I took a train up to Halifax to write about Canada. I thought Canada would be good for me. Get me out of my slump, which had been going on for more than a year now. But it rained a lot for three days, and I wound up sitting in a bar and drinking Rusty Nails with a Canadian who had a grudge against the United States. I fell into bed like a boxful of hammers and woke up at noon with this great idea, and got on the train to go back to New York and sat in my compartment and wrote a gorgeous broadside against Our Neighbors to the North and said what every American has wanted to say for the past hundred years about Canadian independence—Oh, get off it—and in Portland, Maine, the train stopped and I got off and walked around and used the men's room in the depot and there, in the excitement of creation, I left the manuscript on a ledge next to the urinal and walked to the train and the conductor said, "How's that writing of yours coming along, young fella?" and I let out a yelp and dashed back to the men's room and it was empty. No manuscript. Nothing. I hustled around the waiting room looking in trash barrels. No luck. Finally the whistle blew, and I climbed on the train distraught and went to the club car and had a whiskey soda. First decent thing I write in a whole year and I leave it in the pissoir.
"Something wrong?" the bartender said. "You look down." So I told him.
"Well, that's a shame," he said, as if I'd lost an embroidered hanky or the sports section of the paper instead of a literary creation. A woman with red hair was sitting at the bar. She said, "Just sit down and write the story again. That's what Fitzgerald did when Zelda left the manuscript of The Great Gatsby on a train in Zurich. He sat down in a hotel room and wrote it again—and it turned out even better!"
I hate people who give you inspirational advice like that. I loathe them.
A man in a wrinkled brown corduroy suit said, "I heard that Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was pitched into the fireplace by an illiterate field hand, and Faulkner proceeded to get drunk and write the whole thing from memory in two days straight."
"Easier said than done," I said.
"The power of memory," the woman said. "T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land fell into a hot bath and the ink washed off and he had to rewrite it, and when he did he made April the cruelest month instead of the 'coolest,' which it had been before. Robert Frost once wrote a poem that was eaten by a dog who ran off into the woods, chased by the poet, and only then did he decide to change the poem to 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' instead of 'Stopping at the Dew Drop Inn on a Wednesday Night,' which is what it was when the dog ate it."
We were bumping along through New Hampshire, bound for Boston, and the bartender gave me a double whiskey soda, on the house, and the corduroy suit said, "Did you know that Philip Roth's A Boy's Life was sent to the cleaners with a box of sweaters and eaten by solvents, and he rewrote it as Portnoy's Complaint?"
"You see?" the woman said. "All is not lost."
Mr. Corduroy continued. "And John Updike's Rabbit Relaxes was sent by mistake to Tehran in a brown Samsonite suitcase, then New Delhi, Sydney, and Lima, Peru, and only after it returned did he decide that Rabbit maybe shouldn't go to Sun City and get deeply involved in volunteer work. He decided to kill him off and spare the reader."
"Okay," I said. "I get the point."
"Walt Whitman's original manuscript, which he lost, was Leaves and Grass. William Carlos Williams lost his poem about the two beers left in the icebox and realized they should be plums."
I stood up to leave.
The bartender chimed in. "Take adversity as an opportunity! Pick yourself up and do better. That's the American way. You lose your manuscript, you write a better one!"
"But you should've done it right away and not come in here and had two big glasses of Scotch," the woman said. "When Emily Dickinson lost her poem 'Because I could not stop for Lunch' she was at the tennis court with Lavinia, and she didn't spend an hour scouring through the tall grass for a tiny square of folded paper tied with string. She sat right down with a towel around her neck and rewrote it better."
