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Dec. 18th, 2014

Planet of Zoom

We were finally almost home from a long road trip late at night and like two asteroids crossing paths by chance in the vast vacuum somebody else was also out driving and just a few blocks from our home we scraped into each others' sides. The metal on the side of our blue car was crumpled and wrinkled and ragged which seemed odd because how could two smooth surfaces shred each other like that? Mom and Dad stayed to talk about something with the other driver and Nai Nai and I just walked home together since we were almost there anyway. When we got home I turned on the TV and I was instantly entranced by an old black and white story about a thief being chased by some bad guys; he scaled a wall and scurried upside down across the ceiling rafters then swung on a rope out of reach of their swords.

It was probably Lunar New Year. My brother and I played with the other kids; the sullen girls did whatever girls did while we high-spirited boys sat around the small TV with the Colecovision and an early 3D shmup called Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom. We took turns flying mission after mission down the unfurling alien planetscape as talked all evening and drank. Maybe the grownups played mahjong and gambled too, but at that age I wouldn't have noticed.



About 1:00 in the morning the laughter and loud talk was dying down. I guess my mom must have been alright, but dad was out of it, boy. We only lived a few blocks away, but it was Flushing and the unwritten law was that wherever you're going it must be while you are sitting inside of a car.

Voices echoed out in the suburban night as mom and dad walked us across the street to the car and let us in the back. After our doors were closed they stood outside having a discussion and having a discussion and finally mom got into the passenger side and buckled her seat belt. Dad let himself into the driver's side and sat down and pulled the door shut like he'd been doing it all his life, no problem. Then he turned around to ask us if we were okay and we murmured something barely awake and he turned back around and strapped himself in and jingled his keys a few times and then he found the car key and then he attempted to start the ignition, but suddenly we heard a loud thud and the car hood had popped loose. "Aiyyy," he commented self-mockingly after a confused pause and then he unlatched his safety belt and opened his door again and stood up to get out. He made his way around to the front and we could see him feeling around in the dark for the hood latch and then mom made a decision and wordlessly slid to her left, buckled herself in, and rolled down the window. Dad came back around and sounded surprised to find her sitting in his seat. They had a quick discussion, addressing each other by their first names in English, and finally he gave in, saying "okay, okay" and handed her the key, came back around to the passenger side, got in, and sat quietly as she started up the engine and took us home. For the rest of my life I do not remember another time he got drunk.

Sometimes when I replay that memory, he vomits against the side of the car before getting in. That's not what happened though. There was only one time I saw dad vomit anywhere near the car, and it wasn't because he'd been drinking. We were parked in Chinatown and ready to go home when he hurried out to pick up one last thing. I sat quietly with my brother in the back and mom in the front when suddenly without saying anything to us she glanced fearfully in the mirror, jerked around to look out the back window, wordlessly opened her door, slammed it shut and took off down the street. We turned around in time to see her disappear into the crowd.

When she came back she had her arm around him. He made it to the car, leaned one hand against it and threw up onto the curb. Bicycle. I was young and didn't understand why that was a big deal; wasn't like it was a bus or a train or something. How could something so thin and flimsy possibly do any harm to my father? But mom drove us to Gouverneur Hospital. The doctors gave him an x-ray and said there was nothing wrong and tried to send him home with a bottle of Tylenol. Idiots, there was fluid coming out of his ear. Mom lost it and flames spewed from her mouth and laser beams fired out of her eyes and the idiots scolded her and condescended to her -- that's how you know they were idiots, I mean what kind of idiots would idiotically piss off my mom, idiots -- and at one point they actually go mad and tried saying some stupid shit like "You are the most crazy/unreasonable/hysterical woman" but the more they annoyed her the more fury she unleashed upon them until she was a one-woman tornado of verbal destructions and lawsuit threatenings and finally my dad was admitted to Gouverneur Hospital and the next day the doctors took another x-ray and found out he actually had a really bad concussion.

If you were here I could tell you that exactly one year from today, there's another Star Wars movie coming out, a new one. It's gonna have the original Luke Skywalker in it but he's kind of old now. Well it has been a long time. I wish you'd been here to see the trailer with me. It's pretty good, although the weird thing for a trailer for a Star Wars movie is this one has no scenes in space: everything is on a planet with its own self-contained sky, as if we've lowered our sights since 1977, or we're more interested now in the destinations than the journeys through the space in between. It feels more like a western than ever and the sand dunes of the desolate desert planet now evoke the Xinjiang region of Western China where you grew up.



Today was six years. Two days ago, your granddaughter turned eighteen months. Tonight when we paid respects to you I pointed to your picture and said "Yeh Yeh" and she repeated it a couple of times and touched her forehead to yours as if she remembers seeing you from her dreams. Even if she doesn't, she's getting to be a big girl now and it's about time she started learning who you are.
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May. 17th, 2014

An epic surprise on the opening night of Gareth Edwards's Godzilla 2014

So one evening earlier this year, the baby had gone to bed and we were sitting on the couch chillin and I was wondering aloud about throwing a nice something for my 45th birthday this June. The last time I did that had been five years ago, a Star Wars themed gathering in Brooklyn Bridge Park that is a dear memory to this day. But since Squirmione's first birthday is coming up in the same month, I didn't wanna drag people out two weeks in a row. We talked it over and finally I got too tired and decided against having a birthday party this year and staggered off to bed. Little did I know that in my wife's mind the gears were silently turning . . .

One month ago, tickets went on sale for Gareth Edwards's Godzilla. I played briefly with the thought of organizing a group to see it together, but suddenly remembered when I did that in 1998 for opening night of the Devlin/Emmerich disaster. From the trailers and interviews, this one looked to be a much better movie, so I was hopeful, but didn't want to do all that organizing work again lest history repeat itself and everybody hold me personally responsible for yet another hellacious flimflam. My loving wife was still willing to take the plunge with me though, so I bought two tickets. She then asked me to forward her the email confirmation for her own "records" which I didn't understand why because I told her I'd already printed it out and even took a picture but whatever.

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Since this year is the 60th anniversary of the first Godzilla in 1954, I couldn't resist putting together two fun events at my college -- an Earth Day-themed screening of the 70's classic Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, and a panel discussion with Karl and Paolo about politics in giant monster movies for the Asian Heritage Celebration. Both events turned out nice and whenever people asked me if I was going to see the new one I told them I'd already reserved my seats for opening night! None of my so-called friends had contacted me about seeing it together though, which seemed to me to confirm that the 1998 aberration had killed people's childhoods and turned them into lifeless zombies, but I still had faith though I'm not judging anybody. Earlier this week, I dropped in on Linda and Carlos's offices to chat and they were both too tired to talk much so I left them alone. Stafford always full of energy dropped into my doorway another time and said "So do you have an opinion about the new Godzilla film?" As every teacher knows there are no stupid questions so I just smiled and said "hell yeah I do, I'm going to see it this Friday!" "Oh man, I wanna be you when I grow up!" he said.

