May 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)
Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.
“I don’t believe it,” said some students.
“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.
“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.
The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.
For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)
Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.
College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.
We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.
Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.
The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.
But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this. By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.
“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?
Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.
Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?
Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?
February 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those of you who dare, this is the second chapter (the first is here, still).
One of the characters is reading El Clarín, which is a popular and central newspaper in Argentina. And, as TWA Flight 800 is real, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Musavi is a real character, though highly fictionalized here so as to avoid condemnation. Others, Gardel, Evita Perón and Maradona — el Che — are of course real.
The rest — I’m responsible for putting you through this …
El Clarín, on the lower right hand side of its front page, in a small tight square unnoticed by most of its readers even as they licked the tips of thumb and index finger and turned to the paper’s next page, reported that an unidentified Middle Eastern man was found dead in a dingy alley near the Rocha Bend of the Riachuelo in La Boca.
Artists and laborers in red, yellow, blue-green chapa houses, built at the dawning of a nation by Italian immigrants working in nearby meatpacking plants and warehouses in Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood, aroused by first light, awakened to a coiled body in fetal position, throat cut from ear to ear, face down and eyes wide open submerged in coagulated gutter water and floating cigarette butts. Winter flies gathered the spittle.
Víctima de juego sucio, reported El Clarín.
“I hope he’s not here,” said Marcelo Abendroth in a whisper, his long, delicate hand outstretched over the story of the dead Middle Eastern man in El Clarín laying opened on a flimsy table in the dim Rincón Café in San Telmo. He looked down at the story and stared at it for some time. Then he carefully drew his café to the edge of his thin lips so as to avoid being stung by its heat.
He scoped the Rincón. A gilded portrait of a young Carlos Gardel, fedora at an angle over the tangista’s upturned brow, hung side-by-side with the Madonna sagrada, Evita Perón, over the murky bar. Abendroth grinned. A dozen small fat candles in constant vigil beneath the portraits flickered a quiet light onto a mahogany bar and scarred it with a melancholy wax. The bar was an altar , an homage to an imagined Argentina. Bottles of wine and whisky and gin and absinthe from France stood without order – whisky next to wine, cognac and warm cokes and vodka. At the end of the bar next to the television held high on a homemade wooden shelf was a signed poster of a youthful Diego Maradona in his blue and yellow of better days. The poster was tacked into the plaster wall.
Near Plaza Dorrego, the Rincón was the local café, the nexus for life’s transitions. On its wounded external brick wall was a spray painted caricature of a youthful Che Guevara, in his boina and scraggly beard, frozen for posterity. And beneath the image of the Argentine doctor from Rosario, in blood red: Until Victory Always!
Marcelo Abendroth wore a brown gabardine suit, a dark blue wool turtle neck and Italian loafers without socks. He had taken off his jacket and draped it behind his seat. Abendroth had skeletal shoulders and a spindly neck. He rolled his sleeves half way up his forearm exposing fine wrists. A Rolex dangled like a woman’s bracelet from his right wrist.
Abendroth looked down at the newspaper, again, and moved his hand to the side and glanced at the story. He read the headline out loud: “Víctima de juego sucio.” And raised his conditioned eyebrows to show indignation. “Very Argentinean, the knife,” he said sternly – as stern as he could be given his demeanor. “I hope that Abu Dokhan lives up to his name. And vanishes. I hope he didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi had eyes that were outsized portals as black as night. They fell on a thick weariness that told a story of an anguished life. Musavi’s face was round and wide. He ran his hand over his bald head – a sign of his frustration with Abendroth’s questions about the whereabouts of the smoke-bearer, Abu Dokhan.
But Abendroth noted how Musavi brightened when he heard the name of the most wanted Lebanese. Musavi sat up and eased his hand down his burly face and rubbed his bulbous nose as if he suddenly had an itch. The table trembled from his weight. Hairs protruding from his nose were like ivy entangled in a moustache that covered his upper lip. Abendroth looked away in disgust.
“Hezbollah calls him The smoke-bearer, the Abu Dokhan. That’s what it means, smoke-bearer. He vanishes like smoke,” said Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi with pride. “All westerners think we Arabs are related or that we know each other intimately. Everyone knows who Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is – that’s his real name. Hajj Radwan. But I. We,” he said pointing to Abendroth and then himself. “We have nothing to do with him, my friend. And I have nothing to do with this dead man.”
