Today's Reading

I should mention that what follows began not long ago, but before the #MeToo movement and the much-contested confirmation of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Before countless children were separated from their parents near the Mexican border and four congress-women of color were told by the United States president to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." As always, much of the past looks different from the vantage point of the present or, more specifically, the first day of 2018, when I am writing these words. We lived in a different country, of course, even that recently. I mean this not as justification.


In January of 2016, my agent called me about a new book. I may as well have won a lottery; the money was multiple times what I had earned for any of my previous jobs. And Nick Felles would easily be my most well-known client. I hardly believed Colin at first.

"It's true," he said over the phone. He himself would take home 15 percent. "Now go buy yourself a spa weekend."

I did not tell him that I had more pressing needs than a pedicure and a facial. It was approaching two years since my last book, a memoir for Connecticut congresswoman Betsy McGrath. What savings I had were fast disappearing. I had my side jobs landscaping and substitute teaching, work I did to fill in the gaps between ghostwriting jobs, but it had become tough to cover costs. My car had recently died. I woke each morning with thoughts of doom.

After we hung up, I went for Cass. "We can finally buy you a big-boy bed!" I held him tightly, as if to press all of my relief into his small body and soft face.

"Okay. That hurts. I have to pee," he said.

We had just begun potty training, and I raced him to the bathroom.


A month or so later, I drove a beautiful preowned Toyota Tacoma with a double cab off the grounds of the car lot, Janis Joplin's "Get It While You Can" blasting from the speakers. I had left a straitjacket of a corporate writing job in Manhattan a decade earlier in order to move back to my hometown in the Berkshires and become a free-lancer. I worked in my kitchen; I made my own hours and rules. If I wanted to, I could wear an old T-shirt and pajama bottoms every day. I had never settled into a mediocre relationship. I had a sweet, lovable son all to myself. I was living life on my own terms, and as I came to a stop at a red light, I thought at long last, I was reaping the benefits.

I was the only person I knew who had never seen Skinwalker Ranch, Nick Felles's TV series about shapeshifters, UFOs, cattle sacrifice, and a coven of bombshell witches. Before we spoke, though, I watched a season, and while it was more violent than my usual fare, Ranch, as Nick called it, did hook me with its cliffhangers, its seamless meshing of the ancient with the futuristic, its attractive cast that was frequently shown nude.

"How did you come up with the idea for the show?" I had asked him on our first phone call.

"I've always been into the supernatural," he said. I began to record our conversation, as I had told him I would. "I inhaled Tolkien as a kid. And I'm fascinated with primitive violence, I mean, what raw force really looks like, domination and justice between two people, you know? Are you a real warrior if you just push a button or tell someone else to drop a bomb? So I thought, 'Get rid of the guns and the bombs and the drones,' and on my show, I'd just have pure human power.

Mano a mano. It was important to me to braid this violence with a lot of fucking." I was about to interject "Why?" but he quickly continued: "Can I be real? What's more objectively beautiful than two bodies doing it? Hello, why do you think the great artists painted so many nudes? Picasso said that sexuality and art were basically the same thing. He's one of my muses." Nick paused again briefly, as if to allow me to ask, "Who are the others?" but then he went on. "Picasso and Tolkien, and Bukowski and Kerouac. Oh, and women. Can a whole gender be a muse? Why not, right? But, you know, I'm no sheep. If you asked me which actress I would do from any time in history? I'd say, Hell no to someone current like Dakota Fanning or Kristen Stewart, I mean before she switched teams. Give me Linda Harrison back when she played Nova in Planet of the Apes. Give me Mia Farrow from Rosemary's Baby." He cleared his throat.

I tried to clear mine and think of how to suggest he consider ways to shroud his id. It might have been more effective to joke with him in a pointed manner, but he hardly sounded like a person who would laugh about himself.

"I guess I just wanted to get at the dotted line between sex and violence, you know, love and hate. I had this idea of a story that put man against woman against animal against self against the occult in a hot pandemonium. In my earliest visions of Ranch, Ancient Rome met this kind of futuristic frontier territory. I could see it all in my head before I met with the suits at the studio. The rest, as they say, is history."
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