Saturday, February 28, 2009

When This Kiss Is Over It Will Start Again

In heaven, every day is Saturday. It starts off with a warm bowl of oatmeal with butter and brown sugar, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and toast with pineapple jam. On TV is an old Tarzan movie with Johnny Weissmuller, followed by an hour or two of late 70s-style American and European catch wrestling.

Then I walk my dog Ripley on a white sand beach, where we frolic in glassy waters with our friends—five boys eternally 25 to 40 in age, tall as or taller than I, heavy as or heavier than I, athletic, show-offy. The boys and I give each other haircuts and massages and wrestle on the beach. The sand squeaks under our feet.

We snorkel in the coke-bottle green waters and watch schools of neon-colored fish until noon, when one of the boys carves fresh pineapple with a machete, which we all eat sloppily, juice splashing down our chests and bellies. We follow the pineapple with fresh guacamole and chips and margaritas made with fresh-squeezed limes.

In the early afternoon I sit out on a deck under the sun, Ripley cuddled up beside me, the heat of the sun on my skin, tempered by a cool breeze, and read Proust in French, which I understand perfectly, until I doze off—into dreams of ancient shepherds and hunters and fauns and youthful heroes—and magnificent seaside cities with skyscrapers shaped like statues of gods and titans.

A nearby stereo plays Satie.

I wake up to find that one of the boys from the beach has snuck up on me, pulled down my shorts, and started sucking me off. I smile, amused. I grab him by the hair and throw him over a well-stuffed chaise longue and fuck him up the ass, his silky pink sphincter pulling and pressing the thick veins of my cock for an hour or two, for most of which time we’re both shooting gallons of jizz.

Our warm skin smells of sweat and baby oil.

Meanwhile, Ripley sleeps nearby on his pad and dreams of chasing liver-flavored squirrels and never having to be alone.

After sex, I tell my buddy my dreams, and he hangs on every word. Then he vanishes into thin air.

Late in the afternoon everybody I have ever invited to a party arrives—needless to say, we all get along again—it’s heaven!—and we celebrate under brightly lit paper lanterns, served Sazerac cocktails, with real absinthe, and lines of cocaine, by startlingly handsome waiters. Circus acrobats perform around us, occasionally picking up a guest (or me) to toss into the air and fondle. Musk-scented go-go boys dance in g-strings—or nothing at all. Magicians perform sleight of hand, saw ladies in half, and make elephants—and monkeys—appear and disappear.

The guests and I speak a new language at every party so that, along with our accounts of our own special portions of heaven that day, we can express ideas and feelings expressible in only that language. However new the language is to us, we are witty, quick, and insightful. We dance, and the rhythm of the music never flags. Then, before fatigue sets in on us, the guests vanish without goodbyes.

Then I go to my computer and write a few paragraphs of a story—about two international spies of equal beauty, prowess, and wickedness, who fight and fuck each other in exotic locales around the world. Unseen online friends contribute plot twists, encouragement, and pornographic details. The story never ends.

In a private cinema, I watch Nashville for the very first time. Now and then, there’s a second feature, a new film by Cocteau, or Kubrick, or Hitchcock, or Bresson, or Pasolini … shot entirely on location in another heaven.

Then, always, I’m joined by somebody—or two or more attractive people—I’ve never seen before—occasionally, though rarely, somebody I know, one or more of the party guests, perhaps—and he or she or they make love to me—heaven would not be heaven without novelty … and orgasms on the hour. Still, unvaryingly these night visitors are sexy, agile, confident, clever, strong, and totally in my thrall.

Every star glistens in the night sky, which looks like night does in a Disney feature. A meteor shower streaks across the sky and dies every 20 minutes. The tryst begins with touching, then kissing, then fucking, then touching again. Nobody speaks, but we do moan with pleasure.

Eventually they disappear—most of them forever—but there is no sadness. It was a wonderful time, and now it’s gone.

At bedtime I drink an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola while reading a Frank O’Hara poem. I put a scratchy 45 rpm record on of Jesus himself reciting the Sermon on the Mount—in Aramaic, which I understand perfectly—and Ripley and I jump happily into bed. The angels of my mother and my father appear to tuck us under the covers, and with a kiss they disappear. Ripley props his head on my shoulder, and we look forward to our respective dreams and another day of adventures and delights.

As we drift off to sleep, it starts to rain.

Friday, February 27, 2009

56 Movies That Rock My World

Fifty-six is the sum of six consecutive prime numbers: 3 + 5 + 7 + 11 + 13 + 17. It’s the number of signers to the Declaration of Independence and the number of curls in Shirley Temple’s hair.

It’s also the age I’ll be at the end of next month. Here are 56 movies that rock my world.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Throne of Blood (1957)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
In Search of the Castaways (1962)
The Birds (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Le Samouraï (1967)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Fellini-Satyricon (1969)
The Boys in the Band (1970)
Clockwork Orange (1971)
Cabaret (1972)
The Exorcist (1973)
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Nashville (1975)
Carrie (1976)
3 Women (1977)
Halloween (1978)
Manhattan (1979)
Raging Bull (1980)
Diva (1981)
The King of Comedy (1982)
The Ballad of Narayama (1983)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Dreamchild (1985)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Law of Desire (1987)
The Last of England (1988)
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Without You I’m Nothing (1990)
Poison (1991)
The Long Day Closes (1992)
The Cement Garden (1993)
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Safe (1995)
Fargo (1996)
Happy Together (1997)
Happiness (1998)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Irreversible (2002)
Elephant (2003)
My Summer of Love (2004)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Half Nelson (2006)
Love Songs (2007)
A Christmas Tale (2008)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on Hate

Today the Southern Poverty Law Center numbers 926 hate groups in the United States, up by over 50% over the 602 documented in 2000.

