Date Night

It’s not our first date, but trying to get the meal just right keeps me nervous.  The worst thing I could do is fix something bland.  (Or, well, serve liver.  Liver would be worse).  She’s carnivorous, but believes in the importance of a green vegetable.  She likes bold flavors, some heat, some spice.  Something a little unusual is good.  I plan the menu a couple of days ahead and during the night before I’ll visualize how I’m going to pull it together.  Which pans, which dishes, how to arrange it for maximum visual appeal.  The wine has to be red.  A southern Rhône might work, or a Barolo, or maybe a peppery Australian shiraz.  Pick out the wine glasses.  While I’m cooking I’m mentally testing bits of conversation, something to ask her that I’m curious about, or something that happened to me during the day that I think will amuse her.  Jazz plays softly in the background by the time I light the Jameson bottle oil lamps, bring out the plates, call her to the table. 

This we do two nights a week.  Two other nights, she’s the one in the kitchen going through a similar process, although it’s still up to me to pick out the wine and light the lamps.  A fifth night is reserved for family dinner with Marian & Josie & Chris, and on Fridays and Saturdays we eat in front of the big screen streaming a movie or whatever series we're binging or catching up on.  This has been our pattern, more or less, for very many years.

I was very comfortable with the notion of being permanently single when she and I first got together.  Wrecked marriage was a few years in the past.  There’d been a couple of romantic dalliances with varying levels of satisfaction.  I was in the process of breaking up with the woman I’d most recently been involved with because she wanted more from the relationship than I did.  She wanted commitments that I was never going to be able to give.  Not to anyone.  It wasn’t about her.  I knew that. 

So why, within six weeks of getting out of Lynn’s bed the first time, was I so sure that she and I would both be better off getting married and spending the rest of our lives together?  I didn’t know then and twenty-seven years later, I still don’t.  She’d been living the life of sequential monogamy that I imagined for myself for a decade and seemed to be quite happy with it.  She was extremely skeptical of my plan.  It took a lot of convincing.

At this point, I think we’re both pretty sure it’s going to last, but I take nothing for granted.

I was reading a lot of Rilke in those days.  One of my failings in relationships had been jealousy and possessiveness.  I knew this was poison.  Rilke was tremendously helpful.  “…a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude.”

In 24 Frames Jason Isbell sings, “And this is how you help her when the muse goes missing / You vanish so she can go drowning in a dream again.”  I’m learning to play it myself and I choke up every time I get to that line.

When we got married and I first moved in with she and Marian, we renovated the basement of her townhouse as my refuge.  She liked telling people she kept her husband in the basement.  When we moved to Lakeridge a few years later, I took one of the upstairs bedrooms as my study.  There’s a full bath attached, so I’m as settled as can be up here.  As far as it concerns Lynn, not much has changed since I retired.  We might say hello in passing in the morning, talk briefly at noon before fixing our separate lunches.  I come down at 7:00 to read for a bit or to fix supper if it’s one of my nights.  But it’s not until we finally get to the dinner table that we fully engage.  And for that hour we are fully present to each other.  Did we get the meal right?  Is the other as pleased as we’d hoped?  What happened in your world today? 

In the best of the conversations we have with those we love, or come to love, I imagine a translucent bell shaped dome of solitude descends around the two of you.  You’re in a semi-separate world of your own, where nothing is as important as those moments with that person. 

Mark Frisse was the first person I told that we were seeing each other.  “Wow,” he said, somewhat flabbergasted (most people who knew both of us had a similar reaction – we weren’t anybody’s idea of the perfect couple).  “That woman has whole cities inside her.”

Very perceptive.  I expect never to fully explore, or even be able to visit, all of them.  So every night is date night.

 


Enough of us

What an audacious, reckless, foolish, improbable, brilliant, and beautiful thing this American experiment is.  As if one needed reminding (and maybe we did), the inauguration day events, very much including the Parade Across America and the evening’s Celebrating America, made it abundantly clear that nowhere else on the planet, now or in history, has something this radical been attempted.  Nowhere else could the great dream of Democracy be celebrated as it can be here.

The day exposed the great MAGA lie, that America’s greatness lay somewhere in the past, and we needed to return.  The day revealed the simplistic fallacy of those who complain that "liberals" are always apologizing for America.  They fail to grasp the great paradox -- that America, in its aspirations, is great, and we can humbly take pride and joy in that, even as we acknowledge our many failings, even as we are ever rededicated to our "unfinished work".  It is the greatness of our aspirations, and our Sisyphian determination to live up to them, that makes us a symbol for the world and that must be the mirror that we use to guide us.  On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Nobel laureate Dylan echoes Whitman saying, “I contain multitudes.”  On Inauguration Day, multitudinous America was very much the evidence of the day.

