Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Lioness has left the Streets

Ann Richards is gone, the great, funny, feisty woman who was Governor of Texas, beaten unexpectedly for re-election by George W. Bush in 1994, thus ending her own political career, and signalling the end of America's being held in esteem. I was with Ann in the earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco, where she'd come for a fund-raiser in her gubernatorial campaign, due to start just after the quake hit. So she huddled with a group of other women in Huntington Park, none of whom knew each other, waiting for the aftershocks. A friend came by and picked us all up and took us back to her house, built on solid ground, as Ann was. We spent the night by a great picture window, the living room lit by the firelight of explosions in the Marina, and each of us told our stories, like it was Chaucer.
Her story was best, because she was so ribald, and honest, and savvy, taking herself not so seriously as she did the future of the country. She had aged in the way that fortunate men do, so she was handsome, senatorial, her white mane leonine, her strong face craggy. At the time it occured to me she might become the first woman president, but of course we all underestimated George. As she was later to say to Harris Wofford, "Don't underestimate his skill as a campaigner."
It is a great loss to the political scene, an even greater loss to the nation, as she was the best of us: frank and forthright, but kind. We will not see her like again. Unless someone gets braver and funnier.
Went last night to yet another political event at UCLA, this one featuring Elizabeth Holtzman, who drafted the original articles of Impeachment for Richard Nixon's unseating, and who wrote an article in The Nation, calling up the same for 'W', whom I might have forgiven the squandering of Ann, had he not turned out such dangerous jerk. The other speaker was John Dean, of Watergate fame, who carefully weighed the offenses Holtzman listed as to whether they were legally impeachable offenses. He has become no less measured, if balder, and struck one again with his quiet intelligence, making one(Me, anyway) wonder how he could have ever allied himself with the people he did. But I have a once close friend who explained to me long ago he was a fiscal conservative, and liked the Republican conservatives better than the Democrats. He stayed my friend for almost my whole adult life until the rent in the country appeared, and we all stood on either side of the Great Divide,unable to speak to the opposition, even those who might once have been good friends.
John Dean lived up above me on Rembert Lane. I have a Friend, David, who once said I was Zelig-- that when these people turn up, I always know them. I had spent the early 70s devoted to the task of bringing Nixon down, in my head, anyway. During that period, my most metaphysical one, I was sure the Founders were all back, reincarnated, rather than simply twirling in their graves, determined to get the country in shape for the Bicentennial. As my looney but darling friend Pattie the psychic had said I was one of the Framers in a previous life, I hoped I was up to the task.
At the time, I was researching in Washington for my novel TheMotherland, staying in the home of my then good Republican friend, making friends with others of them, like Deputy Press Secretary Gerry Warren, who also gave me sanctuary when I went to D.C. Every time I would fly there from LA, something would happen to damage Nixon: Agnew's resignation, the Saturday night massacre, the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. So when I would call my Republican friends and say I was coming, they would respond with "Oh, my God, what's going to happen now?" Staying with the Warrens, every morning the phone would ring with at 4 AM with another revelation from the Washington Post. Naturally I began going as often as I could until I had finished my job, and Nixon was out of office.
All this time we were living on Rembert Lane, a fairly deserted street up off Cherokee Lane, with one vacant piece of land above us, on which building began. In the Spring of '74, on the day The Motherland was published, the house on the hill above finally finished, a moving truck having installed my new neighbors, the doorbell rang. I opened the front door and it was John Dean, asking to use the
phone. If anyone had doubts until then that in some invisible way I was connected, they sort of vanished. I wish I had those powers still. I wonder why it is that every time we have a Dick in the Executive branch, the country goes down the tubes.
I asked Gerry Warren when it was all over why he had let me observe so closely what was going on in the Nixon White House, when he knew I was the Enemy. He said "Because I knew you would be fair."
I try to be, but it gets harder. Still, I went to the event last night with a bossy Democrat I met at the Vidal event, who has a handicapped parking permit although she appeared okay to me. I asked her about it, and she said she has sciatica, and would be in constant pain if it weren't for taking Vicodan every few hours. I have a close friend who was famously addicted to Vicodan, so I asked this overbearing woman if she wasn't worried. "I am not an addictive type," she said to me as she drove me home, "so I don't have to be concerned." At that point she turned left into Barrington, in the wrong lane, and faced opposing headlights obviously driven by someone sane and sober, so they got out of the way.
It is a relief, somehow, to know that all those in denial are not Republicans.

