Monthly Archives: December 2020

I’ve left out God so far (and other ruminations)

What does it mean to rest? I’m on a break over these few days, like many others are at this time of year, but unlike others who are—what’s the term…essential? I mean no disrespect to first responders, medical and/or emergency personnel, or anyone else who fits into this category of person. I just mean that the term “essential” is interesting, and that its meaning beyond the concrete and critical is, shall we say, open for discussion.

It is essential that I rest, some have said. And they’re not just referring to me, though they are referring to me. They are speaking generically, yet presuming something undefined: what are we, or I, resting from? As I canvas memories of past holiday seasons, distant and recent, I can hardly think of an instance when I didn’t think, or declare tritely, that it was time for a rest because…well, because that’s what you’re supposed to do at the end of the year. The notion conjures some ancient myth or several relating to solstice or Christian Sundays, or whatever corresponds in cultures that observe this stretch of calendar but with different traditions. It is a time to reflect, to sit back, inside, away from the cold, by a fire with chestnuts roasting upon it and such. This reflecting: it means thinking, sort of. Well, what else does it mean? It doesn’t mean intellectual thought, much less entrepreneurial scheming. Tangential to the latter, it certainly means buying and therefore attending to the entrepreneurial scheming of retailers. But this is no intro of anti-commercial cynicism. Tangential to the “rest” mandate, reflecting makes way for fun, and if the plethora of cheesy songs heard and lighthearted films watched is anything to go by, then this is a time for play.

Yes, I know I’ve left out God so far. But does that mean I’ve eschewed spirituality? I don’t know, but I have made use of reverie, which is dream plus thought, roughly, and I’m using the term in a psychoanalytic sense: wedding thought to play, which is how I truly rest in 2020. This, for example, is play. Writing, I mean, has been my principal form of play over the last nine months, and before that, for just over a decade. 2009 was when I self-published my first novel, Living Without Blood. I followed it up with five others and two non-fictions, and while a couple have garnered good reviews, most notably through Kirkus magazine, they have sold negligibly. That’s about to change, but more on that another time. This is about play. Thoughtful play. See, I play every day, sometimes for a few minutes between obligations, and sometimes for hours well into the night. When I’m into this play I don’t feel tired. It doesn’t matter if I’ve had three appointments during the day, or nine, or none. If I’m on a roll I’m not tired—at least, not until the next day, maybe. It’s as simple as that.

It wasn’t always like this, and I’m not referring in this moment to something like writer’s block. I’m referring to a time when I was indolent, torpid, and…other big words that connote something beyond boredom. Then I was young and far more often than I realized, lonely. On some things, like career-building or partner-seeking, I was patient, if listless, while impulsive with day-to-day matters, what retroactively seems trivial. I was often irritable and hasty. I still am upon that which seems in my way. My way? As if I had goals, a direction…ambition. And so I do, now, have goals, direction, and ambition. And yet it feels like play, like time is flying by as it does in a dream. No time to lose. Time to seize. Time to act. That time of old is gone, as in lost, and good riddance, I say. I wish I had enjoyed being young more, because I did when I was very young. I played and got tired when playing, but like many boys and I hope girls, I didn’t want to come in when time was up because I didn’t know that rest is essential. My parents did and did a good job on this originally, but they may have struggled later, when I was a teen, when the problem reversed. By adolescence I’d learned how to stop playing. What I’d lost was how to start.

