Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin (2018) Movie Script

[guitar playing]
[audience cheering]
Last week, I attended a family affair
And a few remarked
Upon my recent growth of facial hair
"You look just like your father did
With that beard," someone said
I answered back, "I am him
Even though my old man's dead"
I didn't want to be him
Well, at first I did
And I loved and looked up to him
As a little kid
He sent me to his old school
I was a numeral with his name
And he gave me this gold signet ring
And he wore one just the same
I guess that I believed him
Probably it was true
When he told me I was just like him
That's what some fathers do
But a father's always older
And my dad was rather tall
Who says size doesn't matter?
He was big and I was small
I needed to be big enough
To be someone someday
And I learned I had to beat him
That was the only way
I learned I had to fight him
My own flesh, blood, bone, and kin
But I felt I was just like him
Can a man's son be his twin?
First we fought for my mother
That afforded little joy
When he left, she was heartbroken
I was still their little boy
But I started to get bigger
And to win the ugly game
Well, I made a little money
And I got a bit of fame
And I saw how this could wound him
Yeah, this could do the trick
And if I made it big enough
I could kill him off quick
But how can you murder someone
in a way that they don't die?
I didn't want to kill him
That would be suicide
I got frightened and I backed off
I let up I was through
And in the end, he did himself in
Usually that's what we do
I'm alive and he is dead
And neither of us won
It's spoiled for the victor
Once the vanquishing is done
A man becomes immortal
Through his daughter or his son
And when he fears his legacy
A man can come undone
The beard is a reminder
I'm a living part of him
Although my father's dead and gone
I'm his surviving twin
Although the old man's dead and gone
I'm his surviving twin
Welcome to Surviving Twin.
That was the title track.
It's a posthumous collaboration,
in which I'm gonna combine and connect
some of my songs
with the writing of my late father,
the esteemed Life magazine columnist
Loudon Wainwright Junior.
He wrote under the byline
of Loudon Wainwright,
and his column, "The View From Here,"
appeared in Life magazine
throughout the 1960s and '70s and '80s
when Life was ubiquitous
on every coffee table in America,
way back when there were coffee tables.
My dad wrote
about the big stories of his day,
the Vietnam War,
the Project Mercury astronauts,
he interviewed Martin Luther King
and Robert Kennedy
and Marilyn Monroe and...
the Maharishi.
But he also wrote about his personal life,
including his feelings
about his own father,
and they were complicated feelings.
My dad's father died
when my dad was just 17.
So my dad never got tosay,
"Fuck you, Dad!"
It's so important, kids.
So his father was a ghost figure for him
and that's reflected a little bit
in this first piece I'm going to do
that my dad wrote, for you.
Let's have the card.
So when you see that card--
Not that particular... you know,
when a card comes up,
when a card comes up,
that's my father talking to you.
Okay, and now the card's up.
This is my father talking to you
about his father.
If I remain still
if I am alone and silent long enough
to hear the sound of my own blood
or breathing or digestion
above the rustling of leaves
and the whir of the refrigerator...
my father is likely to turn up.
He just arrives,
unbidden in the long-running film
of my thoughts
like Hitchcock in his pictures.
And he looks for allthese 40-plus years
of disembodiment,
much like himself, big and sandy-haired
with freckles on the backs of his hands,
perhaps a bit more diffident in the way
he holds himself than I remember.
Doesn't stay long.
As far as I can tell,
his visits have no message.
Yet even though years of therapy have
led me to make the dark whistling claim
that he's finally dead and gone...
my father...
who died when I was 17...
continues to be
my principal ghost...
a lifelong minencegrise.
And only my own end...
will finish it.
I've seen the family photos
And the man's a mystery
Died in 1942 at the age of 43
My grandmother was his widow
And my father was his son
Whoa, I know next to nothing
Of the first Loudon
They say he was an SOB
Who liked to smoke and drink
In the photos, he looks handsome
"Trapped" is what I think
And there's one of him in uniform
It must be World War One
They say he was an expert sailor
And could handle a shotgun
In a wedding portrait
Posing with his young bride
His right hand hidden by her bouquet
His left hanging at his side
Closed in a kind of half-fist
Unsure what he'd just done
Facing his short future
Like he could hit someone
It was elbows off the table
Before the meal begun
But it's his hands I recognized
He gave them to his son
Whose own hands held and touched me
Ruffled up my hair
I recognized that half-fist
Oh, I'd know it anywhere
Later on in the late 30s
He began to go to seed
In the photos, he looks loaded
The observant eye will heed
Mugging for the camera
Having a little fun
Cigarette in one hand
And a drink in the other one
Yes, I know a little something
About the first Loudon
My grandmother was his widow
My father was his son
Tell me, what are we afraid of?
Why do we resist?
I spread my hands and flex my fingers
Open and close my fist
I spread my hands and flex my fingers
Open and close my fist
At last I am properly dressed.
Well, that is on some occasions.
I'll be properly dressed
because any fool knows
a man can't wear
his new English suit every day.
But on the good days
when the suit has been well brushed
and its fibers adequately rested
after a decent period in the closet,
I will wear it with pride
in the confidence that I fit all over.
Ah, of course, all this
has probably happened too late.
A man should really have his first
London tailored suit in his speedy years,
sometime in his early James Bond period.
He should certainly have more than one.
