Saturday, June 9, 2018

Suicide Isn't Painless

Last night I was Google-searching, trying to find some little nugget of news that would allow me to believe that Anthony Bourdain did not mean to end his life, but that it was an erotic asphyxiation experiment gone wrong, the way it did for David Carradine.  I want to believe the latter because then I can be angry instead of so damn sad. Because then I can rail about men and their dicks and not have to think about how the world is now even darker than it was two days ago.

I spent last evening watching a series of CNN talking heads reminiscing through their shock at the death of their colleague, interspersed with clips from Parts Unknown, followed by a binge of YouTube clips until midnight.  That just made things worse. 

Bourdain was more than just a celebrity chef, a travel writer, a memorist, a foodie, and an almost Hemingway-esque figure of conventional masculinity who could also be a vocal advocate for #metoo.  He was nothing less than the Poet Laureate of food:

"It is indeed marvelous
An irony-free zone
Where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation is welcomed.
Its warm, yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation
Inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered
All across the South
To come inside
A place of safety
And nourishment.
It never closes
It is always...always faithful
Always there...for you."

Do you know what that's about?  Well, here's your answer, about 23 seconds in: 

Who else could write this about Waffle House, of all places?  Those roadway food joints that beckon long distance truckers and interstate vacationers, now forever tainted by yet another angry white incel asshole.

Or this:

"The Mediterranean Sea itself trembles
The ground shakes beneath the wheels
Of our heavy metal thunder
Back in Beirut after all these years
The first time I was here did not end well
But it made no difference to me
I love it here
In spite of everything
I love it here"

Who else would write this about BEIRUT, of all places?

Type in "Anthony Bourdain" into YouTube and just pick a video....any video.  Every one is a  gem of poetry and deliciousness and breathtaking visual beauty, as if the humdrum travelogues to which we're accustomed were suddenly being experienced on hallucinogens, our perceptions ticked up a notch.  Strangers become friends, ugliness and desolation becomes art, and the food that fries and simmers and is dished up by people whose faces show the trials of their lives in the dark alleys of the world becomes the nectar of the gods.

Ask most people what they would do if they won the lottery, and they say "I'd travel the world."  For most people, that means seeing the major world sites that we know about.  Anthony Bourdain at the time of his death had built a career that most people can only dream about.   Yes, his celebrity and the resources provided him by virtue of having a television show allowed him to be welcomed in places most of us would not dare venture, and invited into people's homes to actually share in the lives that real people live in countries all over the world.  But where most people might look at the overall magnificence of some edifice somewhere in the same travel photos everyone takes, Anthony Bourdain would find the little fresco hidden in the corner that most people never would notice, of someone ancient cooking something over a fire, and then go out looking for that something in an alley in the worst part of town -- and find it.

We look at others, particularly people who have fame and money, and think their lives are charmed, that they could not possibly have any inner pain. Ordinary people, yes.  My mother attempted suicide when I was nine years old, but had I been old enough to really understand it (and if we'd actually been told about it at the time, but we weren't), it would not have been surprising, given the number of times I'd seen her sprawled on the steps crying.  My mother survived.  Her sister, who took the same dose of the same sleeping pill four years later, didn't. 

My aunt was to all outside appearances the perfect 1950s housewife.  Trim, pretty, with a handsome husband and three smart, active sons, she kept a tidy home, baked cookies, and wrote down recipes in meticulous, tiny handwriting.  Her suicide took place on Mother's Day, of all days.  I think it was meant as a giant "Fuck you" to her own mother, rather than to her children, but I will never be sure.  I am not in contact with any cousins from that side of the family, and I can't say I blame them for wanting no reminders of what their mother did. 

Even Mr. Brilliant was not immune.  I now believe that he battled intermittent depression for much of his life, but in 1989, after quitting his job to take a computer programming class at NYU School of Continuing Education and being told by the instructor that no one without a degree would pass the course, he went into a tailspin that resulted in me bodily stopping him from driving up to the George Washington Bridge and jumping.  And when he became ill with bladder cancer, his first instinct was to go to an assisted suicide state (not that he would have passed the psych test these states require).  It was really only after the first of his surgeries for moyamoya that he started to feel hopeful about the future (which makes the fact that he had a stroke a month later almost to the day that much more heartbreaking).

