La Misérable

Amid the recent fanfare Howard Schultz’s adroit publicists have stirred up around Starbucks’ new “We Pay for College” policy, many former critics of the mega-corporation are now waxing downright sycophantic.  Their mission statement – “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time” – has become a sign of genuine hope for a downtrodden nation.  Youngsters can hope for a better future by signing on with Starbucks, a life without debt, a life where a college education is as simply acquired as working a few hours each week for the Starbuck benefactors then going home and logging on to Arizona State University’s online classroom.  Raise a cup of Joe to the All Powerful Schultz.

But make no mistake, if you work for Starbucks, and if you don’t want to be ruined in the workplace, you must tread carefully.  And if your manager doesn’t like you, even if your manager is incompetent and vindictive, you may be screwed even if you are careful.  But one thing is clear: there are no mistakes that might not be punishable by banishment from Starbucks, and the Corporation is at liberty to deny you so much as a second chance.

Erin took a job with the Astor Street Starbucks in 1997, when she was still a student at NYU.  For four years, she worked for the Corporation, enjoying the work which allowed her to balance her efforts to attend auditions, to study her craft, and to feel useful in the workplace.  She was a cheerleader for Starbucks, and her managers universally loved her.

As she moved about, Erin applied for and easily achieved transfers to other locations.  She worked for a long time in the original Times Square store, which did not have bathrooms or seating but did have long lines and a high level of stress.  Sam excelled as a barista there, and when she moved back to her family home upstate, the company gladly offered her a transfer to her hometown Starbucks.

Still attending auditions in The City, still attending classes at Second City and the like, Erin applied for a shift supervisor position, and the promotion was automatically granted.  For over a year, she worked in that capacity, and she attracted a following of local regulars, who set their Starbucks visits by when she was on duty.  She, her co-workers, her fellow shift supervisors, and her manager got along famously, and they all agreed that they had the best Starbucks team in the country.  Andrew, the Store Manager, averred that they had, to his estimation, the best working team of any kind anywhere.

But Andrew completed his MBA and left Starbucks to take an administrative position in another company.  The regional office rushed into hiring JoEllen, who had recently joined Starbucks from a national clothing chain, and she was vocal from the start about how much she disliked the coffee business.  Her dissatisfaction with her new responsibilities were evident to everyone, but she made Erin her special project.

For reasons Erin was not clear about, JoEllen went out of her way to schedule Erin at exactly the times she requested that she not be put on.  Erin loved to open, but she requested that two days a week, the mornings after her late night classes in New York, she be allowed to work later or to be off.  JoEllen persisted in putting Erin on, and Erin went to work without complaint.  But because Erin was  very critical of everything Erin did, Erin was constantly terrified that she would make a mistake.  Self-fulfilling prophesy.

One morning, after returning from New York in the wee hours, Erin failed to hear her alarm.  When she awoke and realized she was late, she rushed to the store and opened ten minutes late.  She was terrified of JoEllen’s rebuke, as the manager had been increasingly hostile and demeaning in recent days.  She jumped the clock, changed the time, and she signed in on time.

JoEllen did discover the cover-up – a customer had complained that the store had never opened late, and she could not understand why it did so on this one day – and she summarily fired Erin.  “You might have well as dipped your hand into the till and stolen money from the company,” she told Erin.

Erin acknowledged her error.  She tearfully apologized, begged forgiveness, even got down on her knees in wailing supplication.  “I was only trying to stay out of trouble,” she said later.  “I never intended to steal from Starbucks.”  But JoEllen was obdurate.  The firing stood.  She had stolen the equivalent of $.06 from the corporation.

Contrite and miserable for her theft, Erin appealed to her regional manager.  The regional manager apologized to Erin, acknowledged the fact that Erin had had a perfect record for the five years she had worked for Starbucks, congratulated her on her accomplishments as a barista and a shift supervisor, but she told Erin that she was powerless to do anything to reverse the firing.  “The company has a strict policy that Managers have control of their stores, and to that end, the company will uphold any managerial decision, especially a firing for cause.  This is considered a theft.”

Five years of Erin’s work history became unusable.  No one wants to hire a Starbucks reject, but no one will hire a woman with experience-empty years on her resume.    Erin could not find a job.  So she appealed to Corporate Headquarters.

By this time, JoEllen had been fired.  In fact, she was fired just weeks after Erin was leg go.  JoEllen was actually skimming her store’s intake.  So, when Erin turned to the people at Corporate, she included that morsel of information in her letter.

Again, she received a glowing thank you for your service, but you are screwed.  After all, you did steal from Starbucks. We cannot take you back.