“In this country all Arabs are implicated, I’m afraid – first the Israeli Embassy is bombed, then AMIA is leveled,” said Abendroth. “I’ve been told that the dead man had a bird stuffed in his mouth.”
“A bird? What kind of a bird? It’s not in the paper,” said Musavi. He spoke as if he was gargling with marbles. He leaned towards the much smaller Abendroth. Musavi seemed to be about to swallow him.
“They don’t want to alarm people. We Argentineans are a superstitious lot. A canary.”
“Ah. Someone has indeed sent a message.”
Musavi sipped his bitter black coffee, eyes on Marcelo Abendroth, Director of the Economic Education Trust, a subsidiary of Triad Management, a consulting firm concentrated on information and influence ; it mines special interests for investors in the United States that look to expand their holdings and have some bearing on power.
“I love the coffee in your country. It reminds me of home,” said Musavi, his thick lips expanding into a smile that made his face even wider.
“The destruction of the Israeli Embassy and AMIA are not subtle messages, Musavi. Not at all. What’s next? There’s always a next. Something. Always more, something else,” Abendroth said leaning forward over his espresso. But he immediately relaxed because he knew from Musavi’s blank gaze that there wasn’t going to be a response. Abendroth was not one to push. He smiled coquettishly, which was his way when he was nervous. He looked down at his hands, palms down, and rubbed the tops of his finger nails with his thumb as if he was removing dust. He admired their luster.
“Abendroth. In German it means evening or dusk, does it not? Argentineans are always on the lookout for Germans. It must make you self-conscious. Nervous perhaps. No? The indictment in people’s eyes when they know – and suspect. Similar to what we Arabs feel. So you must understand that Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is a coincidence – that’s all.”
“Coincidence. The Israeli Embassy and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, the AMIA itself after the embassy. Coincidences, Musavi? Suddenly this dead man. What are you hiding? We’re always hiding something.”
“Money is truth, Mr. Abendroth,” said Musavi in his thick accent. “The only truth. Nothing else. Money. It creates democracies. And it can create autocracies and dictatorships and whatever we need it to do. Money can hold whoever we want in power, for as long as we want. Money paves roads. And sometimes, as you say, it can hide things.”
“It depends on the story, Musavi. It has to be the right story. Freedom has a price. It’s a balancing act. That’s the world we’re in. Our world. And you want to play in it so you must tow the line, Musavi. With care. Or you might not be let in. Entrance comes at a price.”
Marcelo drew his espresso and then waved to the sleepy waiter.
“Ajenjo. Para los dos, por favor,” he ordered.
“Ah bien. La fée verte. Muy bien. Perfecto.”
Marcelo Abendroth leaned towards Musavi as if he didn’t want to be heard. “At our first meeting in Iguazu, I remember the smoke-bearer. He was there. I remember. He was with you. In your entourage. I can see him there plainly. Like it was yesterday. I saw him. I remembered him when I read this story. This was before the embassy. Before any of it. This dirty business. What are you doing, exactly, Mr. Musavi? What can you say to me? If it’s learned that Hajj Radwan was with you – it’s obvious no? People would think. Put two and two together.”
