This is the real promise
of the Internet, only partly fulfilled -- the ability to click "roast
beef and gravy" and it's on your desk, fresh and delicious, reduced
(as we all are, eventually) to information. Click the White House icon
and you're gliding from Blue Room to Red Room to the cavernous East
Room. Or click -- and this is what you did -- "Chat with Author"
and I am here, insinuating myself through your computer screen, on to
the desk, plop down on the floor and -- which way's the kitchen?
Mind if I have a beer?
Don't get up. I can get it.
Um -- got anything other than Light? No, that's o.k. Light's fine.
Got anything to eat? These
Wanna watch TV? Got cable?
Oh, yeah, me too.
How's the job?
Yeah, well, I guess that's
why they call it work.
To my way of thinking, acting's
the best job there is, because it's the easiest. When you're acting,
your job is to tell unusual truths, or plain truths in an unusual manner.
Is that hard? Tell me what's more difficult: to act out Hamlet's dilemma
when he contemplates suicide, or to read a WorldCom press release with
a straight face?
To be or not to be, that
is the question
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?
You need not have contemplated
suicide to know the truth of those lines. Is there any among us who
has not felt life as a wearying task, whose alternative -- to rest,
to sleep, to not to be -- carries the same seductive promise that a
hot bath does on a day when the kids are screaming and the phone is
ringing and you're trying to put together a business plan or an appellate
brief? To sleep, perchance to dream
remember the "Induction"
to The Taming of the Shrew, where a hunting party decides to play a
trick on the town drunk, by convincing him that the last fifteen years
have been a bad dream and that he is really a lord, with an estate and
a beautiful wife? At that moment -- insatiable children, endless job
demands, unreasonable customers, psychotic bosses -- don't you ever
think that by closing your eyes you might be transported to some other,
truer land, where you have a place of honor in an empire of serenity?
Perhaps to heaven itself, the place awaiting you upon your death, where
"everyone knows your name", your true identity and your worth.
Hamlet goes on with those beautiful lines that describe the vista that
unfurls the moment after death:
The undiscovered country,
from whose bourn
No traveler returns
When I read those lines I
think of awakening in a canoe afloat on a flat silver lake, a bright
blue sky overhead, floating past a green meadow with a mountain off
in the distance. I remember that I can never go back to the familiar
places and I imagine feeling sadness, but also a sense of promise and
adventure and -- need I say it -- discovery.
Read through that whole speech
in Act III, scene 1, and feel its truth. Though its subject is the most
alien and frightening of all, it is impossible not to understand the
lines, and, having understood them, impossible not to say them with
Now try this:
"On the advice of our
accountants, we have restated third quarter profits of $1.2 billion
as a $300 million loss. This is a one-time market correction which will
have no significant overall effect on the health of the company. We
are still a good buy."
Notice the twisty way it
comes off the tongue? Imagine the actor who could read this with conviction!
How much greater than Barrymore or Derek Jacobi must he be! And how
much more desperate the stakes! If Hamlet is acted badly an audience
goes away disappointed, but if the PR flack who reads the corporate
lie is not believed, billions of investor dollars will be lost and thousands
of people will lose their jobs.
Except for actors, most people's
jobs involve shading the truth nowadays. I grew up in a steel-producing
town and some of the kids I went to school with ended up working in
the mills. Those were hard jobs but they paid well. Some of my old classmates
had to walk the catwalks above huge vats of molten iron. One day one
of them slipped and in the blink of an eye was into a vat. They fished
him out in three minutes but it was too late. "That was stupid,"
he said when they got him on the concrete, and it was, too. He died
two days later. His car keys had melted through his flesh. They found
them in the middle of his thigh.
He was an honest man, doing
an honest job. Today his job is done by computer, as are many jobs which
require only honest input. Everything else requires shading, distinguishing
among truths, spin. I am a lawyer now, and I spin mightily. We are not
permitted to say things we know are not true, so our principal occupation
is to cast doubt on other people's truths. I look at that story I just
told you and my training tells me to say that he allegedly fell into
the vat -- he purportedly said "that was stupid" -- it is
reported that his keys burned through to his thigh muscle. I wasn't
there. I don't personally know these things happened. And thus by shrinking
the pool of truth to the impossible limit of things that each of us
knows personally, I make it necessary for each of you to believe half-truths.
And I will have done my job.
For five years I worked for
politicians, and learned another way to treat truth. Never treat a question
as a question. Treat it as an opportunity to say whatever it is you
intended to say:
Q. Congressman, is it true
that you evaded six thousand dollars in sales tax with this transaction?
A. Have you ever bothered to notice that the sales tax in this part
of the country is the highest in the nation? Studies have shown that
the sales tax is the number one barrier to bringing new business into
But: this is no revelation.