The world has not spun evenly for Erin since that day.  She cannot find a job, and she faces enormous, endlessly increasing student debt.  She had to drop out of school entirely because she could no longer afford to be there, and not having the degree has hurt her as well.

“I was stupid,” she says now.  “I never denied that.  But I didn’t do anything malicious, and even an ex-convict can get a job with Starbucks when h/she gets out.  I feel like a Jeanne Valjean! Shouldn’t there be some kind of statue of limitations on how long I have to suffer for this?”

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Memory in the Museum*

* re-printed by permission of the Columbia: a journal of literature and art, where it appears on the Blog Site

                                                                                 In the room the women come and go
                                                                        Talking of Michelangelo . . . .
                                                                                                      T.S. Eliot. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

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Museum Hours
recalled an epiphany I experienced on my way to my wedding.

Sauntering from my apartment on Riverside Drive to the chapel at Columbia, seeking to memorize the details of my last moments of freedom, I made a special point of looking into the faces of the people I passed. I had only recently graduated from adolescence into my 20’s, and like most of my cohorts, I saw myself as the center of life and substance in the universe. But, of course, my being on the threshold of a seismic life change was of no consequence to anyone around me. And what surprised me when no one returned my gaze – hardly a soul so much as noted my existence – was that I was not disturbed at how non-noteworthy I was. It felt right. I suddenly saw with utter clarity that my story was just one among all the stories bustling about. Our lives mingled with one another like the aromas of automobiles, coffee, cigarettes, bacon, garbage and spring flowers wafting in the breeze; while each possessed a singular uniqueness, all blended smoothly into a single May morning landscape.

Museum Hours meanders thus, like a leisurely walk across campus or a thoughtful mosey through a gallery. It lingers, at both expected and unexpected intervals, to examine the layers of imagery, the texturing of impressions that create the large and small occurrences that memory accumulates, and it moves from moment to moment without ceremony, shifting from one to the next without releasing the one that came before. The film sees life as both revelatory and mundane in the same instant. And the conversations, colors, music, ambient sounds, sights and smells create a kind of cacophony that conspires both to obscure the individual components and to illuminate the distinct strengths each brings to the choir.1157496_Museum_Hours

The film is a pentimento similar to a masterwork by Peter Breughel the Elder. Breughel’s work is a kind of template for the film. The 16th Century Dutch master’s particular affinity for creating multiple strata of scenarios in every frame, for securing both the key to the broad spectrum of the painting and the insight on each particular picture by way of details illuminated in color and light, resonates here. Like Breughel, Jem Cohen, provides a wide view of life and then through the magic of his medium, which has the added benefit of sound and movement, he hones in on myriad points of view.

Like the central characters in Breughel’s work, the two apparent protagonists of Cohen’s film serve as foils for the many players that swirl about them in the museum, in the hospital, on the streets, in the local pub, and their stories irradiate innumerable others. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) has been summoned to Vienna to attend the deathwatch of a cousin she grew up with but from whom she has long been separated. She wanders into the Historisches Kunstmuseum and meets Johann (Bobby Somer), a guard there. She asks him for directions and confides her predicament to him; he offers to be her guide and interpreter. Over the course of the movie, they forge a deep friendship, reveal details of their personal lives and provide succor and comfort for one another. For each, the other is a mirror in which a hitherto unseen self appears.

Anne is a babbler. She talks in stream of consciousness at times, the way people do who have lived alone but have much to say. Johann, by contrast, is measured in his speech, not exactly guarded but less apt to simply offer what Anne identifies as her penchant for “too much information”. He never overtly hides anything, but when he discloses, he does so quietly, matter-of-factly. Anne asks Johann if he has friends or family who, like her cousin, have been far away so that “you don’t really know where they are anymore”; he answers that actually he has no one left to keep track of. His parents, a sister, and a partner – “he’s long since been gone”– are all dead. Johann shows Anne his favorite paintings and sculpture, and she reacts. “They don’t even look nude. They look proud. Like they’re not even ashamed. . . . I had a boyfriend, and I was so guilty about sexuality. Oh! This is too much information again!” He smiles, enjoying the discourse, feeling a wholeness he’s been missing. “ I had had my share of noise . . . and now I was enjoying my quiet . . . . Then I realized how much time I had been spending at home, by myself. . . . I had forgotten how much I loved Vienna. I liked seeing the city again, showing her my city.”
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Together, Johann and Anne explore the tourists’ Vienna, but since, as Johann points out, “everything must be inexpensive,” they spend just as much time in obscure parks and in his favorite cafe, watching birds congregate on wires, townspeople relax over dinner, or old men make faces that resemble the museum’s Roman statuary. On their last day together, they walk to the hills overlooking the city in search of a congregation of starlings expected to take flight in unison, but when they arrive, they find no birds and wonder if the birds have already flown. They walk for a bit, then wait and watch while the camera rests on the sweeping view of grass. Eventually, the two stroll across the frame and disappear from sight while the camera continues to wait. The grass undulates, a cloud whispers slightly to the right, and just when you think you have see all you can possibly see, a new figure walks onto the path, and you realize that there are trees there that you hadn’t noticed before. But before you can truly examine the new dimensions, the camera releases you from that image and goes to black though you are still listening to the sound of the man’s feet crossing the grassy plain. In the darkness, you don’t remember Johann, Anne or the stranger so much as specks of color on a grayish canvas, errant birds, trees and cloudy skies.