Then last night was the night! My sister-in-law had volunteered to watch the baby for the evening. My mom had also agreed to be on call as backup in case the SIL got bored or tired or anything. She arrived early and played with her for about an hour and the little one seemed pretty relaxed. It was tempting to sneak out, but the head teacher at our daycare has taught us this strict rule that the parents have to always say goodbye before leaving their child with anybody, so we took turns kissing her goodnight and then brazenly walked out the door right in front of her. Yes we were so brave, really far braver than my sister-in-law when you really stop and think about it. Also SEEYA LATER SUCKAAAA

I noticed that wifey was carrying not one but two heavy bags with her. It was then that she decided to share with me that she was planning for us to make a "quick stop" at Bed Bath and Beyond, which is near the Lincoln Square IMAX theater. Yes, on opening night of the American Godzilla we were going to my second favorite store in the world second only to the thrill-a-minute IKEA, no that's not a mood breaker at all, oh and by the way honestly I really didn't know how we were supposed to have time for dinner now but whatever. We'd have to get off the train one stop early, but hey at least we wouldn't have to lug around the bags on the final walk to the theater. I took one of the bags because chivalry pays and we were off.

I was so excited. More than four years after it was announced, we were finally going to see Godzilla! On the train ride wifey regaled me with truly fascinating stories of how awesome the return policy is at Bed Bath and Beyond. By the time we got to the upper west side the bag was twice as heavy. We got out of the 66th street station into this pretty little plaza and wifey started looking around distractedly and checking her cell phone. Le sigh. Had she forgotten how to get to the store? "Is it on Columbus" I offered helpfully and she said "It's right there" and we crossed the street, found the store, went downstairs, and got on line. Well at least there was no line. I was about to barrel on to the cashier but then she stopped and got a confused look as she rummaged through her bag. Now what. She looked up at me with a sad smile and said "You're going to hate me."

"Why?"
"I left the receipts at home."
". . . So we can't return it?"
"No."
"Just show them your credit card, they should have a record."
"No, they don't do that here."
"Really?"
"I tried once."

Whatever. We went back upstairs. It's not like we were gonna watch the movie while standing up so what difference would a couple of bags make. Hey, what about dropping them off at Howard's place? Oh but their place was like six blocks in the opposite direction, by the time we got there we could be sitting at our seats eating popcorn already. Forget it.

By now we'd have barely half an hour to eat before the movie. Europan was just down the block and would be pretty fast, but just as were about to turn in she remarked about a belgian waffle truck in the little plaza by the train station. "I thought you didn't like that place anymore?" Well apparently I must have been mistaken because wifey wanted her waffles. Fine, it would be faster than Europan anyway.

We crossed the street and an older Asian gentleman in what looked like a night watchman's uniform appeared and must have seen my shirt because he randomly said "Gojira" and I said it back and then he disappeared into the twilight like the ghost of Ishiro Honda. As I got to the truck and ordered our waffles wifey wandered off to grab us a little table. I glanced over and she was smiling and gesturing at somebody. "Who are you talking to?" I called and she said brightly "Oh, you'll see." That's the funny thing about New York, even with millions of people here you always somehow run into somebody you know. Makes you wonder about all the times you must just miss seeing them even though they're right there. I brought the waffles to the table and looked over and Jeff, Tammy, and Chris were crossing the street. They must have been shopping because they were carrying big bags too. Whatever consumer zombies. "So what are you guys doing"? Jeff asked and I showed him the Godzilla shirt WL had bought me. "You're gonna see it?" "At Lincoln Square!" "Nice." Then I looked up again and this time I saw Grey, Victoria, and Carlos coming up the block. Well I didn't know the latter two were that close but they do work together so why not. Carlos said he owed money to somebody named "Marty" which was odd but I couldn't put my finger on why. Then Grey said "Happy birthday" which didn't make no sense but I figured he must have seen my shirt and reasoned that seeing a Godzilla movie must, ya know, just like Simon LeBon said on "Rio," "mean so much to me like a birthday or a pretty view" so I humored the guy and said thanks man. Then Victoria looked me in the eye and repeated what her husband had said: "Happy birthday." I looked at her dumbly and then looked around at the others and was like what the. Wow! Grey and Carlos handed me shiny packages and the jig was up. Even then it still took a few more minutes of chatting before it dawned on me that they weren't here just to hang out before the movie; they were actually going to see the movie with us! How? What? Hadn't I been the one who ordered tickets and talked her into seeing it with me? Did wifey smuggle the idea into my mind while I was sleeping like that movie Inception? You have to wonder sometimes.

Inside the theater we saw Dave, Marty, Paolo, and sitting on the far side of the theater we saw Stafford, Linda, and what looked like Thing Three getting into their seats. We called out to them and they waved. Finally finding our seats I almost tripped over some white chick's bag and she was like "excuse you" and I looked down and it was Fiona and Raphie! Raphie had found out our seat numbers from the secret Evite wifey had used and ordered tickets right away to sit next to us!

We saw the trailers and the movie and a good time was had by most.

When the lights came up I got to chat with people around the theater. Stafford gave the movie a B, close to my grade of B+, and I asked Thing 3 if this was her first Godzilla movie and she said yes and I said did you like it and she said yes and the nice thing about children is that they always tell the truth. It was also Victoria's first Godzilla which was shameful but don't worry Gracie you're not disqualified from anything because ultimately I hold Grey responsible. During the end credits the love of my life opened up the Bed Bath and Beyond bags which come to think of it were really not that heavy actually and inside were small red party favor bags to give out to everybody, inside each was a picture of Squirmione chewing on a Godzilla and the picture is framed with the silhouette of another Godzilla which looks so cool. Also each bag had a Gojira '54 blu ray and a G'14 soundtrack cd and a Yu-Gi-Oh style card game called "Godzilla Stomp!" that looks like something the guys from Big Bang Theory would play. Damn when did she plan and do all this? Inside the big bag I was carrying was a bunch of small plastic daikaiju to go on top of two cakes which Jeff and Tammy had been holding in their shopping bags. Wifey had planned for us to go to the fountain at Lincoln Center to bug out on birthday cake but it was raining so I tried to charm the theater manager into letting us use a table in the lobby that wasn't being used and didn't even have anything on it but that endeavour ended in failure and then some people had to leave so we said goodbye and thank you and then there were eight of us and finally Marty whipped out his Nexus and found a place nearby, Shalel Lounge, that had a party room that was the perfect fit.

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We walked over and sat down and talked about the movie and also we talked about other movies and cartoons and also about how nobody had said anything to me at the Bronx Zoo run or on Facebook and I told them about the Housewares Misdirection and we devoured dates wrapped in almonds and bacon and octopus with potatoes and radishes and flatbread pizza with butternut squash. Tammy mixed up Godzilla with Gamera and said Transformers was better and yep, that's Tammy. Chris had a recipe for the dates and bacon thing that was probably better though this was still pretty good. Dave made a really cool point about how the movie seemed to be making a statement against cell phones. Paolo informed us that there exists a line of sneakers that is inspired by Ridley Scott's Alien. At the end wifey's phone vibrated and she answered it. Text from the sister in law. The baby had been pretty happy and already fell asleep. We hung out some more and that was how my two-weeks-early Godzilla-themed surprise-45th-birthday party came to a roaring conclusion.

Epilogue: Of course when we got home Squirmione had woken up after all and been crying and when we walked back in the door instead of smiling like usual she looked mad at us for going out without her so we all stayed up and had leftover cake until the baby fell back asleep after 1am. The next morning we took the SIL out to brunch and I still had my Godzilla shirt on. One of the cooks at the restaurant asked me if I'd seen the new movie yet and I said yeah it was fun!

