Friday, November 17, 2006

Oui, j'aime les chats

More drills. Breaths catch on her teeth, vowel speak
stutter, illiterate malaise of French
class. The cassette asks, "Do you like cats?"

She considers the feline query. Cats.
She'd forgotten about cats. This new-speak
opens her cheeks; she sits up, composes French

words: "oui" (they sneak -- paw, claw, and fur -- like French
agents) "j'aime" (curled up absent cats)
"les chats" (fur-finger memory). She speaks,

speaks French, speaks cats as the cassette rewinds.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Brief Account of My Super Powers

When I was invisible I lurked in the shallows ready to rip open the shells of crabs. I slunk through the school corridors and let no one open my locker. I flipped through books in the library searching for the line that would move me, and make me wish to know my curves.

When I could fly I was like a hang-glider, captive to the prevailing winds. I practiced landing without hurting myself. I took the measure of the canyons hoping to spy the birds of prey. I rested with a parliament of owls.

When I could run I would reverse time so I could repeat my mistakes and feel worse about them.

When I could breathe underwater I scooped magma from the sea floor and sculpted it into reefs. I adorned myself with cowries and starfish. I felt brave enought to get married.

When I could set myself on fire I went into the mines and melted the coal.

When my strength became superhuman I repaired the dents in cars parked along 51st street. I filled in the potholes and fixed the bridges. I climbed up buildings to give the union guys a breather. I tore down the Berlin Wall.

When I could speak in tongues I lost my way and refused to ask for directions.

Now I whack at nails with the hammer of the gods. I am lit with neon. I stop traffic.

it was a gas

We were driving south on Broadway and Blondie was on the radio. Once I had love/and it was a gas with that famous, hollow ku-ka-choom, ku-ka-choom, ku-ka-choom backbeat come to find out/ had a heart of glass. We listened for a while, mrs. august meditative, and me nervous about all the trucks turning onto the GW bridge that seemed intent on squashing my sedan.

"It's amazing," she said, come to mistrust "how well this holds up." In between "Yeah," I added in my most helpful tone love is so amusing. I had a mental image of workmen reassembling CBGB's in Vegas please don't push me aside.

We've both felt nostalgic for the seventies lately if I fear I'm losing you Bob Newhart, her parents' art, the Swedish modern look, it's just, no good, you teasing…. Steve Martin like you do

I think we've both listened to the song mostly at times when we got its sadness. But now we are married, and not (for the moment, and for a long time to come, I hope) given to sadness about relationships, and so mostly we feel its beat, its energy, its persistent newness.

Tearing down CBGB's is okay with me. seemed like the real thing Building it in plastic in Vegas is not. only to find It's all nostalgia mucho mistrust and no energy love's gone behind.

I think I'll go buy a really big suit. Love needs no museum.

whoo -- oo – oo, waa-oh

Walking in Penn Station

Walking in Penn Station, the walls are human and shifting. No path is reliable, no surveillance complete. The cops with automatic rifles are the opposite of comforting; one pictures the aftermath of a bomb punctuated by their strafing. Here is the place people go who wish to be somewhere else; the building of clocks to measure one's progress toward departure (for even arrivals are departures, opportunities to escape Penn Station).

Penn Station is a place that creates desire. It so deadens that the heart erupts at even the slightest opportunity to prove that it is still beating. A bookstore! A Starbucks! Pizza! New Jersey poets engraved in the walls! My god, I am alive, barely. Umberto Eco once wrote (upon seeing the stadium show of a very bad band) of his initial amazement at the choreography of an audience at a concert – how the entire audience might erupt in a moment at some cue he could not discern. Eco theorized that the answer must lie in the music itself. It must normally be so boring that even the slightest variation is a signal: a pathetic doo-dittle-dee goes the guitar. And the crowd roars!

So with Penn Station. Departing, I count the seconds to my train, and race my fellow commuters (Why are we running? The trains are never full, yet we form a sonic boom of briefcases, strollers, and palm pilots. We are running to leave Penn Station). Arriving, I trace the paths of rats on the subway platform, waiting for another train to get me the fuck out of Penn Station. All the while I am unsettled, breathless, disturbed at the thought that my train might go and I would be stuck here. I feel like the angle in the Wim Wender's move Wings of Desire, who recorded the feelings of humans and only wanted to become one of them. I am full of this desire.

