All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

As promised, I’ve been doing my best to get back on the bus.  I procured Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote and I’ve even started reading it.  I can’t believe I waited this long.  Footnotes elucidating the implicit irony of double entendres rooted in Latin may not be for everyone—so, fear not, I won’t go into to detail here—but they really do it for me.  (And Rocinante is just so much fun to say!)  By the time I finished the prologue I was grinning and thinking, ‘Yes, this is the book for me.’

Also, Lost finally became available on my Netflix queue.  For a while now I’ve been curious to know what all the fuss is about.  I have mixed feelings regarding anything J.J. Abrams related.  The prevalence of Felicity reruns is the number one reason, after reality programming, that I cancelled cable.  I was an NYU student in the mid-nineties and that show was so fake.  Aside from every set and scenario that didn’t ring true, the plot was pathetic.  Let’s not even get me started.

And then there was Alias.  Jennifer Garner had been in an episode of Felicity playing the girl some guy dumps for Keri Russell—a new depth for the ever-lowering bar in demanding the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief.  Anyway, I remembered her and as soon as I saw her kick ass in costume, I was into it.  Plus, I’ve been on to Michael Vartan since Fiorile.  Seasons one and two were rewarding, ridiculous, rollicking fun.  But then they couldn’t figure out what to do next.  They wouldn’t drop the Rambaldi plotline or introduce compelling new villains.  Seriously, no one has ever given Quentin Tarantino less to do as an actor.  The woman was still amazing to watch, but the series was no 24.

So, much in line with my attitude toward men these days, I came to Lost with low expectations and high hopes.  I watched the first half of season one in one sitting and I was impressed. The pilot alone—with the opening shot of Foxy in the reeds and then the terrifying remnants of the fuselage about to explode and engulf oblivious survivors at any moment—was certainly an accomplishment.  The structure, revealing elements of the individual characters’ back-stories in each episode while propelling the larger island drama, was well done.  But I wasn’t hooked.

During the four days it took me to get to the rest of the season, I did not once consider the potential directions the plot could take.  I didn’t really care what else was on that island.  Having seen it all now, I wonder if they even needed that mysterious element?  I mean, it’s not like this is another Gilligan’s Island.  They have an engaging underlying drama with the mechanics and pitfalls of being stranded alone.  If they do need the horror, why aren’t they using it better?  No one was afraid to go into the jungle after a few episodes and it’s not like the bogeyman went away.  It’s just that the writers needed to get to the caves and Ethan and Rousseau, and they got a little lazy.  Newsflash: I hate lazy writers.

Still, there is a lot to love when it comes to the characters on this show.  Who you think they are in the beginning and what you learn about them along the way, that’s what kept me watching.  I want to know what happened with Foxy’s wife and how directly that mini-bottle of Vodka in his suit coat pocket related to his father’s alcoholism.  And, frankly, it’s eating me up inside that the rest of the world knows What Kate Did and I do not.  Everything about Hurley is fascinating and refreshing.  And Locke, I dig you man.  For real!

Honestly though, reading books and watching DVDs is not exactly new territory for me.  Activities that take place in my apartment and which I can engage in alone are kind of what I’m all about and, as such, one could argue that doing more of that is closer to the problem than the solution.  So, in a true effort to catch up with culture, I got my ass out to the movies.  I went to see Don’t Come Knocking, the new picture directed by Wim Wenders.

I’m not going to spend much time on Wenders.  The man is great.  He puts art above being recognized as an auteur.  I have no doubt that one day I will entertain you with a laundry list of his virtues, but not right now.  Today I need to attempt to begin to approach dealing with the prowess of the man who wrote the movie.

There are different kinds of paternity.  You have your father and your father figures and then, as we have touched on before, you have those people whose brilliance propels your craft—the fathers of your art.  Much in the way that I imagine many American writers of the Twentieth Century felt when a Russian named Vladimir Nabokov came to this country and wrote in our language with more elegance, nuance, and sensitivity than any of them could, it maddens me that I cannot be Sam Shepard.

His innate understanding of human nature, his ability to casually and subtlety draw you into the darkest of emotional realms and then restore you with something more sophisticated and less reassuring than mere levity, his mastery in portraying the intricacies of relationships running the gamut from familial intimacy to remote acquaintance, his nail on the head when you didn’t even see the hammer dialogue…this man’s genius overpowers me.  All I want is to be exactly that good.

What happens to a lot of people whose parents, especially fathers, were absentee, alcoholic, or abusive is that they learn to limit their needs.  They…we become utterly self-sufficient.  We avoid affording people the opportunity to disappoint us.  We are loyal, dependable, and trustworthy because we know how it feels to be jacked around and we do not want to become perpetrators of that sad, familiar bullshit.  Because we have been let down so supremely, more often than not we must overcome our emotional malnutrition through external achievement.  A lot of us have to be the best.

