Archive for March, 2008

Infelicity

Friday, March 21st, 2008

In addition to the incomparable Miss White, my other eighth grade teacher was Miss Felice. She too was young, and full of good humor. My feelings toward Miss Felice were less, um, hormonal, but nonetheless I appreciated her enthusiasm, wackiness and energy level, wonderful qualities generally found only in the very youngest middle-school teachers.

It was only years later that I figured out that the sometimes bitter and cynical older teachers in our school had probably once been more like my two young English teachers, before all the joi d’ecole had been knocked out of them by years of battlling with the public school system.

Miss Felice (even her name was happy) was the person who introduced me to the magic of Nina. Some of you might already know about Nina, but it was Miss Felice who turned me on to this wonderful bit of urban culture, a beautiful gem tucked away in the corner of New York life.

Al Hirschfeld was possibly the greatest caricaturist of the twentieth century. He died only a few years ago, at the grand old age of ninety nine and a half, after having drawn, with his magic pen, the defining image of pretty much everybody of note who popped up during the eighty years or so of his mighty reign, including just about every celebrity and major politician, as well as various gangsters, gin runners and assorted riffraff.

He had the uncanny ability to capture the pure essence of a famous person, fusing appearance and personality together with a few well chosen lines, somehow completely bypassing mere “realism” on his way to something far deeper and more true. For many years Hirschfeld was the image of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section. And one day Miss Felice pointed out to me that just to the right of his signature, he usually put a small number, like 3 or 5. It was the number of occurrances in the drawing where he had hidden the name of his daughter Nina.

At the time, I thought that was just about the most wonderful gift a father could give his child, and I was utterly charmed by the entire idea of it. Thenceforth, every Sunday morning when The Times was delivered to our house, the first thing I would do was find all the Ninas. I got really good at it after a while. Of course, by the time I learned about all this, Nina was already grown up, but that didn’t take anything away from the experience. And he kept it up too, until he passed away at ninety nine, by which point Nina was fifty eight.

So I became a big fan of Miss Felice. Then, oddly, one day she too had her Miss White moment, but with a twist. It was the day I noticed a cute miniature figurine of a teddy bear on her desk. I asked her what its name was. Miss Felice replied, in her usual bright and perky way, “Gladly, my cross-eyed bear!” I looked more closely, and sure enough the little fellow was indeed cross-eyed.

And then about a minute later it hit me. This little knick-knack was a token of religious faith. It gave her a way to say, out loud: “Gladly my Cross I’d bear.”

To me there was something dubious about this. For Miss Felice to communicate her Christian faith to a schoolboy through the prism of a bad pun was completely consistent with her endearingly loopy nature, but to my twelve year old brain it was all a bit troubling, a little like thinking you’re watching Avenue Q, and then suddenly the goofy puppets start acting out scenes from Left Behind.

When my beautiful Miss White had tried to steer my impressionable and love-struck young mind down the path of Scientology, she had merely broken my heart. In that moment she had ceded her coolness, and so the whole episode had held no threat.

But with Miss Felice on the other hand, I was encountering something much more troubling. I was forced to realize that even when people are cool and goofy and have appropriate respect for the supreme majesty of bad puns, they might still be trying to sell you something.

And that’s scary.

First day of Spring

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Today is the first day of Spring. The Vernal equinox, cuspus proventus, when the day once again overtakes the night. It is the time of year when, according to ancient lore, the great Goddess Ostara carries forth her basket of eggs, accompanied in her joyous revels by her spouse, a pagan god who takes the earthly form of a hare. And you thought the Easter Bunny was just for kids!

Speaking of which, if you grew up in New York State, the first day of Spring has great significance. Unlike certain other places I could mention, New York has actual seasons. It gets too cold here in the winter, and too hot in the summer. Of course each of these seasons has its childhood compensations. For example, Winter has sledding, iceskating, building a snowman, and all those other wondrous activities based around the fact that water gets really really interesting when it freezes.