Desire drives me to commerce. A cup of coffee, a lousy buck fifty cup of coffee, staves off despair. It is the power chord that sends me cheering with the audience. I warm my hands on it even when I am already sweating. Its charcoal-and-syrup aroma revives me like smelling salts. If I have a doughnut as well (Krispy-Kreme is in Penn Station. To me, it is the Sistine Chapel. I pilgrimage there only on festival days), then my transformation is complete. I sip the coffee on the train and feel its glorious bitterness, then follow with Michelangelo doughnut. Which is the moment I return to any sense of self-control.

Today I find myself longing for some sense of redemption in the ritual and the pageantry and the beauty of the day: the buds and cherry blossoms, the children waddling in their Sunday finery, the hats. I was mostly reminded of how much of my life is separated from those things. Products are easier to sell if they fulfill needs, and what better way to create need than to fill the world with intense and unbearable ugliness? Much as I might wish my church or my park was a microcosm of the cosmos, I fear Penn Station is the axis mundi, the place I am always going to get somewhere else and nowhere, all at the same time.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Le Samourai

When I lived in Seattle, I was so healthy and so grunge -- bike helmet strapped to my backpack, grass stains on my shirt from ultimate frisbee, tivas. This dress was a delicate balance of life-affirming and Nirvana, one must be ready to pivot quickly, to be morose with goths or to climb Mt. Baker.

Moving to New York (with several intermediate stages) has changed me. My wife frowns on flannel. My shoes require occasional applications of polish. I am thankful for the ubiquity of cleaners. Although I do not go out of my way to be cool, I do strive to avoid embarrassment around those who do.

New York has also changed the way I move in space. Clothing is part of the issue, the Seattle puddle I might jump in; the New York puddle would stain my trousers. But more: the hard press of people drives me to open spaces: to Grant's tomb, the Great Lawn, the Hall of Arms and Armor. I am far more conscious of my movements, of my trajectory relative to those around me, of my pace and weight and sillouette, of my clothes. And I have new models. Goodbye Eddie Vedder; hello Alain Delon. Goodbye, frisbee player and wannabe mountain climber; hello househusband and wannabe assassin.

I want to move through New York the way Alain Delon moves through Le Samourai: clean, unyielding, as silently as possible. Under Jean-Pierre Melville's direction, Delon (assassin, master of his motion) inhabits washed out, minimalist spaces. His apartment is furnished with a bed and a parakeet that moults when the place has been cased. His hat and tie suggest a very competent tailer, and even greater competence is shown in his manufacture of an alibi for a murder he did commit. There is love, of a sort, and danger and suspense, but mostly this is a movie of movement. Melville's camera follows Delon obsessively, and dialogue is of secondary interest.

The movie also makes me nostalgic for the days when European high-culture could see in American low-culture a Middle Earth of middlebrow inspiration. Melville has been thinking about Sam Spade, he has been watching Cary Grant. His sensibilities are not unlike those of Frank Lloyd Wright (although the aesthetic effects are quite different). The fashion in this morning is elegant sixties -- the kind that James Bond proported to offer.

But when I walk through New York tonight, Lazemby will be the farthest thing from my mind. I will go with deliberate paces and clean trousers. I will be tucked in and my held will be tilted as if I were wearing a hat. My imaginary overcoat will conceal my imaginary pistol, and my apartment will be free of bugs. I will outwit the police. I will turn my plot in on itself. I will be methodical and lethal. And I will recite the koan that forms the epigram for Melville's clasic film:

"There is no solitude greater than that of a tiger in the jungle. Unless -- perhaps -- it be that of a Samurai."

Bizarre Love Triangle

It's about embracing time out of whack.

It's easier to explain what I mean with reference to movies. Virgin Suicides is about girls who are not in step, but also about boys looking at them, knowing that they are far away. It's a nostalgia for longing. It's a moment in time when everything goes completely off (a family of sisters commit suicide), which gives the time before the suicide a particular hue. It's temporary. It doesn't quite count. But it changes things, but in the retelling it's hard to pinpoint what exactly changed.

So with Lost in Translation. The world of the hotel, the attractions that one feels deeply but can't articulate, the freedom and isolation of walking in a crowd and not understanding a word that anybody is saying. And one suspects the same of Marie Antoinette, a queen caught in the last moments of monarchy, one who will lose her head and in the aftermath of the regicide, no one will quite know what to make of her or of her time beyond a vague pause before a revolution.

Bizarre Love Triangle is an anthem to longing, to change, and to not being quite able to articulate either emotion: "I feel fine and I feel good/I'm feeling like I never should/ Whenever I get this way, I just don't know what to say/ Why can't we be ourselves like we were yesterday?" Say the word and all will be well. But because I know you won't say the word, I will pause, here, in the Bizarre Love Triangle, and pretend that you might. I will stop time.

