“A funny thing about Japanese business culture is the tendency to apologize profusely for absolutely anything that is beyond the control of the company or its executives. They’ll apologize for traffic, for bad weather, for someone else’s mistake, but if the company or its leaders have actually screwed-up they generally won’t say a thing, which is not at all good for Sony’s global image.”—
I WAS 11 the summer I saw “A Room With a View.” Too young for romance? Not at all, I was a very passionate 5-year-old, so by 11 I had already survived several romantic (if entirely fantastical) storms. But this was the first time anything had ever really happened. By really I mean I was really sitting there in the movie theater, I really saw it — the kiss amid the cornflowers. And then I came stumbling out into the night, and walked silently between my parents, trying to imitate the child I’d been 90 minutes before and conceal my transformation into a woman in love. Not with anyone, not Julian Sands or Helena Bonham Carter— just in it, drowning in it, love.
Obviously nothing normal could ever happen again. I wouldn’t go to sixth grade in the fall. I doubted I’d even be living with my parents by then. I looked up at them wistfully. They would worry about me, but ultimately I knew they’d understand when they saw how mutual it was. Yes: I knew love loved me too, the way it held me in its thrall.
I got in the backseat of our car as a sentimental gesture, out of respect for the family we had once been. But as we got closer to home, I had a sinking premonition. I would go to sixth grade. I would probably even get caught up in it, and get excited about something provincial, like a purple backpack. My heart was exhausted; I pressed my head against the window and searched the night sky.
What was the point of anything now? And why would anyone make a movie that turns you against your own life? Damn “A Room With a View.” I’d been so happy before, so innocent and satisfied. I’m still working through this, by the way; I’ve made very little progress over the last 26 years. And watching it again and again only seems to make it worse.
During the first week of the trial of seven members of the MS-13’s 20th Street Clique earlier this month, former member Abraham Martinez took the witness stand. Over five days in which he ratted out his former homeys, Martinez shared more than a few interesting tidbits about how life in the gang worked.
1. Pick a creative moniker.
The names of the 20th Street Clique reads like a compendium of comic book characters. Some members know each other only by their nicknames. There’s Mickey, Snoopy, Spooky, Shorty, Sparky, Killer, Rooster, Droopy, Puppet, J-Dubbs, Stranger, Cypress, Slow Pain, Cyco, Dreamer, and Tweety, to name a few. Martinez, incidentally, was Goofy.
2. Think someone is a snitch? Prove it with “paperwork.”
Suspecting people of ratting to the authorities is common within the MS-13. It came up “quite a few times, but there was nothing actually done, because there was no ‘paperwork.’” This is not a euphemism; you really do need the proper forms before offing a snitch, Martinez said. He recalled, at one point, his fellow gang member Uncle Snoopy called him from prison in El Salvador, urging him to kill his Uncle Mickey. Snoopy claimed Mickey’s girlfriend had sent him a letter in which Mickey admitted to being a snitch. But Martinez didn’t consider that enough, and ignored it.
3. Don’t go using the gang’s money to buy yourself a broken-down Impala.
At one gang meeting, the gang excoriated member Angel Guevara, or Peloncito, for using gang funds to buy a “broken-down vehicle, a Caprice or Impala.” Guevara had explained “that was his dream car.” The gang ended up telling him he had to pay the money back, and he agreed.
4. Want out of the gang? Walk with the Lord.
Martinez said they’d let people leave the gang who had decided to go religious, such as one former member, Coyote, who he then knew as “Brother Juan.” “That’s accepted in the neighborhood, if you want to pick up the Bible and be a religious person, you can do that,” Martinez said. 5. In a high-speed chase, don’t give up until you pass out.
Martinez led police on a high-speed chase while a juvenile in 2006, all the way from the Mission to Treasure Island. The cops finally shot him in the arms and chest behind the wheel. “The SFPD shot me, and I lost control of the vehicle and lost consciousness, so I crashed into another cop car and stopped right there,” he explained. He later filed a grievance with the Office of Citizen Complaints for use of excessive force. What became of Goofy’s lament is not known. 6. Steal minivans to outfox the cops.
