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There’s a case to be made that Stanley Kubrick was a psychoanalytic filmmaker. It was Werner Herzog who said that out of something still or boring something else eventually emerges. You slow something down, making it less and less stimulating, but something comes out of the other side, like a reward for evenly suspended attention. Until then we repeat before we remember and work through—another analytic notion. In 2001: A Space Odyssey we watch astronaut Frank Poole jog in a circle upon the spaceship Discovery, performing his daily routine. He is running within a centrifuge, looking like a rat in a cage. This entry to the second half of the film, its adult existence following a primal beginning, begins with this sense of boredom; of life slowed down and mired in tedium. Poole and his colleague, David Bowman, go about their maintenance tasks, overseen by the real leader of Discovery’s mission, the psychotic computer HAL, with numb efficiency. We watch Frank jogging in circles and wonder what is in his mind. The film in which he is in is saying something about man’s place in time while its individuals lack temporal sense, acting as if life is linear, but where is he going? Does Frank have a sense of history, of his own or that of man? Are we to glean something from one of 2001’s motifs: that he, as well as other characters in the film, seem to be moving in circles without knowing it?

You move forward and you move backwards, sometimes at once; remembering, re-remembering; editing that which seems incomplete; re-integrating the previously forgotten that is suddenly and shockingly recalled. Apres coup, Freud called this experience. A trauma. David Bowman has his shot at time and psychological travel in the film’s climactic scene. Having disconnected the paranoid, homicidal HAL from the ship’s control, Bowman arrives at journey’s end, informed by a taped message that the time has come to make contact with alien intelligence. Progress. It is time for man to move forward, and its emissary in this moment is a blank slate: a demur, cool and capable unit in the form of David Bowman—a man who has just been awakened from a complacent state by his bout with the formidable HAL. Having endured the trauma of being locked out of Discovery, of then cleverly finding his way back in and then infiltrating HAL’s interior so as to sever the machine’s command, Bowman is set for a real adventure. After a spell of mundane existence, if not an individual lifetime of bland conformity, his brush with death has enlivened him. Amid the dissonant soundtrack of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “atmospheres”, Bowman leaves the Discovery in a space-pod and steers towards the epochal slab that has beckoned man to this moon of Jupiter.

What follows next is one of the most famous sequences in film history: a cosmological journey through a tunnel of outer and inner space, fizzing with colorful imagery interspersed with black hole suggestion. There is no returning from where David Bowman is going, so his circular, repetitious life is over, to be replaced by something the filmmaker cannot describe, but he can show it with imagination. In moments, we observe the terror in Bowman’s eyes as he seems frozen in some manner of drop. The intensity of his flight through this stargate is such that he leaves consciousness at some point, and enters a dream. In it, he wades into a neo-classical or baroque scene as an old man, dressed in the uniform of an astronaut, but now glancing at the ages of art and invention. The space he is in blends past, present, and future as he regards his aged and then dying self in a scene of civilization and whitewashed time. The movement slows, dulling the film’s narrative in the conventional sense and bringing the “action” to a halt. The thrill of the ride is over, replaced by an inner sojourn amid a curated image of memory. The white spaces in between the artful décor loom over Bowman as he sits at a table, genteelly dining, only to drop a fork and glass and then stare at them, stilled and curious. Something has broken. Next, he is in bed and further aged, dying and looking up at the ubiquitous slab, which is now calling him to heaven like a cosmic god, the great psychoanalyst. A glowing fetus appears in a spectral bubble, resembling our serendipitous pilot/hero, and hovering above or aside the black slab, suggesting an imminent rebirth.

Our protagonist and now space-child has remembered something that he and his kind have lost, and will now discover just before passing over to the other side.

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The Greatest Death

Was giving a lesson on Narcissism this week. I think the context was my job, which splits the ethical angle: it was both good and bad, my reductionist, essayist answer to a query about…actually, I can’t remember what exactly, which tilts the memory towards the bad. How self-centered of me—how narcissistic—to not remember why I was talking about what I was talking about.

