him after work, just before my roommate was due back, Pinot was as far from “fine” as a bird can get. While he was a good parakeet as parakeets go, I’m ashamed to confess that I wished he had decided to be not “fine” before I spent the time cleaning in and around his cage.
10. Otis: Our current cat. Another Manx because seemingly John and I are slow learners. Otis is a small, handsome cat with tiny Scottish Fold ears and beautiful striped markings. Though he is nearly seventeen years old, he looks remarkably young. He’s like Dorian Gray young. And like Dorian Gray, it appears that he traded his moral center for perpetual youth. The guy was a killer. Until he was thirteen, he treated our yard like private game reserve. John bagged so many tiny bodies he stopped even mentioning it; our property was a combination dog poop (we have a pair of dogs) and corpses.
Like JB, Otis is very hard to live with because he acts like a barely survived some particularly dreadful and ongoing abuse, always cringing and bolting and completely incapable of approaching an open door as anything other than a well-timed escape. (If he were abused, we would have to be the abusers since we’ve had him since he was eight weeks old and frankly, John and I are too easily bored to torture a cat. It isn’t exactly a challenge.) There is the terror of cat toys, and the inability of eating like a regular cat. First, he meows to be fed; then, after you’ve filled his bowl, you have to catch him to get him near his bowl (which we keep elevated because of our two dogs), even though he wants to eat. Petting poses another challenge in that he wants your attention but cannot tolerate your attention. So when he gets really desperate, he hunkers down and digs his nails into the rug to prevent himself from bolting. I’ll wait while you reread that phrase.
Also like JB, he has a seasonal schedule where he likes to begin his summer day at 3:30 am. (The winter schedule is 5:00 am.) He meows downstairs until he wakes one of us. Then, as one of us stumbles down the stairs, he briefly emerges from the shadows of the dining room, through the living room as if he is beelining it for the front door. BUT his fear of the open front door kicks in just in time for him to recede back into the shadows of the living room. So, you try sweet talk, then cursing, then chasing. The chase includes circling through the kitchen, dining room and living room—all of which open into each other. This must be done three times. Then one must hold the front screen open while standing as far from it as possible, while Otis keeps eyeing you with fear and suspicion. Suddenly, he will race out the door. All of this. At. 3 o’clock. In the morning. Every morning. Except in Winter, when it happens at 5 o’clock. In the morning.
The guy is a jerk. But you know how it is—he’s our jerk.