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1983-2015
tearing the rag off the bush again
TWO LETTERS by Dylan Brody PDF E-mail
A moving epistolary family saga

Dave,
    Is it strange to open an envelope in these e-mailing,
blackberrying, IMing days of the far-flung future and find a
creased letter?  Even without the flying cars, the Pan-Am
flights to the Satellite we were promised, the unfolding of
letter-headed paper must seem antiquated, archaic.  Also, I
am typing the letter on a Smith-Corona portable typewriter
rather than my computer.  Wait.  You know this typewriter.  
This is the same one.  The one I had at Northfield in my
dorm.  I wonder if you remember as clearly as I the clacking
of the keys giving up a slightly metallic echo against the
close walls of that tiny room in East Gould.  You cannot
remember the warm, comradely safety that I felt as I typed
and you loaded bong hits, a towel carefully stuffed into the
crack between the door and the floor boards to keep the
smell from escaping into the hallway.
In the interest of full disclosure, let it be said here and now
(the only time, I suppose, at which it is ever
appropriate to say anything) that I did not sit down to
write you a letter.  I sat down to write a letter to my
Mother whose own mother died last weekend.  There is a great
deal I want to say to her.  My mother, that is.  Not Grandma
who's dead and whose funeral I will be attending in New
Jersey this Sunday.  The thought of writing that letter is
daunting though so I'm starting with this one, an easier
letter, to someone whom I love deeply but not with the same
layers of confusion and ambivalence I feel toward my mother.  
This letter to you, you see, is a procrastination, a bit of
stalling, a way to keep myself from getting down to the
writing of that letter to Mom that seems more lengthy and
troubling the less I write it.  I am afraid I will be cruel
again.  Not just in the letter but at the funeral, too.  I
usually avoid funerals but my sister wanted me to come to
this one.  I'm not entirely sure why, but she did so I'm
going.  I probably ought to write her a letter too.  Perhaps
I never should have brought this typewriter down from the
shelf.
    I brought down the typewriter because I became oddly
inspired.  I've been reading my wife's favorite book, J.D.
Sallinger's  Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour:
An Introduction (a terrific book which, by way of homage, I
am tempted to quote here in its entirety) and I find as I
read it I can practically hear the clacking of his keys, the
raspberry-and-thump of the manual carriage return.  Each
time he self-consciously comments on his use of italics I am
aware of the underlining that must have served in place of
those self-same italics before publication.  Am I the only
man who remembers such things, who is aware of the
difference in the rhythms of prose written by pen, by
typewriter and by computer?  When I listen to the dialogue
on television it smacks of cathode rays and I know it to
have been borne of a dull blue glow and only to have felt
the raw revelation of black text on white paper much later
when it was too late for the poor sentences to be
rehabilitated into something humans might speak unstiltedly.  
In any case, an odd thing happened as I was reading the
book.  Or, rather, two odd things happened, their individual
oddnae multiplying one another into one large oddness.  
About midway through the second part of the book, Buddy the
narrator recounts (reprints, actually) a note sent to him by
his late brother Seymour in which Seymour gives him advice
on his writing and I was shocked to read a fictional man
giving his fictional brother advice that was identical to
advice I have given many times over the years to other
writers who have come to me for advice or instruction.  Only
now as I write this paragraph does it occur to me that some
young writer may later have read the book and felt betrayed,
thinking I had stolen this bit of good writing advice from
the novella and pawned it off as my own wisdom.  When I read
it in the book, I had no such thoughts.  I had only a
strange sense of sentimental and self-indulgent pride that I
had independently come upon and offered up the same words of
advice that were put in the mouth (or rather, the pen) of
this much-loved if utterly fictitious dead man by this much-
loved and deeply respected writer, a favorite not only of my
wife but also of my father, my mother and a great many other
literate and academic folk.  That Sallinger and I had both
come to the same idea as to how one approaches the start of
a project affected me more deeply than I would expect such a
coincidence to affect me.  With this still in my mind or, to
be accurate, in my solar plexus which is really where I tend
to register emotional response of any sort, I continued
reading and before I'd reached the end of that very page the