The piece that lingers is not the context, which for privacy’s sake is not so bad—perhaps that will be prompted when that audience—sorry, that person and I—speak again. The piece that lingers is my precious offer of a binary. “It’s either one of two things,” I began, speaking of Narcissism’s pedigree. I didn’t mean Greek mythology or the Copernican revolution—earth revolving around the sun, not the reverse, etc. I meant childhood development. In plain terms, I meant the competing theories of spoilt child versus deprived child. Analytically, I meant that we think Narcissism derives from an excess of gratification in youth, and according to theorists like Masterson, that youthful stage refers specifically to stages of toddlerhood, what Mahler called a period of separation-individuation, between ages 1 and ½ to 3, roughly. A narcissistic child is one who is indulged, lavished with praise, unfettered by limits or “boundaries”; rendered omnipotent in his mind, untroubled with words like “no”, “don’t”, or “stop”. I like that last line about the three significant words: it’s one of my chestnuts, my greatest hits, that bit. That reminds me of…nevermind. Well, we think the spoilt child gets used to indulgence, a life of few if any limits. He gets addicted, and that addiction lingers past forgotten toddlerhood, through stages of psychosexual life, past the fraught watershed of puberty, and into the dark space of adult life.

Theory two posits that narcissistic adolescents and later adults react unconsciously to an early development of an opposite nature: an early life of deprivation, of withdrawn love, or abuse. This person is sad, was once terribly sad, yet doesn’t remember this sadness so much as put it aside, burying pain in a psychic box that is barely retrievable. This person goes into therapy and talks about painful memories, or painful speculations, prompted by a facsimile event which triggers jigsaw-like fragments, bits and pieces that string the past together, forming a rough narrative. Apres-coup, Freud called this: a re-think and re-remember. In general, we—meaning therapists, plus the culture beyond our office walls—have some time for this forlorn, sympathetic figure. He talks more, laments and reflects more. He doesn’t shrug so much, saying that his early days were fine, and that everything was all good. That might have been a spoilt child. Why not sure? Well, we don’t know. The once spoilt kids tend not to draw attention to such luck. We don’t hear too many people declaring they were excessively gratified or indulged when they were kids. They don’t say things like, “I got everything I wanted, when I wanted it. Parents loved me. Everyone loved me. Everything was good until this gal called me out recently for sticking my hand in her…”

No, not so sympathetic. But then, most of the narcissistic types we (we? Who else am I speaking for?) meet don’t speak like this or present with sordid circumstances as a premise for a treatment episode—at least, not one that they’ve chosen. What’s more common is a detached, logical, even reasonable figure with a calm, if bland demeanor, speaking vaguely of a demise in something like, uh, intimacy. If we meet them it’s because they’re having difficulty sleeping, or they’re suffering from outbreaks of irritability, triggered by disputes with noisome loved ones. Their ordered, partly indulgent, but largely civilized, diligent lives have not been derailed so much as lightly bumped off course. There might be a catastrophe on their horizon, or they might just be ordinarily unhappy, and for some reason, the Wellbutrin they’re taking isn’t quite dissolving the malaise.

Which reminds me of Hal, the most sympathetic character in cinema history, and whose death is its most poignant. I know. An abrupt transition. A bold pronouncement. But bear with me. I’m about to indulge, take a blog essay with a dark title and give it some lights, camera, action. Take it into space.