Dec. 18th, 2013

lullaby

On weekends he drove us everywhere and we came home late and I'd always fall asleep on the ride home. As we came off the highway and approached the first red light I'd always wake, but clung to the feeling of safety and soothing motion even when the car stopped by sitting very still with my eyes closed, keeping my breathing even. I knew when we were home he would come round to the back and slowly gather me up and carry me into the house. I'd be up in his arms my head on his shoulder happily pretending.

When he got the Chrysler, it came with a cassette deck and fancy left and right 70's stereo speakers, and a complimentary music tape lavishly titled "The Sound of Stereo." The A side had boring vocal songs, none of which I remember now except for a country ballad called "Please Come to Boston."

"I said, rambling man why don't you settle down
L.A. can't be your kind of town
There ain't no gold and there ain't nobody like me
'Cause I'm the number one fan of the man from Tennessee."

To this day the words make no sense to me -- so are the speaker and the man originally from Boston or Tennessee? -- but even though more than thirty years have passed, I still haven't forgotten those lines. Time and music can be funny. Words don't have to have logic to have an effect. Still, I preferred the other side of the tape which was all "classical" pieces, "Bolero" and "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Song of India." My favorites were "Swan Lake" and "Waltz of the Flowers," stately, flamboyant, romantic epics of composition that did for me in the 70's -- well, they did pretty much everything that prog-rock and adventure movie soundtracks would come to do for me in the 80's. It never occurred to me to ask my parents to fast-forward the tape, so I always had to sit through the vocal songs to get back to the good side again, but being small and sitting in the back seat I didn't have much say anyway.

(After my brother was born and became old enough to play checkers with me but not old enough to ever actually win, it became a favorite ritual of mine to plague him by singing Bolero louder and louder as my pieces began to reach his back line and one by one turned into a decimation force of all-powerful kings.)

One day we were home and he was home with us listening to WQXR. This was back when it was 96.3. There was music or talking or maybe a commercial and then suddenly a bell sounded, or a chime, something sonorous and wordlessly arresting. His voice took on a quizzical tone and he looked at me with widened eyes, and he said "Oooh, listen Sigmund! It's Symphony Hall! Symphony Hall." I don't think I understood what the words meant, and I don't remember what I did in response to this particular instance of his parenting antics, but looking back I suppose I must have been very small and crying, and he was trying to soothe me by pretending that sounds from the radio were things that were really happening in the room. To this day when I listen to QXR I do feel calmer, although I still have no idea what most of the music is about.

Yesterday was five years. Three days ago, his granddaughter reached six months. Tonight we burned incense and thanked him for doing his part in looking after her from wherever he is now. My mother says that when the baby smiles in her sleep, it's because he's speaking to her. That's nice, but I still wish she had met him in this world, so she could gaze into his eyes and smile at him when she's awake. As the incense burned, we ate pork chops and onions, and kale salad, and a great new invention of my mom's, a spicy sauteed eggplant spread, chilled and served over wheat toast, tangy and squishy and chewy like a vegetarian steak tartare. He would have loved it. The pork chop was yummy but the baby was yawning and starting to babble softly which was a warning sign that she was fatigued and about to lose her patience with our grown-up talk. We thanked my mom and got our things and went home to give her her bath before bedtime. As I bathed my daughter I sang the waltz from Swan Lake, and with her eyes full of sleep she smiled.

Dec. 19th, 2012

The kite and the fish

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"Excited" was not really a word you'd normally apply to dad. But on this occasion his single-minded focus was palpable.

We were in Maine. I was four, or in the years of being four. I have no recollection of what the kite looked like up close; maybe white, probably plastic, and definitely unremarkable compared to the sea and the trees and the mountain. But dad was running, calling me to look. "Sigmund." Maybe I was running after him or maybe I got distracted but the surrounding memories are lost to time. All I know is that suddenly the kite was impossibly high, an immense distance from where he and I stood together, a tiny shape I had to squint my eyes to make out against the vivid blue, as far, it appeared to me, as the moon or the stars or the sunrise he had roused us and driven us up a mountainside to watch from a forest grove just the other morning. I was surprised to see the kite, because where he pointed, at first, there could only have been empty sky. The spool was in his hands and the string ran up and up and vanished into infinity, and yet somehow, at the end of it, there was the kite, peaceful and distant and hovering patiently in the sky.

Then something happened. Looking back now, of course the wind must have calmed. He tried to run but he was the inevitable victim of his own success. All his running, the pure regardless intensity of his determination to set the kite free amid the clouds, was what had gotten him into this predicament in the first place: no matter how fast you ran, or how much ground you traversed, how could all your effort amount to the faintest tug on the other end of a string once the kite was already as far away as the top of the mountain? A two-armed pull against all that time and vacuum would be like a parent sitting down with a twenty year old baby picture and singing to the wrinkled paper. At the time I didn't understand what was happening but plainly something was wrong. He wasn't angry or even specifically sad; just dispassionately bent on saving our kite. But he might as well have been Daedalus.

Instead of running into the sky, the string now ran into the sea. There was a grey, almost ghostly island on the horizon, and he pointed at it ruefully and told me the kite had probably "landed" there. Its frail form was nowhere to be seen, but looking at that island sitting in the distance was my second revelation that day of the enormity of intervening space, of how distant a thing could be from me and still have its own reality. I stared at the string as it disappeared into the water, the wet thread taut and bobbing as it cut into the murky lapping waves, then looked again at the island, as far across the water as the kite had floated small and faint and high in the sky.

A few days later he was holding a different spool with a different string. We were standing on a wooden pier with a bucket of water, the string straight-lining over the edge, and after some time he pulled it out of the water and on the other end of it was a tiny silver dancing fish. I was amazed that such a vibrant, independent little life had come from the sea. He tried to pull the hook out of its mouth so he could throw it back but ran into trouble and couldn't do it fast enough, and things felt anxious and dreadful. When it was over the fish was drifting near the top of our little pail, upside-down. That was the closest I'd come to understanding death and how a lifeless body would float in plain sight instead of sinking and for years after, especially during swimming lessons, I hated the word "float." I was inconsolable, crouched on the pier and staring at the dead fish as it drifted with its eyes unable to close. Hours or days later our innkeeper called me over to her and told me that her daughter had thrown the fish into the sea and a seagull had swallowed it. Or maybe my dad just threw it into the sea himself, and the innkeeper or her daughter simply told us how a seagull could swallow a fish whole without even chewing. Either way the information was supposed to make me feel better, the grateful bird an offered displacement for the hopelessly lost object.

It didn't work though. Actually, it only made me angry at her daughter and angry at her because I didn't want either of them to keep talking to me. Neither of them would ever understand that my crying had only in the beginning been for the fish itself. Later the fish still made me sad, but it grew worse when I realized that my crying had made my father get so quiet. Mom tried to get me to stop and said apologetically "Daddy didn't know how" and that made me feel even worse because instead of the fish I now pictured my dad struggling with the hook while everybody watched. I didn't mean to blame him and I wished he'd never caught me the fish and I didn't care if its death had a place in the food chain but I was too young to put any of that into a sentence.

Years later I became obsessed with reading books about sport fishing and made them buy me a fishing pole, and every time we vacationed in the mountains I got mad at them if they didn't take me out on a boat first thing in the morning. And to this day, I can see the crashed kite, forgotten on that island, covered up in leaves and humate, still tethered to the other end of a long piece of string that disappeared into the water. Oh, the intervening years have given that island more sights to ponder -- the wreckage of a lost plane, old dinosaurs, singing fairies. But the kite will always be there.

