Friday, October 30, 2015

On the Girl with the Smartphone

No video tells the whole story.  You don't know the before.  You don't know what anything looks like to the actors in extreme close-up.  You only see two bodies.  One is adult, male, white and powerful.  The other is female, young, black and weak.  And you see the adult body attack the weak body and you know what this is and you know the story because you have read the story and the story goes back hundreds of years and it is inscribed in the consciousness of your culture.  The video is evidence of something you already know.

I'm inclined to believe that the office is a bully and the teenager may have been obnoxious but did nothing to deserve such violence.  (Does anyone deserve such violence?)  Now, we hear about a walkout of 100 students in support of this officer.  Does that mean there's another layer to the story?  Do these students have a point?  Does the racial divide at this school trickle down to the student body, the next generation?

I would say that I had my own knee-jerk reaction to that news.  Our pop culture may celebrate the underdog, but in the real world we support the bullies.  No individual person can be as stupid or as self-righteous as a crowd.  And a lot of people had to hate this girl, for one reason or another, for this officer to believe that he had every right to hurt her.   


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On Bridge of Spies

Spielberg's great when he's weird: the D Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan in which blood, sweat and mud splatter on the camera lens, and every man falls dead instantaneously when he's shot; Eric Bana and Daniel Craig's clinical assassination of a femme fatale in Munich; the methodical investigation and capture of the would-be murderer at the beginning of Minority Report, the close-up of scissors, the purpose of which we don't know, the close-up of a mind-control device, the purpose of which we don't know; a crashed airplane in suburbia in War of the Worlds; the bizarre, witty debates on the House floor in Lincoln.  Spielberg's awful when he's unembarrassed by his sentimentality: the ubiquitous American flag in Saving Private Ryan; every "what does it mean to be a Jew" speech in Munich; Tom Cruise thinking about his dead son in Minority Report; Tom Cruise thinking about his annoying son in War of the Worlds; a union soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address at the beginning of Lincoln.  

I enjoy Spielberg's weirdness more than Cronenberg's or Lynch's because it's couched between his Hallmark moments.  It's 9 pm at night.  A man has put his six-year-old son to bed and he's preparing for his seventh birthday tomorrow morning.  He writes a message on a birthday card and tears up, hoping that he could arrest time.  He puts the card in his desk drawer.  While his wife and son are asleep, he surfs the net for scat porn.  He has a hard time sleeping after that, so he starts reading a book about Stalingrad and gets off on all the graphic detail.  

The best parts of Bridge of Spies, Spielberg's dramatization of the U-2 incident, are his introductions of the main players.  Mark Rylance's Rudolf Abel is a hyper-intelligent spy, who carefully smudges out nuclear secrets on his paint palette while the CIA rips apart his apartment.  Tom Hanks's James Donovan is the insurance lawyer, an middle-aged, smart schoolyard bully who enjoys the way legal wordplay can get assholes off for the worst transgressions.  Austin Stowell's Gary Powers is an overgrown child eager to prove himself during a lie-detecter test.  The narrative in the rest of the film diminishes each of them.  They become mundane, familiar and a little too likable.  Abel, we learn, is really your quiet Jewish grandfather, a man of Old World wisdom.  Donovan is a crusader for the US Constitution and human decency amid Cold War paranoia.  Powers becomes a POW who endures torture with bravery and dignity.  On one level, you could argue that the movie is a case study in why heroism is so boring.  I would argue that Spielberg's movie, like most of his movies, reminds us that every hero has a fascinating creep hiding inside him.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

On Not Knowing Names

Here is a short sampling of things I don't know:

1. The name of the current Prime Minister of Japan, the third largest economy in the world.

2. The names of the components of a chromosome. (I used to know. Now I don't.)

3. Any of the names of the killers put on trial for crimes in Cambodia or Rwanda.

5. The names of Jupiter's moons.

6. The name of most of Obama's cabinet members.

7. The names of the Indian tribes who once lived in my home state of Maryland.

8. The names of the major leaders of Hamas.

You need to know much more than names and dates to understand anything.  And there's nothing more annoying than a person who can spit out facts with no ideas behind them.  Still, you have to stop and wonder if you really have any right to talk about anything, even in casual conversation, when you really know so little.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

On Recognizing Yourself

Pierre Bezukhov, Robert Cohn, Magneto, Professor X, Dr. Doom, Walter White, Nathan Zuckerman, Bojack Horseman, David Lurie, Michael Henchard, Cyril Fielding, Tonio Kroger, Quentin Compson, Miss Lonelyhearts, Proust's narrator and among the memoirists, Paul Fussell and Edmund White.

