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Monday, January 28, 2013

"Queen to Play": Cleaning Woman Discovers Passion and Dignity Through Chess

"Queen to Play" is a sweet, small, powerful film about a cleaning woman's discovery of passion and dignity through chess. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Helene, a 40 something cleaning woman on the tourist island of Corsica. She's got a nice, handsome, construction worker husband, a snotty teenage daughter struggling through growing pains, an imperious boss at a resort hotel, and a quiet, reasonable, low-rent life.

One day Helene picks up the game of chess, and everything changes. Chess engages her mind and passion. For the sake of learning more about the game, she does things she never would have done, otherwise. She asks a man she cleans for, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline) to play with her. The grouchy older man rebuffs her at first, but she offers to clean for free, and he accepts. "Do you always look at people as if your life depended on their answer to your question?" Dr. Kroger asks her.

In fact Helene's life does depend on her newfound passion for chess. Helene demands time to learn about the game. She is distracted in conversations were before she might have listened more sympathetically or joined in petty, local gossip. She schedules hours alone with a man. She answers back to demanding customers at the resort. She snaps at her family, "Would it kill you to cook your own dinner for one night?" Just who does Helene think she is? She is, after all, only a cleaning woman, the chess club president reminds her. His arrogance will not serve him well when he butts up against Helene.

"Queen to Play" is a small film. The script is spare. The film is lovely but not spectacular. Sandrine Bonnaire's great beauty and her performance are its best special effect. I wish there had been a bit more depth and development. But what is here is really powerful. We've gotten so used, in the US, to thinking of injustice and prejudice as being, primarily, about black versus white. "Queen to Play" shows how being a cleaning woman is itself a handicap in society, how expectations can squash a human being, and the price people pay for even the most simple gesture of coloring outside the lines of others' expectations. I admire and like Helene as I do few other film heroines. And I'd love to see Bonnaire play a saint someday. Her face is made for it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Novels Jack Kerouac Would Write Had He Received Effective Therapy

Movie star good looks, "amazingly blue eyes," arrested for decay. 
We could graph Kerouac's decline using a chemical diagram

"What Happened to Jack Kerouac" is a rerelease of a 1986 documentary with added material. Watched it last night. Was confounded.

Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac had everything. Often people say that such and such a person has "movie star good looks." You meet that person and realize that friends exaggerated. Jack Kerouac, with his jet black hair, "amazingly blue" eyes, and pouty face, was better looking than many movie stars. Clips of his appearance on Steve Allen's TV show reveal that in his prime, Kerouac carried himself with reserve and mystery and was as handsome and charismatic in motion as in a still photo.

Kerouac was lucky enough to be at the heart of one of the twentieth century's signature literary and social movements: The Beat Generation. He palled around with poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, and novelists William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, impresario Lawrence Ferlinghetti and criminal raconteurs Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. He could not step without tripping over genius. Women adored him.

Jack Kerouac drank himself to death at age 47. Before he died, he sat around his suburban house with his mother, getting drunk and insulting her with the worst gutter language. He baited his friend and supporter, Allen Ginsberg, saying, in front of Jewish Ginsberg, that "Hitler should have gotten them all." He insulted Ginsberg during his 1968 TV appearance on the William F. Buckley TV show "Firing Line." Ginsberg, loyal friend, was in the audience.

Kerouac was no kinder to himself. "I was arrested two weeks ago. And the arresting policeman said, 'I'm arresting you for decay.'"

What the hell happened? What did Kerouac squander the physical beauty God gave him and the success his talent earned him? Why did he betray his friends, and himself?

People like this, who have everything and throw it away with both hands, make me crazy. I have so little and I try to cultivate and cherish, not destroy, my few gifts.

I asked this question on facebook and friend Joe Palinsky wrote, "he was brought up in a strict religious home, which he was never able to fully reconcile with the Buddhist teachings he later loved, then shunned, and the friends who lived in the worlds of depravity. He tried to balance all of this out, but eventually just couldn't, as seen in his work "Big Sur" which is definitely one of his most depressing books. Second, his mother was kind of nuts. He loved her and trusted her thoughts and opinions more than he should, and it made him escape into alcohol."

What Joe wrote makes sense. A romantic, titanic, artistic, Freudian, spiritual struggle.

I'm going to disagree. I'm going to venture a more right-wing answer, one grounded in chemistry.

I think Jack Kerouac had psychological problems, and he used drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, marijuana and Benzedrine to self-medicate. I think that that self-medication worked for a while, but, as the old saying goes, "First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man." I don't think that this drug use was romantic. I don't think that this was artistic. I don't think it was Freudian or religious. I think that this was pharmaceutical. I think you could reduce Kerouac's flowering and decay to a chemical diagram.

Kerouac was shy. You can see it in his Steve Allen and William F Buckley appearances. He finds it hard to make eye contact. It can't have been easy to be the most talked about writer in America. He relied on drugs to function. Drugs to get up to write, to get down, to alleviate his anxiety at parties.

A man met Kerouac at a party:

"For the entire evening, Kerouac sat alone in the living room, drinking, smoking dope, and resolutely ignoring all these kids who saw him as 'the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation,' to steal a phrase from the cover of my old Signet paperback of On the Road…Kerouac smelled terrible: boozy, tinged with sweat and urine." source


My senior year of college I was beaten and sexually assaulted in my natal home by a family member. I threw on a shirt and sneakers and ran out into the night wearing just that shirt, jeans, sneakers, no socks. There was change in the jeans pocket. I phoned a kind girl at school, Nancy Gallo. She allowed me to sleep on her floor for a couple of months.

I continued as a student, and earned straight A's that and the subsequent semester, my last. I worked as a nurse's aide, but that was not enough to cover all expenses.

My older brother Mike got married that year; I was not invited to the wedding and he did not ask why I had suddenly disappeared. I asked my sister for help. She told me to go to hell. I asked a priest on campus, Father Lou Scurti, for help. He gave me a paper bag with boxes of uncooked spaghetti in it. I phoned a shelter for battered women. The very self-righteous woman on the other end of the line said I didn't sound traumatized enough to receive their services. I asked Virginia Mollenkot, one of my professors for help. She said something about life being challenging and ended the conversation.

Strangely, I remember that year as being one of warmth and support. It came from unconventional people I met on the way.

A man named John Ellis, who called himself Orpheus, taught me how to find edible food leftover in restaurants and dumpsters. He also used to steal food for me. Charles, a very beautiful young man with long brown hair, gave me books. Charles gave me Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

That year was a year of intense reading. I read Ram Dass' "Be Here Now." Blew my mind. I've never looked at time the same way. Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" hit me like a mind-altering drug in its intense, exuberant plunge into the mystery of life. I say "I'm never taken acid, but I have read "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." "On the Road" told me to live for the moment and celebrate my unconventional lifestyle, because conventional life was "square." "On the Road" told me to play the grasshopper, not the ant. I did hitchhike cross country.