Tonight was four years. At work I listened to your Sketches of Spain and New World Symphony, two times each. In the evening we had lamb chops with mom and burned incense. This week there was a crazy person on the news, so I've been thinking about the rifle you had in Xinjiang. But I really wish I could talk with you about the Mars Rover with its chemistry set for grownups, and the newly discovered evidence of polar ice caps on Mercury. I wish I could show you the vast winding river of methane on Titan, looking in the photos like the negative exposure alien landscape that soared below Dave Bowman. Growing up, I never imagined there could be life on Mercury, but the universe is magic and even just our solar system is full of mysteries that we will never know.

Jun. 10th, 2012

Thank you for reading!

Today marks ten years that Fatal Planetarium has been live. Starting with June 10, 2002, my first few posts were at Blogger.com, and on Jane's excellent advice I moved the operation to Livejournal. I still love LJ, especially the communities pages, and will definitely keep reading them. And it has been a privilege to get to know the readers who have faithfully perused my blog and sometimes shared their own thoughts about my posts. But ten years is a long time.

I'm concerned that I've been using my small readership on here (and via links imported to Facebook) as a permanent excuse to not even try to polish and publish some of my work for a wider audience. I'm haunted by Harlan Ellison's complaint that writers who write for free (or at least, for nothing) are flooding the web and devaluing the work of those who have committed to writing as a life's profession. I've learned that a blog with no particular focus is way too scattered and inconsistent to ever pick up more than a handful of devoted readers. I'm worried that I have become too conscious of my audience to really be as honest as I'd like to be sometimes. And most of all, I'm realizing that after ten years, I have started spending more time looking back than looking forward, that blogging has lost much of its therapeutic use and become more a comfortable habit than a healthy source of intellectual and emotional exercise. Basically, I don't know why I'm doing this anymore.

So I'm going to stop. What I've gained from this blogging experience is beyond estimation. I can never repay it and I'll always feel grateful that I had it. But ten years feels like a good long run. I maintained The Palace of Ming the Merciless for more than six years before 2002, and eventually moved on from that, so why should Fatal Planetarium be any different? Both out of vanity and to give myself time to archive my writing, I'm going to leave all entries live and public for one year, til June 10, 2013. And of course I'll still read any new comments that might happen to come in and reply to them! But today's post will be the final new entry and a year from today I'll take the whole thing offline.

In addition to my love Shinjite who has been my most loyal and supportive reader, I want to thank Zack, Jane, and everyone else who shared in this conversation with me over the years. If anybody has been lurking and would like to stay in touch, you may for the time being find me on Twitter and Facebook as "Sigmund Shen." (BMMB'ers, I still hope to see you all there.) Some of you I've built a long-running correspondence with, and others have just dropped in and out every now and then to say something funny or imaginative or just to let me know that I wasn't alone and you could relate. It's been an honor to get to know you all via this limited but interesting medium, and although this should go without saying, I'll state it for the record anyway since this is my last chance: I absolutely do not regret a moment I spent here writing and reading and sharing this virtual space with you. It's been incredibly exciting and fulfilling and humorous and stimulating and illuminating and fun! It's just time. Thank you for sharing this amazing experience with me, and I wish you all the best!

May. 29th, 2012

late

swimming lizard

It was already late morning. I opened up my backpack and emptied out the day-old groceries. At the bottom was my speech, three pages stapled together and folded in thirds. At the top I'd written the time of the ceremony, twelve-something. It was already past eleven. I stuffed it in my pocket and let myself out of the house.

When I got to the bus stop there were steps leading down to the platform. I hurried down and saw that the bottom two steps were completely underwater. It was a grey day, the water a deep blue, not choppy but calm and lapping quietly. I stepped into the water because I had to make the bus and it was too late to go back for my boots. Near the bottom of the stairs I woke up a lizard and it swam away lazily. I could just see its dark shape descending. I wanted to stay and look at it but I had to go.

Pivoting my torso and arms back and forth to push harder, I trudged through the water, my gaze fixed on the bus shelter. There were some relief volunteers standing at a table. They were there to hand out emergency supplies but no one was coming to take them. I waded past their table and continued on my way.

Finally I got to the bus shelter and stood waiting, the shadowy water swirling and eddying below my knees as I caught my breath. I looked up to take in the scene. Where the street should have been right in front of me, there was only a massive river of gently gliding water. Beyond it, in the distance, the city skyline stood peacefully in the orange haze: no helicopters, no electric lights, not a ship in sight. It was like an ancient ruin. Many hours must have passed because it looked like the sun was already setting.

I just stood there, waiting for my bus. Knee-deep in the water, looking out over the river and the quiet skyscrapers beyond. Late to give my speech. Waiting.

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May. 13th, 2012

Mitt Romney and John Lauber: What Matters

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So lots of people are coming up with lots of different things to say about the Mitt Romney bullying story -- that it's a non-issue, that it was a harmless prank, that after all it happened such a long time ago, that Lauber's family disputes the report, and that the story is a politically motivated attack. I even saw a comment on Facebook that argued that the errors in the Washington Post story, now corrected, mean that the whole thing is akin to the "birther" hubbub over Obama's citizenship.

And the fact is, it did happen a long time ago. I can relate to that feeling. You know, I'm 42 now, so for me, high school is also "ancient history." But you know what? Even when I was barely 21, if you asked me, I would have already said high school felt like a lifetime ago. This is because high school -- that thrilling and painfully intense transitional period between childhood and adulthood -- is by definition "ancient history" to anyone who regards herself as a grownup. That's why pronouncing Mitt Romney's bullying of John Lauber as "ancient history" sounds like a disingenuous way of saying "boys will be boys" -- what it does is diminish the importance of high school itself and therefore high school bullying.

How the grownups deal with a story like this is directly relevant to teens who are still in the situation now. Of course, we adults should try to forgive high school bullies for being immature, and we should also try to reassure bullying victims that adolescence does pass, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But there's a huge difference between saying "it gets better" and "get over it." By dismissing what Romney did to Lauber as a "harmless prank," we are sending the latter message to the victims of bullying.

Most of all, I don't get this comparison to Obama's birth certificate. The "birthers" are simply in denial of the facts, as much as climate change denialists or creationists are. Even with the corrections, the very long and detailed Washington Post article includes quotes from several people, including people who were friends of Romney at the time and who even took part in the attack, who have independently corroborated what happened and who indicate that the event was so intense they still remember it vividly half a century later.

With all the groundwork anti-bullying educators have done in the last few years, this would have been a perfect opportunity for Romney -- who has the spotlight this year and could use it for any purpose he chooses -- to reflect on what he did and use the hard-earned wisdom of his experience to put out a heartfelt and uniquely authentic message against bullying, against the cruel ostracization of people who are labeled as "different," against the arrogant, exceptionalist mentality that infected wealthy privileged children like himself a half a century ago and that American right-wingers today still yearn to return to. He missed this opportunity. Honestly, Obama has been a disappointment, and I'm not even sure I'll vote for him this year. But to me, the Washington Post article is about far more than just the election.