Like Johann and Anne, we who watch the film will someday discover memories of that time in Vienna imbedded in the sediment of images and textures that have accumulated. Looking back, the gesticulation of fingers will be inextricably fused to the swaying of a roomful of dancers. The sound of a breathing machine will become indistinguishable from the noise of an early morning marketplace.
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What Anne and Johann have spent their Museum Hours discovering and what they’ve shared with us is how the senses discern what the heart will remember, and their discoveries are a joy to behold. Life, like art, never reveals itself all at once. Icarus’s fall from the sky in a painting or a young woman’s pre-nuptial walk through town are mere threads in a fabulous tapestry that can be visited and re-visited without relinquishing its fascination. There will always be more there than meets the eye.

Museum Hours Trailer

Save Our Souls

My friend buried her older brother Donnie the other day.  Despite the fact that she buried her husband less than a year ago, and she’s still a young woman, my friend carried herself with stalwart grace, and only once did she lose her composure.

“He shouldn’t ‘a’ died so young.  You know?  It was his meds.  No one paid attention to his health.  They just wrote his ‘scripts and sent him on his way.  No time for assessment.  No time for monitoring.  Just move ’em in, move ’em out.  No one in the system’s interested in overseeing the whole person of a mental patient; they treat the symptoms, satisfy themselves that he won’t kill himself or anyone else, and they’re done for another six months.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.  I’m no fan of the American health care establishment, and I had had another dose of that reality the day before.

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A friend whom I’ve known for many years invited me to lunch for the first time in a very long time, and we talked, as one does with an old friend, of many random things.  Finally, after nearly three hours of catching up, I asked about his children.  He talked about one, a college freshman, and laughed with fatherly pride at the son who complained vigorously about all the extraneous displeasures of college life — the food, the noise, the weather — but seemed happy enough with his classes.  After a few uncomfortable minutes, I gathered the courage to ask about his other child.

The answers were vague, and, having had enough experience to know the signs, I sensed that all was not well.  Then I found the wherewithall to ask pointedly how the boy was.  Really.

“He must be at least nearly out of his teens by now,” I averred.  “Last time I saw him, he was so cuddly and so. . .”

“Beautiful.  He was the most beautiful child ever,” replied my friend.  Then he was quiet again.  I waited.  Then I had to ask.

“Is he in school? Working?”

“No.  He’s home.”  A long pause, some throat clearing, fingernail cleaning.  Then,  “He is schizophrenic.  And he’s terrified to leave the house.   To tell you the truth, he’s nearly twenty, and he goes nowhere.  In fact,  I haven’t had a night out since we adopted him.  We can’t leave him alone.  He’s incapable of functioning without at least one of us there. ”

Knowing that my friend’s finances are, to say the least, strained, I nodded.  “I guess you can’t hire help.”

“Ha.  That’s a laugh.  If he were developmentally challenged and needed care for retardation, we could get state help.  But for mental illness?  Nothing.  I finally got him on Medicaid, and they’re trying to take it away because I make too much money — which means I make over $7000 a year — but he’s an adult.  No insurance I could possibly afford helps with any of it; we get some breaks on meds, but . . . ” His voice trails off.  He doesn’t really want to complain.  God forbid he seem to feel entitled.

Our conversation turns to the woeful nature of the American approach to mental health.

Insurance is expensive.  And except for the premium types of coverage, few offer assistance for mental health providers, who are also expensive.   Obsessive compulsions, ADHD, anxiety are not considered sufficient reason to warrant insurance coverage, and yet sufferers can be paralyzed by the effects.   Depression and bi-polar disorder are more readily recognized as debilitating, but in order to be helped, the patient often must first be hospitalized for treatment , then marked for life as a result of a violent act against self or others.