“Anyone could have done this killing. Someone could have been angry at this guy because he said something foul against Boca and fútbol passions ran wild and they cut his throat after too much drink. Maybe he was a River fan. Look where we are, Marcelo. This is not uncommon in your country. It could have been a woman – because of a woman. The signs are there – the knife. The knife is always used when a woman is involved. It could have been the Iranians. Who’s to know? Or maybe it was that psycho al-Gaddafi – he has a bone to pick with your president. Menem’s an Arab, too, after all, and word is, he crossed Gaddafi. On the street I hear that your president reneged on a missile deal. You can’t take ten million dollars from Gaddafi, not give him anything in return and get away with it. Come on. Your people should know better. Perhaps Gaddafi is paying him back – a warning. Maybe that’s the message. A message from Gaddafi. Don’t cross me Menem or next time it will be closer to home.” Musavi paused and looked down at his black café, put his thick hands around the tiny cup and, as his large round shoulders came up around his head and he looked like a giant sea turtle, said, “And maybe it was the CIA. You know they’re everywhere and they like it down here. They like your country, all those Germans smuggled in – who could have imagined that American military power was built with Nazi know-how? And it came through here, your country, Marcelo. It’s very easy here. It’s chaotic and delightfully confusing. Anything is possible in your country. Everything can be done here. People are wonderfully distracted. That’s why we all like your country. Certain countries exist to facilitate the needs of others. The legacy of the Cold War, I’m afraid. We have to live with it. Adjust. Isn’t that how we’ve evolved? It’s the probable course of things. And who’s to know? Maybe the CIA is fronting for Gaddafi or the Iranians, maybe both. It’s all possible. It depends on which way the story will be turned. Isn’t’ that what you said? We’re all in this twist now – twisted together in a coil, stories intertwining, running into each other, infecting one another. We can’t escape it. History, the present, the future – they’re all intertwined and confused. No one knows the truth. No one knows where we’re going. We have to create new truths. New rules. I don’t recall Hajj Radwan there with us. I’m sorry, Marcelo, I don’t. Not at all. Maybe you’re mistaken. You westerners think we all look alike. It’s not just. Not just at all. We Arabs don’t know each other. We’re not all related. The eye is fickle, my friend.”
“And the heart is worse.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps you’re right. Maybe the Iranians, maybe Gaddafi. The CIA. We don’t know anything about this dead man. And, yes, the embassy and AMIA are messages, indeed. That’s all. Messages, Marcelo. The result of something much larger. Eventually we’ll set a good course, catch the right wind with the right force. Perhaps Hajj Radwan has been here – perhaps not. We will never know. Unsavory characters know how to blend with the rest of us. They blend and wait – and then strike. A friend today can kill you tomorrow. And never be found again. Maybe getting away with a thing like that is the ultimate freedom. An aphrodisiac – the most powerful of all. What’s a life worth, anyway?”
Abendroth lit a cigarette and inhaled with the deep satisfaction of someone who smoked because it eased him. Musavi leaned back in his chair and extended his arms, his hands holding the edge of the delicate table, and took in the contentment of watching Abendroth’s unease.
A bandoneon cried out Gardel. El día que me quieras.
The bandoneon player, all in black like the night echoing through the front window behind him, was lost in the woe oozing from his fingers moving instinctually up and down the white keys that shone like the moon. El día que me quieras.
Musavi studied Abendroth. A full silence fell between them.
“I’m not sure about all this Musavi,” Abendroth said in the semi darkness of the Rincón. He was hesitant.
“We’re merely trying to learn to live in the world that has been created by you westerners.”
Musavi took a red pack of Dunhills from his pocket and lit a cigarette, too. He held the cigarette between his thumb and index finger. Inhaled. And exhaled slowly and leaned forward and flicked the edge of his cigarette into a tin ashtray between them.
The bartender turned on the old black and white TV at the end of the bar and its radiance fell on the dim Rincón. The bartender reached for the rabbit ears and adjusted them and a coarse picture came into view as if traveling a great distance through fog.
… A las 20:45 horas, once minutos después de despegar del Aeropuerto Internacional Kennedy, el vuelo 800 de TWA, con destino a París, Francia, se estrelló en el Océano Atlántico frente a la costa de Long Island…
Marcelo Abendroth turned towards the TV, a disturbing blue-gray eye, an unannounced brightness that pushed aside the solemn comfort that can exist among strangers, and took a drag of his cigarette.
Suddenly the TV picture was gone and a scratchy graininess shoved Gardel’s sadness, jostled it, and brought forth another.
The bandoneon player kept on, his melancholy persistent, like mourning.
“Carajo. Puta. Qué mierda,” the bartender railed.
“Chin,” said Musavi, raising his absinthe. “Salud. It’s done. The future is ours. Let’s not cry over what’s past. We’ve done well together – and we’ll do more. We understand each other. And we have a place to start. A starting point. We’re in deep. And we’re going deeper. When there are no answers to a puzzle, my friend, the only solution is to go in deeper, dig further into the maze. It’s the only way. There’s no turning back. There’s only going deeper.”
