The only non-book on my bookshelves is the Sopranos DVD collection. Apropos that it sits among some of the most compelling stories ever told because, as Gary Shteyngart says, The Sopranos is “storytelling for the new century.” And, a good story lasts forever.
Every night at 8PM my husband used to ask me, “So are you ready for Tony and the boys?” and we would tune in to HBO to watch, again, a re-run of an episode we had seen before, knowing what would happen but lured nonetheless by James Gandolfini’s charisma. So it is still surreal to watch his Tony Soprano fight about money with Edie Falco’s Carmela, knowing he died in Rome three summers ago.
Before the creation of Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini was playing the part. As he said in a 1999 interview, he was growing adept at playing thugs, gangsters, murderers,
the roles you’d expect a guy who looks like me to get.
Brilliantly. I had seen the makings of Tony Soprano in Eddie, the hitman hired to keep an eye on Demi Moore’s character in The Juror, and Gandolfini may as well have been auditioning for The Sopranos as Virgil in True Romance. In the latter, Gandolfini’s performance crackles with the kind of murderous intensity that makes Tony Soprano the perfect villain. Vicious and violent, I could barely watch the scene with Patricia Arquette where Virgil meets his end – quintessential Quentin Tarantino. Still, even though I know Tony’s capacity for unimaginable brutality, I have been – and continue to be – charmed by his playfulness, the smiling eyes, the sheepishness – duped, like many of his victims, by a relatable and likable vulnerability. Tony Soprano remains invincible and untamable. Immortal. I suppose that is what makes it so difficult to accept that James Gandolfini was with us for the briefest sojourn, dead at 51.
The actor and what he left behind for his baby daughter, poked those well stashed thoughts about my own mortality. My daughter does not read this blog often. So young and wise, she tells me that because we are here for only a short time, her plan is to save my writing for later. When I am gone, she will open the jar. This beautiful strategy to counter the missing of people likely to go before her, reminds me of the frail yet fervent 83-year old Maurice Sendak‘s final interview. Illustrated in this animated film by Christoph Niemann, is the purest expression of mortality I have ever heard, Sendak’s impassioned entreaty:
Live your life, live your life, live your life.
Hearing Maurice Sendak tell the interviewer,
Almost certainly I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you . . .
is especially poignant knowing that he died just over a year before James Gandolfini left us. I think Maurice Sendak would have missed the man with an appetite for life, the actor whose best and most heartsome performance may have been as the voice of Carol in the film adaptation of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the story of Max whose punishment for behaving badly, is being sent to bed without any dinner. Subsequently, he sails across an ocean to a place where wild things roam. When he returns home, it is to a happy ending, with dinner waiting and still hot.
As the disembodied Carol, the range and inflections of Gandolfini’s voice, are as masterful and nuanced as hose that flutter across his face as Tony Soprano or any of the other wild things he has portrayed. Like grace notes. As Carol, however, he is a different kind of monster, the very embodiment of the complex figments of a child’s imagination, those of Max who has run away from home. I suspect that every child knows where the wild things are. In my case, I remember my mother telling me not to let my imagination run away with me when I fretted about the dark, or death, or disappointments big and small. Fueled by these wild things, I sailed off by myself many times, but always found my way back home. Just like Max.
And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all
Bitterly disappointed, raging at Max for not being king, for wanting to leave, Carol chases him, lunges at him in one of the scariest scenes of the film, “I’ll eat you up!” he roars. Carol loves him so, but Max must go. Thus, the heartbreaking farewell as Max sails away from the solitary giant on the shore, howling its grief in the voice of James Gandolfini, a voice silenced too soon.
Bob Dylan has always been almost as old as my parents. He has also always been forever young, staring up at me from the cover of the book that has graced my coffee table for decades.