So yes, we get it when ordinary people are destroyed by their own thwarted dreams.  My family members with depression all had broken dreams of one kind or another.  Mom had been a talented violinist.  My aunt had a degree in physical chemistry from Temple University.  Mr. Brilliant had built a career as a computer network whiz out of nothing only to find himself aged out of it, scrambling from one short-term contract to the next.  But what of someone like Anthony Bourdain, who from all outside appearances had the kind of larger-than-life life that so many dream of but never even think they can achieve?

Days before he died, Bourdain bought a John Lurie painting titled "The Sky Is Falling, I am Learning to Live With It." 

Did this painting, which could be interpreted as a mind crumbling, speak to what was going on in Bourdain's mind?  Does it reflect the kind of "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold" feeling of dread so many of us feel in the age of Trump, only he, this TV avatar of articulate tough-guyness, was somehow less able to deal with it than we have been (at least so far)?  Had he received a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimers, or Lewy Body Dementia, or some other disease that would gradually take away his ability to travel, to eat, to taste food, to do what he was clearly born to do?  Or is it simply another case of a genius unable to live in his own head?

Most of us who lose someone we love have a certain amount of anger towards the person who died:  "How could you leave me?"  It's irrational, and our rational mind usually deals with it fairly quickly so we can do the work of grieving.  In the case of suicide, it's more difficult for that anger to dissipate.  Suicide is abandonment writ large -- not only did the person leave us, but did it deliberately.  And why? 

And that is part of why losing Anthony Bourdain hits harder than some other celebrity suicides.  Because this was a man who transcended national borders.  He visited countries we're supposed to think of as enemies.  He was welcomed into people's homes.  He showed us that no matter what our politicians think, people are people and that cooking food, serving food, trying new foods, sharing food, brings us all just a little closer.  It becomes that much more difficult to think about being at war with Iran when you've seen Anthony Bourdain share a bounteous and delicious meal with an Iranian family.  None of that was enough to keep him with us.  So in an age when hate and division is on the rise, being cooked up in the dark alleys of the minds of white nationalists, we are left to wonder:  What did Anthony Bourdain see coming that made it all seem futile?  What did he see coming that we haven't yet perceived?

And so here we are, scouring Google to find some kind of explanation -- an erotic asphyxiation experiment gone wrong, an unknown, potentially fatal neurological disease, something, anything, so that we don't have to think that someone who could navigate the rural roads and urban alleys of the world and make it just a bit kinder, a bit warmer, a bit more nourishing, was unable to navigate his own mind. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Friday Cat Blogging for June 1, 2018

If between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you don't have enough time suck in  your life, may I introduce you to Tiny Kittens Society?  This is a rescue in Canada that for three years has been doing TNR (trap, neuter, release) and rescue in a colony of over 200 feral cats in Canada.  Pregnant females are rescued and their kittens born in safety and comfort.  The kittens are then adopted out, the moms spayed, and if they can be socialized, they too are adopted out.  Otherwise they are released back to the colony, where they will produce no more litters.

And of course they have their own YouTube channel, including a 24/7 Kitten Cam of their latest litters.  At the time of this posting, there are nine kittens, born to two females they rescued in March.

You're welcome.  Or, I apologize.  You pick.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Blogrolling In Our Time

Reviving a feature from the old place...

Say hello to No More Mister Nice Blog, who we should have added a long time ago, and   Vixen Strangely of Strangely Blogged, who is, strangely, driving traffic to the old place.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

You Can't Stop the Beat

 Photobomb of the Year
Something very important happened today. 

Cynics always roll their eyes at a "royal wedding", particularly one involving male members of the British royal family.  There's something so retrograde, so sexist, so downright primitive, about the idea of two people going into a church and when they come out, one of them is a princess, whatever that means. 

