WordPress lets its bloggers see what countries our blogs are getting hits from. I’ve had hits from all over, which is very exciting. But this week someone in the Ukraine took at look at Nantucket ’73. Thanks for that, Ukraine person! If you would like to write an e-mail telling me how things are for you, and give me permission to publish it, I’ll be happy to put it up for everyone to read. (If you want to address me personally, I assure you I won’t publish anything you don’t want me to.)
Anything you want to write about is fair game.
Hope this reaches you!
With respect,
Matt
Nantucket73@hotmail.com

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He wrote Children of Light, one of the most fantastic novels I’ve ever encountered.
If you have not read it, go now and do so.
And– love him or hate him– report back.

Ava Gardner taught me to play chess, and I’ve never won a game.

This was in Mexico, during the filming of Night of the Iguana. I was five. I remember, even at that age, staring across the chessboard at the lady trying to teach me the L-shaped way the knight moved and not being able to take my eyes off her face. Even a five year old knows transcendent luminous beauty when he sees it. Something about her face was just really interesting.

She was kind to me. Which makes what I am about to do all the harder.

My mother had an Ava Gardner story. It does not reflect well on Miss Gardner. But it happened. Here it is.

When John Huston was filming Iguana, they were on location at Mismaloya, a fishing village on the beach south of Puerto Villarta. Fantastic natural rock arches into the ocean you can pass through in a small boat, but that’s another matter. There was a scene in which my mom was required to have a conversation over the telephone. They filmed this right before a big scene of Ava’s. Ava was on set in full costume, makeup and hair, ready to begin after mom did her bit. She watched from the side as mom spoke into the unconnected prop phone, listened to nothing at the other end, reacted, spoke again, reacted more, and finally hung up. Houston yelled “Cut, Print,” complimented mom and started the setup for Ava’s scene.

Ava came to Grayson and quietly said: “how did you do that?”

Mom wasn’t sure what she meant. “What, the scene?”

“The phone. I really believed you were talking to someone.”

Mom, who up until that point had enjoyed working with Ava, took a deep breath and explained that the night before, when she was studying her script, she had written out the dialogue she was hearing on the other end of the phone. Then, while the camera was rolling, she said her line, played the response that she’d written in her mind, reacted appropriately, said her next line, “listened” to the next bit of her remembered text, reacted again…

Ava’s eyes widened. “Oh, Shit,” she said, “that’s Acting!”

Whereupon she turned, ran down the steps and across the beach and threw herself, in full dress and makeup, into the Pacific.

It took 3 hours to get her out, wash and dry her costume, clean her up, redo the makeup and hair. Mom was upset at the movie-star childishness of the act, and mortified that she might be blamed (She had been warned that Houston could be difficult that way) but more than that, she was mystified that Ava Gardner had been Ava Gardner for as long as she’d been Ava Gardner, and she hadn’t known how to handle a simple on-screen phone call.

I expect when you look like that, nobody bothers to tell you anything. They just assume you know.

[This was the eulogy I presented at Sam Hall’s memorial service, a month after his death and three weeks after his burial. Same church, packed to the gills. Speakers included his lifelong lawyer, his last director, various old friends, his daughter- in-law, who read a fantastic poem, On The Edge by Dorianne Laux, and me. And there was a singer, Kevin Spirtas, who did Stephen Sondhiem’s “Being Alive” a capella. It was a song capable of making Sam cry, and capable of making me cry, and this guy tore it to shreds. Afterwards, old friends of Sam’s opened their home for a reception that was lovely and weird, because I kept expecting Sam to walk in and be the funniest man in the room.
Anyway, here’s what I said. Some of it is the same as the first eulogy. A lot of it is not.]

I really didn’t know my father until I was fourteen.

I mean I knew him—he was my father, and he loved me, and he hugged me, and we had tickle time. He got me a pug when I was four, my only one and his first of many, and he worked extremely hard to provide a constant flow of money into our home, giving up his own dreams in many ways to do so. He built other dreams, new dreams, and he fulfilled those dreams magnificently, but in his heart he was a playwright, and on his income tax forms he was a television writer, and specifically a writer of soap operas.

But he was a man in competition with his own father. And in many ways he was a man who had left his family behind, as my mother had her own, to become something their parents did not, could not understand.