How nebulous that ultimate superlative is.  When I was a kid my nickname was three-going-on-thirty-five.  I was precocious, poised, and even more serious than I am these days.   I was not one of those kids whose family wondered how I might turn out, what I might be when I was all grown up.  I was basically there.  And since I can’t remember, everyone in my life knew I would be a writer.   Everyone except me.  When I was twelve years old I took an objective, unforgiving look at my fiction and decided I didn’t have the stuff.  I was nowhere near as good as the writers I was reading—Orwell, Hammett, Conan Doyle, Fitzgerald—and it seemed clear I never would be. Right then and there I started brainstorming alternative career paths for my future.  I was twelve.

Another thing that happens is we eventually figure out that we put up with the absentee or alcoholic or abusive behavior because we were conditioned to do so.  My father’s father told him that he would never amount to anything.  He said it often enough and with such accompanying force that my father started believing it.  I imagine my grandfather did this because he saw something special in his son—a rare combination of charisma, good looks, a quick mind, and a sense of humor far more sophisticated, I’m betting, than his own.  Instead of being proud that his child would probably go further than he had in the world, he did everything he could to tear him down. 

The next thing we put together is that we’ve been had.  And we get very, very angry.  As does anyone who’s been made the fool.  But everyone handles this anger in a different way.  My dad was determined to contradict his father’s prediction and measured success with the most obvious of American yardsticks.  He wanted to make a lot of money and sleep with many women.  And he did.  Unfortunately for me, being a parent didn’t rate very high in this catalogue of accomplishments.  So the beat goes on.

This torturous cycle is beautifully depicted in Don’t Come Knocking.  Shepard plays Howard, an over the hill, has-been hero of Hollywood westerns.  On a shoot in Monument Valley, Howard rides his horse into the fading sun and continues riding right off the set.  Completely burnt out, he’s so burdened by his identity that he’s trying to lose it.  He Sullivan’s Travels it across the Southwest and ends up at his mother’s house, who, with her claustrophobic acceptance and reassurance, quietly evokes every sick link in the chain of events that must have prefigured the mess Howard has become. (Hello, Eva Marie Saint, you’ve still got it!) She reminds him that he has a son, a fact he’s failed to retain for the last twenty-some years, and sends him on his way to find the boy…in his father’s car.

Howard is less the main character of this film than a set piece and the action hangs on his disintegration.  How could it be any other way when the lives of all the other characters are influenced only by his absence.  By the time he shows up, it feels distinctly too late.  Even if it’s not, how could he possibly know what to do?  He’s stalled the maturation process indefinitely and he’s not in Neverland anymore.  This is most gloriously clear when Howard proposes to Doreen, the mother of his son, that his big mistake was leaving her behind.  He tells her they should get married.  He can’t talk to his son; all he knows how to do is cling to women.  In a speech that made me applaud, all by myself, in the middle of a movie, Jessica Lange shines like a diamond schooling Howard on how hugely he’s lost the plot.  It’s just so good!

Don’t expect any answers here.  But, let me tell you, the questions posed are invaluable.  What brought Howard to his children?   (Did you really think there’d only be one?)  Is it enough that he showed up?  Will they know each other?  How?  Can the cycle be broken?

I haven’t spoken to my father in just about two years.  For as long as I have been legally considered an adult, this is how it’s gone.  When we’re talking, we talk every day.  When we’re not it goes on that way for months or years. Sometimes you don’t want to see your parents for the people they are.  Instead of telling my father what his behavior was doing to me, I withdrew.  Instead of demanding an apology, I would agree to pretend that horrible things were never said…until it all happened again and I withdrew, again. 

At long last, I’m hip to the routine.  I am definitely in the angry phase.   The best thing I can think to do with my anger is to get it out.  So when I got an email from my dad the other day inviting me to pretend and forget, I chose to confront.  For the first time in my life, I told him our problems weren’t typical or amorphous but a direct result of his alcoholism, depression, and his choice to do nothing about either.  I felt both liberated and insolent.  Am I breaking the cycle?  I don’t know.

I do know that I don’t want my life to be the way it was any longer.  This means I have to buck up and get used to emotionally charged confrontations.  It also means accepting that I can’t use anyone else’s yardstick to tell me whether or not I’m the best.  Being exactly like Sam Shepard, or Nabokov for that matter, is not relevant, necessary, or reasonable—even if it were remotely possible, which it is also not.  I will only ever write like Hillery.  All I need to be concerned with is perfecting the Hillery style.

I have to say, riding the bus—it sure ain’t free.


Hillery eventually learned not to say everything that came to mind. Some were too good not to write down.

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