And yet, this transformation of some ordinary girl into a princess; that most often most toxic of female iconography that's nearly impossible for any little girl to escape, has a stranglehold on even our culture.  I don't know why "princess" has such a hold on a country that's never had royalty.  We can't really blame the Brothers Grimm, for the original, pre-Disney versions of their fairy tales have some pretty macabre elements, like Cinderella's stepsisters cutting pieces off their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper. I suppose we can blame Walt Disney for it, and the siren song that the Disney theme parks use to lure in American families. 

No matter how cynical you are, there is something about these extravaganzas that draws us in and keeps us in no matter what happens in the aftermath.  We all know now what an utter clusterfuck the marriage of Charles and Diana was, even from its misbegotten beginning.  And yet, despite the knowledge of how utterly miserable both of them already were on the day when Diana seemed more like just a support for a massive, crumpled dress than a 20-year-old who already knew her husband loved not her but another, we still call that a "fairytale wedding." 

I'm not sure why British royal weddings hold us so much in thrall.  When we look at the British monarchy in historical context, or at least the historical context we know from televised miniseries, a royal wedding is hardly a harbinger of eternal bliss.  Just ask Anne Boleyn.  But let there be a royal wedding, especially this one. and we go bonkers.

Why this one?  Because if Diana was "the people's princess" (ick), then her sons have been "the people's sons," especially Harry.  Of "the heir and the spare", it was Harry, the embodiment of yet two more collective consciousness archetypes, the Lost Boy and Lovable Scamp, who has always had the hearts of royal-watchers.  It is his good fortune to have inherited his mother's telegenicity as well as her ability to connect with people, because in his youth, his self-destructiveness in the face of unresolved grief would have forever stained a less charming young man.  But Harry has always been able to pull off being that "lovable scamp," so it is hardly surprising that he would choose for a bride a mixed-race divorcee with a similar mind for public service.

But it's one thing to choose a spouse that the stuffiest traditionalists might regard as "scandalous."  It's quite another to include in your very Anglican royal wedding ceremony not only the ancient Celtic pagan ritual of handfasting, but also elements from American black churches.  From the perspective of this admittedly very white (if culturally Jewish) blogger, the heightened emotionality brought and wrought by the amazing sermon gifted to the couple, and indeed to all of us, by Rev. Michael Curry, is what elevated this ceremony to something approaching the Divine. 

And this is where this whitest of rituals, the Anglican royal wedding, embraced diversity and the heritage of its newest member.  From the minute he opened with a quote from the Song of Solomon (and not the part you might think), and then segued effortlessly into quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Curry did not just talk of the power of love, but imbued the cavernous room with its power:

There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even oversentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. There’s power, power in love.
Not just in its romantic forms but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There’s something right about it.
And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love. And our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.
Ultimately the source of love is God himself, the source of all of our lives. There’s an old medieval poem that says, “where true love is found, God himself is there.”
It was moving, it was glorious, it was joyful, it was subtly subversive,  it made me weep with joy and brought me almost to the point of saying "OK, I'll convert!!"  It was also very much of the glimpses white people get to see of black churches, and by the time Rev. Curry remembered that "we got to get y'all married", it felt as if something amazing and strong and unifying and just perhaps lasting had shifted in The Force, that the earth's axis had just maybe tilted a bit back in a kinder, more loving, direction.  Yes, some in the audience seemed profoundly uncomfortable, but it's something the stuffed shirts in attendance needed.  And then all this was followed by Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir singing a gorgeous rendition of "Stand By Me" (a song written by a black guy and two Jewish guys) and as a recessional, Etta James'  "This Little Light of Mine".  And when it was over, one had the sense that not only had Donald J. Trump not been invited to the wedding, but that the ceremony had included after all, the nose-thumbing at him that was avoided when it was decided that the only way to avoid inviting him was to exclude ALL foreign dignitaries.

I was never one who got sucked into the Cult of Diana.  Yes, she was pretty and glamorous but by 1980, when her wedding took place, I was long past believing in fairytales.  She struck me back then as a girl who'd set her cap for a prince long ago and had too many spangles in her eyes to realize how cold a fish she'd attached herself to.  Yes, I admired her good works, but to me they were part of the noblesse oblige one would expect from someone to whom so much is given.  And yet, in seeing the man her son Harry has become, and how it is he, not his brother, who has inherited her ability to charm everyone he meets, and in seeing the gauntlet he and his bride threw down today in the company of their family, their friends, and the entire world, I could not help but think that somewhere in the great beyond, Diana is getting the last laugh after all.