In that sense, my father was an entirely self-invented man. Writing was his form of self-creation; it allowed him to escape whoever that person was in Carrollton, Ohio whom he had refused to be. It allowed him to build a successful life with my mother and me in New York based entirely on writing. It allowed him, after my mother died, to become the figure of both charm and gravitas—and power, in his way he was immensely powerful—you all knew him to be in Rhinebeck. In a sense, he wrote himself into existence; his enormous writing talent—and it was prodigious, the largest talent I have ever known or ever will know—allowed him to become precisely who he wanted to be.

And he always gave himself the best lines. Thirty years ago—more—we were driving back from a party at a very silly, very rich man’s home. I remarked that while certainly the man was charming, there was something empty in his determined frivolity. Sam turned to me and said “I like my children young.”

At the vet, after having to put down one of his pugs, he asked to pay the bill. Upon being told there was no charge for euthanasia, he said “if I’d known that, I’d’ve brought the other one too.”

Or him with a guest on the porch at Wildercliff, watching someone on a tractor take umpteen turns back and forth and back and forth and back and forth mowing across that vast lawn. Finally the guest asked: “How long is he going to keep riding that tractor?” And Sam waited the perfect millisecond of timing and then said “Until he has an orgasm.”

But those are stories about what Sam said. Even better are the stories he told, and one of my favorites could not be less appropriate for this beautiful church we are in today. But I’m going to tell it anyway.

I was a ten-month baby. I was a month late, which became a medical crisis. After many attempts to induce labor, finally an emergency cesarean was performed, and I emerged into the world. Afterwards, once we were home and I was introduced to my crib and a nanny was hired and installed in the maid’s room by the kitchen, my mom had to heal. The damage was such that they were cautioned not to be intimate for a few weeks. And then finally things got better, the stitches came out, and, the moment finally came when the doctor gave them the go-ahead to resume relations. And so they did, one eager evening, and things were heating up to a long-awaited level when they heard the nanny running down the hall, and she burst into the room and wailed “THE POPE IS DEAD!”

See, that was the kind of story Sam liked to tell. He had great one-liners; we all know that. But more than that—much more than that—he had great stories. And one of my favorite things he would say when telling a story was this: he would start a story, and build it, and get a laugh—and then he would say these words: “now, wait.” Because he knew there was more story, that it was about to get even better, and all he had done so far was just set up something that would have a bigger payoff later.

It’s difficult to explain what a brilliant writer he was. His work isn’t in the pages of any book—you can’t go to the bookstore and buy him and read him and have that moment of “My God, he’s amazing.” To the world at large it would appear that he never wrote a word. Yet more people saw his work than have ever read Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Updike or Roth or any other 20th century American writer. He was a colossus, but unknown even to the people most avidly caught up in his work.

He was a war veteran. He was in the signal corps, he landed on Normandy Beach two days after D-Day and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich. Every town he came to, the Germans had just left, and they’d taken all the wine, so all that was left was calvados. He emerged from the war hating Patton and not much liking calvados.

One afternoon at Wildercliff 20 years ago I found a large cardboard boot box from a long-gone shoe store in Carrollton. I opened it and discovered that his parents had saved all his wartime letters home. There they were, hundreds of them, neatly arranged in three columns. My excitement was visceral—here was the entire history of my father’s war! I didn’t have time that day, but I made a plan that the next time I came up I would block out an afternoon, sit down and really go through this box of living history.

Three weeks later I sat down one morning, opened the lid of the box and again marveled at this unexpected treasure trove. I took out the first letter, addressed in pen to my grandparents in their house on Main Street in Carrollton. Carefully I unfolded the notepad-sized paper inside. There, in Sam’s open, cursive handwriting were the words:

Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…

I opened the second:

Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…
Hundreds of letters detailing the lunch routines of the United States Army as it chased the Nazis across Europe.

But the real story, the story he never told, was this: Sam actually managed to write a 13-act play during his time in the army, with over one hundred characters. He told me that he had done it, that it existed, and that it was terrible. And while he never let anyone see it, I expect it wasn’t about lunch.

And I expect, in some weird way, it taught him more about how to write than his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.