Still, if a single Savile Row suit
does not make a new man,
it has at least made this one feel
splendidly redecorated.
A miracle of weskit and good gray worsted.
When I choose it
over the less distinguished
American models on my rack,
I can be sure that its $170 elegance
covers up a substantial secret.
Much of my feeling about the suit
undoubtedly comes
from the experience of buying it.
It was the most lingering pleasurable
purchase I have ever made.
I will remember it long
after the trousers are out at the knees.
During the five meetings I had with
my tailor over a period of two months,
the conversation was delightfully
We talked about my requirements,
my measurements,
my appearance.
We seemed always to be progressing
toward a triumph
that would be totally mine.
I selected my tailor
because he was nice about a button.
With a friend, I'd been looking
at suit materials in several London shops,
and we finally wound up
in a small establishment
where the friend
had bought a suit earlier.
[bell rings]
He introduced me to the tailor,
a short gentleman named Mr. Perry
who was dressed in a double breasted
black weskit and striped trousers.
A tape measure was draped around his neck.
Mr. Perry was entirely courteous,
but as he showed us bolts of cloth...
he kept glancing in the direction...
of my middle.
At first,
I thought he might be registering
some sort of understated astonishment
at the cut of my American ready-made suit,
and then I thought he might be
wondering about the problem...
of dealing with my shape.
I was beginning to not like Mr. Perry...
when he spoke.
"I think you have a bit
of a problem there, sir," Mr. Perry began.
"That is if you don't mind
my saying so, sir."
He approached and delicately touched
the center button on my coat.
"The button, sir.
I doubt if it will last out the day.
We'll have it tied down
properly for you in a moment."
Ah. I felt relieved,
ridiculously grateful,
and decided that a man
so discerning about buttons
would have to be marvelous about suits.
We selected the material rather quickly
when I kept returning to a swatch
of light colored tweed, said I liked it.
Mr. Perry said...
"Well, it's very nice.
But if I may say so, sir,
I believe you'd look a bit massive in it."
Appalled at the thought of being
any more massive than necessary,
I selected a darkish gray
with a very faint stripe.
"Now, that's a cloth that suits you, sir,"
Mr. Perry said firmly.
"It's not flashy, it's not pretentious.
It makes up smart,
we should get a good result."
The matter was settled.
Until the measuring session that followed,
I'd never realized
how many crucial dimensions I have.
From the nape of the neck
to the armpit, 11 inches.
From the center of the back
to the elbow, 22 inches.
From the inside of the leg,
known in London as the fork,
to the seam of the shoe,
32 and 3/4 inches.
The circumference at the trouser seat,
There are 25 vital measurements,
and Mr. Perry took them all,
calling them out like depth soundings
to an assistant,
who wrote them down on a large pad.
These were necessary
to cut the pattern, Mr. Perry advised me,
and they would then be placed...
in the company files.
How agreeable to reflect
that this catalog of specifics
would be kept in a safe place.
Weeks elapsed before I returned to London
and Mr. Perry.
[bell rings]
Looking at my new suit
for the first time...
I felt much the same horror I'd felt
at the first sight of my eldest son.
He'd looked very raw to me
through the nursery window
and so did the suit.
The jacket scarred with basting thread,
the pockets missing or sewn shut.
Mr. Perry did not reassure me entirely
when he found some fault
with the shoulder of the jacket,
simply clipped some threads
and removed one complete sleeve.
In the wreckage, we agreed
and disagreed, politely, about details.
Mr. Perry persuaded me that the jacket
should have more shape at the waist
so the suit would not be like
an American suit.
"Reasonably tidy,
but lacking in character."
I persuaded him that the trousers
should be fitted to accommodate a belt
and not suspenders.
Oh, Mr. Perry did not
really like that at all.
But he cheered up considerably
when we settled on the weskit.
It would depart somewhat
from the straight conservatism
of the rest of the suit
and have little lapels... of its own.
"The step collar vest
is coming into fashion, sir,"
Mr. Perry said approvingly.
"I think we're quite right to just
go ahead and take the chance."
Flushed with risk-taking...
I proposed two side vents in the jacket.
But Mr. Perry coolly checked me.
[bell rings]
At the next session,
the suit was almost finished
and Mr. Perry offered some guidance
for the future.
"I suggest you wear it in regular rotation
with your other suits, sir.
Once a week would be about right.
If you give it fair rest and treatment
between times,
it should last five years or more.
Brush it regularly,
sponge it a bit if need be,
but don't have it dry-cleaned
unless there's been
some sort of an accident."
I tried not to think of the accidents
that regularly befall my suits.
"And let me remind you, sir,"
he finished,
"look after it for moths."
[bell rings]
The next meeting was our last,
and much as I wanted the finished suit,
I was reluctant to stop buying it.
Mr. Perry held each trouser leg
clear of the floor
as I put on the pants.
[inhales deeply]
The lapels on the weskit...
The jacket...
Ah! The jacket fit perfectly
across the shoulders!
I gazed appreciatively at myself
in mirrored quadruplicate.
Mr. Perry smiled slightly.
"I don't think we'll find
the belt bothers at all, sir.
You're well turned out."
When I paid Mr. Perry, I asked him
if there'd been any...
special problems
in making the suit for me.
"Oh, no, sir," he began.