Monday, September 11, 2006

How to Commemorate September 11th

One of my closest friends, who shall be nameless in case of patriotic ricochets, is ostriching out, hiding his eyes and his spirit from the barrage of Sept. 11th programs on TV, whether controversial(ABC's ill-advised and irresponsible miniseries) or respectfully inane, articles in the papers, interviews with orphaned children, etc., choosing instead to watch The Wire, or read pleasant books from yesteryear, when life was simple, or, perhaps, simply mercurial. I remember waking up that morning to the news, the full, surreal view of it on my TV which I never turned on in the daytime, but I had been alerted by a phone call, and thinking there was no point in getting out of bed again, maybe ever, my dreams of making a difference in an indifferent world now obliterated.
Yesterday I went to a Democratic fund-raiser in Malibu that seemed to shore up the American Dream as some used to dream it, especially in other places, held in or rather alongside an enormous mansion with huge grounds, pool, gazebo, shaded porches, and its own three-block long parking lot, that had been built by a Sikh dentist, who immigrated from India in the 50s, and apparently found gold in them thar fillings. The key speaker, after a scatterspray of local candidates, was Gore Vidal. Though obviously physically compromised, he is still handsome and commanding, the voice strong, opinions stronger, wit undiminished. He can go back through history in a sentence, calling up facts and quotes from his grandfather Gore or Teddy Roosevelt, and seems to hold onto little that is less than brilliant, except perhaps an irrational dislike for Woodrow Wilson, of whom I am personally irrationally fond, as he was briefly president of Bryn Mawr.
The highlight of Gore's (I can call him that, we have some history) restrained rant-- he was never overtly passionate, his voice steady, like his hooded gaze-- was his coming out for the first time publicly endorsing his cousin Albert for president. He has gotten hold of, Vidal conceded, "the only issue that really matters," because if we have no planet, we have no elections. Then he went on to some lesser issues, like deceit, and profit, and exploitation, and the demonization of the word and position 'Liberal.'
Afterwards he signed books, and I bought one, leaned over and whispered "I used to be Gwen Davis." Without looking up, he said "I'd heard that, that you had a sex change." Tired as he was-- he had spoken for a very long time, and his hand was less than steady after much signing of just his elegant name-- he personalized his inscription to me. I was suddenly moved, by his frailty, his unflagging intelligence, our history, and by how evanescent everything is, and asked if I could kiss him. "You've been important in my life," I said truthfully. He offered his cheek, and I kissed it, backing away just as he reached out his hand to touch me, so it fell on air, and we missed each other, which is pretty much the story of our relationship.
Then I came home to the news that my Aunt Bessie, the last except one of my mother's siblings, had died. Bess was the one in the family who was funniest, an uneducated kind of humor, combining boisterous irreverence, lusty femininity, and yoga(which she still taught into her eighties) with great generosity(she was the relative who scratched my back when I was little, while singing 'Twas on the isle of Capri.') She lived a long life, was Susie's mother, which leant her a touch of unexpected spirituality-- as Catholics see the Virgin Mary in really strange places, Bess saw Susie's face in the swirling water when she washed her hands after Susie died. That's a lie. She saw her face when she flushed the toilet, but I had trouble writing that as it seemed past irreverent even for Bess, though she never saw Susie till after the waste had disappeared.
I had a number of funny dreams last night-- I was about to miss planes-- the usual anxiety crap-- and awoke this morning wondering what I could do to improve the day, seeing what day it was. So I made French Toast, one of two dishes my mother knew how to make(the other one was spaghetti) in spite of my Grandma's being one of the great cooks ever. There were blueberries in my fridge, and I'd tried to eat them for their anti-oxidant wonders, but they were sour. So I put them on the French Toast and doused the whole concoction with Maple Syrup from New Hampshire which Heidi, the most American spawn of my most American friends, Muggy and Marty, had brought me for my housewarming, but which, before today, September 11th, I had never even thought about using, self-indulgence of the eating kind being outside my permitted perameters. Perpetually on a diet, I have had maple syrup only on the day the doctor was checking my blood, so I had to fast and then eat something with maple syrup on it, HOORAY! License!
So that, it seems to me, is how we should commemorate today. Do something you wouldn't ordinarily have dared to do, outside your boundaries, that harms no one, except maybe yourself if you consider self-indulgence harmful, and if you do, forget it for today.
Life, even when you think you hold it in your hand, is quicksilver. Fate is capricious, those you love vanish, none of us can predict what our end point will be. Add to that unstable mixture zealots who despise us, and what are the odds?
Or, if you have to connect your mind to the obscenity, read David Friend's astonishing book, Watching the World Change, which actually puts you there, on the spot with the photographers who bore witness, giving you a safety net of quiet intelligence, and a shield of compassion to hide behind. And while you read it, eat French Toast.