One quick story. After college, for a period of about a year, I worked at One Life to Live during my father’s tenure as head writer. The team had collaborated on a three-month arc of story, and submitted it to the network, as was standard. The head of daytime—still and yet, my favorite job title ever—had rejected it, as was also standard. Sam and I—just the two of us— came in on a Saturday to build a new arc of story to submit that Monday. We sat across from each other at a desk, spent fifteen minutes discussing what the network hadn’t liked, and then stared at our yellow legal pads, trying to think up solutions.

After about five minutes, Sam began to write. And once he started he did not stop—he filled up a legal pad page, flipped it over and kept on, pages and pages of finely wrought story that took the characters into utterly new situations and emotional places that simply hadn’t existed when we walked into the room. After another 15 minutes, I had a pokey little idea, and then another, and then I began to write as well. By the end of the afternoon he had solved the problem, and had even incorporated a couple of my ideas into the thread of story, suitably transmogrified, as necessary. Mostly, though, I had sat there and watched, in awe.

Sam’s wit sometimes had the edge of a well-sharpened dagger, the blade so smooth the victim didn’t feel it as it slipped in. But if it could sometimes be a weapon, it was a defensive one, because I’ve never known anyone who was so fundamentally curious about the people around him. The thing with Sam was that he was actually open to anybody who interested him. He actually listened, and he actually remembered, and he actually thought about and made decisions about people based on what he saw and heard.

In the early 1980s, Elaine Stritch was married to a lovely man named John Bey, who sadly was diagnosed with cancer. At this moment when they needed it most, it turned out they had no health insurance. Sam heard that, and immediately wrote Stritch onto One Life to Live, putting her character on air the exact number of times it took for her actor’s union insurance to kick in.

Sometimes his generosity could be negative as well as positive. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, with a mixture of pride and caution I asked if he would read it. His answer was… “No—if I tell you I like it, you won’t believe me, and if I tell you I don’t, you’ll never write again.”

He and I had a relationship that was both more loving and more complicated than many of you can imagine. In a way he allowed me a childhood, something I’m not sure he necessarily got from his parents. But one night, when I was fourteen, he sat across from me at a Chinese restaurant on 7th Avenue and drank three martinis and explained to me what his real relationship with his father was. And I was shocked, because in a way he had always been distant, and at that moment I realized that he had been waiting for me to be old enough to be let in on the real person he actually was, and not the role he had been playing as my father. He had, in a sense, waited for me to be suitably adult to explain the truth behind my nice grandparents in Carrollton, Ohio. There were no deep dark secrets there—none of the shocking things you might all be imagining, just a small-town boy desperate to get out from under the shadow of a father with dynastic intentions—but it was a narrative I had not known, and when he told me it literally rocked my world.

It was interesting, being the only child of a man who had rejected his own father. I could turn to him at any time and ask him what he was thinking, and he would actually tell me. Sometimes his thoughts were hilarious. After a moment of quiet, I’d say “What are you thinking?” And he’d say: “I was thinking that weiner schnitzel is never as good as it was meant to be.” Sometimes his thoughts were trenchant, sometimes mordant. But he always offered them immediately, as unfiltered as possible, and this from a man who did not impart his secrets easily.

Sometimes Sam never allowed people to see the things most important to him. But he allowed me to see how much he loved me, and Cecilia, and Caleb and Jed, and Grayson—always Grayson. And he allowed you all to see various bits and pieces of himself, and that’s why you’re all here—because whatever it was he allowed you to see, you all recognized that it was—and here again, there is simply no better word—brilliant.

Sam Hall, sitting on the porch in the shifting light of sunset at Wildercliff… listening, constantly filtering all he heard through that labarynthine mind, yet the picture of ease in a boldly colored shirt with a globe of red wine and a pug snuffling around and the world as far as the eye could see before him.

And here, now, it is my sad duty to inform you all that this time the pope really is dead.

[This is the eulogy I gave to a small gathering at the church where we interred my father’s ashes, where he now rests next to my mother’s.]

My father had a fantastic life.

It’s difficult to explain what a brilliant writer he was. His work isn’t in the pages of any book—you can’t go to the bookstore and buy him and read him and have that moment of “My God, he’s amazing.” He wasn’t a prose stylist, though his prose was elegant and shimmering and sly.

He was a playwright. What made him amazing was his ability to create vivid characters and then build actions for them that were consistent with the people those characters were. And the actions he built for them—the decisions they made, the repercussions those decisions had, and the ways they handled those repercussions—were founded on the deepest understanding of the architecture of dramatic conflict I have ever known, and ever will know.