Lynn and I have been reviewing the transcript of our MLA oral history and feeling quite proud of our professional accomplishments.  We are quite aware, as well, of our failings, of all the times we didn’t do as well as we should have.  We mentally play the do-overs.  I’d never say, “I did the best I could,” if I thought that meant I didn’t think I could have done better.  I know too well the times that I could have, should have.  But just as my pride in my accomplishments doesn’t absolve me from taking responsibility for my failures, neither does my acknowledgment of those failures diminish the good that I managed to get done.  At the core of Trump’s pathetically shriveled sense of self was his terror of ever admitting mistakes or showing any weakness.   He transferred that insecurity to his MAGA mythology and managed to get millions to go along with it.  But I have no trouble carrying the complexity.  I happily contradict myself.  I contain multitudes, too.

These last few weeks I’ve been reading my way through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (with a copy of Sikoryak’s Constitution Illustrated near to hand for reference).  Eerie to be reading Tocqueville’s explication of the relative powers of the legislature, the President, and the judiciary on those late December days when the tensions among those powers made it feel as if the whole thing might blow apart.  Frightening to be reading Tocqueville’s analysis of how democratic excess can lead to despotism as readily as to equality on the days when the mob attempted to stop American democracy once and for all.  America’s failure to live up to what he hoped for wouldn’t surprise him.  He was very clear about the dangers that beset democracy from all sides.  He was hopeful that we could avoid them, but he knew it was far from a sure thing.  The Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, the emergence of the US as a mega superpower, the bitterness of the Civil Rights movement, the nearly fatal partisanship of the Trump years – all of this could be foreseen in his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment.  He would have been saddened by our failures, but not surprised.

But he would have been astounded by the Parade Across America.  He believed that the shared Anglo heritage of the colonists, and the mores they derived from that heritage, were an essential part of what might hold America together.  The Indians, he believed, were destined to die out within a few decades at most.  And the Black and White races would never be able to live together (although he believed in the positive impact of interracial marriage).  The best thing would be to enable the Blacks to move to the newly established African country of Liberia, where they could take their American ideals with them and live in peace, but that was impractical.  Eventually the evil of slavery would tear the South apart.  

And yet, there on our screens, were dozens of Indigenous, dancing in all their finery; and Pacific Islanders chanting, and Puerto Ricans singing and dancing, and small town residents and big city dwellers celebrating the many ways they reach out to help their neighbors.  There was hip-hop and grunge and country and a beatific Yo-Yo Ma.  There was Lin-Manuel Miranda reciting Heaney's magnificent "The Cure At Troy".  And there was Amanda Gorman:

In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,

our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

And there was Kamala Harris, whose inauguration was an American hat trick of the finest kind, being sworn in as the Vice-President of the United States. 

Tocqueville didn't think such a thing was possible.  No idea could possibly be strong enough to take all these people, coming from all over the world, determined to preserve all their own beloved customs and traditions, each so exotic and unfamiliar, and bind them together in the belief that they are all Americans.  Even for all his devotion to the power of liberty and equality and democracy, Tocqueville wouldn’t have imagined that this America could come to be.  Even he didn’t know how powerful that American idea, bringing to life the land of hope and dreams, would turn out to be.  And yet, here we are.

Biden didn’t say, in his plea for unity, that all of us would come together.  His idealism is tempered with a large dose of pragmatism.  What he did say is that in our most dire moments “enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward and we can do that now.”  Enough of us.  Think about that.  Enough of us, to carry all of us.  Even those who don’t agree with us, who are fearful, and distrustful, and resentful.  Millions of Americans will spend the next four years raging about how Biden is destroying America.  Most of them won’t be persuaded otherwise.

That’s okay.  Enough of us will persevere.  Biden said, “The battle is perennial and victory is never secure.”  But as I wept my way through the catharsis of the day, I was reminded again and again of how powerful the American idea is.  Once again the American experiment has been tested.  Once again we are called upon to give the full measure of devotion.  Once again I'm willing to believe.

 

 


White Guilt

You’re not being asked to feel guilty over things that you haven’t done.  No need to get your back up.  You're hollering that your ancestors came from Europe after the Civil War.  They never enslaved anybody.  I get it.  They were immigrants who worked hard to pull themselves up.  You’re grateful for their sacrifice.  You’re a good guy and you’ve always tried to play fair with everybody.  It’s not your fault!  I get it.

“To whom much is given, much shall be required.”  You’re not being asked to feel guilty.  You’re being asked to make a difference.  Well, okay, the demand from the street is stronger than that.  You are required to make a difference.  It’s an old biblical maxim, repeated again and again throughout history.  Nobody makes it on their own.  Everybody has an obligation to lend a hand up.  Why so defensive?

The street isn’t saying that everything bad is the fault of every individual white person.  But you can’t shirk your responsibility by claiming it’s not your fault.  That’s not the point.  If you are white, you benefit from a society that has been designed, in some cases very explicitly, to maintain white supremacy in economic, political, and social matters (check out the 1901 constitution of the state of Alabama, among others – the documentary trail is exhaustingly long).  Maybe you don’t feel that you benefit very much, but ask yourself this (and try to be honest), would you readily change your white skin for a black skin if it came with a 50% increase in your income?  Would the extra burdens of being Black be worth the tradeoff?  You seem to be squirming.  Is this making you uncomfortable?  That’s good.  It should make you uncomfortable. 

