The Secret in the Mirror, from the Getting Lost blog

The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here.   Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to  Getting Lost.

 

For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me.  And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.

 

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Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.

Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)

 

In a story such as this, the full view is necessary.  Otherwise it won’t work.  I don’t want false impressions.

I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me.  As he did.  Slow like.  An animal crouched low.  And they rose up.  First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind.  They arrived together.

Read more here…

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Everything is Connected: Contemplating the American Decline and the Rise of Fascism

I stood on West 33rd Street and 8th Avenue, in front of Madison Square Garden, New York City, staring at a block long billboard, a top McDonald’s and Duane Reeds, announcing the savagery of a UFC Kick-Ass Match, when a guy came up to me and asked, “You have a cigarette I can buy?”

Before I nodded “no” he shrugged me off and walked away mumbling something to himself. I looked towards the opposite corner, across 33rd, and a giant Pepsi billboard said that the world is better when we buy a Pepsi. Beneath this Biblical declaration, sitting at the entrance to Penn Station, a woman held a homemade cardboard sign — “homeless” — in one hand, on the other a stained paper cup that she shook and called to passersby walking with such purpose that they didn’t seem to see her; she was invincible, unseen, except to a couple of cops who recognized her and said something familiar to her. She held up a cigarette for a light — for someone to light, anyone stepping around her and heading down the escalator to the trains.

When I looked up from the invisible homeless woman, the huge and incomprehensible, always changing digital account of green house gases emitted into the universe caught my attention. The last few numbers in the hundreds column kept rhythm with the extreme traffic and anxious pedestrian tumult of the streets — heads down, pushing and moving, sidestepping, anxious, changing. And I became aware — and saddened — by how owned we are, how much of how we perceive our lives — billboards and giant TV screens, digital versions of our illusions, avatars on Facebook and MySpace and Twitter– is not of our making. What we do on a daily basis is exchange value. How much are you worth to me? What can you do for me? I felt inconsequential.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “Men, in order to do evil, must first believe that what they are doing is good.” How much of what we do in a predictable economic system necessitates that we violate and murder, particularly in the judgment of the puppeteers?

Standing on West 33rd and 8th Avenue, I followed the money, how it moves and what it touches in our vertical economy. One way or another, we all have to consume — this is what our economy is suggesting: no way out of consumption. Globalization is also saying that the poorest nations have only one hope: consume your way out of misery. Haiti is our example here — there are more, of course.

I had a memory: in a visit to Amsterdam, staring at the women in booths coquettishly calling to men, I noticed that on the door of these booths are two documents legitimizing prostitution, a city permit and just beneath it, Visa and Mastercard signs. I realized that money works in every nook and cranny of our world; it filters through everything — prostitution, weapons, narcotics, education and health care, war, depravity and violence.  This interconnectivity is forged by the money we put into the system that is pushed and funneled, by powerful people, in directions we have no control over. Everything is connected.  Everything is connected by money.

I learned in Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of The American Empire at the End of The Age of Oil, by Michael C. Rubbert,* in the forward by Catherine Austin Fitts, Assistant Secretary in the first Bush administration, that in “1997, the Washington Post killed a cover story on [Fitts’] efforts to help HUD insure the integrity of its mortgage programs, thus making possible the subsequent disappearance of $59 billion from HUD as a part of this orgy of ‘piratization’ of government assets by private interests.” Benito Mussolini said, “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power.” Rubbert’s investigation — his argument — is simple: follow the money and we’ll find collusion — government, private enterprise and the criminal narcotics trade; money washed through Wall Street. The citizenry is mostly unconscious, paying for the infrastructure, dedicating earned dollars (taxes + consumption) to ‘piratization’.

Why? Because we live in a closed system of limited and dwindling resources (oil + gas). “Global demand for oil and natural gas is growing faster than new supplies are being found, and the world population is exploding,” Rubbert reminds us.  We are in a crisis that results in aggressive and hostile methods to ensure power remains in the right hands. “American fascism,” Rubbert tells us, “is something different now … It’s not just private, elite control over the legal system, nor private evasion of the rule of law. It’s a crisis – induced transition from a society with a deeply compromised legal system to a society where force and surveillance completely supplant the system.”

The first Bush election and the Florida fiasco effectively demonstrated a very real coup d’état— the aggressive start of the surveillance society; the derelict response to 9/11 was a convenience — we know this now since Cheney and clan already had plans to invade Iraq. The old and weak system was effectively supplanted with 9/11. Now Obama. He has little room to move; he will be given latitude, but not so much that he’ll change the “crisis-induced” system.