"Some might say tailoring
is the art of disguising the man,
but it's only if a manhas
a bad appearance
that there are any problems.
If he has a good figure...
we come up trumps."
I felt he hadn't quite answered
my question.
And I repeated it.
"Well, the only thing,
I don't know if I should mention it..."
I urged him on.
"Well, sir, you have rather a long body,
and that's the thing
we had to try to minimize.
We had to lengthen your legs, so to speak,
and shorten your body.
Nothing serious, really,
and it worked out quite well."
Now this was the first time I'd heard
of this particular defect in my structure.
I took another look in the mirrors.
Mr. Perry was right.
It was impossible to tell now
where my short legs ended
and my long body began!
In a post-operative glow
at his sartorial surgery,
I said goodbye to Mr. Perry
and set off down the street,
trying to make my strides long enough
to keep the secret of my suit.
I gotta tell you, folks,
this is the actual suit.
Let's give it up for the actual suit!
Between the forest and the ocean
Lies a lonely strand
The ocean is your mother
The forest fatherland
You are stranded on that empty beach
Not knowing where to go
Out to sea or else inland
Your whole life, you don't know
In between the earth and sky
There is an atmosphere
Feet on the ground, your head up high
But you are stuck
Right here
You're in between your whole life long
What happens when you die?
Down below us, Mother Earth
Your father dwells on high
Honor thy father and thy mother
Though they're not the same
And one pits you against the other
It's the cruelest game
You are stuck and you are stranded
You must live until you die
At home in forest and in ocean
Worship earth and sky
At home in forest and in ocean
Worship earth and sky
I knew your mother
Let me be clear
We were lovers before you got here
So don't forget that I knew her when
Love was the means
And you were the end
I still remember somebody
Who was amazing
And crazy and someone like you
I fell for your mother
Love made me a fool
We were into each other
Till it came off the spool
Folks choose their parents
Some Buddhists say
Maybe you picked us
And we were your way
In the biblical sense, I knew your mom
Und it wasn't all sturm
Und it wasn't all drang
There was some calm
Having a father
is the most dangerous game
And when Dad takes a powder
It's always a shame
I knew your mother
And your mother knew me
And as long as it lasted
Was how long it could be
Today is your birthday
And if truth be told
It has to be said now
We're both a bit older
Yeah, happy birthday
But I want to be clear
I loved your mother
That's why you're here
I knew your mother
Let me be clear
We two were lovers before you got here
So don't forget that I knew her when
Love was the means
And you were the end
Love was the means
And you were the end
I knew your mother
A few years ago, I saw a collection
of old home movies
that my father had made in the mid-1930s.
Since he held the camera,
he never appeared in the films,
although his long afternoon shadow
occasionally fell across
the scenes he shot.
But his presence,
the way he thought
about some things and how he felt...
seemed extraordinarily evident.
To make his movie
during one bitter winter,
he'd walked out on the frozen bay
near our house
and shot a long piece of film
looking back toward the land.
What obviously interested him
were the shapes the camera lingered on.
Great heaves of broken ice
and pilings of docks wrenched
into jagged angles against the sky.
Watching, I was astonished
at his selections.
I always thought of him
as a completely direct man
with no interest at all
in abstractions of any kind.
But here he was on film,
working hard with the camera,
trying to find the right framing
for the stark forms he saw.
Now, this was a large insight
into my father's being
that I'd missed completely.
The film showed me more
than that about him.
In another section,
he was photographing me
as I skated near him.
First, I watched the movie
with the fascination one usually feels
when he looks at pictures of himself,
especially pictures of a self
in child's packaging.
Delighted with my own gay
awkwardness on ice...
I suddenly had the sense
that the camera
was projecting a clear quality... of love.
The child fell, the camera lurched
as its holder moved in to help,
then steadied as the boy rose smiling.
The camera zoomed in for a close-up,
then drew back and held
as the child bent-ankled
in one crude circle... after another.
Decades later,
the photographer's tenderness
quite overwhelmed his subject.
Even if we're late...
we can still reach out for fathers...
and find good moments for ourselves
in what they left behind.
[Loudon over PA]
I drove down to Baltimore recently
and seeing an exit for Middletown,
I pulled or perhaps
was pulled off Interstate 95.
Driving the rental car through
the still sleepy little Delaware town,
I was amazed to see the old movie theater
and the barber shop were still standing,
much less in operation.
Now I nose the Caprice
towards St. Andrews.
My father had sent me away to the then
all-boys boarding school in 1961.
It was his alma mater, his own father
had exiled him there in 1938.
It hadn't been a happy experience
for either of us,
and I have managed to stay away
from the place for decades.
But suddenly,
I'm here again.
Aside from the new science building
and the even newer field house,
neither of which were built
thanks to any contribution from me,
the campus looks as it did 50 years ago.
I park, get out of the car,
and walk into the main building.
I feel slightly furtive, like a man
slipping back into a room
to retrieve a wristwatch
he's left on a bedside table,
not sure if the woman in the bed
is sleeping or pretending.
This feels like running away in reverse.
It's summer, so aside from a custodian
or two, the place is empty.
I climb some stairs heading to what
was once the third form bathroom.
It's still there.
Pushing open the heavy swinging door,
I belly up to a familiar-looking urinal.
I pee, marking this old territory.
