Friday, March 02, 2007

God/murder clarification, plus geeks and freaks

Let me just note, in case my last post was unclear: I applaud my mother. I applaud her for introducing me to many things (traveling the entire country, good music, fabulous books and movies being just a few). I applaud the support for free speech, new ideas, and critical thinking that went into her letting me watch scary movies (but always the GOOD scary movies) when I was young. Rosemary's Baby. The Shining. Not insignificantly, she repeatedly denied my sister's and my requests to rent Faces of Death on our little sojourns to the video store. (Also she did NOT allow me to watch Platoon, which I really, really wanted to go see, for reasons of too many f-bombs, I think. Funny, to think about now, if you think about how prevalent that word is in my random conversation...)

I applaud her recognition, as well as my various teachers' recognition, that I was smart and had kind of moved beyond Beverly Cleary. (We basically skipped right over the whole Judy Blume debate. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret had nothing on Jaws, or Squeaky Fromme.) I find it hilarious that my sister and I would sit there prattling on acting out The Shining during the day and then I would be scared at night, and then the next day I'd act it out again like nothing had happened. And isn't that why we watch those movies, anyway? We want to be scared, even though we don't want to be. And now, since I've outgrown movie-induced anxiety, I no longer a)want to be scared b)get scared by movies. So I don't watch them. But I fondly remember when I did.

For a recent example, let's take The Ring. Not something stupid and random gore-ridden like Saw, but let's say The Ring, which came out and it was garnering critical praise and people were swearing it was "really, truly scary" and I was like - whatever. I just have no desire anymore. It's weird. I think it's funny. As a child, I would have been, like, ditching school to go see it I think. Mom would have taken me to see it and then we would have gone to lunch. Now, I haven't even bothered to rent it. Or The Blair Witch Project. Everyone but everyone was up in a snit about that movie. I would have been ecstatic at age twelve. But I saw it in my twenties. I thought it was stupid.

My elementary school best friend also has ended up here in New York. Not long ago we got together for lunch and were reminiscing about various childhood things, as we are wont to do, and I found it amusing that she remembered me being allowed to watch those movies and she remembered being jealous, too, even twenty years later. And by the way, she was the other smartest-girl-on-the-block type of thing, so it wasn't about that. It probably helped my case that I was the youngest in my family, and she was the oldest of six kids. She had good examples to set. Not me. I copied my sister in everything right as she did it and refused to ever accept the suggestion that I should "wait my turn" a couple years, and was often exposed to or involved in things ahead of my time, as it were.

And I almost forgot about The Amityville Horror! Who could forget that! The freaking flies! My sister was totally onto that one. In fact, I remember her actively trying to get me interested in that one, despite initial resistance on my part. How happy and nostalgic does it make me now, every time I'm at the station awaiting my train on the Long Island Rail Road, when the LIRR conductor calls out the train bound for Babylon, "making stops at...Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Amityville..." Someday I will ride that train to Amityville. Just to ride the train to Amityville. Maybe when my mom and sister come to visit?

But you know I was at best on the periphery of the cool kids circles, what with my being "comprehensively dorky" and all, and even at a tender age already roundly digusted by people I didn't consider smart. I would make friends at Girl Scouts or softball or wherever, but at some point I just didn't care about Care Bears/shopping/Michael Jackson and later boys/parties/trying pot, unless I was intellectually challenged as well. (This is why the thespian crowds of high school were sweet relief.) So sometimes if my sister didn't know a particular thing, then I had no hope. Like one time, that smart best friend and I came across the word "geek," scrawled in graffiti on a skateboard ramp. I think we were maybe eight. We immediately decided it was a cool word, and we started making up all sorts of uses for it. In the dictionary (clearly outdated?) we found only the definition of a circus performer who bites the heads off live animals. This, too, struck as cool. We even started some sort of club with Geek, as we conceived him, as our mascot. This all lasted until my older, daughter-of-the-hippie parents, far more worldly, other best friend (with whom I did things like discover in the gutter a discarded issue of Hustler magazine which we hid in her room and secretly looked at later) informed me that I was an idiot and a "geek" was someone totally nerdy and uncool. Duh. Touche.

My point? Did I have one? I hate censorship. So the whole notion of refusing outright to let your child read something makes my blood boil. Harry Potter, anyone? Although I personally have no interest whatsoever in the little wizard, I will passionately defend him when the book-burners start their rants.

My other point? I really did always wait for that projectile vomiting scene in The Exorcist. And now I hate vomiting. And spit. Shudder. Is there a connection? Who knows?

Still another point? Do we really know when our kids are ready for anything? When I was in Arizona over winter break on my "21 Days, 21Movies," quest, I was thinking of taking my three-year-old nephew to the theater, to see either Happy Feet or Charlotte's Web. (Since he owns Cars on DVD he had already inducted me into the world of Lightning McQueen.) Well, this necessitated discussion with my sister on whether either of those flicks would be appropriate for him. In the end, I ended up going to see Happy Feet without him, and while I don't think it would have been inappropriate, it might have just flat-out not held a 3-year-old's interest, because it packs such an "adult" moral/political punch. And p.s., I love it. The penguins rule.