It was depressing, hearing about great writers and how they'd risen to the challenge. A reminder of how little I'd done with my life. No Rabbit books had I brought forth, only an assortment of small black pellets. My big ambition had been to write for The New Yorker, and one day—sheer blind luck—I took an antihistamine and two aspirins and some zinc tablets and 5 mg of vitamin E and wrote a thousand words that they bought and published, and then the formula never worked again. A few years later I went to see Mr. Shawn at The New Yorker and he and I hit it off big time. We discovered that we both liked a variant of poker called Footsie and were both Stones fans and knew all the words to "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar." He took me out on his boat, Shawnee, and shook up a pitcher of martinis and told me I was trying too hard. "You can't become a writer by reading Elements of Style," he said. "You've got to experience life." So I wrote a novel about growing up in the Midwest, my one experience in life, called Spacious Skies, and it was pretty successful, but the sequel, Amber Waves of Grain, was a stinker. ("What a dumb book!" the Times said.) Sales were pitiful. Two weeks after publication big stacks of it were on sale at Barnes & Noble for $1.89, and the security tags had been removed so as not to hinder shoplifters.
A dumb dumb dumb book. Why did I write that long first chapter with thirty-four pages all about soybeans? And then in Chapter 2 the agronomist, Danny Montalban, suddenly is no longer in Fargo, he's in Fresno, and we're at a lesbian commitment ceremony at a pimento ranch with ladies in denim caftans whanging on little drums and chanting Sapphic things and Cathy and Denise affirming their love for each other and riding away on a piebald pony and then there's that whole thing about the transcontinental railroad and the driving of the golden spike—where did all that come from?
Suddenly I was a joke. I walked down Forty-third Street and heard the word "soybeans" whispered and people tittering.
I was on Seventh Avenue in the Thirties, walking fast to make a lunch date with a woman named Shahtoosh, and a construction guy passed me pushing a handcart piled high with lumber and the cart tipped and a half ton of lumber brushed against my pants leg and crashed to the sidewalk. Had it fallen six inches north it would have snapped my left leg in two. And then Shahtoosh wasn't at the restaurant. She left a message: Sorry. Something came up.
Soybeans. That's what came up. The word was out: Larry Wyler Laid an Egg. Wyler Pissed His Pants.
I was on the B train and a young woman said, "You wrote a book. Right?" I nodded. She said, "I remember your picture from the dust jacket."
"Oh," I said. "Sure."
She said, "You probably get people coming up to you all the time saying they recognize you from your picture."
I said, "No, not that often."
She said, "Really? I would think it would happen a lot."
I said, "Not as often as you might think."
She said, "Well. You learn something new every day."
And we rode on together in silence all the way to Forty-second Street without her ever saying "I loved that book of yours. You're so talented." Nothing of the sort.
My agent, Leona, who had gotten me an advance of a cool one million dollars for Amber Waves of Grain, said that the publisher wasn't ready to discuss an advance for a third book, Purple Mountain Majesties, quite yet. They were re-examining their options at this point.
Oh, go suck a rock, I thought. But it hurt.
I was okay. My candle still had two good ends left, and I flapped around town like a fruit bat, hanging out with socialites and starlets and literati, feasting off the caviar crevettes on the trays wafted around the room by young men in tuxedoes at publishers' parties, hobnobbing, charming the pants off people, and was seldom in bed before 3:00 A.M.
I was famous, or semi-famous. I had loads of offers.
I was invited to be a guest on Jeopardy!, to do the voice of Skeezix in the Spielberg adaptation of Gasoline Alley, to write 5,000 words about families for Good Housekeeping, to write 2,000 words about my most memorable teacher for Reader's Digest, to write about Madagascar for National Geographic, to serve as honorary chairman of the White House Council on Storytelling, to narrate a documentary about the Lewis and Clark expedition, to appear on the cover of Newsweek with children of different races, to tour Europe for the U.S. Information Agency and give a lecture on the American heartland, to host a PBS show about "alternative media" or "really, anything you want to do," to write the text for a book of photographs of childhood homes of American writers, to do commentary at the Winter Olympics, to appear on various TV shows, to host a "Salute to George Plimpton" at Carnegie Hall, to chair the Right to Read committee of the American Library Association, to appear at benefits and serve here and lecture there and write and host and spread the substance of my being like a long grease stain across the breadth of America.
