Friday, July 25, 2008

Sermon on the Mound

Tonight, I watched again the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long while: Goran Dukic’s Wristcutters: A Love Story. Adapted from a novella by the amazing Etgar Kerret, Kneller’s Happy Campers, Wristcutters is the kind of movie that you watch, then sort of recalibrate your internal scale for rating all the other movies that you already like. I love this movie for so many reasons, maybe most of all for the offhand way in which it presents an alternate reality in which good friends casually, regularly perform small miracles. Holding fish and turning them different colors. Floating lit matches up to the sky, where they turn into stars. Broken headlights finally, inexplicably made to work. The premise of the movie is that suicide victims arrive to a world populated by other suicide victims, where, to paraphrase the main character, “Everything’s the same…just a little worse.” Did I mention that, at heart, it’s an existential road-trip romantic comedy?

Following the volatile month or so leading up to Katie’s death anniversary, manic creative output gave way to a period of calm non-productivity. I lost my writing mojo. So, I settled into a steady routine of hanging out with the LaPlantes, biking a lot, and watching Battlestar Galactica. I’m neither thinner nor especially savvy about the true nature of the Cylons, but I have had a nice July. Last week, we made a trip with neighbors to King’s Island in Cincinnati, where Emma, Chloe, some of the older neighborhood kids, and I rode as many roller coasters as we could fit into the day. Ed and I took Chloe and Chase to see a Reds game. Michelle, Kayla, Hannah, John and Judy came down for a visit this week. Kayla and I met up in Merrillville and made the drive down to Indy together, alternating favorite songs on our iPods. Today, Beth and I went to Taste, for the best fries and garlic/basil aioli in the entire universe, after which Emma, Chloe, and I dueled Slash to an extended draw in Guitar Hero III (Emma finally bested him, winning a duet on “Welcome to the Jungle”). It now seems inevitable that my move to San Francisco will involve the immediate acquisition of a Nintendo Wii, so that I can keep up my long-distance virtual chops via the Wii gaming network.

In the summer of 2006, I fulfilled the last of my course requirements for my MFA degree at FIU by taking the dreaded cross-genre workshop, with John Dufrense (whose new novel is getting rave reviews). It was pretty great. The best story I wrote that summer was “Sermon on the Mound,” in which Jesus comes back to Earth as a Cubs pitcher, only to have his battery mate, Judas Iscariot, throw the big game against the Cardinals. I stole the title from my friend Eric, a fellow Desh PCV. On our daily walks to the Mymensingh NAPE, during training, we used to brainstorm premises for bad baseball movies yet to be made. His version of “Sermon on the Mound” featured Jesus in a classic pitcher’s pose, wearing Yankee pinstripes, with mischievous eyes peeking out over the webbing of the mitt. My favorite, “Most Valuable Primate” (“There’s no rule in this book that says a monkey can’t play third base!”) turned out to have already been made. Twice.

I had an English teacher in high school who used to tell us that there wasn’t a man in America who wouldn’t start to tear up watching the last six minutes of Field of Dreams. I watched that movie over and over as a kid, but the part I always liked best was when Doc “Moonlight” Graham steps forward and saves a kid’s life, only to learn that he can’t cross back onto the playing field. Today is the 25th anniversary of the Pine Tar Incident, in which my boyhood hero, George Brett, went bezerk following a viciously unjust ruling by big city rubes on the take from George Steinbrenner, masquerading as baseball “umpires.” After a long and accomplished career, it seems Brett may forever be remembered by some as the guy who went nuts over the pine tar. Better, I guess, than being remembered as the guy who missed a World Series game because of hemorrhoids. As a kid, before I really understood the game, I remember committing to memory the stats of the Royals with the most unusual names: Onix Concepcion, Buddy Biancalana, ”The Mad Hungarian” Al Hrabosky. Looking back at the online stats databases, I’m surprised at how short many of their careers were, even by baseball standards. Then, a year seemed like an enormous expanse of time, broken down over 162 games too full of meaningful minutiae to sum up in averages and performance indicators. Even now, I’m surprised how many of the basic facts I misremember or have filed away under the wrong season, position, acquisition, squad.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion notes that, in the U.S. in the 20th Century, long-held ideas about grief were suddenly upended and replaced with radically different ones. Previously, grieving was a task to undertake and complete, publicly, competently, and sensitively, as family members and neighbors died in childbirth, of fever, from untreatable diseases, during influenza pandemics. She cites an English anthropologist who notes, in 1965, that the trend became “to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.” Reading this passage, I thought of the Nigerian mother, whose son I tutored all last year. When I told her about Katie, she offered her condolences, then told me how she would never have guessed the loss; how, if I lived in Nigeria, she wouldn’t be able to avoid it. Didion notes, ironically, that Emily Post’s 1922 guide to etiquette offers a sensible and thorough guide to dealing with the bereaved, in a way that many books today do not.