Martinez said his preferred method of incognito transport was a stolen van. Vans look like family vehicles, he said, not gangbanger cars, and they usually have tinted windows.
7. Don’t escape from juvie with a rival gang member — and get picked up by his mom.
Martinez said one young gang member escaped from Log Cabin Ranch, a residential program for juvenile delinquents in La Honda, with a couple of Nortenos. Soldado told Martinez that one Norteno’s mom picked them up. Martinez told him cooperating with the enemy was not allowed. “The whole purpose of gangbanging is to eliminate rival gang members,” he said. The youngster said he’d attack a rival gang member to make amends, Martinez said.
8. Don’t ride Muni to attack rival gang members.
In the discussion of preferred gangbanging vehicles, Goofy also explained he’d never take Muni to go attack a rival gang member. Why? “Because the bus stops like every two blocks.”
9. No drive-by shootings.
Drive-bys increase the chance that innocent people will get hurt, which brings heat from the police on your gang. Plus, MS-13 usually only wants to attack rival gang members, Martinez said.
10. You can cross into rival gang turf — for a tasty taco.
In one of the more bizarre moments of Martinez’s testimony, he said he’d venture into the heart of Norteno territory on 24th Street to get food at one of the taquerias. “I’d make a dash for it, in and out really quick. Or I’d have someone go for me.”
CURLED up at the foot of my bed, my face inches from the laptop screen, I stared anxiously at the Google chat box. “Will is typing,” the box told me, helpfully.
I forced myself to read e-mail while I waited for his message. Then I refreshed my Twitter feed, scrolled through my blog posts and began brushing my teeth.
Still the box said, “Will is typing.”
“Don’t you dare get hurt by this,” I muttered around my toothpaste. “This was a stupid idea, and you knew that from the start.”
But recognizing the stupidity of falling for someone on the Internet does not prevent you from doing it. My friend Jeanette, a college radio D.J., chats constantly with some music blogger she met on Tumblr. My friend Tuan, who lives in Los Angeles, stays up until after 3 to talk to his London-based girlfriend.
And I had just driven nearly 1,100 miles round trip to visit Will, a guy I met in October at a Web journalism conference and got to know almost entirely on Skype.
I noticed him across the table at a noisy hotel bar. Will owns thick black-frame glasses but no hairbrush or comb, traits that lend him the look of a basement-bound hacker. If you have ever attended an Internet conference, you understand how pale skin, thick glasses and scruffy hair can be attractive; otherwise, I can’t explain it to you.
In either case, I liked Will’s weirdly overconfident smirk and his obsession with WordPress. He regaled me with the merits of plug-ins and PHP until I became tired and went to bed.
“I’ll find you on Twitter,” I joked when I left.
I didn’t expect or even want to see Will again after that weekend. Since he lived three states away, further face time seemed unlikely. I followed his Twitter posts with detached curiosity; in January, he G-chatted me to complain about work. Then he got drunk and messaged me again, sometime near midnight, as I uploaded photos and otherwise wasted bandwidth.
With obvious sarcasm, he wrote, “Do you have that Skype thing kids talk about these days?”
I’ve read that 90 percent of human communication is nonverbal. Skype captures that 90 percent on a low-resolution video camera, compresses it, funnels it to a node computer and reproduces it on a screen anywhere in the world. Skype eliminates distance; that’s why it works.
And that’s exactly what it did for us. With my Skype screen open and my webcam on, I viscerally felt that Will was sitting a foot away on my bed. Ignoring the times the picture froze or his voice cut out, I thought he looked and sounded exactly as he had in person. Sometimes, when he leaned into the computer to read an article I had sent him, I could see the pores of his face.
We started video chatting for hours every night — he from an ascetic all-white bedroom, me from the cupcake-print corner of my studio apartment. I learned that he ate take-out for every meal, slept in a series of identical white V-neck T-shirts and smirked with one side of his mouth when I said something clever. I knew his preferred coding languages, his least favorite content management system, and his general hatred of dancing, small talk and girls in bars.
