Category Archives: identity

We are all Bozos on the Bus

Wavy Gravy said that, but someone else probably said it first. I’ll go for Wavy, though, because his embodiment of the state of our humanity is precious. He is (still, at 80) the man for whom compassion is a drug. The love child, someone said, of Groucho and Mother Theresa. He had his own bus named Further, which was, back in the day, the Merry Pranksters’ vehicle of choice transporting around all dimensions a cadre of real bozos who wished us all well. But that was then and this is now. Instead of the magic carpet throbbing with good cheer, there waits at the corner, motor humming and windows blackened, a driverless Escalade.

My friend had a belly ache, the cause unclear, so his doctor ordered two Cat scans, one abdomenal, the other pelvic to be done together for a full picture. Beczuse, as the docter knew, we are not divided by the belly button into scanable parts. The insurance company approved the top half but not the bottom and the hospital scheduled one scan, the one at the top, for a month away. The doctor then went to bat for my friend. He nudged the agency until the pelvic scan was approved to be done at the same time as the abdominal. But the hospital refused to do the scans together and wouldn’t schedule them separately until a whole new set of requests were received. Which would delay the tests even further. Meanwhile, my friend, urged by his doctor to go to the emergency room to get the tests he needs, refused to do so. Instead, he yells at the hospital scheduler, the clinic’s receptionist, the insurance representative, drinks bone broth, swallows Tylendol and Ambian, and finally, like any good American patient, gives in because we are all bozos on the bus and noone know what to do.

Another friend went up on her dentist’s website where, to her horror, she saw a positive review of the services by me, with my picture, and a statement that I had five children, three of whom she took to this dentist. Now, I do go to this family dentist, but I never have written a review, nor do I have five children, nor would I ever give my dentist permission to post my toothy image on their website. My friend suggested that I call a lawyer and at least get free dental care for the rest of my life. My lawyer, however, never called back. So I went over to the practice and said hey, you have no right to steal my identity to boost your revenue, to grab my photo and by the way I don’t have five children. Oh, said the dentist, the web people get all that stuff from Google.

I suppose, although it’s hard to face, that maybe it’s true that we get what we deserve. We get Google and Google gets us, and this brings me to Donald Trump. The world is running on some kind of algorithm that fakes humanity the way it fakes the news and it’s out of control. Wavey and his pals were then and Donald Trump is now, two bozos on opposite poles. Yesterday I was cheering AEO and, yes, Omar, weighing my love of Bernie with my lust for Beto, but today I think the reality show guy could win the 2020 election because this is the America that rampant capitalism has given us.

NOLA zoetrope

The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.

This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.

I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.

NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.

On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.

One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go?  Houston?  Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard  levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.   

The cats, however stayed and multiplied.  You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.

My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.

Clueless Murakami

Before starting Murakami’s huge (970 pages, good lord) new novel Killing Comentadore, I read Men Without Women, a slight book of short stories told to the narrator Murakami by men, some of whom are friends, others acquaintances, all of whom are currently living without women.  Some of them care, some of them don’t, and some are suicidal or dead, but what they have in common is that they are more or less clueless about the women who have vanished from their lives. The Murakami girl is either a superhero (1Q84) or she disappears never to be seen again.

Taeko Kono is one of them. And she’s nasty:

Moby Dick and Me

Kavanaugh won. The deficit rose 17 percent. Mitch McConnell says he’s concerned, but no problem, we’ll just pay for it by cutting entitlements.

I’m reading Moby Dick.

In high school,  I read to where QQ squatted in a cold fireplace with a wooden doll on his head, causing Ishmael, watching from their shared bed – now there’s a story untod –

to conclude that no religion was more interesting than any other because all was chaos and “it is better to sleep with a cannibal than a drunken Christian.” I agreed with both conclusions and brought the book straight back to the library. Reading Moby Dick was not then cool.

Forty years later, I picked it up on the night of September 11th. This time, I read all the way to the end. Savoring the metaphors, instructions, alliterations, the mood swings.  The book obsessed me. Ahab was the fury sacrificing the ship for revenge in swirling metaphors. The imagery was so potent, so contemporary, so driven that I spent the next three years painting them.

My images were of submerged cities where inhabitants sat in restaurants  eating at tables while whales watched through broken glass. I have to say no book has inspired me like this since. September 11th 2001 was insane, and so far an anomaly, except for Donald Trump who could be the Ahab of our century.

This time around it occurs to me that Ahab is, in some infernal way, as much  the hero of the book as is the whale:

He asks Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” and answers rhetorically, “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white wale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun it it insulted me.”

This statement is appalling and yet it is profound. While Ishmael is content to explore without malice a ride on whatever spiritual vehicle he encounters, Ahab is the personification of defiant despair beyond comfort. The whale is his personal personification of evil, to kill the whale is to purify humanity from radical evil. If there be an evil God, then the way to freedom from that evil is to “thrust through the wall” that is the white whale.  So his obsession is not only for revenge, but also to learn for himself if God be evil, even if he fails and learns nothing.