  Mazel tov,  you two crazy kids.  Now go forth and do wonders.

Monday, May 14, 2018

I simply cannot imagine what they're going to do with this

I'd heard rumblings about this project a while ago, and then it slipped my mind.  But it seems that the Ridley Scott-produced series about John Whitehead Parsons is going to be streaming on CBS All Access, of all places, in June.

At first glance, it would seem to be a conventional series of the "mad genius" genre, sort of as if The Aviator were remade for TV.  Oh sure, Jack Parsons helped to create the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and had been interested in rocket engines since childhood.  And yes, a series devoted to just this part of Parsons' life would be interesting to a sizable geek audience.

But there was another aspect to Parsons, and that is his involvement with Thelema, the occultist movement founded by Aleister Crowley.  Crowley's ideas are reputed to have, over the years, attracted to varying degrees a number of surprising famous people in addition to Jack Parsons, such as Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page (a known collector of Crowley memorabilia who even bought Crowley's Boleskine House in Scotland), John Lennon, Daryl Hall, members of Pearl Jam, Jerry Garcia, Trent Reznor, and others.    David Bowie references Crowley in the song "Quicksand" on the 1971 Hunky Dory album and certainly his final "Blackstar" video is chock full o'occult references.  .  It's also attracted many non-famous people, including certain people I knew who were involved with this stuff long before I met them, and who grew disgusted with it in much the same way that many conventionally religious people grow disgusted with their own religious leadership. 

I've always chosen to remain somewhat blissfully ignorant about the details of this stuff under the assumption that one does not muck around with what one does not understand and may not be able to handle.  I've seen some really bad things happen to people who dabble in the occult without knowing what they're doing.  But I am curious as to how Ridley Scott and CBS All Access are going to handle this aspect of the life of Jack Parsons, and if there will be any commentary from those who are still into this stuff in a way that goes beyond "Do What Thou Wilt" hoodies.


Cat Guys

Mr. Brilliant and I got our first cat in 1984, shortly after we moved in together.  She was a calico, her name was Cindy, and she only lived a year and a half, succumbing to nodular pancreatitis.  Then came Wendy, then Oliver, and later Maggie and Jenny, and we were always cat people, and Mr. B. became a cat guy. 

When we finally bought a house in 1996, we toyed with the idea of getting a dog.  He'd had a dog as a child, and I'd always had a dog, but after interviewing a few dogs, we realized that with our work schedules, it just wasn't going to happen.  So we were Crazy Cat People.

Mr. B. with Wendy (1985-2000)

I think Mr. B. preferred cats because they were easy, specially when you live with someone who does all the litterbox cleaning.  But it was more than that.  When cats love you, they love you because you deserve it, not simply because you walk the earth.  Cats have a badassery that dogs just don't have.  It takes a certain kind of guy to appreciate a cat, and that's why I think cat guys  have a mystique that dog guys just don't have.  Cat guys don't expect to be attached to you at the wrists and ankles 24 hours a day.  Cat guys get that sometimes you want to be with your women friends, or that you need down time, or that you are an adult capable of your own decisions.  Cat guys can be needy in a different way, but they don't need to be slobbered over all the time in order to feel wanted.

After Mr. B. died, I used to joke about how it used to be "Jill and Steve live in Washington Township with their two cats," which made us sound sort of hip and artsy, but now it was "Jill lives in Washington Township with her two cats", which made me sound sad, lonely, and pathetic -- a walking stereotype of the crazy cat lady.  I don't know how the crazy cat lady image came about, except that it tends to be women who end up feeding feral cat colonies rather than shooting them.  But it's a stereotype that unfairly maligns women and keeps far too many men from discovering the amazing mystery that is felis domesticus.

