27 October 2010

The Time Will Come up


The elections are next week, and I am in despair over the anticipated results. Like Dylan, “I need something strong to distract my mind.” Alas, there is nothing that palliative available. As so as I have done for the past forty five years, I will go to the polls and vote too often for those who will not be elected.

Today I feel myself a bit lost and I wander about the office picking up here a book and there a journal. I sit in one chair in front of the computer and my present writing project, and then I soon rise and move to another and settle at the work desk for study. I am not concentrating. I stay at neither very long. I sweep the floor again and polish the desks free of dust. Some dust remains. I read a few student papers and make comments I hope might be helpful now and in the future, but truthfully, I have my doubts. I check my email. And today I had to repair the handle on the storm door to my cabin office to prevent being locked in or out.

Sometimes I go into the house and fix a cup of tea, or nervously out of nerves grab a snack for which I am not really hungry. I wander to the television and turn it on, and survey the possibilities. I see that the subject of the Maury Povich show today is entitled “Sex Secrets revealed . . . Your boyfriend got me pregnant!” I wonder how a person can get out of bed in the morning knowing that this engagement is with what he is going to earn his bread today. I turn off the television and go back to my study. I feel much better.  And I understand the political winds of change a bit better. But one day there will be an hour when the ship comes in . . .

22 October 2010

Facebook


I found The Social Network, the film about the founding of Facebook and its contentious and litigious development, to be one of the saddest films I’ve seen in a very long time. Interestingly, in a film about social connection, there is no social connecting in the film. Though by film’s end the company celebrates one million subscribers, in fact in the film no one actually talks to one another or makes a real connection on Facebook. Other than its membership growth, we see nothing of its social influence. Though Facebook is the network that everyone wants to join, simply belonging to Facebook seems to be the driving motive behind its growth and not some vague anticipation of relieving the overwhelming alienation that the computer et al. has led to in society. In this film, no one connects to anyone else.

Indeed, Facebook exacerbates this alienation: on the network one can befriend hundreds of people and talk to no one. On the network one need not go anywhere outside the computer screen. On the network, one need not be in the world. By film’s end no one remain friends; those who once claimed to a friendship have severed whatever ties that might have once bound them, tenuous though those ties might have always been. News might move instantly on Facebook, but in the film nothing else happens on Facebook. Indeed, in the film itself, no one communicates.

And in this no one smiles in the film, except perhaps the lawyers who I expect reaped a fortune from the litigation concerning the intellectual property rights battle surrounding the network. This film about a social network to link millions of people is totally without joy. Except for that of Sean Parker, the notorious and insidiously slick entrepreneur, there is no laughter in the film, but only drunken and raucous partying rife with alcohol and drug use, and blatant raw sexuality devoid of any emotional content. Amy accuses Sean of not knowing her name, but in fact it is she who can’t recall the name of the man with whom she has spent the night. She does have a Facebook. There isn’t the faintest idea of intimacy in the sex except the purely physical one, and even that seems impersonal. The only time Zuckerberg is with a woman he is faceless in the scene; it is Saverin’s sexual encounter that the film records. Zuckerberg founds a social network that won’t have him for a member.

Those of us without money might consider with some envy the great wealth acquired by Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevoss Brothers, but in reality the loneliness of these central characters stands in stark contrast to the social network that is developed and over which they fight for mostly financial rights. It is the loneliness in the film that overwhelms me. One would say that only Erica, Zuckerberg’s original girlfriend whose breakup with Zuckerberg seems to have been the ultimate stimulus for Facebook’s formation, maintains some social real network. We see her always amongst a group of people of whom she is clearly a member. And it is she who won’t friend Zuckerberg in the film’s final scene that comments ultimately on the complete social failure of the social network.

18 October 2010

Secretariat


Took my mother to a movie I wouldn’t have seen if I had a greater opportunity of choice: Secretariat. It is referred to as a ‘feel-good movie,’ and I suppose it is. The film is about the great race horse, known to his friends as Big Red, but to the track crowd referred to as Secretariat. The meaning behind the name was absent from the film.