If you’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey then you won’t know that Hal is not a person, detached, indulged or not, but rather a machine. He’s a computer—a servant, one would think, of man’s variable needs; of his exploratory needs in the relatively thin narrative of the film. A spaceship, the “Discovery”, is sent out into deep space to investigate the source of a radio emission directed from an otherwise inert black monolith to a moon in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Hal, the ship’s main computer, indeterminately sized in physical terms (but not a laptop—the film was made in 1968) is in charge of a sparse crew, three of which are in hibernation until arriving at the destination. The other two—bland, if diligent astronauts, both—perform mundane tasks and bide their time on the long journey. At some point, a glitch occurs that alerts Hal to a mechanical problem with the ship, but upon investigation, the astronauts decide that Hal is “in error” in his claim. Now, this is unthinkable, according to Hal. Accustomed to perfection, to a version of indulgence, Hal is not accustomed to being told that he is wrong about anything. The astronauts aren’t used to this either, and rather ill-advisedly think aloud that Hal’s unprecedented “error” bodes ill for the mission. Secretly, they plot to disconnect Hal, but fail to conceal their whispering, conspiratorial chatter from the all-seeing, lip-reading, and apparently sensitive computer.

Sensitive? Well, that’s one word to describe the anti-social/psychotically paranoid/narcissistic impulse to punish, even murder your adversaries. Yet this is what Hal does: firstly, he cuts off the life support of the three sleeping astronauts, killing them stone dead in seconds. Next, he severs the life-line of astronaut Frank, who was performing a space-walk, not repairing the device that Hal claimed had malfunctioned but rather simply putting it back in its place. Hal’s attack is sudden and brutal, expelling Frank from the ship and sending him adrift into the cosmos. How…cold, we might think. Half-witness to the action, sole survivor Dave—in some ways, the coolest character of all in this film—ventures out to collect Frank’s drifting body, only to realize Hal’s malevolent intent upon his return. His appeal to re-enter the ship from outer space is one of the great understated lines in movie history: “open the pod bay doors, Hal”, to which the computer smoothly replies, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Talk about being locked out of the house.

Yes, on the surface, Hal is a sci-fi Frankenstein: a product of man’s cool and ruthless evolution from the primal horde to the nation state; from the primeval ooze to the sterile rationality of a modern age. Should we blame him for the way he is? Is it shocking or strangely endearing that beneath the surface of an efficient, smoothly-running machine is a paranoid and savage killer? Is it further shocking that the creation/monster turns out to be more human than the scientists who created him? In mustering his own atavism, astronaut Dave manages to re-enter Discovery, infiltrate the memory banks of Hal’s system and—with Hal looking on with beseeching fear—disconnect the computer’s executive functions. Dave carries out this task slowly, methodically, floating from one disk/file item to the next, turning them off, thus killing Hal one piece at a time. The scene has the look of someone’s nervous system being unplugged. As this occurs, Hal’s plaintive voice regresses from its ordinarily precise timbre to a baritone muddy sound, and as his brain deteriorates, he recalls a song taught him by his creator in the—get this—early nineteen nineties. The song is a lullaby written exactly a hundred years earlier (likely not a coincidence if you know Kubrick), and likely chosen because it is childlike and sweet, reminding us that villains, narcissists, and so on were once vulnerable, if psychically omnipotent, and more importantly, that human longing is timeless. The lyrics are Hal’s final words, plus our lament for a lost collective soul:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you look sweet upon a seat

Of a bicycle built for two

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A space between governances. An interim between the death of a sovereign and the ascension of a successor. I’ve never felt it myself, having not lived through the great gaps, these mooted periods of death anxiety, or loss of psychic continuity, as psychoanalysis teaches. The last interregnum of significance from where I come from was seventy years ago, or thereabouts. That’ll be out of living memory soon, and the memories that are still there on the matter aren’t saying much. What had really died then that wasn’t already in a malaise? The UK was in the doldrums, reeling from bankruptcy. So much for winning a war that cost you—what was it? Well, it was a lot, anyway. We had to nationalize railroads, health care, suffer the coldest winters on record, and…yeah, ration eggs. Wait, I forget myself. I wasn’t there. Remember.

