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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The Hummingbird, The Sheep, and The Whale

I’m hearing many people extol nature these days, perhaps worried that it will go away. Been worried about that for some time now, haven’t we? Still hasn’t happened. In case you’re wondering, I’m not a denier of climate change, much less an unsympathetic observer of wildfires, floods, or melting icebergs; nor am I gifted with an insight into the resilience or not of the hummingbird, the sheep, or the whale, to name just three creatures that pique my interest, fancifully if not with scientific rigor. But this much I do know: their most difficult or curious challenges have been with them for ages, long before we started tampering with air quality or the state of oceans.

Take the hummingbird: beats its wings I-don’t-know-how-many-times a second just to maintain its flight. Had its reasons for evolving this way, I’m sure. Funny, but this singular thought stirs two semi-relevant others: first, an association to a Monty Python film clip in which bored knights atop a castle debate the “air speed velocity” of a native Mercia swallow; second, and for a split-second, that it might have seemed necessary for me to research precisely how fast a hummingbird beats its wings, just to prove that I have done some homework. I have scientific friends. I know pedantic people who—were I to read this out loud—would immediately poke their fingers in the air because they know the answer to my oh-so-important question. But this is a blog essay, not an academic thesis, so on I go with fanciful wonderings, because like the hummingbird I have no time to lose: how do hummingbirds mate? Assuming they must be still, or relatively un-frenetic in their amorous movements, how long can they be this way before they must get going, go eat something, and then resume their tenacious flight? Doesn’t sound romantic, does it? Wouldn’t make for a tender poem of love. Anyway, the hummingbird’s relentless vigor is surely admired by many, though we seem to overlook what’s surely annoying about them. Keep still! Someone must be saying…sometimes. But their feverish ways fit the inclinations of some I could mention: hello, is anyone there? Are we going to start? Come on? Hello?


Next, what do other animals teach us with their seeming habits; their apparent limitations or skills? What do they illustrate about patience, or about trust? About intelligence. And how have we incorporated our attitudes into the language that represents them? Regarding sheep: we don’t seem to give them much credit. No, they’re not at the top of the esteem chart, these gentle, furry, yet dim, uninteresting creatures. It isn’t nice what we project onto sheep, especially what they’ve given us, passively or not, in terms of clothing, and at times on the dinner table. Given the disregard we aim at the wild, and the distance we keep from its most uncooperative of natives (you know, sharks, bears, or hawks), you’d think we’d be a little forebearing towards those who have been useful, at least. But it says something about us that we can’t help holding in contempt the too-easily defeated, the too-cooperative. The compliant. The non-individualist. The stupid. Yes, we observe that they can’t govern themselves; that they require an actual breed of dog to coral them in groups lest they wander from home or off a cliff. Wait…do we need anything like that? Seems like the sheep metaphor is more prominently applied to ourselves than that of the hummingbird. Our language mechanics betray this attitude, for we don’t bother distinguishing between sheep in the singular (a sheep), versus sheep in the plural. They’re just sheep.

And what of whales? Well, talk about metaphors, whales go way back in our mythology. Think of Jonah and the Whale, in which the creature (once deemed a fish) is a psychic black hole; a deep well of suffering from which the human being later emerges, redemptive—grown up from trauma, and promising to do God’s bidding. In nineteenth century literature, the sperm whale was the Frankenstein of the oceans, as immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick. In that classic, the whale is a man-eating, man-hating monster who inspires obsessive revenge-seeking. Did the great beasts of the sea really hate us? Did they resent us hunting them for things like—what was it?—lamp oil? In the twentieth century, we stopped hunting whales, thinking them more endangered than endangering, on the whole. Well, some stopped hunting them. Not the Japanese, I guess. We transferred our need to fear and hate something in the ocean to the dreaded great white shark. This ancient fear of Leviathan appeared to peak in 1975 with the release of Jaws, a cinematic rip-off of Moby Dick, even if it is a great movie. Meanwhile, the whale, even of the killer variety, became the gentle giant of the ocean, stirring awe, not so much fear. Whales have an aesthetic streak, so we like their ambient songs, how they swim gracefully; their mammalian need for the surface so they can blow air. We might even think them efficient, intelligent diners. Conjure, for example, the way a whale plows into a school of fish, aiming at a dense center so as to gulp as much feed as possible. A whale is not like an average predator. The beast does not lurk on the perimeter, waiting for a weakened runt to fall behind, get separated from a pack. The whale might be like some of us. Disdainful of the compliant, of the mainstream center, the whale strikes at the heart of community.

