Olive Kitteridge

It was hot in Beverly Hills this afternoon.

I’d gone to the Polo Lounge to have lunch with Ellis Rich, Chairman of the PRS.  As we discussed the minimum YouTube royalty, two gentlemen got up from their table and started walking towards us.  I immediately recognized Terry Semel, late of Yahoo, formerly of Warner Brothers, but it took me a moment to realize he was with Les Moonves.  I mistook Les for Brad Grey at first.  They’re both perfecting that boyish look.  Wherein they can flash smiles like fourteen year olds to the press, but rant and rave to their inner circle.

And a few moments later Helen Hunt emerged from the mists.  People talk shit about her personal life, but she’s such a great actress.

And then that teen phenom who now syndicates his own talk show.  What’s his name again?  Byron Allen, that’s right, it comes back to me now.  He was bouncing a new baby on his chest.  He looked old, which is no crime, but my memory told me he was still young.

But the host of "Inside The Actors Studio", you know, the self-righteous interviewer who has now managed to become a star himself, he was so aged as to make one contemplate one’s own mortality.  We don’t live forever you know.

That’s what I’ve been contemplating for the past month or two.  It’s the end of the ski season.  But for the first time ever, I can foresee the fall, cold weather will come again, quite soon, in fact.  But I never perceived the seasons moving this fast.  Makes me realize that one only gets to see so many springs and so many falls.  And then there are none at all.

I contemplated all this as I emerged from the Beverly Hills Hotel.  It was positively hot.  The kind of heat that makes you want to go home and put on your shorts, maybe take a ride by the beach.  Suddenly, it’s summer.

And I’ve come to hate summer.  It’s too damn hot.  But it’s the price you pay for winter.  The only way to beat the system is to travel south of the equator every June.  But that’s gaming the system.

And after arriving home, changing into my aforementioned shorts, and catching up on some e-mail and the newspapers, I went into my bedroom and fired up my Kindle.  You see I’m hooked on a book.  "Olive Kitteridge".

I didn’t mean to read it.  I was looking for something else.

I wanted to purchase the Vanderbilt biography, especially now that they’d dropped the price to ten bucks, after the Kindle community outcry.  But that’s eight hundred pages in hardcover, and non-fiction.  I needed something to take me away.  Only fiction would do.  The stories may be made up, but when done right, they’re more truthful than any real life accounting.

So I’m surfing the Kindle store, looking at the best sellers.  It’s akin to the  music business.  Anybody who’s an educated reader wants nothing to do with these quickie, genre, made for a market tomes.  Of course there are exceptions, there are even great mysteries, but generally speaking, you don’t want what’s in the Top Forty and you don’t want what’s on the best seller list.  But I desired to read a book. And a flash occurred in my brain.  That woman who writes those nice stories, the ones about the slightly twisted families, what was her name, "Elizabeth Strout"?  Her new book had gotten such a great review.  I’ll download that, at least it will be easy to read.

So that’s how I ended up with a sample of "Olive Kitteridge" on my Kindle.  Which resembled the work of the author I was thinking of not a whit.  The story started off with too much description, a style faux pas to me.  But by time I figured out I had the wrong book, I was hooked. You see the writing had the ring of truth.  When the sample chapter ended, I immediately bought the rest.  I not only needed to know what happened, I didn’t want the warm fuzzy blanket of life lifted, I wanted to bask in the peculiar frailty, the ins and outs of the human race.

Turns out the book is one of linked short stories.  The only ongoing character is Olive Kitteridge herself.  And in some chapters her appearance is as fleeting as a Hitchcock cameo.  It’s tough to start over, after getting hooked on one person’s story, but each vignette has one line, one situation, which describes life perfectly, causing you to hit the Next Page button, continuing to read.

There’s the pharmacist, actually Olive’s husband, Henry, who hires a new girl whose spouse gets killed.  He keeps his distance, but comes to acknowledge to himself he’s in love with her.  And she reveals she feels the same way about him.  And this causes…silence.  You know how love with no future is.  Instead of coming together, you end up with something akin to hate.  You try to repel the person, it’s better than the unending yearning.  And this pushing away is not conscious, rather it’s instinctual.

Meanwhile, decades later, when Henry can finally stop fighting the feeling, and revel in it, when the girl lives thousands of miles away, he realizes his wife, Olive, was in love with a fellow teacher, and he runs to her and asks…YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LEAVE ME, ARE YOU? Marriage is complicated.  It’s got a life of its own.  It’s not all peaches and cream, sailing into the sunset.  But you’re together for a reason, and this reason keeps you staying together.

Then again, another character leaves his wife for someone who’s a wrong fit on paper.  Because his wife rejects physicality and this new woman…she wants to know him, what his favorite song is, the minor details that make you who you are that get pushed down inside, yet are yearning to get out.

Then there’s the training psychiatrist, about to commit suicide…  The only person he can trust is his psychiatrist.  Who warned him his girlfriend was crazy, that she’d leave him.  Yet this young man can’t relinquish the connection with his lost love.  But moments before he’s going to take his own life, he’s forced into rescuing an old classmate being carried away by the surf.  Funny how you want to end it, and then you fight so hard to keep going.

This isn’t the only suicide talk in the book.  Which takes place in a small coastal town in Maine.  As Joni Mitchell once sang, "we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction".  It’s just that in public life, no one can acknowledge this.  The media wants winners.  Or complete losers.  But most people are just average.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But who is delineating the hopes and dreams, the losses of everyman.  That’s great art.  When you can reflect ourselves back upon us.  That’s what Elizabeth Strout has done here.

In a world where business people are constantly trying to hoodwink us, with extensive marketing and constant barking to pay attention, it’s easy to get beaten down, to get frustrated.  Almost nothing lives up to the billing.  But when something does, you want to tell everybody about it.

Life is personal.  It’s just that no one wants to address your world.  The rappers want to talk about bitches and ho’s.  Mariah Carey wants us to know how fabulous her life is.  And Oprah Winfrey gives a commencement speech wherein she says how great it is to have a private jet.

Must be.  But most people don’t.  Most people are struggling.  With some victories interspersed.  You live, and then you die.  It’s a curious journey, that we’re dying to make sense of.  Yes, dying.  Every single day we’re closer to the end.  Are we using our time wisely?  Should we grab hold, take action, or is it just plain futile, and should we accept our fate.

I don’t know.

But I do know reading "Olive Kitteridge" I was not only taken to Maine, but to Vermont, to the location of so many important episodes in my own life.  What’s it like in the Mad River Valley today?  I can go to the cams, get pictures, but what’s it like to walk out the front door, breathe in the blooming flora and feel the sun upon your face?  Statistics are interesting.  Facts are important.  But emotions rule the world.

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