Summer may get insanely hot and humid to the point where everything becomes disgustingly sticky and unpleasant, but Summer too has its compensations. For example, you can go swimming. And not only that, but also, um, well ok, that’s pretty much it. Swimming. Unless you are into fishing or playing baseball, and I was never into either of those two time-honored activities. Fishing because it was unfair to the fish, and playing baseball because it was unfair to my easily bruised adolescent ego. Did I mention swimming?

But just around Springtime, everything gets perfect. Leaves begin showing up on the trees, a soft and inviting breeze follows you around the whole day long, everyone starts to get all happy and relaxed, and the entire world seems to put on a smile.

On some level, even if they don’t talk about it, people know what Spring is about. Spring is about the promise of renewal, and it is the season of second chances. Sure, maybe you got everything wrong last year, screwed it all up, fell flat on your face. But this year is gonna be different. I can feel it on that breeze. This year hey, look out World!

And every year, when Spring comes around, you know you have another chance to get it right. You can feel it deep down in your bones. I don’t think you ever lose that feeling. I still have that faith in the Gods of Springtime just as strongly now as I did when I was a kid.

Although I have to admit it creeps me out just a little to think about that goddess and the Easter Bunny, um, doing it…

Astonished

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

I try not to talk about current politics here, but yesterday I was completely surprised – no, astonished – by Barack Obama’s speech on race relations in our country. I deliberately refrained from watching the video, but only read the text. I didn’t want to be swayed by a politician’s charisma, but rather wanted to find out what he had to say. You can read the entire text of the speech here.

I hadn’t expected to be astonished. I suppose I had gotten used to the politician’s self-protective crouch, the safe sound byte, the way even the most thoughtful of public speakers have now learned to carefully dumb it all down, to assume that any real attempt to speak to the intelligence in their listeners would not be worth the risk of having their words taken out of context, that anything complex they try to say would somehow be turned against them.

So I was not prepared to be spoken to with true respect, with actual reasoned intelligence, for a speech to contain complexity, historical context, to frankly discuss the enormous varieties of anger that tear at this country, or to talk honestly about the causes of our nation’s rage, without giving in to that rage.

When was the last time you can remember a major politician in this country actually daring to respect the intelligence of our people, the complexity and contradictions of our culture? Think about it for a moment. When was the last time?

Ever since we entered our current bizarro era of presidential image building, in which a major war is started by shouting “Mission Accomplished” while wearing a silly costume, in which being “presidential” means being periodically driven to a fake ranch for pretend wood chopping, in which wartime photo-ops are staged with plastic turkeys, it feels as though our nation’s citizenry has taken on some of the characteristics of of a chronically abused spouse: After we’ve been slapped upside the head enough times, we begin to believe that we deserve the punishment and humiliation.

By the time of Katrina, when unconscionable neglect was inflicted by an uncaring and incompetent government upon its own citizens, the obscene jokiness of a line like “Heck’va job Brownie” had come to seem normal. Our nation had already been beaten into submission, had been convinced it must really be a race of idiots, undeserving of real democracy, let alone legal niceties like the protection of Habeas Corpus.

We had learned to look down so Daddy wouldn’t smack us again, to keep our voices low and to take off our shoes at airports, while anesthetizing our suppressed rage by sneaking off to watch John Stewart and The Simpsons, the way a generation of enraged teenagers used to sneak off to read Mad Magazine. Anything to escape the scary people who had somehow taken on the role of a nation’s grown-ups.

So to read something like this, a speech so subtle, complex, reasoned, so respectful of its listeners, a speech which gives us the benefit of the doubt that we are indeed capable of holding two ideas in our heads at the same time, this has made my heart leap for joy. I had given up on such possibilities.

I don’t know who will become our next president. But meanwhile, bless you for this moment, Mr. Obama. Bless you. For the first time in years I remember what a privilege it can be to be part of a nation of ideas, a nation of people who are capable of mutual respect, who continue, even while disagreeing, to hold each other’s steady gaze.

I remember again what it feels like to be an American.

Scenes from the Novel III

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

It was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon when Drog finally arrived. Needless to say, Clarissa was not pleased. “Sir, I have been positively drowning myself in Jasmine tea. While this is indeed a delightful concoction, a tonic for both body and soul, particularly when taken with lemon, one must acknowledge that after a certain point in the afternoon it tends to lose its charm.”

