Woke up in my mother’s suburban Connecticut house, fully regressed.
“Your brother called,” she says when I wander down to breakfast. “He said he read your new book.”
“That’s nice,” I say, rooting around in the refrigerator. My new book, a novel called The Book of Hard Things, is coming out this week. A friend of mine describes this time as “the quiet before the quiet.”
“He said he read it in two days,” my mother goes on. There is something a bit accusatory in her tone, which I choose to ignore.
“That’s nice,” I say. “I think I’ll have some yogurt.” I’ve driven down to Connecticut from Vermont, where I live with my own family, to be inducted into (onto?) my high school’s “Wall of Honor.” It’s me and four others: Bernard “Happy” Kliban, the cat cartoonist; the corporate vice president for environmental health for Dupont; an Air Force doctor; and a man who, among other things, was recently named “Builder of the Year,” by the Northern Virginia Builders Association.
“I thought most novels were 600 pages long,” my mother says. “How come yours is so short?”
“It’s not so short. And anyway, most novels are not 600 pages long.”
“Oh,” she says. “I must just be thinking of East of Eden.”
“East of Eden?”
“You know, from the Oprah book club. It sure took longer than two days to read.”
“Did you see that really good review of my incredibly short book in the new Oprah Magazine?” I ask hopefully.
My mother doesn’t answer. Not directly. “Do you think she’ll have you on her show?” she asks.
“Oprah,” she says.
“Maybe,” I say, ” … if Arnold gropes me.”
My 10-year-old daughter, who apparently has been listening to us, wants to know the meaning of “grope.” Since many child-rearing books tell you to be as straightforward and technically accurate as possible when dealing with questions about sex, I figure the same advice must carry, by extension, to sexual harassment.
“Groping is inappropriate touching,” I tell her.
“Who is Arnold, Mom, and why is he going to touch you inappropriately?”
Since many other child-rearing books suggest that the best way to deal with uncomfortable subjects is to steer the conversation gently away from them, I ask my mom how the Red Sox did last night.
“The Red Sox?” she says contemptuously. “Why should I care how the Red Sox did?”
Ah, the arrogance of a Yankees fan. It shuts me right up. Still, I have to admit, since she grew up in the shadow of Yankee stadium, at least she comes by her affection honestly. Because I am in my childhood home, where my SAT prep books are still in the closet, the following analogy pops into my mind: The Yankees are to Mom as Howard Dean is to me. In Vermont, Howard Dean is the home team. Even people who thought he was an anemic governor (at best) are holding house parties for him now. (“He may be an asshole,” someone I know said this summer, “but he’s our asshole.’)
On Wednesday I went to the Addison County Dean Meet-Up at the Unitarian church in Middlebury with maybe 65 of my neighbors. Dean had just raised nearly $15 million in the third quarter, and people at the meet-up seemed both excited and enervated. The meet-up coordinator handed out stationery and asked us to write to Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, or our congressmen to urge them to endorse Dean. I chose, instead, to write to Bruce Reed, co-chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, about participatory democracy. Hundreds of thousands of people are saying something important with their small donations to the Dean campaign, and it’s time for the Democratic leadership to get with the program, I told Mr. Reed.
Speaking of getting with the program, before too long it’s time for the Wall of Honor ceremony, which is being held in a catering hall in a strip mall a couple of miles from the high school where the bronze plaque bearing my likeness will hang. I am escorted to my table under an arch of swords by a member of Connecticut 81st Air Force Junior ROTC whose feet I keep tripping over as he squares corners I cannot see. My mother misses this grand entrance, having recently been escorted out to the parking lot by her own honor guard of traffic cops for having “created” her own parking spot. “It always worked before,” she says as she passes me in the lobby.
The catering hall is filled with alumni of my high school, many of whom graduated before I was born. I am relieved to find my friend Ken, with whom I shared safety patrol duties in fourth grade. He tells me that Eddie, the boy who beat me for sixth-grade class president, has “passed to the other side.” (It was my first real understanding of the power of celebrity. Eddie was lead guitarist for “The Stardusters.” His meet-ups were definitely better than mine.) Ken mentions everyone in our class who is now obese.
The master of ceremonies reads a letter from the art editor of Playboy lauding Hap Kliban as one of the 10 most seminal influences in cartooning. Kliban’s brother accepts the award posthumously, explaining that his brother died in 1990, six months after building his dream house on Maui. He also says that when they were growing up “Happy” was “a monster” who was “full of rage.”
Soon it is my turn to be so honored. My mother sits down in time for me to be described as “a prolific writer.”
“Almost as prolific,” I whisper to her, “as your pal Steinbeck.”