As expensive as they are, drugs have replaced the therapist’s couch as coping mechanisms.  It’s rare, except for those for whom money is no issue, that a psychiatrist spends hours with a patient planning behaviors and exploring strategies for self-preservation.  As it was with Donnie, the psychiatrist’s main function is to write the prescription every several months; no more than a perfunctory visit from a social worker sustains the patient between visits.  The appointments with the psychiatrists take no more than 15-20 minutes, and they are basic question/answer sessions.  “How do you feel?  Any headaches or stomach difficulties?”  No examination accompanies the writing of the prescription even if, as in the case of my friend’s brother, the patient is clearly struggling physically.

Donnie, a strapping man who leanly stood 6’2″before he began taking his meds, had grown morbidly obese.  He labored to breathe, complaining of COPD symptoms and of trouble staying awake.  When he died, he was in his early fifties, and no doctor had taken the time to seek out the causes of his discomfort.  His insurance didn’t allow for more than the annual physical, and there was no alternative to the drugs that controlled the mental disease, drugs that necessarily weakened and abused his body.

The problem is not confined to mental health.  We’ve all seen the ads on television promising that if you just choose a fancy cancer treatment center, you will be cured, that drug addiction will lift away when you fly to that special island where ultimate rehab resides, and we all hope we will be lucky enough to get a transplant in the event one of our organs shuts down.  But choice of hospitals and retreats and transplants are governed by money, which is largely controlled by the extent to which insurance covers us.  When another friend needed a second kidney transplant, his wife was a willing donor, but in order to get that kidney into his body, my friend had to prove that he had the resources to see his doctors regularly and to buy his nearly $40,000 worth of medications EVERY YEAR.

But despite the fact that the problem is universal in the realm of medical care, it’s more likely that a patient who cannot get the necessary treatment for cancer or renal failure or hepatitis, etc., will die than wind up on the street unable to care for himself, a burden to his family, a weight on society’s midsection.  In some ways Donnie was lucky.  He took his meds, was fairly lucid and found some measure of happiness before he dropped dead of a massive heart attack.  The moderately ill person who is handicapped by any one of a number of disorders that render him unable to hold down a job, stick to a path, find personal satisfaction is more likely to disintegrate slowly over time, growing more anxious and depressed and lonely by the day.  She may be homeless or displaced, and she will likely be angry and frightened every day of her life. imgres-3

With financial resources that ensure freedom of choice, anyone can find a good physician for any ill.  If at once you don’t succeed, you know you can always try again.  But for those of us with limited resources, a list of providers is offered, and if no one on that list is expert in the illness for which we need care, we are simply out of luck.  Therapists abound, but a good therapist us a precious commodity, one that is too often impossible to find.

I honestly don’t understand why the masses don’t take to the streets over health care.  Every day families — middle class families, families no one would have heretofore thought of as indigent or needy — bury loved ones, children and parents alike, who should have been cured.  Women die in childbirth in this, the richest country in the world, at an alarming rate, and homeless people wander our cities where they live in misery and threaten our safety because they are not being treated for the illnesses that have disabled them.

We tolerate our own demise.imgres-1

Clash of the Titans

            You know why New Yorkers are so depressed?  (beat, beat) It’s because we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,
and (sigh) it is New Jersey. Ba-dum bum.

As an undergrad at Columbia, I worked as a receptionist in the School of Engineering.   I loved my job for two reasons: first, because I had a lot of time to do my own work while I kept watch on the front desk and fielded questions; and second, because I could listen bemusedly to the idle gossip of the students and professors who were constantly milling about the offices.

A favorite topics of discussion, and one that kept the entire entourage laughing, was the preponderance of New Jersey residents who commuted to Columbia for work and study.  Considered an inferior lot by the resident New Yorkers, they became the butt of a favorite euphism.  “No, s/he’s not dumb; s/he’s from New Jersey.”

New Yorkers and New Jerseyans have always rankled  one another.  And for good reason: we’re a lot alike.  Despite some historical divergences, we come from a nearly identical background.  The Dutch and the English — followed by at least a smattering from every other nautical country in the world  — settled in both places and created a multicultural community conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all merchants are created equal to the task of making money.  New York and New Jersey have beaches and farms and cities and quaint small towns, and their people are reputed to be abrasive, loud and insistent.

Since the 19th Century, people have chosen to live in New Jersey in order to work in New York or have chosen to work in New York because that is where the jobs are. New  Jerseyans have been subjugated to service of the big brother state as well as the city, and the citizens of NJ have had to pay two tax masters for their incomes, one in a state that offers no benefits for the money charged.  When I was young, the resentment toward my city was palpable; today it’s more subtle.

New Jersey and New York have a lot in common and a lot to compete over, and the states have had a tradition of rivalry that has, at times, been less than congenial.

I often imagine what it might be like if one day the people of New Jersey felt that New York had dominated them long enough and signed a pact to obliterate the city and its environs, replacing it with Jersey City as the Big Apple.