I recently received a cancer diagnosis, which has caused me to look back at my life and assess it with a jaundiced eye. I see that assault, my escape from it, the response of teachers, priest, and family members, and the lifepaths I adopted, as the year everything went horribly wrong. I so wish I had been rescued that year. A rescue then would have meant so much for my whole life.

What kind of rescue did I need? I look back and wish I hadn't read the books I read, including "On the Road." What do I wish I had read?

I really needed to hear things that we've been taught to discount in America.

It's a right wing / left wing thing. It's an Apollo v. Dionysius thing. It's a sun v moon thing. It's a discipline v. self-control thing.

I wish someone, some older person, some mentor, had used words like "wrong" and "bad," had voiced judgment and condemnation.

See, we're not supposed to do that in our contemporary left-wing society. I wish someone had.

I wish someone had said, "What happened to you was bad and wrong. The world is a dog-eat-dog place. You have been screwed. You need to rise up and fight and gain a position that has been denied you. You can do that through hard work and self-discipline."

I wish I had had a right-wing mentor who would school me in the Hobbesian struggle that is life. Who would teach me to play the ant, not the grasshopper, in spite of the evil and hypocrisy I'd seen in the "square" world. I would eventually find that right-wing tutor, but it wouldn't be for many years, yet.

One of these days I want to write a blog post, "Top Ten Reasons I Am No Longer a Leftist." I want to talk about why I look back at that year I spent reading Jack Kerouac, and wish I had spent that year reading Ayn Rand. And how I've spent years trying not to die like Jack Kerouac.


Kerouac was undeniably talented. My first read of "On the Road" felt like I'd entered a doorway into a newer, better world. Now the book doesn't work for me.

I want Kerouac to use his talent to give me things he never gives, the kind of depth, insight, risk and investment that come, not from his "first thought best thought / disembodied poetics" writing style, but from the writing style of a more settled, grounded, self-disciplined, boring person. I want to read the writing of a square.

I wish someone had intervened in my life after that assault so many years ago.

What if someone had intervened in Kerouac's life? Gotten him counseling for his demons? What would he write then?

A whole new genre of writing suggests itself: the novels Jack Kerouac would write had he ever received effective therapy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Just a Rainbow


One cold weekday morning in November, 2004, I was just stepping out of the shower when the little voice told me, unequivocally, "You have to go outside right now." Exactly those words. Emphatic. No explanation, and no debate.

I've never heard that before. Since that day, I've never heard that message again. "You have to go outside right now."

I'm a little bit O-C: obsessive compulsive. I have a routine I must complete before leaving the apartment: hair brushed, nails filed, bag packed, weather report checked, clothes selected to fit the forecast, apartment scanned – is there anything I need to turn on or off before I leave? To make matters worse, I had just washed my hair, and it was still wet.

I obey the little voice.

Force hand: put comb down. Hurry up feet, no time for socks: slip on flip-flops. Drag long coat over pajamas. Turn knob on door. Open door. Walk out. Close door. Lock.

My hair a wet tangle, with no further instructions from the little voice, I walked to the Paterson Falls, after Niagara, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

Wow. Wow.

The biggest and most perfect rainbow I've ever seen in my life stretched over the Falls. It began in West Paterson and fell on the hill on the opposite side of the Falls. An artist would never paint it; it was too perfect, it was too gigantic, to appear real.

The rainbow was formed by the rising sun coming through the morning mist. I walk past the falls regularly. I'd never seen that effect before or since.

I used to wallow in beauty when I lived in Nepal, where it was served up on heaping platters. I'd round a bend in a mountain trail and there, splayed out against the sky, would be Himalayan peak after Himalayan peak, pink in dawn light, or golden alpenglow.

In Paterson I live in manmade ugliness, an ugliness sanctioned by my neighbors, who have decided that it is right and proper to throw garbage on the street, to beat children on the street, to urinate and defecate on the street, and then to sleep in a drug-induced stupor on the street. In this age of non-biodegradable apocalypses, I find reconciliation with the sad fact that I never had kids.

Here, dancing across the sky, was some of the finest and most arresting beauty I'd ever seen, in Paterson.

Water commission workmen laid down their tools and stared, as did pedestrian commuters. We normally don't talk to each other here. We assume each other to be beggars, drug dealers, hostile or crazy. The rainbow – something ineffable – sliced right through our toughest defenses as if it were a blade and we were cans. We on the sidewalk spilled out to each other, white to black to Hispanic to Muslim. Wow, we said, wow. We smiled like babies. We smiled as if we were looking at babies.

I resolved to stay there as long as the rainbow lasted. Feh. It outlasted me. I was there an hour, I think, and I finally left, the rainbow still in the sky.

What brings this rainbow to mind today is a post on facebook. Sridhar Govindarajan mentioned that he'd always wanted to see a shooting star, and he felt a prodding at 3:30 one morning to go outside. He did go outside, and he saw a shooting star.

Small things. Rainbows. Shooting stars.

When I was engaging in the debate with the prominent atheist I write about in "Save Send Delete" we had this conversation over and over.

He would say: there is only material reality. There is nothing beyond what you can see, touch, hear, smell, taste, measure, replicate in a lab experiment.

And I would not be convinced. I would not be convinced at least partly because of moments like that described above.

Wednesday, February 13th, Montville Township Public Library: Please Come!

Wednesday, February 13th, at seven pm, I'll be reading from Save Send Delete at the Montville Township Public Library. 

The Montville Township Public Library Homepage tells you everything you need to know about getting there. The page is here

Please come! 

Montville Township Public Library 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Take This Waltz": Mopey, Misguided

Spoiler alert! This review will reveal the end of "Take This Waltz."

"Take This Waltz" tells the story of Margot, a chronically depressed woman who is in a nice, stable marriage to Lou, a nice, stable guy. Margot meets, by chance, Daniel, a man who is slimmer, poorer, more artistic, and more conventionally handsome than her nice, stable husband. Don promises Margot hot experiences in bed. Margot leaves Lou for Dan.

In a montage sequence, Margot is shown having hot encounters with Dan, including three ways. Then Margot is shown being, again, chronically depressed. Margot implies that she regrets leaving Lou.

And that's it. That's the whole movie. It's not funny; it's not smart; it's not wonderful to look at. The direction, sets, costumes, dialogue, are all very not-special. The one powerful thing in the film is Michelle Williams' performance as Margot. Williams is a one woman storm front. Williams flutters and pouts and tears up and mopes with great gusto. Her performance totally overpowers anything else in the film, and it just starts feeling odd that someone is acting so hard in response to such a flimsy script in a film that isn't going anywhere.

Lou and Margot aren't believable as a stable, settled couple. Michelle Williams is too young and too attractive. You think – he married her for her looks; she married him because she was looking for a rock. Their marriage is awkward. They aren't shown supporting or enjoying each other. They are shown not connecting and letting each other down. You don't get the sense that Margot is sacrificing one good thing – intimacy and security – for another good thing – dangerous but thrilling encounters with the unknown. You get the sense that someone without much life experience or depth wrote this script very quickly and without input or rewrites.