One quick story—after college, for a period of about a year, I worked at One Life to Live during my father’s tenure as head writer. The team had collaborated on a six-month arc of story, and submitted it to the network, as was standard. The head of daytime—still and yet, my favorite job title ever—had rejected it, as was also standard. Sam and I—just the two of us— came in on a Saturday to build a new story to submit that Monday. We sat across from each other at a desk, spent fifteen minutes discussing what the network hadn’t liked, and then stared at our yellow legal pads, trying to think up solutions.

After about five minutes, Sam began to write. And once he started he did not stop—he filled up a legal pad page, flipped it over and kept on, pages and pages of finely wrought story that took the characters into utterly new situations and emotional places that simply hadn’t existed when we walked into the room. After about 15 minutes, I had a pokey little idea, and then another, and then I began to write as well. By the end of the afternoon he had solved the problem, and had even incorporated a couple of my ideas into the thread of story, suitably transmogrified, as necessary. Mostly, though, I had sat there and watched, in awe.

He was a poet of story architecture. That was his art—the ability to tell a great story. You all caught a glimpse of it at various dinner tables over the years. I saw it in its professional setting, and believe me when I say his talent was enormous and prodigious. He was the most talented writer I have ever seen, and to the world at large it would appear that he never wrote a word. Yet more people saw his work than have ever read Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Updike or Roth or any other 20th century American writer. He was a colossus, but unknown even to the people most avidly caught up in his work.

That’s just one of the ironies that surrounded my father’s life. Because he was a writer, he saw ironic interconnections constantly, between everything and everything else. Because he was a private man, he didn’t let those interconnections out very often…unless they were funny.

In one of the articles about Sam published online this week, one of the writers he had worked with over the years referred to him as a curmudgeon. Reading that, I instantly took umbrage—he wasn’t a curmudgeon, he was the smartest man in most of the rooms he was in, and his mind was lightning fast. If that writer couldn’t keep up, Sam might not have had patience for him. But a curmudgeon? No. A curmudgeon is someone who has become convinced of the sourness of the world. Sam had wayyyyy too much curiosity about the people around him to be sour. He could be bleak—if he was ever a curmudgeon, it was about himself, his fear that he had never achieved any of the things that everyone in his world celebrated him for. He could be depressive—that was an emotion in his repertoire, and he hit it every so often. But with Sam, curiosity always won out. He was always delighted to be surprised by true acts of friendship, by the strength of love, whether romantic or filial or any other kind. He wanted people to be interesting—and everyone was, or could be, to him, just by being themselves.

He was a war veteran. He was in the signal corps, he landed on Normandy Beach two days after D-Day and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich. One afternoon at Wildercliff 20 years ago I found a large cardboard boot box from a long-gone shoe store in Carrollton Ohio, his hometown. I opened it and discovered that his parents had saved all his letters home. There they were, hundreds of them, neatly arranged in three columns. My excitement was visceral—here was the entire history of my father’s war! I didn’t have time that day, but I made a plan that the next time I came up I would block out an afternoon, sit down and really go through this box of living history.

Three weeks later I sat down in a clean, well-lighted place, opened the lid of the box and again marveled at this unexpected treasure trove. I took out the first letter, addressed in pen to my grandparents in their house on Main Street in Carrollton. Carefully I unfolded the notepad-sized paper inside. There, in Sam’s open, cursive handwriting were the words:

Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…

I opened the second:

Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…

Hundreds of letters detailing the lunch routines of Patton’s army as it chased Hitler across Europe.

But the funny thing is…Sam actually managed to write a 13-act play during his time in the army, with over one hundred characters. He told me that he had done it, that it existed, and that it was terrible. And while he never let anyone see it— evidently it was never even typed from the notebooks in which he wrote— I expect it wasn’t about lunch.

He was not a man who expressed love easily. He loved good food and good wine and good company. He loved pugs, yes, and monkeys, and his house. But he also loved me. He loved my wife. He loved his grandsons. He loved us all ferociously, in his private way.