When I stood on West 33rd Street and 8th Avenue, in front of Madison Square Garden, I came to understand my small place, my inconsequential place in a “crisis – induced” system. Like a serf in the middle ages, I can see the mote I can’t cross — none of us can. I thought about self-reliance and individualism, only to realize that these ideas have been turned on their head, used to ensure we keep walking, heads down, thinking about tomorrow, forgetting about yesterday, and never fully grasping — or seeing — the present because, after all, this is where things are going wrong, the ground floor where a homeless woman begs for scraps.

Bikes, Aggression and Hostility: American Regression

I happened to be in New York this past weekend. My oldest son, a photographer there, called to get together. Towards the end of the phone conversation he says, “Don’t get worried when you see me. It’s not as bad as it looks. I fell off my bike. I blame it on the New York streets.”

He slid across an intersection when he hit a patch of indiscernible liquid that he describes as “black ice,” a film that drips off the back of garbage trucks and lays unseen over the pavement. He flew thirty feet across an intersection, scraping his arm raw.

My son is doing the right thing. He sold his vehicle and he bikes and takes subways to work. But the streets of New York are inhospitable for those who “do the right thing.”

Then I pulled open the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times and found Jan Hoffman’s Moving Targets about how “bikers and drivers fight over their patch of asphalt.” Another example of how inhospitable New York streets—and who uses them—are to those trying to “do the right thing.” But in Hoffman’s article we move into dramatic, and dangerous, territory: anger, aggression and violence—people to people fighting over ownership of the pavement.

“With more bikes on the road, the driver-cyclist, Hatfield-McCoy hostility is ratcheting up,” says Hoffman. This is a situation made more complex by groups—cyclists and motorists—banning together and protesting via blogs and texting. There is also a “whiff of class warfare in the simmering hostility,” Hoffman says, when “superfly fit cyclists, wearing Sharpie-toned spandex and ridding $3,000 bikes, cockily dart through swampy, stolid traffic with bike racks and showers” while motorists stuck in traffic grit their teeth.

To make matters even more challenging, adding to the confusion, tension and angst are the inexperienced cyclists who pedal on sidewalks and zigzag against traffic. Hoffman asks, “Will the Hatfields and McCoys ever be able to coexist?”

It’s a difficult question to answer that requires we try to understand who we are as a culture. We are an aggressive culture. We occupy large quantities of space; we take “ownership”; we acquire; we “go for it” by any means necessary. We binge. We hook up–and forget. One of the reasons why American football has become the American pastime is because it is a territorial, aggressive game defined by crisis—and time, of which there is never enough. In America, it’s always the fourth quarter. We define life in inches—so we need to take a mile, even if it’s away from you, even if it hurts you.

I just came back from Amsterdam, an older culture that had something to do with the founding of New York, aka the colony, the New Netherlands. It’s amazing how the bikers glide smoothly across streets, over tram tracks, around pedestrians. The key, I learned, is respect, tolerance and understanding–and following rules. There is no aggression; that is, bikers ring their bells, trams dong theirs and pedestrians, even the tourists, “watch out.” It’s as if one is watching a beautiful dance, only this one is orchestrated from within, holistically, naturally: we are all in this together; we all have rights, so let’s respect them. A healthy approach that permeates the entire culture.

In an aggressive land such as ours, particularly in New York City, though Hoffman is keen to define this problem as a national problem, coast to coast, we are more interested in our advantage over “the other” rather then reconciling our differences peacefully and creatively. We in fact shun creativity. We negotiate with violence, our fists. (see: Violence in American Myth, Imagination & Literature, by Jane Anne Phillips)

Aggression and the lack of tolerance pervade our culture, whether for another’s skin color, religious and moral believes, sexuality and gender and ideas. We attack. No matter what. We even violate members of our own families. This is our mode, like bullies in a playground. It’s how we address the world, too—Iraq and Afghanistan are our prime examples, as is how many persons we incarcerate.

We’re not going to go forward, at any level, if our initial reaction—the American Reaction, or is it American Regression?—is aggressive and violent. This is not what Emerson had in mind when he defined the truly creative person in Self-Reliance.

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you and all men and all events.

Where is the true person? How have we moved so far from truth?

Squandered is the “great responsible Thinker and Actor.” We’ve enabled the mediocre, shallow person who reacts without thinking, takes without consideration, violates because of the immoral belief that it’s one’s right to do so. This is not a thinker, but rather, a follower, someone easily manipulated.

It’s easy to see how we believe, then, that acting violently without reflection is our right because we view the soil under our feet as solely ours; we view the space we inhabit as ours and ours alone; we see the other as an aggressor to the world we inhabit, literally and figuratively. We thus walk around with destruction foremost in our minds.

This could be a person who crosses our always moving path on a bicycle or it could be someone in Muslim garb or a person of a color different from our own or someone who challenges our privileged space. We don’t tolerate any of it. And resolve to attack.