The film throws in attempts to be artistic. Margot meets Dan at an open air museum where historical re-enactors whip a man accused of adultery. Margot is lectured by naked older women in a public shower: even new things get old. Lou is a cookbook author who writes only about chicken. The joke is, of course, that even exotic meats like snake are said to "taste like chicken." Exotic Dan will eventually bore Margot just as domestic Lou did. These attempts to be artistic just make the film desperate and pretentious, not deep.

The problem with the film is the problem with Margot. She is depressed; that is the central fact of her life. A dramatically arresting film about Margot would address her depression. She'd do what depressed people do – go to a shrink, try various medications, contemplate suicide, talk it out with friends. The film tries to be about the entropy of nice, stable relationships versus the appeal of the hot Bohemian stranger who promises an erotic candy shop of delights. That very interesting dilemma is not honored by the film. You don't look at Margot and think, "Appreciate what you have," or even, "Go for it!" You look at Margot and think "Prozac. Please. Or talk therapy or something. Or else this film is going to kill me with boredom."

Monday, January 21, 2013

"An Arid Landscape from Which God Has Disappeared"

I begin the day with prayer. Something odd happened two days ago.

I bring up, on the computer screen, a photo suitable for prayer, often a photo found on google of a chapel interior or the blessed sacrament. I pray the Lord's Prayer, I pray for people I know, I mention any special intentions, often in response to prayer requests posted on facebook, and then sit quietly.

Saturday morning was especially dark. I got up early and it was still black outside.

For the first time in a while I confronted God with all I face: health challenges, rock bottom poverty, total isolation, no reason to hope. Trying and trying and trying and trying and nothing working out. No resources. No allies. No leads. No one even to say, at the end of the day, "There there." No nothing. One disaster after another, from broken limbs to hurricane evacuations.

I normally don't say all this, not even in prayer, because I start crying and can't stop, and … what's the point? This day was different, though. I very consciously hit God with all he'd hit me with, and the inevitable consequences: I told God the simple truth: I can't handle this. I give up.

And then I was ready to end this session of prayer, and begin the workday.

I felt a presence at my right side. Mother Teresa.

What's odd about this is not that I felt a presence. I grew up with a psychic mother and psychic experiences were allowed in our household.

What's odd about this is that I pray to a few saints consistently. St. Anthony, St. Christopher, St. Joseph, Mary, Wiktoria Ulma.

I've never prayed to Mother Teresa. I have nothing against Mother Teresa. She just isn't a focus of my devotion or even curiosity. I haven't read anything by or about her.

Saturday morning, after my bleak and blasted prayer, I felt Mother Teresa at my right side.

Her face was vivid and alive, her famous wrinkles warm and palpable. In her photos she often looks dour. She was smiling.

I stiffened a bit, thinking, heck, Mother Teresa, I better be reverent. But she was smiling gently. Her presence was fluid, flexible. I thought, okay, what to pray? But no words came. Just a sense that I needed to sit with her for a moment. I did so, and then I started to wrap up my prayer and begin working, but I was stopped – again, gently – by a sense that I should google her. I immediately turned to the computer. I questioned this inner prodding. There must be a million webpages devoted to Mother Teresa. What am I looking for? And the inner prodding said, read the fifth web page you find after you google my name.

I googled "Mother Teresa." I counted down the first five pages.

This was number five:

"Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith."

From that text:

"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."

— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

"On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the 'Saint of the Gutters,' went to Oslo. She delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. 'It is not enough for us to say, 'I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,'' she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had 'made himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.' Jesus' hunger, she said, is what 'you and I must find' and alleviate. She suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world 'that radiating joy is real' because Christ is everywhere — 'Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.'

Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. 'Jesus has a very special love for you,' she assured Van der Peet. 'But as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves in prayer but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have a free hand.'

The two statements, eleven weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared."

I was a bit stunned.

I had just prayed a very bleak, uncompromising prayer to God, a prayer I normally do not even bother to pray. I felt the palpable presence of a saint to whom I had never prayed, and felt an articulate prodding to read of this saint's dark night of the soul.

I thought about this event for the next twenty-four hours before it occurred to me to ask, "Mother Teresa, if that was you, if you could come to me to share with me your crisis of faith, why couldn't you come to me to give me a lead on a fulltime job? Why couldn't you direct me to someone who would become my ally as I struggle with all this Sisyphean crap God keeps raining down on me? Would that be so much harder?

Mother Teresa, send me a winning lottery ticket."

Full text of the TIME magazine article about Mother Teresa's crisis of faith is here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Christophobia on Campus, from a Christian Professor; Albinos in Tanzania, Victims of Traditional Belief Systems

I debated with myself which image would better illustrate this blog post.
Is this about a war on Christianity, or about academic snobbery and an attempt to appear cool on campus? 

Recently, I was reading and posting message in an internet environment with the word "Christian" in the title. It was my assumption that most others reading and posting in that environment were Christian.

Prof. X self-identified as a Christian. He identified Christians as evil oppressors. He cited postcolonial literature as proof. His prime example was Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart."

Prof. X insisted that one must criticize *only* Christians and Christianity. That other religions and people – Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, Buddhists – are all "marginalized' and "oppressed" by Christians. Therefore, one must not criticize them.



I'm still shaking my head over that one.

I live on college campuses. I know the speech code. I know the pressures for career advancement through tenure-track jobs. I know that one must badmouth Christianity and America and Western Civilization in order to be cool and on the right career track. I know that other religions and cultures are protected by Political Correctness.

What surprised me was that these were professors who self-identified as Christian saying these things. In an internet environment also identified as Christian.

I wouldn't post someone else's messages here, so I won't post Professor X's posts. I will post my response. Here it is:

Campus speech codes regulate how we may speak, or write on the internet, about Christianity. We must denigrate Christianity, identify ourselves as oppressors, and never criticize other systems or mention their failings. We must do this if we wish to be part of the elite, even so minor an elite as "college professors."

In an internet post, Prof. X, Christian, criticized Christianity. Prof. X declined to mention the failings of any other system or belief. Prof. X identified non-Christians as victims and Christians as the victimizers. Prof. X is an associate professor, a position of some power. I suspect a cause and effect relationship between adopting accepted rhetorical strategies in public discussions of Christianity and other faiths and Prof. X occupying a position of power.

Prof. X mentioned Nigeria. Nigeria? Who is killing whom in Nigeria, and for what reason? Are Muslims not killing Christians? Biafrans characterized the genocide visited on them as Nigerian Muslims killing Nigerian Christians. Can we even mention that? No. We must talk of bad things Christians have done.

Postcolonial literature? How about VS Naipaul's scathing writings such as "Bend in the River," "Among the Believers," and "India A Wounded Civlization"? These books expose the failings of tribalism in Africa, fanaticism in Islam, and a lack of individuality in Hindu India. They were written by a Nobel-Prize-winning postcolonial writer. Naipual doesn't focus on Christians oppressing Africans, Muslims, and Indians. He talks about indigenous problems.

