"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Pink Flamingos And Other Lawn Furniture In The Time Of Corona - Enough Is Enough

It is now week 4 or 7, more or less depending on how you’re counting, or when you went Chicken Little.  Everyone is coping as best they can, some better than others.  Those families with teenagers whom they thought were out of sight out of mind but were now back, sequestered, and sheltering in place under the family roof  now understand the wisdom of sending them off to Choate, Loomis, and St. Grottlesex and let them deal with their offspring’s adolescent years. 

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One would have thought that the seriousness of Corona and its enforced shelter-in-place rules would have assured respect for the old rules of propriety, respect, and consideration - that selfishness, resentment, and hostility  would be at least be temporarily suspended; but that would be to underestimate the depth of adolescent ignorance and spite – the bitter, dismissive, angry fuck you-ness of these children who, thanks to money, high-quality childcare, top schools, and parental attention and love were not supposed to turn out like this.

So families up and down Brandywine Street, all of the same generational cohort, all of whom had children of the same age, having moved up from starter rentals in Gaithersburg or Dupont Circle to have them, now were trapped with them 24/7.  The music that banged on through the night was loud, aggressive, and painful.  The pissing matches between siblings were nasty and rude.  Food was shoveled in, eaten like pigs snorting and groveling from a trough.  “Got a problem with that?”, they said, challenging parents at their own wits’ end, desperate for this virus thing to end, knowing that they for once had the upper hand.

Old couples who had long ago learned to keep their distance to save whatever modicum of reasonableness remained in a long and boring marriage – tea parties, the gym, poker night, hanging out at the bar, bridal showers and volunteerism – found themselves tooth-by-jowl for the first time in years.  It wasn’t so much that the warts were so visible – aging was a very ugly and unpleasant process – but that marital sharing had become chafing, an irritant to what was supposed to be an easy elision down the tracks to the end of the line.  What was he doing watching a movie in the afternoon?  What was she doing hocking so loudly, long, and endlessly about nothing with her sister?

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Those in the middle – young to middling age loving couples ‘working at home’ with young children managed the best.  Love was comforting and helpful; and from their perspective would certainly carry them through this difficult time.  Their children were too young to be pests and it took little to satisfy them.  They took well to being home with Mommy and Daddy, and although they miss their buddies at school, they knew that this suspended moment was special.

But even these young couples began to lose their equanimity and sanguine patience after a month of confinement.  As the weather turned warmer, the petty disputes went outside.  The nasty little fights, usually well contained indoors, spilled out to public view. It was far too early for marriages to have cracks, but all but the most stoic of them, began to fragment in public view.

The neighbors on Brandywine Street tried to ignore the spats between the MacPhersons but after they turned nasty and recriminatory, they tuned in just as their parents had to As The World Turns.  Family feuds now that Spring had come and windows and doors were open, were a welcome relief from the misery of Corona uncertainty and isolation.  In fact, they were the only show in town, the only anodyne to shut-in, responsible social distancing.  One could sit on the front porch on Brandywine Street and watch the latest installment of ‘The MacPhersons’.  Of course it was busybody nosiness, but since everyone was doing it, intrusion and invasion of privacy became only relative terms.  Whatever soap operatic nonsense was being played out at 4936, just as much was on screen at 4940 and 4935.

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he Millers who had a house with a big, old-fashioned front porch across the street from the MacPhersons had front row seats; and like clockwork at 3 they could watch them unravel – unmasked hostility, anger, and spite.  Would they reconcile? Would tomorrow be a better day? 
There was no holier-than-thou sentiment or guilty pleasure  watching these episodes.  The Millers were in fact bursting at the seams with long-suppressed resentments which began to surface under the added pressure of Corona – her niggling, nitpicking budget obsessions; his transparently-denied girlfriends; their politics, their disgusts. The MacPhersons, had they they interest, the time, and the inclination, could have easily listened in on the Millers’ melodrama.

And so it was on Brandywine Street, a neighborhood ironically similar to Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners – a placid, law-abiding, God-fearing place on the surface, but a troubled, doubting one below.  It took death for those departed from Grover’s Corners to realize the inept ignorance of the lives they led on earth; but the neighbors of Brandywine Street were slower on the draw.  The nasty bits had nothing to do with their lives and were only provoked by the constraints of the virus.