In 1961, after lights,
I sat cross-legged and bathrobed
on the black and white
tiled floor of this can,
and while finishing a paper
or cramming for some exam,
suddenly would look up,
startled and amazed
by the loud cutting blare
of the night train's horn.
It was a sound expressing everything
that was beyond the school,
the whole empty world
that was waiting for me.
Now I'm in the basement,
which to this day,
still houses the tuck shop,
school store, and school bank.
I'm searching the darkly stained
pine wood paneling
for somewhere among those
hundreds of crudely carved,
scratched and branded
sets of initials and dates,
there should be LSW3 '65
or LSW Junior '42.
But I can't find us.
Maybe we were never here.
I'm in the auditorium now,
remembering Saturday nights
a half-century ago.
Watching the weekly movie,
I was Wainwright then,
always insisting on sitting alone,
away from my chatty goofball friends,
so as to concentrate on the flick,
hunkered down in the dark,
watching Forbidden Games,
Odd Man Out,
Mr. Hulot's Holiday,
and so appropriate
for a boys boarding school,
The Great Escape.
Now I'm standing inside the old gym,
scanning the thick, ugly plaster walls.
The school's team pictures hang there
in honor and remembrance.
I find my varsity football team picture.
I'm number 22,
left half-back, bad skin.
Then 30 feet away,
there's a picture of my father,
standing on the gym steps in 1942
with his varsity baseball team.
He and I, father and son
are connected
by our same sad expressions.
We're glum young men, unhappy Loudons.
I go outside and stand in the center
of the football field,
recalling the horrific sight
of Andy McNair's knee
being driven the wrong way
by the vicious clip he received
in the 1964 Tatnall game.
Then I experienced the memory
of my father
seated in the standswatching me play.
Now he's up and cheering.
I've got the ball.
Then I imagine him
on that same field in 1940
or maybe '41,
the next-to-no shoulder pads,
shod and mud-caked high-top cleats,
wearing an ancient face-guardless helmet
searching those same stands
for his own father.
Hey, you want to do a sing-along?
-[all] Yeah.
You don't sound like
you're very enthusiastic.
I'll tell you, if you don't sing along
on this, we're doing "Kumbaya."
So, uh...
you decide.
You know, this show is very, um--
There's a lot of father stuff
in this show.
Some mother stuff
is coming up, don't worry.
Don't worry, you moms out there.
We're gonna do this,
this is the sing-along.
I'm gonna teach you
the sing-along part, your part.
Being a dad
[all] Being a dad
That's good.
The moms are good, the dads...
The dads, like so many dads, suck!
Being a dad
Let me hear you.
[all] Being a dad
Now we've got some bottom on that thing.
All right, so I'm gonna start the song.
The sing-along thing is kind of...
You'll know. You'll know.
Being a dad
It isn't so bad
Except that you gotta feed 'em
You gotta shoe 'em and clothe them
And try not to loathe them
Bug 'em and hug 'em and heed 'em
Being a dad
Can sure make you mad
Man, it sure can drive you crazy!
It's as hard as it looks
You gotta read them dumb books
And you end up despising Walt Disney
Being a dad
It starts to get radical
When they turn into teenagers!
You gotta tighten the screws
Enforce the curfews
Confiscate weapons and pagers
Remember pagers?
But a daughter or son
Can be sort of fun
Just as long as they don't defy you
They'll treat you like a king
They'll believe anything
They're easy to frighten and
Lie to
Just like we rehearsed it...
[all] Being a dad
Come on now, you can do
better than that, come on!
Being a dad
Little bit louder!
Being a dad
That's pathetic. One more.
Being a dad
Being a dad can make you feel glad
When you get paper weights
And aftershave lotion
Yeah, it feels pretty great
When they graduate
That's when you're choked with emotion
But being a dad takes more than a tad
Of good luck and divine intervention
You need airtight alibis
Foolproof disguises
Desperation's the father of invention
So sometimes you take off
For a few rounds of golf
And you stay away
for half of their lifetimes
The result of it all
Is you're captured and hauled off
Before a tribunal for
Dad crimes
Two, three, four...
[all] Being a dad
Come on, moms!
Being a dad
Pretend I'm Pete Seeger.
Being a dad
Same sex couples.
Being a dad
Being a dad can make you feel sad
Like you're the insignificant other
Yeah, right from the start
They break your heart
In the end, every kid wants his mother
Big finish, everybody goes like this,
we go like...
Being a dad
So in January of 1942...
Loudon the first, my grandfather, dies.
And that spring of the same year,
my dad, Loudon Junior,
graduates from St. Andrews.
And then, in the summer of 1942,
at the age of 17,
he enlists in the Marine Corps.
And he writes some letters...
to his recently widowed mother...
a couple of which mention Martha Taylor...
who, in 1946, would become my mother.
July 1942.
"Dear Mother, I just got your letter
saying you almost burst into tears
when you saw a Marine private
on 42nd Street.
If I could only give you
the strength, Mother.
You showed your real guts when Daddy went
by making a great effort to carry on
with what he had done
because you felt that you had to make
a life and a home for you and me,
a new home in place of the old one
that suddenly disintegrated
with the departure
of my best friend and father and your man,
the one we both loved above all else.
You have done a splendid job, Mom.
I realize now what a torture
your life must have been
since that awful day in January.