To qualify, a group has to spread propaganda attacking minorities or stage events—from hate-filled graffiti to actual assaults—that target minorities for special abuse—though mainstream groups like the New York Post would probably not be included. The list includes neo-Nazis, black separatists, the KKK, and skinheads bashing racial minorities.

The SPLC credits the rise to a number of factors—most recently the economic downturn and the Obama presidency—contributing to the proliferation of fear, backlash, and hate.

I have to wonder whether the boom in new media, namely blogging and text messaging, is a factor, too. Certainly benign in themselves, these tools can facilitate communication and organization among aspiring bigots.

Why all the hate?

Well, poor education, limited life experience, and economic factors often influence the formation and growth of organizations engaged in scapegoating immigrants, welfare recipients, and religious minorities, safe enough to blame when things are going wrong, though seldom, oddly, the rich, the smallest yet most influential minority—not at any rate the white Christian rich.

And the elevation of any detested minority—whether to the Presidency or just to a reasonably successful TV series—is often perceived as an insult to those whose identification with the traditional power groups—Christian, male, American-born—is their sole source of self-esteem.

Coincidentally Clint Eastwood was reported today as defending racial humor, decrying political correctness. “In … earlier days,” the 78-year-old actor-director-musician reminisced, “every friendly clique had a 'Sam the Jew' or 'Jose the Mexican' - but we didn't think anything of it or have a racist thought. It was normal that we made jokes based on our nationality or ethnicity. That was never a problem."

And assuming, with good reason, Eastwood is not defending racism or hate, I would agree. Somehow we moderns, particularly we Americans, have become a thin-skinned, humorless group quick to grab media attention or file lawsuits on pretenses Mrs. Grundy would embrace. We seem no longer to be an America who can understand the wit of Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Sarah Silverman, whose outrageous parodies of closed-mindedness are now too often taken to be the thing itself.

And yet for all our propriety over racially charged language, we’re still a culture who can criticize Barack Obama for not being black enough and for using his blackness to some advantage, without recognizing the implicit bigotry and illogic in such charges. People who would never say the “n word” can still be awfully uncritical of their own racism and ethnocentrism, provided they never express it in conventionally abusive terms.

But the problem is attitudes, not words.

As a frequent grader of student essays, I routinely encounter all kinds of hate speech, almost all of it artfully avoiding use of hot-button language (though usually this is the only artful thing about them). Vindictiveness towards gays can be made to sound almost Christlike—so there are days when, as a gay man, I am thankful for Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, whose bald, forthright bile and venom are anything but sugared. These days hatred of Arabs and Muslims can be made to sound like compassion for the victims of 9-11 and the good people (mostly children, apparently) of Israel. (I recently read a student essay that, in the nicest possible way, called for the genocide of the Palestinians living in Gaza.) And it seems easy enough to impugn the honesty, intelligence, and cleanliness of Spanish-speaking immigrants in general without resorting to a single epithet—and not only that, but also sound like a defender of the world’s poor and dispossessed.

I understand hate. I won’t pretend otherwise. I have a hatred of the very rich and the arrogant. I like to think I don’t generalize my hatred—its targets are usually specific or, at any rate, restrictive to those who have drawn my ire through their actions. On occasion I prejudge on the basis of income bracket or propensity to snap one’s fingers at underlings—but I try to leash and minimize my prejudices, sometimes by simply being honest and apologetic about them.

What I’m saying is that, as dismaying as the growth of violent and fire-breathing hate groups is, I’m more disturbed by the easy way hate enters our discourse politely—with a well-scrubbed face and neatly combed hair. The way plausible deniability can be perceived as a fair excuse for obvious codes of racism—and here I’m thinking about the detestable New York Post cartoon of the shooting death of the “chimp” who “wrote” Obama’s stimulus plan—and, yes, by the way, I do catch the allusions to the infinite monkey theorem and the headline-grabbing shooting of Travis the performing chimpanzee—but I see the plain-as-the-nose-on-my-face racist stereotype, too.

One more thing—racism in America has long served the interests of those who hold power. Not that the rich and influential usually have to put on sheets and hoods themselves—or put on blackface to caricature the funny mannerisms of the stereotype—but by using race as a wedge to divide the working classes—and divert righteous anger over economic injustices towards bitterness and lunatic hate—the elites have long been able to escape scrutiny and condemnation for their flagrant abuses of privilege and power.

It’s not coincidental that hate groups proliferate in times of economic distress, but the lurking variable here may be those who benefit most from poor workers turning against each other, rather than uniting in a common cause to advance their own economic interests.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Limits of Idealism

In my British literature class today, we were discussing Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, in which Carlyle, who lost his faith in the Calvinist religion he was raised in, conservatively argues that the forms of Christianity (in particular, the idea of duty) have value in structuring culture, even in an age of doubt and skepticism.

Several students raised the issue of religion and meaninglessness and morals, arguing that without a belief in God there can be no morals because life then has no meaning.

Carlyle’s point, though, is that work and action have meaning even without a fundamental faith in myths of origins and without a clear view of the future towards which one is supposedly working. His stance is that doubt is better than faith when doubt works in the interest of a genuine love of truth and faith provides only a pleasant fantasy in which one cocoons oneself from the harshness and indifference of history and the cosmos.

People who say that they need belief in God because existence would be too terrifying without it are, at heart, pleasure-seekers—even worse, as Carlyle implies, because they are pleasure-seekers willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of comfortable illusion.

To act, for Carlyle, is better than to believe. Some students objected though that moral action has no merit apart from a belief in a God who judges those actions. I pointed out that the Greeks developed a sophisticated moral sense based on the needs of society, quite apart from their gods, who, as forces of nature, acted any way but morally.

One student objected, stating that this precisely was her problem with “secular philosophers”: they argued about morality—what made a man or a republic good—but failed to find a center or reason for moral behavior. And therefore each successive philosopher debunks the findings of his predecessor, and we are then left with a belief in nothing.