narrator Buddy mentioned that he needed to stop writing for
a time and go to bed, saying that first he would brush his
tooth.  This is something my wife says almost every night at
bed time.  I've neither questioned it, nor laughed
particularly hard at it but seeing it in print I chuckled,
wondering if she knew that she'd gotten it from this, her
favorite book.  Then I remembered that this was her favorite
book in which I had found this piece of advice that I had
been giving to writers for years.  For the first time, after
twelve and a half years of marriage, I was tapped on the
shoulder by the sudden certainty that my wife actually loves
me, the man I am, the man who thinks my thoughts and writes
my words and speaks my advice, not somebody else whom she
imagines me to be.  This certainty moved me nearly to tears
and made me want, very much, to be able to offer my mother
the same sort of certainty as she deals with the loss of her
own mother, the certainty that she is loved.  I had a
similar moment a few years ago with my father that – while
it feels utterly connected and contiguous -- surely requires
or at the very least deserves a brand new shiny paragraph of
its own.
    My father came to Los Angeles on a trip for M.I.T.  I
think he was asking wealthy people for money to build a
theater facility and while he was here he set aside some
time to come out to the house and drink wine with me and my
wife on the patio where he's allowed to smoke.  In a recent
e-mail exchange I had told my father in more detail than I
ever had about my experiences in England when I was there
studying theater, before I had figured out that I was not
going to be an actor.  In this correspondence (Not this
correspondence.  The one with my father.) I'd mentioned that
while I was in England I'd stumbled onto my own approach to
acting that worked very well for me but infuriated my
British acting teachers who wanted me to learn their
systematic technique which they insisted was the only right
way to act well on stage and which was, it seemed to me,
entirely antithetical to my newly discovered process.  My
father asked me for details about my acting style and I
explained to him what I had found.  I was able to articulate
for him my system for reading the script, learning the words
organically rather than through rote memorization and
turning both rehearsal and performance into tightly scripted
improvisation.  When I'd finished he stubbed out a cigarette
that hissed a little bit in the residual water from where
I'd cleaned the ashtray in preparation for the arrival of a
smoker in our household and lit a new one before he said in
a voice that sounded just a little bit awed, "This is
exactly what I've been trying to get across to my students
since I started teaching acting."  Then we sat there
together both knowing in a new way that each of us was
actually the person the other one loved and knowing in an
only slightly guilty way that our love of each other was
more than slightly narcissistic.
I suppose some of that infects my love for you as well. 
I used to think that I loved you because you challenged me,
because you not only kept up with my banter but forced me to work harder at it. 
I thought that I enjoyed you as an athlete enjoys a fellow competitor. 
The truth, though, is far uglier, I suspect.  The pleasure I take in spending
time with you probably grows far more from the sheer joy of knowing that
there is someone else in the world who is so like me, who thinks so much
the way I do, who laughs at the same wordplays and builds conversations
around the same references.  When I met you in high school, when you
beat me out for the role I wanted so badly and then played the role so well,
it was the first time I had ever met someone whom I saw neither as a hero to
be worshipped nor as a lesser intellect to be dismissed.  I had lived lonely
in a world where those were all I knew.
    I think now that it's good that I brought down the
typewriter for this letter.  It keeps me from distracting
myself with internet searches.  Years ago, when this
typewriter was my primary writing tool, a close friend of
mine owned a computer.  He proudly showed me the way in
which he could write a paragraph for a college paper and
then rewrite it without having to retype the whole page or
use scotch tape and scissors.  I scoffed at the absurdity of
spending a thousand dollars for such a machine when retyping
was free and scotch tape cheap but secretly I envied him his
magical Apple Computer and imagined how productive and
prolific I could be with such a machine.  Now that I have a
computer and a broadband connection and a personal website I
find I write almost exactly as much as I did before and
spend an embarrassing amount of time searching for and then
downloading humiliatingly tame fetish-specific pornography.  
It makes me worry that, were a muse to appear in my office,
