It's the tenth anniversary of "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Where we were and what we were doing as the momentum to war built and built is burned into our memories. Here's my story.
I love this country. Some people seem to think they have an exclusive on loving America, but I’ve got news for them: They don’t hold the patent. The guy who ran Coney Island back around 1890, John McKane, was a man after my own heart. There was pressure on him to clean the place up, to do something about the vice, prostitution and gambling rife in the amusement park and its environs, to make it wholesome and family-oriented. But he liked it the way it was. The place was alive. “This ain’t no Sunday School,” he said. Amen, John, Amen. Neither is this country. And I like it that way.
A prime baby-boomer in good standing, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve criss-crossed the United States. I’ve been in every one of the lower forty-eight except, I think, North Dakota. Youthful pennilessness and a full-blown flying phobia put me in a lot of rattletrap automobiles with bald tires and faulty wiring in all kinds of weather. I slept in flophouse hotels and motels from Wheeling to Little Rock, and in the back seats of cars in truck-stop parking lots in Kansas and Nebraska. I slept on the floors of trains, under the seats and in the bar car, and I slept the dead sleep of total exhaustion in the torture-rack chairs of Greyhound and Trailways with some stranger’s snoring head bouncing on my shoulder.
Ah. But so much has changed since those days. Ten years ago, I crossed the continent on a book tour. Two coasts, opulent hotels, an American Express card. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Book tour. Jump back! Out of my way, peasants! This show is on the road.
As it happened, there was another show getting on the road at just about the same time as mine. A show much longer in preparation, vastly better funded. A really big show. Impacted societal sediment got all stirred up in the process, and old questions bobbed to the surface anew. Who loves America, and why? Who’s a patriot? Who’s “moral?” And the latest, nothing new at all philosophically but ripely pertinent to that era in our history: Who’s a terrorist?
My little road show got all tangled up in the Really Big Show that was mobilizing concurrently with mine. This made things stand out in sharp relief in a way they would definitely not have if I’d just stayed home. And glamour? I’ll show you glamour. Come with me, if you dare, on my high-wire act over the U.S. of A. in the winter of 2003.
My first date is in a town called Petaluma, a couple of hours south of where I live in Northern California. My book is the story of (among other things) trying to care for my mother when Alzheimer’s got into her brain. Petaluma resonates poignantly and dangerously for me. It was in a hospital here that my mother underwent a “geriatric psych evaluation,” a polite way of saying “tribulation.” She was supposed to be in that hospital for two weeks. We took her out after ten days. Those ten days left me with memories that only some Alzheimer’s in my own brain can possibly eradicate. Alzheimer’s, or else a long, fine, very sharp and precise electric needle.
I’m in Petaluma early tonight, alone. I wander the streets near the bookstore for a while. I make a few anonymous passes by the store, like a ghost, like a time traveler. It’s dark out where I am, but the store is all lit up, well-dressed people browsing. I hardly dare go in. Why would anyone get in a car, drive to this store and sit there listening to me read? We’re about to maybe go into World War III, and people are going to come hear my complaints about the raw deal life has dished up to me and my mother? I see chairs all arranged, a podium, a microphone. I can picture it: My lonely voice droning away, mostly empty seats, two or three people here and there, maybe one of them a street person there for the free coffee, adolescent boys whooping over a video game a couple of aisles over. I spot a couple of friends inside. Okay, I say. Pecker up.
A little over an hour later, I’ve finished the reading. I’m sitting at a desk signing books. There were so many people that the manager had to go get more chairs. Now they’re coming up, one by one, getting their books signed. I realize that I’m in the role of high priestess tonight, hearing confessions. People are telling me their stories, most of them far worse than mine. One woman tells me that she took care of her mother in her home for five years. The mother had just died in January. The woman leans over the desk and whispers that because of the heavy rains, they’d had to put off burying her for a month.
Another woman, sixtyish, who sat off by herself with a particularly intent, haunted expression, clutching my book and taking in my every word, tells me that she took care of her Alzheimered mother for five years. The mother died. Now she’s taking care of her Alzheimered father. I look at her, try to imagine her life.
It’s February 6. Dubya’s war is looming. There’s a poster circulating on the net, of bin Laden wearing stripes and a top hat, pointing, saying: “Uncle oSAMa wants YOU to invade Iraq!” In just over a week, I’m going to have to get on an airplane and fly to New York for the east coast part of the book tour.
I hate flying. I’m not talking about crowds, delays, inspections, inconvenience. I’m talking about primal fear of the machine itself and the actual act of flying. When I know I have to fly somewhere, I think about it and think about it as the days count down. It’s with me every moment, lurking in the background. It feels like a date with fate, a tight bottleneck I’ll be squeezing my entire existence through.
People argue with me. You’re much safer in an airplane than in a car, they always say, and then they quote statistics. It doesn’t matter what they say. I point out to them that while I grasp that a plane is far less likely to crash than a car, a car crash is much safer than a plane crash. Some of them will even try to argue about that. But we all know that when you fly, you are doing something where there’s virtually no margin for error, no way out if something goes wrong. There’s a reason why pilots are trained more rigorously than bus drivers.
I always study my fellow passengers while we’re waiting at the gate. Do they look doomed? That crisply-dressed older lady, that gangly slouchy teen, that mother and her two squirming, whining little children? Die? Them? Degloved? Surely not! I look at them hungrily for signs that their lives are going to flow forward without interruption. Theirs, and therefore mine. My mind offers me a picture of a rowboat and a grappling hook, a stylish leather bag lifted dripping from the water. No! I push it away.
Then there are the opening moments of the flight. You’ve made it up into the sky, the plane’s leveling off. There’s the smell of coffee, the cart coming down the aisle. The flight attendants bright and chatty and so relaxed. Newspapers rustling. And I know: That’s exactly how it was on those four airplanes on that September morning in 2001. Exactly how it was.
News travels differently in real life than it does in fictional dramatizations. I’ve seen videos of race-track wrecks: A flaming car flips end-over-end for a hundred feet while people in the grandstands gaze in the other direction. On a plane, way in the tail section where I always am, I look at the backs of the passengers’ heads. I imagine a commotion in the front of the plane, shouts and scuffles while people in the rear read and snooze.
My immediate future holds a lot of flying. I count up the flights I’ve already racked up in the past year, including getting on airplanes in Mexico, which made me especially unhappy. The news is not only full of impending war, it’s also full of the blizzard that’s “paralyzed” the east coast. My natural dread of plane travel, bad enough when the weather is perfect and the political scene is not overtly ghastly, is jacked up about twentyfold: First we fly into New York. About a week later, we’ll fly, at dawn, from Hartford to Washington D.C., so that I can be in my hotel room at 11:00 AM to take a call from a radio show. War is in the wind, the weather’s frightful, and I’ll be flying into New York and Washington D.C. That flight from Hartford to D.C. has “snuffer” written all over it anyway, war or no war. Those short hops are notorious for going down, splat, in a farmer’s field, yellow-rubber-suited firemen swarming all over, little red flags stuck in the wreckage here and there…
My next reading is in the town where I live, at the local bookstore. Damned if it isn’t a pretty big crowd—standing room only, people on the floor and peeking around the corners of the door. There’s been a dynamite review in the San Francisco Chronicle that very day. In front of this hometown crowd, I especially enjoy reading the part where I talk about my gorgeous young mother’s scandalous love affairs, long before the “sexual revolution.” Ha! Even now, I still have the coolest mother of them all.