Secretariat, a film ostensibly about the first horse to have won the triple crown in racing in four decades (the previous winner being Citation for whom no film has yet been made), was really the story of the woman who owned Secretariat  and who had him trained to run. She took possession of Big Red in a titular coin toss—the winner got to choose the foal of two who were expected to be born at the same time, and though she lost the toss, she acquired the foal she most desired. She intended from the beginning to race the horse. She hired the eccentric trainer Lucian Laurin who hired the rider, Ron Turcotte. The sole African American face in the film belonged to Eddie Smith, the loyal, dedicated stable boy. I suppose each of the characters invests his/her dream in the horse, and so when the horse succeeds, so too do those about him. Perhaps you begin to hear the cliché.

There were financial issues complicating everything—and whether she should sell Big Red for six million dollars to save the farm that was valued at six million dollars, or risk the farm for her dream (damn the money when dreams are concerned), became the real substance of the movie. Her perfect family—not without conflict but certainly without any threat—contained four beautiful children, one of whom was a token hippie (the film takes place in 1972-3 and the older daughter vigorously and prettily and safely opposes the Vietnam War), and a very financially successful husband. In one scene both the husband and younger daughter walk barefoot on the front porch of their Southern home in bare feet—my mother was appalled! The husband suffers occasional fits of pique that his wife is off with the horses and not cooking dinner, but he never does get the cuff of his starched shirt damp from the dishwater and spills no tomato sauce on his table cloth that he then has to wash and iron. Her older brother is a Professor of Economics at Harvard. This is no family like that in which most of the rest of us reside. Indeed, this film contained no complexity or real doubt—we all knew that Secretariat would succeed.

So why did I cry?

Indeed, my eyes welled up throughout the film, and I think it was because the intensity of hope and desire and­­—and, yes love—that each character invested in that horse reminded me of the intensity of hope and desire and, and, yes, love—that I have invested in my children. And the joy with which each character celebrated Secretariat’s successes filled me with the expectation of a joy I hope to experience, I want so much success for my children, but finally, it is their race to run. It wasn’t Secretariat for whom I cared, it was whom Secretariat stood for that I hoped and dreamed. 

12 October 2010

Nemesis

Philip Roth’s new book, Nemesis, takes place during the polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944. Nemesis, a female goddess in Greek mythology, was the spirit of divine retribution against those who suffer from hubris, or the assumption of too much belief in their human capacity to control events. Today, nemesis refers to an archenemy, as Lex Luthor was Superman’s enemy, or the Joker serves as Batman’s, or the Republican Party as mine. Nemesis serves as a check (and often a checkmate) to one’s authority. Nemesis is not fate but she may appear to be fate to those who in their unbridled pride maintain their belief intheir absolute power to control events and themselves. Nemesis punctures that pride, and I think that it is in response to Nemesis that one’s character becomes clear. It is certainly so in this novel. Perhaps this may be the case in many of Roth’s novels, and especially the later ones.

Bucky Cantor is a young gym teacher at a local elementary school in the Newark, New Jersey area, and is hired as playground coordinator in the Weequahic section of the city at the conclusion of the school year. For those children home for the summer, Cantor is hired by the city to organize and supervise recreational activities for the children who are out of school and home for the summer. In his stature and his actions, BuckyMr. Cantor as the narrator of the first section refers to him—serves as the boys’ hero.  It is he to whom they look for organization, direction and control. Around Bucky the boys feel safe. The year is 1944 and because Bucky must wear corrective lenses for his seriously strained eyesight he has received a 4F from his draft board and become exempt from service in the military during World War II. His two college friends, Jake and Dave, are both overseas and fighting in the invasion of France during the Normandy offensive. Of course, Bucky is devastated by his inability to serve in the war, almost ashamed to have remained states side, but he approaches his job with an energy and determination that can only be admired. At first, all that Bucky must handle is the normal energy of adolescent boys and girls and the horrible heat that oppresses the area. But then suddenly, the occasional case of polio escalates into an epidemic, and suddenly Bucky’s ranks are soon shrunken by the onslaught of the disease, His boys become sick and some of them die.