draped in gauze and dancing on point, her calf muscles
elegantly limned by the window-warped light of the setting
sun, her fingers simultaneously poised to perfection and
utterly relaxed, I might fail to notice that she brought
with her an offer of sublime inspiration and instead blurt
out a request for a quick hand job, a missed opportunity
which, when recognized only much later, I would fraudulently
dismiss as inconsequential with the rationalization that I
had gotten a good story out of it anyway.
Sallinger talks about the interest some people take in
the lurid secrets of those poets and writers whose work they
enjoy, and the tendency to enjoy and remember those bits of
personal information far more powerfully than the works
themselves.  He also talks about the tendency of writers and
poets and great artists of all sorts to have dark character
flaws, obsessions and perverse predilections.  I think
there's a harder thing here that even he, ruthlessly bashed
against the rocks of honesty as he is by his whitewater
stream of consciousness, fails to recognize.  I suspect that
everyone – or, if "everyone" is too broad a generalization
then let me just say almost everyone – has dark, hidden
flaws, obsessive perversions and shame-laden secrets hidden,
if not skeleton-like in closets then very likely in kitchen
drawers under keys to locks long changed or misfolded maps
of upstate NY that they refuse to throw away for reasons
they have never been able to explain to their spouses or in
boxes under their beds which hold comic book collections
that they laugh easily about and way down at the bottom
other magazines that they've not looked at since adolescence
but would be able to describe page-by-page were it not for
their complete inability to admit even their existence.  The
fascination with the dark secrets of beloved and admired
artists is not, in fact, a demented preoccupation with back-
story but rather a relieved appreciation for proof that the
audient (the obvious, if newly-minted singular) is not
entirely alone in his or her dark secrecy and even, perhaps
an enthusiastic response to personal similarity that hints
at some unfulfilled but privately cherished artistic
potential.
So tomorrow I will fly East for this funeral and I will put effort into
not being cruel to my mother when in fact what I want is to let her feel
entirely loved for who she is which is difficult because her thoughts, her secrets,
her dark shame are not enough like mine for me to embrace them as my own. 
I do not know them all but the near-umbilical connection I know she craves
repulses me so much that even as I seek connection to her and she to me, I claw,
bloody and merciless in what feels like a bid for sheer survival at the withering
cord and then hate myself for being an infant. I am afraid of funerals. 
It's not the dead people that scare me or the sense of my own mortality. 
It's the comedy Tourettes.  The more emotionally charged a situation is,
the more jokes I write.  The more somber the people around me become,
the more difficulty I have keeping the jokes from spitting out of my mouth. 
I can feel joke-telling tension forming in my throat even now, tension that years
of professional performing have done away with behind the microphone but
that return when I am near family, when I am with those who knew me when
 jokes were not my profession but my defense.  In the past four days since my
Grandmother's death I have written and performed five new minutes
on her Alzheimer's decline and one new particularly caustic joke
about my mother, all funny, all work that will probably remain
in my act long after this trip, none appropriate for me to have
at the forefront of my inconsiderate mind as I fly to see the people
who would be least ready to profit from their entertainment value.
Would you mind terribly if I call you from time to time this weekend
on my cell phone, blurt out some bit of
incomprehensible, contextual humor and then hang up before
some grieving aunt sees me on the phone and takes umbrage at
my inappropriate timing?  I suppose that's stupid. Just do
me this favor.  Over the course of this weekend, please
occasionally think of me and imagine me muttering something
wry and hilarious about the nature of life and death, the
razor thin moment between being spoon-fed Cream of Wheat and
all debts being erased, observations about motions that one
employs only in departures for Buffalo or to escape a mortal
coil.
    I think I'm braced.  I've finished a glass of scotch
during the writing of this letter.  It is best that I get on
to the other one, the hard one now, before the moment is
gone and its reception can come only as an insensitive
afterthought.


    Dylan


______________________


Dear Mom,
I'm so sorry to hear about your mother.
I'll be there.  I arrive on the 5:30 flight on American
Airlines.
Love,

Dylan

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