I pointed out that religion did not solve this problem any better—because just as philosophers cannot agree on their conception of the Good, theologians cannot agree on their conception of God—and, further, a 21st century Christian’s concept of God is markedly different from a 19th century Christian’s concept.

At bottom, there is a problem with idealism, I think. The purity of concept that idealism demands is incompatible with taking action, because no real action can embody an ideal. Our choices are then to preserve moral ideals—encase them, codify them, study and defend them—or to act on them.

Simply to preserve principles of morality is a form of idolatry, one that does nothing to ensure that culture grows and flourishes. Its focus is entirely purity of form, and that purity must never be sullied by crass action—such morality has limitless capabilities, but no duty to act.

To act morally, though, means to rub shoulders with the realities of life at a particular time, under particular circumstances, and in the process almost certainly to watch as that morality mutates or evolves into something altogether different. But it is the latter morality, not pure and not ideal, and constantly mutating, that has the force to push culture forward—whereas the rarefied ideal morality is decadent, self-absorbed, and impractical.

Surely, then, it is better to pursue goodness in one’s actions—even at the risk of making mistakes, perhaps even in unintentionally doing harm (and here it’s useful to remember that Carlyle hated utilitarianism, which argues that ends justify means, regardless of intentions—and judges results in terms of statistical norms)—than to define and defend a pristine goodness that is impossible to perform.

Though I can’t say that I buy into all of Carlyle’s ideas—and hardly any of his Tory politics or love of duty for duty’s sake—I think he’s on to something here. Certainly the problem with the great ideologies—Christianity, for instance, or, for that matter, liberalism or conservatism—is that they are prone to self-absorption, endlessly refining themselves and polishing themselves up to the point that they cannot be touched, much less performed.

We cannot reduce morality to a set of rules without destroying the dynamic power of morality. Likewise, we cannot simply believe in moral precepts and believe that that belief, without works, without action, without performance, is enough. And we cannot so spiritualize or intellectualize morality that it loses touch with ordinary human existence—or fails to address real human problems, such as hunger, homelessness, panic, and despair.

An inflexible idealism, though awe-inspiring to look at, never gets its hands dirty. In effect, in reality, all it can do is criticize and destroy. Nothing, in fact, that leaves a grimy footprint can ever measure up to its pure ideals.

And, as Carlyle puts it, the gulf between capability and performance is immense. Moral and political ideologues work best when they have no power whatsoever—but display a sense of vast though untested capability. Then they can stand on the sidelines and shine superiorly.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Justice (An Excerpt from a Letter to a Good Christian and a Good Friend)

I can't be sure, of course, but I think I did understand your comment about heaven changing us and I never thought that it excluded the possibility of [the late pastor Jerry] Falwell's changing too. (Like you, I'd hope he would have to change a good bit more than I would have to.) My point was that (1) the transience of "identity" in this present life further complicates what sort of personality we can imagine for ourselves in an afterlife and (2) the indifference to one's mortal passions (good and bad), so often emphasized as an explanation for why the absence of affectional ties (or beloved family pets) or the presence of those we disliked here on earth (like Falwell) won't bother us up in heaven, strikes me as coldly inhuman—an impression that (3) I'm willing to admit is possibly based on ignorance of the higher mysteries of everlasting life ... but no less a real drawback for my wanting to jump into it.

Perfect justice strikes me as both a lovely and frightening idea too. I don't know why. I'm certainly no defender of injustice. Perfect anything (perfect beauty, perfect truth, etc.) has a chill in it. In my mind, anyway. As I get older, I'm becoming quite fond of imperfection—by which I don't mean evil (I hope)—and the old expression that it is people's imperfections that we come to love the most strikes me as very true. Human fallibility has its charms—and so the idea of human perfection (in life or after life) looks better "on paper" (or even as a catalyst for positive improvements in real behavior) than in reality.

As for justice—I'm not sure that perfect justice would be anything less than tragic—as the Greek poets warned ages ago (of course, their gods were anything but just)—a total disruption not only of the wickedness we would like to eradicate but also of the sweetness and light we would like to preserve. Not to be flip or offensive, but the idea of a God whose sense of holiness and justice requires a sacrifice (of his own son, as it turns out) is not as reassuring to me now as it once was. As practical jokes go, the Old Testament's God's insistence that Abraham sacrifice his son, only to stop his hand at the last second, or his temptation of faithful Job by annihilating his entire family was never funny ... or, in any way that I can grasp, enlightening. Of course, as Job himself was told, who am I to question the ways of God? Still, I can't pretend God's holiness appeals to me at all. But I betray a crass, peevish, and myopic nature in admitting as much.

But, again, justice. Yes, justice would be good, even at a high price. But something in me rebels at the idea. People who push for justice often rub me the wrong way—even when I agree that their cause is just. I have the same response to righteousness—the need to "be right" seems to cause more harm than it's worth, when all is said and done. But all these things—justice, righteousness, and certainty, too—belong to another world, and I can well imagine that a lot of people would like to belong to that world ... and for some reason, though my sympathies are with them, I can't see me liking it there.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On the After Life (Excerpt from a Recent Letter to My Friend Tim)

My best guess is that, if life after death exists at all, it exists for one and all—just a guess, mind you—because few things come into existence just on the basis of belief—whether we're talking leprechauns or the Alps. If I choose not to believe in leprechauns or Alps, I don't think that choice either diminishes or increases their probability of actually existing.

I think the existence of life after death is worth pondering in general ... just not for me. It no longer enters my mind as something either so probable as to require my attention or so desirable as to excite my hope. As I mentioned, I can't imagine eternity as a satisfying experience—and I am not the first to say it, though I did arrive at the thought independently: I think it's no sadder that no trace of me will exist five years after my death than that no trace of me existed five years before my birth. Certainly one can imagine such a situation as a loss or deprivation of some sort—but that seems like only a trick or quirk of the imagination—like the perception that I should have been born a harlequin in 16th-century Italy, but somehow fate or unbelief has cruelly robbed me of the joy such an existence might have given me.

