Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.

It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.

The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.

Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.

An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary,  compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.

Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.

Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.

The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.

The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.

Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.

The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.

How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.

On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.

All of this was regular television.

We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.

The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.

But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.

Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.

I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.

By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).

This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?

An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.

The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?

I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.

Advertisements

Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help)

Age 60 is when it takes a man all night to do what he used to do all night.

At 60 years old, your birthday suit requires regular ironing.

At 60 you can still chase women, but only downhill.

At 60, two of the most important things in life are bowel movements and nose hair.

Everywhere I look – even though it’s customary to say, 60 is the new 50 – there’s the daunting accuracy of Mathematics: Coming to 60 means less time. That’s all. It’s inescapable. Less time it is.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde said that, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.” True. I knew everything once, now, somewhere in-between believing and suspecting, I know very little, but I’m sensing that this is how it goes, how everything goes. “Age is a high price to pay for maturity,” said Tom Stoppard.

Maturity is gaining (some) self-knowledge while falling part – a final irony on top of life’s other contradictions.

An aged man is but a paltry thing, writes W.B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium. A tattered coat upon a stick, he is. In The Tower, Yeats tells us that, Everything that man esteems/Endures a moment or a day. Shit. That’s all I can say. A moment or a day – that’s it? Shit.

I’m but a flash. But looking to Yeats again for solace, he says, Whatever flames upon the night/Man’s own resinous heart has fed. So maybe there’s hope that even when 60 candles are being lit on my birthday cake, and by the time the last one is lit, the first twenty have already burned out, the first two thirds of my life may account for something.

I’ve tried to flame upon the night, really I have, passionately so. But it’s that resinous heart I wonder about.

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

Did I make enough noise? Has my heart been big enough, resplendent enough to leave even a little bit of residue upon the night? When night comes, what remains? I wonder.

The inherent tension found at 60: there has to be meaning – has to be; but there are no real witnesses to give my meaning its due. Sure there are loved ones. Of course there’s family. Yes. But in the end we travel alone; we face trials alone, even when loved ones say, I’m with you. An end to something is an end. That’s it. Time’s up. And only the person experiencing this end, this coming to, can verify the experience. No one’s seen everything, experienced everything as I have. The final irony is that only glimpses of me will be left – Tweet feeds, moving images here and there, maybe even Facebook pics and news updates, scribblings for posterity, all will hang in a digital limbo until someone needs the space and, well, DELETE.

Recognition for a life lived comes late – if at all. DELETE. The rugosity on my face and hands is known only to me. The scars that tell the story of me will disappear with me, deleted for eternity.

I awaken from this dream with a jerk and find my wife’s nose up to mine.

“You’re asleep. You’ve been asleep. I heard you snoring. You woke me. I was sound as asleep. Let’s go to bed.”

Watching Orange is the New Black, two glasses of wine proved the better of me (it didn’t use to be – I have witnesses, trust me I do for this), even while contemplating opening a second bottle. I was snoring, I guess. I nodded out, I guess. My cell phone read: 8:30PM

“I’m not tired,” I declare.

“You were sound asleep,” says Nina.

“I’m not tired.”

“You’re an idiot. Why would you always do this – deny snoring? You were sound asleep. I watched you. You jerked. You were dreaming, dead asleep.”

She did, she watched me. But I can’t relent. “I’m not tired,” I say and ridiculously keep to my story.

“You’re being stupid.”

“But it’s only eight-thirty. I can’t go to bed. Besides, I’m into the show. I love Alex (Laura Prepon). I love her voice.”

“Oh yeah, what just happened? Tell me. What just happened in the show?” asks Nina, getting up and marching out. “Turn it off and let’s go to bed.”

I can’t even seduce her with a chic flick conversation about Alex – her voice, her looks, her character; couldn’t even get to the relationship between Alex and Piper (Taylor Schilling) – and in a prison for women no less. What fun. I could then exploit my understanding of popular culture, the significance of Orange is the New Black, which some call The Maids in prison. None of that would happen. What I think – what I want, something like stopping time – quickly becomes erased, inconsequential. It must be how everything goes.

I follow Nina to bed. The Golden Retriever, Chief, is already in his ottoman.

Coming to 60, do men turn into chicks? I wonder. Which is fine. At 60 I’ve lost all rights to judge and critique; I can only accept and tolerate.

Maturity must mean abiding by all conditions outside your control; it’s acceptance, a kind of adaptation, I figure.

Coming to 60, whatever that means, is indeed a Math problem. It becomes an organic rather then a mechanical approach; time differs now, no longer tied to industry. Life depends on how poetic I can make it. Its structure resides in the felt relationships I still have.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

As I do sometimes when I’m in a questioning, searching mood, I turn to Uncle Walt, Walt Whitman, right before laying my head down, thinking that this is how it must go – what sleep is, and read:

The soul,

Forever and forever – longer than soil is brown and solid – longer

than water ebbs and flows

It must go like this.

Orchard Grass Farm

Orchard Grass Farm
New Haven, VT

The Sex and Love Lives of College Students: Erectile Dysfunction and Other Maladies

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.

When living a fishbowl-like college existence, is love possible for the post Sex in the City generation leaning towards Girls?

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?

Happy 4th of July — to All Left Out of Freedom, Independence and Hope

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!

The Face of Nicole Kidman

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.”

Greta Garbo

“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.

Nicole Kidman

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

Audrey Hepburn

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.

The Kardashians

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 KidmanAaron 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.

Men Over 55: Facing Uncanny Realities

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.