Those feelings of guilt that you have (if you didn’t have them you wouldn’t be protesting so strongly) aren’t arising from something you didn’t do a century and a half ago.  They’re the faint stirrings of your conscience telling you that you’re not doing enough right now.  That’s your better nature tugging at your own complacency.  Better listen.

It’s Huck Finn lying to the men in the skiff when he has a chance to give Jim up (chapter 16).  He feels terrible about it.  He lies in order to help a runaway slave!  He’s “feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong.”  But he just can’t help himself.  He knows he should turn Jim in, he knows he shouldn’t’ve lied.  Have all of Miss Watson’s efforts to teach him right from wrong been a miserable failure?  But he realizes that doing what he’s been taught was right wouldn’t make him feel any better.  He’s too young to make sense of it, so he decides he’ll just follow his innocent American heart.  He doesn't know he's a hero.

Nobody is telling you to feel guilty over the things that were done by others in the past.  What matters is how you live up to being an American right now, here on the raft that's carrying us all down the river somewhere there might be freedom.  You don't have to atone for what people did that was wrong; you have to live up to how much they did that was right.  We hold these truths…

 


The problem isn't bad cops

For a few minutes, Rayshard Brooks might have thought he was going to make it, that the cops were going to let him go to his sister’s house, pick up his car the next morning.  There’d be hell to pay and he’d have to deal with that, but he knew it was his own damn fault.  At that moment, the cops could've walked him to the sister’s house.  They could have given him a ride.  But they brought out the cuffs.  And he panicked.  We can’t know what he was thinking, he’d been in trouble before and it’s no stretch to imagine him thinking of other black men beaten and killed once they were handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car.  So he panicked, he fought back, he grabbed the taser.  And he ran.  At that moment, he was done for.

Former DC cop Ted Williams was interviewed on Fox explaining why this was a pretty clear cut case for the justification of the use of deadly force.  I am very much afraid that he’s right.  Suppose that Rolfe isn’t a bad apple, isn’t a rogue cop.  He did what he was trained to do.  He started to arrest someone for a misdemeanor.  That person resisted, took one of his weapons, struggled, ran, fired the weapon at him, and at that point everything in Rolfe’s training said to take him down.  He did what he was trained to do.

This is why the entire edifice of standard policing in the United States has to come down.  No amount of additional training, no body cameras, no transparency in disciplinary reports, no banning of choke holds would have changed this.  We sent heavily armed men, whose primary tool is the use of force, to address a minor problem.  Subdue and arrest.  Dominate the situation.  The system worked exactly as designed.

Then Rolfe is fired and the police chief resigns.  Why fire Rolfe?  Immediate scapegoat.  A clear signal to the community that this was only a case of bad cop.  The chief resigns because she hasn't done a good enough job of weeding out bad cops.  

There’s no way to tell if the outcome would’ve been different if Brooks had been white, but it’s hard not to imagine so when there are so many cases on record where a white perpetrator is subdued without grievous harm and so many cases where a black person dies. But the racism that pits the edifice of policing against the community isn’t a problem of rabidly racist cops hating black people.  The structural racism that insists on using force to dominate and control will always result in the deaths of those we keep at the margins.

The images of impassive Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd was the spark that ignited simmering rage and protest around the world.  It should outrage you.  But what should engage your determination, what should make you join cause to insist that we rethink what we pathetically refer to as “public safety” are the two bullet holes in Rayshard Brooks’ back.


Grover's Basement

“I’ve got some guitar players coming over tomorrow afternoon.  I’d love it if you could join us,” said the message from Grover.  I thought, “I used to be a guitar player.”  I breathed dread, but I’d disappoint myself if I didn’t go.

I left my walker in the upper hall.  Held on to the rail, steadied myself with Bobk, the Ukrainian cane, gingerly made my way to the basement.  Buzz was working out the chords to a Django Reinhardt tune.  Jazz manouche.  Swing.  Joe was playing clean melody lines over the rhythm that Buzz set up.  They paused while Grover introduced us.  “Scott’s a guitar player -- although I don’t know if you still play much…”. “Just a bit,” I said.  I had a couple of Josie picks in my pocket.  “But I brought some harmonicas.”  I gave the thirty second explanation of how the short circuit in my spinal cord had messed up my hands.  They’d just seen what it’s done to my legs.