As for a version of me that would not be repulsed at meeting Jerry Falwell in heaven, such a version of me strikes me as being nothing like me or, at any rate, too little like me right now for me to rejoice that such a me might last through eternity while the current me is a mere memory, if even that.

On the other hand, I am so different now from who I was 20 or 40 years ago, I could argue that it's conceivable that a future me might be BFFs with Falwell. Such a conception, though, troubles me on several levels at once—and further raises the admittedly pharisaical question of, if I could live everlastingly, which version of me would that be? Certainly, it's possible that in heaven I will be "as the angels, neither marrying nor giving in marriage"—which is where I am right now, come to think of it, thanks to Proposition 8 and similar theocratic laws—and it's further possible that such an indifference to mere human relationships and affections would extend to not minding sharing a quiet nook with Jerry Falwell from time to time.

Also, there are questions whether angels like horror movies, have sex, get goose bumps, and eat guacamole that need to be settled before I can determine to what extent I would want to be "as the angels."

(My lack of spirituality betrays superficiality in my sense of pleasure that sometimes mortifies even me.)

Human Oddities

In the late 60s, 1968 or 1969, I went to the Florida State Fair with two older guys, seniors at the Christian high school we all attended. I can’t remember what put us up in north Florida around state fair time—at the time I (we) lived in Miami. As I recall, our school choir had performed up there or up further in Georgia.

I had no money, so mainly I just stood outside while Buddy and Carlie paid the money to go inside some of the attractions, including a freak show. While I was waiting for them, doing nothing, some of the human oddities came outside, not the extreme ones, the ones you had to pay to see, but the fat lady and the dog-faced boy and a few others, sitting in folding chairs with boxes of 8x10 glossies, which they autographed for anyone willing to pay the two bucks (or whatever) to buy one.

As I said, I had no money, but it broke my heart—for some reason—to see the “performers” or “exhibitors” or whatever you’re supposed to call them so grimly signing photographs in hopes of making some extra money. Nobody was buying. I wanted to, though, even though I knew it was a rip-off.

The two guys were giving me a ride home—we were well acquainted but not really friends because I was two years younger than they. When they came out of the sideshow, I asked if I could have some money to buy the autographed photos. “Are you crazy?” one of them asked. “You didn’t even see the show.” And the other one assured me it was a waste of money, and, besides, it’s just as likely they didn’t have the money to lend.

That’s about all I remember of the external facts of the event, but what remains a more lasting impression, for some reason, was the deep sadness of seeing the fat lady and her coworkers so earnestly playing at being celebrities—with an imaginary fan base who would want to keep and treasure those photographs as mementos of having visited the state fair.

Today, actual celebrities—and wannabes like Nadya Suleman—sometimes evoke in me the same odd sense of ludicrous sadness.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Teaching writing and thinking is not for vitamin-deficient sissies. Two classes in a row this morning. I’m still drained. Students want me to outline their papers for them—fill-in-the-blank argumentation—and there are days, like today, when I sincerely wish I could do it for them.

A good third of them, at least, don’t seem to get that value is relative. For their papers for Friday, in which they apply criteria of just war doctrine to a particular armed conflict, they want to say simply “X is/was justified” or “is/was not justified.” I’m trying to get them to look at both sides of the conflict—weigh the relative merits of both sides’ attempts to justify their aggression, and then make a judgment on their own on which side’s justifications are stronger or weaker—based on the given criteria.

And a third of them want to let their adjectives carry the argument for them—so in their rough drafts I’m seeing a lot of statements about the “cowardly” tactics of X or the “barbarous” Ys versus the “brilliant” and “peace-loving” Zs.

Frankly I’m with the Zs too—all the more so because they’re brilliant and peace loving—especially after six or seven conferences with students, individually, following class. My brain is fried simply from having to repeat basic instructions—apart from the challenges of critical thinking—instructions like having a “minimum” of five sources (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to answer the question “Will you be taking off points if we have more than five sources?”)

And though I’m seeing some success in whittling down the numbers of these—1 or 2 out of every 10 students’ papers I’ve looked at still consist of large blocks of undigested direct quotation of sources—accounting for as much as half of the total word count … as if two paragraphs lifted from a USA Today editorial can compensate for the fact that they’re just not thinking through the issue and so are coming up short on ideas, reasons, and data to support their positions.

Why oh why don’t I just assign them movie reviews to write … or character sketches of their unforgettable and no doubt brilliant girlfriends and boyfriends?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reading Henry Miller

I am rereading Tropic of Cancer. Slowly this time, to savor it.

I was talking about Henry Miller to one of the other faculty … on Thursday, I think. She tells me she’s a Reformed Presbyterian—I’ve been meaning to google it to find out what it is—and a fan of Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh.

But at one time she considered writing her master’s thesis on Miller (I wrote mine on O’Connor, coincidentally).

Her parents had forbidden her reading certain books—no Henry Miller! no Richard Brautigan! Her parents, it seems, were sophisticated in their prohibitions. In college she set out to read everything that had been banned to her in her early adolescence. No doubt, an excellent reading list.

She recited a passage for me—from something, we couldn’t remember what—concerning Miller sitting on the john taking a shit while eating a crust of bread. Out of toilet paper, he wipes his ass with the bread and continues eating it.

I couldn’t recall the scene from my reading, but I was delirious over her description of it. You had to be there, maybe. She read it as a Christian symbol of Christ’s debasement in human form.

My parents were strict about most things—but they allowed me to read any book or see any movie. When I got interested in Ian Fleming, they bought me all the James Bond books in paperback. I was thirteen, or not even.