Never turn your face to the wall,
never despair for me, Mother.
Wherever I am,
my heart is always with you,
my thoughts are always with you.
Let the fact that I love and worship you
for your splendid courage and patience
be a comfort to you
whenever you feel my absence.
Remember that like Big Louds...
I am always with you.
Goodnight, Mommy.
September 1942.
"Toots, your picture arrived today
and I am terribly pleased with it.
It really is swell.
You can be sure it's been put in the most
prominent position beside my bunk.
There is no doubt in my mind as to who
has the prettiest mother in the place.
You're really younger looking
than most of the guys' girls.
No, I'm not kidding.
I like the Marine Corps,
I have a million and one good pals.
I like California and I'm quite happy,
but I'm so damn mad at this setup I'm in
that I feel like getting plastered
or something.
I mean, whoever said, 'War is hell,'
either wasn't using the full extent
of his vocabulary
or had never fought the war
from the sunny shores of California.
It is, as Dad would have said,
a great big pain in the pardonnez-moi ass.
Ah, nuts to me,
I'm griping too much, and I'm sorry."
October 1942.
I'm now listening to "Melancholy Baby"
coming in loud and clear over the radio.
Remember those nights
driving back from Easthampton
when we'd sing all the way home?
Or coming back from a game
at Princeton with Dad giving out
with his special octave-jumping tenor?
Them were the days.
Good night,
and lots of love, Louds."
1943. "I'm in San Diego now, Mom.
It's a dull sailor-crammed town.
I can't get a drop to drink because
I'm not 21 and they won't serve me.
I'm gonna write
to the new governor, Earl Warren,
and I'm gonna tell him I don't like
the liquor laws in his lousy state
and that if he doesn't have them
fixed immediately
so that all men in uniform can imbibe,
I'll depart.
If Errol Flynn being accused
of the seduction
and statutory rape of two minor girls
is an example of the purity
of glorious California,
then why can't I have a beer?
To be truthful,
I long for a little younger
female companionship.
Although you realize, Mom, there's nothing
I'd rather do than see you.
Love, Loudee."
July, 1945.
"I'm thinking very seriously of bringing
Martha home with me next weekend.
Might both get a three-day pass. We could
go out to Cedarhurst and swim, etc.
I'm thinking very seriously
of getting married.
So I hope you like her
and will not start thinking of ways
to make me forget about it.
I didn't mean that exactly the way
that it sounded,
but I do feel that you probably think
of the objectionable sides
of the relationship before anything else.
I love her a great deal, and I feel...
pretty certain that it's a good thing.
She completely understands my situation.
Don't worry about it, Mother.
Love, Louds."
October 1945.
"Mom, Martha is down at Camp Lejeune
getting discharged
and won't be home until Saturday.
I miss her like hell, I don't know what
to do with myself when she's not here.
The way I feel about her
almost seems to be too far inside me
for any appropriate expression.
I never thought I could be this lonely.
She's a sweetheart.
And I love her."
Mother liked her white wine
When she was alive
She was desperate to live
But her limit was five
Carefully, I'd kiss her
Send her off to bed
We always stuck to white wine
We stayed away from red
Always stick to white wine,
Stay away from...
Mother liked her white wine
She'd have a glass or two
Almost every single night
After her day was through
Sancerre, chardonnay, Chablis
Pinot grigio
Just to take the edge off
Just to get the glow
You've got to take the edge off
If you want to get...
Mother liked her white wine
She'd have a glass or three
We'd sit out on the screen porch
White winos, Mom and me
We'd talk about her childhood
And recap my career
When we got to my father
That's when I'd switch to beer
When we got to the old man
I'd always switch...
Mother liked her white wine
She'd have a glass or four
Each empty bottle a dead soldier
The marriage was the war
When we blurred the edges
When we drank a lot
That's when I got nervous
When the glow got hot
I always get nervous
When the glow gets...
I still like my white wine
And I'll have a glass or two
When I'm down, I'll drink some whiskey
It's something I shouldn't do
Every now and then
I'll take a drop of red
When I'm with a woman
That I want to take to bed
When I'm with a woman
That I want to take...
Mother liked her white wine
And when she was alive
She was desperate to live
But her limit was five
Carefully, I'd kiss her
Send her off to bed
Thank God we stuck to white wine
And we stayed away from...
Mother liked her white wine
Well, it's always seemed
like a zero holiday to me.
Another commercially pumped up occasion
to sell greeting cards or neckties.
Long distance phone calls,
41 million on Father's Day.
More on Mother's Day.
Aloud, I profess to find it
beneath my notice,
but as it rolls around each June,
I find myself wondering
if I'm gonna hear
from each of the kids,
and I get ready to sulk...
if someone doesn't phone
or write or show up.
I call the roll in my head
and tick off tender memories of each.
Looking back, I suppose
one of the problems I had with fatherhood
was that I attached a kind of divinity
to the role.
Not that I consider myself all-knowing,
but I did have this notion
that a really good father...
would have the answers
to just about everything
and the power
to make all things work out.
I think it's likely my own father,
who died a relatively young man,
suffered from the same delusion.
Even when he seemed most confident
and implacable,
I would bet he was full of doubt,
that his controlling family style
was just a cover-up
for the fear
he didn't have much power at all.