I don’t remember when what he sang first mattered to me, yet I can’t remember a time when it didn’t, a time when I wasn’t tangled up in blue. In 1979, my high school English teacher let me borrow his Street Legal LP, an album that was crucified by a handful of critics who might consider themselves more qualified than I to measure the success of a Dylan song. (Not Michael Gray, mind you, who writes that it is “one of Dylan’s most important and cohesive albums . . . of astonishing complexity and confidence delivered in one of Dylan’s most authoritative voices.” He also points out that it was badly produced, but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me and anyone else who has ever missed someone – or something – is “Where Are You Tonight?” It remains a staple in the “soundtrack of my life” and maybe even yours. We all have one.
But without you it just doesn’t seem right.
Oh, where are you tonight?
“Hey, hey, HEY, hey.”
Where are you tonight?
Examining the cover of the Street Legal album, it occurred to me that this was the first time I considered Bob Dylan in color. Until then my idea of him was monochromatic, an iteration of the Bob Dylan we know from the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video – forever flippant, flipping over his cue cards, dropping them in the alley. Deadpan.
Laid Off. Bad Cough. Paid Off. And, finally – naturally – What??
During one of my first summers in the United States, an American cousin took me to Buffalo to see The Grateful Dead open for Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. In color. I had seen Dylan perform at Slane Castle in Ireland in the summer of 1984 – a mighty performance with Santana and a surprise appearance by Van Morrison.But this was different. This was as American as the idea could be. Deadheads. Tie-dye. Weed. The Wave. This was the Fourth of July. “It doesn’t rain on the Fourth of July!” Bob Weir told the crowd, and like poetry, the heavens opened. This was Positively 4th Street (What??), and I loved it.
As a going away present, my cousin later gave me the coffee table book. Published in 1967, it is a collection of photographs by Daniel Kramer. Black and white, these indelible images taken over a period of two years, reveal the young man Kramer characterizes as someone “who set his own marks and did not allow himself to be manipulated.”
For Kramer, Dylan is “someone worth photographing,” someone worth seeing from different perspectives. For me, Dylan is someone who forces you – without telling you – to shift a little in order to see better. Thus we find him perched on a branch in a tree or in an alleyway in London or Stuck Inside of Mobile. Or in the falling shadows.
Photography is just light, of course, and the good photographer finds the right light. It is writing with light, and there’s magic in it, as Amyn Nasser describes:
. . . the ability to stir the soul with light and shape and color. To create grand visual moments out of small and simple things, and to infuse big and complicated subjects with unpretentious elegance. [The photographer] respects classic disciplines, while at the same time insists on being fast, modern and wild.
Yes, the ability to stir the soul and to see things – like Bob Dylan sees things.
Dylan has a way of seeing into things right in front of us and into the empty spaces between them. It makes sense, I suppose, that the self proclaimed song and dance man is also a welder, making gates out of vintage iron and scrap metal. Gates appeal to Dylan, “because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”
Hundreds of fragments of songs from Dylan’s phases and stages ripple through every decade of my life, through all my twists and turns, through all the mess – the joy and the loss and the moments when my expectations were so low that I wanted only to make it through the day without being seen. By anyone. Nobody phrases it better than Dylan. Nobody.
On his 75th birthday this week, there will be fanfare and tributes and an unspoken relief that he is still with us in a year that has left us bereft, perhaps more aware of our mortality. There will be revised “essential” lists compiled by Dylanologists who have explicated and analyzed every lyric. There will be recycled stories about that time he was booed for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and perhaps renewed speculation about what if he had married Mavis Staples. What if? There will be arguments over the ‘seminal’ moments of his life. Some of us might disagree and just take a trip back to a hot night in the summer of 1988 when we saw him play at the Mesa Amphitheater – when lightning struck.
I just want to wish him a happy birthday and say thank you. I’ll maybe even buy a ticket to see him play one more time. With Mavis Staples.
Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:
It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
The day Ken married me was like any other. We were not really watching TV when I suggested it. “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots and waited for me to put on a dress I knew he liked.