I sat across from Buzz.  Watched, listened.  Grover’d moved in four houses down when he married the widow Doreen.  I’d met him a year before, at the wedding reception.  We’d talked briefly about guitars and maybe getting together sometime, but it hadn’t happened.  Then, a couple of weeks earlier, Doreen invited us to go see him play at Joe’s Pizza.   He did some James Taylor, a Billy Joel song.  Some Jim Croce.  Hank Williams with a few jazzy flourishes.  Other than The Weight  and one or two others, they weren’t songs that I’d played, but they might’ve been.  Lynn said that his setlist intersected ours.  He sang in a smooth, comfortable tenor.  I went to his basement expecting more like that.  Songs I was familiar with.  Guitar players who did the kind of stuff I knew.  It wasn’t like that.

Grover picked another tune from Buzz’s fat book of jazz guitar.  They worked out more chords.  Lots of chords.  Chords with 9ths and 13ths and flatted 5ths.  Diminished and augmented chords.  Chords I knew about, but had never attempted to play.  My genres were “three chords and the truth.”  I was decent at fingerpicking, but I’d never improvised lead or played the jazzy tunes where each beat takes a different chord.  They were comparing different fingerings and moving rapidly up and down the necks of their guitars.  I could follow what they were talking about, but I had nothing to contribute.

We were going around the circle and it was my turn to call the next tune.  I said I’d pass for a bit and listen.  I liked what they were doing, but I couldn’t see a place for me in it.  I wondered how long I should stay before making a graceful exit.  But when it came back round to Grover he picked It’s A Wonderful World.  That was familiar so I tried singing it.  The key fit. “Can we run through that one again?”  I sang stronger, starting to feel a little confidence.  Buzz went into Ain’t Misbehavin',  and I picked up a harmonica and found some space for it.  Nothing fancy, but it worked.  When we were done, the others grinned and nodded encouragingly.

When the turn came back to me, Grover asked if I was ready to pick one.  “Okay, but I’ll have to go in a different direction.  More along the lines of what you were doing at the pizza joint.”  “Sixties and seventies?” Grover asked.  “Sure.  Let’s try something simple.  Neil Young’s Helpless?”  Grover nodded and explained to Buzz who Neil Young was.  Buzz is 87.  I picked the tempo.  Joe played lead.  Buzz found some fancy chord variations.  I sang, played some harmonica.

Joe did a jazzy instrumental version of a Beatles tune.  Buzz went back to Django and I fit a bit more harmonica.  We did some Billie Holliday.  Grover backed me while I sang Angel From Montgomery and my slow, dark version of All Along The Watchtower.  He noticed that I’d rewritten some of the lines.  I shrugged.  “Dylan changes it every time he sings it.  I just made some updates.”

Here’s the thing.  Even at my best as a guitar player, I’d never have been able to keep up with them.  I’d’ve gone over, seen what they were doing, been completely intimidated, never even taken my guitar out of the case, never gone back, and felt miserable about the whole thing.  But Boutch had given me his harmonica and said, “You may not be able to play guitar again, but don’t ever stop playing music.”  Josie had given me the guitar picks with her picture on 'em to push me to keep struggling with the Telecaster.  So up in my study I strum rough chords and sing, finding ways to compensate for my weakened diaphragm.  I record those rough chords into GarageBand and play harmonica.  Boutch died, so I’m obligated.  The Josie picks obligate me, too.

We tried more songs I didn’t know, or barely knew, and finding harmonica lines was exhilarating.  I was way outside my comfort zone and it was good.

Django Reinhardt Django had only two good fingers on his left hand, the others badly damaged in a fire when he was eighteen.  So he invented a new way of playing jazz guitar that has influenced every player since.  When 493px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_036Renoir’s hands became so arthritic that he couldn’t hold his brushes, his assistants tied them on and he created the late, burnished paintings, full of joy and grace and light.  When Wilma Rudolph was five and stricken with polio, the doctors said she probably wouldn’t ever walk without the leg brace.  Her mother said she would.  Rudolph said, “I chose to believe my mother Rudolph,” and won three Olympic gold medals in track at the age of twenty.

I’m not quite willing to say that my sense of gratitude extends to the fact of my transverse myelitis.  And yet.  And yet.  Without it, I would’ve left Grover’s basement feeling intimidated and embarrassed and I wouldn’t have gone back.  This is better.

Django played.  Renoir painted.  Wilma Rudolph ran.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


There Is Only This Life

My Dad rejected the notion that he was “battling” cancer.  He was pragmatic.  If it was a fight, it wasn’t one he could win.  But he wouldn’t let himself be beat, either.  I asked my Mom once, during that last year, after the doctor told us the surgery hadn’t been successful, how they managed.  She said, “We figured out there’s only now and not now.  If now is being a good day, we don’t think about not now.”

Seems that once a week or so, someone will post in the Facebook/Transverse Myelitis group, “I miss my old life.”  “Every day,” someone agrees.  “This isn’t the life I envisioned for myself,” someone else chimes in.  No, I suppose not.

I’m sympathetic to a point.  I get the sense of loss.  The things that I loved most to do with my body I can’t do anymore.  Getting my body to do those things it still can is a painful struggle, filled with frustrations, every day.

