Susan Orlean Laughed At Me

I woke this morning and checked my twitter account. A couple of new follows and, what’s this? An @ reply from Susan Orlean.

Susan Orlean.

Susan Orlean, the same woman who wrote a book about Rin Tin Tin that I fondled in a bookstore in Montpelier, VT this past weekend. I didn’t buy it. It was $26.99 and I’m unemployed and poor. Instead I opted for a slim Pema Chodron book about confronting your fears. But Susan Orlean laughed at me. Pema Chodron wouldn’t laugh at me.

A trinity of "ha."

Ha times three. Two exclamation points. She could have written just one “Ha,” and no exclamation. She didn’t need to write back at all! The effort she took, to write three! A trinity of Ha! And TWO exclamation points. I was in ecstasy.

I looked back at what I had written to her last night. I commented on a picture she had posted. I looked again at the photo. I thought of Susan Orlean laughing at me. I closed my eyes and dropped off into a reverie as I imagined being with her as she took the photo.

The photo that launched a blog post.

We’re walking down Brighton Way together, my arm around her slender waist. I have no idea why I’m in L.A. because I’m a walking city/cold weather kind of guy. I can only imagine that I’ve been summoned there by Susie. She knows I’m married, and heck, twenty years her junior, but I know that’s what attracts her to me. She is, afterall, a powerbroker, and I’m sure there have been countless “boys” like myself along the way, servicing her. I’m trying to come to terms with this, thinking deep thoughts about my position in her life when she comments on the sunset.

“Isn’t it pretty?” she says.

She takes her iPhone, snaps a shot, and shows it to me.

I bend down to look at it and when I do so, her wispy hair gets caught in my beard. I take a sniff. She smells of Thieves. I even extend my tongue just a bit to take a little taste. Bananas. Weird. Wasn’t expecting that…

“If only the sunset wasn’t detracting from the simple beauty of the Citibank sign,” I say.

Susan Orlean laughs lightly. “You’re so funny,” she says as she gives my ass a hard slap.

She tweets her photo and then says she has to go. Wilco concert.

Wilco. Can’t believe they’re still putting out music. “Great band!” I say. I know she’s going with her husband and I feel a pang of jealousy, but then I know she’ll be back in NY again soon to promote the Rin Tin Tin book.

“God,” I think. “You really have to make it to write a book about Rin Tin Tin…”

Susie discussed Rin Tin Tin on The Colbert Report

“Wait,” I say, as she steps into her limo. “When will I see you again?”

But before Susie can respond, my wife barges into the office and I’m thrust back into reality.

“What’s that? she says, referring to the picture on my screen. “Oh, it’s just a picture of a sunset. Susan Orlean posted it last night. The famous writer? I commented on it and then she replied to me. She thought my comment was funny, can you believe that?”

Judy ignores this and says, “Well, since you’re not busy, can you brush Tilly’s hair?”

Tilly walks in. “Daddy, guess what shirt I’m wearing today.” And then, without skipping a beat, “Hey, you peeked!”

“No! Wait!” I say. “You just walked into my line of sight!”

“No, you peeked!” Tilly starts to cry. Judy shoots me a glance and walks out, tossing the brush at me.

Feeling somewhat like Francis Weed, I pull the knots out of my daughter’s hair. I’m good at brushing women’s hair now, and I think again of Susan Orlean. What a beautiful name. Susan Orlean. So many long vowels. She’s a redhead. I drop back into my imagination…

She’s sitting at the edge of her bed, fully clothed. I’m kneeling on the bed behind her, naked, brushing her hair. She’s going on about the history of war dogs in WWI. It’s interesting enough, but I’m more concerned with trying to keep my stomach from growling. I’m starving and she hasn’t let me eat in hours. She has, to put it mildly, an insatiable sexual appetite.

My imagination jumps foward a year. We’re at a dinner party together, me and Susie. New York. We’re drinking white wine and having a conversation of sorts. But since I’m broken socially, it’s halting and awkward. It’s okay, Susie accepts that about me. She understands awkward conversations are what I do best. She understands me as an artist.