It wouldn’t be a difficult task to target NYC for ill.  A few well-aimed scuds or rockets, and whole sections of the city would fall before any defensive measure might be taken.  The playgrounds in lower Manhattan would easily be destroyed, and the bodies of small children would make appropriate poster photos for use in the manipulation of public opinion. In no time at all, NY would return fire, and all too soon, the children of Secaucus and Newark would be lost in heaps of flames, and their photos, too, would adorn the banners of the righteously infuriated.

Whose side would the world take?  The people on both sides of the Hudson look alike, smell alike, sound alike — most people outside the area can’t tell the difference between a New Jersey and a New York accent.   To a Californian, residents of New York and New Jersey are roses that pretty much smell the same.

You can see where this is going, and I am sure you get the drift of my parable.  I apologize, but I can’t help it that there is an obvious, albeit overly simplistic, kinship between this scenario and Israeli-Palestinians conflict.

Both New York and New Jersey were populated by people who arrived from somewhere else with nowhere else to go.  They over-ran the locals and set up shop, creating a refuge for others in a land that had once been hostile but now offered succor.

Palestinians and Israelis are in the same place because they are unwanted anywhere else.  They live in a hostile environment that needs considerable adaptation before it provides sustenance, but both peoples have learned a way to get what they want from it.  Both peoples need to live in the land called Israel, and both peoples deserve to stay and call one another equal.

What they need from the worldwide community is assistance in finding a way to make peace, to find a way to live together without killing one another’s children.  Both sides have suffered greatly, both sides need to stop fearing the other. But instead of encouraging peace,  the world seems eager to cheerlead for a war. Television and the web casts encourage us to be spectators, to take our lunches to a hill and root for one side or the other while we watch them gouge one another.  And the attention does little more than to egg the violence on.  Facebook is covered in posts about the evil Jews — why is it still okay to openly hate Jews and women? — and the bloodied Palestinian children and  with retorts reminding the world about the so-called Holocaust (as though there haven’t been numerous holocausts in the past century and its successor) and the horrors wrought against the Jews.  Antisemitic diatribe, answered by indignant defenses, fuel the fires of dissension between the peoples, and the violence simply escalates.

Whenever I pass through the Columbia campus, I am reminded of how similar today’s students are to my classmates and me back in the olden days.  Much as we were during the Viet Nam War, students are out in varying numbers, marching with placards, chanting, demonstrating.  Only there’s a marked change in the sound and feel of the presentation today.  Most of the protesters on College Walk favor the violent overthrow of the Israeli government.
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“Violence is justified,” chants one large group holding a poster bearing a Magen David (Star of David), an equal sign and a Nazi Swastika; “when the people are occupied.”  “How many babies will you allow Israel to kill?”  “How many babies will you allow Hamas to kill?” Someone answers from a shadow. The chanting gets louder, the peripheral voice is hushed.

I find myself nostalgic for the good old days of anti-war protesting on campus.  Whatever happened to “Give Peace a chance”?  Or “Stop the violence.”  “No war. Peace now.”

Where are the cheerleaders for peace?  Where is the outcry against the jihad to eradicate the Jewish people?  Where is the nonviolent pressure brought to bear toward an independent Palestinian state and the coexistence of two equally liberated, fully empowered peoples to live alongside one another . . . kinda like New Yorkers and their counterparts in New Jersey?

There’s enough vitriole out there.   No one wishes for war.  Ask a Palestinian mother what she wants, and she will reply the same way a Jewish mother will respond:”I want my children to be safe and to live in peace.”Shalom and Salaam are the same word.

Hey, neither New York nor New Jersey ever really needed to be the conqueror.

The Senior in Me

by Richard Cline, in The New Yorker

One of the many perks of aging is the license to waffle. Having reached my near dotage without a moment of wavering on the subject of crime and punishment, I find myself in a sudden state of confusion, experiencing judgments I hadn’t expected.

Here’s the thing. I live next door to a sex offender. I would feel terrible about disclosing that information to you, except that I found out on the internet. Googling googled my apartment building, I hopes of finding names of my building’s management team, I found instead, right there in the #1 placement at the top of the page, in bold blue letters, the apartment number that is right next to mine, with the name of the tenant, his photo and a list of his transgressions. I was appalled and, I have remained appalled; but, to my surprise, the reason for my astonishment has suddenly shifted.

I abhor the way our penal system treats offenders. A person unlucky enough to be caught with a baggie filled with marijuana can wind up in jail with a brutal bigot who has kicked a teenager to death because the teen was wearing pink panties. There is often no distinction made between violent crimes and victimless crimes, and jail time is jail time across the board. Of course, we all know how this plays out. Prisoners are brutalized by fellow prisoners and/or they learn the hard-core ropes from the seasoned criminals. Either way, it’s a costly, horrific system that puts money in corporate pockets and rewards only those who know how to milk it effectively.