And he knows he cannot succeed alone. Like any totalitarian power obsessive, he is precise, and he accomplishes his goals with various strategies, i.e. winning over Starbuck’s “soul and mind” – that is, subjecting the ego to a mob  obsession, gathering a military and prophet (Fedullah and friends), pretending his motive is mere capitalism,  giving his men heroic significance in his campaign to purify the world of evil. And in moments of rage and sniffle, he demonizes the entire wet world…”Panting and snorting like a mad battlesteed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe” and anoints himself and his ship as the vehicle worthy of plunging into this chaos.

What a line.

.

This is, of course, the argument of totalitarianism,  in the mid 19th Century as Europe headed towards reactionary nationalism that would explode decades later,  and is resonant today as our world slips ever deeper and deeper under the weight of kleptocratic oligarchies.

 

 

 

UBU ROI, our nightmare

We’ve considered him stupid, moronic, evil, incompetent, mad, racist, misogynistic, a pedophile, self-aggrandizing, lying, stupefying,  narcissistic, character flawed, disgusting We’ve mocked his hair, his ties, his mouth, his little fingers, his wife, his children , his bone spurs, his deal-making, education, university, his gold leaf, his diet, the elevator, his advisors, cabinet and his lack of a dog. We call him a clown and we make Ubu Roi his avatar, Pere Ubu, Alfred Jarry’s surrealistic joke of a dictator who wants to be the king of Poland. That play so horrified its audience, it closed the night of its premier, but this performance has lasted over 500 days to become a national – no, a global – nightmare.  

At this moment, his most despicable action is holding hostage immigrant children to get his way – he wants his wall, and Congress is figuring out how to give it to him.

Rusdie and the “Rubble of Truth”

I start this new day indoors with a warming fire, dog in the vicinity of my feet. Outside it rains hard. I look at my planet from the safety of my window and marvel. How the brown earth is a skin with the color green bursting from every pore with haze sweating off the surface of the pond, how tears flood the gulley, how the lilacs have been and are now gone without protest, how the swallows investigate the eves of my house as further nests, and how I wish they would accept my invitation to stay.

This is from Rusdie in the New Yorker. I’ve always disliked him, but this version of “why we write” reminds us of possibillities beyond ego and mood.

“In Germany, after the Second World War, the authors of what was called Trümmerliteratur, or “rubble literature,” felt the need to rebuild their language, poisoned by Nazism, as well as their country, which lay in ruins. They understood that reality, truth, needed to be reconstructed from the ground up, with new language, just as the bombed cities needed to be rebuilt. I think we can learn from their example. We stand once again, though for different reasons, in the midst of the rubble of the truth. And it is for us—writers, thinkers, journalists, philosophers—to undertake the task of rebuilding our readers’ belief in reality, their faith in the truth. And to do it with new language, from the ground up.”

 

The new songbirds of North America

Today I read there are people who net pigeons in New York City and drive them away in minivans. Where do they take them? Here, in the country, the dawn is empty of sound. Now and then, a pair of flycatchers darts across the lake. A robin rests on the lawn studying my next-door neighbor who is riding around on his lawnmower masticating worms, slugs, grubs, grass, frogs, all their eggs and the footprints of his tiny little granddaughter who runs before the machine trailing a balloon. Four Senatorial black crows shoot across the blades, scream off to the beach where thousands more convene. In the evening, the bunnies show up and my next-door neighbor shoots them from his porch. He also shoots the cormorants nesting on the island off his boat dock because they slime the teak on his 1924 Chris Craft Cruiser that he drives across the bay twice a year for dinner. Also, the raccoon families residing close to his garbage, these he catches in have-a-heart traps and carries them off to shoot in the woods. We still have racoons, but my sky fills with bird song.  Sixty-eight percent of the songbirds have vanished. I have been wondering about their replacements. I mention this to my neighbor, who has invited me over for a cocktail. My neighbor doesn’t understand why I am pessimistic. No birds were missing at his place, he tells me. Ditto for the bats and mosquitoes. I ask him, how then does he explain the muteness of the dawn? The lack of Birds on the Wires? The lonely morning dove mourning on my roof?  Hasn’t he read Ferlinghetti, I ask, smirking, because I know he believes all poets, like annoying animals, should be shot.

They were putting up the statue of St. Francis in front of the church of St.Francis
in the City of San Francisco In a little side street just off the avenue
where no birds sing
and a lot of old Italians were standing all around on the little side street

just off the Avenue watching the wily workers who were hoisting up the statue
with a chain and a crane
and other implements

and a lot of young reporters in button-down clothes were taking down the words of one young priest who was propping up the statue
with all his arguments

and all the while, while no birds sang any St. Francis Passion
and while the lookers kept looking up at Saint Francis 
with his arms outstretched
to the birds who weren’t there

a very tall and very purely naked young virgin
with very long and very straight straw hair
wearing only a very small bird’s nest
in a very existential place

kept passing through the crowd all the while
and up and down the steps in front of St. Francis
her eyes downcast all the while
and singing to herself

 My neighbor’s daughter came to my garden to help me pick off the red beetles eating my lilies. She’s hiding from her father because he is teaching her child to step on newborn baby voles. They went for a walk in the woods where he demonstated how to do this. I imagine a giant vole with a mouthful of poisoned teeth scurries up the path to the porch where her father sits drinking gin and tonic. The rodent will climb up his legs, hoist itself on his shoulders and squirt a stream of baby voles up his nostrils.