Earlier, I had gone to see Cleopatra with a black couple my father knew from work because minors weren’t allowed in to the movie without adult guardians and my parents weren’t interested in seeing what they assumed to be a sleazy sex movie.

In seventh grade I did my English oral book report on Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. I understood little of its historical context, but I stood in front of the class and related a scene in which some country women pinned down a whore who had been fucking their husbands, jammed a jar of sheep shit up her snatch, and then broke the jar inside her.

I thought it was “grown up.”

The teacher interrupted my report, and after class, she asked me whether my parents knew what I had been reading. Yes, I said, they did. She then said that in the future she needed to approve my readings before I did any more book reports.

This was in Las Vegas in 1967.

56 Singles

I spend most of my time in a music-less world—I wake up to the BBC on the radio, drive practically everywhere with the radio and stereo off, and almost never think to play my CDs unless I’m entertaining guests. I had an iPod, and I gave it away to a good home. My tastes in music are dismissible as “pop”—at heart I’m neither an opera queen nor a rock-n-roller—guiltily I am all but innocent of jazz and rap, unless I can dance to it or it makes me cry—I like alternative music but fail to keep up with the trends—I’m no good as a hipster or a slavering fan.

So here’s my list of singles—a virtual playlist—music that resonates with me, much of it, like me, fairly old. I’ve picked 56 because I turn 56 next month, but I’ve made no attempt to track the development of my musical tastes, such as they are; if I have given some sense of it, I’ve done so entirely by accident. And I have no doubt that clever psychologists could easily wrap me up in a neat package of some sort based on my picks—or at least identify my niche for advertisers.

1. “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones
2. “Golden Years” by David Bowie
3. “Heaven” by Talking Heads
4. “Dancing Queen” by ABBA
5. “Strange Angels” by Laurie Anderson
6. “Whatever Gets U Thru the Night” by John Lennon
7. “Dreaming” by Blondie
8. “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood
9. “Atomic” by Blondie
10. “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” by Melanie
11. “Imagine” by John Lennon
12. “Shock the Monkey” by Peter Gabriel
13. “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” by the Supremes
14. “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones
15. “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield
16. “One of These Days” by Emmylou Harris
17. “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee
18. “Here Comes Your Man” by the Pixies
19. “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty
20. “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads
21. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths
22. “You Are My Sister” by Antony and the Johnsons
23. “Promised Land” by the Style Council
24. “Daniel” by Elton John
25. “Mother and Child Reunion” by Paul Simon
26. “Bohemian Like You” by the Dandy Warhols
27. “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse
28. “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares
29. “Wheels” by Emmylou Harris
30. “To Sir with Love” by Lulu
31. “Knife” by Grizzly Bear
32. “Go West” by Pet Shop Boys
33. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” by The Smiths
34. “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat
35. “Union City Blue” by Blondie
36. “Every Day Is Like Sunday” by Morrissey
37. “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads
38. “Somebody Loves You” by the Eels
39. “Your Woman” by White Town
40. “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong
41. “Heart of Glass” by Blondie
42. “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones
43. “Take Me to the River” by Talking Heads
44. “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie
45. “Slave to Love” by Bryan Ferry
46. “Island Girl” by Elton John
47. “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes
48. “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio
49. “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones
50. “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed
51. “Mr E’s Beautiful Blues” by the Eels
52. “This is the Day” by The The
53. “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen
54. “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)” by the Bee Gees
55. “Dog Faced Boy” by the Eels
56. “Fame” by David Bowie, Carlos Alomar, and John Lennon

Be My Valentine

Secret Admirer

Thursday, February 12, 2009


This morning I was talking with my students about how to introduce an argumentative essay. I gave them four simple steps. Step two was to summarize one major position on the issue under discussion, and step three was to summarize the opposite position.

A student raised her hand and asked me whether steps two and three could be reversed. It was one of those times when I feel I’m in the presence of a zen master.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Burn in Hell

I don’t give a rat’s ass about the economy. Not really. It’s either way over my head or beneath my contempt. Let Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P suffer—Lord knows they have presided over the suffering of others—here and abroad—for quite a while now.

I have to echo the sentiment of Luis Caplan, physician to the poor in the Bronx for decades, now facing eviction as his retirement savings evaporate: Wall Street can “burn in hell.”

What amazes me about the current economic debacle is that, given the nation’s crumbling infrastructure—bridges, levees, highways, dams, public schools, borders, its military reduced to making or mail-ordering its own armor—nobody, nobody in the federal government and nobody in the private sectors, has found a way to turn these crying needs into jobs and opportunities for new productivity.

Instead, the focus has been on propping up Wall Street—financial institutions, in particular credit companies (read: glorified loan sharks) and wealthy speculators (read: smoke and mirrors) to encourage you and me to go to Disney World and break down and buy that widescreen TV we’ve had our eyes on, while CEOs continue pulling in 600 times our annual income, of which they pay a lower percentage in taxes—after bizarre deductions like African safaris passed off as legitimate business expenses.

It, all of it, is incredibly surreal.

So, in the spirit of the hour, I settle down to watch the new Criterion Collection DVD of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel, a delightfully grim apocalyptic fantasy of extravagantly wealthy Mexican arts patrons who, after an evening of sipping champagne and toasting their own importance, find themselves unable to leave the room—even though nothing at all blocks the way.

As madness sets in, and as a bear and a small flock of sheep set up residence in the rest of the mansion, everyday people stand watching outside, equally impotent to storm the house and save the aristocrats.

At one point a doctor in the film tells his rich friends, now contemplating the murder of their hosts, whose hospitality they had just recently enjoyed and whom they now blame for their own failures of will: “Consider the terrible consequences of your actions. This vile act of aggression does not stand alone. It means the very end of human dignity and reverting to savage animals.”