But my “old life” had struggles, too.  And which “old life” am I supposed to be mourning?  Sixteen year old me spending the summer in my small town with my bare feet and my long hair and my cigarettes and marijuana and guitar playing in the park and girls as curious and frightened and hungry about sex as I was?  That was a wonderful old life.  But I properly grew past it and while I cherish the memories of it (and the luck that helped me survive it), I don’t miss it.  Or was it the life I lived in DC, learning my trade, hanging out with the artists, being in love with my wife, exploring the museums, writing a poem each morning before putting on a jacket and tie and taking the bus to work?  That was a great life, too.  Left it behind decades ago.  Surely it’s not the life when that marriage crumbled and what I thought was secure turned out to be illusion and I had to confront my own hubris and arrogance and blindness in excruciating detail.  I’m a better man for having made my way through, but please don’t make me live that old life again!

When you were envisioning the life that you’re not living after all, did it include the depredations of age?  The untimely deaths of friends or family?  The inevitable disappointments that nestle themselves snugly alongside the joys and victories of even a successful career or a job you did well and loved?  Or did you think your destiny was to be free of tragedy and sorrow?

Or do you just mean the “old life” you had on the day before the short circuit in your spinal cord rattled and rearranged your life plans, as if you could’ve continued living the life of that day for decades to come, as if the daily movement that makes each past day an unrecoverable old life had magically come to a halt?

There is no “old life.”  There is only this life.  Maybe I just never envisioned that it could be this good. When I was a boy the future terrified me.  Maybe it’s the power of low expectations that makes my daily pleasures feel so undeservedly rich.  If you’re taking time every day to miss your old life might you also be missing what’s glorious in the only one you’ve actually got?

I know it’s not fair of me to question what it takes for anyone to make their way through the world.  People use the FB posts to vent and get emotional support.  We each have our own cross to bear, or so I’ve been told.  The cross that Jesus bore up Calvary carried the weight of all the sins of the world.  He was God and still it nearly broke him.  Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani.  We puny mortals have only our own sins to carry and that’s still too much for many.  Anyone who manages to walk their path carrying their sins and not doing too much damage to the people around them deserves admiration and applause, no matter what they might’ve leaned on for help.

I’m not a Christian, although I was raised Catholic.  By the time I reached my early teens I’d judged the God of Christianity too limited for my allegiance.  I never found faith, although I like the idea of it.  I respect it, but I’ve never missed it.  I don’t believe God has a plan.  I don’t believe everything happens for a reason.  I don’t believe I was put here for a purpose.

I’m a human, though.  And humans need purpose.  We need meaning.  We need connection.  We need respect and we need love.  We need to give it just as much as we need to receive it.  For me, it turns out that the daily work of becoming the best human I can places me where I need to be.  The way of Lao Tzu.  I see the interconnected now-ness of the world the way the mystics among the Lakota do.  I keep a slip of paper on my desk that says, “When you believe the stones are sacred, you’re careful about where you put your feet.”

I’m not at war with transverse myelitis.  That’s not my battle.  I don’t expect to beat it.  I don’t need to.  But I won’t be beat by it, either.  And spending each day missing a life that was never guaranteed to me in the first place feels like trembling at the edge of defeat.

Chop the wood.  Carry water.  Walk the path.  Make every step the very best step, even if it takes a cane and a walker and a wheelchair to get me there.  Behind me the long winding trail of my footprints, plenty of them crooked or wayward.  Some have been pretty damn fine.  Ahead, only more path, farther into the shimmery distance than I can see.  That suits me.  Maybe it’s meaningless.  It’s kinda glorious all the same.


Ready Player One

If I could only keep one, I'd take the novel. But I'm a book guy at heart.  I wouldn't begrudge someone taking the movie to their own desert island.

We watched it a few months ago.  Liked it quite a bit.  Weeks later, Lynn read it.  Very good, she told me.  But "it's very different from the movie."  So I read it and had great fun.  (My favorite throwaway line was the bit about the "geezers" Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, still getting re-elected to keep fighting the good fight).  It had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the details had faded, so I wasn't making comparisons.  I took the book on its own terms.

It's an Easter basket of unexpected toys and games, a Hallowe'en sack of delights, all familiar but popping up new.  It's been years since I spent a lot of time playing video games, but I could almost feel my fingers flexing as I turned the pages.  I wanted to go back and play every one of those old games, watch every one of those eighties movies.

I finished it midweek and we watched the movie again just a couple of days later.  The specifics of the book's version were still sharp.  I thought the changes the moviemakers made were absolutely fine.  I didn't miss anything that was taken out.  The movie's so engaging and well paced, there wasn't time for that.  I liked the fact that the challenges were different.  Not that I liked them better than the ones in the book, just that it was fun to have more of them.  Of course they were much more visual.  The big dance scene was more vivid on film than the swirly version I'd cooked up on my own.  The book's a little darker, the movie a little sweeter.  The movie compresses the love story, but that was okay.  They only had so much time to play with.