Throughout the epidemic Bucky remains remarkably calm; he visits the families of the boys who succumbed, and is often the target of their vitriol—it is he they blame in their grief for allowing the boys to play so hard during the oppressive heat of the summer—which he accepts with patience and equanimity. He controls the presence of Horace, the local cognitively disabled man, and he protects the boys, many if not all of them Jewish, from the invasion of ten Italian young men who assert that they are bringing the polio to the Jewish section! When they spit all over the ground, planting the polio germs on the ground, Bucky orchestrates the peaceful departure of the Italian boys and then has the boys clean the sidewalk with hot water and ammonia, as if they had indeed, left behind the polio and Bucky could cleanse the infection. He consults with his girl friend’s father, Dr. Steinberg, who assures him that though the epidemic seems harsh, it is no worse than a previous appearance in 1916 (during another war) and assures Bucky that he is doing the right thing by his boys. He calms Bucky’s fears, and removes his doubt that the world is operated by a cruel God or even by no God at all!! Bucky Cantor returns to his own charges and assuages their fears  with his knowledge and his presumed power. He serves as the boys’ hero.

But when given a chance to escape the city, Bucky leaps at the chance and takes a job as a waterfront director at a camp in the Poconos where his girlfriend, and soon to be fiancé, serves as counselor. There, amidst the green and fresh air, life seems perfect—until the first case of polio strikes a counselor in Bucky’s bunk. And then the disease afflicts several other campers as well as Marcia’s sister, and then finally polio strikes Bucky himself. But upon discovering that he is infected, Bucky interprets himself as the germ, the infection that has corrupted not only the boys on the playground but the paradise in the Poconos, and his pride refuses to accept that he is a victim and not the cause of the epidemic.  But oddly, his nemesis is not polio but the pride in his belief that he has been the carrier of the plague that originally infected the playground of Weequahic and now afflicts the idyllic setting of Indian Hills, Bucky’s pride presumes a world where Bucky is able to control events, and his unwillingness to accept this lack of control destroys his life. He is his own nemesis.

We ignore the contingent at the expense of our lives, and to ignore the contingent is to relinquish whatever small control we yet retain in this world. But the contingent, by definition, is so out of our control that we would dismiss it from our consciousness. It is Bucky’s seeming invincibility that remains the lasting image of Arnie Mesnikof remembers of Bucky from that summer: “Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder—and releasing it then like an explosion—he seemed to us invincible.” But it is all illusion.

Alas, he wasn’t. Nor was Arnie, who contracted polio during that horrible summer. Nor am I.

07 October 2010

Updates

I’m beginning to suspect that there are too many networks to which I can belong. I have email accounts. Of course, there is Facebook. I have a Facebook (is that the proper term, to ‘have’ a Facebook; it seems I should own it!), and though I am ‘networked’ on it, I don’t go there very often. I don’t want to place my life on line in that fashion. There is LinkedIn, but I am not sure what that is though they do have me linked in somehow. Amazon.com knows everything I read and a great deal of what I listen; they have begun to have awareness of my attire and household gadgets. Barnes & Noble follows closely behind in knowledge. And now there is Ping, a 'social network for music.' What have I done to my privacy?

The trees have released many of their leaves, and the morning air is crisp and cold. We turn on the fireplace to warm the breakfast area. First frost has come and gone, and the winter coats and gore-tex have been taken out of storage. I don’t mind. Kitty Donohoe sings for me, “Some hold on for one last chance, Me, I love an autumn dance!!”

New Philip Roth novel arrived yesterday—that is a good sign for the Fall. And Mario Vargas Llosa has won the Nobel Prize for literature. He once ran for President of his country. Vaclav Havel was president of the Czech republic. We had Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Both loved to brag how little they read. I teach school. I teach people who want to be teachers. I despair.

And this week Dylan’s first recordings are being re-released in their original monaural versions. Finally, all this technological advance doesn’t improve the quality of life—or even make it sound better.