One night, when we talked too late, I fell asleep with my laptop open and woke up seven hours later, tangled in cords. He was still there, asleep in the light from an open window, pale and young and pixelated.
Eventually he stirred, blinked at the camera and said, “Hey, you.”
“Hey,” I said easily. “How did you sleep?”
As the weeks went on, I told Will about my last boyfriend, a guy I had met in psychology class and dated for almost two years. He listened quietly, his glasses reflecting my image from his computer, and gave good, clear-eyed advice about letting go.
I couldn’t remember the last time I met somebody that smart and talented in ways I certainly wasn’t. He told me about his ex-girlfriend, who never appreciated his work. I texted him from classes when I was frustrated or bored.
In the safety of my apartment, I could see Will, but I couldn’t touch him. I could summon him when I wanted to talk, but I never knew him in any light other than the one from his bedside lamp. This phenomenon worked in my favor as well. I could call him after a few drinks, when I felt sufficiently talkative and social; I could avoid him if I had videos to edit or blog posts to write. I could say whatever I wanted and risk awkwardness, because at the end of the conversation, one click of the mouse would shut him out of my room.
THE irony is that we flock to the Internet for this type of safe, sanitized intimacy, but we want something entirely different. “In real life,” or IRL, is a popular term in online parlance. At Internet conferences like the one where I met Will, Twitter explodes with people celebrating IRL meetings: “So nice to finally see @so-and-so IRL.” “Hey @so-and-so, I can’t believe we hadn’t met IRL yet!”
The Internet brings these people together with hash tags and message boards, but it never satisfies them. No matter how much you love someone’s blog or Twitter feed, it isn’t their posts you actually want.
And so — slowly, cautiously — Will and I began circling the question of what it all meant.
“I really like you,” he said one night, after getting home from the bar.
“I really like you too,” I said. “I don’t know what that means.”
I wanted to find out. So in early March I rented a car, begged my professors to let me out of class a day early, and drove 540 miles to spend a long weekend in the midsize city where Will lives. When I got close, I called my friend Tuan from a rest stop, where I fixed my makeup and chewed gum and generally tried to calm down.
“What if it’s terrible?” I demanded. “What if he’s nothing like I expect?”
In fact, Will was almost exactly as I expected: thin lips, straight nose, small hazel eyes, glasses. He stood waiting at the side of the street while I parked my car — going forward and back, forward and back, until I nervously got within two feet of the curb. We kissed on the cold, blustery sidewalk as the wind whipped my thoughts around. Mostly, I felt relieved. I thought: “This works in real life. This means something.”
But after we kissed and ate pizza and went back to his house, we struggled for things to talk about. In real life, Will stared off at nothing while I talked. In real life, he had no questions about the drive or my work or the stuff that waited for me when I went back to school.
He took me out for dinner and read his e-mail while we waited for our food. He apologized profusely, but still checked his Web site’s traffic stats while we sat in his living room.
He took me to a party at his friend’s house where they proceeded to argue for hours about Web design while I sat on a futon and stared at the ceiling, drunk and bored and terribly concerned that I looked thinner online. At points, he grabbed my hand and gave me small, apologetic smiles. It seemed like a strategy game: a constant dance of reaching for me and pulling back, of intimacy and distance, of real life and Internet make-believe.
On the last day of my visit, Will overslept. He rushed around the apartment with his hair wet and his tie untied, looking for his laptop. According to the plan we made the night before, he would go to work and I would leave when it suited me, dropping his spare keys in the mailbox.
In the front hallway, where I stood rubbing my eyes, Will hugged me goodbye and told me to drive safely. He struggled for a closing statement.
“It was great to see you,” he said at last.
I didn’t leave right away. After I showered and packed and studied the books near his fireplace, I sat for a long time at his kitchen counter, trying to work out what happened. I didn’t like being surrounded by his things. I felt more comfortable in my room, with my things, and with his presence confined to a laptop screen.