With sex crimes, the absurdities are exacerbated by terrible inconsistencies. In many states, a man who dangles himself over the East River to urinate can get the same sentence as a man who forces his affections on an unwilling recipient. A rapist who succeeds in forcible entry is sometimes considered no more heinous than a college football game streaker. Many states have various ways of consigning sex offenders, who have done their prison time, to a lifetime of punishment, casting them into the periphery of society, offering little to no hope of ever returning to the fold of human intercourse.

Russell Banks’ gripping novel Lost Memory of Skin examines the life of a very young outcast, still a virgin but paying for having been caught in a sting operation and convicted for having solicited sex with the decoy posing as an underage girl. I used to find all this terribly confusing and troubling.
Sure, I agree that there are those who are without potential to rehabilitate. I know people who work with sex offenders in one of the twenty states in the union where released sex offenders face mandatory civil commitment, incarceration in a sequestered community, and I know how necessary the measure can be. Yet I have remained dubious about the fairness of so cruel and unusually-extended a public chastisement.

Until that day when I went online and made the discovery about my neighbor.

He’s an affable enough young man, who occasionally gets on my nerves because of his penchant for playing his heavy-bass music loudly enough to cause our mutual wall to reverberate. Married to a young woman I have known since I moved in, he has supplanted her two female roommates and her perpetually changing array of boyfriends. I have no reason to distrust him,and yet . . . .

His crime was “non-consensual sex with a 13-year-old girl.” Is there any other kind of sex with so young a child than non-consensual? In any case, he was convicted and served a sentence here in the city. Upon release from prison, he was listed on the Official NYS Sex Offender Registry, where he will remain until such time as the State decides he can be removed. The choice whether to remove him will be based on a number of factors, including but not necessarily limited to his age at first offense, his record before this conviction, the statement of the victim and the relative brutality of the forced intercourse, his demeanor and behavior after release, his adherence to the stipulations of his parole.

And to my surprise, I find myself wishing he would be kept forever on that list, that he would be sent away somewhere far away from me.

Not for myself. I have granddaughters. How can I trust that a man who would rape a 13-year-old child would ever be a safe neighbor? It’s irrational fear, at least. No one, least of all a child, would be left alone in my apartment or would be coming and going unescorted. But what about when they reach their teens? Can I honestly hope to tether them to my side when they reach the age where exploring NY without parental interference might be one of the reaons they come to visit?

Okay, I’m getting way ahead of myself. But my point is that I’m waffling. All this fear from someone who has fervently believed that all transgressions are forgivable, all perpetrators are redeemable, someone who now admits that there could be times when no contrition, no penance could possibly be enough.

It’s a nasty bit of reactionary thinking, and I hate to own it, but I do. I have a license to waffle, the plight and a perk of growing old.

Rough Flight

Most of the time during the excruciatingly long Flight, I was wishing it would finally end already. 

At first, during the distressing, taut crisis in the air, my anxiety was choking me.  Last month, flying back to the States from Thailand, I had five hours of violent turbulence, where food and silverware were flying off trays, flight crew members were sitting belted into their jump seats counting their worry beads, and elderly Asian people were defying the order to remain buckled by wandering up and down the aisles moaning.  On that flight, I reached a point where I couldn’t cope with the tension anymore, so I took a melatonin pill and passed out knowing that I’d either wake up to a restored calm or I wouldn’t wake up.  But watching Flight, I couldn’t take a pill, and it was clear that the tension was only just beginning.

My inquietude came from what I disliked about the film more than from the drama unfolding on screen, however.  To begin with, as a tremulous flyer at best, I found watching Pilot William Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) consume vodka, beer and cocaine just before flying infuriating and terrifying.  His arrogant, self-satisfied, cocksure, un-empathetic demeanor repelled me.  As much as I love Washington’s work — and he played this part with absolute aplomb — I couldn’t find anything sympathetic about this character, and while I kept waiting for an arc and an epiphany that would make me care, I never quite forgave him for being so cavalier a jet pilot.

 

It got worse as the plot thickened.  Or rather as the flimsy rubber band of a plot stretched itself and with it my suspension of disbelief.  Whitaker boards the plane like a rock star, primed and ready for his performance.  He downs some black coffee with “lots of sugar, lots of sugar” and guzzles a few hits from the oxygen supply before he wrestles wantonly with bad weather on takeoff.  Then, just as they are easing into the 35 remaining minutes of the flight from Orlando to Atlanta, something goes terribly awry, culminating in the crash of the plane.

