Friday, May 24, 2019

The Coast of Sciatica

Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats  in The Hustler (1961)
"The women come and go. Talking of Michelangelo" are the famous words from "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." One might say that Metrosexuals talk about love and work and occasionally millenarian ideologies, to which they are drawn, that often verge on being cults. But there’s another demographic for whom the fourth and fifth vertebrae are the subject of discussion, along with Gleason and glucose scores. You probably knew that the spine was like an office tower with varying floors, but it was not until you reached a certain stage of life, when psychohistory became a thing of the past (since the narrative is drawing to its end) that you really began to understand that the Sciatic was not one of those charming little regions of Italy which have not been overrun by tourists. Can you imagine a period of time when all your hopes are not being channeled into love objects or the possibility of hitting the jackpot with the idea du jour, but rather getting an appointment with a specialist? OK so you’ve now left your old life and are trying to adjust to the exigencies of the new and what better name for a piece of equipment you’re likely to come across— to quote the poet “midway upon the journey of our life” finding yourself “within a forest dark”— than a reformer? Yes worse things could happen than for your foundering vessel to come aground on the shores of Pilates. Tennis and trysts are a thing of the past now that you’ve begun to accept that the fact that you’re a bunionaire! 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Selfie and History

Self-portrait of Rembrandt (1660)
The notion of a self, which could be rendered on the wall of a cave, was a watershed in the development of human consciousness. When you think about it a lot of mental gymnastics must have gone into this momentous stage of human evolution in which a hunter- gatherer connected with the Narcissus-like reflection he faced in the local pond. With no previous frame of reference it had to take some degree of imaginative capability to make the leap and realize  that the image was that of the viewer and not someone else.The great portrait painters of the Renaissance, Rembrandt, Franz Hals and Holbein the Younger would be right around the corner in developing the six degrees of separation that exist between a rendering and the real thing. The broader concept of mimesis in which lived reality could be duplicated, stored, catalogued and saved was a further extension of the self-reflexive awareness which is probably the greatest achievement of the approximately 5000 years of recorded human history. Parenthetically, doesn’t this amount of time seem small and even trite when we look at the eras that comprise the advent of life? Humans are really the new kid on the block and not a very old one at that, when one considers that Australopithecus afarensis, one of the earliest ancestors of man lived approximated 2.9 to 3.9 million years ago. What's so significant however about reproduction and mimesis is that the thrill of it has not vanished. Instagram, one of the most profitable subsidiaries of Facebook, is predicated on the same visual show and tell that cave men delighted in and initiated.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Men's Room

Kohler Dexter O.125 (Home Depot)
Remember A Room of One's Own the Virginia Woolf essay that’s often invoked in the service of woman’s rights. Robert Bly’s Iron John might be looked as the counterpart. But what about a book called The Men’s Room? Here’s the twist. Rather than offering a program of self-realization or actualization, the book would literally deal with the life of a men’s room, the urinals, the stalls, the grunts and the sighs of relief. When you think about it, there really isn’t much of a literature about the sounds and sights of a men’s room, even within the gay canon. The Men’s Room would be an eye opener. Towel dispensers, hand dryers and the politics of the urinal would all be dealt with. If you’ve ever been to a Broadway play or a professional sports event, you realize that men have a distinct advantage when it comes to restrooms. The line of men moves relatively quickly while you can see women looking increasingly agitated, alone in their misery as they switch their weight from foot to foot in order to hold their bladders (obviously the sequel to The Men's Room would be A Women's Room of One's Own). Yet men have their own issues. In Robert Caro’s biography, he talks about Lyndon Johnson at the urinal intentionally shaking his famed Jumbo in front of others walking into the Capitol bathroom, much like a territorial dog. Further, men’s rooms are often given short shrift and any man in the know, who can get away with it, will always try to use the door with the female icon, knowing that, if he has to take a crap, he won’t experience the unpleasant experience of sitting in the urine of some guy who's failed to pick up the seat.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Silent Majority