As for Charlotte, my sister of course knows that story intimately (because we did also read the children's classics, before we moved on to Helter Skelter -- let's not forget that my parents had my sister and me reading by age two! I don't remember a time when I didn't know how to read) and she and my brother-in-law were worried about the ending. Was my nephew ready for death? Well, I didn't really press the point. I don't really care if nephew gets to see Charlotte's Web this year or in three years, and besides if I don't take him to the movies, that's just more popcorn for me. But I remember thinking, just sort of philosophically, how do we know? How do we know when he's ready? What does it mean to be ready? What about when someone dies in real life, and the fact that no one is ever READY for that?

Like in Holcomb, Kansas. Or Benedict Canyon and Los Feliz. And I was thinking about this as I read In Cold Blood some more in the last few days. First of all, I really, really like this book, OK. A lot. It's so good. I'm currently in the chapter where Perry is going through his belongings as they prepare to leave Mexico, and the letter from his father to the parole board as well as the letter from his sister to him made me nearly burst. It's so hard to explain the effect reading those words has. This book is so good. As I've been pondering these questions, such as why do we read about crime? and criminals? and why did I used to love to and now can't be bothered? and what is the point of the True Crime section? Well, I think it's kind of bizarre that I was several days into reading and blogging (you might say rambling) about this book before I realized it's about the humanity of the killers.

Like, I still relate to Perry, even as we learn more about how messed up he is. Maybe because we learn more about how messed up he is. He's a packrat, trying to get rid of his earthly possessions that he might travel on unfettered, but there are some things to which he simply must cling. And his guitar! I cried for him and the loss of his guitar! And sure, I might not believe in literal maps and chests filled with gold, but don't I really operate as if somewhere out there, on some level, a buried treasure lies just waiting for me to find it?

It's like the movie Downfall (Der Untergang), Oscar-nominated a couple years ago but bound to lose to The Sea Inside. Der Untergang is about the final days of Hitler, in the bunker, and I remember that as it garnered its slew of awards there was the usual (censoring? moral? "moral"?) outrage that someone could play Hitler as a human. When in fact, that was the point, as the actor said on several occasions. You would do well to remember that Hitler, and Osama bin Laden, and Perry and Dick, were/are humans. They're not machines, robots, or monsters. They are humans, and they are deeply, tragically flawed, and it is humans who do things we label evil, not random evildoers who are somehow not human. There but for the grace of God go...all of us?

And then--oh my god oh my god!!--Korea, and Worcester, and New York!!! So Perry was in the Korean war. He spent time in Korea. This, I know, affects a person. (See: historical origins of this blog, etc.) And then he's off trying to find his Army buddy in Worcester, and is this about the best description ever of a city or what: "a Massachusetts factory town of steep, up-and-down streets that even in the best of weathers seem cheerless and hostile." -- p. 137 That is SO Worcester. And Worcester is an intricate part of my family on the Napikoski side, so I'm totally allowed to say that.

And then it's New York, and his room at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, in which neighborhood I have spent much quality time, wandering from Penn Station after I disembark from the Long Island railroad in pursuit of whatever thing I'm in pursuit of that day in Manhattan or beyond... Perry recalls:

"In over three months I practically never left the Broadway area. For one thing, I didn't have the right clothes. Just Western clothes--jeans and boots. But there on Forty-second Street nobody cares, it all rides--anything. My whole life, I never met so many freaks."
- p. 138

Perry's mother went alcoholic and left. She left on many levels, both before and after she physically left his father, and her family. Two of his siblings killed themselves. The one who remains alive and writes him the long, amazing letter while he is in prison, the letter he keeps with him and can't bear to discard, even if he's angry at it, the letter she's sorry (or is she?) has to pass through the hands of the censor -- well, that sibling is the one who ended up leading the "normal," married, picket-fence, devoted-to-children, baths/bedtime/clothing sizes, no-time-to-read-anymore-raising-a-family life. Do I see my sister in there? Do I still see myself in Perry? His prison friend Willie-Jay comments on the letter (in still another amazing passage) and urges Perry not to be too upset and to consider what it's like to be his sister, and what kind of dialogue they can really have with each other. She inhabits an utterly different world from Perry, even if she started out in the same one as him when they were young.

What happens to us? How do we make our choices and our life paths? Is there a freak, a geek, a murderer, a traveler, a parent, a censor, the potential for a horror show, the potential for redemption, lurking somewhere in all of us?

"I will hide and you will hide, and we shall hide together here, underneath the bunkers in the row. I have water, I have rum, wait for dawn and dawn shall come, underneath the bunkers in the row." -- R.E.M.

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