Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Cradle to Grave

The first person I befriended exclusively on the internet, Julie, was the friend to whom I was referred by a former colleague of mine because Julie happened to attend a law school in the southwest to which I was applying. My friend connected Julie and me, and she and I enjoyed a long conversation and flirtation via email without once hearing each other's voices, something that began as a sort of accident but became a ritual. In those months we invented an alternate reality, a world with its own religions and myths and superstitions, and we honored them with the same unwavering devotion as primitive farmers do the god of the harvest. Eventually, we met, and I spent a week (sleeping on the couch, alas) in her cramped studio apartment feeling increasingly uncomfortable with my own imposition. Eventually, we drifted apart; she graduated and took a position on the west coast, while I demurred on choosing a law school, and ultimately stayed in Pittsburgh. We probably have not talked in two years. That long story, however, is nothing I need to rehash or you need to hear.

I was reminded of her this evening when I finally worked my way through yesterday's Sunday Times. When we first corresponded, Julie described for me her passion for the Times, the Sunday edition of which she jokingly called her "woobie," and which she carried with her each sunday to her favorite cafe, where she sat and read at a chrome-rimmed formica table over a latte and in spite of the occasional brazen advances of alt-rock undergrads in mop tops and distressed denim with wallet chains hanging from hip to knee. We mused at the symmetry of our respective Sunday rituals, although in my case rather than fending off the importunings of others I espied from behind the Week in Review week after week the same line-up of attractive cafe denizens and crafted scripts in silence for how I would approach, imagining everything from the first clever, knowing, and self-effacing shot I would fire across her bow to our move, years hence, to Seattle, our children in private school, and our proud early retirement, children safely ensconced in the Ivy League and us in our retirement aerie overlooking Puget Sound. Then I would pause to wonder whether Puget Sound was really all that lovely, whether I'd like it, whether I'd find the raw, moist chill an inconvenience as the first licks of arthritis dried my joints. Then, more often than not, my future bride would finish her coffee, look at her watch, politely bus her dishes near the front of the cafe, and leave for the Shadyside street, leaving meaching in my bereavement, the examined life unlived.

But except in this regard, our rituals ran parallel. Julie told me she most enjoyed the obituaries, which struck me as odd. But I have always been nervous that the secret discoveries and preoccupations of others constitute things I'm missing, important things at that, and so I began paying more attention to the Obituary section. And indeed, like some sort of marooned would-be novelist cliche, I found in the enterprising writings of the death notices glimmers of poetry, hints of the aspirations of the authors, as well as fascinating hindsight glimpses into the lives of the memorable but largely unremembered.

Consider yesterday's headlines: Victorio de los Angeles, Soprano, Dies at 81; or how about Elizabeth Janeway, 91, Critic, Novelist and an Early Feminist; or perhaps Danny Sugerman, 50, Fan and Manager of Doors; and finally, Gerald Roberts, 85, Longtime Rodeo Star. Aside from the initial conclusion these obituaries suggest -- that rock and roll is a more hazardous trade to ply than bull riding -- what unites these four obituaries, at least for me, is that I've heard of none of them. Nevertheless, here they are, the four people the Newspaper of Record identified as the most relevant, the most notable, people to die in the prior few days. But get this: Sugerman, aside from being affiliated with the Doors from the age of 14, when he was hired by Morrison to put together a band scrapbook, was married at his death to Fawn Hall, perhaps the most infamous admin ever. And what of Roberts? He stunt doubled for Jack Lemmon, among others. Janeway kept counsel, and indeed kept company, with Betty Friedan. Gloria Steinem, and Kate Millett (though I must confess, if I were reading Millett's obit today instead of Janeway, it would suit my purposes equally well, since I've never heard of her either). Furthermore, Janeway defended Nabokov's Lolita, one of my 'desert island books,' against the censorship it once faced in this country. About de los Angeles, this delightful passage:

To some tastes, Ms. de los Angeles lacked temperament. By her own admission she was not an intellectually probing artist. But at her best she was an exquisite, unmannered, and deeply communicative singer. On stage, with her black hair, gleaming eyes and broad smile, she projected an openness and naivete that, coupled with her creamy voice, audiences adored.

I am woefully ignorant of opera, and so much of this terminology sounds like the rarefied argot of a wine connoiseur. Indeed, I wonder whether the obituary author ever heard de los Angeles sing, or simply worked from notes and the impressions of others.

Regardless, the pleasure in obituaries that Julie revealed to me, their unique lyricism, is not really what grasped me to day. Rather, it was this contrast: I have come to prefer the Sunday Styles wedding notices to the obituaries. The obits provide a usually favorable, never jaundiced view of the subject's life without the inconvenience of any prospect that the subject will deviate from the script; the target is a sitting duck. Marriages, new and old, are moving targets, and yet in the wedding notices one finds the same narrative conceit: a relationship and a nuptial frozen in time, described by reference to two converging trajectories, and informed by the assumption that one trajectory will thereafter suffice to account for both, the wedding vow at its most aspirational.