I Feel Bad about Nora Ephron

Some years ago I had a novel, Romance, coming out at the same time as Heartburn, Nora Ephron's less than heavily-disguised roman a clef about the end of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. As the novelist who had become, alas, the landmark libel case in Fiction, (Bindrim vs. Mitchell,) I was booked onto the CBS Morning Show with Ms. Ephron. Though it was agreed within the writing and publishing community that my case had been ridiculous-- the plaintiff being a trendy California psychologist who said he was the therapist in my novel, Touching, grew a beard and gained weight to appear more like that character, alleging I had ruined his nude encounter business by looking at it with a scathing eye--Imagine!-- and The New York Times after it was all over quoted several prominent lawyers who deemed the decision "an aberration," one that would have never stood in New York where they better understood what fiction was, the case itself threatened to doom my career. The prospect of appearing on TV, bright as I still seemed to be at the time, and lively, promised me a chance at Redemption, not to mention life for my novel.
The day before the show, I was called by Shirley Wershba, the producer, to tell me that Nora Ephron's publisher had said if I was on the show, Nora would not appear. So I lost the best chance I had to promote the novel I wrote in spite of the huge setbacks, professional, emotional, and monetary I had suffered.
Still, I wrote on. ("They could cut off your arms," Gay Talese said generously, "and you would write with your stumps. They could cut off your legs and you'd crawl. All you have to do is decide not to die and you'll live forever.") But the novels after that had a hard time finding a home. ("There's a cloud over this writer," Don Fine, my last great maverick publisher, head of Arbor House, was told when he took my novel to market for paperback sale, which never happened.)
From time to time I would try moving back to New York, home of "serious" writing. I loved writers, and having suffered the isolation of being a novelist in Los Angeles, I was searching for 'community.' "Do your work," said Jules Feiffer, a trusted friend, "and your community will find you." Said Annie Navasky, delightful wife of The Nation's brilliant publisher. Victor, “He forgot to add ‘provided you are wildly successful.'"
Needless to say, I wasn't. But in the meantime I had entered the land of Everything Happens for a Reason. As Nora Ephron herself said in a recent interview, if it hadn't been for her unfortunate--as it turned out-- marriage to Mr. Bernstein, she wouldn';t have her house in the Hamptons, not to mention.. it did seem an afterthought... her two wonderful boys.
If I hadn't been booked on the Morning Show, I wouldn't have the friendship of Shirley Wershba, one of the great television journalists, along with her husband Joe(see 'Good Night and Good Luck',) a connection made more intense by my having been elbowed off the air. As it turned out, Shirley cancelled the whole segment, as she wasn't about to have a booking dictated by a publisher, especially since she had envisioned it as a stimulating literary discussion about romans a clef. Had the program gone ahead as originally conceived, I might have been witty on the air, maybe even clever, and my novel might have taken off, so the dark shadow of the lawsuit might have been erased by light. But then, if I had been more successful in placing my next six books (see Mr. Talese, above) I might have become spoiled and rotten and lazy and complacent, and not risen to the life worth examining, (see Socrates) and some(I hope) true perspective on what constitutes success, nor been in tune for today's #13 on The Times' Best Seller list, Overcoming Life's Disappointments.
Still, I have not evolved enough not to feel a bit of a twinge in my spirit at seeing at #1, Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck. How charmingly she wrote in Heartburn about faithless man's inhumanity to woman. But where has she addressed the issue of woman's inhumanity to her fellow woman?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Morphing Through Babylon