I lived and worked in Africa and Asia and I didn't encounter people currently being oppressed by Christians. I met Africans literally enslaved by other Africans. I met Muslims who had Christian African slaves. I encountered the living traces of the Muslim slave trade, which my current American students have never heard of, a slave trade that was larger than the Atlantic slave trade, which my students are reintroduced to every semester as if it were the only slave trade that ever existed.

In a small Nepali village, untouched by the outside world, including Christians, I saw the caste system at work. It was not pretty.

Naipaul's work, very much not romantic, and not Politically Correct, reflected the postcolonial reality I lived in. And Naipaul's work was as distant from what I heard about postcolonial landscapes in graduate school as it could get.

I think of another work: George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell wrote, "I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it." Orwell wrote that about Burma. What did Orwell mean?

Non-Christian Non-Western postcolonial Burma has had one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. That regime was closely allied with non-Christian, non-Western China, one of the most oppressive powers in history. In 2008, during Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese government allowed over a hundred thousand of its own citizens to die even as aid ships – largely from those evil, Christian nations – stood offshore with fresh water. Under current speech codes, though, we must not speak of that, we must not speak of China making off with Burmese natural resources, only of the bad things the Christians did in Burma decades ago under colonialism.

I'm not arguing that this or that empire was better than this or that other empire. I'm saying that a form of discourse dominates in which it is de rigueur for people who wish to be among the elite to denigrate Christianity and to protect other systems. I'm not even saying that this rhetoric is reflected in how people who speak this way behave. It is not. My most PC friends have no black friends, for example. It really is just talk. But talk that establishes hierarchies.

Prof. X wrote,

"Criticizing or even attacking Christianity in the context of its power is categorically different from criticizing or attacking the religions (or philosophies) of the marginalized (foreigners, immigrants, minorities, etc.) in the context of their weakness."

"Marginalized" is an interesting word. It suggests that someone is marginalizing non-Christians. Who is doing this marginalizing, where, and how? Again, in the world I live in, non-Christians and non-Christian systems receive protected status, as previously mentioned. Christians must be criticized, as Prof. X demonstrated.

Prof. X is very sure in his post who has power – Christians – and who does not. Non-Christians. The real world does not reflect that easy paradigm. Literature classes shouldn't, either. 


I teach folklore. I encounter many who think of pre-Christian and non-Christian Paganism and other traditional systems as benign, tree-hugging, and life affirming.

I teach my students about the fun side of folklore, but the dark side, as well, like the traditional folk belief in Africa that the body parts of Albinos have magical powers. Albinos are often hacked to death in order to make use of their blood, hair, and limbs in efforts to gain wealth.

A Christian organization, Under the Same Sun, is trying to rescue Albinos from the horrors the traditional belief system condemns them to. I wonder if one could mention this in Prof. X's class on postcolonial literature and the evils of Christianity in Africa. My guess is that any student who did so would receive an F in the class.

An Albino child in Tanzania. Traditional magic beliefs identify her body as a resource for gaining wealth. Christians are trying to help. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Hurricane Sandy Diaries, Or, How Do You Remove a Tree from a Roof? Martha Stewart Knows!

Photo of Seaside Heights roller coaster by Jack Fusco. His facebook page

Below are excerpts from emails and facebook posts I wrote during and after Hurricane Sandy's strike on New Jersey, my state. 

Paterson still has no power – at least where I live. No light, no heat, no way to cook. Our water is occasionally very dark brown. We have had bursts of hot water, a real blessing. I know others who have no water at all. Can't even flush their toilets.

I walked through intersections with no traffic lights and past downed trees entangled in live wires roped off by yellow tape and cops. I am now at the public library in Wayne. There is no bus on this route, and, in any case, many buses and trains in NJ are not running. The Wayne public library has power, though much of the rest of Wayne has none.

I live in Paterson, urban, Hispanic, African American, and Muslim. The median household income is $34,000. Wayne is 86% white. Median household income is $100,638. When I cross town borders on foot, I almost expect a border guard to stop me and ask for my papers.

I carried my computer the three miles here. Librarians had warned me, when I phoned, that their computers would probably all be taken by the time I got here. Wayne residents without power have flocked to the library to use its computers, to charge their own, to be in a heated and lighted room.

Hospital staff told me that during the radiation therapy I am receiving for cancer, I need to avoid exposure to germs and get plenty of rest. Hospital staff were correct. I am feverish. I am shaking all the time. I am exhausted just from shaking. While walking here I wanted to stop and nap every step of the way. The congestion is moving from my nose and throat to my chest. I'm so cold it's hard to sleep at night, no matter how tired I am. When I look in the mirror, I am frightened by the pale, shadowed and limp creature I see. Is this me forever or will I get any life back, any plumpness and pink, after the storm passes, meteorological or somatic?

Every seat is taken in this library. I had to walk around for about fifteen minutes before I found this spot on the floor.

Even so, you could hear a pin drop. People have furrowed brows and are hammering away at their keyboards. All typing the same words, I bet: "When will the power come back? Are you okay?"

I want to say thank you to people reading and responding here on facebook. I've had quite a year. Evacuated last year during Hurricane Irene when the Passaic River entered our building. Didn't know if I'd ever see any of my stuff again. Broken arm. Publishing "Save Send Delete" and getting no reviews from the "Christian" press. Cancer. Now Sandy. You can't imagine what dark places I am tempted to travel to. Wait – I know my facebook friends. I bet some of you can imagine the dark paces I am tempted to travel to.

I want to say thanks to people who have not offered unsolicited advice. I want to say thanks to people who have not tried to link our fate to Global Warming or any other political agenda. I need to spend one warm night again before I go back to fixing the rest of the world.


Went back to the library this afternoon. I'm home now.

I noticed a clump of library patrons in a corner near a window were black. Not black from Wayne, but black from Paterson. Older clothes. More worn looking. More ostentatious earrings and hairstyles. Some bodies much plumper, some much gaunter than the norm. Darker skins. Not suburban African Americans. Ghetto African Americans. "Ghetto" is now an adjective used to describe cities like the one I live in, and the people who live there, as in this sentence found on the web: "Paterson, NJ is one of the most ghetto cities in the United States."

I walked past them on my way to the ladies room. The library was crowded. There was no way to avoid physical contact. My sleeve brushed against a young, very dark skinned African American man in a wheelchair. His arms were folded against his chest. His hands flopped a bit, like seal flippers.

He looked up as I passed. "So," he asked me. "How are you weathering the storm?"

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I was a nurse's aide for many years. I worked with people who couldn't move, people who couldn't speak, people who needed me to feed them and change their diapers. I was okay with that. I'm okay with contact with people who have physical handicaps.