I wrote him a note before I left: “Dear Will: Thank you so much for having me this weekend. It meant a lot to me to spend time with you in person.”
I signed my name and left it on the counter. Then, willing myself not to cry, I dropped his keys in the mailbox and gunned it home. In real life, getting there took nine hours.
I like these long days, when the sun is still out and throwing a long and yet longer shadow. For a moment, everything is motionless except for particles of dust whirling on the back of invisible eddies of air in a shaft of late evening sunlight.
From Donna Summer to Dante, everybody loves a “bad girl”. She is a social construct that runs the cultural gamut from classical to cartoonish and back again, wearing only high heels and a smirk. She is literary artifice and historical fact combined; she is both retrograde and modern, a product of the patriarchy and yet empowered; she is every man’s worst nightmare and his best daydream too. No plot is complete without her, no soap opera or great tragedy doesn’t boast a brace. We are a society obsessed with bad girls, and we always have been.
But what’s the allure of this mythical creature? There’s no specific definition – it’s a catch-all phrase which scoops up sulky teens and hard-faced ballbusters alike – but we all have a vision of what it means to be a bad girl. It goes something along the lines of Bettie Page in an Eighties power suit, teamed with Wonder Woman boots and wielding a bazooka – that is to say, a hybridised version of any given cliché of female independence. So far, so foggy.
The bad girl, and all her attendant archetypal baggage, has however become less of a personage and more a mental motif in the latterday power struggle between men and women. American psychiatrist Carole Lieberman has recently published a self-help book, entitled Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets, which argues that a bad girl mentality is something we could all use to our advantage – even if we’re undeniably good girls.
"Kate Middleton is the quintessential example of a good girl who used bad girl strategies to win the heart of her prince," she explains. "When she was rated two out of ten by the boys in her class, she did a total makeover to make herself more appealing. Later, she strutted down the runway of her college fashion show in ‘the dress’ that got Prince William to stop thinking of her merely as a friend, and to fall head over heels for her."
A case of “ask not what you can do for yourself, but what a bad girl can do for you”, perhaps. “I am not trying to turn good girls into bad girls,” clarifies Lieberman, whose penchant for flowers, hearts and all things pink marks her clearly as one of the former. “I am trying to help good girls discover the secrets that bad girls use to win men’s hearts.”
Surely this is a regressive game to play in an age where men and women have assumed supposed parity; doesn’t this speaks to the outmoded necessity of women using their wiles to get ahead, rather than their brains? Nowadays, we don’t need these sorts of strategies.
But a brief look at the history of the bad girl reveals it to be a term applied to any women who has ever taken control of her own life. Cleopatra, for instance, or Middleton’s predecessor Anne Boleyn – two women who got to the top using the only weapon in their arsenal, their sexuality.
"Anne Boleyn is remembered by her contemporaries as someone with the beast in view," says Nicola Shulman, author of Graven with Diamonds: the Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt. "She grew up in the French court and had wonderful French manners – she could write poetry, sing, dance and she was witty. And she clearly had phenomenal brains. She wasn’t just worked from behind by her family. Anne Boleyn was the engine of her own destiny."
Shulman quotes contemporary evidence that Boleyn set out to become notorious and get noticed by persuading Wyatt, one of the era’s most glamorous courtiers, to fall in love with her. “If the cool person is in love with you, you get the attention,” continues Shulman. Boleyn also played the court’s rumour mill of gossip and mischevious ditties like a pro and acted a part – she had to do so, in order to keep the King’s attention for seven years. “In one poem, Wyatt refers to a new girlfriend and an old one with a system of opposites: one a simple, country girl; the other rather contrived.” Boleyn created a persona for herself in order to win the throne, Shulman suggests.
