Archive for September, 2008

The drama of it all

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

I admit I am getting swept up in the drama of it all. The way the Bush Presidency is playing out is like a Shakespearean tragedy (ie: a tragedy in which the hero engineers his own downfall, as opposed to a Greek tragedy, in which the Gods just had it in for him all along).

Bush consolidated his power by taking the concept of the anti-Goldwater Republican, first espoused by Reagan’s trickle-down advisors, to extremes. By making sure that the citizenry’s money flowed steadily into the hands of a small number of industrial elites, he pretty much forced the rank-and-file Republicans, even those Libertarians opposed to his big-spending ways, to follow in his shadow.

I remember asking my friends five years ago: “Wouldn’t it be easier to just use taxpayer money to directly pay the friends of Bush and Cheney the billions of dollars they are siphoning off? It seems very inefficient for our nation to lose trillions of dollars of an actual productive economy just so a few people can aggregate mere billions of dollars from an artificial war economy. Sooner or later, given the level of inefficiency of this particular form of graft, our tax base is going to run out wealth supporting these guys.”

Sure enough, we have finally hit that point. Now that his friends no longer have control of the money, Bush’s circle has lost the forced allegience of the Libertarians, who for years have resented being told to tag along with the big-money pre-emptive war profiteers who represent everything they hate.

Now the Republican party lies in pieces. In the massive rush to the exit candidate McCain can’t even get his own party to pay any attention to him, which pretty much demolishes his claim to leadership.

So now it looks as though the Senator from Illlinois will be inheriting one heckuva recession, and we’re not even going to have four years of those delightful Tina Fey sketches to look forward to. I guess that last part, on balance, is a good thing.

Like watching Gidget address the Reichstag

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Today’s evocative title is from a recent blog post by Matt Taibbi that a friend helpfully pointed out to me to this morning (presumably after having read my disquisition on the “Poitier effect”). It’s an amazing piece, full of very intelligent and thoughtful rage – which in this case is not at all a contradiction.

But please don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself.

Enjoy!

The Poitier effect

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Like many people in this country I spent this past Friday evening at a debate party. My friend Peggy graciously lent us the use of her giant flatscreen TV. Everybody brought some food, and promptly at 9 PM eastern standard time we all crowded around in front of the screen to see what would happen.

Since this was a party in Manhattan, it was a safe bet that everyone in the room was rooting for Obama. After the debate ended there was intense conversation about what we had just seen. Everyone agreed that Obama had come across as the more reasonable and thoughtful of the two candidates whereas McCain had seemed rather disdainful and jingoistic.

And yet people were unsatisfied. There were so many opportunities for Obama to wield a knockout punch, and he took none of them. Sure enough Maureen Dowd made pretty much the same observation in her column this last weekend in the New York Times. And this rather obvious observation has left a number of people wondering: since Barack Obama is evidently the smartest guy in the room, why isn’t he jumping at the many opportunities for a clever and bitingly decisive attack?

Could it be that for all of his knowledge and intelligence, Obama simply does not have good debating skills? I don’t think that this is what’s going on here. It was quite apparent throughout the debate that Obama was visibly holding himself back, carefully not saying things that one could plainly see were going through his mind. He was deliberately avoiding any opportunity to cleverly one-up McCain.

A conversation I had at the debate party got me thinking about his reticence, and what it might mean. A friend of Peggy’s told me that she had recently been to a dinner party at which a woman had told her: “I could never vote for a black man”. The woman who had told her this was extremely well educated and much admired for her professional brilliance in a demanding field.

Peggy’s friend told me that she hadn’t responded to the woman’s statement because she had felt completely at a loss. The statement seemed so outrageous on its face that anything she could think of to say would have resulted in a rapid escalation of hostilities.

Of course the woman who made that statement, as much as she might have believed that she was speaking as an enlightened individual, was actually making the mistake many people make when they assume that democracy is an entitlement, that the freedom our citizens enjoy is simply a given, when in fact it is something that must be defended and affirmed in every generation.