Mitch and I have been doing the Atkins thing for the last few weeks. Radical carb reduction. God, does it ever work. Neither of us was fat, but you get extra sleek and snaky really fast.
You get hooked on Atkins quickly. It’s a fairly Faustian deal: Eat, eat, the good doctor mutters in your ear, waving a hand toward the groaning banquet table. Cheese omelettes. Steak. Bacon. Cream. Pork chops. Camembert. Perhaps a martini? Eat! And you do. And in a week, you drop a pants size. Now Dr. Atkins owns your soul. Ah. But just touch those mashed potatoes, that crisp, freshly-baked French bread, that toasted bagel, that…that fruit yogurt! That apple! That banana! and fooomp! You’re a deploying airbag. So when you’re tempted to reach for a hot, fragrant corn muffin, you go back to the mirror, which is not a funhouse mirror stretching you out like an El Greco martyr, but the same mirror you’ve always had, turn this way and that, and you have a raw hot dog for lunch, chilled dead flesh straight from the refrigerator.
After the reading, it’s off to our local roadhouse, where James McMurtry, son of Lonesome Dove Larry, is playing. This is some sort of miracle, that an artist of his stature should appear in our remote venue, and it’s only ten bucks to get in. I’m mad for McMurtry’s music. He’s like a rockabilly Lou Reed. He has his father’s literary sense and superb storytelling talents. His lyrics are pure, sly Americana, plus he’s an awesome musician.
There are only three guys playing: McMurtry on lead guitar, a base player and a drummer. I like their sartorial look—as if someone dumped a pile of freebox clothes on the floor and they all got dressed in the dark.
At the break, we run into friends who offer to get us stoned. We retire to the car, toke up (remember, this is Northern California). The smoke is sweet, dusky, smooth, dangerous-smelling. I know from long experience that one lungful will more than do it. And it does. On the short walk back to the inn, our laughter echoes though the universe. Back on the dance floor, the music throbs in our very cells. It would not be possible for any music anywhere to be any hipper or smarter, any more balls-to-the-wall hard-rocking, hard-driving. We’re gyrating madly, bodies close all around us, when my mind does that funny thing it can do when you’re high, detaches itself imaginatively even while you’re one with the dancing and music, and I have a total sensory hypothetical vision of how it might be if a bomb went off under the floor, right here and now at the height of our ecstatic, sweating frenzy. Like in the Bali nightclub. Like on a bus in Jerusalem or a minefield in the desert. Molecules changing places with other molecules, the world abruptly rearranged. Would we even know it? Is human consciousness capable of registering that transition from the intact dancing state to exploded hamburger? I think I successfully imagine that infinitesimal moment.
The imaginary blast entertains me for a minute, then I’m back in the party. McMurtry is singing “Levelland:” “Daddy’s cotton grew so high, sucked the water table dry, then his mind got incomplete, and they put him in the home…” We dance ourselves into puddles of sweat until the band does its last number and leaves the stage. The crowd stomps, claps and whistles for an encore. The stage door stays closed. The din gets a notch louder, then another. The floor shakes with stomping feet. The door stays closed. Up another notch. The suspense is carried to the absolute exquisite limit. Then the door opens, the boys saunter back onstage ever so casually, faces deadpan, pick up their instruments and rock us out one more time.
We all know what’s bad about Amerika; music like this is a big part of what’s good. Music like this makes me love my country.
Walker Percy was a great American writer. In The Moviegoer, he talks about the way things can all of a sudden become “infested with malaise.” Often out of nowhere. The atmosphere inside a car during a perfectly pleasant ride, for instance. Is it the car itself, maybe the smell of the vinyl, or is it a subtle change in barometric pressure, or perhaps a subliminal event experienced simultaneously by everyone in the car, triggered by a sight, a word, a suggestion?
Whatever it is, I know exactly what he means. It always feels to me as if the true nature of existence is briefly showing itself to us. A hole opens up for a moment in the elaborate construct of “well-being,” revealing the black emptiness behind it. We rush to close it up again, and usually succeed. When we can’t, and it goes on for too long, grows in intensity beyond a mere temporary tinge of sadness, unease, a passing touch of Weltschmerz, it’s called despair.
My next reading is in Santa Cruz, a place particularly ripe for infestations of malaise. It has an oceanfront amusement park. You can see the huge Ferris wheel all lit up in the distance when you approach the city at night. I know, I know—amusement parks are a cheap, ready source of infestation, not to mention hackneyed to death. But there it is. When we find the bookstore where I’m to read, it’s in a run-down shopping mall. The bookstore has a mini-marquee. My name is up there in foot-high letters. This does not bode well.
We have time to kill. Someone in the store recommends a Japanese restaurant. The directions take us down a fragrant, dumpster-lined alley. The restaurant is closed for another hour. We find a deli. We’ll sit there until the good place opens up.
Coffee’s bad, our elbows stick to the table, flies tickle our faces. The Big Bopper, dead from a plane crash lo these forty-three years, is on the sound system.
Cheer is restored at the Japanese restaurant: a big glass of chilled chardonnay, a perky waitress who, when we say we don’t want rice with our food, says, “Atkins, right?” On the television in the bar, there’s a show about people indulging in “extreme” behavior, wacky stunts, like going down a water slide into a pool of motor oil and feathers. Riding down steep hills in children’s little red wagons with no brakes. Malaise just can’t stand up to this sort of thing. Feeling immensely better, we go to the bookstore.
It’s a sparse handful of people, all women, many empty chairs. I give it all I’ve got, though, as if the room were full. The listeners do the same, give me their full attention, trying to compensate. There’s a sixtyish woman in the front row who gazes at me intently with a haunted expression, taking in every word. I look at her when I’m raising my eyes from the page from time to time during the reading. It’s the same sixtyish woman who was at the reading in Petaluma! I look again. No, it’s a different woman. Later, when I’m signing the two or three books that got sold, she comes and tells me her story: She apologizes for being too poor to buy a copy of the book. Both her parents had Alzheimer’s. She was adopted, so she has no idea at all of what her genetic legacy might be. The parents are dead now. She took care of them both.
She is not literally the same woman I saw in Petaluma, but in another sense, she is the same woman.
In the car driving north, windshield wipers laboring in a heavy downpour, we listen to the latest about weapons inspections in Iraq, deadlines for Saddam. We’ve decided just recently that W is bluffing, that he has no real intention of going to war. It’s an elaborate game of “chicken.” Relax, we’ve told worried people back in our town. It’s not going to happen. He’ll go on sending ships and troops to the Gulf, let them assemble ominously, make a lot of threats and big talk and rattle his saber, but he won’t actually go in and start a war. How could he possibly, with the whole world, the Pope and Norman Schwarzkopf included, against him? It’s just too preposterous. Planetwide peace marches will be mobilizing in a few days. We feel almost cocky in our certitude that it’s all a lot of hot air, that we’ve seen through it.