Okay, this is where it gets sticky.  And by sticky, I mean it sticks in my craw that I can’t figure out what the film was about.  We watched the fearless pilot order his copilot to push the limits of the elevator (the piece at the rear of an airplane that controls its pitch), instruct his flight crew captain to push some manual control levers, invert the plane so it could stabilize and then glide into a field, and we saw the plane crash.

There was never a moment where we thought Whitaker was blameless.  Yet it seems as though director Robert Zemekis wants us to find him innocent.  And of course, the movie is about the investigation to ascertain whether mechanical failure or human error cost the lives of the two flight attendants and four passengers who died and destroyed the plane.

The movie lurches about long after the storm and the crash are over.  As depth of Whitaker’s alcoholism reveals itself, we get to see Washington deftly embody a truly self-destructive man.  Tamara Tunie, Kelly Reilly and Bruce Greenwood provide terrific foils, and Don Cheadle once again disappears into a role that’s clearly a lot more vivid than it was on the written page.  For added Oscar buzz, John Goodman once again steals the light from everyone else with his portrayal of Harling Mays, who could just as well have been named Walter Sobchak (Lebowski’s sidekick). But overall the film is very dissatisfying.

There is no real arc.  We see the alcoholism ebb and flow, but we don’t see for one minute any of its roots or the path of its destruction.  We know more about Nicole’s (Reilly) drug addiction than we do about Whitaker’s, and when he has his turnaround at the very end, there is no real motivation for it.  The epiphanal moment appears elusive of inducement — he has a brief moment where he cannot defame the memory of his heroic flight attendant/lover who has died saving a little boy’s life, but it’s not enough; his estranged son, his ex-wife, his friends, his career were all inconsequential, but a fleeting affair with a young woman makes him come to his senses?  Well, that’s just senseless.

Zemeckis has a great opportunity here.  He could explore the infrastructure of an industry that teeters on the brink of disaster but does nothing to seek out and clean up the source and substance of the kind of abuses this pilot flaunts.  We come to find out that everyone has known all along that Whitaker’s a lying drunk, and no one has done one blessed thing to get him to stop.  How can this be?  I want an investigation.

Alternatively, Zemeckis could explore the root of the disease Whitaker suffers.  But until the sudden turn-around at the end (oh, did I spoil this for you?  Sorry!), all we see is a man who loves being drunk, wallows in the oblivion he creates for himself but who never reveals how he got here.

In the end, though it should have been obvious from the beginning (as my friend pointed out, the damage to the elevator, which caused all the trouble, was clearly the result of Whitaker’s cowboy antics near the start of the film), the film allows that Whitaker really is guilty.  (Were we in denial right along with the whole aviation industry?) He deserves to go to jail.  And, “though it may sound strange coming from a guy in here (sweeps arms, indicating co-prisoners in an institutional meeting room), for the first time I’m free.” Hunh?

All of a sudden, as though Zemeckis realized 130 minutes into the edit that he needed an ending so he went back and shot one quickly, Whitaker admits he’s an alcoholic, becomes a devoted AA member, creates a stable relationship with Nicole and reconciles with his son Will, nicknamed Knuckles.

Flight ends with Knuckles visiting Whip in jail.  He must write his college essay, and he has chose to write about “The Most Interesting Man I Never Knew,” a.k.a., his father.  Will turns on his recording device, saying, “So, tell me Dad.  Who are you?”

Whitaker hugs the boy tearfully and answers,  “That’s a good question.”

You betcha.

Now playing http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1907668/

Shakespeare Slept Here . . . Didn’t He?

“The ‘Arden’ of the play is Ardennes of northern France, rather than a forest which once existed in Warwickshire, which may or may not have adjoined the cottage in which Anne Hathaway, who may or may not have married Shakespeare, may or may not have lived.  But bardolatry trades in certainty, not in the slippery elusiveness of documentary fact: the buildings have acted as objects of pilgrimages and shrines of worship for generations, and that in itself is an assurance of their value.”  Bardolatry: or The Cultural Materialist’s Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon, by Graham Holderness

The Daily Mail reported(http://bit.ly/UsDyPL)  last Thursday that “a tempest is brewing around the 16th Century thatched farmhouse” where Anne Hathaway was courted by her lover William Shakespeare,” that a developer has just received the go-ahead to build a housing development just 238 English Yards from the sacred home.  All around the world, the faithful watch in fear and trembling.  And with good reason.

In 1995, when I paid my first visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was, remarkably, my first trip to the UK, I was definitely a believer.  I was a faithful bardolator, an adherent to the Shakespeare Myth.  I still am.  No matter how much evidence I see that Shakespeare wasn’t any of the things we believed him to be, I remain steadfast.  He is the one True Bard, the creator of the most significant Words in the English language.