Right now I can’t think of a better metaphor for the Senate fat cats stalemated by their own greed, cowardice, and lack of imagination, okaying a neutered and probably altogether misguided stimulus plan. And of a populace, angry, frustrated, and scared, transfixed by the collapse of the American dream—by which I do not mean widescreen TVs.

Kudos to Criterion for timing this video release just right.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Blossom Dearie, 1926-2009

When I was young I lived in a world of dreams
Of moods and myths and illusionary schemes
Though now I'm much more grown up
I fear that I must own up
To the fact that I'm in doubt of
What the modern cynics shout of

They say it's spring
This feeling light as a feather
They say this thing
This magic we share together
Came with the weather too

They say it's May
That's made me daft as a daisy
It's May, they say
That gave the whole world this crazy
Heavenly, hazy hue

I'm a lark
On the wing
I'm the spark of a firefly's fling

Yet to me
This must be
Something more than a seasonal thing

They say it's spring
Those bells that I can hear ringing
It may be spring

But when the robins stop singing
You're what I'm clinging to
Though they say it's spring
It's you

If poets sing
That when a heart sympathetic
It's merely spring
Then poets plights are pathetic
Though I'm poetic too

They say it's spring
For lovers, there's where the lure is
That evil thing
For which September the cure is
This, they are sure is true

Though I know
That it's so
That my fancy may turn in the spring

With the right
One in sight
One can find a perpetual thing

Did I need spring
To bring the ring that you bought me
Though it was spring
That wondrous day that you caught me

Darling I thought we knew
That it wasn't spring
'Twas you

(words and music by Marty Clark & Bob Haymes; seductive allure by Blossom Dearie, RIP)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Crying Light, by Antony and the Johnsons (Album Review)

The music of Antony and the Johnsons is a mix of jazz, faerie music, blues, and cabaret. It’s definitely not rock-and-roll, not pop, not rap. The group’s second album, I Am a Bird Now, won (somewhat controversially) the prestigious Mercury Prize in the UK in 2005. The new album, released last month, is as delicately downbeat as the previous albums.

Antony Hegarty’s stark but lush vibrato transcends its inspirations. Singer-performance artist Laurie Anderson compared it to the effect of hearing Elvis Presley sing for the first time. I’d go further and say it is like hearing the human voice in song for the first time in prehistory.

In a New York magazine article last month, Antony included among his influences Kate Bush, Boy George, Marc Almond, Nina Simone, Lou Reed, and Nico Muhly. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Antony included John Waters, Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith, and Kazuo Ohno as his spiritual fathers. Kazuo Ohno is the 102-year-old pioneer spirit of Butoh dance in Japan, whose picture appears on A&tJs’ new album, The Crying Light, which is also dedicated to him.

No other musical artist I can think of could treat ecological annihilation with the sublime poetry reached in song after song on the latest album, arguably the group’s best yet. In Antony’s characteristic reversal of affect, sadness in joy, happiness in melancholy, these songs, like “Another World,” find the sweetness and light in the long-predicted global cataclysm, only now clearly evident to our senses: “I’m gonna miss the wind / Been kissing me so long.”

My gift is not for music analysis. Music often strikes me as excessively manipulative—and too easily consumable as a commodity that merely encourages more consumption. Unless I can dance to it, I rarely see the point of it. In solitude I prefer silence or, more precisely, the ambient sounds of my real environment.

But the music of A&tJs is a comfort to me. His poetry, as mystical as anything by Rumi, Teresa of Avila, Blake, or Yeats, is grounded in imagism. There’s a hard edge to even his most fragile lyrics:

“Epilepsy is dancing,
She’s the Christ now departing,
And I’m finding my rhythm
As I twist in the snow.”

The video for this song, directed by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix, Speed Racer), captures its (and the whole album’s) eerie pansexual eroticism spurred by an awareness of fading wilderness.

I can imagine that Antony is not for every taste. He is often compared to Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie, artists with whom he’s collaborated and whom I admire as well. But it seems to me that Antony is several rungs above them—his artistry is unforced, never precious, never overtly “experimental,” though his accomplishment is unlike anything in music now or ever before. Unlike his influences or the artists he’s compared to, Antony imbues his work with a unique mix of moral righteousness, spiritual vision, and naïve intelligence.

Sunday Beefcake: Lee


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Saturday Night at Club YouTube

Tomayto, Tomahto

In Munich today, Vice President Joe Biden assured attendees at a security counsel meeting that to avoid future conflicts America would act “preventively, not preemptively.”

Forget for a second that “preemptive” and “preventive” mean the same thing—that dictionaries list the one as a synonym for the other. Speakers are often permitted to stipulate a more limiting definition of a word for the sake of argument—even of the same word—as we do when we say, “My mother was not a real mother to me.”

By way of clarification, Biden stated, “America will not torture.” A big difference, then, from former President George W. Bush, on October 5, 2007, that “This government does not torture people.”

Contrary to what appear to be superficial similarities between the two declarations, and generously assuming either or both were honestly meant to be true, there are differences in the statements that we can construe as significant:

One. The tense. “Does not torture” is the present tense—typically, English speakers use a form of “to do” in front of “not” to indicate a present negative. Present tense is used not to convey what is happening right now—for that, we use the present continuous: “This government is not torturing people”—but rather it conveys general practice—“I dance all the time,” but “I am dancing right this instant.” Without the “not,” “do” in front of a verb is sometimes used as an intensifier—I do assure you.

“Will not torture” is future tense. More obvious than the English present tense, future tense conveys future action—but opens the possibility, if only by insinuation, that America has tortured in the past.

Next. “This.” Bush said, “This government does not torture.” An interesting use of the word “this” as a substitute for an indefinite article—such as “a” or “the”—of a possessive pronoun—such as “my” or “our.” Bush’s use is particularly interesting in light of the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the government, this government, does send and has sent detainees to foreign governments who do torture.