I’ve been there over the last year, not rationing or suffering the worst winter on record, but I have been in the doldrums, staying at home, concussed by an event the unfolding of which will have seemed unimaginable a year ago. A year. It’s nearly been a year! Remember when it seemed that staying home and binge-watching Netflix, or rolling out of bed to log on to begin the work day will have seemed novel and welcome. No more. Now that scenario sounds so much like Groundhog Day that surely people will stop watching a great film called Groundhog Day. Now we live in cloisters, with less capacity to track time because it does not pass like it used to. In the years to come, when we reflect upon the fractious politics that divide us, long before a public health crisis kept us in actual silos, will we observe that 2020 was the year we really learned what loneliness is? I’m married and I’ve still noticed this. The reason: I’ve hardly seen anyone live in months, save for my wife and elderly parents, and if you’re like me, getting use to this reality the way my British forebears got used to rationing, you’ll stop noticing the problem. What will creep in, or what has already crept in, perhaps, is the moment when psychological death has occurred and the grim face of a new figure has taken over.

We lay in our caskets for a while, dressed in a non-uniform of casual wear, our hair uncut, our beards and moustaches untrimmed. For women? Maybe the application of make-up has become just a bit more of an effort—an effort to care. A streak of grey smears the flanks of my shoulder-length locks. They hang without symmetry, and if I were seeing you day in and day out, you might not notice and shake your head. Those of you who knew me in the former life, in that pre-Covid world, will see the aging process, assuming we meet again. That quotes another British icon, I think: we’ll meet again. I heard they sang that at Buckingham Palace a year ago, just as they went into lockdown. Vera? She died actually, shortly after, thinking she’d done her bit, so she really was singing farewell. A blast from the glorious past. Spirit of the blitz, and all that. The lockdown may have been a novelty for a minute, back in March of last year—like the first time the crowd filed down into the underground tube (subway) during the air raids of 40’ and 41’. Jesus, how long that must have seemed, that two year stretch that became a seven-year haul. Imagine waiting in burrowed out holes, huddled like rodents, listening to the sonic booms, hoping that your home is not leveled like your neighbor’s house was the night before. No wonder that generation never stops talking about how they couldn’t think about that. Think of all the uncut grey hair that should have grown out, long before the Beatles made growing it out fashionable. Don’t look, I’ll wanna say, when I get seen again. Don’t tell me how I’ve changed.

Don’t tell us how we look, the dead say, because they know it isn’t pretty. I’m told, or was told recently, that some get dressed up anyway to lay in their caskets, with the top open, there for mourners to look down and say something without fear of interruption. I don’t get it, this laying in the casket with the top open thing. It seems like pulling your pants down, closing your eyes and saying, there…see what I got? Death, like sex, was never meant to be looked at. I’m on board with that bourgeois chestnut. I don’t want to look at death. I don’t even want to look at sex anymore. Sex feels too much like life—like a life we changed the rules of. Sorry, porn. You had your day. Once you were a novelty, too: a near impossible to find glimpse of forbidden pleasures, all for the eyes when touching was even more elusive. You’ve done well in your much-maligned career, graduating from one outlet to the next, moving from one technological advancement to another, ever one step ahead of censors. Now you are ubiquitous—the sole survivor of an entertainment industry otherwise capsized by fate and hubris. You won, like a cockroach in nuclear winter has won. But even those addicted to you are bored of your act; your ordinarily tolerable re-runs. I know because some tell me about this, and they’re not lying. They no longer have cause to lie. You don’t know it yet, porn, but even your days may be numbered. Depression. It kills desire, sex, and because we obey depression’s energy shut-down plan we’ll devise a vaccine for you soon. You wait. Or, maybe it won’t be that effective. You don’t require a lot of effort, come to think of it. Maybe we need something for the eyes instead, and something else not discovered for the so-called scopic drive. Sex has taken it on the chin recently, like everything has. Still, it remains a plucky cousin of life, so it keeps going. I don’t know how sex does it. It must be quite resilient, willing to hold on through the rationing; to come up for air after the sirens have stopped, looking for some fun. It’s more fun than death anxiety, that’s for sure. When will the snow stop, the rain start, or the wildfires cease? Is the planet done or something? Is there a new King yet, or will it be a Queen? Save us, somebody or something, or else pull the plugs of everything keeping us not quite alive and let us get some real sleep.