Almost 500 years later, the contemporary assumption is not so different with Kate Middleton. There are those who suggest she has been trained by her mother from an early age, schooled correctly and sent to the same university as Prince William to “catch” the future king. There is no proof in any of it, needless to say, but it goes to show the consensus that women who end up with the man of their dreams cannot possibly have managed it without some sort of strategy. When Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden married Daniel Westling, her personal trainer, last year there was no suggestion that he had fooled, beguiled or enticed her into wedlock. Nor was there when Guy Ritchie married his teen crush Madonna, or Chris Martin bagged Gwyneth Paltrow, having adored her from afar for many years. This, then, forms the basis of the bad girl: she is a woman who gets what she wants.
"There are fictional bad girls like Becky Sharp, Odette de Crécy and Jessica Rabbit," says Jonathan Beckman, assistant editor at Literary Review, "but there also wannabe bad girls, like Emma Bovary. The difference is that successful bad girls are able to manipulate their sexuality for social advantage, and drag easy beguiled men down while hauling themselves up; while the wannabes have a naive belief that they can expres their sexuality without any consequences. Bad girls normally turn out to be bad for men."
Indeed at her very worst, the bad girl becomes the ultimate vision of feminine destruction: witness Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest or Nicola Six in Martin Amis’s London Fields. These are agents of seduction, supreme female tacticians who lay men low with their concerted sexual efforts or withholding techniques. Their victims are rendered incapable of action beyond what the bad girl dictates; they embody real-life male fears of being dominated, as well as some fairly basic masculine psychological tropes, in their shared penchant for sexy underwear, for instance, and their rather light-hearted approach to other women’s marriages.
"From a male perspective, bad girls are for sex," says novelist Fay Weldon. "Good girls are for marrying, loving and protecting. And from a female perspective, bad girls like sex and have fun – good girls get married and have kids. And they both agree that bad girls go to bed on the first date; good girls don’t."
"While bad girls have different strategies for manipulating nice guys, they share certain alluring traits," explains Carole Lieberman. "Irresistibly exciting, clever, flirtatious and seductive, they make their man feel like the biggest stud on the planet."
Lieberman’s book advises a subtle mastering of such techniques in order to get ahead. But the self-conscious mimicry and adolescent pastiche of such caricatured archetypes is precisely the problem with the modern view of the female sexual psyche. Everybody knows at least one such insecure and self-referential woman who defines herself by icons of female sexuality, be it Nicola Six, Anna Karenina or Tess of the D’Urbervilles – all of whom were created by male authors. It happens because, beyond career bitch or blissful mother, there are very few female character roles to choose from. “The point is driven home in the final take of Fatal Attraction,” says Susan Faludi in the seminal work Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. “The best single woman is a dead one.”
But the next crop of modern young women are seeking inspiration beyond the given archetypes, and it is in this context that Kate Middleton takes on her most interesting aspect. She may not be a role model in the fullest sense, but she is far beyond the “some day my prince will come” mould. “With Prince Charles and Diana, the Palace looked high and low for a virgin,” recalls Nicola Shulman. “They were obsessed with virginity, and in Lady Diana Spencer they found the only virgin left in the country.” But with Kate Middleton now embodying the type of princess who has had other boyfriends (indeed, she has invited two of them to the wedding on Friday), perhaps the good girl archetype has shifted – and therefore, perhaps, the bad girl has too. Unlike Anne Boleyn and Diana, Princess of Wales, there is no need for a princess to withhold favours or use her sexuality as a weapon – and this should stand as a synecdoche for every other woman too.
When William wanted to sow his wild oats, Kate didn’t bitch and moan but rather had her own fun, which got William to run back when he realised he that he could lose her,” says Lieberman. This episode in the royal relationship has captured the imagination of everyone from feminists to film-makers, who focus on the three-month-long separation as evidence of Middleton’s own kind of rough magic. All it took, it is implied, is a few paparazzi shots of her out of the town, smiling away and wearing a skimpy dress, to bring William to his senses. Presumably though the psychology here is as much that Middleton seemed fine without him, as it was that she appeared scantily clad.