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Cultural and gender appropriation in the film “Downhill”

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Cultural and gender appropriation in the film “Downhill”

Watched the same film twice over the weekend, sort of. The first was Force Majeure, a French-Swedish film from 2014 that was acclaimed upon its release and won the jury prize at the Cannes film festival. I’d not heard of it, but that didn’t matter. I’m open to foreign films that sometimes sneak into our theaters and festivals, and now onto my cable subscription, so I was game for the viewing. What I also didn’t know was that this film was the basis for the Will Farrell/Julie Louise Dreyfus comedy, Downhill, released earlier this year. And what most don’t seem to understand, including sympathetic critics and especially the producers of the remake, is that Force Majeure is not the singular critique of masculine ego they think it is.

First, the question of comedy. The opening sequences of FM, slow as they are, don’t suggest that. The plot follows an ordinary family of four vacationing at a ski resort, and appearing to have a nice, if underwhelming time at first. Drama begins when a “controlled” avalanche plows into a restaurant wherein the family is dining, sending them all scurrying for cover. The horror, as the wife and mother later calls it, is over in seconds, though the trauma persists and the avalanche becomes a symbol of something else that disturbs them. The real trauma proceeds as the husband appears to deny what the wife, his kids, and we, the audience, clearly observe in the earlier scene: that he “runs away” from the oncoming avalanche, abandoning his family because of terrified feelings that he spends much of the film denying. Gaslighting, and so on. When he finally accepts the truth of his fear and paternal failure, he collapses into sobbing shame, but a repair with his wife and kids becomes possible thereafter. As the film moves towards its climax, it’s not clear whether he will redeem himself. But he does, ultimately, rescuing his wife in a later scene after she has fallen when skiing. Then, in an epilogue scene that depicts her continued sensitivity to ambiguous dangers, the husband takes center stage, shepherding his kids along a country road alongside his wife and walking proudly towards a sympathetic camera.   

In watching the Downhill remake, I was first struck by the reduced running time, which is about a half hour less. Initially, I figured this was about picking up the pace: European films, I notice, are often slower in their depiction of action or character. They set scenes with more stillness, and more visuals than dialogue to build context, relying upon levels of patience that American audiences (mainstream anyway) likely don’t have. Next, the most notable feature is the absence of comedy. Actually, it’s not fair to say that either version is lacking in “dark” laughs, but in FM, in particular, they are few and far between, though they are more subtle. Best example: after the husband’s friend tries to intervene with the family trauma, engaging the tense couple in an impromptu therapy session, he later wars with his own girlfriend about all of the themes implied in the earlier conflict. Hilarious. Anyway, in Downhill, the corresponding scenes are flat (seems like they got cut), and Farrell and Dreyfus’ usual charm is wasted—though I thought both did well with the dramatic material. However, additional or changed elements seem either gratuitous or inconsequential. Dreyfus’ wife character picks up an oversexed friend at the resort, a character that is ridiculous and, frankly, unfunny, unlike the reserved, confident and thus intriguing character this is based upon from FM. Also, Dreyfus is more irascible and prudish than the wife from the earlier film, which sets up a “You go-girl” flirtation and casual sex scene with a predictably hunkish ski instructor. Meanwhile, the filmmakers exploit Farrell’s man-child persona, at one point having him plod about drunkenly like his more entertaining characters do in other films. Some think Farrell was miscast, thinking the husband is meant to be an alpha-male. But this reflects either a facile understanding of FM, or a deliberate revision of its more even-handed themes. In Downhill, Farrell is meant to be an average Joe, perhaps what Robert Bly once termed a “soft male”, quietly grieving a deceased father; timid with his angry spouse—not a wayward stud who merits a take-down. Admittedly, this renders Farrell a bit stiff: a docile, phone-fixated man who likes to use and speak of hashtags.  

But the biggest difference between these two films lies in the ending, and it’s an ending that illustrates where Hollywood is going wrong these days, pandering to its zeitgeist, anti-male politics, plus its insistence upon the explicit. In Downhill’s climactic ending, the scene in which the husband is alone with his kids on a ski slope, waiting for their mother to appear after having trailed behind them, begins more or less as the scene from the source material does. As in Force Majeure, the wife becomes separated from her family, is nowhere to be seen, and remains so for several moments, unheard until she issues a dimly audible distress call. Feeling emboldened—his chance for redemption arriving—Farrell’s character says, “stay right here” to his boys, and runs back (not away), ostensibly to rescue his wife, as in the earlier film. But here there’s a switch. In Downhill, the husband finds the wife, who has feigned a fall and cried out because she’s decided upon a ruse: “this is for the boys”, she says, directing her husband to cooperate and carry her to safety, therefore pretending to rescue her. Now, something similar might have occurred in FM—meaning, the wife in that story might have contrived the climactic rescue also—but the audience can only wonder about this when watching that film. Well, mainstream American cinema doesn’t do that. American cinema explains. Therefore, by Dreyfus’ character’s action and speech, she gets to be the hero, not him, by clearly taking what is now a psychological versus literal fall: protecting the ego and the good father image, however false that is. And she lets him know it. Oh, the things women have to do to sacrifice themselves to help men feel better, blah, blah, blah. Wives of the world unite, etc. The scene also makes sense of a previously inscrutable change: the casting of two boys in the child roles versus the brother/sister pairing of FM. So, this is about modeling proper male behavior for the 21st century—a theme that might have been blunted, producers likely thought, if one of the children had been female.