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times, in which film critic A.O. Scott asks, “How Many Superheroes Does It Take To Tire A Genre? Having seen the three mostly very good movies that inform this premise—Hancock, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight—I found myself agreeing with Scott’s idea that “a hero at the height of his powers is a few panels removed from mortal danger,” and that subsequent superhero movies might only reinforce the current thinking, that this summer is the peak of what the genre can accomplish. It’s like that idea at the end of David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde, that the mid-to-late twentieth century New York School of poets, in institutionalizing their rejection of the last formal traditions of writing poetry, made it impossible for future generations of poets to be avant-garde: no rules left to define oneself, individually or collectively, against.

I’d like to think that writing-wise I’m just in a temporary rut, a kind of lull, with this not writing about Katie’s death, grief, etc. Certainly, there are other things to appreciate right now. It’s ironic, though, because for all of the fear and anxiety I’ve felt about this last year—which has at least kept the memories and situation vivid and real for me—any movement now away from those overwhelming feelings sometimes feels like a movement away from Katie. Really, I think that what I need right now is to figure out a new kind of tone for the writing, a wholesale shift that makes the turning back feel new and fresh. I’ll leave you with an example, from another media, of what I think I mean. Here’s a clip from the middle of Wristcutters, in which the three heroes arrive to a kind of desert colony in the middle of nowhere, and meet the de facto leader, played by Tom Waits, who gives an unusual, great speech:


davecashman said...

Wow, that clip really makes me want to watch that movie. Growing strong and growing strange. Love it.

Marcus said...

Kings Island! That was our Memorial Day ritual for years growing up. Down 71 from Columbus to Kings Island; ride the Beast, scream; ride the backwards roller coaster, scream; venture through the very surreal kids boat ride based on the Smurfs; go home.

If you have time before heading to California, and are looking for yet more roller coasters, venture on over to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. It's better than the Island, or at least it was in 1995.

That's when all the cool seniors from Grove City High School skipped a day of school and headed north. I got really scared because the car in front of us, which contained my friend Andrea Demers, was passing cars on hills (so they couldn't see what was coming on the other side.) There were no cell phones, so I couldn't convey my distress. Still think it was crazy, but Andrea was fine.

Thanks for the memories; Ohio's got a way with amusement parks, I am proud to report.

Anonymous said...

To follow with the previous comment-- BG is a little over an hour away from Cedar Point, so if you'd like to stay the night with us, we'd love to have you! It seems that we'll miss your trip to MN when you head out West.


Bruiser said...

top ten list of thoughts after reading..

1. Great to have you back writing.
2. will have to see the wristcutters movie
3. I hear you on the July writing doldrums. Stopped the blog but will likely start again
4. re baseball...someone once said you can't understand America unless you understand baseball
5. probably going to watch Field of Dreams again
6. Alex there is a name thrown around the lunchroom tables of elementary school way too much
7. grief is the most human of emotions...why can't we have our grief as much as we have any other human emotion or condition?
8. dark knight was epic even if the darkness was haunting.
9. Katie, always Katie. Do you really think you will ever "move away"? She is like your height...unchangeable and what makes you great but shouldn't hold you from moving onward.
10. Whether you realize it or not, this post reminded me of some of your first posts before Katie's death. A college English teacher once told me that there is no good writing, only good re-writing. The theme is evolving, keep at it my friend.

Stephanie said...

1. I'm glad you finally read that book.
2. Can I blame my writing rut on Katie's anniversary too?
3. Did I read correctly that the Cubs are still in the running? You do realize that ruins a minor joke in my novel. How could they do this to me?

Anonymous said...

Hi, John, I also saw "Wristcutters" this afternoon. I liked it. I liked the way that it showed how people are the root of our happiness. I think the dream world also provides these kinds of warm connections. My dad's been dead for over twenty years, but he oftentimes pops in my dreams, and I always wake up thinking, "Hey, that was fun seeing pops again!" Talk to you soon, Don