Strictly speaking, then, Bush’s statement would not be a lie if in fact torture were limited to this government’s simply shuffling off detainees to other nations to do the dirty work for us. (I use “us” intentionally because here in the United States of America we the people are the government, sometimes a point of pride for me—though not in this case.)

Similarly, Biden’s use of “America” leaves open the possibility that America is not averse to letting other “less ethical” nations do this dirty work for us. Further, “America” is a bigger generalization than “this government,” more inclusive and also more abstract, since “America” is equally an entity and an idea, whereas we usually think of “government” as more an entity than an idea.

As an abstract generalization, though, the statement “America will not torture” could easily be contradicted if, for instance, Insane Clown Posse produces another album or Michael Bay directs another movie or Two and a Half Men has a seventh season on CBS.

Third. Bush’s statement quite properly has a direct object: “people.” “This government does not torture people,” as opposed to torturing animals or alien life forms. Biden’s statement omits a direct object. “America will not torture” does not specify any recipient or object of the verb “torture,” so its meaning is broader—but also imprecise enough to convey multiple meanings—or, in effect, little particular meaning at all. Since, as a verb, “torture” is transitive (i.e. it requires a direct object), the statement “America will not torture” is grammatically comparable to the statement “America will not notice.”

To be fair, Biden did follow the promise with a further clarifier: “We will uphold the rights of those we bring to justice.” My sincere hope still is that the Obama administration will effect more than a “new tone” in its policies—“tone” meaning merely a manner of expression in speech or writing—and although I’m not holding my breath for Obama/Biden to be perfect, or even radical, I do expect them (despite marked similarities in world view and corporate sponsorship) to be some substantive improvement over Bush/Cheney ... not just a kinder, gentler form of conservatism, i.e. the same old thing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Sermon: Cliff’s Notes to Every Religion

I like to think I am not a Christian. But I used to be, and if once-saved-always-saved holds true I will be spending eternity with a choir of angels on streets paved with gold. Like it or not.

Now the Righeous Voices, who still doggedly reside in my brain, spiritual squatters that they are, say: It must be that you were never TRULY born again.

Well, if I wasn’t, I can’t say who ever was. I certainly threw my whole heart and soul into it … for nearly 25 years … though the shine wore off my salvation a good 10 years earlier.

My faith in Christ’s atonement died in periodic spasms from about 1973 to 1982. I tried my best to keep it going, but it just up and died. Still, some vestiges remain.

So today’s subject is: What’s left?

It’s this: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Those words, solemn, stern, compassionate, a little loony, matter-of-fact, and transcendent, still knock me out:

“Blessed are the not so impressive, because they are what it’s all about. And blessed are lies, hate, injustice, intolerance, and dirty tricks against you, because they mean you must be doing something right.

“You are what you are in the same way that salt is salty. Don’t lose your personal saltiness. Who wants salt that’s flavored to taste like anything but salt?

“And you are a light in the world—so let yourself shine.

“I’m not here to abolish religion as you understand it. I’m here to show you what it’s really all about—it’s all right here, not a bit of it is missing: ‘Be to other people what you would like God to be to you.’

“It’s not just ‘pure in word and deed’ that makes you good. It’s your whole attitude towards other people. You can’t be good and disrespectful of others.

“If you find yourself wanting to do something nice for God and suddenly remember that you’ve treated somebody kind of badly. Forget God for a moment, and go fix up the mess you’ve made with your fellow human being. Take care of that other business before you start trying to impress God.

“And don’t think God’s impressed because you repress your sexual desires. Repressed or unrepressed, desires are desires. Do whatever you have to—poke out your eye, even—to control your desires. See where that gets you.

“Both what you do and what you think affect other people. Get that through your head.

“Forget keeping your promises, don’t make any promises in the first place. Let your ‘yes’ mean yes and your ‘no’ mean no. Don’t stake anything on the future, because the future is out of your control.

“Do not fight evil. If slapped, turn the other cheek. If robbed, find something else of yours to give to the thief. If forced to walk one mile, walk two. If asked for something, give it, and never reject a borrower’s request.

“Love your enemies and pray for those out to get you. God shines the same sun on the good and the evil—if you love only what’s good, you’re not loving the way God loves. [Wow.]

“Don’t show off your good deeds. Nobody needs to know you’re doing people favors. In fact, it’s best to give with such blind generosity that even you don’t know exactly how much you’re giving away.

“Keep your praying to yourself, too. Don’t let other people see you at it. And when you pray, say something like this—‘Father in Heaven, have it your way, you’re the one that’s holy and everything … not me. Just let me have what I need for today, and don’t keep tabs on what I owe you in the same way I don’t keep tabs on what others owe me. And don’t test me or let really awful things happen to me.’

“Forgiveness comes only to those who forgive. If you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you.

“When you deny yourself, don’t be all passive-aggressive about it. Look presentable. Let the fact that you’re sacrificing something for the good of someone else just be your and God’s little secret.

“Don’t invest, and don’t save. You can’t understand anything about Heaven if you’ve got a stock portfolio.

“And stop worrying. Don’t worry about life, or food, or health, or clothes. Life is more important than food, and your body is more important than clothing. Look at the birds, for instance—what kind of career path do birds have? and what kind of savings account? Yet God takes care of them, right? Show me one person who added an hour to life by worrying.

“And clothes? Sheesh. Look at the wild flowers and talk to me about haute couture—I dare you. And they get it for free! Show me a lily with an AmEx card. You can’t. So stop whining. And stop being so stingy. Stop waiting for your ship to come in. Instead, look for God’s kingdom (and, guess where it is—inside you). Don’t worry about the future because, believe me, you can’t handle that shit right now.

“Stop sizing up people. Or they’ll start sizing you up. The standards you measure others by will end up being the same standards they’ll measure you by.