And then, out of left field, came a letter from a woman named Lorna at the Minneapolis Star Journal asking me to write an advice column.
"I'm sure you must be extremely busy these days, what with novels and all, but I've admired your work for so long, and I thought, What harm can it do to ask? So I'm asking. And I just feel from reading your work that you have so much insight to offer people who are going through difficult times, bad romances, career struggles, etc."
She wanted two columns a week. The readers would send me their letters by e-mail, and I'd edit them and write my responses and e-mail the column to Lorna, and it'd go into the newspaper.
"I know it's a long shot and you're probably much too busy," she wrote, "and we can't pay much—$800 per column."
Actually I wasn't busy at all. And the thought of writing and seeing my own words in print appealed to me, after my long drought.
I called up Lorna in Minneapolis. She was thrilled.
I said, "Don't you already have an advice columnist? A Miss Becky? The one who always advises readers to seek professional help?"
"We had her for twenty years and then she took a cruise on the Aegean and had a romance with an Albanian waiter and it didn't work out and she came home and stuck her head in the oven."
"I might be able to do it for a thousand," I said.
"It's a deal," she said.
So I became Mr. Blue.
The name came from the hit song by the Make Rites, their one and only hit before they died in a plane crash south of Reno on their way to accept a crummy prize (Best Liner Notes, Male Vocal Group) at the Grammys in L.A.
You're no good for me, baby,
You're strychnine in my stew.
Someday you're going to kill me.
Still I'm in love with you.
Don't know why I come here.
I shouldn't but I do.
My life's a mess but I love you, yes,
I'm your faithful Mr. Blue.
The Star Journal printed a quarter-page ad for Ask Mr. Blue ("Lonely? Confused? Angry? Tell your story to Mr. Blue. Offering commonsense answers to life's persistent questions, twice weekly in the Star Journal"), and fifty e-mails arrived instantly, immediately. Lonely was lonely, and Angry was disappointed in love, and Disappointed had a wonderful husband who was crippled by jealousy, and Brokenhearted was missing her boyfriend who was happily dating other people. And a letter from a poet.
Dear Mr. Blue,
How important are schmoozing and politicking in getting one's poetry published? I'm the author of two collections of poems, and when I show my work to people they say, Oh, that's nice, but there's no real respect, as there would be if I had a major publisher instead of Thistle Blossom Chapbooks of Minneapolis. (Don't print that, please.) I've read most of the "major" poets, and frankly I think I'm in that league. I have a very strong suspicion that if I went to New York and attended the right parties and stood around drinking Sauvignon Blanc with the right people, my stuff might get published pronto. No? Am I kidding myself?
Enjoy the craft of poetry and leave the art of sucking up and schmoozing to others. But if you want to suck up, don't apply suction to lower-middle management, which is who drinks white wine. People with real power to get a book of poems into print are gin or bourbon drinkers. Don't kiss the wrong butt.
Two hours later she wrote again.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am the poet who wrote you asking how to get published. Please don't print that letter. Everybody I know will know it's me. Could you print the following instead:
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am single, forty-one, attractive, fun to be with (according to friends), and well educated, and my life is going nowhere. I want to fall in love with the right man and settle down. I dated a Norwegian man and he was so taciturn it took me two years to find out that he was married with children. I joined a church and got involved in community activities, and now I know a lot of other single women in their forties and fifties, but I want someone to come home to and snuggle with. Is that so impossible?