It's also a wistful and poignant read. In some ways, the portrait it creates of Mitt Romney and John Lauber recalls the "Pensieve" flashback to the story of James Potter and Severus Snape in J.K. Rowling. The scene humanizes both James and Severus, and although of course it's a painful thing for Harry to have to learn about his father, that pain is an essential part of Harry's growing up to fulfill his father's highest hopes. It's an awkward reality that we all try to honor and appreciate our parents while at the same time striving to become even better than them. I hope that eventually, once the stress and competitiveness and artificiality of this election year has passed, Mitt Romney's own kids will be able to read the article thoughtfully, with an open mind to the cruelty of the world, and with an open heart, even to the boy their father once bullied.

"Mitt Romney’s prep school classmates recall pranks, but also troubling incidents"

Apr. 6th, 2012

Things that piss me off

1. Betty White. I'm sure she's a nice person, but why is she suddenly everywhere? And the stupid thing is, that's really all the whole joke boils down to: every time she shows up we're supposed to recognize that it's "funny" because ... HAHA, IT'S BETTY WHITE AGAIN! Whatever she actually has to say -- about global warming, or the 2012 election, or Fukushima for example -- really doesn't matter. Hell, it's not like old people are useful for their experience or wisdom or anything! And if you don't love seeing her then, well, you must be a bad person who hates your grandma.

Freud once told a story about an infant boy who loved to play a game his mother called "fort-da." He was bewildered when his mother disappeared, and laughed in relief everytime she came back. He became so obsessed with the game that he would purposely hide his toys from himself ("Fort!") and then uncover them, chortling in pleasure ("Da!") If I remember right, the kid's father had been absent for months fighting at the front in World War I so this was supposed to be his way of dealing with that. So the next time you're watching TV and burst into mindless giggles at the sudden appearance of Betty White, ask yourself: what is the infantile neurosis I am dealing with?

2. People who put too much detergent in the washing machine. Idiot, I have to use that machine after you! That's means I'm going to have to pay for an extra rinse cycle (sometimes two) just to get the nasty chemical sudsing agents left behind from your load out of my clothing and linens! And why would YOU even want all that extra dried detergent in your bath towels? So they can erupt into reconstituted soap everytime you dry yourself off after a shower? Because you like to fall asleep to the soothing aroma of chemical perfumes in your bedsheets? Because drowning your clothes in white soap bubbles is the only way you can tell they're "clean?" Or did you just think the detergent was gone because the final spin cycle made all the bubbles go away?

3. Chrono Trigger. I've been trying to replay this game on the Nintendo DS. Well guess what, it's boring! The blind nostalgia for this game is such that even young geeks who weren't born when it first came out somehow think it's the epitome of Japanese RPG's. But even back then it was never more than an interesting disappointment that we only finished playing because there were hardly any other JRPG's out in English at the time. How could it not be disappointing, coming right after what was arguably the greatest JRPG of all time, Final Fantasy VI? What made it even more of an anticlimax was all the hype -- the historic collaboration between the developing teams for Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest! If that was what they were going for then why hire some hack composer instead of Nobuo Uematsu or Koichi Sugiyama? Why make the lead character a blank wordless cipher, the laziest way in the world to trick the player into relating with him? (Technically, it's not that you even "relate" with him -- it's that he doesn't say anything that you CAN'T relate with because -- he doesn't say anything! Yes, Crono is the Vanna White of RPG protagonists.) The graphics were undeniably pretty at the time, but bear in mind that they had to sacrifice gameplay to fit all that data on the SNES cart. How? By eliminating all enemy encounters from the overworld map, which was blasphemy back then but routine procedure now. Some RPG's don't even have "overworld maps" any more, just decorated flowcharts where your movement, strictly speaking, is one-dimensional. Well, there goes exploration! But ooooh, look at the awesome graphics! What's that you say, it's two decades later and the graphics aren't awesome anymore? Well, they were awesome once and that's all that matters in the land of nostalgic fixations!

4. Cereal inner bags that won't open right. You turn off the clock radio alarm to start a new day of work, drag yourself out from under the warm covers, use the bathroom, stagger into the kitchen, take down a bowl and pour some milk into it, then reach for the new unopened box of cereal in the cupboard. Assuming you can break open the box top lid without giving yourself a paper cut, you then reach the plastic inner bag, which you tug and pull and wrench and wheedle at until you finally decide you can use a little more force despite knowing full well what happened last time so you firmly grab hold of two sides of the plastic in the iron grip of determination to have a healthy breakfast and all of a sudden the bag just gives, the plastic splitting down the middle and sending Cheerios flying everywhere, bouncing off the floors and the walls, flying into the sinkful of soaking dishes, and sticking in your hair. "Next time I'll use a scissor," you mutter darkly. "Next time."

5. George Lucas telling a "reporter" from TMZ that he's not going to make any more Star Wars movies. I first saw Darth Vader right his spinning-out-of-control Tie Fighter and escape from the exploding Death Star in 1977, when I was seven years old. That means that I have gone 5/6 of my life having a new Star Wars movie to look forward to. Now, when I'm only halfway done with my life, George says there will "never" be another one? Well I'm afraid I can't accept that, Mr. Lucas!

I do realize this isn't all George's fault. Part of the blame must go to the so-called "fans" who were aghast at the special editions, or didn't appreciate the prequels. The ones who tricked Lucas into thinking Boba Fett was an interesting character deserving of his own backstory, and then turned their noses up at that backstory when they got it. The ones who laughed at Jar-Jar instead of with him (forgetting that in the 70's people were annoyed by C-3PO too), or who held Jake Lloyd to unrealistic standards, or who had almost forgotten how it felt to be an awkward adolescent in high school and therefore became furious at Hayden Christensen for trying to remind them. Seriously, there was a recent article in Slate about embarrassing authors we loved when we were teens -- the three writers who showed up the most, Ayn Rand, Jack Kerouac, and Raymond Carver, are all easy to imagine Anakin poring over obsessively in his various immature moods.

Then there are the ones who are so cynical and bereft of anything actually worth getting worked up over that they honestly think it matters whether Han or Greedo shot first. And the ones who, blinded by nostalgia, failed to realize Revenge of the Sith was so interesting and so good that it ended up redeeming not only the prequel trilogy, but Return of the Jedi as well. "Fans" such as these are part of the problem. But George is the Maker and in the end he is responsible for giving any new films his blessing.

I don't care what it is. It could be another trilogy or a series. It could be the post-Empire period or the era of the ancient Sith. But it just can't be TV or novels or video games, and I'd really prefer it not be a side story like that Boba Fett movie Joe Johnston was talking about doing. (Mace Windu, on the other hand...) Star Wars is an epic, cinematic experience. Without it being up on the big screen and telling a huge, sweeping, live-action story, it's just not Star Wars. Of course, capitalism and Hollywood being what they are, the only thing that could realistically prevent new Star Wars movies from happening eventually would be an asteroid striking the Earth. But if they're done without his leadership, they could end up in the hands of someone like Michael Bay. And if Lucas blocks them from happening in the near future, it could be too late to have Frank Oz do the voice of Yoda! It could be too late to commission a new original score by John Williams, and his work on the prequels -- "Duel of the Fates," "Battle of the Heroes," "Across the Stars" -- shows that he's still able to deliver rousing and romantic themes as timeless as any he's ever done.

I can imagine why Lucas is feeling so negative right now. When your ego has been pumped up by fan worship for decades, it must be hard not to take it personally when even a vocal minority of them turns on you. It must even feel like you've lost part of yourself. And even if he was open to changing his mind, would you hand over a scoop like that to TMZ?