I dug out the yellow pages and found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher reminded me of the old man at the bar in Field of Dreams, the one with the pale blue eyes who tells the story of Moonlight Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia. Like me, Alicia liked to wear blue.
In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness our wedding ceremony. Then we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, ’til death us do part. A second time around for both of us, we were unwilling to settle for anything less than the kind of love that makes you leave one life with nothing but whatever you’re wearing that day. It was easy to say and to mean to say that only death would tear us apart. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our bodies and ourselves. Oblivious to any possibility of dark days ahead, we filled up an ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t tell a soul. Young and wild, we may as well have eloped to Gretna Green, and with our secret, we even went to work afterwards, delighting in the fact that no one else knew what we had done. Like so many of the rituals we performed every day, the act of marrying was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours – completely ours. Private.
For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about anyone else. There were random road trips north and to the ocean, the first of which on a hot Friday afternoon when I was desperate to smell the sea. He just told me to get in the car, and off we went to California. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” By nightfall, we were inhaling the salty air somewhere around Los Angeles and the next evening, we were strolling along a pier in Pismo Beach. As though putting America’s never-ending road to the test, I asked him to keep driving until we stopped by a lighthouse, the kind of place I had always thought would make a great home for us. There, we balanced a camera on the hood of his car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept, laughing, and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by the only child we would have together – our daughter. Then, for another decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.
Between us, for over two decades, we created hundreds of rituals and routines – lovely and easy labors of love that came naturally, in large part because – as my mother still reminds me – I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of accomplishments in my professional life and how much he despised the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He told me he loved me every single day and at the end of every single phone call (even on days and at the end of phone calls when I was anything but lovable). Always in my corner, he was my number one fan, my lover, and the wise and best friend who told the young me whose feelings were too easily hurt and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some “hard bark,” because she would need it one day.
Well, Ken, I need it today. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you just wanted me to toughen up. But where do we find the toughness to fully absorb the blow of your death, the finality of it? What should I say to our daughter when the grief – boundless and unforgiving – renders her as vulnerable as a new-born? What do I tell myself when I look up and find myself surprised – still – that you are not there with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine asking me what I’m blogging about, and wondering aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon, and when she did, would she remember the man you used to be? In hindsight, I know we both had an inkling that maybe she would not. So maybe I should just tell the truth – if only to myself.
Each of us wrestled with the ways in which illness changed us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality, and turning us into very good liars and strangers who fought dirty. We lied, I suppose, for self-preservation and out of fear, out of indignation or anger about our respective lots, out of denial and blame, and all the other words that belong in all the self-help books we would never read, all the “psycho-babble.” Our marriage had not been perfect, but it had until then been honest. Always. Honesty was one of those non-negotiables that somehow – unbelievably – was blown asunder by illness and our fucked up responses to it. We found ourselves diminished, transformed into weaker versions of ourselves that were unacceptable to us in light of the boldness that defined us at the beginning and for so many years. Ashamed of ourselves, we didn’t know what to do, and we turned our backs on the people we used to be.
And we used to be bold. We started out with courage and a chemistry that we were convinced would more than make up for the little we lacked in compatibility. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff, and – this is important – we never lied. We fell into a rhythm that included laughing every day and sometimes at the same old stories including the one about the first argument we ever had. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. It’s something. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, baby.
Ken knew this response would fall short of satisfying someone like me, someone hell-bent – hell-bent – on knowing the inner details, the finer points, the “but how are you really feeling?” liner notes, but he never told me, and growing up and older by his side, I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us, desires, differences that will not be aired – private thoughts.