I have a new book coming out, about nothing. About being awkward. I hope people will laugh at it but chances are it’ll fill them with pity. It’s going to fail. But it’s not due out for a few weeks and as far as this group of literary types are concerned, I’m still full of possibility. Susie is introduciing me to all her friends. I think about a piece James Atlas wrote years ago. It was called “The Fall of Fun.” It was about how calculating literary types have become. No more Bacchanalia. No more drunken mistakes.

Apparently James Atlas hasn’t met Susie. She’s wasted and I know what’s coming. She booked a hotel room. It’s going to be a long night.

My daughter yowls. I’ve been brushing her hair for a good 15 minutes. It’s overbrushed and full of static. Judy is yelling at me from the bottom of the stairs to hurry the fuck up.

“I’m sorry,” I yell down the stairs. “I lost track of time.”

“Feh,” she says.

Driving my daughter to school I wonder if Susan Orlean will like my kids. At school dropoff I see a friend. He asks what’s up, and I play it cool. I don’t tell him that Susan Orlean laughed at me.

“Still looking for a job?” he asks. There’s a strong hint of schadenfreude in his voice.

“Yeah,” I say, “but I have a couple of leads.”

I smile. The day is full of possibility.

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Death And Costco

A false advertisement.

Judy and I took a road trip to visit her brother, who lives in the “cradle of civilization,” Staten Island, New York. Staten Island is a classic place, and worth visiting if you miss the 1980s.

Anyway, on our way home, I decided to stop at my mother’s house. Shortly after we arrived, the skies darkened, winds turned the leaves on trees, and a bizarre light suffused the area. In a matter of minutes, the power was out and we were in the basement rummaging for candles.

The trip had made me feel very in touch with my mortality. Perhaps it was because we hadn’t seen Judy’s brother in a while and his hairline had receded.  Perhaps it was because when we sat down to play Risk we found tallies of games played years ago. I don’t know exactly. But for whatever reason, I had this feeling that my daughters were growing quickly, and that people I love were getting old while I wasn’t paying attention.

I noticed the eroding power of time.

And on another level, thoughts of my own mortality paid me a visit as I lay in my brother in law’s bed with Judy, unable to sleep at 2am. The bedroom window was cracked, and sitting on a concrete wall in front of the house, a girl spoke on her phone.

“He will be WASHED. I’m gonna WASH his ass!” (Pause) “BITCH, I already been in jail so don’t think I fucking care. He’s gonna git WASHED.”

I crept over to the window holding my breath, and looked down. She shone yellow under the streetlight, her back to the house, hand waving in the night, alone. I was waiting for a gunshot. I was hoping her mother would come, find her, tell her everything was temporary, and give her a hug or something.  She’d find another man.  One she didn’t want to murder.

So the thing is, once the power went out at my mom’s house, the vague feelings of threat that had built up in me during our visit to Staten Island, conspired and gave me the urge to “stock up” on supplies.

To get stuff.

And so 15 minutes later, my mom was flashing her “membership card” at some 90 year-old security guy, and Judy and I were strolling into a Costco.

An aisle at Costco

Now, I’m a very cultured guy, but I’ve never been in a Costco.

After a few minutes of walking around aisles wide enough to allow the easy passage of very obese people and wondering if we really needed 28 glue sticks, I started thinking about the middle of America. I thought about the Iowa caucus.

“Rick Fucking Santorum. Sheesh.” I grabbed a sleeve of 36 D-size batteries and threw it into our cart. “I bet my immigrant Italian ancestors were nothing like his immigrant Italian ancestors.” I said aloud to no one in particular, “Who the hell has seven kids in this day and age? God Bless him though…”

An old woman who was eyeing a huge box of discounted Christmas lights heard me. She said, “God Bless” and tottered by.

I looked at Judy, my waifish yoga wife, and compared her to a 300-pound woman riding around in one of those electric wheelchairs. I thought of three Judys in one big “Judy body” while I reached for a Red Cross Emergency Kit. “Maybe Judy needs to gain a little weight,” I thought to myself.   I threw a 3 million candle spotlight into our cart.

A mom and her son, both huge, were looking at bags of chips.

“Those bags are bigger than the other ones we got,” the son said while giggling.

The mom giggled back at him. They stood there like that, in front of the chips, shoulders shaking, necks all loose, laughing. I walked by them and picked up 1000 feet of aluminum foil.

“I can’t believe Weisenthal thought Michelle Bachmann’s eyelashes were real” I thought. “Damned Krugmanite should stick to FRED charts.”