But more than any of those things, more even than us, he loved my mother. They met on a double date at Tony’s restaurant, the one celebrated in a song in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies. At the dinner table she mentioned a fiancé, and he stood up, went to the bathroom, slipped around to the maître D’, paid the check and took the next train up to Hanover New Hampshire, where the Dartmouth Winter Carnival was in session. Then, after the war, he was back in New York and a friend invited him to a party at her apartment. His first thought was: that marriage didn’t last. He went to the party, chatted her up— she had no memory of the earlier evening, and never was able to conjure it up— and managed to convince her to leave her own party and spend the night with him at the Algonquin. He loved my mother then, he loved her through 33 years of bright days and stormy days, and after she died he loved her for the rest of his life.

And I grew up with two parents who loved each other, even as they saw through each other’s facades and personas. They saw each other plain, and they loved each other, and they gave me life, and a decent education in the world we see, and the world beyond the facades and personas, and the ironic connections underneath, and for all those things I am profoundly grateful.

March 11, 1921-September 26, 2014.

The year Cecilia and I fell in love—introduced via blind date arranged by Liz Fried, my mother’s lifelong friend’s daughter—we met in February. Throughout those next few months we found ourselves delighting in all the ways our lives were changing. When my birthday rolled around in August, I knew that in Cecilia’s complicated, seemingly unassuming, utterly fearless way, she was capable of giving me…pretty much anything. So when she arrived at my apartment that afternoon with a wrapped box about two feet long and a foot high, I was filled with the confident certainty that I had absolutely no idea what was inside.

I was not expecting an iguana. In a terrarium, with a plug-in hot rock and hollow half log and a blue water bowl and a sun lamp tube in the hood. A rescue iguana, as it turned out: nose to ass about four inches, with another four inches of tail. Someone had returned him to the pet store where Cecilia had found him. He was bigger than all the other lizards for sale, and needed a home.

We christened him Ozzie, the lizard of Oz. Iguanas are (mostly) vegetarian; we fed him fruit and salads and marigolds and protein powder. He rewarded us by showing us the strengths and limits of the limbic brain, his capacity for remembering us and reacting differently to us than to strangers, and by being, in essence, our own baby dinosaur.

Ozzie shed skin and got larger and then shed more skin and got larger still. It turned out the woman at the petstore had neglected to tell Cecilia a couple of salient facts about our iguana. The first was this: if you keep feeding iguanas, they keep growing. They never stop. Eventually he outgrew the terrarium, and we found a large wooden private-library-type cabinet with a chickenwire screen door, denuded it of interior shelves and put in tree branches and levels for him to climb around on, cut holes in the back for plugs for the hot rocks and heat lamps, put in a tray full of water for him to poop in (we had long realized that a litterbox full of water was his preferred medium in that regard), called it Ozzieland and put him in it. He took to it quickly and made it his own.

And he grew.

Often we would half-fill the bathtub with warm water and let him swim freely. He would tuck his long-fingered arms and legs to his sides and swim like an eel—fast as lightning, and about as easy to catch.

Iguanas express their emotions quite succinctly in their coloration; a healthy iguana is bright green; the darker and more dun-colored they get, the more one should be concerned about health. When Ozzie sank into listless dun-colored lassitude, we found a vet in the city who knew iguanas, and brought him in. Which is where we learned the second thing the lady in the petstore had neglected to mention: Ozzie was not, in fact, a boy. Ozzie’s body was preparing for egg production. (You can’t tell sex from genitalia; they keep that tucked away. You can from a subtle distinction in the scales on the undersides of the hind legs, as we found out from that vet.) But she was already named Ozzie, and sometimes even seemed to react to the name, so Ozzie she remained.

By the time Cecilia and I moved in together, Ozzie had outgrown Ozzieland. Fortunately our apartment had a storage room with a door that could shut, and that became Ozzie’s new home. We hung heatlamps from the ceiling, set up a litter box full of water for her to poop in, brought in Ozzyland, opened the door, and waited.

Tentatively she came out, did a half-circle of the area directly outside the box, and then went back in and watched. When it seemed safe, she came out and did another half-circle, about six inches wider, and then back into the familiar box. And then, emboldened, another larger circle, and then another, and then another, until she made it across the room and found a safe corner. And then she holed up there, and we waited, and she did a small circle around her new corner, and then a larger one, and then a larger one. And then she began to expand her circles in three dimensions, because iguanas are expert climbers.

In this way, she mapped out the entire room. Ozzieland, the door now permanently open, became her home base—it was where we fed her. She took to laying on the window sill, sunning herself, shifting positions as the sun made its course over the city. And she continued to poop in the litter box filled with water.