There are people with large Twitter followings. One of the sadder stories in the press recently concerned Olivia Jade, the daughter of Lori Loughlin, the actress indicted in the college admissions scandal. Olivia Jade’s product endorsements had garnered large fees, which she has now lost because of her parents’ actions in paying $500,000 to get her and her sister, Isabella Rose, categorized as "recruits" for USC's crew though neither had ever rowed—and Olivia’s apparently had it with the couple who begat her. However, the mass of men  (and women) live rather circumscribed existences in which the only legendary aspects to their behavior exist in the their own minds. James Thurber’s Walter Mitty became an iconic character in literature precisely because his predicament so clearly mirrored the disparity between the rather minor appearances most people make on the stage of life as supernumeraries in the crowd scene and the fantasies they have of being otherwise. Are you someone who has 3 followers on Facebook or 3000? It's probably somewhere in between, but in terms of the average Joe or Jane leaning more in the 3 direction. You not only have to work for notoriety to get it, but you have to know how and it’s a curious almost mathematical principle that the ones who possess so-called visibility exceed  “the silent majority,” the term used by Nixon in another context, by exponential leaps and bounds.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Chicago Statement


The problem with our current age of polarization is that there are no creature comforts to be found— from an ideological point of view at least. If you think that Trump is going to disappear like the L. Frank Baum’s Wizard and all of a sudden you’re going to find comfort in the pandemonium of Democratic identity politics, then you may find yourself facing an unpleasant surprise. It’s like the divorcee who wakes up to find she’s remarried the same man—a not too uncommon occurrence. The New Criterion which can be tendentious and repetitive in its insistent walking to the beat of a different drummer (with the exception of a wonderful writer named Dominic Green and the great stalwarts of conservative thinking like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke who the journal champions) can have its moments and here they are in their Notes and Comments section (January 2019) on the desecration of debate on the American campus. Commenting on “the Chicago Statement,” which emanated from the University of the same name in defense of free speech they remark, “Everywhere from Yale to Berkeley, coddled students clamor to be protected from 'offensive' ideas—that is, from ideas that challenge their taken-for-granted pieties about the world. It used be that higher education was about expanding one’s horizons and learning new things. More and more these days, it is about donning the ideological blinders so that no idea not certified to reinforce one’s prejudices slips through to unsettle one’s complacency.” Don’t get too comfortable with the folks at The New Criterion however since you’re very likely to read something else in the famously right leaning journal and wake feeling you’ve again married the wrong person.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Two Cheers for Lobotomy



Lobotomization is a productive therapeutic intervention, if you really want to get something accomplished. Sure if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but there are certain things that are beyond fixing. Certain parts of the brain may be like the three notoriously bad train systems servicing the New York metropolitan area, Jersey Transit (which needs amputation), Amtrak whose high speed Acela is headed for a nervous breakdown and the MTA, which conforms to the seventh and last propostion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus,  “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Treating mental illness is like one of those knock knock jokes.  “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” The problem is no one is saying “knock, knock” and there’s no one there, though you might subliminally wish  there were. You're all alone, locked in a set of repetition compulsions which infuse you with the illusion of an increasingly elusive reality. The only way to keep the world from falling apart is to increase the OCD to the point where your insides become like a particle accelerator. Now you can see a therapist and start at the beginning talking about your childhood and going as far back as the trauma of potty training while dealing with all the Winnicottian “transitional objects” you’ve taken hostage along the way. Or you can cut short the agony before you get to the famous crossroads where Oedipus brought about the very thing he was afraid of and trying to avoid by running away. Just clear the decks, stop thinking about so much courtesy of a little prefrontal lobe work and you’ll save a bundle of cash. Who says that real happiness doesn't derive from living in a vegetative state?

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Temple Body


"Atlas" by Lee Lawrie (photo: ThreeOneFive)
If you were a young woman growing up in the 50’s or even early 60’s, you may remember your mother warning you,  “your body is your temple.” Instead of attending Temple Emmanuel or Israel, you attended Temple Body and you never would have believed that 30 or 40 or 50 years later you would literally be congregating at a temple for bodies rather than a more traditional house of worship. Indeed in today’s godless world you're more likely to find a gym occupying the space where a synagogue, temple or mosque used to be. There are chains of gyms everywhere and the little church on the corner is likely to be listing its spin class along with its schedule of evening vespers. Limelight Fitness on Sixth Avenue was a church before it became a disco. Is this a form of trans or consubstantiation where not bread and wine, but muscles and ligaments represent the blood and body of Christ? After all, Equinox could be the name of a church instead of a chain of high end health clubs. The statue of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders stands across the street from St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue, as a reminder of the enormous weight that one of mythology's great body builders was able to heft. “’Cause we're living in a material world and I am a material girl,” sings Madonna. Matins means morning prayer, but it also sounds like a good name for one of those anaerobic or aerobic classes that gets you out of bed at the crack of dawn. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Claustrophobia