In San Francisco, the route to the Golden Gate Bridge is blocked by a line of cop cars. Helicopters hover over the park. Nobody seems to be able to tell us why. Traffic is massively backed up and honking. Terrorist attack? Bomb in the city or on the bridge? We pull over, Mitch finds a cop who’s on foot, asks him: Radio crackling on his belt, the cop says it’s gridlock because of a big construction project. This, we agree, sounds mighty fishy. I feel my certitude slip. Cop cars and helicopters are not exactly aircraft carriers and fighter jets, but in February of 2003 they cast a chill and longer-than-usual shadow.
But soon we’re whizzing across the Golden Gate. It turns out that a collision in the park was causing all the trouble. Mitch knows the city well, drove like a cabbie to get us around the mess and onto the bridge.
Anyone who’s crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in either direction knows that it lives up to its glorious name. When you’re heading down to the city from the north, your first glimpse of the bridge leaps at you as you emerge from a short tunnel—a perfect framed composition, a wonder-of-the-world marriage of art and engineering, full of promise, startling you every time. Crossing the bridge is expensive and a little dangerous, but that’s part of the mystique. The toll’s up to $5 now, and head-ons occur often enough that you have it on your mind and feel a touch rash as you join the stream of fast shiny cars and choose your lane. But the bridge thrums and hums thrillingly under your tires, and cheerful excited people with their hair all blowing in the wind flow along the walkway, and you can see up close the giant rivets and cables of the bridge they said couldn’t be built.
Going north out of the city, you see the huge craggy green headlands that announce Northern California, and for us, the road home. The bridge is on the “official” list of possible terrorist targets. As it should be. It would be a truly spectacular hit, a decisive psychic and physical wound. Every once in a while, when the “terror alert” level goes from green to orange, or orange to purple, or whatever it is, they’ll make a big show of protecting the bridge. You’ll see a couple of CHP cars parked at either end, maybe a Humvee, soldiers standing around with rifles. In newspaper photos, you can tell that they’ve been told by the photographers to look as if they’re actually watching out for something. They squint and gaze importantly. We always laugh, and say, Yeah, I sure feel a lot safer with those guys on the job, yes sir.
We’re on time for the afternoon reading in Corte Madera. It’s a good crowd, mostly women. And in the front row, a woman, sixtyish, gazing at me intently…
Most of the world marched against the war on February 15, 2003. San Francisco marched on February 16th because the 15th was the Chinese New Year in the city. On the 15th, we travel forty miles to a neighboring town to pick up the rental car we’ll be driving to L.A. We listen to coverage of the protests. We hear Danny Glover addressing the crowd in New York, and we hear the huge roars of response. We’re tingling. It’s a veritable tsunami sweeping around the planet, the voice of humanity raised in a vast reverberating NO to W’s war. There’s never been anything like it. Never. Never this big, and never before a war has even begun. It’s a done deal, we tell each other. There will be no war.
The next day, we’re on the road to L.A. Today they march in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands strong. The rain has miraculously let up. We listen. Danny Glover again. He’s crossed the continent since yesterday, in an airplane. After him, Alice Walker. After her, a poetess, who delivers a brilliant, hilarious piece, a “Valentine’s Day” poem recounting the United States’ dysfunctional “love life,” running from man to man, from Manuel Noriega to Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin.
We bypass S.F. because we know it’ll be choked, take the Bay Bridge to Oakland and jump onto I-80, thence to I-5, California’s pulmonary artery, and drive virtually nonstop to the City of Broken Dreams.
The publisher’s putting us up in hotels for the entire trip. This one’s on the Avenue of the Stars, according to my rumpled piece of paper. It’s dark when we arrive. We approach. This couldn’t be it. We see a multicolored fountain, palm trees lit by floodlights, white silk flags fluttering on tall poles. We pull into the capacious cobbled drive. A half-dozen uniformed valets swarm us. We huddle inside the car. What happens now? What’s the protocol here? One of them opens the driver-side door. Trash and food wrappers spill out.
“We don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” says Mitch.
“You go inside and check in at the desk,” says a pleasant young man. “We carry your bags and park the car.”
“Thanks,” we say, getting out, stiff and wobbly from eight hours in the car, like astronauts after a moon flight.
“We’re strictly Motel 6 types,” Mitch says. The valets all laugh. It’s true. In our world, you speak through a little grill in bullet-proof glass to some guy in his underwear.
The lobby’s as big as a ballroom. There are tapestries and extravagant flower arrangements. The brass cart with our luggage on it has been wheeled in, waits in full view in the middle of the sumptuous carpet under the tree-sized chandelier. Our suitcases are new, and relatively presentable, but the white plastic grocery bags dangling from the coat rack, bulging with provisions bought at gas ‘n’ grubs on the road, are not exactly Louis Vuitton.
Later, we sit with drinks on our ninth-floor balcony. We actually have two balconies, but the sliding door to the other one is locked, to keep us from climbing over onto our neighbor’s balcony. Or vice versa. The city twinkles into infinity. Over there are the Hollywood hills, complete with the HOLLYWOOD sign from which starlets have plunged to their deaths. Over there is the amazingly small cluster of tall glass-and-steel city buildings that comprise the downtown. The night sky is low and opaque, a vast lid over the city glowing eerily grayish-orange with reflected light, U.F.O.s moving across it like tiny jewels in the distance. L.A. is such a mysterious mixture of the dying and poisonous and the seethingly alive.
I have a secret hankering for L.A. I love the crazy vegetation, the smells, the bungalows with grapefruit trees in the backyards. A friend who lives here thinks it’s a prime target for a suitcase nuclear device, actively frets about it. Sitting on the balcony tonight, I have to agree with him. It’s huge, chaotic, eminently vulnerable, and God knows it’s a hotbed of symbols of American empire. Yes. If I were bin Laden, I’d for sure follow up my east coast triumph with a little something on the west coast. And I’d definitely choose L.A. over San Francisco. A much better, more efficient hit. It makes perfect sense if you look at it through his eyes: First the Trade Towers, standing tall and phallic, defying gravity and the laws of physics, neatly-contained mega-hives of capitalism, American-style. Then, at the other end of the continent, complete the statement: L.A., messy and sprawling but equally potent. Tinseltown, epicenter of godless decadent fever dreams disseminated all over the globe. Disneyland, where giant obscene cartoon characters walk the earth. Beverly Hills, where brazen females named Zsa Zsa or Jayne or Mae wore white furs and drove white convertibles. A festering nest badly in need of a cleaning-out.
But probably not tonight.
We don’t just have a room, we have a suite. Not one, but two mammoth televisions, a palatial marble bathroom with a futuristic clear-glass scale and a telephone next to the Hush-Flush DeLuxe toilet. Towels too big, too thick, too luxuriant to actually dry yourself with. We’ve carefully crammed our baloney and cheese and beer into the mini-bar refrigerator, and have assiduously kept our paws off the snacks in there—or should I say “bait”—imported chocolate, teensy bottles of Grande Marnier and Johnny Walker, which make your hotel bill go ka-CHING! if you so much as touch them.
I spent a night in a different kind of hotel in this city a few years back. It was the kind of hotel where large women in bathrobes watched T.V. in the lobby. It was the kind of hotel where you shoved a dresser up against the door before retiring, after carefully ascertaining and committing to memory the location of the fire exit.