Drog grunted in a way that she chose to interpret as an apology, and gradually lowered his massive bulk to sit facing her, his deep-set eyes flickering over the afternoon crowd. Clarissa peered curiously at his deshevelled appearance. “You look as though you have been having quite the day of it, my friend. Have you anything new to report?”

Drog swung his heavy head slowly around to return her gaze, and for a long moment he simply looked back at her impassively, his coal black eyes flashing with dark fire. When at last he began to speak, his expression as unmoving as stone, the sepulchral voice that emerged seemed to belong to another place entirely, a place of savage and howling winds. “Yes … I have seen the night flyers,” he began. “Their hunger grows. The dripping flesh of their approaching minions crawls with scarabs and rejoices. The scuttering claws grasp, they tear, they burn. The Dark One’s terrible caravans of war are filled with the long-dead eaters of souls, and the mere things of Earth are broken and destroyed beneath their chain’d wheels of hideous fire. The enemy draws nearer. Ever nearer.”

Clarissa nodded curtly. “All as I had suspected, my friend. Thank you Drog, you are such a dear. I don’t suppose you would care for a scone? I believe that they are freshly baked, with just the merest hint of coconut.”

Her companion barely shook his massive head in response. His hooded eyes were gazing into the distance. A few moments later the waitress approached their table. “Can I get you…” she began. When she laid eyes on Drog she stopped dead in her tracks, and her face went ashen, the words dying in her throat. He glared back at her, his sharply protruding lower incisors gradually stretching out his glistening lips into a shape that distantly resembled a grin.

“Oh, dear me, I am so awfully sorry!” Clarissa exclaimed, “my fault entirely. One does tend to take things for granted.” Delicately she put down her teacup, and made an almost imperceptable gesture with the slender fingers of her left hand. For an instant the room seemed to swim, and a few moments later the waitress approached their table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked amiably, barely glancing at Clarissa’s new companion. Ugly as sin, she thought absently, but then again, you get all kinds in a place like this. Whatever. As long as they can pay, they can stay.

“My dear lady, thank you ever so much,” Clarissa replied politely, “But I fear we had best be going rather soon. We shall just be needing the bill, at your earliest convenience. I am afraid that my companion is on a somewhat restricted diet, and there is really nothing here for him to eat.”

Clarissa smiled with fond amusement as her large companion’s gaze wandered around the crowded restaurant. “That is to say,” she added cheerfully, “nothing on the menu.”

Sadder but wiser

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Back to the beautiful and bewitching Miss White, eighth grade teacher beyond compare, light of my life, fire of my puberty. I knew, from the first moment I saw her, even before she introduced us to the mysteries of Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse, that she was the one for me. I would sit in class each day, gazing raptly at my beloved, all the while doing fervid mental calculations in my head, mostly along the lines of “Let’s see, when I’m old enough to marry, she will still only be…”

Until the day it all changed. Seeing that I was an inquisitive young man, on that fateful day Miss White lent me a book, telling me that it had some exciting ideas, and that I really aught to read it. The book was called Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. Devoted slave as I was to my enchanted teacher, I shyly took the proferred book from her lovely hands and dutifully read it, cover to cover. And that’s when I ran into a snag.

Some of you might recognize this book as the core introductory text of Scientology. Being only twelve, I knew nothing of such matters, but I did know that what I was reading just didn’t add up. It seems, according to the estimable Mr. Hubbard, that the only way to achieve true happiness is to allow experts to remove all your little neurotic tics, or “engrams”, at which point you become an enlightened person – or as he termed it, a “Clear”.

Well, I quickly realized that everything I most cherish about my little brain comes from the very flaws and neurotic tics that this nice book was proposing to surgically remove from it. I mean – to establish some context here – I grew up with Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers!