These techniques, once the secret preserve of politicians, are now the
everyday device of office workers. At work, I no longer engage in conversations.
I engage in serial infomercials.
If no one's truth can be
believed, then everyone's lies gain a conditional acceptance, for we
must believe something. It is the way of the world, the way of commerce.
"I do not believe you, but I will act as though I did because I
need to in order to get on to the next moment." If we believed
only what we saw we could make only trivial judgments, and we could
It's true (I submit): communication
requires faith, and faith, at bottom, is an act of love. My wife, Lorraine,
is an honest woman in the same sense that my poor dead classmate was
an honest man: even in a moment of extreme consequence, she does not
shirk at accepting responsibility. When she tells me something I know
it's true -- or, at least, she believes it to be true -- and not because
it somehow advances her agenda to say it's true. Her language does not
advertise or manipulate but informs. She is to me what Walter Cronkite
was to a generation of news-watchers: the honest voice to which serious
people listen in order to be informed.
I wrote The Secret Notebooks
of Braulio Jules because I was interested in the degradation of
language as a vehicle in service of the truth. The central plot device
-- the catastrophic effect that the aging of the Baby Boom generation
will have on our economy -- is real and serious enough. Baby Boomers
have passed through time like a goat swallowed by a python -- causing,
in succession, swollen elementary schools, swollen high schools, swollen
colleges, swollen labor market, and on down the line -- swollen demand
for Rogaine and Viagara, and soon, ominously, swollen demand for Medicare
and Social Security. It is enough to note that Social Security payments
come from the earnings of present workers; when the Boomers hit retirement
there will be three workers for each retiree, which means that each
worker will be paying upwards of fifteen thousand a year in social security.
Medicare will be even more expensive. We all know it's true; the interesting
question is why no one's done anything about it. And the answer to that
is -- I think -- that it would be uncomfortable to do anything about
it; that it would require discipline, and no one wants to do that.
So I wrote The Secret
Notebooks to talk about the lengths that we go through to avoid
making decisions, particularly decisions which would cause us (or someone)
discomfort. It is as true on the personal level as it is on the geopolitical
level, and on all levels in between. Braulio, who is honest only when
he writes in his secret notebooks, scuba dives in an ocean of babble
so polluted with lies and self-importance that he cannot see the horrible
teeth of the sharks advancing on him. (We will add more information
about The Secret Notebooks to the website later.)
I am a Washington lawyer.
I work for the U. S. government. When I was a young man in law school
I thought that the great problems of the day could be easily solved
if we simply rethought them in new ways. ("Reconceptualization"
was a buzzword in those days.) What I didn't know then -- but do now
-- is that what appeared as a problem to me was actually somebody else's
solution. Problems in human society are not like math problems; when
they are unsolved it's usually because somebody wants them unsolved.
For example, is there any real question as to why we get budget deficits
every year? It's because the American people want more benefits than
they are willing to pay for
which is to say, because we overvalue
ourselves. Could you imagine a politician who would think it was in
his interest to say this truth? "Vote for me. I'll raise your taxes
and cut your services so that your children are not faced with national
catastrophe." No way, dude. Let your children's Senators and Representatives
find their way out of catastrophe. I'll be on a beach in Jamaica, enjoying
a Red Stripe paid for from my 401K.
Ranting on this subject
is a lot easier than writing a story. Writing a story is difficult --
the most difficult thing I've ever attempted to do. The writer becomes
self-consciously responsible for the world of his characters -- for
the gravity of that world, and its oxygen content, and the diseases
in the blood running through everyone's veins. The author is responsible
for their childhoods, and for their first loves, and for the choleric
temperament of the engineering professor whose approval they needed
to win in order to graduate, and for a million other things which will
never become an explicit part of the story. And then, having assumed
that responsibility, the author must keep his silences; know what information
to dole out, and at what a pace; never to tell all, but to leave some
hidden, so that the reader is driven to read on.
Whew! All that listening
must make hard work. Have some of these chips? They're the lime-flavored
kind, which, because they make your mouth water, must make silent listening
a particularly rewarding experience. Well, I appreciate your companionable
silence, as well as your hospitality. The beer's not bad either.
Writing is iconography. The
most successful writers are those whose words evoke more than they say.
A word, a phrase, an image can be -- like Proust's croissant -- a portal
into an alternate universe. "A dream is a private myth," Joseph
Campbell wrote. "A myth is a public dream." The iconography
of little children, like the iconography of schizophrenics, is relentlessly
pervasive and private; the childhood universe is full of talking shoes,
leaping cows, and terrifying crows and wheelbarrows. The best parents
gravely credit this universe, regardless of how preposterous it is.