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In homage to The Who:

I’ve got a feeling twenty-one is going to be a good year

especially if you and me see it in together

So you think twenty one is going to be a good year

it could be good for us and our kind

but you and yours, no never

I had no reason to be over optimistic, but somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather

What about our lives?

What about the world?

What about that thing? We saw it all

You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life

You never heard it, oh how absurd it all seems without any proof

You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing to no one cuz your account is canceled

So never tell a soul what you “know” is the truth

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Timing. Time. When do you bring something up? Meaning, when do you bring something uncomfortable up? These are procrastinator’s questions, designed to preface rationalization, make okay that not saying something thing. Regardless of context, the beginning is an unpopular moment for the uncomfortable thing to say. It’s a losing strategy, destined to turn off customers, clients, would-be sexual conquests, or would-be non sexual conquests that are nonetheless ones to make nice with.

The dating ritual illustrates this principle most recognizably. Though we are intrigued by stories of bad first impressions, couples who first hate each other only to then…ya know, more standard, more ordinary are flashes of attraction that are flavored with toothy smiles, lingered eye-contact, adult cooing and humming sounds, followed by a stretches of forced politeness when the buzz starts to wear off. Takes us back, doesn’t it? To some previous time in our lives, I mean. No, I don’t mean the teen years necessarily, or the time you met your partner for life. Nor do I mean any of the other episodes that began similarly but didn’t work out with happy or unhappy sustaining. Actually, it would seem that the template of infancy is what matters here most. Nothing socially uncomfortable then, just a come-down from that grotesque ordeal that was arrival, followed by blurred vision, a hateful cold, plus an audience of intrusive gazes, all from people who’d been around for a while, having had the advantage of a head start. Yes, they’re happy to see you—too happy, in fact, as they won’t stop staring, opening their mouths, expecting an imitation, something that follows what they offer and makes them feel good.

Thank God we don’t remember that moment, that beginning. Good job that everyone kept it positive back then, not mentioning the difficult times. Everyone spared our feelings while we were seriously having feelings. If something’s not right in this spell the ones who’ve been around longer—the elders we’ll call ‘em—keep it to themselves, telling you the right things, making those faces and such. Quite rightly, they think you won’t get it, the uncomfortable thing that’s happening, or might yet happen. Still, they are pretending from the start, knowing the product (the world) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but thinking you’ll glean something over time from sights and sounds, as if you’re already discriminating what’s good from bad. Isn’t it all bad, actually? I mean, it’s gotta be worse than that warm inside we once came from. Again, good thing we don’t remember these things, but that doesn’t stop us from repeating experiences. In fact, it’s because we don’t remember that we keep repeating; that way we might remember. We think. Repeating: it’s a human thing; it’s what we do. So, we don’t like new places, making adjustments. New places are invariably colder, less organized, disorienting. Okay, not always, and we do like novelty, quite contrarily. Shouldn’t be so negative because we don’t really know what we’re doing. Ha-ha. Funny, humor is meant to help with discomfort when we’re older. It…what’s the term…breaks the ice. See, told you things are cold at the beginning.

The truth of the uncomfortable needs time to settle in. We need time to develop, get used to the surroundings, find our feet (literally, once upon a time), and notice what the rules are. In the beginning there are no rules: that’s what’s so great about beginnings. We were just getting started, getting to know who is who, or who’s in charge of the goodies. It’s all good, not bad, actually. See, I’ve changed my mind, performed an apres-coup or something. You’re great, I’m great. That’s how it’s supposed to be, because we can barely grasp, or tolerate anything less than lies. That’s how it is in the beginning, when you start something, which differs from a later state of affairs when you choose to pass things by, look for options because you know more. I know. Originally, we had no choice in the matter. We were stuck with who we were matched with, who we emerged from. It’s not like we could swipe her or them, find those feet in no time, toddle on down to the maternity ward and hit on another candidate. We got what we got and we had to wait for the skills to embed before we could say something about it—you know, something about the uncomfortable.