Maybe my experience is unusual,
but I can't recall having given
a single serious thought
to what it would be like to be a father
until I was married
and my first son was on the way.
All my dreams up to then had revolved
around escaping boyhood
and its strictures
or around sex or around...
learning everything
about everything
or being recognized, even acclaimed,
as a full-fledged person
with limitless future.
When that first son was born,
I spent all night in the waiting room
with another expectant father.
He was about 40.
Almost twice my age then, so was his wife.
They'd been married for many years.
This would be their first too.
He and I talked
and drank coffee until dawn
while our wives labored unseen
down the hall.
He told me how carefully
they had planned for this child,
how many earlier disappointments
they'd had.
Their experience
was so astonishingly different
and so much more complexthan my own,
in which a child seemed to come
almost spontaneously out of marriage.
These people really wanted their baby.
We did too, but...
that was a whole other order of things.
Then as we talked on, their doctor
came out of the delivery room
and told my new friend
that his wife was all right.
After the most awful pause,
he added that the baby, a boy,
hadn't made it.
Until right then...
when that calm and kind man...
so ready for fatherhood
and so cruelly deprived of it,
put his arm around me and told me
he was sure our baby would be okay...
I hadn't realized how close
all life is to sorrow.
We're wondering when you will arrive
We're wondering what you'll be
We're wondering if you'll be a her
Or if you'll be a he
Maybe you'll arrive today
Perhaps tomorrow night
We're hoping you won't hurt too much
And that you'll be all right
Life has a few unpleasantries
We may as well confess
We suppose you'll cry a lot
And that you'll be a mess
There is one thing
You should note well
Of this, there is no doubt
You cannot get inside again
Once you have come out
Even though there's trouble
Even though there's fuss
We really think you'll like it here
We hope that you like us
Now the name of that song
is "Dilated to Meet You."
"At Your Cervix."
And, uh...
I wrote it probably about 1973...
when we were waiting on Rufus
to make his grand entrance.
When we told, um...
my grandmother
that her first great-grandchild
was not going to be called
Loudon Wainwright IV,
but Rufus...
she said...
That's a dog's name!"
Yeah, she was right.
Let me just tune again.
You can't tell.
It's those guitar techs at home
that I'm worried about.
Okay, so "Dilated to Meet You"
was written in 1974,
'73, I think I said.
18 years later, this one popped out.
When I was your age
I was just like you
Just look at me now
I'm sure you do
But your grandfather was just as bad
You should have heard him
Trash his dad
Life's no picnic, that's a given
My mom's mom died
When my mom was seven
My mom's father was a tragic guy
He was so distant, nobody knows why
Now, your mother's family
You know them
Each and every one a gem
Each and every one a gem
When I was your age
I was a mess on a bad day
I still am, I guess
I think I know
What you're going through
Everything changes, but nothing is new
I know that I'm miserable
Can't you see?
I just want you to be just like me
Boys grow up to be grown men
And then men change
Back into boys again
You are starting up
And I'm winding down
Ain't it big enough
for us both in this town?
Say it's big enough for us both
When I was your age
I thought I hated my dad
That the feeling was a mutual one
That we had
We fought each other day and night
I was always wrong,
He was always right
But he had the power
He needed to win
His life half over,
Mine about to begin
I'm not sure about that Oedipal stuff
But when we were together
It was always rough
Hate is a strong word
I want to backtrack
The bigger the front
The bigger the back
The bigger the front
The bigger the back
Now you and me or me and you
It's a different ballgame
No, not brand new
I don't know what
All this fighting is for
We're having us
a teenage/middle-age war
I don't want to die
You want to live
Takes a little bit of take
And a whole lot of give
Never really ends, though
Each race is run
This thing between a father and a son
Maybe it's power
Push and shove
Maybe it's hate, probably it's love
Maybe it's hate, probably it's love
Right in the middle of a long New Year's
weekend full of bright weather
on lovely snow and a numbing succession
of televised quarterbacks...
our dog died.
Or to put it absolutely straight, after
a family agreement rare in its unanimity,
we had his life stopped...
by a veterinarian who agreed
it was the right thing to do
for such a painfully
and fatally ill animal.
His name was John Henry.
I don't know why we called him that.
I don't think I've ever been
more sharply aware
of the fine line between here and gone
than I was near the end when
I held him close on the vet's table.
The kind doctor,
her eyes floating in tears
because she knew him and us,
pumped something bluish into his leg.
And with a calm, open-eyed patience
that characterized so much of his style,
he waited that briefest moment
until it struck his center...
and killed him.
Couple of polite gasps...
and it was over.
Slightly undone by my sentiment,
and for some wild reason,
remembering not Lassie,
but Love Story
and the astounding
communicative success of Erich Segal,
I will now risk a version
of his opening question.
What can you say about
an 11 and a half year old dog that died?
That he was at least as beautiful
as Ali MacGraw.
He was dumber...
a messier eater.
That he ran shining
and marvelously fast through fields
and rolled snorting in snow
and floated a burnt auburn blur
over stone walls,
that he didn't much mind Mozart and Bach,
but that violin solos
and harmonicas made him howl.
That he could destroy six glasses
with one sweep of his tail.
But when I asked him how he ranked me
among the people he liked,
he would thump his tail
against the floor and grin,
occasionally punctuating that
with a noise...
that became a smell.