The supply of available heterosexual men who are psychologically sound is small. You're hunting for mountain goats, basically, so you probably need a guide, someone who knows a goat personally. The truth is that men hate to be single. So they hang onto a mate until another comes along. They hate to be at sea, so they hug the coast, and a woman in search of a man is forced to become a pirate, drifting through the knots of married couples, letting the men appreciate her charms, her openness, her lovely skin, her insouciance, her availability, and letting the women loathe and despise her. I don't recommend that, but it's been practiced successfully by many women who thereby became somebody's second or third wife, and there is an advantage to buying a horse that's already broken and accustomed to the traces. But never mind. You are not that sort of person, thank goodness. But just in case you should change your mind, be sure to pay attention to your physical person. "Attractive" isn't enough when you're forty-one. You need to be a knockout. A woman men look at and think Wow. Don't waste your time on the subtleties; you have two powerful assets, located on your chest, and you'd be a fool not to use them. A little décolletage—or a lot, what the heck, Christmas is coming—can work for you. If you want to attract a man, unbutton your blouse. You can discuss books afterward. Boobs come first. I could lie about this, but why?
The lady at the Star Journal edited out the boobs, but the rest stayed in.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am an orthodontist, thirty-one, good-looking, athletic, and though I have dated many so-called "attractive" women, I've never been in a relationship. I simply don't care for women who let themselves go. You take her to a gourmet restaurant and as your eyes adjust to the light, you notice the ruptured canker sore in the corner of her mouth. Or the hairs sprouting between her eyebrows. Or the zit alongside her nose. I just can't feature myself spending time with anyone with so little self-respect. Am I off base here?
Eric of Edina
You need women for education, flawed or not. The maiden with little snow-white feet, the one with black black black hair, Barbary Allen, the gypsy girl, Kathleen Mavourneen, Jeannie, Fair Ellen—each woman prepares you for the next. You learn the basics from Lady A and you graduate to Lady B, who is grateful to her predecessor, as are C and D and E, and by F you are quite a fine fellow, mostly recovered from your sulky adolescence and rapacious narcissism and prepared to carry on a conversation, brighten your corner, do light housekeeping, and every so often perform amazing feats in or near the bed.
The danger is that you may turn to the woman you're with and say, "Remember that little bar in the West Sixties where we went after we saw A Chorus Line and there was that pianist with the bad toupee playing the white piano?" and she says, "That wasn't me. You were with someone else." But secretly she's grateful to that woman for teaching you whatever she taught you.
You've cheated yourself of an education, sir. Take off your glasses.
Other than Mr. Blue, I couldn't write a lick. I roamed Manhattan, looking for little vignettes of city life, taking notes:
A water main breaks and police cordon off the block, lights flashing, traffic barriers, people stand in little groups talking about it.
Enormous corporate towers and nearby are hole-in-the-wall shops where you can get passport photos or have something copied or get your nails done or cash a check or buy incense or maybe all five.
Women go around alone, day or night, and as a defense they develop an expression that is the facial equivalent of a wall. If you come from Minnesota, where you expect people to smile at you, this can be a jolt. And it's meant to be.
The ads on the subway aren't for BMWs or ski resorts, they're for hemorrhoid treatments and what to do about sore feet, bunions, bad skin, bad teeth, drug addiction. One for detergente, with the phrase blanquear tan blanco ("whiter than white"), not such a useful phrase to know in New York.
Where Broadway slices across 44th and Seventh Avenue you can look into six different canyons of glass and stone hundreds of feet tall and covered with brilliant flashing signs, news banners, rivers of people moving along; it's the most amazing sight in America.
In other cities, when the President comes to town, people feel sort of happy and honored and wonder if they'll get to see him. In New York people feel a sense of dread, especially on the East Side, where the UN is and the Waldorf and there is only one subway line. The arrival of the President is, for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, a natural disaster, a sort of blizzard.
I accumulated piles of notes. I began a memoir (A Boyhood on the Mississippi) and wrote a few thousand words about fishing and rafts and camping on islands, but Mark Twain had done it so much better, so I dropped it and tried writing a piece about Forty-fourth Street when it rains and the taxis glisten as they race through the puddles and the hotel doormen hold their big umbrellas over the elderly couple looking anxiously up the street, late for their flight home to Cleveland, in the midst of which I began a profile of Arthur Godfrey, only to realize that he'd been dead since 1983.