Marcelo Abendroth turned away from the TV and raised his glass to Musavi’s. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “To forging ahead. Going deeper. Here’s to the labyrinth. Salud.”
“Al futuro,” said Musavi. “Nuestro futuro.”
They pulled their heads back and swallowed the warm ajenjo and slapped their short glasses on the table. The table shook and creaked. Musavi looked up at the black television screen.
February 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
These are the first pages of a story I’ve been working on for quite some time. The larger working title is THE DOUBLE HELIX. The first third is called BENDING. The second and third parts are titled TWISTING and COMPRESSION.
Please feel free to comment. Your comments will definitely help me. Where do you think it’s going? What’s happening here? Who are these people? This is fiction that grows from history. The major event, here, which happens on July 17, 1996, is true.
“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”
Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon
PART ONE: BENDING
July 17, 1996: New York City, Upper West Side
Life’s din diminished some in that small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness.
With his palms on the coarse sill, he ducked under the window’s frame and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.
He waited all day to tilt into the serenity that arrived with the humidity and pressed him to push away his day. He arched his back and stretched and took it in.
He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee cap, a danseur never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced.
The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something.
The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together as if responding to some great secret. The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.
The young Dr. Raúl Sicard was transfixed by the scene. What others might find inconsequential, something to pass by, intrigued him. There was meaning in the seemingly mundane. He was a geneticist and he liked nothing better then to lose himself in thought when he came face-to-face with an adaptation like this. He strayed off to see if he could imagine the adaptations that drove the dog walker and his canis lupus familiaris to this moment, this place, here and now.
The city dog is so different from the country dog that roams unconstrained across a larger earth and squats without fear, he thought, never lifting his leg. Almost nothing separates them – yet everything does.
He stretched further out his window and took a deep breath, even though the air was heavy. Streets lamps came on. The Palisades were lit and reflected off the Hudson River.
Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie.
Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.
This is how the world moved that day, July 17, 1996, before Raúl’s eyes adjusted to the sadness that arrived when the phone rang outside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture knocking at him, asking him to leave things behind for a bit.
He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.
He felt the weight in the room, a sadness that came out of nowhere – yet it seemed old and familiar, and lodged itself in the pit of his stomach.
Raúl leaned inside and faced the phone. He held the sill with his right hand, not yet giving it up all the way. Not yet.
The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.
The sadness multiplied. He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded. He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear. How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.
He traced his steps for signs. Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless. Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise. And pulled open his window.
At some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed. Maybe the sadness had been there all along – that was more logical.
The phone rang again.
He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved. But that was too much, too far to go.
Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present. He didn’t want to be sucked in. Know its spiral history. That’s what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully. Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever.
He felt bound. In the genetics lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify. There was nothing to measure here. Nothing at all – but an intuition.
The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.
There was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light. After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had a Brooklyn Summer Ale and dreamt of things that may never come to pass. On a cloudless bright day, they descended into the dank and murky subway station on 161st and took the number one, Broadway – Seventh Avenue local to 72nd Street and strolled to Lincoln Center where a Guatemalteco on the corner sold dolls with bouncing heads and a Jamaican next to him hawked antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages.
A invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waited for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forgot her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation. Soon, she would not be.
It’s all like this – the Guatamalteco, the Jamaican, the invisible end of an adaptation. It all had to be like this, a design, an order. Nothing spoke to him of the sadness he felt – but it had been there, he was sure of it. Had to be.
He tried ignoring the third ring and turned to the hum of the TV.
A voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness. That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week. An inexorable eye looking back at him.
Nothing mattered now. Except the fifth ring. Its sound hung in the air, hollow. The phone and the TV.
…At 8:45P.M., eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky. But nothing is certain. There are no causes known at this time. The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels. The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well. The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey. And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…
The phone rang again.
“Papá,” he whispered. Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith. “Papá,” he said again. It filled the room. “Papá.” It overwhelmed everything. The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.
He picked up the phone and staggered.
He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be. Where the problems of the heart live just beyond the design, beyond the touch of order. This sadness was new and full.
July 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
We’ll never know what happened in Sofitel Suite 2086. What we do know, however, is that there is more than one victim. The hotel maid is a victim. DSK’s wife, Anne Sinclair, is a victim, too.
