Sunday, September 25, 2011
Sunday Reading: The "Lives" Parody
I'm not a journalist. I write for self-expression, or fun, or sanity, or to give myself the illusion of power in a powerless world. It can be a kind of desktop activism, and a spiritual exercise. I've rarely been paid for my writing, though I certainly would relish the opportunity to be paid for expressing myself. Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm not shy about expressing my opinion. But I also just like the beauty of words, the turn of a phrase. I'm happy with our twenty-first century internet overstimulation. I read things that stimulate my mind and imagination, and things that I wish I'd written, that I wish I'd had the clarity to express.
I grew up with the tradition that Sunday was a day to luxuriate in reading, starting with an excursion out the door to buy the Sunday Times. There's a weekly column on the last page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine called "Lives." For years this column has annoyed the hell out of me. I'm not sure what the column is supposed to achieve each week, but it's usually a first-person nostalgic journey through someone's difficult life learning experience. Except that by the time you're finished reading the short page-long story, you're left with a vague distaste for the story's writer and a sense that you've read something strangely inappropriate that you wished you hadn't. "Lives" columns usually don't have happy endings, and while that might mirror the episodic disappointments present in anybody's real life, the cliche-ridden predictability of these stories is a marvel. I was talking with friends about the column and we realized we all often turned to the "Lives" column first just for a kind of sardonic laugh.
Here's a couple typically bleak recent excerpts:
"After all, my life as I know it began 23 years ago, when, in a freakish accident, I was hit in the head by a ceiling fan in our home in Fort Worth, Tex...." — Sept. 16
"The house keys are peeled from a ring. Sometimes they thank me. Sometimes they cry....At least I don’t make them turn out the lights one last time as they leave. That’s my job." — Sept. 23
"And then a few months ago, his mother called. She said her son had taught his last class of the semester, cashed his paycheck and padlocked himself in a hotel room with an ample supply of crack, heroin and alcohol. An autopsy confirmed he died of an overdose." — Sept. 9
"George dares me to send this former classmate a friend request on Facebook, “for closure,” and I do. I am almost giddy... A day goes by. No response. Then a week. Then another week. I quietly delete the request. And there I am again, the 12-year-old girl who can’t look herself in the mirror." — July 29
You get the idea. There are familiar patterns: a random multiculturalism, the illusive nature of hope, the ever-presence of random tragedy, a sense of oversharing navel gazing that has nevertheless failed to make its author more self-aware. After laughing at a few columns with friends, we weren't convinced that someone wasn't pulling a fast one by submitting parodies to print. We thought, what if we wrote actual parodies of a Sunday Magazine "Lives Column"? And so that is what I've done. With my profound apologies I offer it up for your Sunday edification. Please note this is a work of deeply off-color fiction.
My parents quickly warmed to my choice of brides.
Soon after I introduced them to Susan, they opened their lives to her. My mother and Susan would go shopping together at the mall; they’d luncheon during the week when I was at work.
I was first taken aback at this added dimension of intimacy. Susan seemed to enjoy my parents’ company more than I did, sometimes.
Of course Mom and Dad had to tell Susan all the family stories. No childhood embarrassment was taboo. The time I had almost ran over the neighbor’s cat with my first hand-me down car. And there were the tales of Frankie, the twin who was lost one sad winter to a case of pneumonia none of us understood until it was too late.
“Oh Frankie was a special little boy, Susan,” my mother regaled late one warm summer evening. We were in the screened-in porch. “He used to pick dandelions from the front lawn and hand them to me in the kitchen. He’d hang on to my apron and say ‘I love you mommy’ and I’d tell him he was my special sailor boy.” My mom pushed back a tear.
“It was funny, Susan, your George here,” she pointed at me, mom did, “he was a nice boy, but not giving and generous like Frankie. Oh heavens, I remember when we were toilet training those boys…”
“Mom, must you?” I tried to interject, tried to salvage some of my own dignity.
“Oh hush, George.” She laughed as a memory surfaced. “Anyway one day little Frankie came out of the bathroom with his hands outstretched, full of a mess, saying ‘Mommy look what I made all by myself! Am I a good little boy? Mommy’” Mom and Dad both chuckled in the memory. Dad turned away as the chuckle turned into a little sob. “Oh yes, Frankie, I told him, you’re a good little boy. Mommy’s little sailor. But let’s go wash our hands now baby. Oh that child, he sure tried hard. Not like our little George here. Isn’t that right George?”
Mom gave my ear a good tug and walked in to the kitchen to refill her tumbler of wine.
Susan and I were married later that year. It was a beautiful time. Sadly Dad passed on the very next year; I got promoted at work and we decided to start a family. Mom wasn’t handling the loss of Dad too well so Susan and I talked it over and decided we would invite Mom to move in with us. Susan was pregnant and Mom could help with our new arrival. Susan’s parents has returned to their native Malaysia and I knew she could use the help and support.
Neither of us realized what kind of state Mom was really in. She had taken to drinking just a little bit too much, too often. And at first we were able to dismiss her sudden lapses of memory as quaint senior moments but it soon became clear things were not all right at all.
One day I came home from work and she called out to me “Oh, Frankie! Where have you been!” she grabbed the sides of my head and embraced me tightly. “Mom, it’s me, George…Frankie’s gone, don’t you remember?” The blissful look on her face soured immediately.
“Oh George…it’s only you. Leave me alone.”
“Can’t you see your mother’s tired, George? Leave her alone.” I was surprised at Susan interjecting like that. We went to bed tense, a wooden silence between us for the first time.
The policemen who rang the doorbell the next evening said that they didn’t have a chance in that downpour, the semi was coming too fast, the driving rain causing a chain of events nobody shorter than God could have prevented. Susan was gone. Mom, who had been driving her home from a baby shower, was in ICU.
I rushed to the hospital. Mom was hooked up to tubes and machines. Groggily, she looked my way. “Frankie? Frankie!” Awareness straightened the smile on her face. “Oh, George. Only you. Where’s my little sailor boy Frankie?” Dried blood caked the weak hand she lifted up from the bed questioningly.
I went into the small hospital bathroom. I strained, I reached back, and filled my hands with love for my mother.
“Mommy? Mommy do you love me?” I raised my hands to her as I came out of the bathroom, dripping, reeking. She smiled.
“Yes Frankie. My perfect little boy.”