I'm also fascinated by the choice of feature wedding, the one of a dozen or two profiles that is blown up and described at greater length. I wonder why Judith Slovin and Roger Lowenstein didn't furnish a picture, what the stunning Elizabeth Victory (who eyes the camera with her chin down and her eyebrow almost imperceptibly arched in a lurid invitation) sees in the ordinary looking Scott Anderson (who smiles mechanically, entirely unaware of his new bride's devious leer), and whether Harley Abrevaya, the new Mrs. Andrew Heller, speaks with an accent. Of course, there is the token same-sex couple (rarely more than one), which the Times began featuring religiously a few years back -- today, the middle-aged Dee Mosbacher and Nanette Gartrell, one of whom has odd taste in eyewear, and both of whom could use new stylists.

This week's featured couple is Karen Bonin and Daniel Helmer, who are unusually young for top billing. The main photo attending their write-up, as opposed to the far more cliche second photo of them leaving their celebration under a traditional arch of raised sabers (Helmer being as he is an active-duty graduate of West Point) , is simply breathtaking. The groom's back in dress uniform is mostly toward us, his thick neck embraced in a collar perfectly trimmed, over which his scalp is shadowed by his military regulation hair only marginally more than his cheek is by stubble. His head dips slightly to meet Bonin's, brow to brow, and her left hand, newly be-ringed, is soft-focus as it drapes languidly over Helmer's shoulder. Karen herself is radiant even in black and white, her earring a diamond suspended like a tear from a perfect chain, complimented by what is almost certainly an heirloom necklace. Her mouth is gently open in a smile as easy and guileless as it is untainted by all the dread and fear that surely haunts her while her husband's fate in this time of war remains undetermined. Her clavicle alone is worthy of a poet more talented than I.

So why this preoccupation? Is it because I've never been married or despite that fact? It feels more like the fascination of discovery than any variation on envy. Because the write-ups are biased to the New York area, some of my interest derives from the fact that occasionally someone I know shows up: the daughter of the college professor who taught me how to love Nabokov (I already knew I did, but he provided unerring guidance and thus enhanced immeasurably my pleasure in V.V.N.'s novels); the semi-famous older sister of a grade-school friend who is now an actress and performance artists of sorts (evidently she was in Superstar, who knew?).

Sometimes, especially with the featured couple, the stories of how they came to marry are interesting, fraught with coincidence and redolent of destiny, often tacit aggrandizements of the love-at-first-sight paradigm so cherished by most Americans. About Dan and Daniel, the Times writes:

It was at a party during his senior year of hich school, his acceptance to West Point in hand, that a confidence Mr. Helmer sidled up to Karen Marie Bonin, a student from another New Jersey high school. Winin 45 minutes, he had fallen hard for Ms. Bonin's "perfect figure and passion for everything she does," he said. She recalled: "I was sort of awestruck. I'd never talked to anyone that comfortably."
They had their first date in May 1999. Though the evening ended without even a kiss, "the next day Dan dumped his date for th senior prom and asked me to go," Ms. Bonin said. That was pretty much it."

But let's pause to dissect this passage for a moment, shall we? When he says that a mere 45 minutes led him to fall hard for her "perfect figure" and "passion" for what she does, should we read this to be the Times writer's generous attempt to smooth the rough edges of a jock's crass allusions to his wife's surface beauty? Could they really have covered everything she did in 45 minutes at a high school dance? I mean, maybe; high school kids don't have the most interesting lives, but still. And then there's the whole prom thing: he dumped his prom date in May? How shitty is that? And was she his girlfriend, this date? What was he doing going on a date in the first place if she was? And about the date, am I the only who detects something like incredulity that high school kids would end a successful date without a kiss. I mean, jeez, what prudes!

The article continues with lots of cuteness that is wholly beyond reproach, and I wish the Helmers well: may they prosper, may Mr. Helmer not be yet another unnecessary casualty of our mismanaged war in Iraq, and so on. The same to all newlyweds. But can it ever really be that pat? Maybe that's the relevant distinction for me: that the pat answers of obituaries are somehow inconsequential; for better or worse, that narrative has ended. As a writer, I'm all too familiar with the ache of seeing something in print with my name on it that I would change in a dozen ways were the work out of my reach. And so it is with our lives after we're gone; the ink has dried, for better or worse. The lives of the departed are out of reach, beyond emendation. The lives of newlyweds, on the other hand, are clean slates, and so the same pithy reductive exercise rings dissonantl to me, albeit in delightful and unforeseen ways that never fail to amuse.

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