The ironically named the “Audacity of Hope,” that sneaked out under the cover of night from a Greek port with aid to Gaza, was stopped by the Greek Coast Guard. Forty US passengers were on board, inspired, I’m sure, by rays of hope for the people of Gaza. There are a lot of victims here, too. Palestinians. Israelis, too. Of course, freedom, self-reliance, independence and hope are victims as well. In the Israeli – Palestinian conflict we’re all victims. There are no winners here. It’s a dark course we’ve embarked on here.
Not a single latino baseball player (40 percent of major league baseball players are latino) will boycott this year’s All-Star Game in Arizona, who passed an anti-immigration law.
We march on, celebrating the American 4th of July — yet thousands upon thousands cannot celebrate with the same audacity. Of course, the top executives of the most powerful companies that now rule — that is, that run our government for their benefit can, indeed, celebrate unprecedented freedoms. But for the countless poor, those that reside in the inner most regions of our large cities, their lives are walled up.
It’s to them, the people and their kids that I’ve come to know in such places as the South Ward of Newark, that I write. It’s to them I send my wishes. And I send these wishes using the words of sociologist William Julius Wilson, who I have used plenty of times before in these pages.
I think it’s best to simply allow Wilson to speak without commentary, so I’ll cite some definitive conclusions pertaining to The Economic Plight of Inner-City Black Males chapter in Wilson’s book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, again a text I’ve used numerous times and that must be read and acted upon.
Listen carefully. Read these out loud, several times, and see what happens:
Indeed, the employment woes of poor black men represent part of ‘the new urban poverty,’ which I define as poor, segregated neighborhoods in which substantial proportions of the adult population are either officially unemployed or have dropped out of, or never entered, the labor force.
…neighborhoods with larger fractions of nonwhites tend to be associated with higher rates of unemployment…[The data shows] that education plays a key role in enabling black men to secure employment.
By 2007, blacks were about 15 percent less likely than other workers to have a job in manufacturing. The dwindling proportion of African American workers in manufacturing is important because manufacturing jobs, especially those in the auto industry, have been a significant source of better-paid employment for black Americans since World War II.
Because they tend to be educated in poorly performing public schools, low-skilled black males often enter the job market lacking some of the basic tools that would help them confront changes in their employment prospects. Such schools have rigid district bureaucracies, poor morale among teachers and school principals, low expectations for students, and negative ideologies that justify poor student performance. Inner-city schools fall well below more advantaged suburban schools in science and and math resources, and they lack teachers with appropriate preparation in these subjects. As a result, students from these schools tend to have poor reading and math skills, important tools for competing in the globalized labor market. Few thoughtful observers of public education would disagree with the view that the poor employment prospects of low-skilled black males are in no small measure related to their public-education experience.
Their lack of education, which contributes to joblessness, is certainly related to their risk of incarceration.
…national cultural shifts in values and attitudes contributed to a political context associated with a resurgent Republican Party that focused on punitive ‘solutions’ and worsened the plight of low-skilled black men.
In short, cultural shifts in attitudes towards crime and punishment created structural circumstances — a more punitive justice system — that have had a powerful impact on low-skilled black males.
…research by Devah Pager revealed that a white applicant with a felony conviction was more likely to receive a callback or job offer than was a black applicant with a clean record.
Thus, whereas the subculture of defeatism is a result of having too little pride to succeed in the labor market, the subculture of resistance reflects too much pride to accept menial employment.
So much for the audacity of hope! Have a wonderful 4th of July!
May 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Nicole Kidman belongs to our moment in cinema when the human face can cause such consternation that, instead of “plung[ing] audiences into the deepest ecstasy,” as Roland Barthes said about Greta Garbo in “The Face of Garbo,” the face repels, turns us away, rejects our need to connect with character and story and, rather, moves us into a material reality suggesting that in this new age the human flesh has, unlike Garbo’s case, no “absolute state, which could not be neither reached nor renounced.”
“Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt.” Nicole Kidman’s face is just the opposite; it’s an overstatement of sexuality — or perhaps better said, it’s an overstatement of a production model of sexuality imposed on women, on all of us. It is, in fact, an extremely distracting amplification of denial — the denial of age, of nature, of evolution. As a denial — Nicole Kidman’s face as the denial of the inevitable — we see ourselves: the terminal, the rejected and the confused and the beleaguered; we see our false and ironic attempts to control the natural. Like in Garbo, Kidman leaves no doubt, then.
