I used to worship the face in the mirror. He was the only god around. Year after year I made my sacrifice. Year after year he looked at me and frowned.
I turn my back on the storyteller. Same old story. I turn my back on the naysayer. What is it about the word yes he doesn’t understand?
The odds of dying in a plane crash are supposed to be 1 in 20,000, but I don’t find that figure reassuring. Every time I board a plane, I assume my chances are 50-50: either the plane lands safely, or it doesn’t. During takeoff yesterday, my anxiety level rising faster than a jet at full throttle, I closed my eyes and prayed for a safe flight, uncertain which I found more unbelievable: that God was listening or that a machine that weighed two hundred tons was lifting me into the sky.
I don’t pray to a sanitized God, an airbrushed God, the God of the silver screen. I pray to the God who put the green into nature and fire into the tongues of men; to the God of ceaseless change, who gives with one hand and smites with the other; to the God of the concentration camps and to the God of the bullies so many of my Jewish brethren have become. I pray for the humanitarians and I pray for the barbarians and I pray to stop pretending I can always tell them apart.
There’s an undeniable deadline for everything on my to-do list: on the day I die what’s unfinished will remain unfinished. Because I don’t know when that deadline is, it seems less real to me than my monthly deadlines at The Sun. But it’s unquestionably more real, as real as Death’s bad breath and Death’s bad manners and Death’s inexcusably bad timing; as real as all the different clocks in all the different time zones agreeing on one thing: sixty minutes in an hour, not fifty-nine or — don’t hold your breath — sixty-one; twenty-four hours in a fleeting day; and one of those days will be my last, my nonnegotiable deadline. Extra time for good behavior? Fat chance. A note from my doctor insisting that a cure is just around the corner? George Soros’s checkbook? Frank Sinatra’s bodyguards? Maybe I can hire a couple of Borscht Belt comedians to entertain Death long enough for me to slip out the back door. But the door is locked and rigged with explosives. The sign reads: “No exit. Turn around. Face death like a man.” Meanwhile the comedians are on a roll. Death hasn’t laughed this much since Timothy Leary gave serious thought to having his brain frozen so he could come back to life one day like a popsicle on a stick.
I’m lying in bed with my cat Franny on top of me. I should get up and drive to town. I should roll up my sleeves and put out a magazine. Franny looks at her watch. (It was a birthday gift; she loves it.) She wonders how much longer I’m going to lie here, as if I have all the time in the world.
What the writer in your life might like next holiday season: a singing dictionary; a state-of-the-art computer that corrects thoughts before they’re fully formed; a magic wand that turns first drafts into bestsellers; a mattress that shapes itself not only to your body but to your dreams, and every morning provides a concise summary of the night’s events from both a Freudian and a Jungian perspective.
I don’t remember what I dreamt last night, or whether I stayed close to home or went to another galaxy or to another dimension. I don’t remember if I was dressed for success or showed up in jeans and a t-shirt for a meeting with my dead ancestors, and if so, whether they nagged me again about my shabby wardrobe. I don’t remember if I was given an important message for my readers or a parking ticket or a sexually transmitted disease — dream herpes, say. I don’t remember if the economy was doing any better in dreamland, or if dream Republicans in Congress were making our lives more of a nightmare. I don’t remember if The Sun had millions of subscribers or if I had to stand on a street corner on one of the poorest planets in the Milky Way and sell enough issues to be able to afford a bowl of rice and dreams.
When we stand before God, does it matter if we’re dressed in the robes of a sinner or the rags of a saint? When our last garment falls away, what matters is that we’re naked.
The woman asked me what kind of writers I’m looking for. I don’t remember what I told her. This is what I wish I’d said: I’m looking for a writer who doesn’t know where the sentence is leading her; a writer who starts with her obsessions and whose heart is bursting with love; a writer sly enough to give the slip to her secret police, the ones who know her so well, the ones with the power to accuse and condemn in the blink of an eye. It’s all right that she doesn’t know what she’s thinking until she writes it, as if the words already exist somewhere and draw her to them. She may not know how she got there, but she knows when she’s arrived.
I’ll start with gratitude. You can never go wrong with thank you. Since I woke up with a headache, I can be thankful I have a head. I can be thankful my head is where it belongs, that I’m a man with a head on his shoulders and not up in the clouds. Does my head hurt because I stayed up late last night drinking wine and smoking marijuana with an old friend? Thank you for the vineyards. Thank you for the seedlings, and thank you for the buds. When I got home, Norma was sleeping. Thank you for the moonlight on her long, dark hair.