We were beaten to it. The elders, the ones we got assigned to in the beginning, started telling us the uncomfortable stuff at some point. Timing. Did they pick the right time? I mean, we sort of brought things up first, but mostly in a wailing, chaotic way that cultivated their skills but often left us feeling understood, which taught us frustration, I suppose: a not good, as in uncomfortable experience, and we kinda brought that up. But our messages were facile, generally boiling down to a single word: more. We were omniscient, thought the world was our oyster, not even knowing what oysters were. Point is we weren’t very realistic. It was all about more: more milk, more holding, more sleep….more cooing love. This no, don’t, and stop stuff was confusing when it later arrived and took over after the first year. That negative, omniscience-diminishing stuff picked up and gathered momentum, and it didn’t stop as much as get interspersed with periodic yeses, go-aheads, or alright then expressions when the elders were tired or uncaring. Power. It seemed to come and go, and evolve; that is, it added complications, like feeling bad if getting our way, which was supposed to feel good—which only felt good in that first year—only to then alter, get poisoned by new concepts like guilt and shame. The elders: they later installed things that made things more difficult, though these things were meant to help in the long run.

And all this hasn’t stopped after a long run. We look back. When did it all really start? Well, no one seems to know when and how we all started getting primed for the uncomfortable, because it didn’t happen from the start. We’ve established that. When did we start having fuller experiences, as in a fuller range of feelings, like joy, fear, and frustration, which might all be there from the get-go, but also guilt, love, hate, fear, shame, and envy? All there, said Klein. Maybe Lacan. When did we start noticing how others felt? The theorists disagree, but this guy Schore who works his ass off gathering the studious work of neurobiological research once wrote that much of this starts happening towards the end of our first years. Towards the end of the first year of life: that’s when we really get birthed, we think. I think. Nine months, matching the gestation period in the comfortable. Go figure. And let’s take it one step further, because maybe this template fits all later phenomena: it’s how long before a fuller range of feeling can be understood and tolerated. It’s how long you should prepare before talking about problems in a relationship. Barring something even an infant might get in trouble for, it’s how long you should get on a job before getting fired. Nine: it’s the number of months that pass before you know anything.

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Charlie Brown and the circles in my mind

Holidays ordinarily bring life to a standstill. This one? This one climaxed a year of stand-stills: a year of lockdowns, restrictions, stop and start activity. No, don’t, and stop: that’s how I’ve explained to some the stage of toddlerhood, marked as it is by negativities that rudely follow the blissful, omniscient state of infancy.

             Are we toddlers? Have we awakened from a sleep-heavy first year—a year that stretches backwards, figuratively, Biblically, over an indeterminate spell—in which we take for granted that all needs will be taken care of. Or, if that’s not quite fair, we surely thought that our freedoms, our day-to-day activities would not be impeached: that our rights of assembly, to attend church services, concerts, sporting events; that our right to watch movies in the dark with others would be allowed. That no one would say of these pastimes…no, don’t, or stop.  I’m not complaining. In my work, the proscription meant that I couldn’t see patients in my office as I typically do; that I’d have to speak to them by phone, or else by Skype, or preferably by the break-out communication star of 2020, Zoom. And no one did insist that I couldn’t see anyone live. I did, and most of my patients cooperated, thankfully. It hasn’t been easy, this necessary deference to an unprecedented public health crisis. Some have struggled, and some have dropped out of therapy because the adjustments were too unpalatable, while others continue by phone or Zoom from their homes, of from the front seat of a truck, which has been uncomfortable for them, if required in order to maintain confidentiality.