Unaware of the full measure of her own words, that woman was actually expressing an ugliness at the core of our society. Somehow Americans have developed the myth that we as a nation are morally superior. We look with smugness at what happened to the Germans in the 1930s and we tell ourselves that we could never be capable of such atrocity. Yet in that moment, the woman who made that statement might as well have been wearing a Nazi armband or the white sheet of the Ku Klux Klan. She was that villager with a burning torch, the angry white mob burning houses and lynching innocent people in Springfield Illinois in August 1908. And it is the burden of this monstrosity, this hateful and stupid viciousness just beneath the surface of the American soul, not John McCain, that is Obama’s real opponent in November.

With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that Obama’s strategy is deliberate, and that he is cognizant of what might be termed the Poitier effect. I name this, of course, after the great American black actor Sidney Poitier. In 1967 he starred in three films: To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. We are concerned here only with the latter two films, each of them a notable examination of race relations in the United States.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier plays a kind of white ideal of the brilliant black man. Although he is a Yale educated doctor, highly learned, widely read, and clearly an intellectual leader in his field, nonetheless he is modest, unassuming, and unfailingly polite to all around him. White Americans might have little problem voting for a guy like that, a guy who (as that woman might have said) knows his place.

In his film In the Heat of the Night, Poitier plays quite a different brilliant black man — one who stands up to white prejudice with proud defiance. Perhaps the most memorable line, in a film that is filled with memorable lines, occurs when his character says to Rod Steiger (as the Southern sheriff who has been calling him “boy”): “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Audiences clearly admire this quality in an ethnic minority when they see it in a movie, but many are made uncomfortable when it shows up in real life.

Obama must have been tempted many times during this debate – and during these past weeks – to hurl the moral equivalent of this line at the Republicans who have been baiting him with racial code words like “disrespectful” and “uppity”. But to do so would cause him to lose more votes than he would gain, because the ugliness that is in the soul of this nation has not gone away. It has simply learned somewhat better ways to disguise itself.

Those of us who realize that the fiscal, civil, and military crises brought about by the current administration can only be fixed through competent leadership must be patient with the senator from Illinois. It’s a numbers game, and in order to get into a position where he can effectively begin to undo the damage that has been done to this country in the last eight years, he needs to watch every word he says, so that he does not inadvertently trigger the latent racism that will send too many voters scurrying, against their own self interest, toward the white sheets and coiled ropes.

Trust him — he knows what he’s doing.

The unreliable universe

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

The concept in modern pop culture narrative fiction of transporting the main characters to an alternate version of reality goes way back. Obviously it was a mainstay of many of the stories of Philip K. Dick, and Bradbury’s brilliant short story “A Sound of Thunder” pretty much set the bar for nearly everything that has followed.

“The Twilight Zone” had quite a few episodes that played around with the concept, but I think that the real introduction of this idea into what most people still think of as contemporary pop culture was Zemeckis’s 1985 film “Back to the Future”. I think the success of that movie was probably one of the main factors in the green-lighting 10 years later of the television show “Sliders”. Unfortunately “Sliders” was only allowed three good seasons before it was destroyed by incompetent executives at the Fox network.

But I think it was Joss Whedon, in the fifth season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, who first (correct me if I’m wrong) hit upon the idea of having the main characters, the ones the audience identifies with and cares about, shift their own perceptions with the changing reality so that they themselves believe that nothing has changed. In particular, the universe was altered so that a new character (Dawn) suddenly appeared, and all the other characters believed she had always been there.

From a writer’s point of view this notion opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities that Whedon only began to tap. We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Why not construct a narrative around the concept of the unreliable universe?

What I’m envisioning here is an episodic structure: In every episode a new character might be introduced or an existing character might be taken away. The other characters have no concept that anything has changed – only the audience knows that the universe has shifted. For example, one morning grandma comes down to breakfast, even though there had never been a grandma on the show. Nobody is surprised, except of course the audience. As far as the other characters on the show are concerned, she has always been there.

This conceit would allow both writer and audience endless opportunities to explore different dimensions of the characters they have come to know, as the dynamics of family, friendships and romantic attachments continually shift into new configurations.