In the wild, iguanas often hang out on tree limbs over streams or other bodies of water, and, when threatened, drop into the water to escape. Often when we looked for her she would be at the highest point of the room, the flat wooden top of the bookshelf. Then we’d feed her—spinach, fruit, marigold petals— and she’d scurry down from the top of the bookshelf and scurry up to her feeding station atop the old Ozzyland. There she would lunge her head into the bowl of salad with the abrupt striking motion of a python.

By this time, Ozzie had grown. From her nose to her ass, she was about two and a half feet long, and her tail represented another three and a half feet. She had pushed out a fine row of spikes down her back. She liked to be on my head, and would clamber up me and dig her strong nails into my hair and stay that way, her tail down my back like a ponytail, while I wandered around the apartment.

One freezing night in early January, a vicious sleet storm covering New York, Cecilia and I were heading for bed and, as was routine, entered Ozzy’s room to check if she was OK before turning the lights off.

And couldn’t find her. This happened sometimes, it wasn’t a huge deal, but now we fanned out through the apartment, and she was not in any of the obvious places. We looked again, more carefully, worried this time— it was sleeting, freezing, the windows were all shut tight—had she slipped through the apartment door at some point? It didn’t seem possible. We slowed down, checked rooms one by one, and in a room she rarely entered I found her.

Or rather, her tail. She had found the single and only path of egress out of the apartment—a crack in the plastic pleating that ran between the air conditioner and the window frame. There was literally no way to get out of the apartment except for this narrow slit in a crease of plastic, and she had found it.

We were on the 10th floor. A foot-wide ledge ran all the way around the outside of the building at window-base level. I could feel the cold air coming in through the pleat. I rolled up my sleeve, reached my hand through the slit in the plastic, and grabbed Ozzy just behind her front legs. I had her, and then I didn’t, and then I did, and then she was gone.

I yelled for Cecilia. We went to the other windows, shining lights at the foot-wide ledge, trying to see if she had made her way toward another window, trying to see if she was under the air conditioner or on top of the air conditioner or had climbed the masonry. We spent an hour shining lights from windows and looking for her, to no avail.

The sleet storm continued—it was frigid out there. Nine stories below us was a piano store. It was now midnight. If she had fallen, there was nothing to do until morning.

We finally elected to leave all the windows open, leave little salads with fruit in each one, and go to bed.

And woke up the next morning huddled together in the coldest apartment I have ever slept in. Three inches of snow covered the ledge; at the open windows, the little clumps of salad had frozen into rock-hard masses. Cecilia prepared for work; I went down to speak to somebody about getting on top of the piano store.

It wasn’t possible until 10:00 am. Cecilia’s job was just a few blocks from the apartment; she left, the two of us hugging in the elevator bank, trying to remain hopeful but knowing it didn’t look good. I let her go, and then went back down at the appointed time and the man with the key let me onto the piano store roof.

Where I found Ozzie. She had fallen nine stories and landed, but then had obviously still been alive because she’d tried to climb back up. The lip of the tar roof curved up, and she was at the top of it, her fingernails hooked into chinks in the wall.

I pulled her gently off, put her under my coat against my chest, and took her upstairs. I called Cecilia at her job and told her “I found Ozzie, and she’s gone.” Cecilia said she’d take an early lunch break and be right over.

And then I took Ozzie into the bathroom. She was dirty from her fall and her climb, and I washed the dirt off her in warm water and laid her out on the counter, thinking deep thoughts about my utter failure as a father to this beautiful intelligent creature.

And then her mouth opened, and I thought: exhaust gasses. And then one of her long fingers moved, and I realized: she’s alive.

So I put her to my lips and did mouth-to-mouth, which she DID. NOT. LIKE. AT. ALL.

So I held her and let my body warmth do what it could, and she began to come around, clamber around a little to be comfortable. And the doorbell rang, and with Ozzie on my chest I went to answer it. It was Cecilia, with a large cardboard xerox-paper box from her office, obviously intended as a place to put the dead lizard. I opened the door a crack and said: “Don’t be freaked out, but I’ve got Ozzie on me, and she’s OK.”

And Cecilia’s first thought was: Matt’s not taking this at all well.