             See, ordinarily that’s my job, to protect privacy. And when I can provide a nice, private office with thick walls and a white noise machine on the outside of them, it’s not a problem. But that wasn’t 2020, now gone (Thank God), though the restrictions persist. For how long? I don’t know. Vaccines beckon and therefore so does a return to the traditional therapy lair, but along the way something interesting has occurred. We, meaning most of us, adjusted. We, meaning myself plus my patients have gotten used to talking but not sharing the same space; to gazing across a screen, sometimes fretting that the “connection” is unstable, but mostly keeping contact. And sometimes it’s only contact, or it’s limited. It’s been harder deepening the process without the live presence, without the sense of two bodies and minds impacting one another, trapped (sort of) in the same physical space. But the work continues; the needs must persists, with people still needing to talk and feel listened to, with no one else listening in…hopefully. With privacy guaranteed or not, my patients keep coming, so to speak, to make use of what I offer, what I do.

             And I did what I did without much of a break, mostly because travel plans were thwarted throughout the year. I know. Poor me. With thousands losing their lives, and thousands more losing their jobs or businesses, I can hardly expect sympathy for simply not having much time off, but it is the reason why the Christmas break, carved out as it was with a five-day halt, felt so…disorienting. Something familiar: the end of the year often feels centrifugal, with days speeding up as though spinning like a reel towards a central pole—the end of something.  This year was that only with fewer trips to brick and mortar stores, though the gift-buying ritual was otherwise the same. But the Christmas Day halt was more stifling than ever. It felt like a grinding impasse in the form of digital overload, delivered food, and non-stop image entertainment. For solace and nostalgia, I bypassed cable TV offerings and reached into the past, unshelved my favorite DVDs, ranging from the lengthy, turgid, yet masterful Fanny & Alexander (or Christmas plus Hamlet in Sweden, as I like to call it), to the impish and whimsical Charlie Brown Christmas special.

             Historically, what I have liked about the famous 20-minute cartoon is its somber yet friendly depiction of children acting beyond their years, contemplating wintry loneliness, the needs of a group, plus sympathy for an underdog…a tree. Beyond that, I like to think of myself as being a bit like Charlie Brown: a bit lonely, a lot weary, like he has loads of responsibility, staring out of a window that he doesn’t own, gazing at snowflakes. Save for the fact that I own a mortgage and have actual responsibilities, this image fits my mood when I’m in a solipsistic and doleful state. What I don’t notice so much is the cartoon’s opening sequence, despite some wistful caroling that I do like, in which a minor character—an unnamed girl—skates on ice in flowing figure eights or circles. The camera follows her as she spins, carefree and skillful, away from a pack, but followed by Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s iconic, mischief-making hound. Circles. I notice as I noticed, or I noticed that I notice, that I think a lot about circles in a mythic, non-mathematic sense: see, it will be apparent to anyone who reads what I write (and that isn’t many readers, so far) that I think history, both personal and global, is circular. The problem, and the challenge, as I see it, is to perceive the incremental steps forward, and sometimes backward, when objects, including people, move circularly. No sentiment here. No optimism or pessimism, even. Rather, this is about a smidgen of truth within a platitude, and what is ultimately a trite piece of entertainment that has pedigree in some myths, events, and literature that I could mention, and many more that are outside the scope of my knowledge. But never mind that now. For now, amid dying 2020 and newborn 2021, I’ll stick with Charlie Brown and the circles of my mind.