There's something fundamentally askew in trying to judge whether any book or movie is the better version.  They're such different ways of telling stories.  Least likely to be effective is a film that hews too closely to the arc and incidents of the novel, or a novelization that does little more than recount the settings and episodes of the movie.  If comparisons must be made, it should be to compare the book to other books and the film to other films.  How effective are they at using the tools of their craft to transport the reader or the viewer?  To give them an effective experience.

The ingredients of the Ready Player One book and movie are different, but the dish is recognizably the same.  I'll grate pecorino-romano instead of parmagiano-reggiano to sprinkle on tonight's bolognese.  Last time I used bucatini pasta instead of tonight's pappardelle.  I'll bring up a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino instead of an Amarone.  And don't get me started on the meats in the sauce, which vary every time I make it.  There are good reasons for all of those variations but they all result in the same dish.  Sure, you might prefer one variation over another.  But it's silly to say that one is "better" than the other if you're suggesting anything more than personal taste.

When Josie was small, e-books and e-readers were climbing their first big wave and there were endless arguments over which was "better" and how soon e-books were going to eliminate print.  In those days, she was a big fan of The Monster at the End of This Book, in both its print and iPad versions.  Somedays she'd go for one, some days the other.  Different experiences.  She'd've been horrified if I'd told her she could only pick one.

Those debates have settled down now, although they haven't quite disappeared.  And while I may happily substitute grana padano for the pecorino in Josie's beloved cacio e pepe if that's what I've got on hand, I have to be careful who to tell that to if I want to avoid a lecture on the only right way.  (And alright, yes, I'm the guy who declares there's no such thing as a "vodka martini" -- there are just vodka drinks served in a martini glass!  But I'm joking. The grievance vein in my temple isn't pulsing.)

Where does that come from?  That seemingly irresistible impulse that so many have to declare that their preference isn't just preference, it's the only correct thing.  Is it people being so insecure about their own taste that they need to declare that all other versions of taste are inferior?  Or is shouting about it just one more way the internet helps people be thoughtless?

If I were only allowed one version of Ready Player One, I'd pick the book.  But that's me.  I wonder which version of The Monster at the End of This Book Josie would've picked if she'd had to.  So lucky to live in a world in which she doesn't.  She'd've bawled.

 


"Put Hope Away"

It’s usually one of the last things I hear before heading into bed at night.  I’ll be sitting at the antique rolltop, sorting out my pills for the next day, dropping them into the appropriate compartments of my Mad Hatter pillbox, and Lynn will be calling, in her sing-song encouraging voice, “Put Hope away…!”

I grimace and shake my head because it seems all too appropriate for the political times we find ourselves in.  Thankfully, she isn’t talking to me.  She’s talking to Jemma, the golden retriever.  It’s part of their nightly routine, as Lynn coaxes Jemma to put the day’s toys back in the toybox.  “Jemma, get red ring.  Put red ring away.  Good Jemma dog!  Now put green ball away.  Put green ball away.  Good dog!  Now put Hope away…”

A plush white rabbit.  A Christmas gift for Jemma that arrived with a silver medallion around the neck that said “Hope.”  Not long after, word came that the Trump whisperer was leaving her job at the White House.  So we now refer to the bunny as Hope Hicks.  “Put Hope Hicks away…”  She’s just landed a job as chief communications officer for New Fox.

There was a despairing column in the NYT a few days ago, “How Do I Explain Justice Kavanaugh to My Daughters?”  Jennifer Weiner feels crushed by the vicious reactions of Kavanaugh’s supporters.  Blasey Ford bravely testified and it didn’t matter.  Weiner writes,

Our girls will learn to police their clothes, their words, their drinking, their behavior, their choices, because they’ve been watching, and what they’ve seen is this: If you get hurt, it’s probably your fault, and if you tell, probably no one will believe you, and even if people do, probably nothing will happen.

But maybe our daughters are smarter than that.  Perhaps they’ve seen more than that. 

The chances of Kavanaugh not being confirmed were ever miniscule to none.  Nothing short of a convictable offense was going to change that.  But it is far from true that nothing happened.  Young women were watching all of that, too.

They saw the floodgates of stories open.  Women who’d locked up their own stories for years and decades discovered they could finally find it in themselves to testify, too.  They found empathy and support.  Some called them heroes.

Monica Hesse wrote a brilliant column explaining why so many women hadn’t, and haven’t, told their fathers about their own assaults and many fathers were rattled by those revelations.  They struggled and questioned and thought and re-thought their own behavior.

Young women saw that they’re not alone and the voices proclaiming, “It’s not your fault,” echoed loud and long.  Young men questioned their own behavior and wondered about the kinds of men they want to be and how to become them.  Discussion shifted from the privileged power dynamics in the workplace to the conditions that give rise to men behaving that way in the first place.