But once I had convinced her that I was not going to insist we all pretend she was still alive, that the lizard had in fact survived a nine story fall into a sleet storm, the next step was to race her to the Animal Medical Center on the upper east side.

She had fallen nine stories and had not broken a bone. She had dented cartilage in her chest. She achieved, and I believe still maintains, the record for the highest survived iguana fall in New York history. (There was evidently a cat that dropped 43 stories and lived.) She had frostbite on the tip of her tail, an inch of which was surgically removed, leaving more than three feet with which to thrash you if you tried to take her out of the bathtub before she was ready. She lived for many years after, and continued much as before, but she never sunned herself on windowsills again.

Ozzie, the dying and resurrecting iguana.

Eventually she succumbed at an appropriate old age to a respiratory infection, which came on with no warning.

I like to think that she thought she was in a tree, that night. She was out in the cold, high over the world, and when my arm came out and grabbed her she obeyed her natural instincts and dropped, hoping that somewhere down there, somewhere, there had to be water.

Happy Mother's Day

Mom and dad, probably before me.

As my dear, sweet mother used to say:

“Hurrah! Hurrah! The first of May!

Outdoor fucking begins today!”

And I find no convincing reason

To ignore the tradition of the season.

The Gaynes family Christmas card the year they moved from New York to California.

The Gaynes family Christmas card the year they moved from New York to California.

If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he would be a mature man in his mid-fifties. The height might have diminished by a couple of millimeters, or perhaps that inexorability would not have yet begun; either way, he would still routinely be the tallest one in the elevator. His blonde hair would have lost the almost metallic golden sheen the sun glinted off of in Nantucket in 1973; time would have softened it to the tan beach sand of his father, George. He would dress with a casual unfussy formality, blue blazers and chinos, because it would be an easy uniform to slip into and respectful of the people he encountered, whoever they might have been.

If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he might have the tiniest bit of a belly, from beer and wine and casually enjoying life, but he would be disciplined enough to keep it from defining him, and if he ever felt it was he would get to the gym or cut out the carbs and make it go away. The boy may have, at times, run a bit wild, but the man would have held his appetites in check.

If Matt Gaynes were alive today, he would no doubt be a father, and a damn good one. His professional desires would have settled, perhaps into something surprising, most likely to do with sports or athleticism. Teaching might have been some part of it. As a boy, and as a man, he expressed leadership effortlessly, in every arena he encountered.  He had a gift of taking whatever crazy idea interested him and making it possible.

That’s important to understand. Ed Ruscha has a deceptively simple 1977 painting entitled No End of the Things Made of Human Talk. I have no idea if Matt ever saw it, but I’m absolutely sure it would have at once been instantly recognizable to him, and its simple directness would have caused him to burst out with a crisp, short bark of a laugh. Because talk was never the end for him. Talk achieved nothing if it didn’t turn into action. The boy, and then the man, turned suggestions into achievements seemingly effortlessly, even when they were ridiculously hard.

Especially when they were ridiculously hard.

He was in school on Catalina Island, sent there as a teenager by his parents George and Allyn Ann because (as has been chronicled elsewhere in this blog) the drug culture had made its inroads into him and he into it. The school turned out to be perfect for him, a place that allowed him to shed old identities and necessities and mature into new and more meaningful ones. (I wasn’t there; I was in New York fighting my own battles, though I did visit the island with him years later.) One night, one of Matt’s Catalina Island School classmates suggested they get beer. This was for whatever reason, an impossibility on the island. But at the school they had access to kayaks—there were classes in building them—and it was only 22 miles across open ocean to Long Beach. So Matt led a couple of kayaks across one of the world’s most heavily trafficked ocean corridors at night. For beer. And got it, stowed cases in the kayak holds, and then turned around and paddled 22 miles back.

Easy. Not for me, nor for anyone else. But for him, yeah.

Water always played a part. He and I learned to swim at the YMCA on 8th avenue; it’s an apartment building now. The pool was municipal-sized, laned and busy, and we went once a week, and dove in full-throated little-kid competition for a heavy rubberized brick thrown from the side over and over again. This was when I first came to know the absolute joy of being entirely surrounded by water; to this day I have no interest in swimming laps unless I’m holding my breath and trying to get all the way across the pool without ever touching air.

And then I love it.