But remember, his mind has changed before. He wanted to do a total of nine episodes originally, so it's possible that some part of him will feel unsettled until that's done. The fact that he finally came through with Red Tails after literally decades shows that once he decides to do something he's reluctant to let it go. He first sat down to draft Episode One almost ten years after Return of the Jedi, so since Sith only came out seven years ago he still has three more years to revert to his normal schedule. Even some of the infamous changes he's made have been undisputed improvements (remember the original Ewok celebration song at the end of Jedi?). And with the annual 3D conversions, a second look at Revenge of the Sith will help more and more people see what an amazing film it is in its own right, thereby helping people remember their love for Star Wars just in time for the re-release of the original trilogy in 3D.

The fans have always had a love-hate relationship with Star Wars (even I was a bit crestfallen after Return of the Jedi) but the vast majority of them remain fans. The saga's prevalence in popular culture is as high as it's ever been. For the time being, I'll be satisfied with what I have. I'm looking forward to trying the new Star Tours ride they just opened up at Disney. I don't have cable, but one day I'll buy the Clone Wars series and watch the whole thing, probably in one weekend. I'll definitely be reading the new Darth Plagueis paperback when it comes out later this year. And I still haven't cracked open my Complete Saga box, which is only the best-selling Blu-Ray set of all time. But beyond all that, I am also keeping my hopes up for the Holy Grail. As a Jedi Master once told us, "Always in motion is the future." The only thing I feel certain of is that if the scoop comes, you won't hear it first on TMZ.

Apr. 1st, 2012

The expedition

So this is what happened. After breakfast, she headed home to put on a warmer coat and we promised to meet at the drug store. I stood quietly on the escalator going down, trying not to look at the DVD's or cookie boxes. Wandered up and down the aisles, momentarily distracted by family planning and feminine products, and then I found it. The perfect little eye dropper, plastic tube topped with pink rubber. Actually the label said "medicine dropper," but that just meant it was even bigger. "This'll do nicely." Took it back upstairs, glanced at the pistachio nut mix while waiting for the couple in front of me, then paid and pocketed my new medicine dropper and looked up to see her coming in the door.

The comic book store was on the way there. A new girl, in her late teens or maybe early twenties, found one magazine saved under my name. I started to ask about the 80's Alan Moore Star Wars miniseries I'd just heard of a couple days ago, but she said "anything old" would be at the Manhattan store. Retreated to the back of the store and looked idly at the Final Fantasy summoned monsters but no place I've asked at has ever heard of Eden, and lately I haven't even seen a Bahamut in stock anywhere. Did spot my first Terra Branford action figure, which I stared at in mild awe for a minute. If this was Comic-Con and the price twice as high, I probably would have grabbed it and literally crowed in triumph. But after a few seconds it became just another toy, and I already had my magazine anyway, a showdown between Godzilla and larval Mothra at sea on the cover. Wifey showed me an Empire Strikes Back lunchbox that woulda turned me into Smeagol in the 6th grade but that was more than thirty years ago, so I just paid for the mag and we were back on our way.

We got to the promenade and turned north. That new skyscraper still has the hideous yellow and black checkered coat, meaning that it's probably permanent and actually meant to look that way. Who knows what they were thinking. We paused to stare at two charming birds with sheeny, multicolored feathers who were hopping between the pavement and the fence of a yard filled with bushes. One of them pretended to ignore us and walked around like an old man with his hands behind his back, slightly stooped over, eyeing everybody's business.

At the end of the promenade we turned right and walked down the steep incline to the water. Halfway down there's a dog run on the other side of the street, and we just couldn't resist heading over to have a look. We could have gone in but were content to lean over the fence, not wanting to intrude on this canine paradise. The owners seemed quiet, keeping their eyes on their own dogs, never meeting the eyes of another. The dogs couldn't care less about the odd behavior of humans, just running around and around again, thrilled to be with so many other unleashed dogs, looking so happy. One big dog chased a tiny little one in circles, neither of them going all out. Two more wrestled on the ground without any inhibitions. A beautiful white and brown one stood around proudly, confused that it wasn't totally the center of attention. A hipster with ear buds was about to head in and stopped to calm hers down before she opened the entrance gate and it bolted through. A sharp sobbing bark rang out to my side and I looked over to see another dog sadly leaving the park, its owner pulling the exit gate shut behind them. I thought of Harley and Diamond on our floor and wondered if Roseanne would let me walk them one day.

We passed a picturesque miniature Asian tree and it hit me that I was going to have to buy me a bonsai one day. They're not especially known to filter the air, plus tending and pruning the branches is supposed to test the patience of a zen master, but hey, you only live once. I'd have to find one about six inches tall so my Bandai Godzilla could still tower over it. I could take a snapshot of him standing high above the branches, glancing down in surprise to discover a diecast metal X-wing parked in the dirt.

We made it to the water, looking in vain for the organic ice cream truck. "Blue" something. Too cold for ice cream anyway, but I was getting thirsty. Still, we were almost there. Walked down the jogging path, stopping briefly to consider a somewhat promising pool with a little manmade spout in the center. The water's edge led to a trench that had dried out and sprouted reeds, then disappeared underground and under concrete blocks to emerge again, but it never led us to any natural source. There's definitely a small incubating salt marsh near the outer sweep of the jogging path but we must have missed it this time.

Then the path veered west and we had made it to the most likely target: a landing strip of cobblestones leading right down to the river's edge. I dug in my bag for my new medicine dropper and pulled it open, stuffing the blister pack back inside. Then I found the little specimen bottle I had packed inside the ziploc bag at home and pulled it out, twisting the cap off. All ready, I walked past the "Do Not Enter" sign, climbed over the chain that hung across the path, and knelt down by the water's edge.

No rocks, shellfish, seaweed or even moss, but it was real Hudson River water, some of it bracing with salt, some of it fresh and traveled all the way down from the snowy peaks of the Adirondacks. I had forgotten to hang back and study the waves before coming too close and got my shoes and pants splashed a little, but three or four droppers were enough to fill the little bottle. I stepped back over the chain, pressed the cap down nice and tight, then slipped it back inside the ziploc and carefully stood it and the dropper upright in a side pocket of my bag. As George Bush would say, mission accomplished.

It was cloudy but not too cold, a peaceful Sunday. A little further down there was a small paddling of ducks, drifting complacently by their own private harbor. Two seagulls dove down and sat on the water near them briefly, then flew off again. We saw a sailboat with a proud white and blue insignia unfurled. A ship docked in front of South Street Seaport with a mast twice as high as the three story mall. A helicopter with a flashing spotlight, bright enough to see even from the side, banked around the southeast tip of the island and droned off. Actually, on this walk there are too many helicopters and they get a little intrusive.

We decided to circle back from the south, and try to find a place to buy a drink in Cobble Hill. On the way we found ourselves at the One Brooklyn Bridge condominium, a huge waterfront complex with playgrounds and beach volleyball courts. Along the bike path there's a long two story structure with a sidewalk corridor intended for retail. Right now, though, there are no shops, nothing but reassuring art and words where the shop windows will one day be, selling how perfect and Parisian the spaces will seem once they're rented out, with florid marketing promises of a bistro so wonderful a young lady would never want to cook again, a flower shop so convenient it would supply the perfect gift for a husband to take home after staying out too late playing rugby. I know, advertisers do research, but ... rugby, of all things. There's a lot going on in this stage of the park, all of it open to the public and subsidized by the condo owners themselves (probably in exchange for some variance or tax break), and during the summer there are food carts and laughing children and tanned young people in swimsuits playing volleyball. But I don't think there's any place for rugby.