I don't do well with mental handicaps. If someone doesn't understand what I say, and can't respond to me with coherent speech, I feel uncomfortable. It's my failing.

So, I was relieved when this wheelchair-bound young man, so obviously physically handicapped, against whom I could not avoid brushing in this crowded library, said something coherent to me.

"Hi, thanks for asking. I've been better. How are you?" I asked him.

Before he could reply, a plump, dark skinned, African American woman stood up.

"I see you all the time," she said.

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Yeah. You're the woman who walks. We see you. That's what we call you, 'The Woman Who Walks.' I see you pass my apartment." She told me her address. I do walk past her apartment almost every day – it's one of the ones that's flush against the street. I have wondered what goes on behind its windows, so close to the heavy traffic. I've probably been inches away from her as she watched TV. This was the first time we were meeting.

"Is it a religious vow?" she asked.

"What?" I asked.

"You walking all the time."

"No, I just don't have a car," I said. "Can't afford it."

"No job?"

"I have a job. I teach in the college. That's where I'm going. I walk to work."

"And you can't afford a car?" she shook her head. "And you're a teacher. What is this world coming to?"

"Nothing good."

"I heard that." She shook her head. "You were sick for a while there," she said. "You were sick twice this year. Right? First back in winter. For a while there you didn't walk at all."

"I was in an accident," I said. "I broke my arm."

"Right, that's what I guessed," she said. "From the way you carried it. But you came out and walked as soon as you could. I admired that. It inspired me. And then in August. You were walking really slowly. I was worried about you. Thought you might be dying. But you have picked up speed since then. I guess you are not dying. I have prayed for you," she said. "Are you Christian?" she asked.


"Then you know. You know! 'For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come. Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!'"

I stood there, open mouthed, fighting back tears. She knew every word of that Bible verse, by heart. And she was delivering it, loudly, orchestrating it to steel me. I was humbled by her faith and her anonymous concern for me. I had no idea what to say.

"So, do you have power?" I asked.

"No," she said. "We're freezing."

I looked down at the boy in the wheelchair. Her son, I guessed. As soon as I start shivering in my cold apartment, I jump up and lift some weights, do some sit-ups, to bring some warmth back into my body. It was clear that this physically handicapped young man was not going to jump around to bring warmth back into his body.

"We took a cab here," she said. "It was expensive. Last money this month. But you gotta do what you gotta do. The Paterson library isn't open yet. No power. This building is heated. We're freezing," she said.

I nodded.

"Can you watch him for a minute?" she asked. "I need to use the restroom."

"Sure," I said.

The woman grabbed a bag that was tired to her son's wheelchair and left.

The young man in the wheelchair seemed to have trouble controlling the movement of his head. With difficulty, he turned toward me. I shimmied around in order to make it easier for him to see me. Our little corner of the library was very crowded.

"So," I said. "Isn't this something? We had Hurricane Irene last year. The Passaic River entered my building. And now this."

He gazed at me.

"Are you enjoying your time in the library?" I asked. "Have you found any good books to read? I guess a storm like this is the time to read those long novels you've been putting off reading."

His head swung to the left. That seemed hard for him to do. Or, maybe, his head was moving on its own. His head swung back.

"How are you weathering the storm?" he asked me.

"Ah, well…" I began. His head swung away.

His head swung back. "How are you weathering the storm?" he asked again.

I lightly touched his hand, folded against his chest. "Fine," I said. Fine."

I squatted down on the floor. Minutes passed. It began to feel like a long time. I looked at the young man's face. I felt alone and intimidated. I wanted to say something to him. I wondered how many people he'd talked to since the power went out. I usually see vans for handicapped people in our neighborhood. They pick people up in the morning, and bring them back in the afternoon. I imagined that they transported their handicapped passengers to publicly funded education, community, and entertainment for handicapped people. I had not seen any of the vans since the storm. This kid was probably lonely. The days without power or work or friends that were crushingly long for me probably lasted forever for him. I wanted him to feel less alone, but I had no idea what to say. I looked out the window. When would the Bible-savvy woman return?

I looked back at the young man.

And then I saw it. Life. Life as strong as a rushing river. (Cliché. Trying not to edit too much; I'm writing on battery power.) Life. Life as full of potential, as full of "in the next minute anything could happen," Life so precious, so different from not-life. A human face, so utterly different from a table or a chair or that very same face on a body that has passed over.

The young man was looking at something that made him look alive. I fell in love with him, a little bit, at that moment. I followed his eyes.

Wow. Her. Wow.

Now, see, without his eyes to italicize her, I never would have seen this young woman. Oh, I would have seen her the way you see a table or a chair. But not really *seen* her.

Tall. Slim as whip. Her long legs were like stems. Her body appeared to have suddenly burst forth from them, the way a flower bursts forth from a bud. Perfect. Flawless. This moment was the summer afternoon of her blossoming. What was she, fifteen, sixteen? She turned toward me for one moment. Sixteen going on seventeen. She was beautiful to me, yes. I had to resist the pull to stare at her. When this boy looked at her, though, her body exploded into elemental shapes and light whose movements produce audible music like Duchamp's' "Nude Descending a Staircase." She was his Eve, and he would be her Adam.

She saw me looking at her. "Hey," she said. She looked at him. "Hey, how's it going? Keeping warm?" And she kept walking.

He turned to me. "What do you think?"

"What do I think?" I asked.

"Do you think she likes me?"

"I – " I said.

"She lives in my building."

"Oh!" I said.

"I just don't know," he said. "She says hi to me in the morning. Just like she did right now. Do you think she likes me?"

"I – " I said.

"And when she says hi, I feel so, so!" he said.

"Oh," I said.

"What do you think I should say to her?"

"Um, I, I –" I said.

He went on. Her name is Shaneese. He sees her in the hallway every day. She smiles at him. When Shaneese smiles, the universe delivers its secrets. Birds sing. The heart beats with greater power. And the thing is, Shaneese doesn't have to try to make that happen. She couldn't make it not happen. She is a perfectly beautiful 16 going on 17 year old girl. Her smile to this young man hands him a hundred thousand tomorrows. Their love, their home, their children.

And, finally, "How are you weathering the storm?" he asked me. And then he repeated every last thing he had already said about Shaneese. "What do you think I should say to her?" he pleaded. He needed an answer *now.* I had to supply it, or I'd let him down.

"I – " I said, suddenly mentally handicapped, suddenly aphasic.

I hate God. God, what's your point? Why did you place this normal teen male heart into this floppy, harpooned-beached-seal body?

Shaneese will not love this boy. A man much more powerful and perfect loves her now, no doubt, and she and he will shortly begin new life with their perfect sperm and egg. And they will share the love, the home, the tomorrows, for which this wheelchair-bound boy hungers, but will never taste.

I wanted to hunt God down and assassinate him.

And I thought about paralysis. I can move, but have I moved? No matter where I go, I am always in the same location: on the outside, looking in. Like this boy, God has doomed me to weathering the storm alone.

