Saturday, July 4, 2009

State Of Novel Bigness


I'm sorta taking a couple of days off. I figure that running around and acting like I have no time is a very bad way to go. So, despite my fear of actually taking a breath and looking around, I am doing exactly that. I've been to Borders to read, twice in the last twenty four hours. And I didn't carry my phone everywhere I went, just to see if I could handle it.

I wouldn't say I feel good. Just different. But you know how that is.

I used to hate days off, which is another way off saying you are unhappy. Sometimes, in the winter when things are slow, or just when I only have thirty or so hours a week (for whatever reason) I can really relish the extra time.

But to actually take time, without some activity filling it up, is pretty hard. But necessary. I always tell my friends to slow down, but rarely myself. So this is my comeuppance.

I just watched Charlie Rose interview Guillermo del Toro for the second time. Gosh, what a really cool dude. Del Toro just published a novel he cowrote. Apparently it's about vampires. I am completely bored by the subject of most monster, and stagey fright movies. In fact, I went to del Toro's Hellboy movie with the same sort of attitude I might go to a recital, or the Opera with. An obligated sort of ritual. Needless to say, most of the time, this is a great way to surprise yourself with a great time. I'm never sad to obligate myself to most anything deserving of the description. I've always been a slightly haughty and somewhat otherworldly dude, for whom it suited me just fine when things folks don't like so much, actually seemed like fun to me. This is something, I think, that drives some folks nuts, and seems admirable to others. There is a suspicion within me, that most of the folks who hate this hautiness in me, are actually pretty damned honest at their core, and their suspicion of my aesthetics probably has some legitimacy. Concurrently the folks who admire my tastes and pilgrimages to various "do gooder" things and cultural what have you's, are often (it seems) somewhat needy of approval, and a bit self loathing. But in the end, I just basically don't care.

Strange things run through your head when you go to the Opera alone ('cus nobody wants to go with you, even when it's free for them.) You come to sense the spectacle of the human gathering, the theatre and the magic of charisma. If you've ever performed something yourself, and come to know that white hot terror that it is to bomb (I know this rather well) then you will feel an even greater appreciation for the confident people who have you in their hand, on stage, or in performance.

Among the strange things running through my head at the recital I went to recently, was the singularity of the violin and the hair pulled across it's strings: how it sang into the air, in that silent recital hall. Yes, I felt I was a bit alone. The performer, a friend of my friend Robert (he'd played Robert a small recital in our house only a few days before, which warmed my heart considerably.) seemed almost to disappear behind to magic of that strange little piece of carpentry. How in the world is a violin ever built? The answers are as mysterious to me as semiconductor engineering. I simply can't imagine building a device to produce such beauty.

Music amounts to just about the closest thing to a sober love of life I can imagine. What cynic or pessimist could invest a belief in something as magical as the process that produces both the violin and it's freakishly talented performer (and the man I went to see, a distinguished graduate of IU's School of Music, will never, ever, be a soloist of any note. He'd be more likely to beat Tiger Woods at your local Putt Putt.) Both seem about as related to the forest (where long ago the violin rubbed shoulders with fire wood) and the teeming masses (like the guy sitting and dreaming through the performance, me.) as the smell of perfume is to the smell of a festering corpse. How can a world of darkness and mean pursuit produce the miracle of a violin recital? This pathetic, drooling observer, cannot say.

So this evening I sat and listened to the great and strange Guillermo del Toro speak about his vampire novel (which I will at least glance at. He compared the eroticism of his vampires to anal cancer, which one has to admit, seems a bit harsh. Perhaps he had one of Charlie's Angels on his mind. I think he was attempting to distance himself from the seeming endless comparisons of vapire bloodsucking to sex. It must hurt a bit being a Oscar winning director to know that you will never truly be comfortable again producing the kind of trash we so love to watch, and remember. You will henceforth have expected from you, a more authentic repertoire. Shame.)

Del Toro seems like what he very likely is. A guy doing something he probably wouldn't even need to be paid to do. He is doing what he loves. Writing screenplays and directing movies about monsters. He is very clear about his taste for monsters. He has that artist's way of speaking about what he thinks is important in this hyperbolically emphatic manner. He doesn't want you to understand. He needs you to. He doesn't hint. He is blunt. This must have something to do with why Americans are so dominant in the visual arts (in terms of financing the most prominent of them, and having the Art Capital of the World here: NYC) Americans don't beat around the bush about what constitutes the money shot. So this proud Mexican man, Guillermo Del Toro, is here, in America, where it is rumored folks will pay greenbacks for monsters. If you stop and think about it, that is sort of nuts.