frontispiece l871 edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
If you’re prone to claustrophobia you probably won’t be a candidate for submarine travel. On March 26, 2012 James Cameron the film director famous for the Titanic made a 6.8 mile dive into Challenger Deep in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench in a 24 foot long submersible. Even Jules Verne couldn’t have imagined this reality when he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And then there are the astronauts on the space station who are forced to live in constricted space over long periods with Scott Kelly setting the record at 340 days. Obviously there are certain people who can deal with confinement and others for whom it leads to insanity. Enhanced interrogation procedures used on suspected 9/11 terrorists included confinement in a coffin like box. But what is the basis for the fear of closed spaces? Where does it emanate from? For instance, the period of gestation gives way to the trauma of birth so there's obviously must be some biological footprint created by the umbilical attachment that exists in every individual's psychohistory. For some access to this kind of confinement is obviously comforting or at least endurable, but others become disconcerted at even the least intimation of enclosure. If you’ve ever been on a stalled subway or elevator you can spot those who are particularly vulnerable by the terror that appears in their eyes. Some people won’t lock bathroom doors and some won’t go into a closet for fear of the door jamming behind them. Perhaps one source of the problem lies in the notion of being forgotten. The chain of thoughts might go something like this. You're inserted into  the narrow cylinder of an MRI just as the hospital starts to burn down. In the ensuing panic you're left there and forgotten as the technicians flee and you end up suffocating to death.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Eastern Shore Journal: The Floating Opera





watercolor of St. Michaels Harbor by Hallie Cohen
You catch the ferry from the town of Oxford across the bay to Bellevue. By the way there’s also a Cambridge, Maryland, the home of John Barth and the setting for one of his early novels, The Floating Opera.When Oxbridge academics are referred to, watch out. It might be Maryland's Eastern Shore rather than England that’s being discussed. Which may say something about scale and temperament. Royal Oak is another nearby town and the arcane quaintness of these high flown names is reflected in landscapes which are dotted with lost harbors, in which solitary boats tethered to wooden bulkheads line antique docks. The Eastern Shore’s particular topography naturally lends itself to numerous private secluded basins. A town like St. Michaels has a more developed harbor and if you stay at a local redoubt you’re likely to be able to look out your window and take in the parade of maritime traffic. However, even on a slightly larger scale, there’s a solicitude and feeling of removal that’s unlike anything you’re likely to find in a typical seaside resort. It’s hard to get away in this age of connectivity, but the towns built around inlets on the Eastern Shore are truly havens as well as harbors.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Eastern Shore Journal: Far From the Madding Crowd


Tallulah Bankhead is buried in the cemetery of a small church on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but it’s not a place that dazzles on the first approach. The traffic lights take forever, perhaps because the infrastructure is ill-equipped for the outside world. Rather than being characterized by resplendent vistas, the landscape is populated with low-lying weather beaten houses, some of whose backyards are filled with generations of pass-alongs which could constitute the makings of an antique or junk shop depending on the luck of the draw. Most of the action in this neck of the woods actually occurs at sea (you're not far from the U.S Naval Academy at Annapolis). The Eastern Shore is the kind of place that has been home for generations of families and naturally there’s tourism, but the demographic is a bit different from that of the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket which all cater to the gilded gentry of the Northeast who can afford the ever steepening prices. Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington are the nearest metropolises and though the Eastern Shore may be gentrified like everywhere else, it's still feels as Thomas Gray put it in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."

Friday, May 10, 2019

Invisible Men?


In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock famously states, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…” It’s obviously the reverse of racial profiling, the point being to emphasize the humanness of his condition. But let’s turn this around. Shylock’s speech is a condemnation of categorization, but this is also the era of pride.  Sexuality has become like nationalism with people touting their orientations, as ways of separating themselves from others. And the same can be said about race. After years of oppression, minorities in what was for instance a formerly hegemonic White Anglo Saxon Culture have all raised up the mantle of identity politics. It’s totally understandable that after years of oppression and self-hatred, embattled ethnic and sexual groups unite together and find strength in numbers. However, what’s lost in all these turf wars and attempts to compensate for the inequities of the past is the reminder that humans share a commonality and that democracy is ultimately based on those things that all people have in common. “All men are created equal…” states The Declaration of Independence. Conversely one might easily conclude that what defines an individual ultimately is only partly do to his race, sexual orientation or country of origin. Those things are what he or she shares with others. His or her laugh, comportment, philosophy, sense of humor or tragedy are what make for the almost infinite variety of  humankind. Isn’t this one of the points Ralph Ellison was making in his classic Invisible Man? Wasn't Ellison saying that despite the cozy elements of social cohesion, exclusiveness leads to invisibility?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Pain Management