In the morning, I call my “media escort.” This is all new to me. My first two attempts to reach her cell phone get me an insurance agency and a beauty parlor. This city is so big that there are duplicate phone numbers distinguished from each other by area codes. I finally get her. She’s taking me to an interview.
“I love radio,” I say casually.
“Radio?” she says. “This is T.V.” Yikes!!! I scramble into different clothes, struggle with my hair. What do I do about the fatigue bags under my eyes? Nothing, that’s what.
The signing that evening is at a Borders in Torrance. The chairs are all set up in the center of the vast store. I have that empty feeling again. A handful of people show up, and once again they make up for lack of numbers with their intense attention.
Our cluster of chairs and people is like a village built in the middle of a polar bear migration route. Big mammals just keep on blundering through, undeterred. When two women walk by within a couple of feet of me while I’m reading, chattering away without pausing or adjusting the volume of their voices, I stop reading and glare at them malevolently. One of them notices, gives me a smirky oops-sorry look; her friend remains perfectly oblivious.
But my people—they love me. My intense little group glares along with me, and we eject the rude women. There’s a young man in the front row who gazes at me raptly while I read, and there are two sixtyish women clutching my book. There’s Mitch, the store manager, and a couple of younger women. After I’ve read, one of the younger women makes a sharply intelligent observation. It’s what I’ve been waiting to hear: This book is really about writers and the point of view of writers and how they react to a critical life situation.
Yes! Somebody got it! I beg her to post a reader’s review on Amazon. She says she will. One of the sixtyish women tells me she took care of her father with Alzheimer’s for seven years. Now she’s taking care of her mother.
The next night, a reading at Book Soup. This is a well-known independent bookstore in West Hollywood, famous for their events. One small problem, though. I won’t be reading at their main store. They’ve booked me at their second store, way out in Costa Mesa. We drive for more than an hour through never-never land post-apocalyptic sprawl to get there, and when we do, it’s even worse than I expected: the store’s in an indoor shopping mall, between a Victoria’s Secret and a Nike outlet. The manager of the store looks like a teenager. Acts like one, too. This is perfect. A teenage bookstore manager in a shopping mall. We sit around disconsolately for an extra thirty minutes, malaise seeping into the empty spaces around us, waiting for a purported busload of Alzheimer’s caregivers and clinicians who, says the managerette, called a while ago to ask for directions. I guess the bus got hijacked or drove off a freeway overpass, because they don’t show.
I end up reading to four people (not including Mitch), two of them the store manager and an employee, who both get up and wander away before I’m finished. That leaves two: one of them is a young woman who actually is a professional caregiver of some sort. The other is a sixtyish woman who gazes at me intently, clutching my book. I truncate the reading. I’m tired and I want to get out of there. The younger woman says she did a Google search on my name.
“You’re a pediatric nurse, right?” she asks.
“Perhaps in a parallel universe,” I say.
The sixtyish woman tells me that she’s taking care of her parents…
On to San Diego the next day. Now, San Diego would be one hell of a target, too, I think as we zip the rest of the way down I-5. Major, major military installations there, Navy and Marines. A lot of the planes, warships and personnel deploying to the Gulf are leaving from San Diego. A good number of those pictures we’ve seen in the papers—crying children saying good-bye to Daddy (or Mommy!), husbands and wives embracing next to a packed duffel bag—were no doubt taken in San Diego.
Those pictures bring us smack up against the “Support Our Troops” meme. Whoever thought up this little string of words was a genius. It’s a litmus test, a watershed and a holy invocation all at once. It’s code, a talisman, a devilishly clever tool of manipulation and exploitation, a testimonial to the power of semantics. “Support” is the key word here. I remember this slogan from the Vietnam days, and then the first Gulf war—and now it’s back, already popping up on bumper stickers and signs as the military ships out. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, we tend to “support our troops” mainly during controversial, unpopular wars. Certainly we supported the troops during WWII, but it went without saying. I doubt if anyone had the need to use that exact phrase, and if it was ever used, I’m equally sure it wasn’t used the way it’s used today. Back then, “support” literally meant “support:” victory gardens, scrap metal drives, Rosie the Riveter, war bonds, and reminders that Loose Lips Sink Ships. Today, it means: “We Don’t Question The Mission Or Allow Ourselves To Think For Even One Moment That Our Boys And Girls Might Be Sent To The Other Side Of The World To Fight And Die For No Good Reason Because That Would Be Too Terrible To Bear, Especially When They Start Coming Home In Boxes, And Anyone Who Suggests That They Might Be Dying For Nothing Or For The Profit Of Giant Corporations Or To Fulfill The Ambitions Of Secret Political Coalitions Is Spitting On Their Sacrifice And The Sacrifice Of Their Families And We Don’t Wish To Discuss The Matter.” All of that neatly conveyed by three words. Amazing. The countervailing “Support Our Troops—Bring Them Home” is a feeble bleat compared to the powerhouse original.
On the radio, we hear that Turkey wants a fat bribe in exchange for letting us use their bases for a northern assault on Iraq. Bush has already offered them 20 billion or something like that; they want twice that. I picture a man with a big belly and a fez, shaking his head sorrowfully, hands raised in helpless supplication: No, no. No good, you understand I have expenses too, I cannot do better than this, already I make sacrifices for you, my good friend, my very good friend…
And Bush has made his no doubt immortal remark comparing the ten-to-fifteen million peace demonstrators all over the world, the largest number of humans in the history of the planet to ever mobilize against a war, to a “focus group.” Awesome. Do you suppose he thought that one up himself?
The reading that night is excellent. There are ten or twelve people there. The young man who runs the store has actually read my book. Introducing me, he says that when he first saw the book he assumed it would be “sappy.” But, he says, he was disabused of that notion in the first paragraph.
A fire in a night club in Rhode Island the next day kills 96 people. A “Christian” website I happen upon features a photograph taken inside the club just as the fire began, before people knew that it was not planned pyrotechnics. It shows exultant arms raised high, a flaming cross behind the heavy-metal band. That was what started the fire that raced and raged through the club. The website’s message is basically: Beware His Wrath! NO MORE MR. NICE GOD!
Tariq Aziz, meantime, makes a pilgrimage to Rome to tell the Pope that an invasion of Iraq by coalition forces would be seen as a Christian attack on Islam. A car dealer on the east coast is lauded and reviled when he places an ad in the paper promising Saddam a new SUV every year if he gets out of Iraq the way Bush is telling him to. “Human shields” are convening in Baghdad. People are telling the Pope to get his ass to Iraq, too, and be the ultimate shield. Bush wouldn’t bomb the Pope, they all say.
A couple of days later, Mitch and I are in the L.A. airport. We’re flying to New York. We get there early, the way they tell you to do. While Mitch is dropping off the rental car, I wait and guard the baggage. A man wearing a pilot’s uniform welcomes people as they come through the doors. He looks about 89. His hands are spotted and trembling. Christ, isn’t he kind of old to be flying planes? The airport ambience and the smell of jet fuel already have my poor brain in its addled pre-flight date-with-doom mode. I look closer at the nameplate on the man’s jacket: Capt. Robert McCloskey, Retired. Phew! This is the first time I’ve seen an ancient out-to-pasture pilot hanging around the airport like a Wal-Mart greeter. He must have really loved it.