Where's my government-issued van! I, too, am differently abled! I want a designated driver to pick us up, my people, us misfits, and transport us to government-sponsored, appropriate activities: screenings of forgotten Hollywood films, debates on how to respond to improper use of prepositions, handicrafts using items scavenged from dumpsters.

The woman came back from the restroom. She tied the bag back onto her son's wheelchair. I noticed that she was wearing different clothes than those she was wearing when she left, and she exuded a whiff of soap. Aha. No wonder she had taken so long. She had taken advantage of the heat and hot water to take a sponge bath and change clothes in the library ladies room. Why didn't I think of that?

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," I said, and I moved on.


Jose, our super, has connected a string of ten light bulbs in the vestibule to a gas generator in the courtyard. Jose says he was on line for gas for four hours. He also has lights in his apartment. Some residents are jealous and tried to get the manager to make him give up the lights in his apartment. It's so conspicuous – the whole building is dark, and then the bright lights in Jose's windows, the bright shaft of light peeking out from the crack around his doorframe in the hall.

I am not jealous. I am grateful for the string of ten light bulbs in the vestibule. They serve no practical purpose. They serve a social purpose. Residents now linger in the lobby, and chat with each other, exchanging the day's gossip: Where can you buy food? Who is going crazy and can't take it anymore? When will the power come back?

Rumors continue to abound. Here are some I've heard:

Paterson doesn't have power because our Mayor, Jeff Jones, embezzled money after Hurricane Irene, so Gov. Christie is punishing him.

We don't have power because one wire failed and PSE&G is postponing repairs to that one wire.

We will get power in ten days ... in a week ... next month ...

"What's with the brown water?" a resident sharing the string of ten light bulbs calls out.

"Poop!" I yell.

Another resident says, "Don't say that."

I didn't drink the brown water. I did bathe in it. It was the only water to be had. It was warm for a while last night, but then it went cold. No hot water this morning.

Lying in bed too cold to sleep, get up in the dark, decide not to wash in cold water. I did this before, my last semester in grad school. Survived Indiana's worst winter without heat or hot water.

Back then I still had hope.


I've been living in this building for almost ten years. Have seen the residents in the vestibule, laundry room, etc. But there are apartment doors that remain forever closed. My next door neighbor, for example. Never saw that door open. Never. I knocked on it last year when a smoke alarm was going off somewhere and I was trying to locate it. No one answered the door. I sometimes play loud music. No one complains.

As we all stood in the vestibule, a very slim, thirty-something white man in baggy sweatpants and hoodie walked into the crowd – everyone else there was black, except me.

This white guy was so pale he practically glittered. I tried to make eye contact with him but his eyes just swum past me, into some lake of his own inspiration.

Never saw him speak to anyone. He appeared briefly, wafted through, and melted back into the darkness beyond Jose's string of light bulbs.

Boo Radley?


I am writing from the Salvation Army men's addiction treatment center. They have power. I'm recharging my computer.

Bruce, a resident, is my host. Handsome, obviously intelligent, well kempt. African American. Looks about fifteen years younger than he really is. Says he has used drugs and alcohol for thirty-six years. We chatted comfortably for over an hour.

If Bruce had been born to a comfortable WASP family, he would have been a college professor, or an MD, or an insurance salesman.


Went to Pakistani dollar store to buy more candles.

Pakistani dollar store cashier: "We can't hold the presidential election. New York and New Jersey are not ready. This is what we should do. The rest of the country can vote Tuesday, and New York and New Jersey can vote after that."

Me: "Okay. So, let's keep praying. You pray to Allah and I'll pray to Jesus."

PDCC: "Jesus is a Muslim prophet!"

Me: "Of course. Thank you for these candles!"


Walking to campus past the Halloween House. The house and all the decorations survived the storm without damage. Satan takes care of his own.

A very good looking Palestinian guy pulls over, offers me a ride. A former student, from years back.


"Hello, my teacher."

He says his father is living in the cold and dark, too, but will stay there, because his mother has power, but his father and his mother don't get along.

Me? I'd put differences aside and move in.


I am obsessed with the physics of trees falling on houses.

On Pompton Road I saw a very large, uprooted tree laying athwart the roof of a very small house.

I'm bad at measurements. The house was the size of house a large elf might inhabit. The tree was the size of tree that a large elf would really not want falling on his house. How's that for an accurate measurement?

There is something utterly indecent about an uprooted tree. Seeing the working parts, the tendrils that suckle on the earth and in turn are fed upon, the roots that root – noun and verb and essence – flashed in your face.

Otherwise, the house appeared unscathed. The tree appeared unscathed. This was, perhaps, a polite encounter.

How much does a tree weigh?

And, Google, please don't tell me that it "depends on the kind of tree." What a coy answer. As if you knew and you were just waiting for me to provide the species. Screw you.

I'll tell you – a tree weighs *a lot.*

What does the impact itself do to the house? Are nails knocked loose? Does the house fall off its foundation?

And how do you get the tree off?

Given that I saw numerous trees on houses after Sandy, and those trees stayed exactly where they were for many days afterward, getting a tree off your house can't be an easy operation.

Where do you start sawing? If you do it wrong, would not the tree slide down off your roof, thus causing further damage?

Just googled "How to remove a tree from a roof" and – Martha Stewart to the rescue! She provides the answer on her blog.

Bradford pear trees are lovely in spring, but the trees have weak crotches and suffer in storms. 
The weak crotch of the Bradford pear equals storm damage to the trees. 

Bradford pears, while beautiful in spring, always fare badly during storms.

I expected the Bradford Pears to suffer during Hurricane Sandy.

But every species of tree suffered.

Again, I'm bad at numbers, but I guestimate that twenty percent of the trees in the areas where I walk regularly were destroyed. Not just Bradford pears, but forty-foot tall white pines, sturdy oaks, weeping willows that I thought would just sway with the wind, and not be chewed up by it, maples. Everything. Sawdust.


Buses started running again so I was able to make it to the Shop Rite.

The dairy section was empty. I'm guessing that the law mandates that after a given number of hours without refrigeration, supermarkets must throw their dairy products away. Me? I wish I'd been there. I am still eating cheese from the fridge that has not worked for days.


Mark Simone, a WABC talk radio host, the kind of guy who knows everything and everybody, says that Hurricane Sandy is being handled worse than Katrina, and the national press is not covering it to protect Obama. I have no idea if that is true.

Still no power. Please note: I live in NJ's third largest city, far from the coast.


No one *official* has done anything for us. No guidance. No announcements. No communication. The Salvation Army guys came by with sandwiches.

My neighbors – at least two people who live in wheelchairs. One totally incapacitated child in a wheelchair. At least one old man who has Alzheimer's. Walks up to strangers and mutters incomprehensible things. A young man with a walker who has cerebral palsy. At least three single mothers with lots of kids.

All in our building.

Across the street, a park for drug deals and deviants.

And NOBODY is doing anything for this population, not even giving us accurate information?