I thought about writing about the ukulele, or Hawaiian cooking. And then Jane Wyman. The YMCA. Jack Dempsey. Dumpsters. Teamsters. Hamsters. Hamilton Jordan. Jergens lotion. The Locomotion. Perry Como. Barium. Syngman Rhee. Ralph Reed. Ralph Stanley. Stan Musial. The musical Oklahoma! The Make Rites.
One horrible night, desperate to loosen things up, I took a tab of acid in an Oreo and I saw green and orange neon lights, parrots, Roman candles, violet wallpaper, sopranos, rivers of taxicabs. I was talking to Baudelaire. My ears were ringing. And the next day a doorman came up with the four notebooks I had thrown over the railing, which almost hit an old lady on the street. The notebooks were pure gibberish. A gibbon would have done as well.
I was paralyzed. Locked into failure. I kept trying and trying, but you come up to bat with 156 consecutive strike-outs and the bleacher crowd is chanting, "Hey, hey, Mister K!" and no matter how you try to steady yourself (Visualize success. Accept good fortune. Open your arms to it. Swing from the hips), you feel that chill in your shorts and you no sooner get settled at the plate than ZOOM comes the ball and it's steeeeee-rike ONE and you think, "Okay, here we go again. Hello, failure." Steeeeee-rike TWO, steeeeee-rike THREE. And you turn and walk back to the dugout, feeling some sense of completion.
Once I went to Siegfried's for a haircut ($85), the salon where my hero John Updike got his hair cut, the most productive writer in America, and there amid the stylish young hair designers in black jeans and T-shirts was an old barber named Earl whose hands were shaky, and before I knew it he'd mowed my scalp to stubble and I had to go to a place called Domenico's House of Hair and buy a small, unconvincing toupee.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My wife used to be a federal judge, and we were all terribly proud of her, and then, after ten years on the bench, she took a sabbatical to "explore her identity," and now she is a ballet rollerblader. She is fifty-one. She has resigned her judgeship so that she can go off to senior women's amateur tournaments all over the country and compete. She has never won anything above honorable mention. She used to have opinions on literature and politics and culture, but now she is totally dedicated to leaps and figure eights and the double axel. She is a full-figured gal, not a slender little thing, and I hate to see her humiliate herself skating around in a skimpy little skirt and blouse like a circus bear. Deep down I am losing respect for her. Why is she doing this?
At the End of My Rope
Your wife got tired of people being proud of her and decided she doesn't care if anybody stands up at her memorial service and talks about her legacy of public service or not, she would rather get some fun out of life. She enjoys blading. So she decided to blade. What don't you understand about this? I have devoted most of my adult life to writing stories, and now, in late middle age, I've washed up on a reef and can't write for shit. I must say that ballet rollerblading strikes me as entirely honorable and useful compared with what I'm doing now. Maybe you should dance in your wife's blades before you get down on her like this.
Dear Mr. Blue,
Is it mere coincidence that the word "therapist" also makes the words "the rapist"? My psychiatrist Jekyll is giving me the creeps, milking prurient details out of me about my love affairs with older men with big eyebrows. I got to talking about my latest lover and Jekyll got all curious, whereas he shows not a glimmer of interest in the fact that I am a compulsive hand-washer and have a thing about chickens. I am a successful career woman (a county prosecutor, but don't print that in the paper), but I have forty-three sets of bed sheets and pillowcases with chickens on them. Sixteen chicken tablecloths. A recorded rooster awakens me every morning. I have a Leghorn chicken night light. If I don't wash my hands at least three times an hour, I become anxious. Jekyll could care less about all this. All he's interested in is stories about sex. I'd like to just walk away from him, but I don't know if my self-esteem can take another shot in the chops.
I'm a good person. I am on the board of an organization that tutors inner-city kids, I volunteer, I take public transportation to work. But in addition to my chicken and hand-washing compulsions, I have this other compulsion to run up to fat people and say cruel things to them. For example:
What do you keep in those creases?
Need me to get something out of your back pocket?
Ever think about buying group insurance for yourself?
Where'd you get baptized? Sea World?