At 9 AM, we’re in an airport bar drinking vodka martinis. When I’m about to die, all rules are suspended. Including Atkins. We eat a huge plate of French Fries. I like the faux-night atmosphere in this cozy lounge, complete with jazzy music and dim lighting. No windows letting in annoying sunlight to remind you that it’s a beautiful brilliant day out there. In here, it’s always midnight. It seems that I’m not the only one with this anything-goes philosophy; all around us people are drinking beer, wine, hard liquor. We order another round of martinis. I feel…perfect.
Then, as if things weren’t perfect enough, a show starts on the lounge T.V.: “The World’s Strongest Men.” This is not anything official like Mr. Universe. The competitors are lifting car batteries, or big baskets of coins, one in each hand, arms extended straight out sideways or straight out in front of them for as long as they can, or with their jaws. The two man-mountains competing right now are Larry Kidney and Lars Powerlifter. Mr. Kidney lifts a 900-lb. basket of coins, holds it for a count of eight. Mr. Powerlifter can only hold it for four. His wife stands by being brave. Mr. Kidney prevails in the Car Battery event, too, while his own wife does a little victory shimmy and Mrs. Powerlifter bursts into tears when her husband drops the battery after a count of only three. Her face crumples and she bares her teeth, her glasses glinting, and for a second there she looks exactly like Teddy Roosevelt.
But the hands of the lounge clock move relentlessly forward, and there’s an airplane out there with my name on it. We emerge pale and blinking from the bar into the harsh cheerful light, and the death march begins in earnest. The part I particularly hate is walking down that long flimsy jointed carpeted tube into the plane, our feet making hollow thumps. I no longer feel perfect, nor do I even feel drunk; the engine of anxiety has burned up the alcohol completely. My mind’s begun its desperate flailing for reassurance: I fasten my eyes on the flocks of flight attendants wheeling their neat jaunty suitcases along, chattering and alive. Alive. I invoke Larry Kidney and Lars Powerlifter. No plane carrying a passenger who’d just watched those guys could possibly crash.
I have a surprisingly good time on the flight, despite the fact that the plane looks seedy and tired: chipped paint, frayed rugs. It’s American Airlines, which has suffered badly since 9/11, and looks it. I try not to think about underpaid, overworked, possibly bitter and angry maintenance crews. The weather’s clear across most of the vast continent and the wild spectacularness of the sights from 30,000 feet supersedes, for the most part, terror. Until we start the descent. This is always a dilemma for me: of course I want nothing more in the universe than to return to earth, but when I hear the engines change pitch and feel the machine losing altitude, electric jolts of adrenaline course through my bones and tissue and I will the plane back up into the sky. And the clouds below close up solid as we approach New York, so the plane drops and drops and drops through white opacity, bucking and bouncing, and I am silent, miserable, full of emptiness and panic until I see the ground, which takes for fucking ever, and then it’s the endless bleak urban winterscape of tangled highways, factories, cemeteries, refineries, power plants, pools of ugly black water, dead snow and row houses, as we lumber along, whining and straining, and then just when it looks as if we’re only about twenty feet from the ground with nowhere to go but into a parking lot of city buses, the runway, the blessed, beautiful runway, is there. And the wheels touch and the mighty engines go into reverse thrust, and I am alive.
Rain spatters the windows. I was born and raised in this part of the world. I know that sky, know how the air will smell.
I’ve been a little worried about the reading in my Connecticut home town. It’s fine to be a smarty-pants among strangers on the other side of the country, telling the unexpurgated, unladylike truth, holding forth loftily about literature and such, but there are people here who knew my mother for fifty and sixty years.
I’m not one hundred per cent sure I haven’t exploited my mother’s illness. It’s a question people I don’t know ask me occasionally after the readings: What would your mother think if she could read this book? I tell them that I learned everything I know at her knee, that her first novel was a roman à clef that had several women, including her sister, “recognizing” themselves as the anti-heroine and vying for the privilege of being outraged, that she dissected her disastrous second marriage and the husband along with it. It all went to serve her art. I’m doing my best to carry on a family tradition, I say. She’d be proud of me.
In one sense, I know it’s true. The thing my mother always wanted most for me was that I be fulfilled artistically. And my perception of art—what it is, its powers and privileges, its place in the world—was almost entirely shaped by my mother, especially my taste for the noir, with which the book is heavily laced. She’s actually responsible for this book. In another sense, I know I crossed some risky line of propriety in doing it the way I did, both in reconstructing her past and in detailing her decline. I had no choice. I had to.
Or did I? I arrive at the book store. People are crowding in. The weather is abominable—that combination of snow and freezing rain that you only get in the northeast, that brings back such fond memories—and people, half of them old, old friends of my mother’s, who’ve known me all my life, have eagerly come out in it to hear me read.
There’s one section I’ve been reading at all the book signings, and it’s always gone over really well: it’s about my mother as a wild young unfaithful wife when my father was teaching English at a local prep school. In the front row is a woman exactly my mother’s age. They’ve known each other since they were teenagers. This woman’s mind is perfectly intact, though she walks with a cane and great difficulty because of a hip replacement. Her own husband of almost sixty years, a dairy farmer, has recently died. She’s a wonderful woman, smart, kind, salt-of-the-earth. My mother had a full range of friends, from her arty intellectual crowd to the local plumber. This woman is a churchgoer, was married once and forever, has lived in the same house as long as I’ve known her. She knew my father well, remembers my parents as a couple (which I barely do). She’s right there in the front row of chairs. Suddenly I’m nervous at the prospect of reading aloud about my mother’s brazen cuckolding of my father so long ago. Can I count on them to get past the lurid exposé aspect to the “art?” I wonder for a moment if I’m insane. What have I done?
But my resolve returns as I work my way toward that section. The crowd has absorbed other stuff well—ignominious details of Alzheimer’s eating away at my mother’s life, dignity, soul—really tragic, sadly shocking stuff. I decide that these tough Yankees can take it. I’ll go ahead and restore her to the intact, sexy young red-hot adventuress that she was.
My mother’s old friend in the front row listens calmly, nods her head, says without words: Yes. That’s the Mary I knew and loved.
Afterward, they applaud, crowd around, tell me I’ve done a fine job, thank me. Then, as if in a standard-issue anxiety dream, my seventh-grade gym teacher is there. The last time I spoke to her was in the 1960s when I was going off to boarding school. She’d said, thoughtfully and really meaning it: “Good luck.” She congratulates me, tells me how great it was to get to know my mother better because of the book.
I still have, packed away somewhere, my diary from the seventh grade. Standing here now talking to my gym teacher, I’m ashamed of what I wrote about her back then. And where did I learn such language? Sheesh. You’d think I’d grown up on the docks in Trenton and not in a genteel little corner of Connecticut.
For a while there it was looking as if the war would start at exactly the same moment toward the end of February that an airplane—probably a shabby, beat-up one—with me on it would be descending from the sky over Washington D.C.
But then Saddam and I get a reprieve. Now Bush is saying he’ll let Blix do some more weapons inspections, give Iraq “one more chance” to disarm. The way Bush keeps moving the invasion date back makes me think that maybe we were right after all. He’s not really going to do it! It’s definitely looking to us like face-saving of the most basic kind. He couldn’t let it seem as if he was actually affected by the huge tide of world opinion (the “focus group”), but he obviously was, so now he has to do what any alpha primate does when he’s made a big display and then must retreat: roar, grimace, beat the ground with a stick. Fine, George, fine—whatever you need to do, we understand, this way you can get credit—respect, even—for being a tough guy without actually having to fight! A sweet deal all around, no one gets killed, and no one will think “W” stands for “Wimp!” Oops—did I say that?