Del Toro mentioned that he was wounded and a bit freaked out by Mexico's form of Catholicism. It's funny, but I dearly love the iconography of the Mexican Catholic Church. I love the blood, the guts (del Toro mentioned even Jesus having bone exposed through torn flesh.) For some reason I regard Christianity as a brutal faith anyhow. With a dangerous God on the prowl, and his followers going around armed and ready to to kill, for the unborn. So, since I get to live in this pre-apocalyptic crazy country it always came as a shock to me to see the post Vatican II Catholic churches (meaning, any that were built or remodeled since roughly my birth) as nothing but a bunch of drywall trimmed out with maple. White boxes, not so different from the mall. I've no doubt that this is what happens when the people have spoken. Too bad.

Go to Mexico, and along with the dogs running up and down the aisle's (sometimes) you'll find yourself the savior himself, torn to pieces just for you. If you want, and your timings right, you can even eat a little of him. No kidding.

The Methodist church I sometimes attend has grape juice, and some sort of tasteless bread to stand in for Jesus. I asked someone who managed a Church for years, at the peace group I attend, "Where did you get the wine for service?" She told me she got Jesus blood, "Wherever it was on sale."

"You never settled on a brand?" I asked her.

"None that weren't cheap," she chuckled.

I didn't ask about the body. The whole thing kinda depresses me.

People sometimes ask me why, I, an atheist, even bother attending these bizzare places of worship. Their tone is, "I've got that all figured out, why don't you?" My answer, which is hard earned, is usually, "I haven't got it figured out, and never will. I live in a town of thirty some faiths, and hundreds of communities of believers. We are a particular culture, here in Indiana, one that is not dominant in the world. No matter how many times you hear the organ, or gather in silence, or sing a hymn, or bow your head, you none the less, each time will mark yourself as very likely, a Westerner, in the American Midwest. Outside of an old time revival, my cultures religious heritage is remarkable in its weirdness. And my parents protected me from feeling nervous about it. So I don't feel nervous. I feel interested." The whole things about one half pathetic and one half lovely.

Del Toro was not thrilled with the bloody iconography of his homelands Church. As he complained of this, I yelled at the screen, "Bullshit! Go to the drywall churches if you think it's so bad! People here think Jesus died quietly in his sleep. I, an atheist feel more for the guy than them!" Robert and David must have thought to themselves, "There goes Andy, again." They have me figured out.

I had a completely fascinating conversation with my friend Jaz today. I can't go into details since our conversation was frought with rather personal and private matters to him. But I will say that it never fails to fascinate me the damage people carry with them through life, including myself. We all know how to behave, love, live and even prosper. And yet, we maintain lives that are radically opposed to all those things in one area or another. Perhaps we hate a certain group of people. Or we deny certain friends our love. Or we orchestrate lives that simply exist entirely outside the circles of certain abhorrent realities (or personalities). This last one is my chief complaint with Bloomington. If you go around, as I have, and make the argument that our town is far too lean on the African American component of the cosmopolitan, some folks here, feel comfortable saying, "We don't need that." My uncle said the same about Hispanics in Carmel, Indiana. Is this racism? Some people would say, yes. I'm not comfortable calling it racism, especially coming out of my uncles mouth. I think it is one of the things that happens when an entire culture is victimized by racism, not merely the people of color who might claim it as their particular ailment. My Uncle doesn't know much about his discomfort with Hispanics. He knows merely that their presence as stakeholders in his community means certain things for his family, that they are unaccustomed to dealing with. It is a fear of that, not so much the Hispanic, that animates my Uncles so called "racism." A national conversation where such distinctions are made, without rancor, would go far toward helping us all unshackle ourselves from the shame that surround the issue of race. The secret is: most folks agree on the subject. How might we discover that? I have been accused, and have been guilty of forms of racism, and certainly prejudice. I would love to pretend otherwise. But what I needed to reveal the truest part of myself (on this subject) were black friends, or hispanic friends who could say to me, "Andy I know your a cracker and honky, and you know I'm a [epithet]. Maybe we should start with what we've got in common." Kind of a "three things you should not discuss at a dinner party" approach. Lot of wisdom there.

It's interesting how nervous geneticists are, by the way, about discovering scientific differences between the races of man. Eugenics was in it's adolescence just prior to the Holocaust, and were it not for Hitler, I'm afraid we'd conform more to the Lindberg's of the world, rather than the Obama's. The cost of the lesson was, of course, far far to high. But it gives you some idea of how stupid we are, even among our best and brightest, before we let our emotions get in the way (for our fellow man) when thinking about human beings in the abstract. Always us vs. them.