the rack
Discomfort comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. Pain isn’t one thing. You may have a throbbing or burning. People faint from pain and conversely sometimes a trauma is so extreme that the body is thrown into protective shock, something akin to the way defense mechanisms work with regard to psychic matters. Anxiety is often associated with pain and it can be painful to endure, but it’s not an affect that most people associate with physical discomfort. Torturers who seek to break their subject know a good deal about pain as do martial arts experts who use pain to subdue opponents. In this regard can choking someone out by depriving them of oxygen be rightfully considered pain? In terms of pain management you might be given Percocet after an operation, but there comes a point where the drug is no longer medicating a wound and that’s when the problems begin since it’s not pain, but life itself for which an anodyne is being sought. This can be a tricky condition to triage for many people who become addicted in the aftermath of otherwise normal procedures. The greatest source of mental pain is loss. People who are jilted by lovers or who lose their family or friends due to illness fall into a category all by themselves. You pay your respects when there’s a death in the family, but there's nothing that can be done or said to alleviate the raw pain. The most a compassionate person can do is to listen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Does Modern Man Think Too Much?


Lucy (author:120)
Does civilization think about itself too much? Humans possesses self-reflexive consciousness and thus are aware of their own thinking, which is what supposedly differentiates them from animals—though the line between man and animal is becoming increasingly slim the more scientists delve into the nature of animal consciousness. At a certain point in history humans were probably closer to animals to extent that they didn’t give too much thought to what they were doing. The hunters and gatherers known as homo erectus might have been in more of a survival than meditative mode. Socrates famously stated, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” So by the time of the Greeks homo sapiens had evolved enough that they were totally willing and able to account for their conditions and then there is Descartes with his famous “cogito ergo sum,” which is the philosophical version of Hamlet’s famous question about being. Ontology is that branch of philosophy which deals with being and essence and Kant’s “deontology” deals with questions of ethics and morals. Ideology is a response to the awareness of being. If you are conscious of your self, the next question is how should you act. The anthropological find known as “Lucy,” a creature who lived 3.2 million years ago probably didn’t trouble over any of the inequities associated with her condition of being both a woman and hominid. In terms of mindfulness, mankind has come a long way. However, despite triggering, affirmative consent and a multitude of ideologies which attempt to harness or control human impulse, that little bit of larceny one detects in everybody may just be man's inner animal talking.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

4891?



No one would ever dream you could have quantum physics or any of the practical applications that derive from it, like microprocessors that work on one atom. The sciences in essence moved more quickly than the mind’s capacity to imagine the possibilities in fiction or anywhere else. But what's unthinkable in the sphere of political science? In the l9th century Samuel Butler wrote a famous utopian novel based upon a palindrome. Erewhon with the tweak of one letter becomes "nowhere." In the 20thcentury l984 and Brave New World with their uncannily on the mark visions of totalitarianism gave us a preview both of how language and psychopharmacology would be expropriated by demagogic parties and leaders. But existential realities may be moving even faster than art. The axis of the earth has literally shifted and climate change is already resulting in continental shifts that few are able to grasp. Earthlings have despoiled the planet to such an extent that an exodus of an almost biblical nature is not a far-fetched idea. Imagine biospheres, modules of human life being transported over generations to the carbon based planets circling Kepler stars 1200 light years from earth or imagine a novel about mind being separated from the fragility of body and existing in cyberspace and producing a totally solipsistic  universe. The only thing missing, in these two putative works of fiction, are catchy titles. 

Monday, May 6, 2019

Long Shot


"Romantic comedy" is how Manohla Dargis categorizes Long Shot in The Times. But if you’ve perhaps forgotten what romantic comedy is (in this world where Hollywood movies increasingly look like high tech video games), Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot is unlikely to help you remember. It’s romantic and comic, but will unlikely bring back any the great classics from The Philadelphia Story to Annie Hall. Long Shot  refers to what everyone thought was going to happen in 2016 where the first lady would have been a first mister had the election turned out differently. It also refers to the ejaculate that will become the MacGuffin later on in the movie. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), a secretary of state with presidential ambitions falls for Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), an idealistic journalist who she babysat for a teenager and who has just been fired from his muckraking job at the Brooklyn Advocate, an alternative newspaper. The movie gets off to a slow start until Charlotte gives vent to her kinky desires. Seeing hesitation in her lover, she apologizes for being bossy saying, “we’ll do exactly what you like then you slap me on the ass and choke me a little bit.”  The verbal hijinks characteristic of true romantic comedy take on a decidedly sexual and for the most part crude form in Long Shot (and the scene in question deserves some degree of scrutiny since the would-be president is choreographing her own classically submissive behavior). In their first coupling Charlotte says, “I usually can last longer than that.” “Not me,” is Fred’s rejoinder. The movie hits its stride as interchanges about sex become the lingua franca with Fred playing a kind of stage mother scripting Charlotte’s rebellion against the establishment. “Could you not tell anybody about this,” Fred asks one of the secret service agents who catches them in flagrante. “They wouldn’t believe me anyway,” is the response. In a world of appearances and ratings, is an ambitious politician willing to bet on her public image? The answer may lie in yet one more innuendo that derives from the film’s title.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Crack-Up