I met you all at some point in my life and I thought: "This is me. For better or worse, this is me."

On Jim Webb

I had a conservative friend in high school.  His politics have changed in the years since, but he approached the two main strands of his ideological leanings - Catholicism and libertarianism - with cold hard logic.  He could be a little glib when faced with the shortcomings in any one of his beliefs.  He believed in complete drug legalization without regulation - a position I agreed with - but did not consider the counterarguments all that seriously.  If you told him that heroin legalization would mean that more people would use heroin, he would just tell you that he wouldn't do heroin.  I thought his approach to faith was weirdly unemotional.  He had read the scripture and the intellectual arguments.  He thought it was clear that Christianity was superior to Islam because Muhammed was a thief, and it just made sense to spend his life trying to get to heaven.

I met him when we were 14 and we still keep up with each other.  About ten years ago, we were walking around a campus where he was pursuing a Ph.D. in history.  I had just come home from a year-long gig in Vietnam.  We passed a veterans memorial, and I just blurted out that I thought the concept of war heroism was bullshit.  My friend was hyper-logical, but he couldn't understand where I was coming from.  I asked him if he really thought all the soldiers in Vietnam were war heroes?  They were fighting an ugly war.  He said, ok, but maybe all the soldiers in World War II?  I said, in the reality of war, the people you end up killing don't necessarily deserve to die. It's hard to see any soldier as particularly heroic, as much as someone who fights for his own and his friends' survival.  My friend was extremely anti-war, anti-US intervention anywhere, but this was a difficult idea for him to process.  I told him that "war heroism" is a concept civilized people hold onto in order to make themselves feel better for supporting barbarism.  He started coming around to my way of thinking, but it's clear that I had finally presented some cold hard logic that frightened him.


My first instinct - everyone's first instinct - was to laugh, uncomfortably.  Here was Jim Webb running for president, laughing, bragging about killing an enemy soldier who tried to kill him.  That soldier was probably no better or worse a human being than Jim Webb.  In all likelihood, Webb never learned the story of that man's life or what led him to fight a war for an ideology Webb disagreed with.  The man he killed had no idea who Webb was.

And though they both fought in the name of a nation-state, they were clearly not thinking about their ideological beliefs at the moment of confrontation.  At that moment they were nothing more than animals struggling for their own survival.

When you go to war, you enter a dimension in which the rules that used to govern your life no longer make sense, and when you return home those rules will never really make sense again.  Clinton, Sanders and the rest defend themselves from these facts by talking up their love for veterans.  Webb loves his fellow veterans too, but at some point he just has to laugh at the sham we call civilization.  That's the only way he can continue to live in this world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On Yoga

I started doing yoga about three years ago, when I was 32.  I was depressed and I had read two testimonials attesting to yoga's benefits.  In her graphic memoir Marbles, Ellen Forney explained that she originally started doing yoga because she heard it was slimming.  She kept going because it helped her manage her manic depression.  In an interview, Giancarlo Esposito said that his yoga practice helped him get inside the head of his Breaking Bad supervillain "Gus" Fring.  It taught him how to be a better listener, an essential part of his character.  I'm still a bit of a stage-door johnny, and still, against all odds, aspire to a level of coolness that I see on screen and that I will never, in a million years, obtain.  (Aren't and don't we all?)  And I thought if yoga could help me obtain anything like "Gus" Fring's imperturbability, than yoga it was to be. 

I went to Yoga to the People, which was less than a mile from my house.  I had to sit out more than half the poses through the first class.  It was painful to stare at myself in the mirror, surrounded by many fine-tuned male and female bodies.  You're faced with your own body's imperfections, and although the mirrors in yoga studios, like those in dance studios and department stores, are relatively flattering, you still have to overcome your vanity, as you struggle to get into the right position for say an eagle pose, a struggle that exposes flab you didn't know existed.  I slipped on my own sweat and I almost broke my ankle.  Today, when I follow the routine, my heart rate rises and falls as its supposed to.  When I started, it spiked and remained spiked.

When the class was over, I couldn't move for a few minutesand I teared up.  I crawled out of the 105 degree room into the cool lobby.  I couldn't quite make it to the bathroom to fill up my water bottle and I would just grab a two-dollar 1.5 liter bottle from the fridge next to the door.  Those two dollars were worth avoiding the work of a 30 second walk.  Throughout those first three months, I could feel my heart beat almost all day long.  I would hear it before I went to sleep at night.  

I've learned that good yogis have similar philosophies to good writers.  No one is really "good" at yoga.  At best, you just get better, a little closer to perfection, but you're never perfect.  My practice has never been great, and there are some things I'm probably worse at now than I was just one year ago.  I could tell you all the great things that it has done for me.  It's slightly improved my body and my slouch.  It puts me in a good mood, and on a good day, a euphoric state.  The real pleasure, after three years, is this: There is a great pleasure in doing something, over and over again, on a daily basis, for which you have absolutely no talent, and for which there is no pressure to be better than anyone else.

In yoga, I avoid competition.  I wish I could avoid competition in all elements in my life, but I suppose a capitalist system and our culture's attitudes towards the arts and learning makes competition a depressing fact of my life.  I have enjoyed some fleeting joys when I am better at something than someone else is.  You achieve a much more permanent joy in avoiding any competition at all.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

On Martyrdom

I was a college freshman the first time I went to a gay club.  It was Kurfew, a twink party for the 18+ crowd, which was part of the Tunnel, one of the huge industrial dance parties that are far less common than they were then.  To get there you had to take the 1/9 train down to 28th Street and then walk four long blocks west.  The streets were poorly lit, and mostly empty at that time of night.  It went there on a Saturday night in the dead of a New York winter.  When I was one block away from the club, I found myself behind a group of other gay kids.  As we were walking, a group of 20-somethings headed to what was presumably the majority, straight part of Tunnel came up and walked alongside of us.  One of them said, "Hey, faggot.  I'll kick your ass."  Nothing more than that happened.  They laughed and walked on.  It was one of the very few times I was ever physically threatened by someone for being gay.  The moment passed quickly.  It was over.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, it had been more than that.  Let's say, that jerk decided at that moment to target me, to throw me against the wall, perhaps kill me.  When the police came, that group of gay kids would tell them what happened, would have told them that the very last word I heard in my short life was faggot.

If that had happened, my name might have become famous nation-wide, the new Matthew Sheppard. I would have been a teenage Columbia kid, with a huge future in front of him, killed because all he wanted to do was go to a gay club and find himself.  Everyone in the country would have seen my senior class high school photo next to Peter Jennings.  That I had been the president of my archaeology club in high school, the captain of my quiz bowl team, a huge film buff, a weirdo jokester, a person given to highly inappropriate jokes in the worst situations, a kid with severe mood swings, an engaged student in all my seminar classes, an idiot who got into six car accidents when he was in high school, a Jewish kid who refused to attend a single High Holiday service after my bar mitzvah in Israel, a kid who was beginning to roll his eyes at the Israeli nationalist crowd, a kid who spent one summer volunteering at a local shelter during which he spent most of his time chatting with the homeless and not really helping them, another summer as an intern at a tech company, two summers as a volunteer at the National Zoo where he fucked up over and over again, a kid with zero athletic ability who ran everyday to get through his depression, a kid who wondered the campus at 3 o'clock in the morning when he couldn't sleep and who could never make it on time to his 11 am Literature Humanities class where he was one of a brand new professor's three favorites in the room, a kid who couldn't hold more than one drink on any given night, a kid who didn't like drinking at all, a kid who spent 2 hours on a train out to Jamaica to hear Arthur Miller, V.S. Naipaul and William Styron speak, a kid who spent another two hours on the ferry and train with his brother to see a movie at a mall in Staten Island just because, a kid who could scream with infinite rage at his family but who never did anything of the sort to his friends, a kid who once turned in forty dollars he found on the floor of a middle school and who later pocketed 100 dollars he found lying in the middle of the street, a kid who could take on the most insane and most contradictory political positions at the drop of the hat, a kid who walked out of an anti-death penalty demonstration during his first week of school because he couldn't stand the socialist rantings, a kid who wrote one of his first major college papers on the Incredible Hulk in the nuclear age, a kid whose best friends in high school were casual homophobes would not have existed.  That kid would have been nothing more than a symbol of an ideology, a belief system that stated that to be gay in America was to be a life less valued than others.  One or two of the details of my life would have made it into the obituaries, and I guarantee that one of them would have been about my past as a captain of my high school quiz bowl team, a status that I wasn't actually that proud of.  My less likable traits would have been ignored.  I would have become a martyr, and martyrs can't have faults.  I would have ceased to be human.

I would not have been around to say whether or not I would want such a status.  I would not have been around to say that I questioned the very notion of a hate crime, or that I thought that such a designation in our legal system amounted to punishing thought crime.  I would not have been around to say that my killer may be a more complicated person than a simple-minded bigot, and that although he deserved life in prison, he may also have deserved a better-researched biography on the part of journalists.  The GLAAD folks would have reduced my name to an incantation in a religion I didn't entirely believe in, a name shouted at rallies and whispered thoughtfully in conversations at activist meetings.

Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin were complicated people.  All of them were imperfect, and whatever the ambiguities in their individual cases, none of them deserved to die.  But please forgive me if I hesitate to turn any of them into symbols.  They deserve more than that.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On Status

When I was a senior in high school, I was the captain of my It's Academic team, the Washington-area equivalent of Quiz Bowl.  One of my teammates is a world-renowned harpsichordist.  The other is high up in the Obama Administration, helping to direct environmental policy.  I was the president of the archaeology club.  One of the previous members just got a MacArthur.

My classmates in college include an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a Broadway playwright, another very successful playwright, a world-famous composer who wrote a new opera staged at the Met, the founder of Upworthy, at least five nationally-recognized journalists, a state senator who is now a candidate for the Lieutenant Governor of Washington state, Harry Reid's press secretary, a novelist and short story writer to whom the Paris Review provided a major award, a successful entrepreneur who sells vodka and -- they can't all be so impressive -- Jonah Lehrer.

A student a couple of years below me is an SNL cast member.  They were already famous, but the year below me included Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles and Anna Paquin.  Jake Gyllenhaal, who was a year above me, dropped out.

This does not include the brilliant academics I knew, among them Mellon scholars.  More than a few of them have contracts with OUP and HUP.  You may not recognize their names, but they will probably be in the top ten in their individual fields in 20 years if they aren't already.

Of course, most of the people I knew became lawyers.  At least 75% of them graduated from one of the top five -- Yale, Harvard, Stanford, NYU and Columbia -- or Duke, Penn, Northwestern, or received full scholarships elsewhere.

I also knew a few geniuses who mastered fields I didn't know exist.  I don't need to name them.

I tell myself that there's no binary between success and failure.  I tell myself that all status is bullshit.  Both those things are true.  I tell myself that if I achieved anything like my colleagues achieved I would still be missing something.  True too.  I tell myself to be happy for my old classmates, which I am, because most of them were good people and they were nice to me.  I tell myself that I've amassed an enormous amount of experience in the 13 years since I graduated, with a few highlights along the way that I would tell my grandchildren if I ever were to have grandchildren.

Still, as much as you tell yourself those things, and as much as you know that the real pleasure lies in the process, you really want a gold star.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On Joe Biden

I am not a parent.  I don't expect to ever be one, but I will make one guess about Joe Biden's psychology.  Other than one of his other children or grandchildren, I believe he would give up everything, absolutely everything for one more day with his late son and daughter.  He would give up the vice-presidency, his entire career as a senator, every wonderful meeting with a foreign head of state, his house, his education, his career.  He would give up everything good that he accomplished, every piece of legislation that he believed in.  I believe he would sleep with the devil to be with his son and daughter.  He would outlaw abortion, divorce every gay married couple in America, increase torture, send more American troops into combat and to their deaths, burn church after church, murder the pope if it meant one more day with his son or daughter.

I am not a politician.  I don't expect to ever be one, but I will make another guess about Joe Biden's psychology.  He would take off his clothes and give a blow job to a man in the middle of Times Square to be president.  He would bathe in his own feces to be president.  He would expose every one of his most private thoughts in order to be president.  He would betray everyone of his personal beliefs and betray every one of his constituents to be president.

These two paragraphs do not contradict each other.

Monday, October 5, 2015

On Not Really Liking The Martian

I wasn't that into The Martian, which is another way of saying that I like space movies that emphasize romanticism over the actual science.  I've never been into hard science fiction.  I like the idea of a good science-fiction novel getting the science right as a means of creating a more fully-realized world, in the same way I really like the research Philip Roth puts into glove-making to make American Pastoral work.  I don't like it when interesting facts and well-considered hypotheses become the engine for the story.

I'm missing the point, of course.  Everyone else loves the movie.  They like the lack of Interstellar-level pseudo-intellectualism.  They like its humor.  (I would like its humor too if I thought it was funny.  Disco in space!  Saying the F-word to the whole wide world for even the president to hear! Wow, this guy is no goody-good John Glenn. )  They like the joyful space adventure and the charming personalities.  It entertained me.  I liked it better than I've liked any of the last 7 years' worth of superhero movies, but that's about it.

At one point in the movie Matt Damon declares that he's the best botanist on the planet.  He's alone in this giant wasteland, but the movie never makes him feel alone.  He finds a means of communicating with Earth, and the sense of isolation which drives most people literally insane only seems to energize and excite him.  And this is how the movie started to make sense to me.  Here is the man alone against an astonishing landscape, a landscape he doesn't pay attention to, and all he wants to do is stare at seeds, to make potatoes grow.  He seems detached from the starvation he suffers.  It's just another problem that needs to be solved.  Of course, he wants to survive, but he's less interested in the goal of survival then he seems to be in the process of making it happen, in sciencing the shit out of Mars.   He doesn't come face-to-face with the Lord.  He doesn't come face-to-face with the Devil or himself.  He comes face-to-face with just a few creative ideas to make Mars work for humans.

So many of the early astronauts became alcoholics or born-again Christians.  They had seen too much.  Neil Armstrong was an exception.  Like Damon in the film, he became a scientist and a humble teacher. He was the first man in the moon and he didn't have anything interesting to say about, at least nothing that would be interesting to a science illiterate.  Like Damon, he didn't linger on the landscapes or the grandeur of space.  This would have been his kind of movie.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

On Hillary Clinton and the Gays

Gay marriage was never a primary issue for me.  I always believed in it, but I bristled whenever anyone described it as the "civil rights issue of our time."  I did march for it once or twice.  I signed the petitions. But in the era of Guantanamo and the drug war, that claim struck me as short-sighted and a little lazy.  Yes, I know you could care about gay marriage and Guantanamo.  I just didn't like the myopia of so many of the gay rights activists I knew.  This isn't so much a reasoned response.  Just an emotional one.  Take it as you will.  

About ten years ago, though, I did develop a working theory on how to judge politicians.  Their position on gay marriage, circa 2005, seemed to be an indicator of character, an indicator that they might support many of the policies I support.  I think a lot of voters pick candidates based on one or two issues.  In my theory, a John Lewis, who categorically supported same-sex marriage, was absolutely the kind of civil rights, human rights, economic rights guy I would want in office.  John Edwards's obnoxiousness towards a young lesbian couple at a campaign event was evidence of smarminess (I WAS RIGHT!).  Bill and Hillary's history of cowardice and triangulation on the subject paralleled their middle-of-the-road policies that led to all the New Democrat policies that led me to vote for Nader in 2000.  

There were limitations to this theory.  The late Paul Wellstone opposed same-sex marriage.  An old-school business guy like William Weld supported it.  Dick Cheney, circa 2000, was to the left on the issue compared to Bill Clinton.  Still, you get the idea.

The latest email controversy suggests that Hillary holds LGBT voters in contempt.  She was furious with a State Department directive that decided to replace the terms "father" and "mother" on passports with "parent 1" and "parent 2".  I may have opposed the policy too, but I, like most of my generation, gay and straight, would probably not have couched my argument with the claim that I "could live" with the existence of non-traditional families.  I don't blame her for wanting to avoid a Fox News/Palin freakout, which was another of her concerns.  We all choose our battles.  I do blame her for angrily demanding that the default mode for families should remain based on "father" and "mother".        

In the end you're really just voting for the presidency.  If she gets the nomination - and I do think she will - I will vote for her.  She picks the next two Supreme Court justices. Still, this email is just one more piece of evidence that the woman I will be voting for in the general election cares more about her career than she does about her constituents.  It's proof that she lacks a moral imagination, the ability to understand that people with a different life experience may be hurt by just a small detail on a government-issued document.

Hillary compared herself to Lyndon Johnson during the 2008 campaign.  She's being a little too kind to herself.  Johnson was a bigot who wanted to help people.  When he said, "Let the niggers vote," he meant every single word.