Then all the songbirds that used to be will open their beaks to sing their hallelujah for everyone in the world but my neighbor to hear.

 

The latest in dog evolution

Dog evolution, a dream:

I brought home a dog from the pound. He was large and dreary, with a matted coat the color of slush. We lived in a border town, on a long dirt road.

The dog’s name was  Oscar. The town was at the edge of the ocean. A Dollar Store, some second hand clothing shops across the street from the rocky, littered beach. A desultory craft fair had set up under a tent. Oscar trotted along with me, ignoring what few people or other dogs we encounter. When we arrived at the craft fair, he stopped, composed himself  in the grass and fell asleep on his back with his feet in the air.

So I thought, better get him some exercise. We went down to the beach to swim. He seemed to like swimming underwater, rising up now and then to look around. One time, he came up, paddled over and started talking to me.  For awhile, we’d bob along discussing Kierkegaard or Samuel Becket, cooking shows or dress making, When the conversations lulled, we would swim, and when we ran out of things to say, he would disappear under water, staying there for longer and longer periods of time.

The last time he came up, he had turned into a turtle, also named Oscar.

As a turtle, Oscar had little of interest to talk about. Mainly eggs. I found it hard to follow and soon lost interest. Then he started shrinking. I grew worried, and brought him ashore. On the beach, an Israeli couple were setting up a concession with some jewelry and parts of computers. They called me over, quite agitated; they knew my turtle and were concerned for his well-being. By this time, Oscar had shrunk to the size of my palm. The woman said she could fix him, so I handed him over. He kept shrinking. First his flippers fell off, then his body fell out of his carapace and he was gone.

What’s in a parade?

Our great leader wants a parade! He deserves one. After all, he stopped our American Carnage, just as he said he would in his  inaugural speech.  And  didn’t he vow to bring back our borders,  (although he never said where they went)? Also to get back the wealth that the world ripped away from the middle class, at least get it back to him, and make “America First”, although this last has not gone over well with some, but hey, they’ll figure it out? And didn’t he invent that great phrase “alternate facts”? Get that old failed Washington Post to add up all his 2000 lies, falsities, misleading statements? Fire an FBI director? Decide to deport a home grown gang? Grab pussy because he could?

So much to celebrate, America.

He didn’t get a military parade for his inauguration, so let’s make up for that. Remember that his inauguration was the biggest crowd ever, that he won the popular vote, but someone stole it, and maybe those are the people who should  pay for the parade, like they will for the border wall, although that’s Mexico.  Beside, that  fatter guy, Kim Jong-un has parades all the time, so why shouldn’t he? Bigger ones, because of his bigger button.

So while it’s will be heartening for us to see all his hardware, and know our great leader and his generals will be there to protect us, I still wonder, is there anyone around to stop him?

Equality?

Equality is a great idea unless it means we should all be equal white people.

Nowhere in the culture do I see white people expressing a desire to be persons of color. That said, I do see a growing awareness that people of color are not just victims of white people with whom we need to empathize,  We’re evolving, to be sure; it’s no longer legally possible to enslave, torture, appropriate other people to do the bidding of white people…except perhaps in the way that white people make celebrities out of  black people for entertainment. I experience Beyonce not as a white person in black face, but more as a  black person in whiteface (an imitation of her heritage for consumption by others.)

We’ve evolved to the point – with the help of affirmative action, guilt, fury, activism, pressure –  of integrating people of color into elitist institutions. As long as the institutions value all imaginations, histories and experiences, this is a welcome step, unless the message is,  “how to be white”.

Equality is possible when the imaginations, histories, desires,  of “other” peoples and cultures are equally weighted with those of white people; when the imagination of an artist of color is of equal interest, on its own terms, without white interpretation, and is a vital participant in the history of art, music, literature, then we have forgotten the word”tolerance”, which is really a demeaning term.

As usual, the arts lead: Here’s a short list of contemporary artists of color with individual approaches to identity:

Bethany Collins
Rashid Johnson
Kara Walker
Ellen Gallagher
Chris Ofili
Ifeoma Anyaeji
Marc Bradford
Kehinde Wiley
Mel Edwards
Kerry James Marshall
Yunka Shonibare
David Hammons

So many more.

Widewalls.com has an interesting conversation: “The cultural identity is defined by both its own members’ living experience and the search for a definition and the perceptions of others, especially those in power. How does the racial identity of an artist affect the way they create art and the perception of it by the masses?

Where My Girls At?  20 black female artists with current solo exhibitions.

Artnet.com: 10 black artists to celebrate.

Culturetype.com: Major African American Contemporary Artists

Hyperallergic: for a take on some 1971 history