I was listening to Alec Baldwin tune up on his daughter, trying to think of the worst thing I ever said to my own kid. The list is so long. I try not to lose my temper, but sometimes I do. I’ve never called her a rude, thoughtless little pig, but once when she was a baby, when she was pounding on her high chair tray and shrieking BANANA! BANANA! BANANA! I may have turned to her at hissed, Jack Nicholson-style, “WE DON’T HAVE ANY GODDAMN BANANAS.”
My defense: It was 7 o’clock on a winter morning and I was feeling really, really raw. I tried not to yell; I delivered the line the way Jack did in “Terms of Endearment,” when he’s having his first, disastrous lunch with Shirley Maclaine, and he encourages her to order a drink. “I think you need a lot of drinks,” he says. “To kill that bug up your ass.” (That’s the sequence that ends with the two of them driving his Corvette down the beach, Jack sitting on top of the driver’s seat, steering with his feet, bellowing “Wind in the hair! Lead in the pencil!” Great scene.) But it was pretty menacing; her eyes got big and round, and she stopped yelling for bananas.
I’m glad no one recorded that moment, although I guess I just did. Maybe that’s how Baldwin can get through this; he can call in every marker he has and ask them all to stand up and say, essentially, “I am Spartacus.” I doubt it would work; we promote the myth of the perfect parent relentlessly in this country.
There’s a guy, Tim Goeglein, who writes occasional guest columns for my old newspaper (he’s from Fort Wayne). He has a very big job in the White House, “special assistant to the president,” serving as liaison between the Worst President Ever and conservative special-interest groups. You’d think he’d write an occasional piece about policy or D.C. culture or whatever, but no, for years now he’s been contributing these awful, drippy essays about his sainted parents and how good the good old days were, and blah blah blah. The last one he wrote about mom ‘n’ dad was typical, and I’d like to quote from it for you, but I’m finding that none of his columns appear to be in the paper’s archive. Oh, but here’s Memory Lane for you, a story from the archive in which his name is mentioned. Who do you think wrote this snappy prose?
What did I tell you? What did I tell you? Did I not tell you that Madonna’s insult of Evansville would not pass without some high-ranking weenie embarrassing himself with a totally humorless effort to “change her mind?” I did. Only even I underestimated the weenieosity that would be unleashed. I thought the inevitable blustery response would come from a chamber of commerce official, or maybe the mayor, but nooooo. We have a real U.S. senator getting in on
It cuts off because you only get the first few lines of a story in the paid archive. That’s from 1991. Yours truly, getting the word “weenieosity” in the newspaper.
Back to Timmy. I’d like to quote from one of his columns but I can’t, so I’ll paraphrase the last one from memory: Mom and Dad have been married for many years. Never for one day have they been less than 100 percent devoted to one another. They owe their love to their intense devotion to Jesus Christ, who has rewarded them with a marriage so strong and perfect that it enriches all who behold it. Mother never let a cross word pass her lips, and we could all rely on Father’s quiet wisdom in times of trouble, which we hardly ever had because Jesus was blessing us all the time. And so on.
Listening to Laura Lippman speak last night, she said, “I hate perfect people,” by way of explaining how she approaches the characters in her fiction. Of course, no one is perfect, but many work very hard to convince you they are. I was in my 30s before I was able to get my brain around the idea that a person could be a titan of accomplishment in one area of their life, and a miserable failure in another, and that the latter did not take away from the former. And I’m not talking about being a great father and occasionally putting the water bottle back in the refrigerator with only an ounce left in it. I’m talking about Miles Davis, for example, simultaneously a musical genius and a wife-beater. If you were God, and you had the option of saving Cicely Tyson some black eyes by pushing the “miscarry” button on an embryonic Miles Davis, would the world be a better place without him? I don’t think so.
This was a huge relief to finally accept. I could enjoy art again without fretting that the artist was a schmuck. Which most of them are.
Which most of us are, actually. At least sometimes. I’ve never yelled at my daughter’s voice mail. But I have it in me.
Last night was great, if only to be in my old neighborhood again. The reading was at Nicola’s Books, an independent book store in the Westgate shopping center, which all you Tree Towners should patronize, because it is an exceptionally good one. Nicola herself took us all out to dinner afterward, which was more generous than we deserved; I knew I should have bought some more books while I was there. We had some publishing-industry gossip, and some journalism gossip, and Laura told us the line she delivers in her cameo in Season 5, Episode 1 of “The Wire.” Ahem: “I’m not the police reporter.” (Or maybe it was, “Do I look like the police reporter?” Can’t recall.) I laughed, because everyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom has heard that line approximately a million times, sometimes in its alternative forms: “Do I resemble an obit clerk?” “Are you mistaking me for the education writer?” or the ever-popular, “Can we give this one to Features?” When I was first given the newsroom mail to open, there was but one firm order: Give as much of this as possible to other departments. Buck-passing — it’s our art form.
OK, I have to get to work now.