Costco sized eyelashes.

I spent a long time contemplating a generator before Judy pulled me away.  I listened to a salesman talking to an old guy about Tums.

“If you have a few people in your family taking these,” he explained slowly in a serious tone, “buying in this quantity is a very economical way to go.”

The old guy nodded thoughtfully, and added the gallon-sized tub of Tums to his cart.

All around me, different people were having different conversations but the words I heard were the same… “big,” “bigger,” and “biggest.” An 87 year old woman wearing a Costco visor was handing out free samples of grape juice.

“Where could I find the green tea?” I asked.

“Aisle 32,148,” she said, as she continued to pour the juice into tiny plastic cups.

She didn’t even look up. She was like an 87 year old robot, lifting the plastic cup from the stack, placing it on the counter, and then filling it with purple… over and over. I felt a pang of sympathy for her and remembered how it used to be when old people retired.

“But hey,” I thought. “She probably had credit card debt, and should be happy Costco gave her the opportunity to pay it off.”

Behind me, a lady was struggling to carry a huge bag of red meat. She was grunting as she lugged it toward her double-size shopping cart. I imagined her, as a cavewoman or something, trying to drag a dead boar to her fire. She was hunting here, at Costco.

Other people were pawing over discounted books. One large woman was reading the back cover of a book about the South Beach diet and another, equally large woman, came over and told her that it changed her life.

Men were buying quantities of meat, and cases of beer. They wore sports jerseys and Nascar caps. The mood was light. The people were happy. They were filling their carts. They were getting good deals on big stuff.

What more was there?

We got to the checkout and I realized, in a panic, that there was no way we could fit this stuff into my small car.  I worried about this, out loud, to my mother.  A man in the next checkout lane overheard our conversation.

“Oh, you find ways to fit it all in. You always do,” he said.  Lightheartedly, he laughed, and I felt like I was a member of some new club.

This man was my brother. He spoke in open-ended terms, he sounded wise. He too had found it difficult to fit the absurdly large quantities of stuff into his car, but he had managed. I would manage too.   I could consume.  There was no reason to worry.

I laughed with him. “Oh, I’ll fit it in! Ha! Ha! Ha!”  I thought about purchasing a larger car.

What Costco looks like from heaven.

We exited Costco through automatic sliding doors and I looked out over the vast parking lot towards where the horizon should be (instead there was a BestBuy or something). A funnel cloud descended, slowly and silently from the close black sky.

I thought the coincidence of my first Costco trip coinciding with my first funnel cloud was just too much.

The hulking warehouse. The parking lot. The cloud.  Death.

It made me feel American.

But at the same time, I lost a little faith in my purchases.

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Steve Jobs Owes Us All An Apology

I left college poor and under debt, so for awhile I crashed in my father’s basement. He lived on Long Island. Each day I took the train to the city to write advertisements and ghost articles for Prudential Securities. I loved the commute. I read a book a week and enjoyed the empty time.

In 1996 when I started commuting, cell phones were not yet ubiquitous. By 1997 they were everywhere. People got rude; lazy and rude. They stopped even trying to show courtesy. In a matter of months, the commute to the city became intolerable.

“I’m on the train. THE TRAIN.  What?  I can’t hear you.  WHAT?  I can’t hear you.  Can you hear me? HELLO?  I’ll call you when I get home.  Seven minutes.  No, six and a half.”

Yes we can hear you.

Cell phones weren’t always just a logistical device.  Sometimes, though rarely, you’d get to hear one side of a fairly interesting conversation.  Once I heard a girl sob into her phone that she kept getting drunk and sleeping with different men.  Three in the past week. She kept telling her phone that she had lost control.  The train car was silent.  People pretended to read their newspapers but we were all listening.

Half the car wanted to give her advice; the other half wanted to buy her a drink.

I got cranky and developed a bad habit.  Whenever someone loudly recited their number, I’d write it down.  Upon exiting the train I’d call from the nearest payphone (kids, google “payphone” to see what I’m talking about here) and tell them I was sleeping with their spouse.

Since the peaceful commute was dead, I started staying in the city, relying on the hospitality of my future wife and her roommate for a bed.  But I couldn’t stay with them forever, so I rented a place where I was tortured by my lesbian neighbors. One of them was a sex worker.  She’s one reason I became a stock trader.