Maybe most people wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Ken did. I remember how he made that first argument in the same way he once told a cashier at Pep Boys – after paying in cash for new windshield wipers – that no, she could not have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he just resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list that would perhaps be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected her annoyance because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should, Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned her closer so he could whisper to her: “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live, man. The cops are after me.” And, I had to put on my sunglasses and walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t. There were times when he would insist I had lost my sense of humor, and I would argue that – au contraire – he had lost his ability to be funny. Like storms in the tiniest of teacups, these often passed, and as I sit here, three years after his death, I realize there were no boring days, no days that did not shimmer for at least a moment with what had connected us at the beginning. The wall we had built did its job for just as long as was required.
In the Fall of 2012, my friend and I enrolled in a college photography class. Not a bucket list kind of thing by most standards, but it was something I had been meaning to do for thirty years. I had just never been able to find the time for it. I had been so busy being busy and bemoaning the pace of life as a woman trying to play equally well the roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, best friend, teacher. At the same time, I had also been waiting for Tom Petty to show up on my doorstep and beg me to be one of his Heartbreakers.
I loved the photography instructor. A Nikon gal like me, she had breast cancer and neither time nor patience for pink ribbons. Less technician than artist, she had a penchant for Photoshop and its post-processing capabilities that she knew would made us look competent. Her dead-pan dead-on sense of what was important inspired me to do my homework and never to miss a class. Even as she bristled at our predictable photographs shot straight-on, she would remind us, with a sigh, that “photography is just light” – it’s just light, and we just needed to find it. It was “writing with light.” I saw magic in it, and I wanted to be good at it, to take the kinds of photographs Amyn Nasser talks about:
I believe in the photographer’s magic — the ability to stir the soul with light and shape and color. To create grand visual moments out of small and simple things, and to infuse big and complicated subjects with unpretentious elegance. He respects classic disciplines, while at the same time insists on being fast, modern and wild.
Determined that we would create such moments in our often pedestrian pictures, she assigned as homework the week of Thanksgiving, a “prepositional scavenger hunt” that required us to shoot from various angles – against, across, beyond, beneath, around, behind, below, between, inside, outside, on top of, toward, through, upon . . . So it was that on a Thanksgiving afternoon, I found myself wandering the grounds of the Arizona State Capitol, eventually pausing beneath a canopy of shimmering green and pink.
I don’t know how long I sat there, looking skyward and thinking, but it was long enough for prepositions and perspectives to give way to gratitude and grace – Amazing Grace – and thoughts of Van Morrison in full flow at The Hollywood Bowl, mystifying us the way he does when he seems younger than the grumpy old man he sometimes appears to be. I can hear Astral Weeks/I Believe I have Transcended, a song he once described as “one where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In the spirit of the holiday, I could maybe say that Thanksgiving has something to do with that moment of transcendence as I gazed up at those shimmering leaves, but that would not be true. Even after living in America for almost thirty years, the celebration of Thanksgiving does not come naturally to me. Some of my American friends are still surprised when I tell them there is no such holiday in Ireland, that Christmas is the holiday that warms us. Thus, I know whereof she speaks when Carole Coleman, an Irish woman living in America, apologizes to her American family and friends,
. . . we will be doing the turkey thing all over again five weeks from now.
Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way, that either the cavalry arrived, or that the plates of the earth shifted and that somehow, you got your sense of humor back, or you avoided the car that was right in front of you that you looked about to hit.
And so it could be the pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. And you say the full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks. It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break, that your family caught a break, that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.
Thank you – a powerful phrase that often goes unsaid right when we need to hear it the most.
There’s a lovely minute or two in the Irish film, “Waking Ned Devine,” that never fails to remind me of this. The hapless Lottery official has just arrived unannounced at Ned Devine’s funeral, right when Jackie O’Shea is beginning the eulogy. Always quick on his feet – and realizing his scheme to cash in on Ned’s winning lottery ticket is about to come crashing down – Jackie pauses. He looks over at his best friend, Michael O’Sullivan, who is posing as Ned, and as an easy smile spreads across his face, he looks out into the congregation and delivers this:
As we look back on the life of . . .
Michael O’Sullivan was my great friend. But I don’t ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I’d congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend.