On Turbulent Flow, Part 2

Ordinary Life, Queens

I wrote the paragraph below around March 5:

It was nearly 60 degrees in Queens yesterday; it’s snowing this morning. This has happened two weekends in a row. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about turbulent flow, the reasons for which I’ll get to, but first I’d like to open with an apology for my own flow: I used to be funny. I used to have a capacity to write about things in an energized and witty way. And then that one guy became “president” in 2016, the world turned upside down, as Americans started voting against their own best interests, hell, their senses, and in direct opposition to their self-proclaimed Christian faith, and called it righteous; Earth started turning on us in earnest in response to our neglect of our responsibility to be stewards of the planet, i.e. to not shit where we eat, and our abject failure to do this. I can’t walk down the aisle of a supermarket, department store, or dollar store and not think, “All this is heading directly to a landfill, and there are millions more aisles like this of packed shit none of us need, not a bit of it,” and I start weeping. 

Tile adorning my bookshelf, gift from Colleen Cosgrove 2022

Written around the same time:

This past Monday I spent part of the day chasing down a running toilet. I heard the telltale hiss, on for 15 seconds, off for 10 seconds, through some stack in my kitchen; down in the basement it was louder. It wasn’t my toilet—the source was somewhere else in the building. Around 8:30 AM I emailed my immediate neighbors in my small complex, and they too heard the hiss. A couple next door heard it at 11 PM the previous night, and all night, but had been too tired to do anything about it. Next, I sent a group email to the other 16 units: Hi, everyone…anyone got a running toilet? Some replied that they thought is was related to our dysfunctional boiler and steam heat hit and miss; but the fuel company guys (whom another board member—that’s right, I’m on the Board! —chased down at the same time) assured us there couldn’t be any connection. Running toilets are more than just annoying sounds; it’s a water leak and the money adds up. In a small complex like ours, it’s not something you can ignore, but we all want to, don’t we? So finally the culprit revealed herself in a private email to another Board member. Sheesh.

Later that week:

At the supermarket this afternoon, I introduce a little turbulence into the normal flow of a cashier’s day: My order comes to $21.86. I have a $50 bill I want to break, but I already have a lot of ones and pennies, so I give the cashier, a Muslim woman around age 40, I’d say, $52.01. She has finished bagging my groceries, placing them in the bags I brought (this act used to cause turbulence, but not any more, so that’s progress), and as I hand her my odd cash I explain, “I’d like even change.” She looks confused and says, as I suspected she would, “But your total is $21.86.” All I could say was, “Trust me.” “Okay…,” she says, and taps in 5-2-0-1. She turned to me with wide eyes after seeing “30.15” come up on the little screen. “How did you do that?” she asked. “I used to be a cashier, and back in my day we had to figure out the change up here,” I explained, gesturing to my head. I took my 10 and 20 and nickel and dime and put them in my wallet as she said, “I always tell my kids, you got to learn the math,” and I agree, saying, “This is when it comes in handy,” and we exchange “have-a-nice-days,” and I hope we will. Turbulence as magic.

Back to the present, March 20, 2022, the first day of spring. 

Tasks of Note:

Got my taxes done this week. For many years it was the EZ form for me—small income, no mortgage, as I was a lowly public schoolteacher who would never see $60K. Now in NYC, at a corporate job and with a co-op apartment, so many forms, I needed help. But what used to take me forever in the way of finding and pulling all the forms is just another task anymore, whatever the technology needs are to make it happen.

Washing coats and scarves, another task this week, used to be an event to me; now in my late fifties, I just wash the coats one day. Hang them up. Go on to the next task.

Baking sourdough bread and keeping up with a starter was something I found arduous in my twenties, since I moved a lot back then; in my late fifties and in one place for nearly 19 years, I think nothing of making my own bread with a starter. Toss in various kinds of flour, water, molasses, salt. Knead it, stick the round in a greased bowl, let it prove a couple of days. Feed the starter, keep it out to grab yeast from the air, stick it in the fridge. Stir it once in a while and feed it in preparation for the next loaf. Bake a loaf, cool, slice, freeze. Bread for a month. (Thanks to Anna’s husband Michael.)

How Ordinary Becomes Precious

Now imagine all those necessary complex and simple tasks under fire. Imagine the work of your everyday world under mortar shelling, your papers and photos and textiles destroyed, that collapse, life reduced to huddling in a basement for weeks on end, little water, little food, no power. I should have really imagined all this long ago—it should never have seemed “other”—but until Trump’s improbable rise and Putin’s recent mental crack-up, I guess I just didn’t realize how possible The End is now. How probable. And what’s worse is 40% of my own fellow citizens would take Putin’s side and kill people like me with abandon. Seeing the footage from Ukraine, in cities that look like New York, it’s surreal and all too real.

You’d think, with all the natural calamities that flesh is heir to, that in 2022 we’d have just fucking stopped war, that we’d unite globally to save the planet that we have trashed. Every generation, though, seems to become simultaneously more evil on the one hand and more evolved on the other. The divide widens. The turbulence increases.

On his death bed, the physicist Werner Heisenberg is reported to have said, “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” (It’s quoted in Chaos by James Gleick, but I’ve read that the quote is probably apocryphal, so I guess that by continuing to possibly misquote or mis-attribute such a quote we only add to the chaos. We do not, however, lose the intelligence or humor of it, so does it matter? Dammit.)

Being in this Moment

I, the pagan Miss O’, follow blogger John Pavlovitz, a pastor and writer, who is himself a devout Christian whose political writings rail against the co-opters of faith as a means to destroy others and gain money, power, or fame for themselves. In one his blogs from 2020, “I Don’t Want Unity with Hateful People,” he writes:

I am not morally bound to make peace with a heart that dehumanizes other human beings because of the color of their skin, their nation of origin, their gender, their orientation. And to have embraced Donald Trump now, is to unapologetically brandish such a polluted heart; to be actively perpetuating inequity and stoking division and manufacturing discrimination in this very moment.

I steadfastly refuse such an alliance. I am a loud, conscientious objector in their war against the world.

More recently, Pavlovitz wondered why it is that all these “Christians” believe God will protect them from a deadly pandemic without the need for masks or vaccines, but somehow still feel the need to carry a concealed weapon everywhere they go. I mean, which is it?

The trick for the rest of us, then, the ones who wrestle with it all with compassionate hearts, is how to keep the flow of life going on a planet inhabited by not only good people but also by hateful, hypocritical, destructive people. In these moments of despair, many people turn to faith, but faith as a concept let alone practice has never appealed to me. So your Miss O’ has been doing some digging lately to better understand why that is.

Krista Tippett, who has been suggested to me so many times by dear friends that I have become a regular listener, replayed an episode from her podcast On Being which featured the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who died recently at age 95. Hanh was such a powerfully popular figure in spiritual circles that I decided I should give him the respect of a listen. In the interview, he explains that suffering—all this agony and despair—is part of the point. In Christianity, for example, people are promised that in death they will be sent to a place where there is no more suffering. Hanh does not accept this in his mindfulness practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah, because I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because in such a place they have no ways to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. And the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion; and therefore, suffering should exist.

Tippett: That’s quite different from some religious perspectives, which would say that the Kingdom of God is a place where we’ve transcended suffering or moved beyond it.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes. And suffering and happiness, they are both organic, like a flower and garbage. If the flower is on her way to become a piece of garbage, the garbage can be on her way to becoming a flower. That is why you are not afraid of garbage.

(So, Miss O’ understands him, turbulence, suffering, garbage—it’s all part of the experience of living. )

Hanh continues:

I think we have suffered a lot during the 20th century. We have created a lot of garbage. There was a lot of violence and hatred and separation. And we have not handled — we don’t know how to handle the garbage that we have created, and then we would have a chance to create a new century for peace. That is why now it’s very important for us to learn how to transform the garbage we have created into flowers.

Tippett: I look at the violence that marked the world in the period when you were a young monk — there was the Cold War; there was a certain kind of violence and hostility. A lot of that has changed, has gone away, a lot of the terrible threats and the sources of the worst fighting. And now in its place we have new kinds of wars and new kinds of enemies. I’d be really interested in, as you look at this period of your lifetime, is there any qualitative difference between the violence that we have now and the violence that we had then? Is there anything like progress happening, or is it the same pattern that repeats itself?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah, you are right. It’s the same pattern that repeats itself.

Tippett: And does that make you despair?

Thich Nhat Hanh: No, because I notice there are people who are capable of understanding, that we have enough enlightenment, and if only they come together and offer their light and show us the way, there is a chance for transformation and healing.

(And within weeks of the replay of this podcast, it’s worth noting, Putin invaded Ukraine, upping the garbage quotient exponentially.)

Miss O’s own qualm with the art of mindfulness is that it seems, somehow, incompatible with joy, humor, ecstasy, agitation, and fun, and synonymous with silence, chanting, bells, quiet, slowness, and dullness. This is not fair, and surely not accurate, but I’ve never heard an interview about the need for mindfulness that includes even one chuckle. And the second I hear Eastern chants and gongs, I think to myself, No.

And so it is that I’ve come to understand that humor is, essentially, a response to inner turbulence; that without this turbulence there would be no reason for humor, no reason to laugh, and life without laughter is…what? And where does faith fit in? And what about the role of art in our lives?

And like MAGIC, my friend Kevin Townley, a practicing Buddhist and teacher as well as actor and writer and Met Museum tour guide, came out this month with a wonderful, funny, deep, personal, and insightful book to help guide me to a new understanding: Look, Look, Look, Look, Look Again: Buddhist Wisdom reflected in 26 Artists. I’m only a third of the way through, because I’ve found I have to read it with my pencil. The best books require that—so many observations to underline and reflect on. “Most people who embark upon a spiritual path don’t do so because they’re feeling fabulous,” he writes. And I laughed out loud. And so I came to see that the reason religion or a practice of any kind seems negative to me is that people seek faith for a release from depressive habits and feelings. So it makes sense, really, that it was hard for me to equate Buddhism, as I said, with joy. Kevin manages to link his irreverent humor and love of art with his spiritual practice, and in writing about it he threads in joy and creates openings for skeptics like Miss O’. Thanks, Kevin.

Miss O’ holds her very own copy, and you can, too, if you want!

Why relativity? Why turbulence? Artists often seem to hold the key. There is a Ted Talk on the unexpected math behind Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, a painting I have seen in person at MoMA here in New York, but it’s usually so crowded I’ve never had a chance to really see it. This talk, written by Natalya St. Clair, will blow your mind. In turbulence, “Big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales…,” and scientists have discovered “that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures…hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.” Gogh know! Artists are the reason to live.

“Seek and Ye Shall Find, and then

…when you find, you will become troubled; when you become troubled, you will be astonished, and rule over all things.”

The Gospel of Thomas (one of the Gnostic Gospels that the papal crowd decided to pull out of the New Testament; because god forbid a person feel empowered without a pope to lead her)

So I have to wonder: could the purpose of turbulence be that there is beauty in turbulence? And without turbulence we have no beauty? That Hanh is right, that without suffering there can be no joy?

Last week I noticed the bird’s nest under my neighbor Bob’s second floor air conditioner, a nest that has been there every year for the past 18 years; the chirping heralded spring, and I remembered: baby birds are coming. Then two days ago I looked up and the nest had vanished. Wind? Rain? It’s happened before, somehow the nest is gone, but miraculously, resiliently, the house sparrows are not. There they were, out flitting on the fence, and I saw one fly back up with a small twig in its beak. Rebuilding.

Ukraine will be next. And the earth after that. Take a memo.

Card by Turkish paper marbling master that reminds me of the symbolic colors of Ukraine.

On Turbulent Flow — Part I

Turbulence, in science, is a chaotic fluid motion, unpredictable, as you see in the ocean surf or fast-running streams and rivers. My common sense tells me that all that wildlife in the water would help create that chaos, movements inside of the flow, but in any case, mathematically, there is no clear reason such a thing should occur. Why does turbulence exist?

I might well ask this question of life on Earth. Why are there psychotics? Why do some people create and believe in conspiracy theories that undermine forward motion and foment insanity in otherwise decent people?

Turbulence happens all the time, even in small ways. Every time a kid walked into my classroom, slamming books, grunting; or during class a kid called out, “this is a waste of my tax dollars,” the flow of the lesson was ruined. 

A friendship flows along, and then one friend neglects another in time of need. Or grows jealous.

Turbulence.

Why is there turbulence?

A (now ex-) friend (a racist, homophobe, and xenophobe with no capacity to grow one inch over thirty years, so I have limits), used to complain, “Life should be gossamer!” I used to counter, “I think that’s heaven, right?” Life is brutish, nasty, and short, full of trials sent to test us, suck it up, etc. I accepted that. 

Miss O’ ponders the Big Ideas.

So Why Can’t Everything Ever Just Calm the Fuck Down?

Now I’m stuck on this unsolvable mathematical problem, “Why turbulence?” Why is it that this one utterly unpredictable thing (as far as we know) cannot be solved or answered for? 

No, Seriously, What in the Actual Fuck?

So I begin here with an admission: Despite the turbulence of continuing life in Covid-land, I enjoyed 2021. Well, the first part of it. Lockdown or no, once Biden was inaugurated and the American Rescue Plan was passed, and positive things were in MOTION, progress, repair, I could breathe. For the first time in five years I could breathe.

But.

It’s 2022.

Manchin and Sinema and the Barr and Pompeo Rehabilitation Tours.

Trump has announced his candidacy and is out on the rally circuit.

All these seemingly paid Russian agents, like Carlson and Gabbard, are getting a media pass. A DOJ pass.

And.

The left, so-called, is losing again.

Again.

Again.

The planet, the country, the voice. 

And now Ukraine, a struggling and young democracy, is under assault by Russia out of Putin’s desire to recreate the Soviet Empire and to take its resources and thwart its democracy. As of this writing President Zelensky, a Jew, has asked to meet Putin in Jerusalem to try to broker peace. Putin does not want peace. He wants to rule the world. Putin is reportedly firing and arresting everyone around him, from ministers to generals, who has failed him, and he will doubtless have them all executed, er, report that they fell out of windows, with plenty more to take their places. You know, we all dream of a separate planet for all of them, while they dream of the annihilation of most of us, who are good, decent people. It’s the same old story. It’s Star Wars. Only now too many leaders of our planet root for Darth Vader without shame.

As Seen on the Internet.

Jerusalem

Singer-songwriter Dan Bern opens his song “Jerusalem” (which you can listen to here):

When I tell you that I love you
Don’t test my love
Accept my love, don’t test my love
‘Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much

It’s such a charming and funny opening to a song, and it’s merely a hint of greater things to come. While the song dates to the ‘90s, it may as well be written now. After a bit of a journey (and I hope you listened to it), the speaker offers the Big Reveal:

Everybody’s waiting for the Messiah
The Jews are waiting
Christians are waiting
Also the Muslims
It’s like everybody’s waiting
They been waiting a long time
I know how I hate to wait
Like even for a bus or something
An important phone call
So I can just imagine
How darned impatient
Everybody must be getting
So I think it’s time now
Time to reveal myself
I am the Messiah
I am the Messiah

Trump’s supporters, as we witnessed, came all over themselves (and that’s not vulgar hyperbole, as I saw women on camera saying that they’d welcome being raped by Trump, which isn’t rape then, is it?) and continue to do so when they found their Messiah in Trump, which is beyond baffling to sentient people. (Not really is this the case for all-powerful Putin, because he’s not interested in being a Messiah so much as being Voldemort.)

Oh, that Internet. (Sub in Picture of Donald Trump. -ed.)

So here is where Trump channels Dan Bern’s speaker in the latest media tours and rallies:

Yes I think you heard me right
I am the Messiah 

I was gonna wait til next year
Build up the suspense a little
Make it a really big surprise
But I could not resist
It’s like when you got a really big secret
You’re just bursting to tell someone
It was kinda like that with this
And now that I’ve told you
I feel this great weight lifted
Dr. Nusbaum was right
He’s my therapist
He said get it out in the open

Even the speaker of the lyrics has, like Trump, a fake doctor’s note of “all clear.” And, to make matters worse, Trump’s “message” is ever amplified by Right and Left alike, because everyone is, in fact, waiting for the Messiah. Everyone except those of us who just want to roll up our sleeves and for the love of fucking god do the WORK to SOLVE PROBLEMS.

What Is a Messiah?

If you, like me, ever found yourself in an Advanced Placement class or in some other Highly Challenging class, like Aristotelian Philosophy (which I, a theatre arts major, took in the hopes that we might talk about the Poetics, but if we ever did I was lost by then), you know the Boys Who Ruin Everything. They are the “smart,” or let’s say for the sake of accuracy, schmart boys, the boys obsessed with derailing every lecture, changing the subject to something they feel expert in (say, Plato, Pink Floyd, or Reagan), or comment derisively just because; and the teacher or professor of said course invariably proved incompetent to get the class back on anything like a sentient track. We see this behavior played out in today’s media in a frenzy, almost exclusively by the right-leaning Schmart Boys, whether it’s Cucker Tarlson on Fux or “Lincoln Republican/Never Trumper” Wick Rilson, have one thing in common: They have exactly zero ideas for how to make life better for anyone or for the planet. Zero! Nada! Ha, ha! Their joy—and it’s all over Twitter, all over Fux Nooze, is their GLEE at either supporting or amplifying via decrying the voices of hatred, doom, and Big Power. And also to knock down smart, capable women like Hillary Clinton (what larks! who does that skirt think she is?)—and maybe only Hillary Clinton—who are focused on solving actual problems, women who, as people in government, believe that government should identify and face a problem, discover the causes, and seek solutions that benefit the masses. How dull, these Schmart Boys shriek. (And yet if we need anything in government it’s more dull wonks who solve problems.) Let’s throw out “truth” bombs that make us look schmart!

Thanks, Internet. Because she really was.

And, right on cue once again, in 2022, despite the improvement in Covid numbers, the great jobs report, you name the success, the American news media are amplifying the voices of Trump, via Bill Barr and the American fascists via coverage of the trucker convoy and Russia’s Putin, and only criticizing Joe Biden and the Democrats.

Even Trevor Noah on The Daily Show joked (?) that the UAE wouldn’t ever have refused a call from Donald Trump, as they have from Biden, because Trump’s such a wild card, ha, ha! But now the Right is using this as a meme in their Twitter feeds (framed with a picture of the Black man back when he was “clean-cut”), further legitimizing Trump’s power and his right to take it back.

There are a few so-called “remorseful” Republicans, the faux-apologists (for not voting to impeach or convict, right, sure) like Rep. Adam Kitzinger (R-IL) who are only apologizing as they prepare for a run of their own, I suspect; and who still voted AGAINST the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and who also are against a woman having control of her own body, and who have no problem with book banning.

So.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we are in the midst of a global nervous breakdown. Putin is behaving like Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers movie and the media legitimizes him by calling him “president,” a self-conferred title, and by using Putin’s objectives to frame all their headlines, rather than the pain being felt by the Ukrainian people.

Republicans and Fascists and Authoritarians preach the Gospel of the Messiah. Their followers drink it like wine, munch it like manna. They convoy around it. They fall prostrate before it, and all the while their Messiah screws them up the ass, they weep tears of gratitude. 

You know who’s NOT a Messiah? President Zelensky. President Biden. President Obama. President Carter. Hillary Clinton. These are people ON THE GROUND, doing the work, fighting for right. So why aren’t our American Democrat politicians praised for their heart, focus, and hard work?

Because there’s a Messiah problem on the Left, too.

Democrats are ALSO looking for the Messiah. That’s how Obama got elected, and talented though he was, he wasn’t, SPOILER, a Messiah, and so many people were so disappointed! And who can forget the Bernie Bro cult that went on to derail Hillary Clinton’s election? Because if a candidate isn’t “likable” or “perfect,” which is to say “male,” and if the candidate isn’t anointed by the press and Dems alike, fuck her and let the world collapse. (Meanwhile Republicans get a total media free pass to thwart good work. It’s their accepted role as the Evil Nemesis to Good!)

Until we on the so-called “left,” which is almost “right-center” anymore, reckon with our own messianic desires and dispense with them, this absurd pattern of annoint-or-derail won’t change. Until we admit of and celebrate the humanity, fallibility, and glorious possibility of our talented Democratic candidates and move past the plea for perfect alignment, we destroy all hope.

At the close of Dan Bern’s “Jerusalem,” the speaker returns to the opening lines, but now he is speaking not as a man but as the Messiah:

When I tell you that I love you
Don’t test my love
Accept my love, don’t test my love
Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much

Anyone who calls himself a Messiah, is anything but. And maybe it’s the concept of a “messiah” that really is the greatest mind-fuck of all. Messiahs don’t have to accomplish anything; they just have to flatter to promote themselves. They don’t love anyone, really. Especially not you.

(Next time, Part II of Turbulent Flow will accentuate the positive. In the meantime:)

Precedented Times

      

I Started a Joke

Years ago, when I taught in rural Central Virginia, I lived in a little yellow house with a red tin roof, situated by a pond, down the grassy hill from the owners, Chester and Margaret, who lived in a lovely brick home. Shortly after I moved back to Northern Virginia, Chester had a heart attack and had to undergo surgery. I arranged to stay with our mutual neighbors, the Claboughs, and as soon as Chester was home, I drove down for the weekend to do whatever I could. Mostly I spent the two days sitting with Chester on their glassed-in back porch, where he moaned and felt hopeless, old, and sad; I listened, tried to entertain him a bit with funny stories of my new teaching life in a different school system, and fluffed pillows or got him a glass of water. This gave Margaret time to do whatever she needed to get done—laundry, cooking, running errands, what have you, at least for a couple of days. Mine wasn’t much in the way of help, but it’s what I could do.

While Chester napped in the bedroom that first afternoon, Margaret and I sat together on the porch. She said at one point, “Lisa, people say ‘Let me know what I can do’ but they don’t mean it.” I asked what she meant. “Well, for example, a woman from my church called and said, ‘Let me know if I can do anything,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’d like to give my niece Debbie a break, so if you could sit with Chester while I run into town for an hour, that would be wonderful.’ She said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I could get out there…but if you need anything, let me know.’ And all I’d wanted to do was get my hair done—Chester hates my gray roots—and it was too much to ask.”

But don’t people mean it sometimes? I asked.

“You are a real helper,” she said, “because you don’t ask, you just show up. You say, ‘Here I am, put me to work.’ Even if it’s for an hour, or for the weekend, you just do it. Most people, they really don’t care to help. They just want to feel good about themselves for saying, ‘Let me know if you need anything.’ It’s a shame.”

I’ve held on to this theory of Margaret’s for over 30 years now, and it hasn’t been wrong yet. The key part of this is the person in need of help isn’t asking for the moon; she or he is asking for an hour of your time, 20 minutes, something to help make light work of a tiny piece of a heavy burden.

Now: to be clear, I’m not talking about, say, help with lawn or yard maintenance for a home you own and chose to buy. When you need that kind of help, all you can do is call your family. Family will do that kind of help because you have that kind of reciprocity built into the DNA of kinship. Even with something like moving, there are really very few people beyond family who will help with that, except friends who have become family, and those are rare.

I’m talking about the need we have to turn to our social friends—friends with whom we go out and see shows or go hiking or get a beer—in times of crisis. Occasionally needing to count on our fellows in unprecedented circumstances is part of living: following a surgery, say, or an act of god. And what we find at times like this can be something of a shock.

Mine was a week of unprecedented disappointment.

Check that. It was precedented disappointment–I’m 57 after all. I posted that picture—an image of a tee shirt sent to me by a military friend who is trying to help Middle East peace for the 3000th year—and another friend took me to task (in the Comments) for the post because I didn’t seem to understand that all the events of 2021—pestilence, tyrants, fools—have centuries of precedent, but we have been too dumb to see it. “I know,” I sighed to myself, “but I just thought it was funny.”

Even a moment of levity is too little too late for actual smart people. It’s lonely at the top.

And in the flood waters.

On the night of September 1, 2021, my Queens apartment basement was overcome by a rush of water courtesy Hurricane Ida, a gush of city drain overload that I would call “unprecedented,” but which my friend back there would say has plenty of global precedent, so I am not allowed to experience this event as a shock, loss, or other horror. I’m trying to be smart enough to see that my problem isn’t a problem, because I really am a smart person, very good at perspective, I think; so are my very smart friends. As a result, no one really saw a need to help me recover from Ida. Because life. That is who we are in 2021, post- and mid-pandemic, post-despot, post-Katrina.

Basement during Ida flood event.

I’d say that this help-vacuum was unprecedented, but surely other people over the many millennia of life on Earth have experienced this lack of support, so even my disappointment in this case must needs be denied.

I hear myself sounding like a dick, but I am truly smarting over this.

Coincidentally, to clarify the timeline, I was going on vacation for the week (a trip upstate to Lake George cancelled, obviously), and my boss graciously gave me two days to start the clean-up, so I was just beyond grateful that I would have time to dive in, as it were, to restore what I could during the coming week off. (Poor me, you hear me saying; but I’m not, really.)

So here’s where it got weird.

Despite the posting of pictures on social media of the flood experience and the damage—which I did for the news value rather than pity, truly—I was gradually astonished to find that not one of my friends offered to come over to help or offer aid right away. On Thursday, two friends in the neighborhood texted a picture of a fan they had (for drying) that I could come and get—they would meet me part way. I just stared at the text. “I’m good,” I replied, “but thanks!” The exclamation point belied my stunned feeling: You can’t bring it to me? Seriously? Did you see what just happened? That I didn’t sleep all night? That I don’t want to walk three quarters of a mile to get a fan and walk three quarters of a mile back carrying it by myself? Then on Sunday, three days after the flood and the sending out of pictures, two city friends on a group thread finally texted to see if I needed anything, and I asked if they wouldn’t mind coming over to help me remove salvaged items from the basement and bring them up to my first floor; in exchange for which I would cook them a meal of farmer’s market green beans and ham, with potatoes and carrots, and a side of fresh-baked corn bread. And they came, and I fed them. The work that would have taken me at least three hours on my own (I have arthritis in my back) took about 20 minutes with the three of us. 

The three hours of work on my part, which I did indeed do, was spent preparing the meal, sharing it in the company of two friends, and cleaning up afterward. It was work time I was more than grateful to spend, no question.

Another friend, one of my best, upon hearing me express gratitude for the aforementioned help when we met up on Labor Day, took a couple of beats before saying, as he stared into the middle distance, “Let me know if you need anything.” 

And beyond that, crickets. Margaret was so, so right.

Just to rub salt into my wound: I had to cull books, bedding, clothes, and office items for donating in order that I may make my life fit onto one floor for the foreseeable future; and even sharing this dilemma, I couldn’t help noticing that a nearby friend (who checked out the store walk with me in real time) with a car didn’t offer to drive me over to the Goodwill Store. Instead, I pulled my heavy pushcart from the basement (which journey I’d already done three times with several soaked rugs, towels, and blankets to take to the laundromat) through the trash alley of my apartment building and up the stairs and parked it outside. I filled it with a load and proceeded to push it up and down hills along 48th Street for 10 blocks, make a drop off, and return with the cart in the summer heat those same 10 blocks and refill for another load. I took the same walking trip again for 10 blocks, and back 10 blocks. I opened the trash alley door, thunked the heavy cart down the stairs, pushed it along, and returned it to my mudroom. (And to be fair, I’m the hoarder of the guest bedding, the books, and shit I donated, so.) Locked up the basement, the alley, and went inside (in prep for starting back to work tomorrow) to tend to the cooking of food for the week.

When it comes to that, no one has so much as offered me a meal.

Except Richard, who lives in New Jersey with his husband and twins. (Sixteen years ago he drove the moving van when I moved into my apartment, and he helped me unload–only the two of us, as no one else showed up.) Richard (my best friend from college) invited me out for the day, and we all walked and played, and cooked out, and made s’mores, and watched Disney’s Million Dollar Duck with Dean Jones and Sandy Duncan (her first film!) for their outdoor movie night with the neighbors. In exchange, though not needed, I brought some long-coveted framed pictures, scarves, and items I thought they and the kids might enjoy. We had a grand day, and I felt so grateful for the break, I can’t tell you. It replenished me for the work to come.

However much I sound like I’m whining or complaining, I’m really not feeling whiny. I’m trying to understand what in the hell is going on.

Decent, good people are not acting like decent, good people. They are instead acting like indifferent, selfish narcissists. (Is that redundant?) They are not, these people whom I know well, in fact indifferent or selfish or narcissistic. They wouldn’t recognize themselves in this essay were it not for the specific situations I mentioned. They are caring people. Is it me, that they dislike me? I don’t think so. So what’s going on?

I now have to turn the tables and train a bright flood light on myself: When one of the fan-offering partners had out-patient surgery a few weeks ago, for example, did I go over there with a meal? No, I did not. Why not? Because we live in New York City, during a pandemic where we are good at lockdown as we work from home, in the age of Seamless, of which these friends happily avail themselves. And they have each other, whereas I am alone. But when I checked in several times and said, “Do you need anything? What can I do?” I know that I fucking meant it.

Unprecedented Times

Whatever the protestations of my very smart and enlightened friend in her comment on social media over “precedented times,” all events are unprecedented for the people who live them for the first time. Sure, we should learn from history, and our (ostensibly) more knowledgeable leaders should act on that history, meaning they should be anticipating the future and planning for that (see also the Seventh Generation mode of living for the Native Nations in the U.S.). But for the individuals experiencing a pandemic for the first time, a Flash Flood Emergency for the first time, or a surgery for the first time, the times are unprecedented for us, the ones enduring the times. It doesn’t mean we lack imagination or intelligence, but rather that that there is no way to fully enter the emotional experience of the moment unless you are there.

Which is why my very decent friends have been for the most part utterly unhelpful to me in a moment of real crisis.

I mean, watching that flood water coming in, without any warning, through the basement toilet and shower and knowing there is no way to stop it, that all you can do is move all the stuff onto the guest bed or up the stairs as quickly as you can despite your arthritic back while wading barefoot through sewer water, is just fucking scary. It just is. And it’s totally new in feeling.

When we ask for “precedented times” (see tee shirt picture), we are asking for a level of comfort and predictability that any sentient person would desire. Sure, it’s too much to expect, but in the words of Mary Chapin Carpenter, it’s not too much to ask.

And neither is a little help cleaning up a flooded basement.

While Margaret’s theory may have precedent that dates back to time immemorial, it’s hard to overlook the very recent influence of the Republican Party and Donald Trump, who ushered in the Age of Narcissism and Selfishness. I think this rampant nasty behavior might be a tad unprecedented, just a little, isn’t it? And even the most seemingly immune by virtue of liberalism may have fallen sway to it. Aw, hell, that’s just me being dumb again, probably. But I’m too tired to do the research.

So before I sign off sounding like little more than an ungrateful prick, I close by sending infinite gratitude to the following people:

My sister, Sherry, who texted from North Carolina, “Oh, I wish I was there to help you!” and you could feel her meaning it with all her heart.

My friend Debbie Andrews, also based in North Carolina, for texting, “Oh, I wish I could be there to help you!” and who meant it like mad.

My friends Anna and Michael in California, who would have been here like a shot, as seen with Anna instantly emailing me, “Do you have time to talk? Can we get on a call?” because she wanted to be here to help.

And finally to my next-door neighbors Craig and Charley, who had the same experience I did, and whom I do not know all that well, and yet who have been the most fabulous neighbors you could ask for, offering me their shop vac and a dehumidifier (they bought TWO), and who sent me their floor man to give me an estimate on replacement floors, I want to say I am sorry all I could do for you was buy you wine.

Overarching message: Every LITTLE BIT helps. It really, really does.

Be a helper. Be a real friend. 

Do something to help your neighbor. It’s the difference between existing and living, the difference between despair and hope.

(P.S. This memory came up on Facebook as I posted this blog: “Last night I was reading a book on acting by Stella Adler, her section on Chekhov, her favorite writer. She explains how Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre made playing Chekhov possible, teaching actors not to work in isolation to be, you know, dazzling, but rather to speak to and listen to and respond to the BEING of the other characters, because Chekhov was writing life. Sharing this today, via my brother Mike, because it’s beautiful and also a beautiful coincidence. If you aren’t keen on the idea of all of us “in it together,” why not open up one by one by one, see how it goes? Love to all. “)

How’s that for truth? Love to all.

Selfishness: A Treatise on Me and You but Mostly for Me about You

April 18, 2020

“Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure.”

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

Years ago, after a friend of mine had been married for several months, her relatives and friends began asking, “So when are you having a baby?” And the longer time went on without a pregnancy, the more her relatives began muttering, “Oh. Selfish.” My friend teared up as she told me about it. She wanted to scream, “No—we tried and we can’t. Go to hell.”

So who in that story is in truth being “selfish”? If you aren’t sure, we may need to have a talk.

When I think of humans who are “selfish,” inevitably a few names spring to mind.

(Seen around the web.) The bartenders are just expressing their freedom. Right?

Selfishness Unmasked

So here’s what I really want to talk about: Yesterday, over walks and talks and viewings of various programs, I found myself reflecting on the concept of selfishness in the time of pandemic. So I guess what I want, selfishly, is to talk about selfishness and have you, my reader, reflect on it, too.

Your Miss O’, like you and the rest of the world, is living into a new year of an old pandemic; millions of us have perished, or lost loved ones, or endured the illness, or have somehow managed to avoid it, ever-present though it remains. Some who were infected merely “tested positive” and had little more than a loss of taste and smell and maybe sniffles (as with my brother Pat and his family, as well as a few of my friends). More often, people have had high fever, aches, and their breathing almost lethally compromised for weeks (one of my dear cousins is currently hanging on day by day; others I know have recovered; a few friends were touch and go for months; one friend died); or experienced near-lethal dehydration as a result of severe diarrhea (two close friends); others, quite young, died suddenly after throwing a blood clot, including those who had been otherwise asymptomatic. The disease is utterly different in different bodies, and over different amounts of exposure. For nearly half of the United States, the view of the pandemic, whatever the human cost, has shifted from “hoax” to “who cares?” These same Americans view this pandemic in the same way that they excuse war or mass shootings, as nature’s way of “culling the herd.” And these same people don’t bother with masks or social distancing, and not only because of a cavalier attitude toward health. In their view, any restriction on their personal liberty is the greatest evil that any person can experience. Even more evil than a gun massacre, they insist, is the law that would prevent any individual from committing that massacre.

And so it goes. And don’t get us started on vaccinations!

This week, I am getting my second dose of Moderna. I mask up and live every day hoping against hope that I can remain virus free long enough to get fully vaccinated. To many, this is me being selfish. All I want is to see my parents again for the first time in a year and a half; and meet my new baby nephew James, who (if I can make it to the end of May), will be just over 6 months old when I meet him. Have I been selfish to wait this long? Or have I been responsible?

On my 6-sibling text thread, besides enjoying adorable baby pictures, we’ve been reporting our vaccination updates. My sister Sherry works in a retirement home, so she was the first of us to be fully vaccinated. My brother Craig, who is taking care of his and Sherry’s mom, Ann, who has Alzheimer’s, was next—he and Ann both have theirs now; I finally qualified and have one dose down; then brother Jeff, who will get his second dose April 30; and my youngest brother Mike, dad of wee James, had his second dose on Saturday, leaving just his wife to finish hers. There was, however, one notable silence on this thread: My brother Pat.

This does not surprise me.

When Pat texted on Friday that he was going to be visiting my brother Jeff and our parents, I flew into my usual hyper-responsible panic: I texted Jeff and called my parents to advise them to wear masks and keep their distance from Pat; don’t go out with him, etc. My mom called him to query this, and he declared that Covid was nothing (he and his family were hardly sick), that he’s pissed that his wife is getting their son vaccinated just because the school and his sports teams won’t take him back unless he is, that it’s his choice, hardly anyone has really died relative to the world population, etc. My mother told him not to visit if he wasn’t going to be responsible about it. My brother was furious and didn’t visit after all. (No one said who told them, but Pat knows that I know and have challenged his anti-vaxxer views.) Query: Is it selfish or simply freedom not to tell the people you love that you are not vaccinated and never intend to be vaccinated against a deadly virus?

“SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.”

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

First, is it in fact asking too much of one another to wear a mask in public, socially distance, and wash our hands regularly during a time when such actions could prevent mass death?

To me, such a question sounds absurd; even to ask it feels ridiculous. For at least half of America, these simple precautions, requested by leading epidemiologists, are in fact too much to ask. Why?

“It’s almost paradoxical that on the one hand they want to be relieved of the restrictions, but on the other hand they don’t want to get vaccinated. It just almost doesn’t make any sense.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussing [the] vaccine hesitant

Second, is it too much to ask all eligible (that is to say, not allergic) Americans to get vaccinated against Covid? After all, polio and smallpox did not eradicate themselves. Children must be vaccinated by law to attend public school. As a society, I thought we had accepted this, and if we don’t, we move to a survivalist compound in Idaho or Texas and spend a life in hiding. Again, why is this request too bitter a pill to swallow?

On this same subject, people claim “reaction” as their reason for refusal; so if your personal child once had a bad reaction to a vaccine, does that mean we should not require vaccinations? Or, because I had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin as a child, should my family have lobbied to have penicillin banned from pharmacies? What if we had, and had won?

Third, is it fair or unfair of national or state governments to require a “vaccination passport” to travel? (My brother, for example, who loves Mexico, would, I think, get vaccinated if Mexico or the US required such a passport.) Or is this too much government in the name of preventing a virus from doing what it was born to do—kill as many of us as possible?

In other words—and not that environmentalism is on the minds of anti-vaxxers—are those of us who would prevent mass suffering and death, including our own—deaths that may in fact save the health of planet Earth—really the selfish ones?

What is the line between selfish and responsible, and what makes this line so difficult to navigate? I ask that because it seems to me this is the dilemma. Is denial easier to live with? If we don’t attend a church service or a wedding or a funeral or a birthday celebration due to Covid, are we being selfish (not making ourselves physically present to honor others), or are we, in fact, responsibly looking out for the greater good? Or is it both? If we deny them and ourselves a temporal pleasure with the idea of serving a greater longterm goal, is it worth the sacrifice? Or are we being fools?

Perhaps we should consult the healthcare professionals who haven’t seen their own families in a year. And the soldiers who go to war.

The Royal Treatment

Yesterday afternoon, I streamed the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, via the BBC, listening to interesting history but able to fast forward to the essential ceremony, which was beautifully done—intimate, restrained, yet also grand. (Robin Givhan of The Washington Post captures it perfectly. )

It might seem odd to talk about privileged royals at a royal funeral in an essay that concerns selfishness in the time of a pandemic, but the broad sweep of history and the roles of those in power are part of the big story. To be unselfish in the big moments means, for example, sharing your personal grief with the larger world, accepting the condolences and comforts and kindness of the many with grace and gratitude even if you might wish to weep alone. In addition, for those of us who might not understand why a royal relic of a colonial era is deserving of this globally seen ritual, we have to be unselfish enough to try to understand the full picture.

If rituals remind us of how small we are in the scope of history, they can also reassure us that despite all evidence to the contrary, none of us is alone.

So many people have been missing the reassuring powers of rituals these past 13 months — especially the spiritual ones. They have not been able to attend religious services, and when they have, they’ve been reconfigured for safety. Perhaps they’ve been held outdoors. Communion has been transformed into a drive-through event. It has been impossible to extend the hand of fellowship, and there have been so few people in attendance that it hasn’t felt like fellowship at all.

And so Philip’s funeral was a reminder of what these rituals can do. They don’t erase the flaws in the deceased but they afford the public an opportunity to make peace with them. They’re about endings, but also renewal. During a time of emotional upheaval, they’re guardrails to keep people from tumbling over.

~ Robin Givhan, The Washington Post

Learn One, Try One, Teach One (Repeat)

In the end, the events of the past year have reminded me of the importance of our teachers. To take one example: Last night on Turner Classic Movies I watched again (for the first time in years) William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and that prodigy Patty Duke as the prodigious Helen Keller. To help bring to heel the ungovernable and tantrum-prone Helen—who since an illness at 19 months (possibly meningitis) had been blind and deaf—her parents have sent for a teacher; and while wrestling Helen to gain control and be effective, this teacher is doubted and questioned continually by Helen’s parents, “Why can’t you show some pity?” At one point in the film, Helen’s older half-brother (who had been on Anne’s side but sees the whole business to teaching Helen as a hopeless cause) asks Anne, “Why do you care if Helen learns or not?”

Any reasonable person watching this madness, this wrestling match, might easily wonder both of those things: Why fight this poor, wretched creature? and, Why do you care to try?

And I can tell you, as a teacher, that any teacher watching this film will offer in answer to anyone posing those questions, “Well, it’s obvious you aren’t a teacher.” Anne herself says it, that where there is one closed mind that is never opened, that’s a loss to the world, and so of course she must work to open that mind. (She spells into Helen’s hand, T*E*A*C*H*E*R, not ANNE, to introduce herself.) So, how much learning is “enough”? When Helen learns to sit at the table and fold her napkin, for example, instead of roaming the room eating off of everyone’s plates, the family is satisfied. What more is needed? Isn’t it enough that she obeys? Anne, the teacher, knows that obedience is not enough: Where there is only obedience without the knowing why, that’s a loss not only to the person, but also to the world. (As you know, of course, because of Anne Sullivan’s teaching persistence, Helen Keller went on to be one of the most inspirational activists for good that the world has known.) Selfishness may be born of ignorance more than anything else, and that is why education is key.

I’m sometimes messaged by friends on social media, following one of my usual posts on racial injustice, for example, “Why do you care so much about other people?” I don’t know; I never really thought about it. I just always did. I guess that’s why I became a teacher in the first place. What I find odd is that so many people who do not have the vocation to educate or help others, want selfishly to throw up obstacles to prevent the success of those of us who do. See also: voter suppression and climate change denial.

Selfishness, then, causes loss—first for the closed or untapped mind of the “selfish” person, sure; but ultimately, it is that other and more insidious selfish desire for “calm” and “order” without sacrifice or struggle (obedience without knowing why one obeys, nor caring), that makes the world the biggest loser of all. Why should we, as individuals, care about the world? The teacher says, How can you not?

In sum, anyone who claims not to understand why he/ she/ they must “obey” an order to be vaccinated against a deadly and highly contagious disease, or openly rebels against the order fully knowing and denying the consequences, is acting not righteously but selfishly—selfishly because, even with all the information to explain the why, he /she /they has chosen personal and unfounded belief over the greater good. Morally, this is simply wrong. So judgeth Miss O’.

I look back to Ambrose Bierce up there, who hit the mark where too many people today live: the idea that my asking you not to be selfish, makes me the selfish one. Teachers especially are imbued with just that kind of selfishness—the selfish need to unlock closed minds so that all of us may experience life in all its richness and complexity, and grapple with all the points of view so that we ourselves may grow and be more fully of service to those we love.

Ain’t it awful.

The Monster at the End of This Blog

 

There Might Be Monsters

Your Miss O’ continues to be astonished at the near-universal appeal of lawlessness on the American Right. Today in America, the enjoyment, perpetuation, and forgiveness (or acceptance) of lawlessness applies only TO the Right, FROM the Right, BY the Right. This week, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in his office of President of the United States, Donald J. Trump illegally withheld congressionally allocated funds for Ukraine’s defense, for which act he has been impeached. Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said in an interview, “The point is moot.”

Is it?

No, it is not. It’s exactly the point, Sen. Ernst.

This week, too, Miss O’ read in the American wing of the British Guardian, which does a much better job of covering the real issues in the United States than the U.S.-based journals—for in the U.S., most papers relegate actual news, such as the complete exoneration of Hillary Rodham Clinton after years of probes (see also, rape culture hashtag me too) by the U.S. Justice Department, to Op-Ed features, despite years of Sec. Clinton being front page false-accusations fodder—that the state of Missouri has put forth a bill wherein librarians (yes, librarians) can be jailed for lending certain books to people under the age of 15. Reading further, the bill extends to the stocking of any questionable book (such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) within reach of readers under the age of 15. As to who determines the age-appropriateness of classic literature, or any reading material for that matter, I think I found the Grand Wizard.

The Monster at the End of This Book

The other week my cousin Kerry posted a photo on Instagram of herself and her grandsons as she read them the Little Golden Book classic, The Monster at the End of This Book, featuring Sesame Street’s “lovable, furry old” Grover. Not having reliable rabbit-ear antenna access to Public Television in the early 1970s, Miss O’s mom mostly missed Sesame Street and so would probably not have bought books featuring those characters, and so I had never heard of this book, Kerry’s favorite. My sweet cousin sent me a copy this week, and this very short book is nothing short of amazing in its timeliness.

As Grover implores young readers NOT to open the book, or turn one more page—tying the pages with ropes, building huge brick walls, shouting warnings of “MONSTER!”—Grover comes to realize that he, Grover, is the monster at the end of the book. On the last page he says, in small font that mirrors his shame, “Oh, I am so embarrassed.”

I had tears in my eyes. On the surface, Grover is a comical lure, a safe monster who in his warnings is of course BEGGING children to turn the next page, the way playful relatives will say to shy children, “Don’t you dare hug me,” to get them to grin and run to embrace them.

But, as only Sesame Street can, the writer, Jon Stone, and illustrator, Michael Smollin, created a book about a very, very grown-up theme: the evils of censorship.

The monster puppet that is screaming warnings NOT TO READ THIS BOOK because of  a monster is itself the monster.

Monsters of America

The Missouri censors who are trying to stop the reading of books are the ones afraid of the ideas in those books (and, in fact, creating a demand for just those books, thank the karma gods).

The racist monster man screaming and railing against the dangers of other races is himself the cause of the racial division in question, asked and answered.

The American Christians who scream about religious intolerance are the ones who are intolerant of religions, including their own, if you look at the actual teachings of Jesus.

The American Right screamers about the lawbreakers of the Left are themselves the actual lawbreakers.

The monster is the person who is guided only by fear. The monster is the person who would direct their fear onto the innocent. The monster is the person who would kill anything or anyone they fear, and ask for a trophy.

The monster is the person who cannot admit of error. (“It was a perfect phone call.”)

So who is the MONSTER at the END of DEMOCRACY? Turns out, it’s the biggest whiners, who rail from the Right. Will they ever learn?

So one suspects that what you WON’T be hearing from the Right anytime soon: “Oh, I am so embarrassed.”

How refreshing would it be to hear those words, spoken with humility?

“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” Trump supporters should be able to say, as a rightly impeached Donald J. Trump lawyers-up with the team that defended admitted sex trafficker and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” Republican senators, representatives, and officials and American media should say, seeing the living hell they have put the brilliant and capable and caring and genuinely patriotic Hillary Clinton through.

“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” the American Christians should say, seeing the likes of Rev. Franklin Graham and Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., (and pick a Catholic Bishop) forsaking the teachings of Christ for the sake of Trump.

“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” Republican descendants of WWII veterans should say, seeing their fellow Republican Americans donning apparel with swastikas to march in the Main Streets of the United States.

The Right’s monster at the end of every Republican American Apocalypse story…is looking them right in the mirror, every single morning.

The Right will scream at you that there is a monster at the end of this blog, too, the MONSTER all the RIGHT WING people are WARNING you about!!!!!

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What the Right is incapable of doing is the right thing—growing up—because that would entail feeling healthy SHAME. So they yell. And scapegoat. And shoot things. And blame YOU. In the name of Christ.

And let’s be honest here: when, to the American Right, this book-loving feminist, non-racist New Yorker, humorous bon vivant, Constitution-wielding patriot, language arts and theater educator, would-be artist, and daughter of a union meat cutter from Iowa, who is Miss O’, represents the worst thing that could ever happen in America, you know there’s a monster out there. And it ain’t Miss O’.

Oh, I am so embarrassed.

What Is Your Fox News?

Predictions for the End of the World

Back in late October of 2000, my Grandma O’Hara died. After her funeral in Iowa, back at my cousin Candy’s house, Candy asked me, “Just between us, who do you think should be president?” And I replied, without hesitation, “Al Gore. He’s so much more intelligent and aware of the problems we face. There’s no question.” Candy then left the kitchen, entered the living room filled with her siblings, kids, and nieces and nephews, and announced, “Lisa says Bush is too stupid to be president.” And from then on, none of them has spoken to me, not really, even at their own mother’s funeral. This isn’t about politics, unless we can all understand that this divide in America, playing out symbolically in Iowa v. New York City, is that politics equals values.

And what has happened since that moment of Candy’s announcement heard ’round the world, of course, is that my concerns were beyond well founded; and despite this, too many of my Iowa cousins (to take one demographic) are determined for the world to end, if for no other reason than the annihilation of me and my kind, even if it means the destruction of their own children. It’s a point of pride with them, this annihilation of me, and my dreams of America; and at the very least the “fuck you” to my education and my empathy is worth the destruction of the Constitution. They would literally rather have Putin’s Russian army take us over than vote for Al Gore or Hillary Clinton.

It’s about, I gather, a celebration of their Christ; so how can I stop the end of days? They will, no doubt, sing at my execution, for they have not only inherited but also earned the scorched and lifeless Earth. Kisses.

Seriously, though (and I was serious back there): What does the future hold?

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It’s in the Cards

Many years ago in college, at a party, someone I’d just met was doing Tarot card readings. At that time I was always made nervous by anything approaching religion let alone the occult, as I had been hurt by too many liars and hypocrites, but I sat in as a fellow young actress, Raine, had her cards read. Raine was a graduate student in architecture, but her heart was pulling her to theater. When it came time for Raine to pose a question to the Tarot, she asked, “Will I ever make a beautiful drawing?” What struck me about the question was the very nature of it, based as it was in art and not in material gain or comfort, as with questions such as “Will I find true love?” or “Will I be rich?” asked by others at the same party. Raine had asked about her capacity to put beauty into the world; I’d never wondered such a thing. (As for the answer, the cards were mixed; the reader, as I recall, suggested that there was something muddled in the motivation for subject’s question; the card reading would leave us hanging.) It struck me in that moment that I would never be an artist. I felt a slight pang of loss, but some of us are not artists but rather worker bees, and that’s what I was. We produce honey, sure, and the comb might be kind of cool, but ultimately I would never stand out from any other bee. I realized I was okay with that, though I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. I decided that a path of uninterrupted self-loathing surely had to be penance enough for all the people in my life I would (and continue to) disappoint.

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So why do we want to visit the future? On a visit to Scotland recently, I was in a pub one night when a psychic was visiting. It was an announced event, and the room was filled with about two-dozen women, all working class, aged 18 to 70. The psychic was a man about 60 years old, I’d say, very handsome, lithe, sexy, and he had his routine down pat: He’d cross his arms, rub his chin with his hand, wrinkle up his face, push his groin out a bit (a seductive posture made safe because of his arms wrapped in front of himself), and tell you what the spirits were saying, “Does the name James mean anything to you?” (the names he noted were safe bets, this being Scotland), or “I’m getting something here about being in trouble, does that sound right?” (To that one a subject declared, “Oh, no, I haven’t been back to prison for ten years—that’s all behind,” and everyone chuckled.) “So you knew that, yeh?” he said, nodding. His use of “yeh?” after his statements made the subject complicit; most were willing to go along. He’d hit the mark often enough to impress his audience; for myself, the great part was getting to know the lives and characters of so many working class Scottish women—where would I have had such a chance? More than that, here were a bunch of women looking to a phony psychic for guidance in life in the form of entertainment. Hmmm.

Where have I seen that recently?

Future Perfect

I remember reading one of Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she said at one point that she’d like to flip ahead thirty pages in her own diary to find out how all this (whatever it was) would turn out. Wouldn’t we all? Then again, when someone asked Audrey Hepburn how she and her compatriots kept going in Holland those five years under Nazi occupation and near starvation, she said something to the effect, “I suppose had we known it would last five years, we would have killed ourselves.”

Maybe the card readings have to remain ambiguous. Maybe a psychic’s tricks are all we can handle. Still, this manufactured suspense and the ensuing chaos may be the end of us all. Maybe we are supposed to end. Maybe the best thing that could happen to the earth is our human annihilation. But it’s the suffering that pains me, and that means the suffering of all wild life, all of nature.

I feel very worn down by the chaos, the duplicity, the willful ignorance—and I don’t know how to fix this. I can no longer write—it’s hard and frustrating because I have absolutely nothing to say about anything. It seems it’s all been said—watching the impeachment hearings showed us all quite clearly that President Trump and the Republicans are actively destroying our democracy, and yet Trump’s base is more determined than ever. They would actually prefer the end of the Constitution and a Russian invasion to the liberals having power. It’s insane. My friend Rob has practically lost his entire family to Fox News, and even as a gay man they choose Fox over him every time, seem utterly incapable of separating out from their hatred of whomever and whatever Fox News tells them to hate.

As I talked about this the other morning with Amelie, a dancer friend staying with me between sublets, I said, “But then I think everyone has a Fox News,” a source or place from which only rage can emerge. I realized that for our mutual friend Rob, for example, it’s all things Shakespeare—Rob hates Shakespeare—you’ve never seen anyone so enraged over it as he was at the intermission of what to me was a most perfect version of Cymbeline as we were seeing in Central Park. Rob, who is ADHD, just doesn’t understand Shakespeare, feels excluded from it, and becomes angry over it, and thinks no one should be doing it ever because it’s old. Only NEW work, he says, matters. “Why isn’t there more new work? Who needs to see this?” And when you counter that you could say the same about opera, classical music, classic Hollywood movies, he agrees that all that, too, should go. But what if I love it? What if it feeds my soul? Presumably, I need a new soul, as do all the people who watch Fox News. So where does that leave us? I would say, here: People’s lives are happening now, in the present; to embrace the art of the past for the nourishment of the soul shouldn’t cause us to seek the death of Black people, for instance, but it got me wondering: Are these impulses to a “Fox News” reaction, however different in outcomes, tied together?

Accessibility to the Dream in One Image: Compare Trump’s notes and Obama’s.

Almost 40% of America would prefer the president on the Right, who is on the left in the photo below, to the Black president, who’s personal notes are seen in the photo on the right. Take that in. NOTE: The “no quid quo pro” was spoken to Ambassador Gordon Sondland by the president himself, which means that if an indicted or accused criminal says, “I didn’t do it,” if he or she is Republican, we have to set him or her free. It’s the new America.

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White House photographer Pete Souza compares and contrasts.

Why does the right prefer the disabled in their leadership to the brilliant? In his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut saw this coming, the lowering of all the expectations in the nation so that all is “fair,” that everyone has equal access; therefore, a unique genius, exceptional athletic ability, and the like, are not to be borne; we will have be given handicaps to prevent us from being too good or to beautiful or too curious—the mind control is high-pitched sounds—the burden of thinking for oneself no longer to be borne. And the Right calls the Left “politically correct.” NOTE: Every time a Republican speaks, just cough out, “Projection,” and keep walking.

Even in New York City, “Harrison Bergeron” is becoming a new normal. I look at the plans for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden [yes, Botanic, not Botanical, so at not to confuse it with the NY ones in the Bronx] that demolished this gorgeous stone terraced gardens on slope so as to make the slope accessible for wheel chairs and walkers. So, too, was the only natural area of forest razed and smoothed, so as to eliminate those pesky roots someone might trip over. Hell, a developer is building a condo that will obscure sunlight for the largest part of the day so the whole Garden is going to die anyway. Venice is under water. But let’s enable quid pro quo come hell or high water.

Is annihilation of beauty our goal? Is that why we’ve allowed 60% of wildlife to die off in the past 45 years? Are we afraid of anything that soars beyond our understanding? Even Christians are terrified of the teachings of Christ, because living by those teachings is so hard, requires so much of them, that it’s easier to throw money at a huckster preacher like Joel Osteen than to read and study and meditate and try to become a better human. We live in exhausting times.

The quick message that is killing us is “Consume.” Consume goods and more goods. Let your hatred consume you. The other week I went to see Bella Bella, by and starring Harvey Fierstein, wherein I learned how as a young attorney and civil rights advocate, Bella Abzug traveled to Mississippi to defend a black man accused of rape for having a consensual affair with a married white woman. Because she could get no accommodations she slept in the bus station or the ladies room, hiding her feet on the toilet seat when the security guards came around, and this went on for two years, as she went to the Supreme Court to get the guilty verdict overturned, won, only to have Mississippi re-indict him; won again, re-indicted again, and without waiting for another appeal they simply executed him in the town square. Those whites in power rigged up an electric chair with a generator, and 200 white people came to watch, sitting with picnic lunches and cheering. I wanted every member of Congress sitting next to black colleagues to have to watch this play. There are members of Congress who would cheer to this day. So would those Iowa cousins up there.

In the face of all that, Bella Abzug was a model of all the best women I know and have seen and revere.

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Fox News demonstrates that the worst qualities of human beings—hatred, greed, jealousy, and lack of curiosity—are the qualities most needed to the devil’s work to succeed, in the name of Christ and the Constitution. In the Bible, Eve is “punished” by the God of Wrath for being curious—but it’s not punishment, is it? It’s the natural order of things—we all have to leave the Garden if we are to become all we can be. Christians who are not Christians but followers of preachers are told over and over the Old Testament story of how a woman tempted a man out of paradise, how repentance is the only way, and that it must come in dollar donations. And to be clear, Adam and Eve were white; Jesus was white; anything “good” is “white,” and I’ve about done had it with WHITE is RIGHT. Fuck white.

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Interpretations of Events

How do you justify evil? To what do you turn to so that you can live with an atrocity? Or, worse, when is an atrocity not an atrocity? I think of women and babies. When a woman is raped and made pregnant, the Right asks, “What was she wearing?” and demands she keep the baby. No harm, no foul, right, Right? If a woman dies as a result of a back alley abortion, she deserved it. If a woman if fleeing for her life, gives birth, and has the baby taken from her by authorities…it’s okay, as long a the baby is brown.

The other day one of my many cousins, whom I’ll call Pam, had an exchange on Facebook wherein she called out Donald J. Trump as a piece of shit, and I concurred. Another cousin from another aunt and uncle, whom I’ll call Bonnie, came in to announce that Trump had done everything his base wanted, such as building a wall, pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, moving the embassy to Jerusalem (after which Bonnie inserted a super happy emoji), and giving tax breaks to billionaires to “grow the economy.” All I could do was ask Bonnie, “Why do you think any of that is helpful?” to which she could only say, “I don’t have anything to prove, I’m just saying that’s why his base loves him.” Huh? My response, over several message bites, amounted to, “I hear you, but I’m telling you that none of the things you listed is useful to the nation or the planet; and how you can ignore all the destruction of his presidency is staggering to me, our loss of standing in the world as a global power not the least of it.” And…crickets.

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When will I write something beautiful? How will I be of use before the end of times?

During the flight back from Scotland I watched a movie that resonated in a staggering way. Michael Shannon’s character in The Shape of Water, which won best picture of 2018, is, symbolically, rot. His body manifests the rot; his soul’s rot and mind’s rot are seen in his increasingly ruthless behavior, escalating in a quest for power no one above him will ever give him; when he fails to achieve the power he seeks, his only motive in continuing to live is revenge.

Sound familiar?

It has been ever thus: The Right is Rot. This is not to say that the Left is the Answer, only that the Left is not (yet) infected with rot. Possibly both sides will devolve into only Rot, with only the artists creating the beauty.

We all live a great tragedy.

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Old Art in the Service of New Understanding

On Friday night after Thanksgiving, I went to the Public Theater to see a revival/reimagining of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day (a title he decided on from a mishearing of “A Bridegroom Called Death”) a play from 1985 in reaction to Reagan, deeply prescient in its prediction of a Donald Trump in 2019, and updated by the playwright for that horror. The play chronicles the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis from the perspective of a group of friends in Berlin from 1932 to 1933, and what is clear now, given the clarity of the parallels, is that there is no way to stop the fascism of America and its new ownership by Putin’s Russia. We can’t stop it. It only takes around 40% of the population to help fascism succeed, and the Republicans have it.

Those of us who see the nation’s and world’s end with profound clarity can only do what Kushner’s surrogate does in the play, and that is scream that he had to write the play “because I didn’t know what else to fucking do! I had to fucking DO something!” And this is exactly how Miss O’ feels. Though as for the fellow middle-aged New Yorkers in the audience that night, they could only sigh and comment, “I don’t know if I liked this play,” thus missing the point, thus confirming why the left cannot win this.

The end of the planet is nigh. There’s no stopping it, just as there was no stopping Adolf Hitler and his 37% “majority.” The Third Reich functioned efficiently for 12 years. Earth doesn’t have 12 years, however many millions are slated to die. I’m sick and sorry about it, and yet I know I will continue to try, despite this inevitability, to make a livable world; I know I can only continue to try. I’m sorry that too many of us won’t, sorry for my nephews, who likely won’t see age 40. Neither will your children, but somehow you won’t admit this. Your kids will hate you more than love you, but somehow, again, you won’t admit this. Apparently this is somebody’s god’s will; apparently the “winning” of “Donald J. Trump,” liar, thief, scoundrel, motherfucker, is, inexplicably, more important than the future of the voters’ children. It’s weird, to me. I mean, isn’t it insane?

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A Handmaid’s Tale. (The Guardian.)

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: Egypt of 1350 and America of 2020

At the close of this gorgeous and deeply moving opera, which I had the privilege of seeing at the Metropolitan Opera last night, a leader reforms Egypt, moving it away from polytheism and toward a monotheism that worships the Sun, the giver of life. The production features a master juggling troupe, whose skills of juggling the balls to the music end in the dropping of all of them as the pharaoh Akhnaten and his bride Nefertiti pay the ultimate price for not keeping a closer watch on the new world they have built, after spending 20 years in a bubble of their own love. The final scene of the play is the death, mummification, and ascension of Akhnaten and the continuation of a weary world in his wake. The jugglers crawl across the stage, pushing the dropped ball along, even as the curtain falls.

This opera left me reeling, with a burning question tied to Tony Kushner’s question of the night before: In the wake of the failings of leadership, who will pick up the ball, continue the work of the world, keep the music pulsing? Do you want to keep going?

You want that?

Okay.

So what are you going to fucking DO?

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It’s NOT ENOUGH. It’s not. WE HAVE TO ACT.

WE HAVE TO THROW OUR BODIES AT IT.

To the death.

Love to all.

Miss O’

 

 

 

Is It My Imagination

Dispatches from NYC: Bad Change

January 19, 2019, New York City

It’s January in New York and there has been no snow. There is hardly snow anymore—hasn’t been for years now. When I first moved here, the snow started in December and there was snowpack until March. Walls of the stuff along Queens Boulevard; icy slush puddles of it at every Midtown intersection; banks of it along sidewalks on every side street. Arctic temperatures through it all. Now, in 2019, it rarely dips into the 20s let alone teens, and snow is limited to one storm that melts the next day. In the past few years we might have one or two nights in the single digits; no single-digit days, though. I like battling the winter elements and I miss this, since I moved to New York City to get away from the mildness of Virginia, in both weather elements and, by extension, intellectual life. Climate change of every kind.

Last night, another fairly mild winter night, being around 40 degrees, I walked down 7th Avenue after work with a friend whom I’ll call Betts. We walked under masses of scaffolding, nearly every other block; we passed loads of 20-somethings on their phones, sidestepped trash, passed somber slow people, and all the while Betts discoursed on his latest obsession, famed acting teacher Stella Adler. Betts has, in essence, created a Stella Adler character to tell these theater stories, including a way of enunciating and inflecting every word to become this woman, a New York Jew who made herself into an almost British grand dame,  an invented woman who made a living teaching other actors to make truth in their art. “And do you know WHY you failed?” Betts says at one point, as Stella. “NO ONE would use his OWN HANDKERCHIEF to wipe a counter!”

As Betts spoke about truth in art, about his sorrow that Stella, the creator of Brando, had not been his acting teacher, I told him that just the other week I’d had the first serious discussion about art I’d had in years. I’d just read a piece by critic-at-large Louis Menand in The New Yorker, the title of which I couldn’t recall (but it’s called “Faking It: Literary hoaxes and the ethics of authorship”), in which Menand explores the current hot-button issue in art, which amounts to a directive, not only for writers of nonfiction but also of fiction and drama: No one may write about something that he or she has not actually lived or experienced. The. End.

I told Betts that a playwright friend whom I’ll call Parker (Lola Parker Jones, who dropped the “Lola” when she figured out years ago that theaters are more likely to read your script and decide to produce it when they think you are a man; she says this remains true for her today: when they contact “him” and find out it’s a “her,” she can hear, following their initial enthusiasm, a hesitation, Hashtag Me Too) had a play recently produced at an esteemed NYC arts space, only to find that actors kept quitting over her reference to Islam in part of her fantastical play. She could just as easily have invented a religion, say Panoply, or something, but there wasn’t anything she said about misogyny inherent in Islam that was particularly controversial—no more so than discussing misogyny in Christianity should be controversial, and she herself was raised Catholic. The problem for the (nearly all non-Middle Eastern/nontraditional) cast was that they themselves were not Islamic, and therefore in those scenes felt they had no business pretending to be Islamic—this would amount to sacrilege for Muslims, they said, and just plain offensive to an audience. One by one, they quit, were replaced by others who quit, but finally Parker had a cast—though quite frankly, when I saw it, no one beyond the Arab actress in the lead seemed totally committed. It was a miserable experience for Parker. “When did this happen?” she asked me, and our friend Jessica, when we went to dinner after the final performance. “When did it become wrong to write from your imagination?” At this point I had not read the Menand piece, but as soon as I had, I sent it to Parker.

Desert City

On the walk to the snowless Village, I recounted this to Betts; as we paused in the dusk of a noisy 14th Street I said, “Can you imagine Stella Adler trying to teach actors today?” Betts sighed, glancing over at the collection of knit hat-covered heads bent over phone screens. Betts told me about Miss Adler’s work with Marlon Brando. When preparing for A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando decided on a certain pair of work boots to find Stanley Kowalski’s character—a working class Polish-American alpha male from New Orleans who had exactly zero in common with the sensitive, almost effeminate Native American Midwesterner Brando—and when Stella asked, “And how will you use these boots, Marlon?” Brando, feeling the boots and weight of the work Stanley did in those boots, slumped, and began walking with what would become the famous Stanley Kowalski slouch. A legend was born. And it got me thinking: As per this new fascism, er, fashion, in art in America today, Brando would be out. And presumably in 2019 Lin-Manuel Miranda would have to shelve Hamilton, as he himself was not a founding father or an Englishman, and, obvs (as the kids say), the “rap” angle would have to go. (But I don’t think the art world or the literary world cares much about musicals, and I suspect it’s because musicals are always and ever works of an imaginative mind. No one watches Anchors Aweigh! or Meet Me in St. Louis and asks, “But did that REALLY happen?” At my office, a few days before this walk and soon after reading the Menand piece, a group of fellow editors and I began chatting and then debating this very subject. I asked Mort, who is Jewish, “So should non-Jews play Jews?” Mort smiled his wry smile and said, “If they didn’t, you’d never be able to produce Fiddler on the Roof in Wisconsin.”)

It seems to me we live in deeply warped and troubling times: on the one hand, we seem to be demanding facts from our artists while expecting lies and hyperbole from our politicians; on the other hand, no one is supposed to be imaginative. And we have no public intellectuals to rally around. When I feel starved for intelligent and challenging discourse out loud, I Google “James Baldwin” and watch all the videos I can find—there was and is no one like him. Oh, what he would have done with Trump. Oh!

Greenwich Village, as Betts and I strolled in around 5 PM, was all but deserted, only a half dozen people at most wandering along any stretch of block. “Remember when this place used to be mobbed on Friday night?” Betts said, astonished at the bleakness. He pointed to one of Bloomberg’s friend’s luxury condo buildings, the one that replaced St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, where AIDS patients sought treatment, and where many died, and where poet Dylan Thomas died after drinking a dozen whiskeys at The White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street. Listen to the silence: Other than Monster and the Duplex, there are no real clubs anymore; little to no live music (and what there is will cost $50 in cover and drinks, for an hour-fifteen, and time to go because there’s another set, here’s your coat), no hot spots, no dives (Cafe Riviera is closed now; every block has an empty space for (unaffordable) rent). All the art in New York, for that matter, feels “precious,” carefully curated, expensive, and timed-entry. Does anyone really care about new art? Even Parker’s play was only controversial among the newly arrived white young actors from hinterland college theater programs; the critics didn’t even come.

A certain laziness of mind, of spirit, I’ve said a thousand times, can be traced to Reagan, to the 1980s, where everyone began exercising to death, and added phones/screens to their lives, and where is the wild joy in that? We are so bored. We are so boring.

Bad Metaphor, with Pit Bull

Back around 1988 or so, I was teaching in a rural school district and a friend since high school came down to hold my hand while I tried to finish grading exams and finish averaging all the grades for the first semester of my life as a high school English teacher. On a visit to my crummy little apartment above a beauty shop in a downtown—and I use that term “downtown” denotatively only, this being a little Southern town—my old high school friend, whom I’ll call Keith (painter and founder of a college band called Bad Ego), brought me a sculpture—and I use that term denotatively only—he’d made. He was very excited to give it to me.

It was the laziness of it that struck me, even more than the ugliness: a 18″ x 48″ quarter ply board on a 2″ x 4″ frame, which he’d found at a construction site where he’d worked for about a month, half spray-painted blue, onto which he’d glued a Xerox of a pit bull from an encyclopedia page where he’d looked up something else. He drilled a couple of holes and shoved through some leftover copper pipe he picked up out of a dumpster on a job. I’m all for repurposing, but he held the pipe in place with brown plastic packing tape; the pipe fell a lot. Keith was wildly proud of this “art.” He was pumped to give it to me. I could only laugh. I hurt his feelings. Below is my collage interpretation of it, understanding that I sound like a judgmental dick:

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I left Keith’s “sculpture” behind when I moved away, a few years later, it being the last item, for which I literally had no room after four trips up and back in my pick-up truck to my new home; and Keith was devastated. Seriously never forgave me. And quite frankly, though I found his “sculpture” revolting, I still remember it all too vividly despite my rejection of it. Like trying to deny truth. The piece, as I see it now, was a metaphor for our friendship: it was something we never worked on, something we were lazy about, and which was often ugly. Similarly, he threw ugly things at me in terms of my intellect—I was not properly in thrall to his Marxism, I was a fool to think democratic government could ever matter, for example—and I sent the ugliness back at him in a letter that I knew would mean a permanent rift, us being too lazy to talk about it like adults, years later.

This is laziness built on boredom, on not listening, not engaging, not looking up and out and inward. Whatevs. Maybe Stella Adler could have coached us out of it.

Greenwich Village in New York City is apparently dead, for chrissakes. So what hope is there? New York City in 2019: Dinner at Elephant and Castle and strolling the aisles of Bigelow’s Pharmacy as the high points? Stella Adler would be bored stiff. Brando would never have come here. I don’t know how to energize this place anymore, or myself in it. It’s my latest challenge.

Where is art? What is truth? They’re as rare as snow in winter in New York City. Who’d have thought?

LO’H

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is the Real Story

Featured on my kitchen wall is a framed series of five photos, one under the other, that depict me and two other women rolling down a green grassy hill. My friend, Patty, a professional framer, matted and framed this series for me many years ago, though why I wanted it, no one understood. I knew why, so really that’s all that mattered. And though it’s framed nicely, each time I look at it, I get stuck at the last two pictures. To me they are in the wrong order. The second to last one in the frame shows me and Roller No. 2 sitting up, my fists raised in triumph, my legs up, ready to do it again. The last one in the frame shows the Rollers 1, 2, and 3, passed out blissfully on the grass. The trouble is, the action happened in reverse of the order: We were passed out blissfully, and then we popped up and went back for one more roll. However, as Patty pointed out, anyone looking at the series would be aesthetically unsatisfied with that—she insisted that the three of us collapsed at the bottom of the hill was the right feeling of “this is the end.” I didn’t agree, but she was a terrific artist and very sure, and I just wanted to hold the memory, so I let her tell the story her way. It’s a story that, if you weren’t there, maybe made more sense.

Here is the real story: They were middle aged, these three women, and I had just turned 30, and we were teachers in graduate school for the summer. Three of us were housed in a large mansion-style dorm atop a big hill, and I had remarked on the day of our arrival, “This is a perfect hill for rolling.” I was wistful. The two women on my floor whom I mentioned up there, Anna (the photographer) and Suzanne (Roller No. 3), had no idea what I was talking about. Anna had grown up in California where there were no green rolling hills, and the same was true for Suzanne, whose landscape was Midwestern, up northern way. That very same evening—our first of the summer—Annie from Mississippi came up to the house on the hill, and from upstairs I heard her say, “This is a perfect hill for rolling!”

I flew through the door to the upper porch, where my room was set, leaned over the balustrade, and called, “Annie! Will you roll with me?”

Anna, from across the hall, called, “Wait for me!” and came out of her room with her camera.

Suzanne, next door, said, “You mean I get to SEE this?”

I said, “You have to DO it,” and we three raced down the stairs with that child-like rush of feelingas if, if you don’t hurry, your chance will be gone forever—and outside, where Annie and I taught Suzanne her options: either arms crossed over your chest, or arms outstretched over your head. We spread out. And…GO! Somehow in that flash of chaos, Anna had managed to capture, 1) me rolling alone; 2) a shot of Annie and Suzanne rolling; 3) all three of us from a crotch view, slightly blurred; 4) us three flopped on the ground, three pairs of jeans and shirts of pink (me), lavender (Annie) and purple tie-dye (Suzanne) all against that deep, luscious green; and 5) me bent in a V from my butt, arms and legs up, and Annie, sitting with arms back, her face in a smile, and we’re ready to go.

That is the real story, the real sequence, but because it doesn’t read as the usual narrative, or the most tightly constructed or aesthetically pleasing narrative, I’m the only one who would look at the series and be dissatisfied. Or would I? In truth, I don’t think anyone has really ever looked at it outside of me, because it’s not exactly a universal story, or even a “lovely” portrait of any person, or of nature.

So what does it mean to tell a story “the real” way? And does it even matter?

When I was in college studying to be a teacher—which is as antithetical as it sounds, for as every professor of “education” will acknowledge, nothing they are teaching will be useful for at least three years into teaching, when experience would make it make sense; and my own view is that what they should be teaching is how to write a bathroom pass and not lose your train of thought in an instructional moment—I was fortunate, and I mean beyond lucky, to have two guest professors when I took Psychology of Education I and II in summer school. I’ll call them Ms. Lettuce and Ms. Lovage (with apologies to Terrance McNally). Both teachers were invaluable to me, but Mrs. Lettuce was the person who got me thinking about the “real” story.

As a first-year teacher in a coal-mining town in West Virginia—a town and culture she’d never before encountered—and on her first day teaching first grade, Miss Lettuce decided to start off by reading to her students “The Story of the Three Little Pigs.” When she got to the first instance where the wolf “huffed and he puffed and blew the house down”—the house of straw—a little boy in the front row said, “That son of a bitch.”

Mrs. Lettuce turned to the class, most of us either gasping or giggling, and asked, “What do you think I should have done?”

You know what’s great about her question? THIS moment is exactly the thing that university departments of education never teach you, the kind of thing that will happen to every new teacher in every new school on every single new first day of school in America, now and then and forever: the kind of moment that makes you quit by the end of the first year, after day after day of these moments, with no story to guide you.

Several of us teachers-in-potential raised our little hands, either pontificating on why he needed a stern punishment and a meeting with his parents, or gently suggesting that the teacher rephrase the remark to something more appropriate and speak to him in private later. Mrs. Lettuce said, “Why didn’t any of you ask how the other children reacted? Did you assume they laughed or gasped, too?” And it made me think: Why don’t we ever stop to ask something as basic as that, about context, to step back and look at the whole picture? She continued, “When that little boy said, ‘That son of a bitch,’ all the other children nodded,” and here she mimicked their very solemn nods. “Now what do I do?” No one in my class said anything. “Because you see what’s going on here, don’t you?” she asked. And we didn’t. “If he said that, and the children agreed and accepted it, that tells me that everyone in this community, in this culture, talks that way, that all their parents talk that way. I saw immediately that if I corrected him, I’d be correcting all these people I didn’t know. And I am the outsider, remember.”

So what did she do?

“I said, ‘Would you excuse me for a moment?’ and I went out into the hall, closed the door, and laughed. When I got myself together, I went back in, and I said, ‘I’m sorry I had to step out,’ and finished reading the story. That’s all.”

What Mrs. Lettuce realized was that the story of this culture was not her story, and so not her story to alter. It was her story to learn. And she passed that story onto us. (And this story helped me stay for three years in an alien rural school system where, in the view of many, I had no business to be.)

And as to the reaction that the child back there expressed about the wolf, “That son of a bitch,” was he wrong to feel that way? In fact, children have an innate sense of morality. Vivian Paley, a Chicago teacher and great researcher of children, relates in one of her books (I don’t remember which, and I think it was Paley, so I hope I’m not misremembering) a similar experience of reading “The Three Little Pigs” to four-year-olds.

First, let’s recall the original Grimm’s fairytale: three pig brothers have to build homes, and the first pig builds with straw, the second with sticks, and the third with bricks. The terrible wolf blows down the first two houses, and eats the pigs, but he cannot destroy the house of bricks. That last pig lives. The wolf goes away. The end. The lesson: You need to work hard and take the time to build a sturdy house to protect yourself, or you will DIE.

But that isn’t the story most people in America know, and here is what Paley discovered by telling the version of the story in which no pigs die. She read the children what I’d call the Disney-fied version, where the brothers sing, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” and when the wolf comes, the first brother runs to the house of sticks, and when the wolf comes again, the two brothers run to the house of bricks, and then the three brothers trick the wolf and boil him in a pot. Disney, who really wasn’t one to shy away from violence—I mean, who can forget the death of Bambi’s mother?—for some reason didn’t kill off the pigs. Without those deaths, what is the lesson? Go ahead and be a lazyass pig—your brother will save you. That is not a good lesson.

And Paley’s young students felt that. When Paley finished reading, the children looked dissatisfied. One child asked, a little fearfully, “Is that the real story?” Other children asked the same question. They’d heard another one, perhaps, but somehow this one just didn’t feel right. And Paley told them they were right, that there was another version. And they looked afraid, but they wanted to hear it; and she told them, and they cried when the first two pigs were eaten by the wolf, but they were satisfied with the story, because innately they knew that this was life, that this lesson mattered. They wanted to hear the real story.

I think that inside of these children, of all children, must be a hundred thousand years of genetic memory. No one taught those four-year-olds about narrative structure, or ethics, or what happens in “real life,” and yet instinctively they knew the real story, what the true story ought to be.

I think American adults in general have lost their way when it comes to our real story, our national story, and the reasons for this go back to the Puritans, as everything does, with a view of life as something to be dictated by religious patriarchy rather than lived and experienced deeply, connected to the natural world and our own intuitive, honest natures. And so, as there must be one narrative, one story, to publish in the history books (for humans are still in need of a story, whatever else happens), we pick and choose the pieces we want to include in our collective story, and by “we” I mean white men, the majority culture, in power. I don’t write this in acrimony. That is part of our real story.

But here is the shame: The American story is not just Founding Fathers with capital F’s, the colonists against the British; or the Wild West, with capital W’s, with wars of cowboys against Indians; or the Civil War—which in much of the white South is known still today as The War of Northern Aggression—or even only wars. These stories, too often, have been reduced, in the popular imagination (until most recently and blessedly, Hamilton), to vague tales about ragged coats and red coats, white hats and black hats, blue and grey: they’ve become bloodless, artificial. What gets lost in these acceptable history book narratives is the deep story of the People: the thrill of the exploration of the oceans and discovery of new worlds and also the savage destruction of native people and cultures and lands; the astonishing bravery and also the emotional brutality of the Puritans; the deep Christian convictions of early settlers and also the hypocrites who took advantage of those convictions for personal gain; the astonishing growth of agriculture to feed the world and also the enslavement of Africans to make that growth possible; the growth of industry and also the exploitation of immigrants and the earth to make that growth possible; westward expansion and also the utter destruction of the native way of life; and woven through all of this, the story of women taking part in and helping shape all of these stories, shoulder to shoulder with men, with nearly none of that story recorded. This story of America is one thing AND the other. The story is huge and vast and messy and complicated and fraught. It’s a continuing story.

If four-year-old American children aren’t afraid to hear “the real story,” why are the majority of grown American adults afraid to hear it? Why are certain hugely powerful media companies run by white men, for example, so afraid of “the real story,” the true story, of America that they feel they must create their own narratives, narratives in which there must be good guys and bad guys, and the only possible villains can be immigrants, Muslims, blacks, or women, and the only good is the continuation and protection of white male greed using repression and guns? All over the news, this is too often the only story, or the story that a few others try desperately to fight against. But it isn’t the real story, is it? We know that it’s not. What is the real story?

This sort of story manipulation doesn’t belong only to America, and it surely can’t be laid on Disney’s doorstep, or even at the threshold of the corporate headquarters of Fox News. This deliberate, inorganic story manipulation has only been possible in the last few thousand years out of many millennia, when because of agriculture and surplus, nomads began settling into villages, where, out of laziness, really, a few charismatic men began duping and robbing the workers and families of these villages, amassing wealth, and then hiring the men they’d robbed to make weapons and form armies, so they, the overlords, could take even more, scapegoating races of people and creating the massive military industrial complex—models of this dating back to the building of vast flotillas of all manner of ships, the breeding of horses for riding, and the forging of iron weaponry, all made for the sole purpose of carrying out large-scale warfare, among the men of Egypt and Greece and Rome; among Vikings and Saxons and the Angles and Normans; among tribes everywhere, really, when one goes deep into the stories.

That’s the real story of the People of Earth.

And the only way to change that story—because it simply isn’t sustainable, resources being what they are—is to shift the power dynamic, to decide, as a People, that the sociopathic-lazy man-warmonger narrative is not only wrong, it’s silly. We could be having so much real fun when we aren’t facing real, naturally occurring dangers. More to the point, we are, right now, for real, a People in Crisis, a climate crisis, brought on by global warming born of industrial ignorance and, of course, greed. You can trace most any problem to the grasping greed of a few bad men. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we turned our story—focused all our warrior energy—into working to salvage and heal and restore our Earth?

Here is the story:

Once there were three women, all teachers, two middle-aged and one just turned 30. The young woman, from the eastern plain, saw a deeply gray, dirty world that cried out to be cleaned, to be respected, to be enjoyed, and to be loved. She shared her vision with the woman from the western plain and the woman from the northern plain, who agreed, because they had been thinking the same thing. And from the southern plain came another woman teacher, middle-aged, who cried out, “This is a great world, and it needs cleaning!” And the youngest woman called out, “Will you clean it with me, Annie?” And so it was. Western Anna grabbed her camera, to tell the story of the Great Cleaning, and Northern Suzanne, who hadn’t cleaned before and wanted to learn, joined the women of the East and South, and together from all four directions the women grabbed their brooms and flew out into the world to clean it up and make it live, and to tell the story.

Here the storyteller shows the children the pictures that Anna had taken. The children notice that the person who framed the photos of the women in this story showed them flying out to clean the world, one by one, and the last photo is of them lying down, exhausted and finished with the work.

And here a child asks, a little fearfully, “Is that the real story?”

And here the storyteller pauses, and sees that she has to tell the truth.

“No. There is another version. Do you see that second to last picture? The one where they seem to be getting up to do it again? That comes last. You see, the work never ends. The story doesn’t end.”

And though the children were afraid at hearing this, and even cried, still they were satisfied. This was the real story.

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Photos by Anna Citrino; framing by Wilkins Myrick Frames and Fine Art; wall located in Queens, NY.

 

 

 

 

 

Under (Re)Construction

Walk on the Wild Side

We all have our usual routes—the ones we drive from home to work, or home to subway to work, or to the supermarket and drugstore. We all have our routines, from waking up to an alarm to go to the toilet and then make coffee or tea or diet Pepsi to get going in the morning, so we can get to work. We all have, that is to say, a basic expectation of how the ordinary day will, you know, hum along. And then New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will, say, without actual warning despite there being, probably, years of planning and scheduling, begin the months-long process of tearing up your ordinary neighborhood streets and walkways to dig deep to remove and replace water mains and sewage pipes laid, by the looks of it, at the time of the Holy Roman Empire. And you can’t complain, and shouldn’t, because water (as the kids phrase it now), so sure, you go without water from 8 AM to 4 PM a day or so, or more, here and there, over the long summer that is remarkably not that hot, and you have to figure out other ways to get to the subway, say, but that’s okay.

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Klassy.

In fact, it’s more than okay, because if you, like me, tend to walk up 40th Street each and every morning to the subway, and you find you have to walk up 39th Place instead, you may get the satisfaction of your year by seeing vans from NY1, the local television news affiliate, and even NBC news, parked outside on the corner of 48th Avenue to interview residents and condo owners of the building there who have begun to get past the mafia-style threats of glorified building super Neal Milano—that tall, Make-America-Great-Again hat-wearing, cigar chomping whack-job who wears his weirdness like a gun out of a holster—and turn the motherfucker in for harassment. “He’s dirt,” my super tells me, “and I hope all his years of crazy come raining down on him and the rest of his life is spent behind bars.” And you wouldn’t have this conversation about the jackass who has placed extraordinarily gaudy and violation-worthy high fencing around the building (a violation because in the event of a fire, the ground floor residents could never get out of their windows and over the fence to safety, and this is why there are regulations like fence height that to the inexperienced might seem arbitrary), the lobby filled with posters of swastikas, portraits of Hitler and Mussolini and Donald Trump (and a token poster of MLK so he can claim “historical themes”), and the crucifix over the front door right between the 10’ tall Uncle Sam statues and the posters on the doors threatening the arrest of anyone who does not live there (including posters along the side of the building,   with guns that say, “Nothing is worth your life,” and the letters of extortion Neal Milano sends demanding $100 for overnight guests and lobby notices sharing the sex lives of everyone there—and exactly where does he have all these cameras set up?*—and the LED light strips surrounding the perimeter that have been blinding the residents of all the surrounding buildings whose units look onto this monster condo, and meanwhile the elevator is broken all the time because that’s the price of protection). And giant American flags everywhere the eye can see.

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Actual Sighting, weeks before the NY1 Cameras were on the scene.

*(Note: Someone sent around forged NYPD Sexual Predator posters with Neal Milano’s picture on them, photocopied and pasted all up and down 39th Place and 40th Street (I saw them), which is how the story about him broke, and that is a shabby way to retaliate, isn’t it, for his being a Nazi, because those predator allegations are just rumors, like when his wife disappeared one day years ago, and no one ever knew where she went, and they said he probably killed her…like that. Bad form, rumors like that. Like the rumors of the lobby of this current complex, and, okay, those turned out to be true, but you know. You can’t believe everything you hear, can you?)

Neal Milano is the walking proof of the paraphrase that comes from Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, that when fascism comes to America it will come wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. And chomping a big cigar.

You’d laugh except Jesus Christ this is not funny anymore.

In the taking of the circuitous route, whatever the inconvenience, one may see revealed rather startling truths. For example, Donald Trump’s unlikely and circuitous ascension to the highest office in the land has revealed that 35% of Americans are White Supremacists, or Nazis, as we used to call them, and should still call them but splitting hairs has become the number one media circus act. Fully one third of the United States, in fact, would prefer a Nazi Regime to a Constitutional Democracy, so apparently it not only can happen here, it is happening.

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Photo from the Nabe. Neal Milano did this, too, probably.

That is to say, 65% of us, roughly speaking, do not espouse Nazi feelings, and yet probably, at a guess, 20% of Americans, whatever their actual beliefs, are ignoring the whole sweep of history in the making while the remaining 45% are out protesting and calling their leaders and carrying all the stress of the national nervous breakdown of America in 2017. This is not exactly comforting. Only when it hits the ol’ wallet will the whole gang feel the stirrings of giving a good goddamn, and by then the oceans will begin swallowing us up. Maybe that’s what needs to happen, people say. It’s not my call, clearly, and I can’t tell you what to do, but “going with the flow,” just is not an option unless you think misery at best and annihilation at worst are not okay options, and they are not, unless you are a sociopath.

It’s Your Turn

The water mains here in my Queens neighborhood were, as I say, apparently laid during the time of the the crucifixion. And a couple thousand years later, my district’s number came up for pipe change. Also on the schedule this year were the removal of blighted trees and the trimming of branches around the power lines. Infrastructure maintenance on a schedule is a part of civilized, well-governed society that I personally appreciate, however bourgeois that makes me. (I was living here 13 years ago when the whole section of my borough when black and stayed that way for a month; the power lines underground, when removed, crumbled like dust in the hands of the workers—years of electrical appliance escalation that went untended to—so unless you really want to live like the mole people, having a functioning local, city, state, and federal government is pretty fucking awesome.)