At first, we used our cell phones for light. Then candles. Then flashlights. Now residents are walking around the building looking like coal miners. They have hats with built-in flashlights. They are the new fashion one must envy.

I'll give it another day before I buy one.


Saw a hand-lettered sign in a neighbor's window. Cardboard, magic markers: "PSE&G! Ten Days! When?"

PSE&G: Public Service Electric and Gas


Ran into a neighbor last night, around sunset, in the street. Sunset has taken on a whole new meaning in public housing in a high crime neighborhood without power.

She is a single mom. Two kids, toddlers. She was dragging a wheeled suitcase. No car.

"My kids can't take it any more," She said.

"Where are you going?"

"To a hotel."

Okay, they will be warm and lit there, but they will be penned in and away from their toys and friends.


Fever is getting worse. Headache, nausea. While walking home from library yesterday, ran into Maria. I just said hi, nothing more. I let her move on.

I knew what I wanted, but I hate asking for favors. My little voice said, "DON'T BE AN IDIOT."

I ran back, tried to find Maria. Found her. "Listen," I said. "Our water is brown. I drank some of it and have a fever now. Don't know if the two are connected. I want to go to the A&P and buy water, but it's a three mile walk home, no bus on this route, and there is only so much I can carry in my backpack, with the computer and other household supplies in there already."

Maria waited for me in the parking lot. I bought five liters of water. She drove me home. God bless her.


I'm really hungry. I could eat. I won't. I'm so sick of eating cold food in the dark.


Painter Giovanna Cecchetti heard me griping in the vestibule about being too cold to sleep. She insisted I come up to her place and borrow some blankets. I resisted and resisted. Didn't want to borrow. She just kept insisting. I was no match for her. An Italian woman from New Jersey. Who can resist?

L-8 researcher Otto Gross bought me two flashlights: one battery operated, one crank operated. God bless him.


Anna Martinez got her power back yesterday. The food in my freezer is largely still frozen. I have my ways! I keep blocks of ice in there. They are keeping the freezer food cold. I'm a survivalist at heart.

Walked over to Anna's, my backpack full of my freezer food to store with Anna. She lives only a couple of miles from me, but it's a very bad part of Paterson: boarded up factories as far as you can see, men camped in rubble.

We met and embraced. I immediately saw something on the shelf in Anna's tiny apartment. It was really beautiful. I wanted it. I wanted it right then and there. I could already feel this object in my pocket. I was shocked at myself. How could I feel so covetous about something that belongs to my friend? And, worse than covetous. I wanted to steal this object! Just slip it into my pocket! I was shocked at my reaction!

Anna and I sat and chatted. We laughed, we cried, we hugged, we even drew a couple of tarot cards. If nothing else, this power outage got me to kick back and spend time with a friend, which I haven't done in months.

When it was time to go, Anna said, "Wait, there is something I want to give you." And she reached – yes – for the very object I lusted after the minute I entered her apartment! It was a sky blue rosary. Sky blue is my favorite color.

There was a story behind it. Anna is a storyteller, as well as a visual artist.

Anna was at a bus stop. A fellow traveler was speaking judgmentally about a woman who had urinated in public. Anna listened to this woman but grew impatient. At first Anna was harsh in judging this judgmental woman, but they talked more. Anna came to understand her better. As their conversation drew to a close, the woman handed Anna one sky blue rosary. Then, after some moments, she handed Anna another, saying, "This is for someone else. You can give it to them."

It's been dark.

It's not just the darkening time of year. Hurricane Sandy was part of a massive storm system, and blue skies and sun have been rare around here. Clouds. Late dawns. Early evenings.

Yesterday I was teaching an afternoon class. Campus re-opened after a week without power. A good percentage of my students were absent. Snow was falling thick and the light was the dim light of dusk. I wanted to get home … realized … home meant a cold, dark room. Should I stay on campus, now lighted and heated? Nah, I'll chance it. If I waited, the snow might get deeper, travel more treacherous.

When I got back to Paterson, the light was even dimmer. About an inch of snow on the ground. And no light shone from our apartment windows. Our section of town, largely century-old, red brick textile mills, looked ghostly. OOOO well.

I quickly changed my clothes and unpacked my bags and packed myself into a wool vest, two down vests, and a jacket, and gobbled down some rice crackers and soybeans. By four it was too dark to function in the apartment. I put my brand new crank operated flashlight into my mouth, The one Otto gave me, grabbed a red pen and a pile of student papers and a sleeping bag and headed downstairs.

The vestibule was pitch black. For some reason the string of light bulbs was not lighted. A group of residents were standing around in their coats chatting, as if there were nothing unusual going on.

I wanted to get my students' papers graded so I mostly listened in rather than joining in the scuttlebutt. I plunked down on the floor, wrapped myself in the sleeping bag, shined the flashlight on the papers, and began grading.

Gossip. Rumors. Always reported as if the absolute truth. Often contradictory, so they can't all be true.

A woman said, "I actually saw a PSE&G guy."

(I have seen none. I've seen Verizon trucks, Optimum Wifi trucks, no PSE&G.)

"I actually saw a PSE&G guy. And you know what I said to him? The folks in the old folks' home, two streets down. They have had no light, no heat, for going on two weeks now. Forget about us. Take care of those poor old people!"

I was so touched. After almost two weeks without power, this woman was sincerely putting others first.

Another person: "PSE&G was here this morning! They were ready to get our power on in an hour! And then Governor Christie ordered them to stop!"

(Remember the previously reported rumor: the reason Paterson has been without power is because Mayor Jones misused funds after Hurricane Irene and Governor Christie wanted to punish him.)

Another person: "I just got an email from Mayor Jones. He is trying to get our power back."

Another person: "I spoke personally to a PSE&G man and he said that the damage has been too great and we won't get power back for another two weeks."

"The substation exploded. I saw it from my window. I thought it was lightning, or a fire. The damage is too great."

"The Red Cross was here earlier. They promised to come by tonight to bring us dinner."

I never saw the Red Cross, either. I was very excited by this announced dinner and decided to stay in the vestibule till the Red Cross arrived. They never did.

"They've brought in a generator. It's as big as a truck. So, tonight, at least we will have heat, but we won't have any light."

I wondered how this might be possible. Our heat is electric. How could the generator differentiate between one form of use and another?

Lights flickered on.

"Yeah, that's it. It's the generator."

Lights flickered off.

Lights flickered on.

The residents gathered in the vestibule just kept chatting. I admired that they were not allowing the flickering lights to interrupt their conversation.

I got up to investigate.

There was, indeed, a generator as big as a pick-up truck parked in the courtyard. I walked into my apartment. Switched on the kitchen light. But … they said that the generator would give heat and not light … I walked over to the window and watched snow fall thickly outside.

I AM WATCHING SNOW FALL OUTSIDE!!! And I am watching it by the light of a street light!

I ran downstairs. The group in the vestibule was still talking. The security guard was near the front door. I stood next to him. "That street light is on," I said.