Matt’s relationship with water was richer than mine. Once he discovered kayaking he never stopped, and lived in Santa Barbara in easy proximity to the beach, if by easy proximity you mean going a hundred stairs down a steep cliff with a kayak over your shoulder. He introduced the term “hairball” into my vocabulary (it describes particularly dangerous whirlpools), and was good enough, and a known quantity enough, to just barely miss qualifying for the 1980 Olympics, the year Carter cancelled American participation after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. And then he broke his wrist—I have the x-rays in a box in my closet—and lost whatever fraction of a millisecond of control is needed to join the Olympians. But he wasn’t stuck on that; he was too broadminded a participant in life to get trapped by that self-definition.

He and I were born the same year, August for me and November for him, spent our first nine years in the same New York apartment building, four floors from each other—6A and 10C. His number was CI6-5855, when CI stood for Circle. Mine was JU2-8940, for Judson. I am an only child of only children; Matt had an older sister, Iya, who was from birth and very much remains a force of nature in her own right, (She was for many years involved in high-level city politics in Santa Barbara, and recently embarked on a new marriage; her daughter, Matt’s niece, has built a beautiful family on the West Coast.) We had a male pug, Thing; they had a female keeshond, Saskia. Matt’s mother and father were actors; my mother was an actress and my father a writer. He was blonde and thin and outgoing. I was brown-haired and perpetually chubby and introverted—at least I was then; at some point I inarguably became an extrovert, to the extent those overused labels still apply, though unfortunately the chubby thing never left.

Matt’s father, George Gaynes, had done movies, Broadway and off-Broadway; he was The Tongue in Tootsie who serenaded Dustin Hoffman’s character from the street. He did turns on Punkie Brewster and the Police Academy comedies, and was absolutely brilliant as Serybryakov in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. His  mother, Allyn Ann Mclerie, was a triple threat—actress-singer-dancer—who was in the original production of On the Town on Broadway, among other era-defining musicals, and had steady work in theater, TV and movies for years; people know her from Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, though she’s in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and All the President’s Men and Jeremiah Johnson along with many others. She worked a lot with Robert Redford. George and Allyn Ann were both in The Actor’s Studio, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when all the cool people were there. Which basically means they knew everybody.

Matt didn’t care about any of that. Or rather: he admired it, and respected it, and was active in his appreciation of the fine things all that work had allowed for him, but he didn’t feel the call to do those things. It was what his parents had done; it was not an inevitability for him, not an entitlement he felt he owned. From George he’d gotten his height, his Dutch golden hair and straight back and courtly European manners; from Allyn Ann he’d gotten her Scottish passion and focus and capacity for quick anger at perceived injustice. The only movie I know him to be in is the opening-credits song in the Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret, a very funny Beach Boys surfing-USA spoof in which happy American teenagers surf and skeet-shoot at the same time. He’s one of the gun-toting surfers; it could well be him who appears to get off a shot before being crushed by a wave more than twice his size behind the Director of Photography credit. Maybe he had talent as an actor; certainly it was in his genes. All that can be said from this, which I believe is his only appearance in film, is that as an actor his surfing skills are impeccable.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Matt died in a car crash in India in 1989. Recently married (I was the best man at his wedding, earlier that year) he was traveling through Northern India to Nepal to film a kayaking special for ESPN. The moment that he died was weirdly pivotal: worlds were changing. Almost immediately after his death the Berlin Wall came down. He would have relished it, not being a man with much use for walls or the dictatorships behind them, whether left or right.

But as I learned when my mother died, the body at its final age is not the sum total of the person’s existence. The body is a husk, too wounded by age or illness or trauma to continue its usefulness. Being overly concerned about Matt’s death is uninteresting. He was here; he walked the rocks of Catalina and the hills of Central Park, air bent around him and water curled around the edges of his paddle. He made a mark.

And yes, he’s somewhere else. And so is my mother, and so are they all.

On the other side of time, I expect, but I don’t know. I don’t know.

Who was he? That’s for people who knew him to explain. In the coming months and years those explanations will be part of the thread of this blog.

And now you know the reason I named it Nantucket ’73.

Matt Gaynes, Catalina Island School yearbook, Spring 1974– the school year after Nantucket.

For drug-addled stories of Matt and me acting fairly disgracefully as teenagers, go here:

https://msbhall.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/the-nantucket-birthday-story/