Composure is a nice thing and people gravitate to the self-assured, those who “know” who they are. There is, of course, enormous human pain associated with the reverse, ie the sight of someone falling apart. In the fifties you may have overheard your parents talking about people having nervous breakdowns. Today the nomenclature has changed. A person is deemed to be bipolar or borderline. There have been many representations of personalities falling apart in films from The Snake Pit (1948), David and Lisa (1962), Repulsion (1965) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), and Conspiracy Theory (1997), to name just a few. The Crack-Up was a collection of essays in which Fitzgerald charted his own decline.The process is a little like the cosmological description of supernovae, dying stars emitting huge flashes before they explode. The unhinged Howard Beale character played by Peter Finch in Network (1976) famously intones, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” thereby igniting a revolution in which viewers rise up and follow him. Stalwart individuals rarely lead revolts since their being is an affirmation of the status quo, but it’s the person teetering on the edge who may light up the night sky.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Greg Jackson's Poetry



Greg Jackson’s “Poetry” (4/29/19) is one of those New Yorker short stories that stands out. It can be overbearing (it’s certainly not an example of the kind of Carveresque minimalism that the magazine once championed), but it’s more exceptional than it is heavy-handed. It’s ostensibly about the conflict between the narrator, James and his significant other, Celeste, who attempt to climb too high. Celeste by the way sports a “Fleurs du Mal” T-shirt. It’s also about the eating of forbidden fruit. The symbolism might set off alarms, but the title actually refers to the process of the story’s own inception. “Poetry” runs rings around traditional narrative. It's a poem in the guise of a short story. Chief among Jackson’s poetic devices beyond the allegory that runs rampant is the use of aphorism. “Kafka once remarked there is hope, but not for us,” is an early sally. And here is the narrator on his French born landlord, Jacqueline. “Suddenly I understood that, for her, every experience was the disappointing shadow of what she had allowed herself to imagine ahead of time.” Jacqueline is by the way a poet  whose work “was the inadequate and bitter fruit of the purer and more beautiful impulse to write poetry, which survived, inviolate, no matter how poor and insufficient the words were.” Celeste ends up vomiting all night, while the narrator emerges unscathed with “the apple...still inside me.” “I have not died yet,” he says and referring to the dangerous climb he goes on to remark “and to judge by this unbroken streak of not dying I will live forever.” Like poetry? “Poetry’s” tsunami of association provides an endorphin rush that in the end comes full circle, creating in the reader the equivalent of an old-fashioned Aristotelian catharsis.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Final Solution: Offending the Audience




The title of a Peter Handke play is Offending the Audience. Abuse is one way to get attention. Shock jocks like Howard Stern use transgression as a means of increasing ratings. Parenthetically there's a fine line between belief and provocation. Were the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville merely expressing their fascist beliefs? Shouting fire in a crowded theater is the subject of Schenck v. U.S, the famous Supreme Court case in which Oliver Wendell Holmes described the limits of free speech. Still the notion of riling people up has a long and sometimes not so venerable tradition in America where one form or another of the bearded woman is still attracting thrill seekers to side shows. Level-headed people with rational things to say are hard put to get a hearing anywhere. There's simply too much competition, too many voices clamoring to be heard. Trump is the perfect example since he’s the ultimate shock jock offering up a new piece of provocation and putting his opponents on the defensive while they’re still bumbling to respond to an earlier sortie. Figuring out how to get attention in a situation in which a charismatic personality is dominating can be daunting. Saying nothing and letting their words blare forth is one, often very good strategy. Trying to compete creates at best only a head-on collision. In prize fighting  counterpunchers are often quite effective.They’re the ones who use their opponent's power against them.