But as Emerson says, “In history our imagination plays us false.” It is unfortunate that we turn aggressively against history—this has been our story since Emerson, brought dramatically to the forefront during the last eight years where violence has been the only means to an unforeseeable end. The battle between bikers and drivers is, I’m afraid, only a symptom of greater ills we seem to be running from. How far can we run from the truth?

Preliminary Notes from Amsterdam, 2008

I arrived to a picture perfect Amsterdam—cloudy and misty, a cool breeze. This gave a mythical quality to the juxtaposition of dark green canals and the colorful homes—whites and beiges and a black with purple—along their edges, some seemingly growing right out of the water. The homes are erected tightly side-by-side. Some homes lean a bit forward (it was learned that it was easier to hoist furniture this way), others sideways enough to notice. All homes, from their rooftops, dangle pulleys attached to very ornate arms that are beefy enough to sustain the weight of furnishings raised into apartments. Going inside with furniture and up narrow stairs or in one and two person elevators just can’t cut it. Furnishings must go into a home through the very large windows. The houses are very narrow; this is because at one point, homeowners were taxed according to width.

Canal-Amsterdam

Canal-Amsterdam

By 2PM (14:00 hrs) of my first day, the sun was out and the breeze only occasional. There always seems to be a breeze here, sometimes gusting into a strong wind that can last several minutes. The leaves rustle violently. The canals kick up a bit. Most people ware some sort of jacket because in the shade it can get cool—and every café has plenty of shade.

The sun magnified the multitudes on the streets; it was like a spot light. Droves and droves of people form all over the place. Enumerable languages everywhere: all the European languages, but a lot of Spanish and Italian; Arabic, Turkish, Greek and so on; likewise multitudes from Asia and South Asia. The restaurants reflect this. For every language there is a restaurant. I counted 5 Argentinean restaurants, though I didn’t try any because, well, I’ve eaten the food there. Why compromise? Amsterdam is an amalgamation of cultures and systems and beliefs.

Amsel-Amsterdam

Amsel-Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a peculiar, pleasant human experiment—old world and new, the citizens appear to have found a soothing aesthetic. It’s a laid back approach to labor; it’s not laid back in the sense of an Argentinean “piola,” don’t worry, tomorrow it’ll be better. No, this a particular soft energy applied to the comings and goings of life. There is constant movement in Amsterdam. It’s visible in the walking, bicycling and traming (electric trams).

The main roads have a lane for the tram, which requires tracks since they run on overhead electricity (the lines web the city). Next to the tram lane, on either side, are the auto lanes and the bike lanes, which sometimes come into the sidewalk as well on one side so as to not interfere with walkers and strollers (that’s me). It’s all rhythmic, ruled by understanding, tolerance and patience—the bell of the tram announcing it’s near so that walkers and bikers get out of the way; the constantly ringing bells of the bikers weaving in-between walkers; the low purr of the walkers and café dwellers.

The Amsterdam biker is quite experienced. They flow through crowds effortlessly on variations of English racers ringing their bells—watch out. Never hostility uttered at anyone. The Amsterdam biker is apparently negotiating a deeper melody. Some bikes have a front extension that looks like a small dingy. This is for kids and groceries. No one wares a helmet. It all works.

Along some streets and in the plazas, they’ve gone one up on the French: in front of the first line of tables in many cafés they’ve taken to placing chairs, side-by-side and facing out theatre-like and, well, the whole world is your stage. Sometimes this row of chairs is along the back against the wall of the café. This is very interesting and I think a sign of Amsterdam’s pleasantness; that is, Amsterdam’s allure, beyond its architectural, historical and artistic beauty and magnetism, is in its understanding that the human condition is very complex and that this complexity requires an open admission that in order to even approximate harmony, tolerance for our needs and desires, as bizarre as these may be sometimes, needs to be accommodated. Amsterdam is accommodating. The underlying ethos is to not make waves.

This is evident in the energy on the streets, first—the way machine and humanity and environment interact in soft ways. It then extends to extremes—from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, the orthodox to the most liberal, even if this is on the borderlines of the bizarre. Amsterdam is a very interesting human experiment that has grown and evolved along these canals.

Houses Out of the Canals

Houses Out of the Canals

Can society, small as it is here, tolerate extreme needs and differences? Can displaced persons from all over the world, some from places marked by war and devastation, come together and simply live together and in this form manifest something for tomorrow?

The Politie (police), many very young, patrol the streets on bicycles. They’re dressed casually—a white shirt with insignias, dark blue combat pants and boots, radios and guns (some don’t have guns). They work on containing the excitement in certain areas, as in the Red Light District, and weave in and out of the center of the flow of the crowds looking for any sign of potential eruption that would require defusing. This is very uncommon, though; most of the time their presence is enough and people go on about their merry business.