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First there were the pink flamingos tightly gathered and grouped on the MacPhersons’ front lawn.  Then there were the carefully 6’-spaced flamingos at the Overtons, and finally the gaggle of birds all over the Pinkles’ lawn. Followed by grotto Madonnas, plaster-of-Paris deer, and plastic arbors of finches.

Pink flamingos have a number of American iconic meanings.  They were the lawn ornaments of Down Neck New Jersey Italians – kitschy additions to the cheap, aluminum-siding, pre-fab homes of the Garaffas, Petruccis, and DeLoretos of Newark. ‘Bowling played here’, ‘Bud drunk here’, one week summer vacation ‘Down the Shore’ taken here.  They by extension, were the campy, retro, counter-culture of John Waters and Divine. So what were they doing on good, Protestant, middle-class and middle-American lawns?

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None of the families who placed pink flamingos on their lawn in the time of Corona had any idea of their campy origins; but there must have been something in the plastic, overly-pink versions of the real birds which suggests ‘I’ve had it’.   Pink flamingos are the ridiculousness of hunkering down in place; scrubbing the skin off over-washed hands; extreme social distancing; and downright forgetfulness about the meaning of life and death .

The rest of the neighbors on Brandywine Street thought the pink flamingos cute, a nice diversion in the time of Corona, and ordered plastic deer, gnomes, and palm trees from Amazon; but there is no fooling with icons.  Bambi, the Seven Dwarfs, and tropical palms miss the point entirely.

Those who planted pink flamingos know something.  There is an image of Van Gogh which has gone viral.  He is shown with a Coronal mask pulled off , and the caption is ‘Fuck’.  We have had enough. We have been told too often and too much to stay at home, shelter in place, and to be good, orderly, God-fearing Americans. Van Gogh and pink flamingos say fuck you to all that.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Is This The Big One? Our Existential Overreaction To Corona

“This is the big one”, says the Tom Waits character to his wife, played by Lili Tomlin in the Robert Altman film, Short Cuts. Standing in the doorway of their trailer home, drinking the last of their Hawaiian punches (the ones with the little Japanese paper umbrellas), they kiss each other, happy to go out together, and are disappointed when the shakes subside.

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The fact that their lives might only be beginning, or need renewal, or are awaiting redemption, or even ending is incidental.

Lord Jim, the hero of Conrad’s novel of the same name surrenders to the rebel chief whom he feels he has betrayed and is killed by him, an honorable, redemptive death after years of humiliated flight and attempts and moral redemption.  Heyst, the main character in Conrad’s Victory, realizes that he has facilitated the evil that has taken over Sambouran, and commits suicide – an act not of cowardice but of courageous acknowledgement of the evil world which he had always tried to escape.  Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness lies dying without regret or fear; and he like Lord Jim and Heyst acknowledge their frailty and incompetence in an evil world.

Lord Jim (1965) - Rotten Tomatoes

Tens of thousands died at the Battle of Borodino, but are described in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as heroic.  Russian soldiers, assured of certain death as the French cannonballs landed around them, enjoy the camaraderie of the moment.  Dying in a patriotic fight among brethren was not the unhappy end of Hobbes’ short, brutal, and nasty life, but an affirmation of it.  No life was worthy of merit unless it had achieved merit, and falling in the cannonade of Borodino qualified.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king goes disguised to find out what his fighting men think of him and the battle he is waging.  The men, Henry V, are dismissive if not scornful of the king’s ambitions – personal rather than national – but they will fight on nonetheless.  Wars have always been fought so if one’s blood were not shed at Agincourt, it would be spent in Spain, Ireland, or Scotland. Death was a part of life in the early 15th century, and a military one, regardless how unnoticed it might be among thousands of others, had particular value, merit, and meaning.

In those more principled times Death was considered part of life not just its end.  Death had as much meaning as the events which preceded it.  In the Ridley Scott film, Gladiator Maximus, about to be executed by the illegitimate new Emperor's men, says to his executioner, "Give me a clean death.  A soldier's death".  He wasn't afraid of death, nor was he looking for a ceremonious or noble one, just one to satisfy his own sense of dignity, duty, and responsibility.

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The ethos of a meaningful death has been recorded in literature since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Whether tales of knighthood, battlefield valor, Biblical heroism or simply the fabulist tales of theatrical death, death was illuminated as the event of one's life, not just its unceremonious end. The life of Jesus Christ was of little importance compared to his death.

Death for most of us is an eventuality to be put off at all costs.  There is no such thing as a meaningful death, one which is an integral part of life, but an unpleasant finality, an end to things as they were, nothing more.