Well, he was half-Irish Setter
and half-golden retriever.
His manners were predictably imperfect.
There was a totally non-human quality
about his loving.
Virtually everyone was a suitable target
for his affection.
And unlike your one-man brute
who will slobber over his master's hand
and then dismember the neighbor's child...
he menaced nothing,
including the rabbits he chased
and never got
and the skunks who always got him.
Not that he was indiscriminating.
He was not a tramp.
He did not follow strangers.
He was a wide-ranging country dog,
but his daily investigations most always
brought him home at night.
He liked to sleep on rugs...
usually where it was convenient
to stumble over him.
He liked to ride in cars.
Best... he liked to be invited on walks.
And he worked like a roving scout,
around the walker,
in front, behind, alongside,
often at a dead run a good distance away.
And when he rested in winter
during one of these wonderful
dashes in all directions,
he would break ice in a stream
to cool his belly and his tongue.
Although he was forced to live
with a succession...
of cats...
I don't think he liked them at all.
Yet in most moods but joy,
he was a model of understatement,
the weary and wary tolerance
he displayed at the cats' rude spitting
or at their hit-and-run assaults
from ambush
from beneath a chair was the closest
he ever came to expressing real distaste.
Obviously, our knowledge about his
relationships with other dogs is limited.
He probably had wet down bark or bush
with every dog
within a radius of three miles,
but he didn't seem
to care much for groups,
preferring instead to run alone
or with just one other at a time.
He was alert, forward,
but never aggressive.
Though his hair bristled splendidly,
and he growled well when challenged,
he had a distinct aptitude
for avoiding fights
and could walk away from one
with a casualness that implied
it wouldn't be worth his trouble.
In his later years, he was treated roughly
by a much younger
and stronger dog down the road,
but he accepted this indignity
in a way that wasn't cowardly,
as if it were in
the normal order of things
that the puppy
he had earlier taught to play...
was now bouncing him around quite badly.
Even when he was very feeble and old...
he always trotted out
to defend his home station.
I hope he had a full and happy sex life.
But I only know of one affair.
It was arranged
and he fathered a litter from it.
His partner in this matter
was a female dog
from a household of good friends.
She too was sweet and easygoing,
and she looked more or less as if she came
from a similarly mixed background.
We tell a story about this match.
I'm no longer sure if it's entirely true,
but the story goes...
oblivious to approaching delight,
he was taken by car to the vets
for one supervised meeting.
The vet said afterwards he felt sure
everything had gone well,
but perhaps for insurance, the two should
be brought together again the next day.
So the next day, our dog was put
in the car, driven to his appointment,
which was once more declared a success.
The affair was pronounced
consummated and closed,
the dog came home.
The following morning,
he was found ready in the car...
presumably awaiting another trip...
and another meeting.
Unlike Segal's doomed creature,
this one wasn't perfect.
Now and then, his taste in food
would turn to garbage
and he upset many cans
in search of the ripest morsels.
He dug holes in lawns.
He liked to sprawl on young plants.
He was a discoverer of mud!
When he found something often invisible,
and even non-existent, to bark at...
he barked hard
and utterly ignored commands
to stop it!
Come the hell home!
I am proud of one area
of his ignorance.
He knew no tricks at all.
Unless you count
a sort of half-baked paw shake
he employed, as a last effort,
in his perpetual and undiscouraged search
for affection.
In his last days,
he had great difficulty getting up.
He tottered weakly on three legs
and was dreadfully thin.
The pain, even muffled with pills,
was leaving him stupid with exhaustion
and it became clear past all reluctance
that what he needed most...
was a push out of life.
Briefly, I had the conventional
and outlandish thought of doing it myself.
So did one of my sons...
who likely loved the dog the most.
Then with her potion that hit
with such shocking and merciful speed...
the doctor ended our nonsense.
That night,
I dreamed that my son kept calling him.
The boy had a way of calling that dog.
I woke.
Life gets to be
a series of dogs, I thought,
and I ticked off those I could remember.
Ghosts in the house suddenly.
Old dogs...
When I slept and woke again,
it was cold, half-light.
I was almost sure I heard the dog's
toenails against the hall floor...
and his single, discrete bark
to go outside.
I won't live with a lot more dogs.
And I won't live
with another dog like him.
When a man has a dog in the city
A man needs to walk in the park
Take a little stroll by the riverside
Smoke a cigarette there in the dark
Living in the city
Living with a dog
And a man has to carry him a plastic bag
On his person at all times
When a dog dumps on the sidewalk
Walking away is a crime
Living in the city
Walking with a dog
A man likes living in the city
City, city
But a man has to find some work
Walking with a dog is a kind of a job
Make you feel like a fool and a jerk
Living in the city
Working like a dog
Work out, Loudo!
A dog likes living in the city
City, city
In a city
There's a lot of other mutts
Checking in front, checking in back
No ifs, no ands, just butts
Living in the city
Dog checking out a dog
It's a pretty good way to meet a woman
If a woman is walking her dog
Just say
"What's her name? How old is she?"
It's easy, like rolling off a log
Checking out a woman
Man acting like a dog
But when a man
Has a fight with a woman
A man needs to go for a walk
Walking with a dog is easy
He listens, he don't talk
Talking to a dog
Talk to me, Loudo!
