Monday, June 20, 2011

Carnival of Animals

I hear Broadway's having a good season. A record season. Do I envy the theatre-goers or the cheerful queues of tourists thronging Times Square's 1/2-price booth? Do I get a thrill seeing actors emerge late-night from stage doors, greeting excited autograph-seekers and camera-philes? I do not. I seem to lack the Broadway- audience gene and have always felt squeamish when any actor breaks into song-and-dance or flies throught the air on a harness. My parents never did this, nor my schoolteachers or friends. The spectacle thing embarasses me. In fact I have maybe a clinical mild case of Coulrophobia (Fear of Clowns) and whatever the term may be for circus-revulsion. I love animals--- I am fascinated by the slow heavy grace of camels and elephants--- not so much lions and tigers or bears, but seeing them humiliated by humans in silly costumes, knowing they have been whipped and Pavlov-tricked into behaving like toddlers on a playground--- makes me cringe. What is it besides exhibitionism for the trainer? We all know humiliated animals will lick the hand that feeds them and unfortunately kiss the ass that whips them, and never tweet or testify in a courtroom.

I mean, you have to wonder about that Siegfried and Roy incident. The straw that broke the tiger's back. And you can't blame the tiger. After all, tigers lack ethics.

No matter how many times they revise it..I don't want to see Spiderman; I didn't like the movie and I don't like superheroes, and have enough trouble grappling with Jesus, let alone ridiculous outfits and wings.

I do realize that a certain percentage of the circus audience, like the TV audience for all these survival-type competitive shows--- is just waiting to witness a near-death disaster in real time, which is unsurprising considering the Roman antecedent in which the spectacle was a death-contest without window-dressing. I find it actually incredible that the circus, in all its manifestations, manages to attract an audience. Even as a child, the Crackerjacks were my only saving grace. I knew then that the elephants were only large men in animal suits. The clowns, on the other hand, were true freaks...creatures that had escaped my cartoon nightmares and were honking and slithering and truly beyond-terrifying.

Something so sad and desperate about a circus... something Tennessee-Williams-esque and morbidly wretched. In fact, Times Square has now transformed itself from the honest greasy side-show it was in the 1970's into a full-blown circus of many rings, in which the tourist audience can participate-- in seats, on billboards, live TV broadcasts--- you name it. We have photo-gigantism, freaky M&Ms, dancing buildings, bands and musicians, bad smells, foodcarts, vendors, ringmasters and barkers, Scottish kilts and bagpipes, flags of all sorts, spontaneous streetfights, tattooed men--even a naked cowboy playing bad acoustic classic-rock. We have to go all the way out to Coney Island and even then we get a watered-down version of the old freakshow, a slightly 'Forever 21' cast on the Siren Festival, and a souped-up version of the new HipHop gunslinging party culture. Overpriced cotton candy and a disappointing plate from Nathan's.

I'll take a zoo over a circus any day, however depressing it is to think these creatures are captives in a twilight-zone sort of life-sized dollhouse--giant living toys in a diorama. There's been a little drama in the Bronx this year--- escaping animals and a few disgruntled bear incidents. All in all, though, the zoo is 'chill' and having raised teenagers, I identify with the zookeeper although he gets to shovel food in through cage bars and doesn't have to make sure the tigers have pocket-money.

Several peer-friends with daughters called Zooey undoubtedly after Salinger inspired me to refer to my son as Manhattan Zoo-ey when he is at his most lethargic/slovenly although he fails to take the suggestion that I by proxy am burdened with the role of scheduled feedings and waste-removing, all without pay or a union.
I guess I should be thankful my adolescent giraffes, although wearing the costumes of their culture, no longer suspend themselves from the building ledge or bark and bray at passers-by and juggle basketballs in the street.