"Maybe bad girls are modern in the sense that their ‘bad’ actions are a result of growing frustration – and an awareness of that frustration – about the possibility of wielding power," says Beckman. "It is both attractive and worrying for men that bad girls are so gleefully competent. Cleopatra – both the real one and Shakespeare’s – was conscious of this, so perhaps it’s just more common from the 19th century onwards. But that also means that the era of the bad girl is nearly over: for example, Briony Tallis’s sin in Atonement is prudery, not sexuality."
Indeed there has been an overhaul in feminine pop culture identity in recent years, and the bad girl appears to lie at its heart. From 10 years ago, when Britney et al were dressed as schoolgirls and angels, there is now a wave of female artists who translate and transfigure the iconography as a means of being ironic about the system that they themselves are bucking. Rihanna, for instance, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Jessie J. They all exist as hyper-sexualised pop princesses, overt in their references and their sense of their own mischief.
"I definitely want to help and teach little girls whenever I can," declares Rihanna in an interview published in this month’s issue of American Vogue. "But then there is a character that I have to play in my videos to tell stories. And a lot of the parts that I play aren’t necessarily what I stand for in real life. But it’s hard to differentiate that sometimes."
There is of course a difficult equilibrium when women attempt to reclaim supposedly sexist identities for their own use, but the likes of Lady Gaga – who looks grotesque just as often as she may appear gorgeous – are certainly promoting a more fitting modern message in their appropriation of bad girl imagery.
"Feminists compete with men to grab the power that men have," says Lieberman. "The bad girl seduces men to get him to give her what she wants." As with so many arguments predicated on stereotypes, the truth lies somewhere in between – in the words of Donna Summer: "You and me, we are both the same/ but you call yourself by a different name." There may still be self-conscious, stereotypical bad girls in our midst, but the rest of us are not simply waiting for our prince to find us. The modern bad girl crowns herself and she doesn’t need a king to help her reign.
To twentieth-century writers, of course, [Chekhov’s] presence has affected all of our assumptions about what’s a fit subject for imaginative writing; about which moments in life are too crucial or precious to relegate to conventional language; about how stories should begin, and the variety of ways a writer may choose to end them; and importantly about how final life is, and therefore how tenacious must be our representations of it.
More than anything else, though, it is Chekhov’s great sufficiency that moves us and makes us admire; our reader’s awareness that story to story, degree by degree around the sphere of observable human existence, Chekhov’s measure is perfect. Given the subjects, the characters, the actions he brings into play, we routinely feel that everything of importance is always there in Chekhov. And our imaginations are for that reason ignited to know exactly what that great sufficiency is a reply to; what is the underlying urgency such that almost any story of Chekhov’s can cause us to feel, either joyfully or pitifully, confirmed in life? As adults, we usually like what makes us want to know more, and are flattered by an assertive authority which makes us trust and then provides good counsel. It is indeed as though Chekhov knew us.
Finally, the stories found here are never difficult but often demanding; always dense but never turgid; sometimes dour, but rarely hopeless. Yet occasionally, reading through the great body of Chekhov’s stories (220 plus), I have experienced secret relief when a story, here or there, seemed somehow lesser, was possibly tossed off in a way that allows me to imagine this most humane of writers in a new light – as a man agreeably unburdened by some demonic masterpiece-only obsession, a man I could’ve known, as a writer indeed willing to take us unblinkingly into the musing consciousness of kittens (!) and offer us assurance that nothing very important goes on there:
The kitten lay awake thinking. Of what? … The soul of another is darkness, and a cat’s soul more than most … Fate has destined him to be the terror of cellars, store-rooms and corn bins, and had it not been for education… we will not anticipate, however. (“Who Was to Blame”)
And so, no more anticipation. Just read these wonderful stories for pleasure, first, and do not read them fast. The more you linger, the more you reread, the more you’ll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem it with language.