There are the boisterous men, young and old. These international and diverse bans walk throughout the city but are most evident in the Red Light District. These bans span cultures; some are intermixed, diverse. Most are working class kids looking for kicks. The most annoying are the English and the Americans. Boy can they drink, particularly the Brits. It’s not enough to drink for them—you have to we wobbling down the street yelling and screaming. The American youths follow a close second to this. These groups don’t raise any problems; they’re contained within their own worlds. If anything the harm they might do is to themselves. But even this gesturing is understood and not threatening, seen as yet another group—the immature, testosterone confused man needing to obtain some sort of image to conceal vulnerabilities.

The Red Light District

The Red Light District

A lot is tolerated here—and maybe this is something to learn from. While church bells mark the hour to God, men stroll before bikini-clad women standing provocatively in small booths, as if mannequins on 5th Avenue in New York. The booth is strange, it’s both a calling forth, an advertisement, and a complex gesture towards the womb since it too represents a type of protection. The women open their glass doors slightly and whisper to men and strike their deals. Some booths, the more daring, sport 2 women. It’s a bizarre and very strange world. In-between this very open admission that the oldest profession is alive and well—and supported by Mastercard and Visa, state healthcare and inspectors, and government—are cafés, beautiful homes, fantastic shops, bookstore and restaurants. The blend is incredible. You have to ponder it a bit and take it in it’s so grave.

The coffee shops are the smoking places where marihuana, Ti, and hashish are available in various forms, including brownies; it can be bought and used in the café or taken out on the street or you can light up at a café on a canal.** There are stores, too, that specialize in seeds and mushrooms (psilocybin). All these places are full and occupied by various types—all above the age of 18: old timers, young, in-between, middle aged groups, women alone, men alone, all cultures are evident in the cafés. Starting the day with a double espresso and Big Bubba’s Cheese brings a whole new meaning to ‘starting the day.’

Naturally, this kind of openness brings in “the other,” the hard drugs—coke and heroine sold, in whispers, by Africans on the street. This is totally illegal, of course. But we know from experience that once one form—alcohol and pot—are tolerated, even sanctified, then “the other” will creep in. Perhaps this is a challenge: if you’re going to go this far, why not go all the way? What else will that bring from the narrative of unintended consequences?

The atmosphere in the Red Light District is interesting. Families, kids, young and old travel the streets; however, “the man” is obviously the dominant force. The essence of this area is male. This is obvious to anyone walking across a canal bridge and on its edge is a urinal, sometimes two. These urinals are open to the world; that is, they are porta-lets with only small holes to satiate men’s immediate need. On any given occasion you see several men, one per open toilet, pushed in so that digital video cameras don’t end up catching a glimpse of their one unique problem in life and cast it to the world via Google. (This is a culture under constant surveillance, cameras everywhere; this is something I’ve seen everywhere I’ve been—everyone is being photographed and filmed by the state.) Nothing like a good pee out in the open among the crowds after that double espresso.

For women, there is no such comfort.

I love Amsterdam. I believe it has to be and that we have to try and understand what this means to us. I love the city’s energy and tolerance. But it’s a stark reminder of how complex and perverse we humans are. The entire world is here. What really comes through is that humanity really lives in one very old system. On one end of the spectrum, the state apparatuses and the ideological apparatuses; then gentrification, the push for humanism and environmentalism, a good life with just enough “things” coupled to an aesthetic that is earthy. And on the other end, the need of some to work out insecurities, vulnerabilities and confusions in more edgy forms. Very often, the two worlds synthesize, are side-by-side. An old system laid bare and supported quite well by business and government. It’s a vertical system without seeming to be so, a fascinating slight of hand.

But in-between the canal boats slowly making their way, people jubilant, and in-between the shadows that are always available to us in such extremes, even when gracefully melded together as they are here, are the children. These are the kids that are being towed by parents—everywhere; and the young alone on the streets. You wonder what they see; you wonder what it is we’re saying to them about how they are to live. And then, for me, the most challenging image is how young some of these young girls in their booths are—younger then my college age daughter. How is it that some can only find the oldest profession as a way through life? I was left with that thought. It hangs heavy.

Church in the heart of the Red Light District

Church in the heart of the Red Light District

In all, I believe in the Amsterdam experience that may find you listening to church bells while staring at a Jamie Lynn Cyberskin Vibrating Doll. There is quite a lot to learn from this experiment in humanity. Maybe al Andalus was something like this—tolerance alongside broad accommodations made to differences, yet beyond the surface structure of liberty and equality, there is a highly structured, vertical society—the rich and the poor, and everything in-between; the ideological class and the state class; labor; artists. And all this supported by the globalization of money that enables but a few to control both ends of this same equation. This is the oldest system: comoflouage the hierarchy with tolerance for the many vicissitudes that will undoubtedly arise. It’s a good means of control.