A few weeks ago in New York, I stumbled on a terrific little work of philosophy: "Taxi Driver Wisdom." Among such gems as "Bike messengers, they hunt death," I found this cheering advice: "Never be ashamed of anything you love."
In that spirit, I've decided to come clean about my television habits, about which I've long been furtive. To begin with -- I actually watch it, which still carries a whiff of shame in certain circles. I always remember the dowager on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show," who upon meeting Rob Petrie trilled: "I don't even own a television machine." I do, and I keep it in the kitchen. Cooking is boring, especially mine, and Simpsons reruns are serendipitously scheduled to coincide with dinner prep.
Still, it stung when a friend recently accused me of destroying the television drama in favor of reality programming. (Sheesh, watch the last 15 minutes of Joe Millionaire and you're suddenly taking food out of David Kelley's mouth.) I have the usual yuppie love for HBO's original series -- The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City -- not to mention that weird female obsession with Law & Order (original only), so wonderfully spoofed by Michael Kinsley.
True, I am on the record as loathing The West Wing and I've managed to never watch a single episode of Six Feet Under, NYPD, CSI or The Practice. But I did take Kingpin into my heart. It wasn't head-over-heels love, more of a slow-dawning thing. "Gee, you're such good company, and I sort of miss you when you're not around, and I find myself watching your reruns on Bravo and OHMIGOD SHOOT THE GUY WITH THE GARLIC AGAIN." I'm bummed about the dog in episode three, much more so than I was about the DEA agent who was fed to the tiger in episode one -- and yes, I realize that makes me no different from mystery readers who can't stand to see a cat harmed, but cheer on serial killers. Still, Yancey Arias is as good-looking as Henry Cisneros thought he was and all the actors are top-notch, especially Shay Roundtree as Junie, and Sheryl Ralph as Marlene. Hey NBC -- more Kingpin, por favor.
If confession is good for the soul, then I should be saintly after admitting that I am probably the only person of my generation who regularly watches the various mutant offspring spawned by BMP and its protégés -- that's Bunim-Murray Productions to you neophytes, the masterminds behind The Real World and Road Rules, and their various mutant offspring. I have many rationalizations for this, but the point of this exercise is to eschew rationalization, right?
I flat-out love these shows, although I have bailed on The Real World-Las Vegas because I fear you can get an STD just by watching it. I also follow the Real World/Road Rules Battle of the Sexes, although the real treat is the weekly update by Melissa-NO. The girl has a definite style. Sorority Life -- still MTV, different production company -- has its pleasures, too, although a friend has pointed out that this season has a creepy vibe. And the new boy on the block, Fraternity Life, answers once and for all the question of whether straight men can be bitchy. Mos def, dude, say the backward-baseball cap-wearing pledges of Buffalo, New York.
The rest of reality television leaves me cold, perhaps because a writer's solitary lifestyle allows one to eschew water-cooler programming without peer penalty. (I could gather at the coffee pot to discuss last night's television, but it would be a rather lonely affair.) Then again, the advantage of a writer's life is I keep my own hours. Which allows me, every day at midday, to take a break for lunch and catch the first half-hour of the vintage Columbo episodes on Bravo. The newer Columbos don't do it for me, but the old ones are wonderful, especially if Jack Cassidy plays the villain, and that villain works in publishing. I love watching the over-intellectualized, hubristic criminals plot their elaborate alibis. Really, they should do it the Baltimore way: Have no witnesses, get rid of the weapon, tell no one. It may not make for great television, but it's your best bet for getting away with murder.
All of this begs two questions: When do I read? Actually, more than I watch television, especially when online reading is factored in, but I am in a bad patch this month. I enjoyed The Devil in the White City and admired Le Mariage, although I now accept I'm simply not Francophile enough for Diane Johnson's work, smart and well-crafted as it is. Otherwise, I've been on a losing streak, putting down two novels in a row and trudging through a third. (I won't sully these books just because they failed to engage me. A lot of reading is like dating; sometimes you just don't click.) I have found some solace in re-reading Patrick Dennis's Tony and Ruth McKenney's Love Story, the beautiful memoir of her marriage. McKenney is best known for My Sister Eileen, but this out-of-print book is my favorite of her works.
The second question: Am I watching the war? No. I don't like the television coverage of the war, which strikes me as frenetic and without context. I read the New York Times and listen to NPR, and that's about all I can take. This does make me feel ashamed, sometimes, but I found unexpected comfort in McKenney's book. (A little context, McKenney and her husband were radicals, both interested in labor issues. Mike Lyman also was a longtime editor at the New Masses.)
(copyright Ruth McKenney, 1950, published by Harcourt, Brace and Co.)
"Perhaps it was wrong to be happy, in 1940; ignoble to have cared about dogwoods. Yet even for intellectuals -- and Mike and I were never dispassionate -- there is a strong continuing rhythm of life. One thinks, one imagines, one suffers, one puzzles to make sense of history; and all the time there is a living to make, books to get written, delphiniums to be separated, people up for the weekend, the pump gone wrong again . . . It cannot be ignoble to plant lilacs, not in 1940, not 1949, not in any year. A man must do his duty (as he sees it); and for the men and women born any time between 1900 and 1920, duty has often meant death and, at the very least (as in our case), anguish and uncertainty and a troubled heart. A man must do his duty; in between times, it is surely not heartless to think of pink dogwood or even love.
So we planted lilacs."
"What He Needed," my contribution to the Tart Noir anthology, has been
nominated for an Agatha. I've always said the Malice Domestic attendees are a
broad-minded bunch, and I'm pleased they recognized a story from this
wonderfully edgy collection. (Okay, I'm especially pleased because it was
mine, but I would have been happy to see any of these fine stories
nominated.) The Agathas are given out at the annual Malice Domestic
convention, held May 2-4 this year in Crystal City, VA. It's a good time.