Walking with a dog
In the winter in the wind
And the rain and the snow is a drag
It's hard as hell
To keep a cigarette lit
And get the shit in a plastic bag
Living in the city
Walking with a dog
When a man has a dog in the city
City, city
A man needs a walk in the park
Take a little stroll by the riverside
Smoke a cigarette there in the dark
Living in the city
Man living with a dog
So in 1985, my father was diagnosed
with colon cancer.
And after a three-year battle...
it got him.
He died in December of 1988,
which, interestingly enough,
was also the same month and year
that his last column
in Life magazine appeared.
Maps are just excuses
for the journeys they set us on.
I remember one glorious summer in Maine.
I used to wake up
at three or four in the morning,
have coffee, make a couple
of sandwiches for me and my wife,
just set off.
There was no great plan.
I had it roughly in mind
to follow every little road
leading down to the sea from Deer Isle,
a couple of hundred miles to Campobello,
where Maine turns into Canada.
Map in hand, I would cover
that huge piece of terrain.
It was even better than I hoped.
We saw scores of little communities
we might just have sped past otherwise.
East Machias, Jonesport, Beals Island...
and each somehow
developed its own character
as we approached in this way.
One amazing morning,
we drove down a little dirt road
until the fog was so thick,
we simply couldn't go any further.
We sat silent for perhaps half an hour
in that gray dampness.
Then suddenly...
the fog lifted...
and we found ourselves
in the shining little port of Cutler.
We could never have seen it
under such exquisite circumstances.
To appreciate it the way we did,
we had to fail first
to see it in the fog.
My connection with maps
is a little distant these days.
As much as I'd like to plan
for some good coastal trips...
I'm not really up for them.
The possibility of other trips
more engulfing intrudes...
and I am unsettled
by possible... destinations.
As much as I'd like to think
I'm ready for anything,
I'm not really ready
to accept all possibilities.
I'm not ready to see
where all the roads come to an end.
But the old trips still give pleasure.
I feel joy
at the bright sunshine in Cutler.
And I know it...
as well as if I saw it this morning.
I've slumped in your chair
Tossed and turned in your bed
Lurked in your lair
I have lived in your head
Where others were closer
No one is nearer
As I glimpse you and me in
The hallway mirror, I...
I've grabbed from the plate
I've stabbed with a knife
On day one, my first date
I slept with your wife
My common-law stepmom
I desire and fear her
I compare you to me in
The full-length mirror, I...
Sharing hair, forehead lines
Scowling, worrying, thinking
With a penchant for fine wines
A disposal toward drinking
You had 'em, I got 'em
I move my face nearer
Broken blood vessels
In the bathroom mirror, I...
And your doormen all know me
It's not bizarre
It shouldn't throw me
To go move your car
But the ghost of your father
He couldn't be clearer
He's there where he haunted you
The rearview mirror, I...
Well, on the basis of the way
things are with my children,
I doubt that the length
of the acquaintance
necessarily makes it easier
for loved ones to know you better...
or for you to know them.
The past... keeps getting in the way.
My children are all grown now,
deep into the complications
of their adult lives,
but where I'm concerned, I'd bet
the ghostly parent of earlier Christmases
keeps popping up for them
when my number is punched.
The old record complete
with stored outrage and disappointment
comes up on the computer screen
and a natural reserve, a caution,
built up for years, takes over.
Why shouldn't it?
We share a big chunk of the past
and there were awful bumps.
I've gotten used to the fact
that they have their own versions
of how things were.
They're entitled,
even if I recall some things differently.
No, it's not that I want
to set the record straight.
That could make matters worse.
But change is possible.
And I'd like to begin work on some sort
of updated realigned model
for our connection.
Something that will reflect
not so much what we all were...
or think we were...
but what we have become.
Here's another song in C
When I play piano, it's my key
If I was playing my guitar
I'd probably be in G
The chances are
Here's another song in C
With my favorite protagonist
Of my little world, I'll tell and show
I'll sing all about it
So you'll know
When the people in it break my heart
Except to sing in C to you
And there's not a thing I can do
Except to sing in C to you
Oh, there used to be a family
Brother, sisters, father,
Mother and me
We were living in a little home
We were fending off the great unknown
But the great unknown, it got inside
And what had been whole
It did divide
In the end, the father had to leave
When he did
The mother had to grieve
That's the time real troubles start
It's when a world can fall apart
And there's not a thing I can do
Except to sing in C
To you
[continues playing]
I grew up and had a family
But it broke apart so easily
All that started 40 years ago
Why it's never ended, I don't know
I could blame it on the great unknown
Or as a kid when I was told and shown
But I blame myself
And I blame her
The cruel and foolish people
That we were
And the children that we had are grown
They're out fending off
The great unknown
And I've noticed they're a bit like me
With a tendency to sing in C
So by now it's clear to hear and know
I don't play a lot of piano
But sometimes a fella has to sit
Just to sing about the heavy shit
And the great unknown's a hurricane
With howling winds
And floods, and driving rain
You might make it through, huh
But you don't know
If right behind it, there's a tornado
And if families didn't break apart
I suppose there'd be no need for art
Oh, but you and I know they do
So I sing in C to you
Thank you very much.
Thanks for coming.
Thank you.
Thank you very much! Thank you.
Thanks for coming out. Thank you.
Thank you.
[instrumental music playing]