My own childhood iconography, for no discernable reason, was peopled
by classic comedians -- Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Three
Stooges. I imagined them around me constantly, as real as the milkman.
My parents are serious people -- my father a scientist -- they treated
these companionable dreams with mild politeness, as long as they did
not need to set extra plates for them at dinnertime.
The healthy among us have
a significant ability to conditionally accept a sort of public dream,
and to draw back from it when we have to. We see ourselves in our television
characters (we are the first generation to share a whole system of icons;
almost everyone knows who Mr. Spock was and what, in a general way,
he stood for) but we know better than to adopt their antics as our own
When I wrote Murder in Elsinore,
I did so as an exercise in exploring (and exploiting) existing "public
dreams". Huck Hound, Curley Howard and, of course, William Shakespeare
are all invoked in what is essentially a frivolous little audience-participation
murder-mystery play written along the lines of Shear Madness. My friend
Martin Ziner suggested that it had commercial possibilities, and that
he would be willing to direct it. Still, as I watch the two immensely
talented casts Martin and Lorraine have put together work, I am compelled
to wonder: if Huck and Curley got into a fight, who would win?
That Lorraine, who has eleven
years' professional experience as a producer, would agree to take on
Murder in Elsinore is a testament to the strength of our marriage, or
else simply to her strength. Martin, at least in this early stage of
our collaboration, is quite deferential but Lorraine is prepared to
put me to the test.
But writing like marriage,
requires humility -- because it is a public act, participating in a
public (i.e., more than one person) dream. I accept her corrections,
as I've accepted the editing assistance of Gail Prevost and other teachers,
because I know that my frame of reference alone is not sufficient to
reach a wide readership, or to serve my audience. Every time Lorraine
and I have disagreed about Murder, she has been proved right. I, however,
like the pointy-haired boss in the Dilbert cartoon, am always right
Periodically, while doing
something unconnected -- driving my car, say, or preparing for court,
I will be struck by a writing idea or (more often) a swell turn of phrase.
For fifteen minutes or so I will refine the idea or words until I am
pleased, and then I dive into my favorite state of mind: self-importance.
The remainder of the day becomes a festival, until Lorraine (or someone)
reminds me that I already had that idea a week ago, and it didn't work
This, then, is what writing
is to me -- ten minutes of creating, which is work; twenty minutes of
editing and rewriting, which is humility; and sixty minutes of imagining
I am receiving an award from the King of Sweden, which is my raison
d'etre. It is the middle twenty minutes, though -- editing, and humility
-- which pays the rent, in writing and in every other endeavor, human
Take Annie, my canine companion.
She staggered into our lives battered, tick-covered and abandoned a
month ago, and she remains our mystery. She is full of secrets. Her
manners -- particularly in matters of hygiene -- are uncertain, and
unpredictable. Her intentions are equally difficult to divine. Of late
she has taken to whiling her day away in my closet, on top of my laundry.
She is not sick but our vet otherwise has no clue. If she is a mystery
to us, we must be equally so to her. Her barks and snuffles, her curious
swaggering gate, all have a world of meaning to her, and she must be
frustrated that we do not grasp it. We do not share her iconography,
her public dream. And so she is constantly editing her responses, in
an attempt to communicate. I know how humiliating it is, Annie.
But: not just her. We have
two veiled chameleons -- magnificent creatures, one midgeted by a metabolic
bone disease from which he has miraculously recovered. They both have
immense tongues -- twice as long as their bodies -- with which they
lasso crickets. Not infrequently, though, they miss, and I imagine they
are mortified. Perhaps they blush underneath the gorgeous riot of colors
in their face as they edit the motion of their mighty tongues. And we
have an ornate euromastyx -- a sunset-colored handbag of a lizard whose
Sisyphean task it is to climb up the cage walls only to be frustrated
by our immovable lid. (If he got out the cat -- the only perfect animal
in the household -- would soon make a meal of him.) Humility, it seems,
is the provenance of God's smallest creatures. And so it is of us.
And so, perhaps -- is this
too delicate to say? -- it is of God. It is hard for me to imagine a
God who is completely unembarrassed by the world. Though it is wholly
without theological basis, I must say that I find it easier to think
of a deity who is not omniscient and omnipotent, for to think otherwise
is to make this cold and indifferent universe into God's plan. While
we are responsible for the deviltry we do ourselves (that's what makes
it so hard to take) who is responsible, say, for Alzheimer's? And if
we are truly made in His image and likeness, is He mocking Himself when
He afflicts one of us with dementia?
Oh, say, you're out of beer!
And -- completely by coincidence -- I notice that I have an appointment
I need to get to.
Could I trouble you to press
that icon on the right?
And next time, let's try
some dark ales.