A water fountain, cruelly, turned out to not be working. Instead of cutting straight into Cobble Hill, we decided to keep heading south to see how far the bike path went. A fence rose by our side, blocking off a parking area filled with trucks that bore the logoes of about a half a dozen different beer companies. The building sign said Brooklyn Port Authority Marine Terminal. Not too far across the water, we could see the colossal, offshore anchored crane structures for loading and unloading shipping containers from the decks of sea freighters. Those things are so big they frighten me even in broad daylight, let alone at night when they're lit up in spotlight and shadow and anti-collision lights up top like shining soulless eyes, and you could almost imagine them lumbering to life like great Martian tripods. From this part of the walk, they're as close as I've ever seen them. I'm sure an engineer would explain that they're exactly big enough to be structurally secure and function without mishap, but a part of me believes they're intended to look that scary. I just don't know why there are so many beer companies parked at the terminal.

Rounding a bend we came to a straightaway and could see the bike path disappear far off in the distance. I was mad thirsty by now so we decided to cut the adventure short and head to Cobble Hill. The brownstones here were as nice as the ones in the Heights, and there was a surprising little playground nestled inside the center of one block that you wouldn't see unless you knew it was there. Not quite beach volleyball, but it felt friendly and warm. When we saw the sign for Fish Tales we knew we were almost to Court Street.

Turned right when we got there and saw the sign for Blue Something Ice Cream's brick and mortar. Blue River? Blue Milk? Blue Lactose? Finally the font resolved into Blue Marble. Sounded more like cheese than ice cream, but hey. Wifey tried a sample of the ginger (the verdict, not as good as Chinatown) and went for the mint chip. I was tempted by the vanilla soft serve but decided to live a little and try a scoop of the butter pecan. Guiltily, I also bought a plastic bottle of privatized drinking water to go with our ice cream. The one small bench in the parlor was covered in children and their grownups so we went outside and kept walking.

Too much pecan, not enough butter. The bottle of water was a relief but we were starting to get tired of walking, and I was growing impatient to get my river sample home. On a whim last month, Haniel had ordered me this neat plastic microscope online; it's not meant for university-level research but with a 100X and a 400X lens it's more than good enough for a Sunday afternoon microbe safari. My guess was that the river's edge was a little too choppy, the sample too clear for me to expect to come upon this miraculous lost world on the very first slide, but I knew a trick from junior high school -- leave some rice or sugar in the water overnight and at least one or two of whatever dominant populations were already there would explode.

After the last two weeks racing to beat a March 31st deadline, the last one week of some acute allergic reaction that the stress probably hadn't done much to prevent, and the last three days of prednisone, nausea, and erratic sleep, last night I had turned off all the light and noise and just lay in bed, trying to breathe deeply, wrapped in a healing blanket of quiet and dark for Earth Hour. Then at 9:30 I got up, finished the submission, emailed it off, and resolved that Sunday I'd sleep in, leave the computer off, head down to Brooklyn Bridge Park and take a sample from the river to bring home and explore with my new microscope.

On the last leg of the walk home, we came upon Book Court and just had to sit down on the bench outside to rest our feet. The animated couple already there moved a few inches over grudgingly, the man with one foot on the bench and the woman talking to him about The Hunger Games. A few seconds of that and we decided to go into the store where at least it would be warm. I went looking for the science fiction section and discovered that there was none, then wandered up to the poetry section and randomly picked out a collection titled Swan, by Mary Oliver.

Well, it won't change anyone's life, but Oliver's poems are full of elegant-sounding wisdom as well as a refreshingly earnest love for nature and solitude and cute animals, and at that moment, this poetic equivalent of some really pretty music by George Winston was more than enough to keep me on my feet reading, the tiny plastic bottle still upright in the side pocket of my bag.

"What Can I Say"

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.


I shifted a little around another patron who must have been looking for a title on the shelf in front of me, then went back to reading.

"For Example"

Okay, the broken gull let me lift it from the sand.
Let me fumble it into a box, with the lid open.
Okay, I put the box into my car and started up the highway
to the place where sometimes, sometimes not, such things can be mended.
The gull at first was quiet.
How everything turns out one way or another, I won't call it good or bad, just one way or another.
Then the gull lurched from the box and onto the back of the front seat and punched me.
Okay, a little blood slid down.
But we all know, don't we how sometimes things have to feel anger, so as not to be defeated?
I love this world, even in its hard places.
A bird too must love this world, even in its hard places
So, even if the effort may come to nothing, you have to do something.
It was generally speaking, a perfectly beautiful summer morning.
The gull beat the air with its good wing.
I kept my eyes on the road.


I decided that I should try settling into the book a little, to not be in such a rush. My new microscope wasn't going anywhere, this was my day off, I had just submitted my essay two hours before the midnight deadline, it was my first time out of the house in days, the side effects of the prednisone were almost gone, I had just had a lovely adventure of an afternoon walking by the river with my wife. I deserved a little more poetry before going home to the wi-fi connection and the Netflix and my bursting bag of laundry waiting to be done. And I guess I could have just bought the book and brought it home, but something in me knew it was only really perfect for the moment.

"A Fox in the Dark"

A fox goes by in the headlights like an electric shock.
Then he pauses at the edge of the road
and the heart, if it is still alive,
feels something--a yearning for which we have no name
but which we may remember, years later, in the darkness,
upon some other empty road.


Other poems, including one written in second-person to her dog Percy and another calmly singing that there's nothing wrong with a poet who likes to use the word "beautiful," are equally comfortable. They were so comfortable I made it through a quarter of them before I had to go and sit down next to my wife with her vegetarian cookbook, and read some more. They were so distracting I almost got a third of the way through before I put my bag down and absently let it lean at a slight angle against my leg. They were so tranquilizing I was almost half done with the book when my hand idly ran across the side of my bag and felt something wet.

"Oh no," I said.

My wife looked up. "What's the matter? Oh no!" she said sympathetically.

"I guess the cap wasn't tight," I groaned, holding up the wet ziploc above the dark spot on my bag and the drops of water falling onto the floor like rain from a shaken umbrella. My poor hapless protozoa! Sucked out of your cradle of life by a giant tube that fell from the sky, and left to die of dehydration on the hardwood floor of an independent book shop! Well, I guess we'll have to go again next week.

Mar. 28th, 2012

Adrienne Rich on lying

Of course, this is not just about women.

“Sex is full of lies. The body tries to tell the truth. But, it's usually too battered with rules to be heard, and bound with pretenses so it can hardly move. We cripple ourselves with lies.”
– Jim Morrison


Rich, Adrienne. “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose. Norton: 1979

It is clear that among women we need a new ethics; as women, a new morality. The problem of speech, of language, continues to be primary. For if in our speaking we are breaking silences long established, "liberating ourselves from our secrets" in the words of Beverly Tanenhaus, this is in itself a first kind of action. I wrote “Women and Honor” in an effort to make myself more honest, and to understand the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women. Since it was published, other women have spoken and written of things I did not include: Michelle Cliff's "Notes on Speechlessness" in Sinister Wisdom no. 5 led Catherine Nicolson (in the same issue) to write of the power of "deafness," the frustration of our speech by those who do not want to hear what we have to say. Nelle Morton has written of the act of "hearing each other into speech." How do we listen? How do we make it possible for another to break her silence? These are some of the questions which follow on the ones I have raised here.