Those same producers, or someone at the top, further ignored the layered meaning of FM’s epilogue scene, or they missed its final subtlety. I did too, actually, until my wife pointed it out, which led to a second viewing of this epilogue. See, in this scene, the family is heading back home on a coach that is traveling along a treacherous road, only the driver seems incompetent, steering perilously close to mountainside precipices. As the scene unfolds, the camera focuses upon the neurotic wife, who first complains to the driver, and then demands that he stop the coach and let all the passengers off. When he complies, the wife cries “let me off!” and dashes out, at first leaving her husband and children behind, which mirrors the “run away” moment when the avalanche hit the restaurant. Within moments, the wife is back in the company of her family, but not before the subliminal message has been sent: namely, that she has acted with as much fear as her husband had earlier in the film. The question is, will this get noticed? Will the husband, or the kids, remonstrate against her “running away” as she did against his cowardice? And will she be as defensive, as gaslighting, as he was? Will anyone, including the filmgoer, even notice? Anyway, this bookending of near disasters, overlooked by observers of either film, it seems, balances the scales of gender comment.

It might even be a rebuke of post-modern double standards: a trick played upon viewers, reverse-gaslighting with what the filmmaker says is happening, whether we notice it or not. The trick is that masculine cowardice is highlighted, which might stir the feathers of both progressive and conservative contempt (albeit for different reasons), while feminine flight is either unnoticed or else cast in a sympathetic light, as “trauma”, not cowardice. If this is the case then the French/Swedish film may in time be regarded as a masterpiece of social satire: an astute insight into the obtuse hypocrisy of our times. In the meantime, for the sensibilities that do reign today, especially in the United States, FM’s ending is a mysterious canvas, one that likely flew over the heads of Downhill’s producer’s (pun intended); that is, unless they had observant wives also. Anyway, FM’s final images are of the husband smoking a cigarette as he walks, exercising a rediscovered free will, one might think, while the wife asks that his friend, a man who has shown a level head in tense moments, carry their tired daughter along that cold mountain road. Another symbolic rebuke of the husband, despite having made the fuss that placed them on that road. Downhill ignores these meanings, substituting for this scene an equally oblique if duller ending in which a mini-avalanche from a hotel roof-top drops a pile of snow between the Farrell and Dreyfus characters. Divided still, we’re meant to notice. Careful or caretaking of each other? Unknown. But this epilogue does nothing to nuance Downhill’s more tendentious climax, whose gynocentric message is directed at a short-attention span, post Me-Too constituency that wants women to be heroes, not for men to redeem themselves in traditional fashion.

So what? Not for the first time, Hollywood bastardizes a foreign original and plays to its own base. Or the base it thinks it knows, or seeks to manipulate. Of course, mutation (or mutilation) of an original source isn’t exclusively a Hollywood vice, nor are adaptations typically this offensive. Indeed, some have suggested that Force Majeure itself bears a distinct resemblance to a Hemingway story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomba”, from 1936. But the alterations within Downhill betray either an unconscious bias or a deliberately crafted agenda for 2020. Were Downhill an original script, one could argue that its filmmakers simply wished a positive message for average Joe and Jane: to empower women and nudge men with a rightful smote upon their much-publicized egotism. Not a hard pitch post-2018, one would think. But the fact that filmmakers did ignore, willfully or not, the more evenly depicted gender themes of FM, including its (upon second glance) unmistakably judgement-altering finale, exposes their disingenuous quasi-feminist position: that fairness or equality-seeking ethos that supposedly governs their art. Who knows how important the script and character changes are or will be for a mainstream American audience, or how popular they may be for viewers who share the social engineering agendas of Hollywood’s nouveau brass, but from what I gather and have read, Downhill has not been acclaimed so far, is not likely to win awards, and is a relative flop at the box office. Its vapidity, among other faults, has been laid bare. This may be what happens when a good story is intruded upon with what someone in power thinks ought to happen.


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