So having failed to take my cues from inside my own consciousness and write about losing Don all those many end-of-the-summers ago, listening to a friend who said there was nothing that interesting about widowing, I doff my curls to Joan Didion who has done it better than anyone could, except that she was spared the additional gut-wrench of watching it happen, slowly, and unashamedly parodize her best title to tell you where I am now. Having settled in Brentwood, quite surprisingly an actual neighborhood in this spread-out locale where neighborhoods don't much exist, that is to say, those little patches of community one can feel a part of and walk the streets of without being stopped by a Black and White to ask you what you're doing there, not quite ready for the answer "Walking," much or most of the interaction being on the telephone, with any movement in cars-- not even a lot of splashing in the fairly ubiquitous swimming pools, since I seem to be the only one using them for exercise, at least in my building, the pool being at the rear of the parking garage so it offers little lure for lounging-- and having forsworn, for the nonce, travel,like Napoleon's army I am traveling on my belly. That is to say, I am donning the cloak of Foodie, and touring through my tongue.
Mimi and I have been lunchtime headquartering at an amiable trattoria called 'Sortino', where I can sit under an umbrella at a table with a friend I actually have something to say to, though that, too, has become occasional and minimalistic, as I got an e-mail from my Scottish Quakerly buddy Rosie in response to one of my poems, saying I am best when I travel inside, so I am paring off people rather than pairing off, and farming my solitude. Then, down San Vicente I found an exquisite Italian restaurant called 'Pecorino', where the fior di zucchini was as light and creamy when the crunch of the breading was bitten into, oozily, as opposed to that in an impossibly noisy restaurant in Hollywood called 'Jar', which is, as the late Paris Hilton might have said if she could speak, 'Hot', except it is also tasteless. The waitress, one of the few doubling as actress women in town who was charmless and funless, announced they had 'squash blossoms,' and when I asked if she meant 'zucchini blossoms,' that most delicate of summer dishes in Rome, gave me a stare as blank as her brainpan, and brought the dish, so flat and heavy it was, indeed, squash blossoms. All this to say I will do an extensive piece on Pecorino to inaugurate my new websites,, and I am transforming into my next skin, that of Foodie, since I am still cuter than Gael Greene and writing food is the same as writing about sex, with all the like adjectives, and I always did that better than almost anybody, Don would be the first to tell you if he were here.
In the meantime, I go for actual lunches, and write poems. Here, the one from Katsuya, newly opened just down the road on San Vicente.

Now whether or not you've been there
Japan is very pricey
So the tourist
Which I am,
Just passing through Life
On my way to someplace else
I sincerely hope
Feels somewhat pressed
At a sushi bar in Tokyo
So I recommend Katsuya
On the corner of San Vicente
Where the pale, stripped wooden floors
Recall a ryokan in Kyoto
And the recorded music
Sings of a vanished love
That only seemed like love at the time
For the heart was empty
And the arms ached to be full.

So much for the poem. The food, Pan-Asian or something equally affected and bullshitty unless you're having handrolls, --for example, the seared tuna and spinach salad comes with too much soy sauce. Mimi, however, enjoyed her water in a very fine ceramic bowl.
Much love to you all. We who are about to eat salute you.