These days I start thoughts, or start a process, maybe a prodigious task even, with a certain will to move forward, at whatever pace becomes necessary. The patience is still there, now coupled with a bit more experience, desire, and confidence—all nestled within the lines of my aging forehead. My body tells some kind of story, though not one that will sell many more copies than my existing ones have. But my mind is active and working hard, though liking the labors of love, generally. There’s tension of a kind Freud wrote about also, between pleasure and reality: the pleasure of what I want to say, want to write versus the reality of what readers want to hear and read, and how that might shape me, inhibit me or draw me out, perhaps. Into the breach, sayeth the ego, sitting atop the unconscious, looking a bit like a tumor when it shows up in my dreams. This image shows up repeatedly, which reminds me of another Freudian trope: something about repetition facilitating memory in the long run, and manifesting as obsession in the meantime. Practice makes perfect, they told me as a kid. It’s a cliché, my wife remarks quite correctly. As a kid, I practiced some things better than others, and became good at some things that were not useful; or I was bad at some things that held utility but not for me; and finally, I was good at one or two things that yielded results over time. Again, patience and, I suppose, modesty, which came after puberty, was key to a long game. Dreams tell me when to wake up, when it’s time to leave something disturbing, or else when to start something important. Daydreams have me fretting over a variant of time: timing. When do I make my move, take my shot, or give that announcement about…that thing? When will it be my day? My daydreams are often inflected with associations: these often seem like frivolous thoughts leftover from an idle and inchoate trail. I’ll watch a film or hear a song—maybe one of those cheesy, lighthearted icons of the holidays—that will linger with me, acting like a nuisance, a thought cousin that drinks too much, eats too much sugar, and won’t leave when the party’s over. I feel like this cousin’s just getting me fat on his indulgent, useless thought. My latest fantasy has me thinking twice about this matter. This last one, meaning daydream of these days of “rest” has me thinking of an anonymous assassin who is given a task and then left alone to accomplish it. Within the film in question (which I’ll choose to not identify), this character is the protagonist. The actor who plays is or was a star, yet he says little. We, meaning the audience, just get to watch him, observe his method, his patience and skill as he prepares his deadly task, his evil deed. Despite his cool arrogance, or perhaps because of it, we—and at this point I really should say I—admire his dedication and calm; his resilience. He waits, but he is not idle. He may be slow, but it’s because he’s methodical, a perfectionist and obsessive. And he arrives on time, at every point in his schedule, including, most importantly, the climax. He seizes his moment, his time, as his is the day of…? Will anyone stop him? Will anyone or thing stop me, for God’s sake?

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Where I’m not supposed to be

I only know I was not supposed to be there. And the scene? It wasn’t supposed to be happening.

Somewhere in the murky night this vision was buried, sandwiched between fragments that will have sped through my mind and then drained away, forever lost to me. This pig in the middle, this runt of a dream, should have gone with them, but it stuck around, there to be picked up in the morning and wiped clean. There was happiness in the scene, but it wasn’t mine. It was hers. Hers. And his. I should have known, despite his being a wild card. I have to say that he deserved her, having cruelly lost his last companion some time back. A good guy, I gotta admit. And he’d been patient—ever lurking, but inconspicuously, modestly, without the slightest hint of expectation. His attempts at humor were always dry and at best supplementary to another’s act. He’s a witness, an onlooker, a smiling member of the crowd. Benign, yet amiable, and ultimately deserving, he’d be a center of attention, finally. Was I jealous? Of course, but not just of him, but of what he was—of the type of man he was. He wasn’t me.

             Me? I’m a derelict, a drifter. Ostensibly, I’m in with the crowd, standing near the front, and sometimes in front. I’m sometimes called up to the stage, and even as my stomach flutters and my mouth goes dry and I’m convinced I don’t belong I manage to utter a few words and command my share of the spotlight. It’s still there, that spotlight. It beckons as it shines upon a space that I could inhabit, that I have always known I could inhabit. It’s just that it might burn, that light. So I turn away and creep off to the side, yielding the floor to anyone who has the resilience, the talent or desire, or that stomach thing—whatever that metaphor’s about—to step into the space. Had I been invited to the scene? I will have looked out of place, at least, having not done my homework. That’s one of my problems: not doing my homework. The problem is that curriculums are ever someone else’s idea. Those are the demands of someone else’s ego, their seizure of the spotlight, and so they don’t merit my attention, I think. That’s not what I think. That’s just an inside truth that my middle-of-night vision is warning me about. It’s warning me with her face, with her smiling, happy, yet unavailable face situated at the center.