I asked Jekyll, "Why do I get such happiness from poking fun at these porkers?" and he shrugged and said, "Tell me more about Dale and your weekend in Duluth." The other morning, on the bus, I said to a black lady who was occupying two seats, "Who paints your toenails? The guy at the auto-body shop?" I live in fear that I will be caught someday and it'll get in the papers and my mother will disown me. Mom is the most important person in the world to me. She's a little hefty herself. In fact, the only way we can get her out of the house is to grease the door frame and stand outside holding a Twinkie. I know it would break her heart if she knew that I was inflicting gratuitous pain on blimps and wide-rides. Should I get a new therapist?
Yes. Your abuse of the obese is protected by the First Amendment, but what if some fatty fell on you in anger and you had to go in the hospital for back surgery and then physical therapy and still your back didn't feel good and you got depressed and turned to baked goods for comfort, and not just the occasional cheese Danish but whole jumbo bags from Krispy Kreme that you sat in your full-size car and devoured greedily until one day you saw a porker in the mirror trying to avert her eyes and you could say, "Hey, for a fat lady, you don't sweat much."
Dear Mr. Blue,
I've been dating a wonderful woman and last night I invited her up to my apartment and we were sitting on the sofa which is also a fold-out bed and I was kissing the side of her neck and she asked me if I minded if she said a prayer. I said, "No, not if that's what you want, Evelyn." She prayed for God to show us the path He was planning for us and to teach us to honor each other, and she prayed to be fruitful and bring forth a large family and teach them to love the Lord, Amen. I said, "But we aren't even married, Evelyn." And she said, "My papa will take care of that as soon as he finds out I'm pregnant." Then I noticed her black bonnet. I honestly never realized until then that she was Amish. Anyway, I felt that even if God's plan is for me to be the daddy of twelve, it's not my plan, so I put away the bottle of Kama Sutra scented oil and today I am feeling rotten. How can I introduce her to contraceptives? Would alcohol help?
You two aren't on the same page of the hymnal. Tell her good-bye. And be glad you discovered her Amishness now and not after you'd been married for a couple of years, as happens so often. You turn to your wife, a loyal, brave, industrious person, and say, "How about we go tie on the feedbag in some swell eatery, Snuggums?" and she says, "Thee shouldst save against the rainy day that surely cometh." And suddenly you find yourself in the eighteenth century, having to deal with smallpox and ague and dropsy, horrible roads, rationalism, cold damp houses, and your life expectancy drops to about thirty-eight. And you're thirty-six at the time.
As for alcohol as an engine of seduction, dosage is critical: women tend to be slight creatures, not Percherons, and a big glass of hooch may overshoot the mark and reduce her level of judgment to where her affection for you doesn't mean all that much. It's much smarter to make yourself appealing and win her interest: the reward will be greater than if she is limp and semiconscious. Making oneself appealing is what led to civilization as we know it: poetry, music, sport, learning—it all began as romance. Men wrote songs and sang them while plucking a lute, all in hopes of impressing the opposite sex. This isn't going to impress an Amish woman, though, so find a nice Episcopalian and be as charming as you can.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My mother is married to the man who killed my father. He (Dad) had gone away to avenge my uncle, whose wife, Helen, had been stolen away by some Trojan people, and then this man fell in love with my mother. When my dad came back, this man killed him, and he and my mom married. Anyway, my brother, who lives far away from here, has vowed to kill our stepdad and Mom. He is very upset. I am going nuts. Any suggestions?
I must speak frankly now and tell you that I see no reason for you to make this into a bigger deal than it already is. Too bad you're Greek and not American. Here in the U.S.A. we believe that problems are an opportunity. Take that stone in your shoe and make soup from it. Okay, life is tough, but we dispel the shadows with a song. Little things can make you happy. (In fact, it's always little things that make you happy.)
People are meant to live, love, laugh, and be happy. That's the quintessential American rule: be happy. We're optimists. Leave agonized introspection to the Swedes and cynicism to the French and weltschmerz to the Berliners and Ich bin nicht ein Berliner. Problems can be solved, and if not, ignore them. Play it for laughs.