When my black friends would give me a ride back to Zionsville, back when I worked at a pizza place in a black neighborhood in Indy, it was rather instructive to see their faces grown dark and concerned with the slow retreat of the city lights, as we approached my rural neck of the woods. They would actually say, "It's so dark." Not so different from the words coming out of my mouth when I make a wrong turn in Chicago, or wherever. And I'm not talking about skin color, of course. You shouldn't be stupid and imagine every corner of the world as merely a variation on the village green, or some such b.s. I've been screwed over plenty of times in my life, in places I didn't belong. Such circumstances can be read in the callow vision of the fearful, or in the language that was on offer when a person offered me a ride. Nature might be for the eyes that see it, but we can all agree that a museum is perhaps too safe a place for all experience.

Speaking of Lindberg earlier, I remembered a story a biographer recounted, where Lindberg used to throw tantrums about round flashlights. Round things roll on an incline, and a source of light, unsteady, makes detailed work rather difficult, if not impossible. One might consider Lindberg as a man, like many you may know, who regarded much of the world as a place conspiring in his failure. For all his success, the round flashlight remains: and it's rolling to this day.

As I was saying earlier, the scientists that study the differences among people, genetically, sometimes fret enormously over what these differences might come to imply to certain, dark mindsets. I couldn't agree more that we are primed to jump to the wrong conclusion. Someone said to me the other day something about Jews making too much of their holocaust. Without losing my temper, I couldn't help but ask the guy, "So, given that you like to talk about your Mom dying, just about every time I talk to you... and given that you are not intimately involved in the caregiving you admit your siblings provide her... and given that she used to wipe your ass and kiss your brow.... I can't help but wonder why raping her and killing her and gassing her to death wouldn't make an impression on you?" I was tempted to tell him that I believed the rape of his mother wouldn't so much as darken even an hour of one of his days. But I have softened in my age.

Some folks think leaving Southern Indiana will relieve them of friends like this. Good luck, and Godspeed.

What are people thinking? We live in this edenic town, part of the most privileged class of humans ever given the chance to babble on their own recognizance, and this "friend" of mine chooses the Holocaust to diminish. As if his hick life were somehow capable of resonating with the loss. To him, the honest Jew should engage in a sophistry of numbers and statistics, a sort of mathematical talking therapy, by which the death of mom, by the hand of some monster in a concentration camp (after hundreds of years of scratching a life out among hostile peoples) is happily diminished to the lottery that presses evenly down on all our chances. What a dipshit.

Sorry. But seriously. When a Korean, fresh off the boat thinks their mindless antisemitic joke is worth a chuckle, I gently speak with them, about the inequity of their culture and my own: toward women, toward the poor, toward men, toward the weak, the other. I gently point out that among the things to appreciate about the West is our embrace of the Korean. In a sense, in America, (at least urban America, where most Americans live: ha!) if your standing on Main street you are one of us. Tell me, I'm curious, my friendly chuckling, very pretty, decked out to the nines Korean friend: can you say that about your home town? In America you will find your average person feeling a little strange about a non American Korean. But just about everybody will raise a flag above the head of any Korean who wants to be an American. Isn't that funny? We sacrifice all the comforts of knowing who we are, due to being just about everyone who wants to be us. So you might excuse me, friend, if I have trouble understanding your rather frank ignorance of what a Jew really is. Suffice it to say, you never talked to one.

I think it's hopeless to hope that everyone will engage in such thoughtfulness about race. How lucky, and damned near providential it is that my country institutionalized a handful of the virtues bestowed by the Enlightenment. I've said it before, and it remains kind of odd, that this country remains an experiment in post enlightenment values. To the clannish and the tribal, these values remain an oddity. But where we pledge allegiance, we fail our clan, our tribe and our race. Thank God for that. Thank God.

I'm just waiting for the day when some fool mortars over Emma Lazarus words. To me she remains unsung (in chorus, in high school, not history class, of course, we sang them.) by the talking heads, due to their venal role as latter day demagogues. I'll end this post with her words, which constitute an American creed, only recently adopted by the rest of the Western world: may we continue clean the salt and grime, from their too brittle stone, and give our children to the dreams that Jefferson knew only the kids could handle.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

—Emma Lazarus, 1883

My Korean friend was rather surprised to hear this. Not ashamed, since it was hardly my place to pretend such a mantle was meant for my shoulders, as the dishing out of shame might have suggested. But they realized, if nothing else, that Andy, and somehow, America, stands with the Jews. And yeah, I'm proud of my country.

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