A Total Eclipse of Our Hearts

When Barack Obama became the President of the United States in 2008, there was hope in my heart, in many, many hearts, for signs of societal growth, a reduction of racism, real change. Instead, over the next eight years, the deep-seated Nazi feelings of 35% of Americans, nearly all White, who wanted nothing more than to scapegoat and eliminate all Blacks, all non-Christians, all immigrants, all Hispanics, and all feminists, came out of the broom closet. White Supremacy is, of course, a cancer. It is one of the few things in life of which one can say, “This is totally, unquestionably, wrong.” And now that all of this cancer has been diagnosed for what it is, maybe a treatment can begin. Hearing Nazis say, literally, “The world would be perfect if only YOU weren’t in it” is akin to hearing cancer cells say, “This body would be perfect if only all the cells were cancerous.” Cancer kills the host. White Supremacists are killing the world.

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I miss him every day. (Seen on Instagram)

The invasion of American Nazis is made worse because so strong is the belief that White “Men” in power are all that is needed for life, these deluded cretins actually think they are gods who do not need water, food, other people, or a healthy planet. They actually believe they are above the whole story of mortality to say nothing of morality. No one with any sense or morality could follow such men, and yet 35% of Americans do.

This is our national nervous breakdown. As Hurricane Harvey batters Texas, a state of mostly Trump supporters and, sadly, white supremacists, and a state that doesn’t believe in federal aid, we await the first cries of “help us” as Trump promises this HUGE help that will likely never come and it won’t matter to anyone outside the victims on the scene, to be forgotten as the news cycle moves to the latest of the “fired.”

That is, unless you are a moral, kind, loving citizen of the United States, of your state, city, neighborhood, and home; unless you see a larger world, a deeper connection and interdependence, and you don’t blame anything or anyone for weakening your heart and resolve. Once we recognize the breakdown and the reasons for it, we have to find help. We have to be the help.

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Miss O’ finding help for all that ails her at Luna Parc in Sussex County, NJ.

As anyone with sense knows, you can throw all the Uncle Sam Statues and American flags and Trump campaign hats and swastikas and Confederate statues and crucifixes and North Korean missiles you want into the eye of a hurricane, onto a broken water main, at a melting glacier, at an oil spill, at a tornado, and it will do two things: Jack and Shit.

Until some voice of reason gets into the closed, sick minds of the 35% of Americans and the 20% that consists of apathetic lazy-asses who are determined to let sons of bitches drive the American bus over a cliff of chaos, we have to keep doing a little something. Today after tossing down some terrible news, I headed out to compost my food scraps at the local farmer’s market. I had to walk around the war zone that is Saturday water main construction and had some lovely views of 47th Avenue, which I really haven’t walked much. That was nice. Then I wrote this. So, little by little. Moment to moment. We’ll get there. Somehow.

In the meantime, however you can, and between acts of responsible citizenship…

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Luna Parc, NJ, by artist Ricky Boscarino

Re: Public

“Eighty percent of life is showing up.”
~ Woody Allen

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“Show Up: Collage by Miss O’, June 2017

Public:
From the Middle English publique, from Anglo-French, from Latin publicus; akin to  Latin populus people

First Known Use: 14th century

(Source: Merriam-Webster online)

Back when we the aspiring wrote our first serious essays for public view in high school, one of our classmates would have the novel idea (novel for a 15-year-old) of opening the essay with a dictionary definition of a key word, such as “stream” or “consciousness,” say, to start off the proceedings. Other eager writers, deeply impressed, would then copy this technique, and at some point during the year, after reading dozens of such openings, your teacher would write in red on your essay, “You might try another approach.” Deflated, for you were really excited to try out your brilliant classmate’s technique for yourself, you nonetheless pushed yourself to find a unique way into the next essay. The same happens when we in the theater direct classic plays: We can’t repeat the same old formulas when approaching a classic, because what was old needs to feel new again: Artists look at a work by, say, Shakespeare, and ask themselves, Why this play? Why now? What could we do to bring it to life in the modern age, make it contemporary and meaningful to today’s theater-goer? Sometimes it works, this novel approach, and sometimes not so much, but one of the best things about art, even if done without easy success, and maybe especially then, is that it gets us, the public, talking about it.

So with all that in mind, and given the current controversy over the Public Theater’s production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare in the Park in New York City (and can I get a “Hail, Caesar”?), it seems a definition is in order. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online, here are the definitions of public:

Definition of public https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/public

  1. 1a:  exposed to general view :  open b :  well-known,  prominent c :  perceptible,  material
  2. 2a:  of, relating to, or affecting all the people or the whole area of a nation or state public law b :  of or relating to a government c :  of, relating to, or being in the service of the community or nation
  3. 3a:  of or relating to people in general :  universal b :  general,  popular
  4. 4: of or relating to business or community interests as opposed to private affairs :  social
  5. 5: devoted to the general or national welfare :  humanitarian
  6. 6a:  accessible to or shared by all members of the community b :  capitalized in shares that can be freely traded on the open market —often used with go
  7. 7: supported by public funds and private contributions rather than by income from commercials public radio public television

Your Miss O’ here hasn’t seen the now internationally famous production (free and open to the public (see definition 3a) in Central Park, closing today as they prepare their next offering (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Melania as Titania; I kid! Ahem), but I did teach the play itself for all of my 15 years in public (see definitions 2a, 3a, 5, and 6a above) high schools, as an English teacher. The play has been taught nationally since the early 20th century, I learned, as a replacement for what used to be called Rhetoric, when public speaking (see definition 3a above) began disappearing from the school curriculum. Julius Caesar the play is, as was the man himself, fabulously political, which is often unwelcome in America lately because too many Citizens (or Plebians, in Caesar) aren’t terribly educated on the whole about civics (a Greek and Roman idea with a Latin root in the word). Schools, as we know, are competing with lots of stimuli from the public arena (see definition 1a above), and teachers more often than not are having “to fight to teach,” as Miss O’s colleague of many years, Mrs. Little, was often heard to say in the years before she retired.

So what is a public? What is a republic? And what do they have to do with a theater in New York City called The Public Theater? I read yesterday of all these protests attending the Public’s production, protests carried out by a public consisting of people who have probably not heard of the play outside of a vague memory of suffering through Mrs. Ayers’s triple-matching test one semester of their sophomore year of high school (I mean, what the hell?). Doubtless the protesters of the Public had never read the play with anything like understanding, let alone seen a live production, or even sat through the entire movie with Marlon Brando in the pivotal role of Marc Antony.

What they are missing—and what anyone up in arms (an idiom which was once quite literally about raising ones weapons) about this event is missing—is knowledge, both of the subject matter and the play. (One could say the same about most any public protest, for one should always know deeply the why of any protest.) It’s easy enough to Google both the man or the play in Wikipedia (and anyone reading this blog won’t need to, more than likely, which is the futility of writing blogs like this), but chances are that even still, most Americans probably know more lines from it than they realize:

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…

…let slip the dogs of war…

Though last, not least in love… (“last but not least”)

Those might surprise you—these everyday things. Here are others, seen online:

Beware the ides of March.
(1.2.23), Soothsayer

Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!
(3.1.77), Cæsar

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Cæsar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
(3.2.79-83), Antony

It was Greek to me.
(1.2.289), Casca

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
(2.2.34), Cæsar

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
(5.5.75), Antony

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
(1.2.146-8), Cassius

This was the most unkindest cut of all.
(3.2.193), Antony

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods. (“a dish fit for a king”)
(2.1.173), Brutus

Not that I loved Cæsar less, but that I loved Rome more.
(3.2.23), Brutus

What Julius Caesar is, though, beyond the quotes, is a fascinating study in the greed for power desired by a few men who would lay waste to the land, their institutions, and the people they would lead in order to attain more of it. It’s a study, too, in the use of language, of rhetoric, to not only persuade but also hoodwink a crowd with conspiracy theory, getting the crowd to do the looting, killing, and army work in order to feed the hunger of one man’s desire for power. In other words, it’s an instructive play, and it’s a hard play, and its themes are and remain universal across civilized societies everywhere. And it took me years to understand it and to love it. That is Shakespeare for you. That is life for you.

The Public and the Republic

Should you care to, there’s a solid Wikipedia article on the meaning of republic, and it’s worth a look at the history. At the time the play is set, and in real life, Julius Caesar was the head of the Roman Republic, which republic was an exercise in representative government that carries over to our American Democratic Republic today. At the time Shakespeare’s play begins, Caesar was about to be crowned emperor by the people, and the concern of the play is, and remains, our own concern today: Can we have representative government of the people with a king in charge, however idolized by the general populus? And is assassination (a word that first appears in print in Shakespeare) of the man who would be king ever the right choice? (Hint: No.) And why are crowds so easily manipulated and so goddamned fickle? The rise of Marc Antony is especially chilling. If you read nothing else, read Act III of the play: The assassination, the aftermath—ring leader (and yet noble) Brutus’s hasty act and unrehearsed speech, Antony’s vengeful use of that speech in his own rhetoric to turn the crowd to “mutiny”; and finally, the shocking turn of the grieving Antony into the gleeful victor as the crowds tear away on a killing spree: “Mischief thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt.” In Act IV, he has his own nephew killed. And we and the people learn the hard way: Great a speaker as he is, devoted to Caesar as he is, Antony is really only loyal to Antony.

Coming Up Trumps

Yet another Shakespeare play resembles the present age of American politics: it’s Richard III, only with a president who is infinitely less intelligent if no less mentally unstable than Richard. But what the two have in common is a desperate need for power, accolades, and above all loyalty. Watch Al Pacino’s wonderful documentary and filmed version of scenes from the play, Looking for Richard, and you’ll see what I mean. And another Shakespeare play that comes to mind, in a painfully diminished form, is King Lear, where the old king divides his empire among his three children, demanding from each supplication and eternal devotion. And we all know how that turned out. Or we should—and it’s why education and the arts matter, matter, matter. Goddammit anyway. Because if you’d just read Shakespeare, you’d see that not only have we seen all this before, we saw it in language so far elevated above the National Tweet it makes your head do a Spicer spin. And yet Shakespeare might make some people feel, you know, stupid, or put down, because anyone can understand a tweet. And isn’t that all we need?

Going Public

 Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. 
To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” – Oskar Eustis

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Photo by Miss O’ from the Staten Island Ferry, June 2017

The Public Theater (see definitions 1-7 above) is a terrific institution (https://www.publictheater.org), if hit-or-miss in terms of quality, so that the same theater that gives you Hamilton and Fun Home also gives you David Byrne’s (“not ready for prime time at ALL” according to friends) Joan of Arc and, according to some reviews, this production of Julius Caesar (Read Oskar Eustis’s statement here: https://www.publictheater.org/Julius-Caesar/). As to hit-or-miss: Who cares? Life is hit-or-miss (just ask our president and his two ex-wives, and probably his current wife, to say nothing of the business owners he screwed over), and unlike those folks who tell you “life is not a dress rehearsal,” Miss O’ would argue that life is ever that. It’s an experiment, and it requires engagement, adjustments, rethinking, and, sometimes, new costumes to keep up with the fashions of the times. It’s also worth remembering that, as Oscar Wilde said (pardon the cliché), “Fashion is a thing so hideous we are forced to change it every six months.” And most politicians, too, can and do become hideous—hence the need for term limits.

Speaking of term limits, most plays have a limited, and often terminal, run. Modern productions reinvent classic plays for a new age, and they, too, have a limited run. And this president, provided we don’t have an assassination attempt, a military coup, or war to end all wars, will also have a limited run. He’ll be sent packing, or will leave of his own accord to start up a TV network, or die of heart failure in office, or walk clumsily out after Inauguration in eight years, red necktie beating his face, as he heads to his gold-plated jet for rich living in his Tower till the end of his days. It’s a crapshoot, and yet we have to keep playing craps.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?

~ Cassius to Brutus, Act III, scene i, Julius Caesar
Translation: Karma is a BITCH.

The personal is political, as the feminists say, and the political becomes personal, in the best and worst ways, depending on the will of a fickle public. I took a trip to Ireland in April and noticed that there really was a pub, or public house, on every corner, and it’s not hard to see why. We could use a drink. The Irish know that as well as anyone.

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At Aggie’s Pub in Killea, Dunmore East, Ireland.

And a TRIP. Travel, for goodness sake. Travel. Get out of yourself. I can’t tell you how much better I felt about life, both during and after Ireland. Show up to life, sure, and then pay attention. And the more we, the people, can venture out and gather in public and LISTEN as well as protest, the better chance we’ll have to weather this latest political tempest. Ask Ireland about The Troubles, for crying out loud. This is nothing, I tell ya. And still we have to DO something about ours. So do that, and in a democratic way.

 

Sending love to all,

Miss O’

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The Ring of Kerry, view, Ireland. It took the Irish 400 years to gain their independence from Britain, the empire that captured and subjugated everything and everyone, except the little island next door. These are my kind of people.