When I was your age, I, too, thought that life is a tragedy. I entertained morbid fears of drowning inside a car, or suffocating in a coffin, or having my skull fractured by a giant vise operated by evil apes, or dying on a train derailing on a high trestle over a rocky gorge, or going to the electric chair at Sing Sing, or skidding off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and my car exploding in a fireball to the horror of thousands of Japanese tourists.
And then I learned that music can dispel dread. And so can sex. So can a beef sirloin slightly charred on the outside and reddish pink in the middle, nicely peppered, with mustard aioli. And a good night's sleep, eight hours of Zs in a room with a window open and a salt breeze blowing in.
Fresh melon from a roadside stand. An endive and pear and blue cheese salad. A rousing Broadway musical with some classy comic turns and a winsome leading lady and a terrific tap routine in Act II and a grand finale with the whole ensemble dancing with faces aglow and hands in the air. A good medicinal martini with a fellow martinist. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. A fine Episcopal mass in a modest and sunny sanctuary with a big banner (LOVE IS TRIUMPHANT) hanging in back and the organist plays quietly and the choir hangs together on the anthem and the homily is concise and you confess your sins and feel them lifted from your back and you commune with the Lord and come away from His Table filled with grace and walk out into the sunny world feeling that you have a fresh chance at life. And the snooze during the reading of the Scriptures is good too.
A lot of things can make you happy. A good ball game, score tied, bases loaded, two out, bottom of the ninth, and the local hero punches a double into the right-field corner and the crowd rises, yelling, happy. Walking around New York City on a summer night. Walking around the Minnesota State Fair. The St. Matthew Passion and a big choir leaning into it like sled dogs on the tundra.
Mr. Shawn gave me some good advice once when we were golfing at the Westchester Country Club. Some people thought of him as a legendary reclusive editor who obsessed over commas, but I knew him as a guy who took a good swing and lived by the results. The man could make music with a putter, I must say.
It was the eighteenth hole and he was whomping the bejiggers out of me and he had just hit a beautiful drive that flew straight and true and rolled and rolled, a huge shot, and then a five-iron straight to the green, fifteen feet below the cup.
Meanwhile, I had topped my drive and sent it skittering twenty yards or so and then went on an expedition into the neighboring fairways and landed on the green in ten. He said to me, "Writers like to think that writing is like Arctic exploration or flying the Atlantic solo, but actually it's more like golf. You've got to just do it and be happy. Some writers spend twenty minutes lining up a four-foot putt. Some writers pitch a tent on the green and stay for a week and brood about friction and energy and the gender of their putter. What's the problem? Take your shot. It's no shame to bogey. Just do it and have a good time. Don't base your whole life on worrying about whether you're any good or not. If you need to know, you shouldn't be playing this game." And he tapped the ball and it snaked across the turf and caught the corner of the cup and fell in for a birdie, and he chuckled a low warm chuckle and then it took me four putts to traverse the six feet to the cup, a sort of star-shaped putt, and we trundled off to the clubhouse. Not the greatest round I ever shot, but I am still in the game.
Lorna at the Star Journal sent me an e-mail.
Everybody loves it. You've made me a heroine here at the paper. Nobody thought I could ever persuade the great Larry Wyler to write for us, and then I did, and now people are stopping me in the halls to say thank you. I hope that Mr. Blue isn't taking you away from your other work, though.
Oh, my dear lady, you don't distract me from my work. Mr. Blue is my work. I looked half my life for this work. The meaning of life is, first, to earn a living. You may be digging your own grave, but if you dig it straight and deep and they pay you, it's honest work. I believe in work. I was wasting time being lonely and drinking too much and making late-night phone calls to friends and writing long weepy letters and suffering gruesome hangovers and getting crushes on waitresses in coffee shops and enduring paralysis, and yet—I am still in the game. I'm Mr. Blue.