And that was when the bubble burst, my great love for Miss White dissolving into a sorry puddle, and I became a sadder but wiser adolescent. And yet, who knows? If only I had embraced my inner Scientologist, I might have ended up marrying Nicole Kidman. :-)

Time, you thief

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

In response to yesterday’s comment, I too memorized Jabberwocky in high school. I remember that it was a weekend afternoon when I was fifteen, and I was hanging around at home with nothing to do except browse through a book of old poems. That day I also memorized The Walrus and the Carpenter and Leigh Hunt’s Jenny Kissed Me. And I vowed that I would memorize at least one poem a day.

Well, I can still recite all three of those poems word for word, but I never made good on my vow. To this day, those are the only three poems that I can recite by heart. Rather sad, actually. I assume that anyone reading this knows about The Walrus and the Carpenter, but for those of you who don’t know Jenny Kissed Me, Leigh Hunt was a minor romantic poet – a good friend of Shelley, Byron and Keats who was never quite up to their level. He wrote this poem to the wife of his friend Thomas Carlyle. I’ve read that it captures an actual moment between them. And really, what more could you ask of a poem?


Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me.

Reflections on a gift

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I was thinking back to poems I used to love as a kid, and my mind kept going back to one by John Tobias, a gift from our eighth grade English teacher Miss White (upon whom I had the most intense schoolboy crush, which at the time I was quite convinced was true love). I hadn’t thought about this poem in years, and I was afraid to look at it again, worried that I wouldn’t like it anymore.

I am very happy to report that I like it just fine. In fact, even more. I’m sure some of you know this poem. For the rest of you, happy discovering! Does anyone else happen to have a favorite poem from childhood, one that still resonates for you now?


      Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle
        Received from a Friend Called Felicity

During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
    (Hollowed out
    Fitted with straws
    Crammed with tobacco
    Stolen from butts
    In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of civilization;

During that summer--
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was--
Watermelons ruled.

Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

A Page turned

Friday, March 14th, 2008

One of the striking things about Juno is the way, right from the opening credits, it establishes the magical wise/innocent world inside the head of its main character as the epitome of coolness.

One key moment is at the end of the opening credits, when Juno walks out of her cartoon-rendered inner world, into the real world of other people. There is a second or so where the left side of the screen still shows a little bit of the cartoon world – you actually see both worlds on the screen at once. And that cues in the audience, right from the start, that Juno always carries her alternative world around with her.

Juno is the latest in a long line of magical-innocent heroes. What is striking about her, as opposed to, say, the cartoonist Hoops McCann played by John Cusack in One Crazy Summer, is that she is not marginalized. Rather, the world around her ends up recongnizing that she represents the future, the way to enlightenment.

This same cultural transition can be observed in the 1960’s, as popular culture gradually emerged from a reality centered on Eisenhauer-era post-war materialism. In 1966 the Juno-like character of Murray N. Burns played by Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns was still perceived as being disconnected from the outer world, unable to have power within that world, even though he was a figure of grace. And yet the same year saw The King of Hearts, in which the “real” world is seen to be, ultimately, completely irrelevant – only the people who are innocent to the point of insanity have any importance.

I would argue that the cultural movement of about 40 years ago glorifying the rebellious innocent, also seen in Godspell, Harold and Maude and many other plays and films of that era – and of course going hand-in hand with escalating popular revolt against the Vietnam War – recurs about once every two generations. It is generally a statement that “The approach taken by you grownups has failed, and now it is time for the children to take over.” Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist of that era who was perhaps most self-consciously positioning innocence as a rebellion against the old order, actually subtitled his novel Slaughterhouse Five “The Children’s Crusade”.

This cultural response to “grown-up thinking run amok” is far from new. After the horrors visited upon Europe by World War I, the Dada movement deliberately embraced an aesthetic of pseudo-insane innocence in rejection of the grown up thinking that had led to the devastation of the Great War.

I think we are going through a similar transition now. The power of the rebellious countercultural innocent is on the rise, and I sense that this is fundamentally due to a rejection of the age that we’ve been living through, a neo-Eisenhauer age of rich old white men in suits, a creeping punative fascism in the culture and its public discourse, and a paranoia leading to dimunition of personal freedom and dignity.