“How dare you judge people for their little defects when you yourself are totally fucked up! Fix yourself first—and once you’re all perfect, you can maybe then dust the dandruff off the other guy’s shoulder.

“Stop wasting what’s really valuable on unimportant shit. Because, in the end, that unimportant shit will tear you up.

“Ask and you get. Seek and you find. Knock and the door will open. This is the way things work. You get what you ask for. You see what you look for. You end up where you’re heading.

“After all, if your kids want breakfast, which one of you would give them rocks instead? So if you know how to do nice things for your children—and, believe me, you are dicks, all of you—how much better does God, who’s like PERFECT, know how to do nice things for you? So religion in a nutshell is this: Be to other people what you would like to imagine God would be to you. What goes around comes around.

“Don’t follow the mainstream. The mainstream is for losers.

“And don’t trust preachers. They look okay on the outside, but they are wolves underneath. What you need to pay attention to is what they create. If what they create is bullshit, then they’re assholes. Simple as that.

“Not everybody who talks for God knows anything about God. Be suspicious. And remember what I said about the mainstream. Real goodness doesn’t advertise. Real goodness comes with no price tag. Real goodness is worth more than it appears to be worth. Real goodness produces more real goodness.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Breakfast of Champions

Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps smokes a bowl for this morning's issue of the UK's News of the World. Hey, the kid's alright. The 15 August 2008 issue of The Times (UK) had quoted Phelps: "I am clean. I did 'Project Believe' with USADA (US Anti Doping Agency) where I purposely wanted to do more tests to prove that. People can question all they want but the facts are facts and I have the results to prove it." He was talking different drugs, though, and I don't think anyone ever singled out marijuana for its performance-enhancing potential.

Guy who looks this hot AND vaguely retarded (never mutually exclusive in my playbook--yeah, OK, so I've got my kinks), it would be a real shame if I can't see him on my Wheaties over the recently published photo, which Phelps's people reportedly offered huge incentives not to see in print.

The Wrestler (Movie Review)

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a film about work and what work means in America. Mickey Rourke plays a fifty-something pro wrestler, Randy the Ram, once a hugely successful performer, now in failing health, urged by every external indicator to give up the game. In the process we see various work venues, not just the squared circle of wrestling—but also the supermarket, which we see is no less grueling and soulless than the rundown school cafetoriums playing host to third-string independent wrestling promotions—and also the places working-class people go or used to go to unwind (before the triumph of cable television and the Internet)—dive bars and, for one touching scene between Randy and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), an abandoned ballroom at a seaside amusement park, the scene of many a cheap date 50, 60, 70 years ago.

The movie is about how work informs the souls of the workers—and the difficulty of turning one’s back on careers for which one is no longer ideally suited because that work has become the source of meaning … and of authenticity, even in the kayfabe (i.e. fake) world of pro wrestling. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Aronofsky recalled how the film had resonated with a minister he met in the Midwest, a man in his fifties, like Randy, whose congregation has dwindled as church members look for younger, more innovative, no doubt more “purpose-driven®” preachers (Rick Warren having effectively become the Vince McMahon of modern Protestantism).

When I first heard that Aronofsky was making a wrestling picture—the term “wrestling picture” itself signifying a ludicrous lost cause in films like the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink—I expected post-modern camp, but what he has given us is a neorealist portrait of work in a post-modern world—where bodies are displayed and publicly humiliated as tongue-in-cheek entertainment, but a world where bodies still suffer and break down, where souls wear out, no more in the grueling punishment of barbed wire and staple-gun matches than in the daily grind.

The film gives us also a head-turning performance by Marisa Tomei. Her Oscar-winning performance in My Cousin Vinny long ago written off as a fluke, Tomei redeems her rep with what may be her best performance to date. She plays Cassidy, a 40-something stripper, a single mom, who has become Randy’s closest friend—that it is a friendship built on $60 lap dances is one more way the film shows us that fakeness and superficiality have their own integrity and validity in the post-modern world. As a stripper past her prime, Cassidy has to put up with rejection from patrons interested in younger skin and insults from drunken frat boys, for whom cruelty is just another form of amusement. Still, like Randy, she views her work both with a jaded eye and a deep sense of professionalism—a point she raises several times as she stops herself from crossing certain lines with her customers.

I would be thrilled if Oscar tied this year between Sean Penn’s breakthrough performance as Harvey Milk and Mickey Rourke’s revelatory performance as Randy the Ram. As everyone knows, Rourke’s own face is ravaged after years of semi-professional boxing. In close-ups, it looks barely stitched together, about to crumble. Rourke, even from his early role in Diner, is one of Hollywood’s most gifted actors at playing tough vulnerability (Penn is another)—and his face adds to the sense of devastation—and the performance is devastating … and true beyond what most screen actors are capable of.

From trailer parks to thrift shops, the settings of the film are grittily realistic but no less symbolic of transitory and migratory existence in the modern world. The wrestlers (most of whom are played by actual independent circuit wrestlers) travel from gig to gig, living in motel rooms and their vans. Randy keeps a school portrait of his daughter, on the back of which is a long list of crossed-out phone numbers, each with a different area code.

This is a world where everything is second-hand and two or three times removed from its center. Early in the film, Cassidy touches Randy’s battle scars and recites, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” When asked what she’s talking about, Cassidy cites not the prophet Isaiah, but Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

For years now when asked whether professional wrestling is fake, wrestlers have responded belligerently with the question “What is ‘fake’?” It’s the same question Orson Welles asked in his 1974 “documentary” F for Fake, about art and art forgery. Aronofsky’s film seems to repeat the question. Its brutal realism in portraying a fake and superficial culture, where the most authentic and lasting connections are matters of performance for pay, will make the thoughtful viewer reassess the nature of the world we live in now—and isn’t that what all good art is supposed to do?

Sunday Beefcake Beach Party


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