Consequently, the first time I arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon, I experienced a moment of great disappointment.

Birmingham

In all fairness, the letdown had begun in Birmingham, where my plane landed.  Bardolatry, especially for Americans is often accompanied by a hefty serving of Anglophilia, and walking across town to the train, I was fervently hoping for a Dickensian array of shops and homes. To my dismay, I’d found Birmingham surprisingly modern, clean, hip and prosperous.  Not what I’d expected at all.  Then, as my train lurched into Stratford-Upon-Avon, and my heart began to race with the excitement of being in Shakespeare’s hometown, a huge Safeway Supermarket came into view, and at that moment the conductor announced we’d arrived.  I was crestfallen.

I had earned a summer in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and I had expected to be whisked directly into the world of the Bard, to be swept into the late 16th Century, to immerse myself into that lyrical, romantic world that had engendered the richest poetry, the most fabulous drama in the English language, and here I was face-to-face with a 20th Century American icon, where hordes of cars (there was a petrol station there as well) and shopping carts conglomerated among bustling locals.  I shook my head and followed my directions from the train station into Albany Street, where I was to be billeted for the duration.

Albany Street

In Albany Street, I began to regain my equilibrium.  While I hadn’t found the Avon I had sought, I was, at least, surrounded by 19th C houses, a street straight from the pages of an illustrated Dickens, where the Old Curiosity Shoppe must surely stand.

Vicki, the woman who owned the house that was to be my home met me at the door with a great wave of excitement.  “I love these workshop summers!” She enthused. “I get to meet so many wonderful, interesting people who come here because I live in this magical place, and I get to make a profit from it too!”

She had bought her house, a Victorian construction, the year before and had put considerable effort and money into restoring it.  It was a brilliant little house, and those of us lucky enough to live there got to know both Vicki and her charming 5-year-old Eve.  She was a single mother with two grown children as well as her little one, and all three of the adults had learned to fend for themselves with the aid of their fortuitous placement in the land of Shakespeare.  Vicki took in boarders, her older daughter cooked at an inn near the Royal Shakespeare, and her son lived on a river barge and drew pen and inks of Union Canal and River Avon scenes for the visiting school marms and aspiring actors who flocked to his floating studio. 

They were typical Stratford-upon-Avon-ites, this family, inextricably linked to the notion that there was a guy named William Shakespeare, who did write the comedies, tragedies, histories and sonnets that bear his name.

So, to create a large industrial, 800-home community replete with new schools, businesses, shops and a health center, will necessarily affect the cultural materialism that has supported the people of this town since the 18th Century, when entrepreneurial actor/producer/playwright David Garrick organized the first Stratford Jubilee in 1769.

Artist Lydia Fine’s view of downtown Stratford

The towpath — also a cow path — along the Union Canal makes for miles and miles of picturesque walking

As soon as I was settled into my room at Vicki’s that first day, I wandered into the High Street, and I found myself breathless with wonder.  Slope-roofed, unevenly constructed Tudor homes, including the birthplace of John Harvard, lined the way, and on the Avon, as along the Union Canal, boats meandered lazily as though they were still mired in some magical, mystical long ago.  Over the course of that summer, I took classes in The Edward VI Grammar School, where Shakespeare learned his English, Latin, Greek, and numbers; I attended performances at every theater in the Royal Shakespeare enclave, and I drank my pints at the Dirty Duck.  I existed in the blissful fairy tale belief that I was living a life touched by my hero’s.  I was transformed, imbued with the healing power of my bardalotry, and because I was surrounded by the physical manifestations of the life he must have led, I could assure myself that the experience was authentic.

King Edward VI Grammary School actually has records of Shakespeare’s attendance here

Many of the lecturers who came to speak to us that summer were among the blasphemers, but, as James Joyce would have said, blasphemy is closer to faith than blind, indifferent adherence to a creed, and I embraced their suggestions that Shakespeare was at least a collaborator and at worst a plagiarist, working with or stealing from the likes of Thomas Middleton, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and others.  They only served to make my love grow stronger.

After all, here I was, among the houses and churches and shops and trees and bushes and flowers that were living proof that a man named Shakespeare, or something, lived her in this town, or hereabouts, and he wrote great works of everlasting glory that I could not read without weeping at the beauty of the words. Did any of the naysaying matter?  Not a twit.  So long as the physical accouterments of the place called Stratford-Upon-Avon bore witness to the achievement of the canon, the sun was in its heaven, and all’s right with the world.

Avaunt, black towers of middleclass evil.  Find another bit of land on which to establish the realm of your 21st Century business.  Leave quaint the streets of Stratford-Upon-Avon, and leave chaste the hearts of all bardolators.