But maybe, in Garbo we begin to see, to notice this transition into the face of Kidman. Barthes tells us that “her face [Garbo's] was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.” Ubiquitous plastic surgery over signifies deterioration; in the disfigurement, as in Kidman’s lips — and face — we see not youth, but rather the decline. If, again, as Barthes says that, “A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony,” the privileging of the Kidman lips suggests disharmony, a throwback to the mask. Suddenly the Greek mask is melded to contemporary cinema, resulting in a perversion of both.
To mark the transition from Garbo to Kidman, Barthes speaks about Audrey Hepburn,whose
face, he says, “is individualized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, woman as kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it, but is constituted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions.” The form and function of the face has been changed, then; the Garbo face has morphed into the Hepburn, bringing us closer to what Barthes calls the Event. ”As a language, Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.”
With Hepburn, we move closer to our own age where we don’t have actors any more, we have stars, celebrities that exist in a cross-section of reality and neon — the Kardashians are the prime example: over sexualized women in a post Sex in the City venue that conflates a squeaking intelligence of everything pop with an expression of classical voluptuousness. These kittens bite.
Caught in all this is Nicole Kidman, struggling to survive in a celebrity culture that disowns the aging, but tragically, her face is such that, while beauty is there, the possibility, as it was watching Garbo, to lose oneself “in a human image as one would in a philtre,” as Barthe contends, is there — but it cannot be sustained because post-Hepburn, we have the loss of the Event, we have a face that is but an idea of the face, an interruption — a disrupting face, a face that disrupts, a face that pushes the viewer away from the flow of the narrative.
I tried watching a wonderful film, Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. The screenplay is an adaptation by David Lindsay-Abaire of his 2005 play of the same name. Kidman produced the project via her company, Blossom Films.
The film is moving, very well done, and, I dare say, it’s probably one of Kidman’s best roles. But, the unfortunate thing is that I couldn’t take my eyes off her lips and how her entire face has been changed (perhaps more plastic surgery here?). It was distracting. Thus, while the narrative, Kidman’s acting and context of the drama all drew me in, I could only come in part way since I was left confused by the meta-narrative surrounding her lips. The narrative drew me in, Kidman’s lips pushed me away, representing, not the “absolute state of the flesh,” a la Barthes and his study, Garbo, rather it shows the transition state of the flesh — and our ephemeral lives. This is the opposite of film’s location in our culture, which is made to ensure longevity, endurance, the possibilities in enduring dreams, of dreaming. Kidman takes the dreaming away.
While Garbo became more and more obscure — until we found Hepburn, the Event — Kidman, in her plastic lips, is gradually obscuring herself before our eyes until she becomes unrecognizable — as is Cher. Thus, Kidman — and the likes of Cher — have re-introduced us to the “temptation of the absolute mask,” implying a new theme, a new archetype of the human face. This new archetype is a rejection of a Platonic Ideal and a privileging of a new and quite foreign aesthetic that, while over producing the sexual, becomes desexualized.
If Garbo is an Idea and Hepburn an Event, Kidman is therefore the Feigned.
May 15, 2011 § 3 Comments
Men over 55 are a strange lot. Now that 50 is said to be the new 40, and we’re all to believe that somehow the inevitable is magically being thwarted by exercise, diet and viagra, men are in a kind of limbo, looking back to what was and forward to what is fast approaching, only to realize what will never be. Men over 55 live in a kind of fog, fluctuating between wonderment and bleakness, surprised by how little we know and confused by the reversal of our dominant and submissive roles. Men over 55 men are confused about who to be. The world makes little sense to us.
I am a susceptible 57, which is closer to 60, and the difference between 55 and 57, psychologically and intellectually, is that you learn that any romantic notions you had when you were 50 or 55 are just that, convoluted ways of lying to yourself. I’ve learned that 57 is the male’s age of reality: the very real sense that you’ve lived and that there’s less time, not more, comes crashing in and you have to wonder, what have I done and what am I going to do with what’s left of me? Is there room for more fantasy? Because fantasy, after all, is essential; it’s how we experience the material world, our imagined selves waving at windmills. Without fantasy, there is no reality. Fantasy enables our sense of limitations. Only at 57, there’s less fantasy, more of a sense of how things are.