When we used to listen to "Morning Sedition" on Air America Radio over a decade ago, Marc Maron would talk about "Boomer the dirt cat" out at his home in L.A., and about the three feral cats he'd rescued in Astoria -- Moxie, Monkey, and LaFonda.  If I recall, Moxie was part of the settlement with his ex-wife, but Monkey and LaFonda live with him to this day.

Maron is funny and cool and the cats still figure prominently in every interview now that he's a Really Famous Guy Who Interviewed The President And Was Nominated For a SAG Award.  In a 2013 interview, he said about cats "You don't really know what they're up to, and they're always sort of fascinating, and they seem to have their own thing and they're always sort of surprising.  I think dogs are kind of emotionally consistent -- either they're very needy, or they're a little bit aggravated.  I think cats, you assume, have an inner life, because they get focused on things, and they're kind of effortlessly cute with their own obsessions, and that makes people into them."

I think he's on to something here.  Perhaps it's that mysterious inner life where they DON'T share their obsessions with the world that resonates with men, especially those who are uncomfortable with too-open displays of emotionality.  Cats also have a certain "Screw you" affect that I think some men find appealing.  Women, on the other hand, are attracted to an animal that handles its own inner life because we have enough trouble dealing with our OWN inner lives and the inner lives of our parents, spouses and children, thank you very much.  So an animal that goes about its own business and doesn't ask to be understood provides a much-needed respite.

Cat guys tend to be the dirty little secret of masculinity, though that's changing.  In the online world, Dwayne Molock, whose cat guy alter ego is "Moshow", raps about his cats.  What makes Moshow compelling is not just that until you see the cats, he's just another rapper with an unfortunate tendency to use autotune, but that he has four sphinx cats, which are the weirdos of the cat world.  Moshow's sphinxes are endlessly patient and seem to thrive on wearing clothes, including, apparently, matching pajamas:

Moshow shows the kind of gleeful, all-encompassing love for his cats that you usually see in women.  So perhaps it's Moshow who made cat-obsession safe for macho guys like....

Keith Hernandez.

Yes, THAT Keith Hernandez, the 1979 MVP award winner and holder of World Series rings with the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets; the carrier of cocaine usage rumors, the chain-smoking first baseman who along with the couldn't-be-more-different Gary Carter were the missing pieces that when added, created the 1986 Mets, and now the lovable curmudgeon of the SNY broadcast booth, and yes, cat guy.

Hernandez is one of those people who really found his voice on Twitter, but does it in a way that doesn't piss people off, but instead, shows him as a kind of Tweeting Man of Letters.  But it was a single video of himself picking up the paper with his cat Hadji (named after a character in a Jonny Quest cartoon, which may be the endearingly dorky thing done by an ex-jock EVER) that put Keith Hernandez into the Exalted Pantheon of Internet Cat Guys.

Perhaps it's going to take a curmudgeonly ex-jock to make cats as acceptable a pet for men as women have known for decades.  On the other hand, it seems kind of a shame that we may have to share that with them too.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

I blame David Chase.

A few months after I moved to North Carolina, I was in the lobby of the Chapel Hill Ronald McDonald House, as part of a group awaiting the organizer of the meetup to prepare dinner for guests of the facility that evening.  We got to chatting with a gentleman in the lobby whose son was a patient at UNC Hospital.  I hadn't been her that long, and to my still-of-NJ ears, this guy sounded like part of the cast of a musical called "Deliverance:  The Musical."  He started saying how he's real good at telling where people are from, and that he knew I was from New Jersey.  I laughed and asked him how he knew, and he said "Because you sound just like The Sopranos."  I have since been told this twice more.

If you don't know who David Chase (nee DeCesare) is, he's the creator of "The Sopranos", one of the most influential and lauded dramas in television history.  In 1995, the production company Brillstein-Gray approached Chase about doing a TV series based on "The Godfather."  It was Chase's idea to make the series about a Mob boss in therapy, and the rest is history.