With the New York reading and another reading in Connecticut (which went wondrously well, despite horrible weather, after the Hartford paper gave me a kick-ass review) under my belt, I’m lying in bed in the Hartford airport hotel. We got there around 2:00 AM. It’s almost 4:00 now, and I haven’t slept for even one second. Mitch has been asleep for maybe a half hour. The alarm is going to go off in about thirty minutes. Our flight to D.C. leaves at the brutal hour of 6:30.
My head is buzzing and vibrating. I’m not, as it turns out, finding a lot of comfort in the fact that the invasion has been put off. Who’s to say when a war actually begins? It’s like trying to figure out when your mother came down with Alzheimer’s. No wonder sleep deprivation is a major tool in torture-interrogation. It’s the quickest, most efficient route to mental breakdown. The immune system of the mind, which maintains the delicate balance of brain chemistry that allows us the illusion that things are “fine,” disintegrates with breathtaking ease. Mental functions are raw and exposed, have no protection at all from queasy reality.
I’ve discovered that we’re flying to D.C. on U.S. Airways. They can’t fool me. I know that this is the renamed USAir, famous for one of its planes taking a long vertical nosedive into the Pennsylvania woods back in ’94. A huge mess. Their second wreck in a couple of months that year. Photos I’ve seen of airplanes in trouble right before a crash are rising up in my brain. There’s the famous snapshot of a jet that collided with a Beechcraft over San Diego. Its wing is on fire, and it’s plummeting at a crazy angle. You know that the shiny aluminum tube is full of screaming humans. Never mind all those pictures, taken from at least ten different vantage points, of the planes flying into the towers in New York. Perfectly functioning planes. Never mind them. Stay away from those. Think about ValuJet. Went down in a swamp in Florida in ’96. ValuJet—no way, José. It’d take Hutu tribesmen at my heels with machetes and Ebola to get me onto something called “ValuJet.” But you’re getting on USAir, idiot. They’re way worse than ValuJet, you might as well fly Aeroflot, probably in Chapter 11 like all the others. And why? What are you doing here, anyway? Putting your fragile little existence into a tin can thousands of feet above the earth, in the middle of winter, in the murky heavily trafficked skies over the Capitol, where sinister plans are hatching like alien eggs, now, of all times in history, to promote your book? You’re really asking for it. You’re a damned fool…a damned doomed fool…you’re…
The alarm goes off just as I drift over the line. It’s still dark. But not for long. Dawn: That’s when they come for condemned prisoners.
The plane doesn’t crash, though it’s a wild bumpy ride that has me clawing at the window. I feel bad for Mitch. When I’m rested, I can be stoic. Without sleep, everything’s on display. My raveled sleeve of care is in shreds.
I have a friend in D.C. whom I’ve known for more than ten years but never laid eyes on. We first got acquainted when he wrote a letter to me and a coauthor about a historical novel we wrote, set in T’ang China.
His letter was superbly written, his comments those of a cultured, wise, seriously literate, educated, worldly and sharply intelligent person. He’s a lawyer. We became pen pals and then e-mail pals over the years. I spoke to him on the phone a few times. He had a sly, original wit. Every year, even though he knew I wouldn’t be able to attend, he’d send me an invitation to his annual midnight pilgrimage to drink chilled martinis on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave. He’ll be coming to my reading. We’ll meet at last.
It starts to snow that day. A few gentle drifting flakes, then a few more, a definite persistence that a born-and-bred easterner like me knows is going to get serious. I grab a few hours of sleep, do my radio interview, feel vastly better as reading time rolls around.
They tell me at the store that they’ve sold a lot of books, but the heavy wet snow is piling up and only a few people show. Fine, it doesn’t matter. By now I’m an expert at making the most of a minimal turnout. One of them is a sixtyish woman.
And there’s my e-mail pal. He’s dressed more like a teacher than a lawyer—a slightly rumpled look that I know and appreciate. He stands to greet me, and finds himself having to look up a couple of inches. It’s obvious that he didn’t expect me to be quite so tall. I am mildly startled for a moment to see that he’s wearing a yarmulke. As far as I knew, he was a Taoist or something along those lines. Otherwise, each of us seems to be pretty much what the other anticipated.
We go out afterwards for drinks and talk. He’s always been enigmatic about his politics. My impression has been that he’s a mix, a libertarian sort with a streak of tongue-in-cheek conservatism. Certainly he is not a social conservative. Our communications over the years have made that perfectly plain. He’s very hip, daring, a touch of wild with some definite “outlaw” tendencies. He knows I’m a bleeding-heart liberal or worse, enjoys twitting me with little is-he-or-isn’t-he tidbits of contrariness. What he likes about my personal brand of liberalism (or whatever you want to call it), I believe, is that it’s rogue, undogmatic, irreverent, non-PC-knee-jerk.
I must leave the bar and walk a couple of blocks in the snow to the hotel to take a call from a radio station. When I get back, the bar is closing, and my friend has to get home, so I only have a few minutes to talk with him. Back in the hotel, Mitch tells me that he was puzzled by my friend launching into a fairly pedantic and long-winded monologue about the history of Israel and his own ancestral roots. I missed that part.
We leave D.C. by train the next day and head for North Carolina and a reading in Raleigh. Current statistics say that 60% of Americans are overweight. It seems to be true, and it’s especially noticeable when you travel. You see occasional very big people on airplanes, but not nearly as many as you do on trains and buses. I’m not sure what the explanation might be for this (though I have a few theories), but it’s so.
Several women with astonishingly large, 4H-Club-blue-ribbon-prize-winning rear ends packed into skin-tight jeans move down the aisle of the train. Mitch and I are seated, so those rear ends are right at our eye-level and only inches away from us. We nudge each other and mutter: “Atkins alert!” A man who must be six-five and at least three hundred fifty pounds can barely squeeze himself through the door between the cars.
You become almost messianic about Atkins. You experience an urge to spread the Good News: Brothers and sisters! There is only one true Way! Have you heard the word? You want to sidle up to people encased in fat and whisper: “Atkins shall set you free!” Of course, you don’t. It would be dreadfully rude, so you just mind your own business and fantasize about it.
We’re feeling pretty smug. We’ve managed to more or less stick to low-carb eating on this trip. It’s not easy when you’re away from home. Part of the spread-the-word impulse that comes with Atkins is that your eyes are opened for the first time to the insidious ubiquity of junk carbs—they’re absolutely everywhere, especially in road food. Avoid those carbs, and you’re slim as a movie star. The other urge, naturally, is to simply keep it your secret and let people wonder. I’ve come to call it the “Vampire” diet. You feel as if you’re cheating in a similar sort of way: Gee, how do you stay so young-looking, century after century? Oh, I just take good care of myself, the vampire answers, with an enigmatic little smile.
The avoirdupois of our fellow-Americans is truly alarming. It’s on display to the whole world. The pictures we see of angry mobs in middle eastern countries are always of lean, fiercely hungry-looking young men. It’s an unnervingly classic juxtaposition.