Women began outnumbering men in college enrollment in the early 1980s, and since 1996, they’ve earned more bachelor’s degrees. Data from this latest report shows that for adults aged 25 to 29, 36 percent of women have earned a bachelor’s degree or more, compared with only 28 percent of men. But this is the first year women are earning more advanced degrees than their male counterparts. Only a decade ago, men held the majority, 55.4 percent, of advanced degrees. According to the current data, 10,685,000 working women over 25 hold master’s degrees, law degrees, doctoral degrees, and other other graduate degrees, compared to only 10,562,000 men. However, there’s still room for improvement. Women still lag behind in business, science, and engineering graduate degrees.
So what does this mean for men, and for the so-called “mancession”? Most of the jobs lost during this current recession have been lost by men, and the unemployment rate is 9.3 percent for men and 8.3 percent for women. With employers wanting a more highly educated workforce, one implication might be that women will have an slight edge when their résumés cross a hiring manager’s desk. But, although this isn’t a competition, and a generation of poorly educated men isn’t exactly a good thing for society, this is a sign that we’re making progress on gender equality.
1. I left a comment on your blog. Rather than using my real name, I used my handle and linked to my own blog. You would have had to click on my profile to see who I was, and then you would need to have recognized me from the photo in which I am dressed as zombie Che Guevara two Halloweens ago. I understand that you did not reply.
2. I @ replied to you on Twitter. My Twitter username is @GoGoGrizzly and my account is linked only to my GalleryBlog where I post photos of anthropomorphic cloud shapes. My profile picture is a drawing I made of a very old G. W. Bush being ejected from a bright orange rocket ship. He is wearing a tuxedo instead of a space suit, and his face is distorted by hollow cheeks and bulging, fearful eyes as he is sublimated by vacuous blackness.
Maybe you weren’t sure who I was?
3. I sent you a message on Facebook. I would have written on your wall, but you did not approve my friend request. This might be because I jokingly made my Facebook page as if I am a ninety-year-old man who has been living as a woman since meeting a handsome contortionist while stationed in Cairo during the Korean War. I thought you would get it, though, because there was that one night, many years ago, when we joked about the characters behind our pseudonyms and I told you that Jeb Rett Bookman was precisely as he is now described in my profile. I hinted towards this in my message, but I did not wish to break character. I was sure you would understand. And yet you sent no response.
4. I wrote you an email, but I could not send it. I do not have your most recent contact information and, on your website, the only way I could contact you was through your publisher. I am certain that this faceless corporate entity could not possibly understand the connection we share. She/he/they would never understand the nights we spent sitting on the sidewalk across the street from my apartment building, smoking clove cigarettes, giggling softly and shushing each other so my roommate would not hear your brilliant words filtering through his open window. Only the two of us knew that you would wake up in Victor’s bed between 3 and 4 a.m. and unwrap his sweat-stuck limbs from your body. In your silk paisley bathrobe, you tiptoed to my doorway to pull me from the binding glow of the computer monitor. You would request a cigarette by waving two fingers in front of your lips, and those lips would arch upwards at their edges as if you meant to appear guilty. But you could never fool me.
I could never explain to anyone else how I stored our glorious sleep-deprived moments in a velvety pink balloon that floated in the back of my mind. Those memories were only recollected when a negative pressure set over me, causing a lightning storm in my mind and popping that thought-filled bubble. Vaporous images of you seeped into every recess of my consciousness. I cannot wash them away.
I wonder what you would have thought when you read how dearly I wished for us to revisit our time together. Do you think you would have written me back?
5. I am publishing this under a code name on one of your favorite websites. I know your reading tastes will have changed now that you are a famous novelist, but I am sure you will read this and acknowledge that those moments exist beyond my mind alone. You must remember. What we had should be treasured by two.
I have quit smoking, you are married to Victor, and we can revisit the past only in our dreams. I think I loved you then—the thought of you still triggers a sinking in my chest, as if my heart is riding a tiny roller coaster built for hamsters and garden gnomes. But I cannot leave my wife and child for a woman I knew only in scented smoke and street-lit shadows.
Surely you will understand. Please, do not contact me.
'I'm not feeling great,” Maurice Sendak is saying. “I've been rather sick, to tell you the truth. I can make believe I'm well.”