America loves gangsters.  I don't know why, but the Italian Mafia has become as integral a part of tough-guy American archetype as the Western Cowboy, The Noble Soldier, or The Private Eye.  The Holy Trinity of the Mob in modern poplar culture is, of course, The Godfather films, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos

What's interesting about considering these works together is the descent from a strong, if archaic and often brutal moral code followed by Vito Corleone, where you only do to others what they do to you, down to the anarchy of late-season Sopranos, where the brutal killing of a leading female character guilty of nothing but inability to choose to take one for the team appalled pretty much everyone. 

What gets lost in our admiration of these tough guys is the operatic nature of their tragic, empty lives. are.  Michael Corleone, the former idealist who enlisted to serve his country in WWII, ends up alone, having vanquished all of his enemies, but losing his soul in the process.  Henry Hill in Goodfellas ends up in the witness protection problem, living like a schnook somewhere in the Midwest, similarly bereft of that sense of belonging.  And you can rest assured that no matter what you think happened at the end of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano was still on some level crying over the ducks.

And all of this brings us to Donald Trump, who is the walking, living, real-life embodiment of the operatic tragedy of the Mob goon. 

Bill Maher touched on this last night and I'd been thinking about it all morning:

Oh yes, he's always pretended to have the veneer of a businessman in the way Tony Soprano was in the trash hauling business, but as we are now finding out from the discoveries of the antics of his attorney Michael Cohen, Trump is, and always has been, just another New York Mob goon, surrounded by the same supporting cast as the rest of these guys have always had.  Maher pretty much nailed the cast of characters, though his focus on the Godfather trilogy characters doesn't really reflect the utter amorality of the Trump universe, which is probably better represented by Jared Kushner as Christopher Moltisanti, Steve Bannon as Big Pussy, Paul Manafort as Paulie Walnuts.  The problem is that Trump thinks that Robert Mueller is the hapless Agent Harris and that he, Trump, is the lead actor whose character can never be killed off. 
Maher asks, "How did the salt-of-the-earth people get hooked up with the salt-in-the-wound people?"  The answer to that is easy:  because even in the flyover states, they loved Tony Soprano. They loved him because he did what he had to do in order to take what he wanted.  It's an ingrained part of the American identity -- we take what we want.  Europeans came to this soil and took what they wanted.  The mythos of the Great American West is all about taking.  The cowboy may have LOOKED like Gary Cooper, but he slaughtered everything in his way.  The Americans won WWII in real life, but since then we've seen endless movies about that last Noble Victory fought by American Tough Guys. 
Even when a war is a botch job like Iraq, we take guys like Chris Kyle, who painted himself in his autobiography American Sniper as a Gary Cooper-esque multiple-medalled patriot and hero, and turn them into demigods, even after it turns out that Chris Kyle inflated his own war record.  Worse, we take thoughtful guys like Pat Tillman, the lantern-jawed, right-out-of-central-casting NFL player who gave it all up to join the military after 9/11 only to find that the war he was fighting in was based on lies, and was murdered by his own guys, and turn them into John Wayne.  How many people now even KNOW the truth about either of these two very different guys?  Or are they stuck in our collective consciousness as what the story was that first got "out there", because those stories play into the American Tough Guy archetype?
From 2000-2008, we had a president who wore the Tough Guy suit even though it didn't fit him.  He stuffed the crotch of a flightsuit and Chris Matthews fell in love.  He walked like John Wayne and talked like John Wayne, and the "salt-of-the-earth people" loved it.  Then we had eight years of a thoughtful guy who was slim and wore a suit well and spoke in complete sentences; who "spoke softly and carried a big stick", as Teddy Roosevelt used to say (and that was probably what played into the primal fear of those people who love the American Tough Guy, because that thoughtful guy happened to be black).  And then, for some reason, we decided that real American toughness was Tony Soprano after all.
These people forgot how Tony Soprano fucked up his marriage, fucked up his kids, couldn't manage his anger, was prone to deep bouts of despair.  They forget how utterly lonely he was. They were never able to see the tragedy behind the Tony Soprano persona when they used to tune into HBO on Sunday nights, or the wreckage he left in his wake.  And they still can't.
Oh, and David Chase is planning a "Sopranos" prequel movie.  Just to keep the mythos alive.