Our hostess in Raleigh is a fellow writer. We’ve landed in the lap of true southern hospitality. Not only does she meet our train, feed us, put us up in her house and throw us a party, but she takes us to two different theatrical events.
Raleigh is a nest of progressivism. There’s a war protest in the form of a marathon reading of “Lysistrata” going on at another college in the city. Bush has told Saddam that he’s just about plumb out of patience; that now the only way to avert war is for Saddam to step down. Saddam responds by crushing some missiles with a bulldozer in the presence of U.N. weapons inspectors. Bush the squinty-eyed artificial Texas gunslinger (he’s actually a Connecticut Yankee; takes one to know one) says, Sorry, not good enough, and promises to oust the low-down varmint “within weeks” if he doesn’t get out of Dodge and take his boys with him. High Noon is moved up to mid-March. I’m still thinking never, hanging on tight to the notion, and I’m beginning to think I’ll make it home.
Raleigh is the perfect wind-up for this trip. Here, in the lower latitudes, at the very beginning of March, it’s spring. Blue skies, warm sweet fragrant air, daffodils. We decide we can’t face returning to New York to fly back to California. It’s not just that the weather is still lousy up north. It’s also that we’ve reached the point that travelers reach where all you want to do is go home, where the idea of packing and hauling and unpacking even one more time is utterly exhausting. Our round-trip ticket has us leaving from JFK. I call the publicity guy and ask if we can leave from Raleigh. He says he can arrange it. One little problem, though—American Airlines, with whom we hold our return tickets, has no nonstops from Raleigh to SFO. We’ll have to fly to St. Louis and change planes.
Change planes. These are the words we fear-of-flying types dread. It means two take-offs and two landings, and it always involves some heartland airport. We fear mid-continent airports more than we fear seaboard airports. Don’t ask why; we just do. It’s a measure of my desire to just get it over with that I agree. Okay. All right. Let’s do it. We’ll fly out of North Carolina on the fourth of March.
The 9/11 hijackers surely chose American and United because of their names, not just because they both fly coast to coast and so were carrying a big load of fuel. Flight 93 out of Newark to SFO is one I’ve been on many times myself. The view of Manhattan when you’re taking off is stupendous. As it surely was on that morning. And surely the hijackers must have been certain that Allah was on their side, giving them such a perfect blue day, like an invitation to Paradise.
We’re coming into St. Louis. I can see the arch below us, with its unfortunate resemblance to the McDonald’s trademark. I can see the Mississippi, broad and brown, and the very highway I’ve driven more times than I can count, on various youthful cross-country road trips. The weather’s fine, the ride is smooth. We’re descending. The captain has given us his “Welcome to St. Louis;” they always do this while you’re still way up in the air and going a couple hundred miles an hour, and I always think: Yeah, right, get those wheels on the tarmac and then we’ll talk about it.
Down we go. Down, down. The upper floors of airport buildings are racing along outside the windows. I’m a hyper-tuned machine. The wheels should be touching at any moment. Any moment. But…we’re still roaring along, faster now, definitely gaining speed, and…we’re climbing. Back up into the sky. Fuck me! We’re going back up. My nails sink deep into the flesh of Mitch’s arm.
“What’s going on?” I say through my teeth as the plane ascends at a sharp angle. The other passengers are showing mild interest.
“I don’t know,” Mitch says. Mitch is a pilot. He loves to fly.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” says the captain. “You may have noticed that we didn’t land.” Great. He’s trying for levity. “The bulb that’s supposed to light up to tell us that the landing gear is engaged and locked in place failed to come on. We just flew by the tower and they told us the wheels are down and everything looks fine, but we’re going to change the bulb. Once the bulb is lit, we’ll land. Shouldn’t be more than a few minutes.”
The unthinkable unspoken here, of course, is that if they put in a new bulb and it doesn’t light up, then the landing gear might not be locked. And then what? How many pilots does it take to screw in a light bulb?
We are circling. We’re in a plane that might not be able to land, and we’re circling in the sky over St. Louis. The arch, which was right below us a few minutes ago, is now way the hell off in the distance. The right wing, the one I’m sitting close to, is tipped down, giving me a vertiginous view of the city.
I feel sorry for the plane, sorry for the city below, sorry for the human race and all the creatures who must live under our boot heel. Forget Tilt-a-Whirls and roller coasters. This is the Real-Life Silent Planet Entropy Ride: In the heroic configuration and staggering complexity of the airliner I’m on, and in the soaring design of the arch down there, human aspirations, yearnings, dreams, visions are plain to see. In the stupid predicament we’re in, circling around while they change a light bulb, and in the decaying smoggy sprawl of St. Louis, chaos and failure are even plainer. Like someone whose lips are turning blue because of lack of oxygen, the airline, the city and the country are cyanotic from lack of a critical life-giving substance: money. The supply has been severely pinched off. Everything’s running on Empty, starved, skating along on the edge of bankruptcy. And where’s all the money going? How much are they saying this war might cost?
A flight bound from Raleigh, NC, to St. Louis, MO, was forced to make an emergency landing today on a foam-covered runway while rescue vehicles stood by…
Just kidding. We land with no problem. Fly on to SFO, where the publicity guy has arranged for a hired car to pick us up. The driver had no idea he’d be driving for four and a half hours on steep, twisting roads into the deep, dark back woods of Northern California. He’s just a little bit freaked out.
“Are we almost there?” he keeps asking.
“Oh, just another hour or so,” we say.
I have dirt on my lips from kissing the ground.
Sometime in March, as the drums for war beat louder, though I still haven’t given up thinking it won’t really happen, an odd term enters my peripheral vision and starts flying around like a miniature heat-seeking missile: Neo-con. I first come across it in the anti-war writings circulating heavily on the Web. What the hell is a neo-con? I quickly learn that the “con” part of it stands for “conservative.” “Neo,” of course, means “new” or “recent.” The New Oxford American Dictionary even has a definition of “neoconservative:” “…a return to a modified form of a traditional viewpoint.”
According to the things I’m reading, neo-cons seem to be an intellectual, small but politically powerful coterie in and around Washington who would like, among other things, to rearrange the Middle East in a particular way. They have been around for at least a couple of decades, working behind the scenes with a specific, focused agenda. There are several of them in Bush’s cabinet.
Identifying these birds is a lot like standing in the woods with binoculars and a field guide. You must look for certain distinguishing characteristics to separate them from other species they closely resemble. Watch for a tiny vestigial crest of pinkish feathers: A true neo-con, I learn, was once a liberal. Somewhere along the way, neo-cons crossed over, converted, got born again. A lot of them still enjoy the company of their liberal friends, though. I think of my e-mail pal in Washington, D.C.
I start to get a seriously uneasy feeling that I—and all peaceniks—have been pathetically naïve in believing that a huge tide of world opinion would actually influence events. Peace envoys from the Vatican traveling to Washington? The failure of the administration to secure votes on the UN Security Council? Damaged relations with our allies abroad? None of it means a thing.
We’re making stupid arrogant jokes about the French. We eat “Freedom Fries.” The level of discourse is sinking fast, gelling into something codified, dumbed-down, and scarily, loutishly focused. Bush the Executioner is now simply saying we’re going to “kill” Saddam.