People looked for better ways to talk about what happens.  Catharine MacKinnon wrote:

Culturally, it is still said “women allege” or “claim” they were sexually assaulted. Those accused “deny” what was alleged. What if survivors “report” sexual violation and the accused “alleges” or “claims” it did not occur, or occur as reported?

And looking at the bigger picture, there's this, from Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code:

...the girls of this generation are as passionate and unapologetic about what matters to them as any in history. They display a sense of moral clarity, an instinct for inclusiveness, and a commitment to making the world a better place for people of all ages and genders. The rest of us should follow their lead.

Times Up isn’t going to eradicate workplace harassment, but it is giving people the tools, psychological and practical, to resist and to fight back.  The walls of the patriarchy didn’t come tumbling down on the strength of Dr. Ford’s testimony.  But more cracks appeared.  Young people watching saw all of that, too.  One woman came to DC and told her truth to the Senate.  Millions watched.  Sure, Kavanaugh was confirmed.  But so much else happened as well.

On any given night, weary of the tumult and anger and bitter frustrations of the day, we put Hope away.  Every morning, full of energy and glee, Jemma shakes her loose again.


Sidewalks and Stories

Story is hard.  Lynn and I end up having a version of this conversation every year at the Sidewalk Film Festival.  So often, if the movies fail to satisfy, whether they be narrative features or documentaries, it's because the story doesn't cohere.  If the story is compelling, we can overlook other flaws.  But if the story isn't sharp, no amount of cinematic excellence can make up for it. This year's films made that point multiple times in multiple ways.  

The challenge for the documentarian is different from that of the filmmaker trying to compose a fiction (whatever the source material might be).  Michelangelo believed that the statue was in the stone and his job was to discover it -- "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."  Real lives are messy and complicated and there are many stories between birth and death, most of which don't have clear beginnings, middles and ends.  The documentarian has to figure out which story is most amenable to being told and then be ruthless in the carving in order to free that story in a way that's satisfying to the audience.  These stories will only ever be partial truths.

Sometimes the story that the director thinks they're going to tell turns out to be very different from the one that emerges during filming.  Real life events aren't beholden to whatever script the director has in mind.  Some of the best documentaries we've seen have been the result of those shifts and a filmmaker canny enough to follow the story they didn't realize was going to be there.  (This was the case with Gip, which won Sidewalk's audience choice for documentary in 2016).  Sometimes the story that the director pursues turns out to be even richer than he or she might have imagined. 

Near the beginning of White Tide: The Legend of Culebra one of the participants explains the difference between a northern and a southern fairy tale.  "The northern fairy tale starts out, Once upon a time..., the Southern fairy tale begins, You're not going to believe this shit!"  The story told in this very Southern tale is mostly true.  But since the director, Theo Love, came on the scene after all of the events had concluded, he didn't have much as-it-unfolds film to work with.  He solves the problem by recreating the crucial scenes using the real life protagonist, Rodney Hyden, and a crew of accomplished actors.  Hyden is a very effective collaborator, willing to show himself at his most foolish.  Love radically pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to tell a story that's true and satisfyingly unbelievable.  Rodney Hyden may not be an angel, but he emerges at the end with at least a bit of a wobbly halo.

There are no angels in the fictional Hot Summer Nights.  There are some good performances, a love of movies, a technically accomplished crew, but in the end, no story worth telling.  Elijah Bynum mines a few decades worth of teen coming of age movies and noir films about drug deals gone bad to string together a series of clichés that form something much less than their sources.  Lynn was ready to leave two-thirds of the way through, but by then I was in trainwreck fascination mode -- I needed to see how Bynum was going to get out of the mess he'd made.  Not well, as it unsurprisingly turns out.  One of the three main characters is killed, the other two hit the road, never to be seen or heard from again, but living on in the trite myths of the useless narrator.  We've seen this kind of thing at Sidewalk many times before -- movies that bring together a lot of talent, that are visually rich, have good acting, are put together by people who've immersed themselves in the lore of cinema, but are lacking the key element. 

The creator of Union on the other hand, has way too much story to deal with and, despite years of trying, hasn't yet managed to create a satisfying movie out of it.  Spurred by the legend of Joan of Arc, Whitney Hamilton discovered that over 400 women, disguised as men, fought on either side of the Civil War.  She wrote a play, then a novel, and then a series of films, the latest of which is Union, all trying to tell their story through the tale of one such woman -- how she came to make those choices and how it affected her and the people who connect with her life.  It's a marvelous concept and there's much that's marvelous in the movie.  But we were baffled by it.  All through the first quarter I was uncertain if I was just missing connections among the characters, or if those connections weren't being made clear.  To my relief, when we talked about it afterwards, Lynn said she'd experienced the same thing.  The next day, in line for another film, we talked to some people who'd also been at Union and, not only had they felt the same way, they said that was the main topic of conversation on the shuttle bus they'd been on afterwards.  It wasn't just us.