The beauty of the emotion is that it can be danced. The last time I completely gave myself over to music, the last time I danced without knowing or caring who was around or what anyone thought or what happened afterwards, I was in Taiwan. I had gone there ostensibly to learn Chinese, in fact to get over a girl. The sequence of songs was "Respect," "Everyday People," "Bizarre Love Triangle." I was not me. I was not Chinese or foreign, not male or female, not old or young. I could speak in tongues. My every move seemed prelude to revolution, my own new order.

Saying Grace

There are cadences of the voice that I can mimic but not duplicate, and one of them is the sound of my great grandfather saying grace. He ran a chain of grocery stores in the Twenties and Thirties, so his table was abundant even in difficult times. He knew of his fortune and expressed his gratitude mainly at suppertime, when he asked those gathered to bow their heads in prayer.

I knew him much later in life, when his fortunes had not exactly turned, but at least abated. Danville, Virginia was not the same town in 1975 that it had been in 1920, and from the looks of things it had hardly been a metropolis even at the height of its long tobacco boom. The old house smelled of smoke, but not whiskey (unlike the home of my grandfather, where bourbon was drunk in copious quantities starting around breakfast). It scared me, that home. It had stern Victorian turns, stairs that were forbidden to me, twisted, aggressive lamps. I tended to sink myself into a large chair and watch the football on the occasions we visited, which were not many.

One of the reasons my grandfather was an alcoholic (I suspect) was that his father was a zealot of temperance. My great grandfather's face was as foreboding as his abode, and his God was a vengeful one who did not suffer the little children much latitude. By the time I encountered him age had desiccated him, leaving him with little of his earlier brimstone. He made clear, however, that he was a force in the world because he was on the side of the righteous, and that those who would be righteous (or those, like me, who didn't know good from evil) would do well to do what he said.

Yet, when we bowed our heads in prayer, this awesome God softened, as if He, too, could smell the mashed potatoes and gravy, the black-eyed peas, the butter in the biscuits. "Lord, we thank You for the bounty we are about to receive," (a pause for breath – my great grandfather was a conductor of words). "We ask that you bless this food to our bodies, oh Lord, that we may do Your work, and that Your divine grace may fulfill us all the day long." Nobody talks like this. It was as captivating to me as any record. I could even hear the capital letters. "Bless our families oh Lord and keep them safe in their travels," (me! I got that he was talking about me) "and guide them in their lives as You guide us now."

A convention has developed in my family, for even today when we say the blessing we follow the form dictated by my great grandfather, that at this juncture in the prayer some pro forma mention be made of the less fortunate. I cannot now say if that was a later emendation or if it was in the original text. My great grandfather pulled around the corner and quoth: "In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen," and the rest of us amened in unison.

I think even then I was suspicious of God, or at least of invoking the name. He was an instrument of shame, and the effect on my grandfather (forever ashamed of himself, apologetic, secretive, and inadequate before the menacing deacon) only became clear to me later in life. But the artfulness of language still resonates with me, as do the smells of ham and cigarettes, the sonority of Virginia accents, and the chords of voices joined in grace.

World Cup Flashback

From the archive...

I watched World Cup 2002 in a flurry of jetlag while home between a year in Mainland China and a summer in Taiwan. I watched Spain beat Slovenia on my first night back. For the next weeks I did not sleep. At first I watched alone:Ireland 1, Cameroon 1 ( I love African soccer, but I missed Senegal’s stunner in the first game) Brazil 2 Turkey 1 (in the one truly cowardly performance I’ve ever seen from Brazil);Spain 3 Paraguay 1 (the Paraguay keeper was the fattest and most arrogant man I’ve ever seen at World Cup)(except Sepp Blatter).I tried to stay awake during the day, but my mind was all strikers and keepers.

Then I found a group. One Canadian, two New Zealanders, one Englishman, and myself. With repeated viewings we set up a routine and rules. Sometimes we taped late games, but one had to be in a media blackout, no knowing results in advance. Pot luck; best if one brings alcohol from one of the countries playing. No home-teamers. We kept nationalism at bay. When the South Koreans they pulled their speed-skating stunt (they imitated speed skaters after scoring a goal against the U.S., in retribution for a Salt Lake gold medal taken from one of their own), we scorned because a. they weren’t winning and b. speed skating was a insult to our fine, beautiful game. So, by the way, was the play of the South Koreans, who lived off the fifty/fifty ball (kick it ahead blindly and hope you get to it before the other team) and never, never scored off a set play. I could only join the group when I swore I wouldn’t root for the U.S.

