Recently we rented a DVD of “American Splendor,” a great movie about the life of Harvey Pekar, who wrote comic books about the life of Harvey Pekar, and who appears in the film at various times playing himself, Harvey Pekar, while at other times an actor (Paul Giamatti) plays the life of Harvey Pekar.
All this intermingling of real life and cinematic life reflects the theme of the comic book (called, naturally, “American Splendor,” like the movie), which could be stated as: life is art is life is art.
Laurel didn’t like the film as much as I did, perhaps because she doesn’t have several Robert Crumb comic books from the late 1960’s carefully stored away in a box in our carport attic, as I do. Crumb illustrated “American Splendor,” though not with quite the same pizzazz as he did the R or X rated (by modern standards) comics in my college years' treasure box.
Back then my friends and I used to laugh uproariously over Crumb’s inspired work, which featured nasty big-breasted women doing unspeakable things at truck stops, the classic Keep-On-Truckin’ guy, plus various and sundry drug-addled characters—which probably described Crumb at the time, and certainly described me and my companions as we laughed uproariously over Crumb’s inspired work, which featured…(oh, am I repeating myself? started to feel some kind of weird flashback all of a sudden).
Another reason I liked the movie more than Laurel did is that I can thoroughly identify with Pekar’s take on life. Laurel couldn’t understand why the sample comics shown in the movie were so popular and why I found them so amusing. True, they simply show Pekar going about his normal life, dealing with his normal trials and tribulations.
But as Roger Ebert notes in the above-linked review, this is the whole point of “American Splendor.” Pekar’s comic book was drawn in the style of the superhero comic books so prevalent then and now, but the only superhero in “American Splendor” is an utterly ordinary guy, going about his utterly ordinary life, trying to make sense of what doesn’t make sense.
And that is what makes Harvey Pekar a superhero. As we all are, particularly we married men who have to engage in the daily battle of matrimony, all the while trying to remain sane.
The very evening Laurel and I watched “American Splendor,” I had the fantasy that, at the age of 55, I was competent to make a salad. For some reason I thought that because I had made countless salads during my life, I could do so one more time. However, I had forgotten that when a man is married, he can assume nothing—especially competence in the kitchen.
I was happily washing a head of lettuce in the strainer thingie that spins when you pull a cord to get the lettuce dry. Previously, Laurel had carefully taught me that this is how a head of lettuce should be washed—the leaves pulled apart, then placed in the strainer thingie, and covered completely with water. The dutiful husband then is to push the lettuce leaves up and down with his hand in a plunging motion, after which the strainer thingie is pulled up out of the bowl thingie, the water in the bowl is poured out, and, finally, the cord on the thingie is pulled.
I was accomplishing all this and was about ready to move to the shredding phase when I had the all-too-familiar feeling of the Wife Eye inspecting my work. “What? What’s the matter? I’m washing the lettuce like you told me!” I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too defensively, which merely helped to confirm Laurel’s suspicion that, indeed, a culinary crime was being committed by her hapless husband.
“I could feel some grit in the lettuce the last time you washed it,” she said. “Well, I didn’t. You should have said something,” I responded. Laurel replied, “I thought about it, but you get so defensive when I criticize you about things like this.”
With that, Laurel came over to the sink so the Wife Eye could get a better look. “There, that’s what I mean. Can’t you see all that grit in the bottom of the water?” she said. I argued, to no avail, “That’s the grit that has come off the lettuce. That’s a sign the lettuce is clean, not that its dirty.” She said, “Do it again, wash it again, the lettuce is still dirty. I don’t want to keep on eating grit in my salad.”
Which I did, not once but twice, as Laurel watched, the All-Knowing Wife Eye growing ever larger and more ominous, like that on the top of the pyramid on the back of dollar bills.
Finally, the executioner pulled the lever; the fatal sword blow was struck; the firing squad pulled the trigger. She said, “Why don’t you cut the carrots? I’ll wash the lettuce.” “Are you saying that I don’t know how to wash lettuce, that I can’t wash lettuce, that I’m being demoted to carrot cutting!!??” “Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” I heard, as Laurel shoved me out of the way and took my place at the sink.
She then proceeded to pick up each lettuce leaf individually and washed the leaves one by one under running water, turning each leaf over and over repeatedly to assure that every unseen atom of organic grit went down the drain and not into the salad.
I cut the carrots. Laurel washed them, naturally. I couldn’t expect, after the lettuce imbroglio, to be allowed to both cut and wash the carrots. And watching “American Splendor” later that evening, I composed my own comic strip in my own mind of my own life.
A man standing at a sink, middle-aged, gray-haired, happily washing lettuce, as his wife, standing a few feet away with her sinister Wife Eye upon him, says, “You don’t know how to wash lettuce.”
Is that funny? Is that the making of a comic book? Well, absolutely. Especially after I heard Laurel say during the middle of the movie, as she took her just-emptied bowl back to the kitchen, “You know, I think there still was some grit in that lettuce.”