You can hear it in his voice. Sendak, 82, on the phone from his Connecticut home at 3:30 p.m. Friday (pretty much when the night owl’s workday gets going), sounds gravelly and stuffy.
"I’m old," says the author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, including Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. “It could be anything. Who the hell knows?”
Recently a mural Sendak painted in 1961 on a Manhattan apartment wall was cut out (1,400-pound wall and all), transported to Philadelphia, and restored. He says he is very sorry he couldn’t get to Philadelphia this month to see it unveiled in its new home, the Rosenbach Museum and Library on Delancey Street, where his papers, original art, and ephemera are collected. He had wanted to renew his acquaintance with Rosalyn and Lionel Chertoff’s children, for whom he painted it as they “ran in and out of the room.”
"I was very fond of the kids," he says. "I saw a photograph of them. They’re all grown up, and, oh, my God …"
His voice fades. Most of his ruminations end this way - not morosely but, as in his books, with a kind of rollicking doom, barreling toward repeated destinations: the passage of time, the state of the world, his own mortality, the basic futility of life, a dark but fun stickball game.
"When I kick the bucket," he begins - about to describe why he’s glad his stuff has ended up at the Rosenbach, where it will be seen, not archived - then goes parenthetical: "Which can’t be too long from now. I think I’m getting out just in time. Watching the news, everything seems to be in disorder. Everybody seems to be unhappy. We’ve lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety."
The man who imagined escapes as romps that ended with warm suppers says, “I wonder why people still have children. I mean, why put kids in the world when the world is so insecure? This is how old people rationalize their death. You get a little crotchety with the world.
"That’s the one thing that I think makes the mural worth having. It represents a time on a personal level when I was secure and young and happy. And I didn’t think about dying … about my friends dying."
The mural, dedicated to the memory of the Chertoffs and to his late partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, features a rambunctious procession of children and animals who had appeared or would appear in his books. He painted it out of affection for the Chertoffs, he says. “I can’t think of anybody else I would have painted a mural for,” he says. “Schlepping up from Greenwich Village, standing on a ladder.”
(How did a boy’s jacket, blue in a photo, become tan in the restored mural? He doesn’t know. “That was a lot of years ago. I’m sure Leonardo da Vinci standing in front of The Last Supper wouldn’t remember what color shirt Christ was wearing.”)
The mural’s dedication is a lasting tribute to his once-secret relationship with Glynn. Sendak never told his parents he was gay. “I was never honest with them,” he says. “I wish I had worked harder and trusted them more.”
Glynn died four years ago. “It’s what happens to all of us. We’re all orphans, and all our friends die. It’s the story of life, and it stinks. You go on feeling that you failed. I don’t sit here and say, ‘I’ve got all these books, and isn’t that nice?’ ” Then, inadvertently (and charmingly) morphing into Pierre, the epically indifferent boy he created in 1961 (A Cautionary Tale), he blurts: “Who cares! I don’t care anymore.”
He knows kids respond to this darkness. “I take kids seriously,” he says. “They have a lot of things wrong. They protect their parents. Children are brave little creatures.”
Sendak’s Rosenbach connection dates to 1966 when he met then-director Clive Driver at a Beatrix Potter conference. He was drawn to the museum’s devotion to artists such as Melville and Blake, its obscurely satisfying holdings.
For a man sure the end is near, Sendak is still creating. Bumble-Ardy, coming out in the fall, is about a pig who has never had a birthday party and sounds the author’s familiar themes of anxiety and abandonment.
"The only difference is both his parents die on the first page," Sendak says cheerfully. "Don’t ask me what I was thinking."
The day is young, and Sendak has things to do. “I have to lie down, have lunch, go get a haircut, make believe we have a purpose to living,” he says. “I’m still living. I can still listen to an opera.”
The night before, he watched Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, a “very silly opera. It was touching. Anything that touches us, reading, music, sleeping, what-the-hell-ever, that’s enough worthwhile to live. When the opera ended, they all walk off the stage to “Addio, California” [Farewell, California]. What do you do? You burst into laughter.”