(These notes are concerned with relationships between and among Women. When ''personal relationship" is referred to, I mean a relationship between two women. It will be clear in what follows when I am talking about women's relationships with men.)

1.
The old, male idea of honor. A man's "word" sufficed--to other men--without guarantee.

"Our Land Free, Our Men Honest, Our Women Fruitful"--a popular colonial toast in America.

Male honor also having something to do with killing: I could not love thee, Dear, so much / Lov'd I not Honour more, ("To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars"). Male honor as something needing to be avenged: hence, the duel.

Women's honor, something altogether else: virginity, chastity, fidelity to a husband. Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying.

Men have been expected to tell the truth about facts, not about feelings. They have not been expected to talk about feelings at all.

Yet even about facts they have continually lied.

We assume that politicians are without honor. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandals of their politics: not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political lie.

To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship, however, leads one to feel a little crazy.

2.
Lying is done with words, and also with silence.

The woman who tells lies in her personal relationships may or may not plan or invent her lying, She may not even think of what is doing in a calculated way.

A subject is raised which the liar wishes buried. She has to go downstairs, her parking meter will have run out. Or, there is a telephone call she ought to have made an hour ago.

She is asked, point-blank, a question which may lead into painful talk: "How do you feel about what is happening between us?" Instead of trying to describe her feelings in their ambiguity and confusion, she asks, "How do you feel?" The other, because she is trying to establish a ground of openness and trust, begins describing her own feelings. Thus the liar learns more than she tells.

And she may also tell herself a lie: that she is concerned with the other's feelings, not with her own.

But the liar is concerned with her own feelings.

The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.

The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.

3.
...In speaking of lies, we come inevitably to the subject of truth. There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no "the truth," "a truth"--truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.

This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler--for the liar--than it really is or ought to be.

In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even with our own lives.

The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire. The complexity and fecundity of poetry come from the same struggle.

An honorable human relationship--that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word "love"--is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

4.
I come back to the questions of women's honor. Truthfulness has not been considered important for women, as long as we have remained physically faithful to a man, or chaste.

We have been expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, pluck eyebrows, shave armpits, wear padding in various places or lace ourselves, take little steps, glaze finger and toe nails, wear clothes that emphasized our helplessness.

We have been required to tell different lies at different times, depending on what the men of the time needed to hear. The Victorian wife or the white southern lady, who were expected to have no sensuality, to "lie still"; the twentieth-century "free" woman who is expected to fake orgasms.

We have had the truth of our bodies withheld from us or distorted; have been kept in ignorance of our most intimate places. Our instincts have been punished: clitoridectomies for "lustful" nuns or for "difficult" wives. It has been difficult, too, to know the lies of our complicity from the lies we believed.

The lie of the "happy marriage," of domesticity--we have been complicit, have acted out the fiction of a well-lived life, until the day we testify in court of rapes, beatings, psychic cruelties, public and private humiliations.

Patriarchal lying has manipulated women both through falsehood and through silence. Facts we needed have been withheld from us. False witness has been borne against us.

And so we must take seriously the question of truthfulness between women, truthfulness among women. As we cease to lie with our bodies, as we cease to take on faith what men have said about us, is a truly womanly idea of honor in the making?

Women have been forced to lie, for survival, to men. How to unlearn this among other women?

"Women have always lied to each other. "Women have always whispered the truth to each other." Both of these axioms are true.

"Women have always been divided against each other." "Women have always been in secret collusion." Both of these axioms are true.

In the struggle for survival we tell lies. To bosses, to prison guards, the police, men who have power over us, who legally own us and our children, lovers who need us as proof of their manhood.

There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying, or that lying becomes a weapon we carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us.

5.
I want to reiterate that when we talk about women and honor, or women and lying, we speak within the context of male lying, the lies of the powerful, the lie as false source of power.

Women have to think whether we want, in our relationships with each other, the kind of power that can be obtained through lying.

Women have been driven mad, "gaslighted," for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each others' sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.

There are phrases which help us not to admit we are lying: "my privacy," "nobody's business but my own." The choices that underlie these phrases may indeed be justified; but we ought to think about the full meaning and consequences of such language. Women's love for women has been represented almost entirely through silence and lies. The institution of heterosexuality has forced the lesbian to dissemble, or be labeled a pervert, a criminal, a sick or dangerous woman, etc., etc. The lesbian, then, has often been forced to lie, like the prostitute or the married woman.

Does a life "in the closet"--lying, perhaps of necessity, about ourselves to bosses, landlords, clients, colleagues, family, because the law and public opinion are founded on a lie--does this, can it, spread into private life, so that lying (described as discretion) becomes an easy way to avoid conflict or complication? Can it become a strategy so ingrained that it is used even with close friends and lovers?

Heterosexuality as an institution has also drowned in silence the erotic feelings between women. I myself lived half a lifetime in the lie of that denial. That silence makes us all, to some degree, into liars.

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

The liar leads an existence of unutterable loneliness.

The liar is afraid.

But we are all afraid: without fear we become manic, hubristic, self-destructive. What is this particular fear that possesses the liar?

6.
She is afraid that her own truths are not good enough. She is afraid, not so much of prison guards or bosses, but of something unnamed within her.

The liar fears the void.

The void is not something created by patriarchy, or racism, or capitalism. It will not fade away with any of them. It is part of every woman.

"The dark core," Virginia Woolf named it, writing of her mother. The dark core. It is beyond personality; beyond who loves us or hates us.

We begin out of the void, out of darkness and emptiness. It is part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions, that materialism denies. Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something.

The void is the creatrix, the matrix. It is not mere hollowness and anarchy. But in women it has been identified with lovelessness, barrenness, sterility. We have been urged to fill our "emptiness" with children. We are not supposed to go down into the darkness of the core.

Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth.

The liar in her terror wants to fill up the void, with anything. Her lies are a denial of her fear; a way of maintaining control.

Why do we feel slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a relationship?

We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: "In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville." You tell me: "She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends." You tell me: "It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining." Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only by sight, this morning's weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.

I also have faith that you are telling me things it is important I should know; that you do not conceal facts from me in an effort to spare me, or yourself, pain.

Or, at the very least, that you will say, "There are things I am not telling you."

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

The liar may resist confrontation, denying that she lied. Or she may use other language: forgetfulness, privacy, the protection of someone else. Or, she may bravely declare herself a coward. This allows her to go on lying, since that is what cowards do. She does not say, I was afraid, since this would open the question of other ways of handling her fear. It would open the question of what is actually feared.

She may say, I didn't want to cause pain. What she really did not want is to have to deal with the other's pain. The lie is a short-cut through another's personality.

7.
Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze of itself; it has to be created between people.

This is true in political situations. The quality and depth of the politics evolving from a group depends in very large part on their understanding of honor.

Much of what is narrowly termed "politics" seems to rest on a longing for certainty even at the cost of honesty, for an analysis which, once given, need not be reexamined. Such is the dead-endedness--for women-of Marxism in our time.

Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it is a movement into evolution. Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad just to lie down with the shards we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper.

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.

When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them. When someone tells me a piece of the truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, sharp wash of relief. Often such truths come by accident, or from strangers.

It isn't that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us.

Thank you Adrienne Rich

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