A couple of days after Powell says we’re “ready to strike,” horrendous windstorms in Kuwait howl through U.S. military installations there. A warning from Allah, says Saddam. Bush is saying that he was “chosen by God” for this mission and that he “prays every day.” And I see how it works. This is the theological dimension of that simplistic, moron-level political discourse: People are literally picturing all this in terms of Battling Gods. It’s Jehovah vs. Allah, our God against their God, colossal invisible supernatural entities up there in the sky with glistening oiled chests and shimmering flowing robes, crowns, swords, scimitars, flinging badmouth insults and challenges at each other—Axis of Evil! Great Satan!—like Gorgeous George and Hulk Hogan before the Round of the Century while the crowd roars itself into a brute frenzy. And the vast opposing armies of believers are their instruments of combat.
We tell the Turks we don’t need them after all, they can forget that 20 billion or whatever. They had their chance, and they blew it. The term “shock and awe” is let loose. It shocks and awes. I read an online article about Marines on their way to the Gulf getting a sort of “Death 101” course. They learn about mortal wounds, body bags, insects, rates of bloat and decomposition, etc. Nice. Very nice.
Still, I hope. We watch the news and wait. Mitch and I occasionally descend to a sort of brutish level of Atkins. Whipped cream, for instance, is allowed, as long as you don’t have carbs along with it. We’re not above using the stuff that squirts from a can; one night while CNN brings us the latest discouraging word, we pass the almost-empty can back and forth, sucking the last of the whipped cream directly from the plastic nipple. Somebody has to maintain the standards of Western Civilization.
Now the deadline is March 17. Then Bush gives Saddam another 48 hours to pack up and leave. Uday Hussein tells Bush to leave America and take his family with him. I think: Now, there’s an idea. 48 hours come and go, and then, late on the 19th, Bush gives the order and they go in. And we learn that our praying president pumped the air with his fist and said: “Feels good!” I’ll bet it did.
We have an e-mail exchange with my literate, subtle, educated, brilliant friend in Washington. He says that all the “hippies” who protested the war—and he adds that he actually sort of likes hippies under certain circumstances—should put aside their “hatred of America” and not, at least for the time being, “bite the hand that feeds them.” Hippies? You mean, like, George McGovern, we ask? He replies that he voted for McGovern himself, but that was a long time ago, he’s mended his ways, McGovern is old, has become “hopelessly partisan.” When Mitch posits that the demonizing of Saddam Hussein in this country has been mainly for political purposes, and that we really ought to learn more about him, my friend responds that he, Mitch, should put aside his “hatred of America” for a couple of weeks. And he ends his note with a sneer: “Visualize world peace, Dude.”
So, it’s all quite simple: Either you “love” America, and “support” the war, or you “hate” America, “love” Saddam and “don’t support” the war. Flags are flying. It’s the Vietnam era redux: Love It Or leave It, My Country Right Or wrong, These Colors Don’t Run, and of course, my favorite: Support Our Troops. It’s all back, with a vengeance. Brother against brother. We can settle comfortably and uncomplicatedly into Being John Wayne. Feels good.
I must make one more airplane trip. I’m going to Toronto at the end of March to speak to an Alzheimer’s Symposium. Now there’s something else rearing its little ugly head in the news, between stories about Iraq: SARS. Guess where it debuted in North America?
What is this game Fate seems to playing with me? I’ve never been to Toronto in my life. Now, the one time I’m going, not only are the Canadians annoyed with Americans, but there are rumblings and mumblings about some nasty, highly contagious disease.
But I’m feeling brave these days. I actually enjoy the flight, because I read up on Air Canada and discover it has an almost perfect safety record. Their planes are new and shiny. And it’s not, you know, American. The Great Lakes from the air thrill me.
They put me up in the Royal York, which makes the place in L.A. look like a fleabag. I get fresh perspective on the war from Canadian newspapers and T.V. I Bush-bash freely with the Canadians. No one accuses me of hating America or of being a Saddam-lover. No one takes anything out on me. I see a cab driver wearing a turban and a surgical mask. I drink wine in my hotel room one night, imagine a quarantine, I’m not allowed to leave the country, I must live in the Royal York indefinitely, we’re so sorry, Miss Cooney, we’ll make your stay as comfortable as possible…
I watch a TV news story about an incinerated bride in Pakistan. She’s in some filthy little hospital with heat and flies, burned all over her body. Her father and brother threw gasoline on her and lit a match because she tried to run away from the revolting, cruel old husband they’d forced her to marry. She’s outraged as much as she’s in pain, panting out her story in a terrible, strained voice, wanting justice more than anything else. Her mother sits on the bed and cries. They tell us the girl died the day after the video was made. No one was ever brought to account. I’m a bit drunk; I blubber in the semi-darkness in front of the TV. If the war had anything to do with pushing back this kind of medieval chimpanzee barbarism, I’d be all for it. But it doesn’t. Nor does it have anything to do with “fighting terrorism.” We cozy up disgustingly to al-Qeada-breeding countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where women are livestock, where being female is a crime in itself, punishable by death. Invite them to the ranch for a freaking barbecue.
For about an hour, I am quite sure I feel a scratchiness in my chest. I cough, testing it. Yes. Definitely. The first symptoms of SARS. I drink some more wine. I wake up the next morning and my chest feels fine.
I’m anticipating health questions at the airport, but there are none at all. They confiscate my bottle of mouthwash and send me on my way.
In early April, I find myself on a supremely Bokononist (See CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut) adventure: I’m doing a reading for a Rotary Club luncheon in a wealthy town in the Napa Valley. After the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, I hastily flip through the book looking for alternate selections to some of the excerpts I’ve been reading in bookstores. I decide to skip, for instance, the grimly amusing story of how Chapter 1 came to be called “God is a Murderer.”
A few days later, I do a reading in a bookstore in another town. It’s pouring rain. I get there early, and have some time to wander around. I come across the brand-new Atkins book. It has an updated photograph of him wearing a black turtleneck. Looking good, Bob, I say to the photograph. Several of the people attending the reading are seriously overweight. I feel the hollow superiority of the svelte.
Afterwards, I get a cup of coffee and sit in my car reading the paper until the rain lets up. And there’s a headline: Diet Doctor in Coma. I’m stunned, taken completely by surprise. I read on: Atkins slipped on the sidewalk in New York last Tuesday (the day I was reading to the Rotarians) after a freak spring snow and bashed his head. He’s not expected to recover.
On the same day that I learn of the fall of Dr. Atkins, the statue of Saddam in Baghdad topples. Looting gets a little out of hand; people “celebrating their freedom,” as our Secretary of Defense puts it, swarm into the National Museum of Iraq and carry off priceless ancient gold treasures as well as office chairs and computers. The big main oil refinery, though, is untouched, well protected by American soldiers. We see pictures of Americans lounging around one of Saddam’s ruined palaces on his ugly furniture. The real Saddam is nowhere to be found, dead or alive.
On April 17th, Atkins dies. And I come across another news story, from weeks before, that hits me even harder and in a more sensitive place: A young first-time novelist and both her parents were killed in a small-plane crash in North Carolina on March 14.
She was on her own home-made book tour because her publisher had not sprung for a real book tour.
Her father was flying the plane.