"Yes," he said. "And the ATM is lit, also. The lights are back on."

A tall, thin, black man in what looked like a police jacket was walking towards us out of the snow and the night. "You folks have really been through it, haven't you? You've all been yelling at me a lot."

I recognized him. "I voted for you!" I said.

"I voted for you, too!" he said. He thrust his hand forward and we shook.

He met with the group in the vestibule. "I've been yelling at PSE&G on your behalf, he said.

"Will the lights stay on?" Dennis asked.

Mayor Jones lifted his hands and made a cross shape with his two index fingers. Fingers crossed.


Very special blessings to the Paterson Salvation Army men's addition treatment center that allowed me to charge my computer. Please send a donation to the Salvation Army:

Captain Brian Merchant
Salvation Army
31 Van Houten Street
Paterson, NJ 07505
(973) 742-1126

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook: Cooper Outacts DeNiro in Grating, Sometimes Endearing Film

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a grating, occasionally endearing and humorous portrait of a bipolar misfit attempting to create a livable life after his release from a court-mandated stay in a mental institution. Pat (Bradley Cooper) chases his wife, unseen for most of the film. She has a fulltime job as a high school English teacher. Pat has no job and lives in his parents' attic. His parents, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver (whom I thought was Sally Struthers) are themselves no prize winners. Dad is an obsessive compulsive football fan and gambler who insists that his son Pat must sit next to him during games while holding a green handkerchief in order for his team, the Philadelphia Eagles, to win. Mom cooks and whines a lot.

Pat meets Tiffany, a very, very hot young widow. She falls in love with him at first sight, but he resists her, because he wants to get back with his wife.

The best reason to see this film is Bradley Cooper's performance. He is terrific as a man with limited cards playing them the best way he knows how, given his limited awareness, abilities and options. Your heart aches for him. He often behaves in outrageous, indeed, illegal ways, but his insanity is an expression of real sanity in a couple of scenes. He vehemently rejects Ernest Hemingway's decisions in "Farewell to Arms" and he rescues his brother from racist thugs.

The movie as a whole failed to take flight for me. I found the main characters to be too grating, and I needed a respite or an artistic intervention that would make their qualities more bearable. There was an opportunity for that. Tiffany is a dancer, and she and Pat train to compete in a dance contest. After lengthy, detailed scenes of ugly, irrational and loud familial manipulations, false hope, and dysfunction, I could have used some well-presented music and dance. The director doesn't take advantage of that, though, and the film just squats there, annoying the audience. The film's end is less a resolution and more of a "we're out of time here so let's wrap things up."

Jennifer Lawrence is spectacularly beautiful, and very young. She's fifteen years younger than Cooper and far too young to be convincing as a grieving widow. She is costumed in skintight leggings and bratops that emphasize her long, slim legs and considerable frontal and posterior assets. Her skin is flawless.

I could did not, for one second, believe this vision of health and loveliness to be a desperate, medicated, marginal, screwed up, nymphomaniac widow. I believed her to be exactly what she was – eye candy positioned to keep male viewers' eyes on the screen, no less than a playboy bunny or a cheerleader. A woman closer to Cooper's age, a woman who shows the knocks that life can leave on a person (as scruffy Cooper does) would have been more believable but less commercial. Given the very commercial choice to go with a gorgeous young woman and to parade her assets in every scene, the movie seemed less true, less daring than it thinks of itself as being.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Technically Impressive but Surprisingly Hollow

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a grim, clinical depiction of the CIA search for Osama bin Laden. Its strongest feature is its dramatization of the Navy Seal Team 6 operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed bin Laden. That sequence is so professionally shot it could be actual documentary footage.

"Zero" has no real plot. Episodic scenes occur in a choppy manner, one after the other. Scenes consist of depictions of beating and water boarding of detainees in order to gather information, agents stalking a suspect in Pakistan's crowded, chaotic bazaars, terrorist bombings, assassinations and assassination attempts. There are also scenes in offices where characters stare intently at computer screens or interrogation videos, and characters yell at each other and use obscenities, as their frustrating hunt for Osama bin Laden wears them down.

"Zero" makes no attempt to draw the viewer in with any human sentiment. Characters are given no backstory and no character arch. CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is the closest the film has to a main character. She reveals no affect. Her face is blank. She isn't so much robotic as inert. We know nothing about her, except that she was recruited to the CIA while in high school – we are never told what would draw the CIA to a high school student. I didn't care about this character at all. All I kept thinking was, "Jessica Chastain is being praised for *this* performance? Why?" The dullness of her performance, and the underwritten character, made it almost impossible for me to lose myself in the story, such as it was.

Jason Clarke is very strong and charismatic as Dan, a CIA interrogator. Dan humiliates, beats, and water boards suspects, and then feeds them delicious meals of hummus and olives when they deliver. His depiction of his work as just another job – he could be playing a bus driver with the same amount and degree of expressiveness – is provocative. I wish I had gone to see a film built around his character and his performance.

Overall, I was disappointed in the film. Feature films are an art form. I want them to do to me what drama can do. I want to be made to identify with a character and I want, through that identification, to learn more about life, or I want to be entertained. "Zero" did neither for me. I wasn't entertained, and my understanding and worldview were not expanded. I think the same material could have been better treated in a documentary with selective re-enactments.

"Zero Dark Thirty" sidesteps key questions. Maya sacrificed years of her life to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Dan risks his humanity by making his living beating and humiliating other men. Men, women and children throughout the Muslim world, and, as the film makes clear, in America's and Europe's cities, are eager to blow themselves up, as long as they can take some infidels with them. Why? The film doesn't even acknowledge that there are people out there asking the question, never mind attempting to suggest an answer.

The film opens with audio from the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, suggesting that the war between Islam and the non-Muslim world dates from that attack. Not so. Islam increased its territory through jihad from its invention in the seventh century until September 11, 1683, at the Battle of Vienna. After that defeat, Islam stopped its spread. The significance of the date of September 11 goes back over four centuries.

America's founding fathers had to deal with jihad; see Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates. Some argue terrorism, including the 9-11 attack, is caused by Western imperialism. The solution to these thinkers is for the Western world to be nicer to non-Western nations, to practice multiculturalism and to share the wealth. Others argue that jihad is inextricable from Islam, and that one necessary step is for the West to recognize and cherish its own unique virtues – to cherish that for which its spies, soldiers, and citizens fight, sacrifice, kill and die.

"Zero Dark Thirty" never so much as brushes up against these questions. At its key moment, the film is hollow. We all know how the hunt ends – we all know Osama bin Laden is dead. "Zero" might have addressed why Maya gave the time of her life to that hunt, why Dan risked his humanity, why Seal Team 6 trained for years and risked their lives. "Zero" never does consider why these, who might have been the film's heroes, did what they did, and I walked out of the theater oddly unmoved by all the high tension and graphic violence I'd just sat through.