I do confess that I love standing by the midtown-tunnel entrance at 2 AM in springtime for the arrival of the Ringling Brothers' elephants who parade into Manhattan in single file, holding tails, the youngest and still unjaded swinging their heads from side to side as though some wide-eyed invisible mother were singing to them 'The Wheels on the Bus'. A long elephant-life awaits them... on trains, in caged vehicles, standing on their hind-legs and twirling around in a sawdust ring for peanuts. Happy? Some of them appear to smile. Not so unlike the rest of us here. You can even get peanuts and hotdogs on every corner, and if you hang with the bohemian foxes and don't care about a seat, the price can be quite right.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Consider the Bottom

The number of days on which I miss David Foster Wallace continues to grow. Some things seem to leave flowers on the private involuntary intellectual shrine inside my head. Sleepless nights I rip petals like pages from this place, and they crumple into some painful repository where failing writers mourn and envy their heroes. I don’t like envy. In a generous artistic utopia, there is only inspiration and joy. The muse has no favorites, no competitions or prizes, certainly no leagues or playoff games, no MVPs.

I think it is the Foster in his name that rings some archetypal bell for me. It made him soft and beautiful. Maybe for him it was the noose. He loved his mother. I can’t imagine her pain—this boy who loved dogs. She couldn’t save him.

I met a young painter today who is trying already, at the age of 27, to repaint. Don’t waste the muse, I wanted to say. Save repainting for your old age, when you are out of ideas and swimming in paint and hindsight. But he is young, and it’s pretentious and immature to give advice, especially when you are a loser, as my own son claims. You see, you can be a loser even when you don’t play, even when you don’t know what winning is, nor do you ask for it, nor do you want it. But as DFW taught me, losing can be winning. What’s the difference, really? And once the noise of the crowd dies down, then what? Who’s in your bed when you get home? Someone who understands why you rip petals from the literary flower and chant silent syllables like Foster, Saramago, Fernando? How could he leave his dogs, with their neuroses and problems? I, too, consider the lobster. I was born this way, too.

Instead, I sympathized with the painter for his difficult choice of profession. After all, a pretty girl can buy some great new dress, put it on, go straight to a bar and get all kinds of complimentary feedback. She can get her drinks paid for, entice a future husband or even a psychotic stalker. The painter will spend years learning to paint, and months trying to finish a canvas which he will then have to beg people to see. And even then, he lacks the distance and depth to separate his egotistical need for beauty from what is good. In six more months, he will realize, if he is good, that it sucks. My young painter today who is so young ventured to assure me that it’s lonely at the top.

My writer friend spent most of our coffee time today talking about her hair. She’s had this Brazilian treatment which turned her unappealing mop of frizz into a sleek, appealing silhouette. $1,200. Try it, she urged. I had to promise I’d consult her stylist. Apparently there is a scholarship or hair university which allows students to experiment on the less privileged, at a huge discount. I filled out an online form, describing with scrupulous accuracy my hair texture on a humid day at the end of a week without washing or conditioning, including several outdoor rock and roll performances, a few unprotected hours in Manhattan rain, a 98-degree day and maybe some stray beer spray from a rowdy late-night. I got the email today informing me I was unqualified. The ivy league, Harvard-accepted head of hair was unsuitable for their trainee-transformations. Kind of the way the drug companies reject really sick people for their clinical trials because it makes their results look bad.

So what I did tell the painter, at the end of his soliloquy, was that I so admired his life choice, even if he might spend an entire career to arrive at the threshold of failure. Not even get to go through the door. Because who are the winners and losers here, now that art is a business, music is a sport, writing...well, writing is maybe for losers. Who reads anyway... and as my neighbor the editor warned me last week, why would anyone want to be published in this environment? I choose not to answer rhetorical questions these days, even though or maybe because I heard my son explaining –'Mom, L— doesn’t know what a rhetorical question is...'

And when the painter and I said goodbye, me promising to come to his studio...I corrected him... Actually, it’s lonely at the bottom.

Wherever you are, I hope you are not lonely, David Foster Wallace. I hope you never know about the death of your dogs or anyone else. I hope you are not missing winning or anyone the way I miss things—maybe everything, in a way—even losing.

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