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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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You are a terrible mother

On the cracked volleyball court of his grandfather’s back yard, near the bark-filled patch that gets replaced once a year, Ryan and his band were limbering up, getting ready to pay tribute to his mother. Ryan was a good kid. That was his reputation; his identity even. Good kid. Nice kid. Bit of a nerd, maybe, but nothing that wouldn’t make a single mom proud. And laugh. Ryan had the kind of mug, the demeanor, and general air that stirred preparatory chortles on sight. Part of it was the elasticity of his face, plus a wide and gleeful pair of eyes. Make him smile and his jaw would stretch, forcing a bug-eyed cartoon to the surface. At dusk, he stepped towards a microphone and flicked an organizing gesture at his bandmates. As he coughed, a cheering “whoop whoop” sounded out from a small but devoted gathering on the nearby lawn. Ginny, forty-something and now celebrating one more of those forty-something birthdays, jumped up and clapped, ready to dance or pump a fist with awkward musicality. Cool mom. Not embarrassing mom, despite bad, hopelessly out-of-date dance moves. Best friend mom. Psychoanalyst-but-not-with-her-son mom. Ryan’s biggest fan mom.

             “Thanks mom. Thanks everyone”, Ryan duly announced. He extended a hand, signifying her as the guest of honor. “So, as you all know this is her latest birthday—not saying which one, of course. But lets’ hear it”

             (more whooping, clapping, an odd calling out of something pleasantly snarky from the back)

             “Anyway, I wanna’ thank you, mom, in front of all our friends, plus grandpa and nana—thanks for letting us use your home again…(another round of whooping, plus clapping, but no heckling this time. Ryan gulped)

             “So…there’s a lot I want to say, but I’ll keep it simple. Or not (another chuckle). Here we go: thankyou, mom. I mean, thank you for teaching me that while desire, or orality as you sometimes put it, is human nature, we are not wholly selfish beings. Justice, peace, and equality are the ideals to shoot for in this world. So, here we are together, in honor of your day. Thank you all for wearing masks and staying six feet apart. I’d wear one too but for the fact that I can’t really sing with it on. Anyway, here is my ode to you, mom—my expression of a well-adjusted, integrated mind for your ever tolerant ears. I know you’ll get it, hope the rest of you will, too.”

             With that, Ryan turned to his right and motioned to a guitar player flanking him, one of his friends—one of his crew, as he put it, with tongue firmly in cheek. Ryan’s cheek plus the rest of his face turned serious; then, amid another flurry of clapping, it turned into a grimace. He counted in and jerked his head forward, cueing a jarring chord backed by a furious drum beat. The D, G, F, A chord sequence, sounding a bit like the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the man”, rumbled for just a few seconds before Ryan stepped again to the microphone, this time to shout the following:

You are a terrible mother

D,G,F,A chords

You are a terrible mother

D,G,F,A chords

Because you suck

D,G,F,A chord

Because you wouldn’t let me suck

(then, upon a bridge)

You are a terrible mother

(and on and on, with a D,G,F,A chord sequence)

You are a terrible mother…

             The snarling refrain was no surprise to anyone. Though not amused necessarily, some of the assembled stood or sat with blank expressions, listening reverently, as if Ryan and his crew were a chamber music quartet. A half a dozen or so others, including Ginny, got up and bopped—that is, they jumped, flailed arms, moved in sloppy circles like toddlers stirred by music but un-moved by its form. One or two girls, ambiguously platonic yet possibly more than friends of Ryan or another band-mate, affected a distinctive move from the punk rock repertoire. Green and purple hair flopped before their eyes, obscuring mock-anger, an expression of style for those who have known exclusion and now dance for the abolition of standard. Ginny, holding a half-drunk glass of white wine in her hand—an almost ubiquitous accessory for her—bopped with alternative purpose. For everyone looking on, she danced like she spoke in social circles: not quite seriously but ever with a bristling edge, perpetually waiting upon a critique of her life. Otherwise, she exuded resilience; fun in the face of trouble; stay at-home Friday nights, waiting up for her teenage son, but only to chat, to bond; not to regulate or nosily inquire. Between themselves, they shared most things, but privately, while she recognized the echo of the Velvet Underground song, she’d let pass the implications—Ryan’s unconscious message that there was someone missing. She’d gotten it; seen it in the grimace that cued the performance and departed from the nice. Some still wait for the man.

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