But what would be a good name for such a show? I don’t know about you, but I would call it “Every day another Dawn”.

Snake

Friday, September 26th, 2008

One summer day when I was about five years old, up in the Catskill Mountains where my family used to spend our summers, I was walking to the orchard behind my grandfather’s house. My plan, if I could really be said to have had a plan, was to find some apples, and once having found them, to eat them.

I remember that the apples in the orchard behind my grandfather’s house were particularly yummy, although this could just be sentimental memory on my part. Almost all of them looked great, luscious and ripe and juicy, but I would carefully examine each one, looking for the tell-tale little hole. If I found a hole, that meant a worm had found the apple first, and was currently making its home there. I would toss those back. But the ones without the holes I would bite into, and that first bite would invariably be heaven, especially on a hot summer afternoon.

On this particular hot summer afternoon I never actually made it all the way to the orchard. I was about half way there, ambling along in my typical day dreaming way, when there was a rustling in the tall grass. I stopped dead in my tracks, not knowing what it was, and not really being all that eager to find out. The rustling came closer, and suddenly a big black snake popped its head up out of the grass, directly in front of me. I was sure it was the biggest snake I had ever seen in my life.

For a long moment I stared at the snake and the snake stared at me. The next thing I knew I found myself running back toward the house as fast as my legs could carry me, trying to put as much distance between me and that snake as I could.

Although I knew I should concentrate on getting to my grandfather’s back porch as fast as I could, I couldn’t resist looking over my shoulder, to see if the snake was gaining on me. To my surprise, what I saw was a rustling receding into the distance – the snake was running away from me as fast as I was running away from the snake!

From that moment on I was never again afraid of snakes. In fact, I developed a soft spot for them, and even started to kind of like them. And I still do, to this day.

Prime time

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

I’ve been talking lately about coincidences, and that has gotten my mind wandering back to some of my all time favorites. I don’t ascribe any metaphysical meaning to them – as Tony pointed out the other day, we conveniently ignore life’s vastly larger number of non-coincidences – but a good coincidence sure is entertaining.

For example, I remember the year, when I was a teenager, that the ages of our entire family – my parents, my older brother, myself and my younger sister – were all prime numbers. We were, respectively: 47, 41, 19, 17 and 11. What’s even more fun than the fact itself is my memory of how completely delighted everyone in the family was to discover this little factoid.

At the time my Mom was pregnant with my soon-to-be youngest sister, so of course there was much debate over the dinner table about whether we could count the age of our forthcoming family member as -1. And if so, whether -1 is really a prime number (it fits the definition, being divisible only by itself and 1, which would make -1 the only negative prime – if you’re allowed to count negatives).

I’m not sure what any of this means, but one thing is clear: I was obviously born into the right family. :-)

Free to wander

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

There was a time
When my heart was free to wander
And I remember as I sing
This hobo song.
– John Prine

Yesterday a friend of mine was describing to me what sounded like an existential crisis. He wasn’t sure why he was doing what he was doing in his work. I recognized the feeling – I have had just that feeling in the past. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. One day you just start to think “Why, exactly, am I doing this? Is it for the money? For the pursuit of truth? To help others?” And I remember that when I went through this, I would start to waver, to wonder what any of it meant.

And today it occurred to me, listening to my friend and thinking about what he was saying, that I haven’t had that feeling in a while. Right now all the things I am working on feel as though they have a compelling purpose, a momentum and a reason to exist that drives forward not just the activity itself, but also my own sense of purpose in doing them.

Thinking about this, and wondering why it is so, I realized that nowadays I put a lot of effort into choosing the things I do, much more effort than I used to. There was a time when I would see something interesting to do, like a bright shiny train pulling into the station, flags waving and whistle blowing, and I would just hop on, like a hobo wanderer out to see the world, figuring that if nothing else I would enjoy the ride.

Now I check train schedules, I look at destinations, and I ask myself whether I really want to take this particular journey. Knowing where I am going, and why, turns out to make the trip far more satisfying. And when it comes time to board another train, I’m now much more likely to pick a good one. I am not saying that this is a better way of being or of doing things than the hobo way, but it seems to be working much better for me.