In such times, the popular culture responds. In the midst of jingoist war-heroes, the rebelious losers start to appear like small furry mammals between the legs of the mighty thunder lizards. First they show up as antiheroes, and then they start to take over, to emerge ad full-fledged heroes, objects of desire. Just a few years ago Napolean Dynamite had only limited power; he was able to enter a place of grace only through the side door, the one reserved for nerds and outcasts. Similarly, Judd Apatow’s characters in Freaks and Geeks may have been attractive, but they were never allowed to see themselves as heirs to the kingdom.

In retrospect, Linda Carellini’s Lindsay Weir was a kind of proto-Juno. But in 1999 the culture was not prepared to accept her as a figure of power. She was a queen without a realm.

But now we’re going full circle yet again, and anyone who stands up and effectively employs the rhetoric of innocence and rebellion against the old white guys in the suits (I won’t name names) is going to have a good shot at taking over. But nothing is certain. As Bob Dylan once rather perfectly put it: “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

And then Nixon got elected.

A Page turning

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

On Air Canada last night from Toronto to Edmonton, I saw Juno. Brilliantly written film, knows exactly where it wants to go, and how to get there. All I can say is that Diablo Cody (writer) is a goddess, and Jason Reitman (director) is her high priest.

By the way, there are no real spoilers in what follows, but I will be discussing this film in enough detail that if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to do so before reading on.

Of course it has the Moment – when the entire essence of the film is revealed in one masterful shot. In this case it’s a reaction shot – the look on the face of Juno, played by the incomparable Ellen Page, after Jennifer Garner’s character has become overwhelmed with surprised delight to feel the baby kicking.

Up until this point we have seen Juno go through an immense variety of emotions and facial expressions: cocky, sad, defiant, quizzical, enraged, vulnerable… The list goes on. But suddenly in that shot we see something new, something Reitman has been holding back from us – an expression comes over Page’s face of utter serenity, combined, for the first time, with a complete, and somewhat startling, lack of vulnerability. It’s there in the combination of her relaxed beautific smile and the kindly yet commanding look in her eyes. This is not the feisty girl-against-the-world we’ve been getting to know for the past hour. This is the Madonna, the all powerful goddess, Shakti incarnate, bringer of fertility to bereft mortal women longing to be with child.

When that moment comes, two crucial things happen at once: First, Juno finally understands, on a conscious level, the extent of her own power. We and everyone around her in the film have been aware from the start that she is by far the most powerful presence on the screen. But she hasn’t, until that moment. Second, the surprising yet perfect ending is foreshadowed – this is the moment that will guide Juno away from the false path of an illusory maturity, unto the true path of adult responsibility and, ultimately, happiness. You can think of it as the “Lester Burnham makes the girl breakfast” moment.

In a way, the husband and wife that wish to adopt her child serve as opposing demon guides along her spiritual path to coming into her own power. Both are disguised, as demons generally are. Each represents a different aspect of adulthood, and of course neither ends up being quite what they had seemed to be.

***

There is another aspect of this film that I found to be quite revelatory. I think this is an important film politically, in a way that might even have ramifications for the upcoming presidential election. Not in what it says, but in the way it says things. More on that tomorrow.

Seafaring

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Last night I saw Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. It’s one of those wondrous plays that tosses its audience back and forth between helpless laughter and starkly serious suspense, and then back again, often from one moment to the next. But beyond its enormouse entertainment value, I liked the message I got out of the play. If you see it, you might not get the same message, but that’s one of the great things about the theatre!

To sum up what I learned: In life we are always dealt a much better hand than we think. But the cards are only useful if we can see them. So the problem is not to change your luck, or make the world around you fit your notion of how it should be, but rather to learn to see clearly, since all the good fortune we need is always right there in front of us. If we can just figure out how to see it.

And the first and most important bit of that good fortune is the miracle of getting a chance to be here, to spend yet another day on this planet, and to enjoy relating to all those other people that are here with us, in all their crazy, messy, dysfunctional glory.

I know that all sounds platitudinous and a bit sentimental, but McPherson makes the case most eloquently, and without a hint of sentiment.