Anyway, so here we are in 2011 and everyone is in love with their fucking iPhones.  They drive with them.  They eat with them.  They say they can’t live without them.  They get upset if you tell them to turn their fucking phone off during dinner.  They get even more upset if you throw their fucking phone in a pool.

They drive with them.

People don’t seem to care that their phones track their movements. People, the same people who are worried about saving for their retirement and their children’s college costs, think it’s perfectly normal to spend $200 a month on phone plans. I think it’s nuts.  $24,000 over 10 years for something that is not essential, steals your liberty, and makes normal human exchange anachronistic seems silly.

So why am I ranting about cell phones now? It’s because they’ve infiltrated my entire family and are starting to ruin the holidays.

When I was a kid we’d go to my Aunt Tina’s house after Christmas dinner.  My Italian uncles would fight about politics over coffee while the children clambered under the table.  There was one big table.  My grandmother sat at the head. She ruled the family until she died at 100. As children were born, square card tables were attached to the larger table in a Dr. Suessian sort of way.  After a couple of hours, we’d finally convince the adults to play a game together.

We’d stay around that large table all night, laughing, telling stories and getting to know each other. Things got crowded and it was always too hot but we were a family, and I was proud of my family.

Grandma’s birthday was January 1st.  So a week after seeing everyone on Christmas, we’d get together again. We still go to the same restaurant each year to honor her memory. This year, instead of all sitting together at one table the adults were broken into three circular tables while the children were sent far across the restaurant to their own table.

Kids being kids, under a table.

The older table made up of my uncles and aunts was the liveliest.  They were trading stories, old and new, and laughing.  My table consisted mainly of my immediate family.  My brother in law stared down at his “smart phone” for the entirety of the Jets game without saying a word.  I looked over at the table containing my cousins who are all about 20 years older than me.  A few of them were on smart phones as well.

I walked the quarter mile across the restaurant to where the children sat.  My daughter started out playing under the table and drawing pictures with her cousin.  That lasted about fifteen minutes. Then all the “devices” came out.  A ten year old held up two.

“You have two iPhones?” my daughter asked.

“No, this is my iPhone and this is my iPod.” The girl was ten.  She said this matter-of-factly as she pulled a handheld gaming thing out of her bag.

“You want to play a game?”  The ten year old spent 5 seconds teaching my daughter how to “make cookies” on the phone.  An hour later my daughter’s dinner went largely untouched and the sheets of paper upon which she had been drawing lay next to her bowl, blank.  No nice drawings for Aunt Tina to hang on her refrigerator.  The phone bleeped and blopped.  She made “cookies.”

There was a clear devolution of social interaction from the older tables down to the young. It was sad.  The NFL won.  Apple won.  The family lost.

George Packer wrote a great piece in the New Yorker this week about weariness.  His article was about political reporters having to knock back utter lies, but his larger point resonated with me and my attempts, even among my family, to put their phones down, to turn their televisions off.  He explains:

Certain forms of deterioration—like writers using “impact” as a verb, or basketball coaches screaming about every foul—become acceptable by attrition, because critics lose the energy to call them out. Eventually, people even stop remembering that they’re wrong.

The difference between me and political reporters is that I can’t stop remembering. Children should be plotting under tables and giggling.  Adults should be talking to each other.  Instead my family looked like a group of zombies, their faces lit by the blue-green screen glow as they poked at keypads.

Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow! or, I'm so sorry...

People shrug and say “Lighten up. This is the way things are now.” All kids have phones. All little pop stars are sluts. A few hours of television a week won’t hurt you. All toys are made of cheap plastic. Everyone eats fast food.

This is the way things are now because YOU’RE MAKING IT THIS WAY.  And it’s a worse way.

I wanted my 100 year old grandmother, or at least her authority, to be there so she could yell at everyone staring at their phones to wake the fuck up.  I wanted her to remind everyone that we’re only here for a limited time and on our death bed it’s not Siri that we wish we had spoken to more.

Or better yet, speaking of dead people, how about a posthumous apology from Steve Jobs, a professed Buddhist. Surely he’d understand how awful it is that all of those meditative silences of a long train ride, or the shared laughter of a family dinner, are gone forever.

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