I know it sounds trite, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Wandering can be great fun, but it’s amazing how freeing it can be to have some idea of where you are going.

Mystery

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

A man is rushing to get to his accountant’s office on time so he can pick up his tax records. These are the only bit of paperwork he still needs to gather, and he is nervous because he’s running late. When he arrives the accountant is quite gracious about his tardiness, and now the man and the woman he loves have all their papers in order – they can properly declare their marriage status to the U.S. government. Clutching the documents in his hand he crosses Madison Avenue at 58th Street, on his way to the subway, intent on getting back downtown so he can show them to his bride.

Lost in his thoughts as he steps onto the crowded sidewalk, thinking about how pleased his wife will be, he collides with a fast moving pedestrian – a woman walking rapidly up Madison Avenue. This being New York, both mumble cursory apologies and continue on their way. But something makes him turn around – he stares after the woman. He runs to catch up with her. It’s his wife. They look into each other’s face with wonder and surprise. She tells him she wasn’t even supposed to be here – she had gotten out at the wrong subway stop. If not for that, or if either of them had been even ten seconds earlier or later along their respective journeys, they would have missed each other entirely.

In fact, she tells him, she had been on her way to the French Consulate, with his U.S. Passport in her bag – which he had handed to her only the day before – to declare their marriage to her own government. He shows her the tax documents from his accountant, all signed and ready to go, and she smiles with joy – they now have everything they need. The two of them continue onward, walking together, to the Consulate.

If you saw this scene in a movie you might roll your eyes. What lazy screenwriting is this? What kind of amateur throws such an impossible set of coincidences into the tale?

And what if it happens in real life? What if it happens exactly like that? Then what do you think? Do you say to yourself it is simply part of the mystery of love? Or simply part of the mystery of New York?

The first leaf to fall

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
– Johnny Mercer

There is something elegaic about Autumn. I know that the official demarcation of the year is January first, but that date always seemed arbitrary to me – a mere turning of the calendar page between two days in the dead of winter. The start of Autumn is something else entirely – a thing you can feel. The sweet endless juicy hotness of August finally gives out, blown away by a crisp wind from the north.

These are the days of a gradually lengthening sadness, a time when people begin to turn to each other for warmth and comfort, when bodies and thoughts turn inward, and the yearly wait begins for that first leaf to fall, the first of many. To me, growing up with the seasons of New York, this has always seemed necessary, the slow death of Autumn’s waning days clearing the way for life’s reemergence in the Spring.

I used to help my dad rake the leaves when I was little. I wasn’t really much help – I probably got in the way more than anything else – but my dad always found something for me to do, and I was just glad to be out there in the crisp Autumn air.

Looking back now, I realize that I liked the wistful quality of the season, even as a child. The leaves were slowly dying, the light growing more gray with every passing day, and yet all of this served, in a way Summer did not, to remind me that life is something to appreciate, to savor and hold onto. More than any memory of Summer, those Autumn days I spent with my dad have a beauty in my memory, like a dream made of sadness and gold.

And another thing

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

This evening as I was waiting with my friend Cynthia for a subway train, I saw a serious looking young man pacing up and down the platform. I noticed him because he was wearing a bright red shirt that said “Thing 2”, just like the one worn by the character in The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.

I remember thinking that he looked a bit sad, this Thing 2, and also that it was strange, given the choice, that someone would choose to be Thing 2, rather than Thing 1. I wanted to cheer him up by telling him I thought he had a cool shirt. But I felt it would be a little odd to go up to a total stranger on a New York City subway platform, just to say something like that.




After a few minutes the train arrived and Cynthia and I boarded and found seats. As luck would have it, the young man came into the same car and sat down right next to us. Seeing my chance, I turned to him and said “Hey, I really like your shirt.” He gave a sheepish smile, the kind of smile that says “this wasn’t really my idea.”

He explained to us that only a few minutes earlier he been hanging out with his girlfriend, and that she was Thing 1. I solemnly assured him that I understood, and we all agreed that this was just as it should be.

After that he seemed happier.