Lynn did some investigating and discovered the multiplicity of works Hamilton has created so far.  After we got home, we watched an earlier film, My Brother's War, hoping that it would provide some answers, some continuity.  It did some, but there are still huge gaps.  Where did the young boy, Harrison, come from, for example?  Perhaps it's all clear in Hamilton's mind, since she's been living with these characters for so long, but she hasn't made it clear to her audience.  It's the danger of being writer, producer, director, editor and star.  There's nobody to push back in the service of the material.  It might help her to enlist the aid of one of those ruthless sharp-eyed documentarians.

"Story" doesn't have to imply linear chronological plot.  I loved Cloud Atlas (book and movie), thought Arrival and Shutter Island were brilliant.  I like stories that are complex and twisty and multi-layered and surprising.  Take Damselwhich also played at Sidewalk this year.  I loved it when I saw it and in retrospect I find myself loving it even more.  Call it a fable.  The opening shot, of two men sitting in what looks like a 19th century version of a bus shelter in the middle of a Monument Valley-esque wilderness waiting for a stagecoach, establishes firmly that this will not be a conventional narrative.  Don't waste time wondering how they got there or how long they've been waiting.  If you do, you're missing the point.

By the time Penelope and Butterscotch (the miniature horse) disappear in their rowboat into the fog of the mysterious sea, a wonderful story has been told, of a damsel whose only distress is caused by the men who are trying to rescue her or, in the end, be rescued by her.  It's puzzling and quirky and a little confusing and completely satisfying.

I think of Lynn and I as naive movie-goers.  We're not cinema buffs by any means.  But we're old, so just by default we've seen a lot of movies.  The ones we come back to, the ones we hope to find every year at Sidewalk, have great acting and cinematography and editing and music and all those things, but mostly they have great stories.  Well told tales with beginnings and middles and ends -- not necessarily in that order.

 

  

 


The Pain That Isn't There

So many of the dishes I enjoy cooking require a fair amount of chopping.  Like last night's hash -- potatoes, some leftover smoked brisket, an onion, a poblano pepper.  All cut into half inch dice.  A lot of chopping.  Since I don't have much fine motor control it's inevitable that I cut myself.  Not often, but frequently enough that I can't say it's rare.

One of the advantages of the spinal cord damage that transverse myelitis has left me with is that the cutting doesn't hurt.  I hardly feel it.  It's more likely that the hand holding the knife registers that I've cut into something that isn't the celery stalk I'm trying to focus on without noticing that the ring finger of the hand holding the celery has curved underneath the stalk just as I'm pulling the knife along the center.  (This was a few months ago prepping the soffritto for my bolognese).  The blood clues me in.  It's a nuisance.

It isn't that my hands are numb.  Far from it.  I have lots of sensation.  There's the constant buzzy tingling in both hands from above the wrist to the tips of my fingers, as if I'd slept on the elbow wrong and the hands are just waking up.  Occasionally there'll be bursts of sensation at the tips of a finger, a little explosion seeming to have just gone off on the surface of the skin.  Random sharp pains at the wrist or the thumb joint come and go.  None of these are "real."  That is, they're not an accurate reflection of something physiologically happening in my hands.  They're the artifact of the garbling of the signals those nerves are trying to send to my brain through that inch or two of demyelinated spinal cord just below my neck.  As if the individual wires in a cable had the insulation stripped off and the signal was short-circuited on its way up the line.  The stiffness, the effort required to bend the fingers or to straighten them again is the garbling going the other way -- my brain trying to control the fingers, but unable to get a clear signal to the necessary nerves.

Given all of the work going into that miscommunication in both directions I'm hardly surprised that when I cut myself the nerves don't seem even to try to send the shock of that sensation up to the brain.  There's too much already in the way.  So I feel the pain that isn't there and don't feel the pain that is.  I try to be careful.

The twenty or twenty-five minutes a day of guitar practice is going well.  I'm working on the ring finger of my left hand.  I need D-major-1 a D major chord in almost everything I play, and bringing that finger around to the D note on the 2nd string has been taking about an extra beat.  But I discovered the other day that if, when I'm bringing the index and middle fingers around to their positions, I tighten the muscle across my left shoulder blade, the ring finger keeps up.  For now, I have to remember to consciously trigger that muscle, but give me a few thousand more repetitions and it should become routine.  I suppose, in the old days, I used all the muscles in my arm to form chords, but it was subtle and automatic enough that I never really noticed.

Among the very many things I've learned in the last five and a half years is how stunningly complex the movements of a healthy body are and how little conscious thought is required.  The intricate mystical ballet of muscles and nerves combining to have fingers do everything from playing the piano to brain surgery to a fifteen year old girl talking on an airplane to a blind and deaf man.  Marvelous.

In my world, none of it is automatic anymore.  Everything has to be done with intention.  Let the attention waver for a moment and blood wells up from the tip of my finger.  But find the right muscle to flex and I can hit that D chord.