             She’s a strong woman, a brilliant woman. She’s a better woman than any woman I’ve known. God, that’s a dangerous idea. Should I be thinking this? Or should the idea be there in my head, deposited by someone or thing else. You put this into me, you…woman. I’m nearly away now, having edged my way to the periphery of the scene. She and the guy—that ordinary yet deserving, stand-up guy—are still in the center of the action, surrounded by the pleased and admiring, and looking at someone else who is the center of attention but giving it back to them, the happy couple. Her gaze is bright and alive, and focused strictly upon a stage that is before her—her eyes settled and fixed upon a compelling speaker. There is no reason for her to scan the room, distracted or bored, and thus find me scurrying, headed for a corner, trying to escape like a wretched rat. I’m wearing an overcoat, I notice at some point. Mine is a hybrid look: with a torn cuff and a rip about my collar, I look like a Dickensian vagrant, or a private dick from an old film noir, only I’ve just gotten out of bed and forgotten the dress code of the genteel and knowing. In this sense, I stand out, and not in a good way, and if she were a troubled perfectionist with an eye or a nose for the inferior, she’d catch me with a glimpse. Then her smile would flatten, her eyes would turn dull and unhappy, and she’d wonder for a moment, about me.

             I know him, she’d think. Have seen him someplace. Where was it? What’s he doing here? It would be a fleeting break from her life, the joy of her moment. Not even an annoyance, but rather a spell of curiosity, because that’s what her mind has room for. Endless room, it has seemed to me. Endless room, it has seemed, for me. And yet, once again, it’s not a room, a space, manifest or not in concrete terms, that I’m meant to inhabit. Any second now I’ll be gone from this scene, awake at last, and while this vision tried to hide amid the files in the mental cabinet, it stayed long enough to get this thought and hearing. Any day now, I’ll get to see her and tell her all about this, and she’ll listen and think, and make some interpretation that positions me in a triangle, with her and another substitutive man, but with a desire to be in her life. Forever bonded, in something drawn from hoary mythology. You know. I don’t know how long it will last, this arrangement. I don’t want to think about her. Next week I won’t even see her, which she thinks is the issue. See, ordinarily I see her four days a week, for an hour at a time. I pay her to know more about me than anyone, even a mother, has ever known about me, and I know hardly anything about her. That’s the way it’s supposed to be at her place, where I’m not supposed to be.

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Othering The Undoing

A response to a blogger’s view of HBO’s The Undoing:

Congratulations on a well written and argued essay about the HBO series The Undoing. Your analysis outlines the ways in which a sophisticated production with a seemingly progressive theme marginalizes its underprivileged characters, exhibiting a racist and sexist underbelly. You point out that Elena Alves, the drama’s murder victim character, is an example of shameless stereotyping: her seductive figure placed on display, sexualized before her grisly death and in flashbacks thereafter, and served up as titillation rather than as someone who has earned the viewer’s sympathy. You observe that in some ways this fits the tradition of murder-suspense in cinema, as murdered bodies are typically the least important characters in this genre. However, you make an intriguing point that this facet should shift as the murder-suspense story that is The Undoing transforms into a domestic drama-suspense, culminating in a courtroom drama, plus a concerned gaze upon class, privilege, and most plainly, evil. Amid the intersections of those themes, you argue that the protagonist, Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is afforded a more sympathetic portrayal than the murdered Elena, who is at best patronized as an “unfortunate” Latina. And lastly, you assert that supporting characters and institutions depicted in the film view Hugh Grant’s villainous Jonathon Fraser with depth and understanding—a further privilege that is denied the objectified, “bludgeoned”, and therefore dehumanized Elena. Like Grace, we the viewer are seduced into thinking The Undoing a well-meaning, thoughtful and egalitarian narrative.

Now, after that seduction of flattery, here are a few other thoughts:

The comparison you make with Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca—namely, that its murdered woman is afforded more sympathy than The Undoing’s Latina victim—seems based upon thin evidence. You seem to think that the unfaithful and then revenged upon Rebecca is privileged simply because she is the novel and later film’s titular character. Really? That’s so impactful? Perhaps anti-whaling protesters should take note and heart; be consoled that Melville chose the title Moby Dick rather than, say, The Hunt for a Meaningless Mammal. Anyway, regarding Elena, you also seem to think that because a character is an innocent victim of murder, he or she should necessarily be a sympathetic figure. Well, as you suggest, if The Undoing was a straight-forward murder-suspense, then I’d agree that audiences should identify with the victim as an innocent. But this drama contains elements of social commentary, as you also suggest, and Elena, I’d suggest, is not merely a cardboard, objectified figure, or a convenient stiff, as you put it. Actually, she does exhibit complexity in my opinion, but she isn’t necessarily sympathetic. She is mysterious, which allows for audience projections, which include the following possibilities: that she is a good mother by seeking good care and education for her son; but also that she is opportunistic, passively aggressive, and seductive in a way that I think most viewers will think creepy, not “empowering”, as you seem to think. Her characterization as a not-wholly sympathetic victim of a crime was realistic and therefore good drama; so, too, was the assignment to her of Latin heritage a realistic reflection of setting demographics, and not a facile example of racial profiling.

Next, regarding some support characters and the villain, Jonathan Fraser: You might have made note of the series’ allusion to confirmation bias, as your essay exhibits the same construct of psychology. You believe The Undoing masquerades as a socially conscious drama while exhibiting the same white privilege or institutionalized racism it purports to expose. You skip over that the murder investigation’s lead detective, who is clearly a decent, as in not corrupt, and capable figure, is more than a “dogged” Latino, and is clearly placed in charge of a white male subordinate. Also, the high-priced lawyer whom Grace’s father hires to defend Jonathan is a black woman and clearly portrayed as a super-intelligent, redoubtable, if not entirely ethical person. I suppose that these anomalous elements didn’t fit your thesis so you didn’t explore them. And what quota of positive role models would the filmmakers have to display to satisfy your litmus test of enlightened creativity? Imagine the Rubix Cube of options that producers might consider to make scripts acceptable in the current zeitgeist: could they have had a blonde Hitchcock-like cliché instead of the Elena figure, thus objectifying a woman, but at least not a woman of color? Perhaps they could’ve added a white maid, or another white guy to the slew of hotel doormen we see in the series? Or maybe Jonathan should have been a man of color so that when he is portrayed with “sympathy and complexity” he, too, could be perceived as privileged, or at least rendered equal to other characters. No? Somehow, it seems that Jonathan would be deemed a privileged, sympathized-with figure regardless of his negative attributes—because he is white. Talk about confirmation bias. According to you, he is privileged in the eyes of the filmmakers (not just in the fiction they depict) when he is portrayed as having cheated on his wife, when he has run away from a crime scene and abandoned his wife and child, and even upon the story’s climax wherein he is clearly portrayed as a narcissistic sociopath—an opinion actually voiced half-way through the series by a minor character, Fraser’s erstwhile medical colleague, who attempts to penetrate Grace’s denial about Jonathan.

Your notions of victimization and privilege are tautological and circularly reasoned, so your conception of the Fraser villain is absurd.

What would be your prescription for today’s Hollywood producers and writers? In order to strip the advantaged of their privileged complexity, or the potential for audiences to sympathize with those who don’t merit sympathy, should villains be not only evil, but also uninteresting? Should Hannibal Lechter be a scrawny, witless nerd? Incidentally, I wouldn’t begrudge a re-make with, say, Denzel Washington given a shot at the delicious (sorry) cannibal/psychiatrist. Back to Undoing: Would it have leveled the playing field to make Jonathan Fraser a young, athletic man of color, not a middle-aged, do-gooding doctor whose “healer” persona and charm renders him a credible love interest for a young, beautiful woman? I presume the answer is no, as this change would still involve a socially advantaged figure (a male) in the villain role, plus then the problem would be the negative stereotyping of a racial minority as dangerous. Maybe you could write that thorny script and submit it to a studio, and maybe that script will be good because you are intelligent and you write well. However, I will stop short of saying good luck. I don’t know if you are creative, but I hope that artless social engineers don’t overtake the entertainment industry with their contrivances, though I will thank you for the following: I wasn’t aware that “ass accentuation”, as a concept, is a thing, or that “kiss my ass” or “show my ass” derives from primitive gestures of defiance that Freud will have written about back in nineteen whatever. I’m sure that Colombia professor wrote a fine paper on the subject and that it’s an invaluable contribution to academic literature.

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