Over 55 means that a man is looking at his life through a prism that blurs certain things, but makes others — like the end of things — more acute. Carpe diem takes on new meaning.
Now I sit to pee — not stand. I did start this around the time I turned 50, though, because I figured that I should let gravity help all the way — a prostate is a prostate, something quite vulnerable in a man. Oh, did you hear? Stan has prostate cancer. Prostate and cancer are the most frightening of bedfellows, as breast cancer is for women. Only we men never talk about it and proceed silently into the abyss. Fantasies about manhood die slowly.
At 40, prostate exams began for me, but by the time I turned 50, unstressing the prostate became critical. Testosterone, the fuel of fantasies, becomes an agressor. Over 50, testosterone, once so dear to our souls, turns on us. I realized this when I had my first colonoscopy, that harrowing experience of probing the rectum and colon to detect inflammed tissue, ulcers, and abornormal growths. In other words, the procedure that determines how well you’ve handled processed foods and stress — children, marriage, work, the world coming apart, the ups and downs of the economy, McDonald’s food, one too many beers and too many cigars, and the realization that you have no control over anything. The prostate is not keen on uphevel.
The colonoscopy (women 50 and over also have these) is stressful. It begins with a taxing prep: a strong laxative that forces you on the toilet for most of the night before the procedure. I thought that the prostate exams I’ve had for ten years — basically the doctor asking me to assume the position so that he could do to me what everyone else had been doing to me for years — was it as far as humiliation. But when I saw the pinky size width of the three foot tube with a camera on its end — an eye to probe my inner most secrets? — that was to travel through my intestines, well, I knew I’d reached a new understanding of humility. I knew that I’d reached a new sense of what it means to be a man past a certain age. And I knew, from that day forward, that a man’s life is about everything below the waste — prostate, colon, penis; they all begin to falter and with them goes any exaggerated sense of manliness. Fantasies are effectively killed off at this point. Pragmatism reigns supreme. It’s about survival from here on out. I take a heaping tablespoon of Green Vibrance, organic and freeze dried grass juices, a superfood, in a tall glass of water — my natural answer to viagra dreams. With a healthy diet, it works wonders. And I take a teaspoon of Norwegian Cold Liver Oil to get my Omega 3 fatty acids.
The family medical practice I go to has no male doctors (the only male MD has moved on), so my new prostate examiner is a woman MD. My first ever physical performed by a female was when I entered the Navy. Twelve or so young men in white underwear stood in a line. As the female Naval officer walked by, she checked us out. “Turn your head and cough, please.” When she walked behind us, accompanied by 2 nurses, we assumed the position. I didn’t know it then, but this was a life-lesson, a scene to be repeated over and over throughout my life. I don’t mind that a woman examines me, after all, plenty of male MD’s examine women. My mother’s generation had only men doctors. The tides have turned, and this is fine by me. A prostate is a prostate — who cares? I like the more submissive role we men have to assume.
But I do care that I have to check the unexpected hair popping from the edges of my ear lobes — a challenge to shaving. I do care that I have to manicure my nose hair that apparently grows at alarming rates. And recently, weird eyebrow hairs twist and turn and curl into exaggerated lengths, which then I crop. I’m losing the hair on my head, but new hairs are popping up in the strangest of places. It must mean that with age there’s less strength to push the hair up through the head, so what’s left grows in weaker extremities. Submission means acquiescing to deterioration, I suppose. When I’m but a corps I’ll be nothing but hair, the final joke.
I have to spend longer hours in the bathroom before an uncompromising mirror. But when I glance at my wife next to me, she actually looks better, as most women over 50 do — healthy, energetic, sexy. College kids, young men and young women, take second looks. No such luck for us old men, los viejos in a new America where we find that we’re not as important as we used to be. We’re more vulnerable, more pragmatic, adjusting reluctantly to our new locations in the world that is slowly balancing our roles, slowly enabling us into more convincing understandings of our sensitivities. We’re less dominant and more confused.