I had learned to play in Germany. I lived there for a year in high school, and of course everybody played football (always the same joke: “Not your kind of football”). I was better than anybody at basketball, so they stopped playing basketball, stuck me in goal, and fired shorts at me with Teutonic power and accuracy. They loved to practice, several firing at once so soccer balls (sorry, footballs) rained in like the damn Valkyrie. I learned to live with a lot of tension, and grew new appreciation for the Wim Wenders film The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. I was like Woody Allen, contemplating my own mortality.

So I supported Germany. But my favorites were really Spain. I brought the Rioja to Spain’s games, and as play moved out of the group stages I, enchanted with the sound and skill of names like Totti and Morientes, predicted a Spain Italy semifinal for the ages. Not to be, sadly. Both lost in a series of piss-poor calls made by referees chosen by the inept and obese Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, nemesis of right-thinking soccer fans worldwide.

In the middle of all this sleeplessness, I met mrs. august. I had gone to New York for a couple of days. The night before I watched Brazil beat England in an Irish Pub. Everybody of course wanted Brazil, and we savored the improbably arch of Ronaldinho’s free kick as it curled over the unfortunately-named and positioned David Seamen. The English players called it a stroke of luck, a miskick. Nobody had heard of Ronaldinho (current player of the year, I believe. Now nobody thinks it was mere luck). At any rate, sleeplessness and passion put fire in my eyes, and when I met my future wife I embarked on some wild, burned-out conversation in the hopes of keeping her talking to me, and not somebody else, a little longer. I mostly even managed to avoid the topic of soccer.

The remaining games were mostly anticlimax. Ronaldo’s shot passed Oliver Kahn’s hand, and he was inconsolable. I missed the best game (best because I missed it): Turkey finally giving South Korea their comeuppance.

I can’t wait for World Cup next month. Like the Olympics, like any sport, at its worst it is blind nationalism and parochialism. But at its best, soccer gives me faith that anything is possible, that humans can transcend themselves, that my life can trace miraculous trajectories. Brazil could lose, the Czechs could win (and I hope they do, and I watching with a pilsner in one hand and pretzel in the other). God I love football.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

hurts my eyes somewhere

The year is 1987. Five southbound teenagers are traveling north on I64 to William and Mary Hall, where R.E.M. are playing on their Document tour. The evening will be recorded in Rolling Stone as one of the worst concerts R.E.M. ever gave. They had recently become a fraternity favorite, and the drunken moshing of Sigma Nus screaming "Leonard Bernstein" at just the wrong moment would prompt Michael Stipe to flashlight a couple for security to escort from the building. The southbound teenagers would enjoy the concert, would avoid the hard, human crush, would speed back through Norfolk (where they had started their trip) and on to North Carolina, where they sleepily take the S.A.T.'s the next morning.

Each of the boys has told his parents a different story. August says he is going to North Carolina, spending the night with friends so he can be well-rested and prepared for "Clint Eastwood is to codfish as [blank] is to mackerel." Ben's parents believe he is spending the night with Phil. Phil informed his parents he is going to the beach with August. All but Allan edited out the part about R.E.M. Allan did tell his parents about R.E.M., but left out the S.A.T's. Fortunately for all concerned, the respective parents never wind their way through this spool of half-truths.

The point was that North Carolina gave the S.A.T's a month before Virginia. By slipping across the border, we could then get in two rounds before college applications were due, thus doubling our chances of a decent score. And if we then rewarded ourselves with a trip to the beach, did we not deserve a little time in the ocean? And when we discovered R.E.M. was playing in Williamsburg, well, why not?

Put it this way; I would never have risked my college education on U2. On the subject of incomprehensible lyric: what the hell is pride in the name of love?

Back to the five teenagers, one of whom was a me barely recognizable to me now. R.E.M. made sense to them. Not at the concert, where they felt beamed into a world we weren't ready for, but in the truck on the way from the S.A.T.'s (disaster!) to the beach the next day. They had a tapes of Murmur and Chronic Town, and the twangy harmonies seemed to spread through the grasses along the Alligator River (oh shit, Jefferson I think we're lost). They were so happy to be in motion: lower wolves. It was dark when they reached the beach, and they talked of all the people they thought they might be, but it didn't work out that way (gardening at night). They had passions they did not understand and could not articulate, loyalties to spaces they didn't realize were demarcated. They found twisted harmonies and dissonances; they drank heavily, slept it off, went home. They understood what was to come, but of course they had no idea.