Of course any loss of life is regrettable, and of course defenses against the virus have to be put in place in the same manner as Kutuzov did at Borodino against the French.  The reactions of one force against the invasion of another will always be the same – bastions, avant-gardes, arriere-gardes, Maginot lines, barbed wire, and fortressed battlements – but the spirit of the troops - in this case we Americans - is different.

It is not surprising that fear and panic best describe our reaction to the Corona virus.  We will scrub, distance, mask, and shutter ourselves - in fact we will do anything and everything to keep the virus and the death it brings at bay.

While the idea of a meaningful death is long lost in history; and while the reactions to death and dying are more limited, secular, and practical; it is still surprising that given the very distinct possibility of death from Corona, there is not more spiritual reflection.  Priests and ministers are calling for social responsibility, communitarian duty, and doing the right thing; but say little about preparing for the death that awaits many.  So not only are we clinging desperately to life but are reluctant to consider or confront death.

It took Ivan Ilyich, the main character of Tolstoy’s story of the same name, a long while to realize that it was time to forget pettiness and narrow, temporal concerns and to turn to dying, death, and beyond.  Only at the moment of his death does he realize that the life he is leaving behind means nothing – not family, friends, community, or profession.  Ilyich was not so much afraid of dying, but unprepared for it.  How stupid he was, he thinks as his illness progresses, to overvalue the present and devalue the future.

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) by ...

It is perhaps too much to ask the young to reflect on life and death as Ivan Ilyich does; but not the old.

Corona is not The Big One, not an existential event nor one which signals The End of Days; but reaction to it suggests just how ill-prepared we are for it – not hospital beds, respirators, and protective masks, but a spiritual safe space from which to think about death, dying, and a possible spiritual future.

Given the existential perspective that any world crisis or pandemic affords, the 6’ social distancing, the masks,  jumpy outings to the supermarket, and most importantly the demurral at the coming of Easter, the most important event of the Christian calendar signifying rebirth and spiritual life, seem desperate and vain.

Most of us, once the epidemic crisis is over, will look back with some shame on our scurry-for-the-burrow mentality, our quick-to-escape antisocial behavior, and turning our backs on meaning. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Love In An African Coup–Surviving Quarantine In Ouagadougou

Quarantined is not exactly the right word for what happened in Ouagadougou. Interned is better, but the term has too much of an institutional feel - Japanese American civilians were interned in camps in California during World War II.  No one caught in the coup in Burkina was locked in a concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gunned soldiers nor incarcerated in a government prison.   Sequestered is not quite right either, suggesting a benign separation, like a murder jury from friends, family and reporters.

However described, Americans, British, French, and South Africans were trapped in the Hotel Independance, safe at least temporarily from the civil war being fought outside on the streets of the Burkina capital.  The rebel faction was led by a former dissident officer in the Army who had first been decommissioned, then stationed in a remote military encampment in the desert, then removed from service and exiled to Libya. From there, thanks to loyalists both in Burkina and nearby Mali, he was able to mount an armed rebellion against the military government whose commanding general was in power thanks to a coup five years earlier.   The rebels had amassed a significant armory thanks to Qaddafi – arms which were ironically bought from Western mercenary gun runners with American dollars invested during the dictator’s brief act of contrition to the West – and he turned out to be as savvy a military strategist as Sergeant Doe, the Ghanaian leader who took over power from a corrupt civilian government restored a modicum of honesty, transparency, and law.

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In any case, Lucas Bolling and Esther Thomas were members of a United Nations team to assist the government’s public health program, which because of official indifference and consequent lack of funds, was in disrepair and disarray.  Lucas was a medical facilities specialist and Esther an epidemiologist, two members of large team which also included logisticians, management experts, and public finance specialists, all of whom made it through rebel lines and back to the hotel from the various ministries where they were working.  The rebels were intent only on the overthrow of The General and his henchmen and were enough aware of international public opinion to treat foreigners well or at least with impunity.

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The Independance was the only international-class hotel in the country, but its stars and nomenclature had nothing to do with the place itself – a shabby, rundown,mosquito-ridden cavernous, 15-story depressing place – which however was the watering hole of the Burkinabe elite and the place to be seen in the capital.  The tables around the pool were filled with high-level government bureaucrats, army officers, the few private sector industrialists who managed the grain mills on the outskirts of town., and film directors from Africa’s Hollywood.  Ouagadougou had become the center for African filmmaking, drawing producers, directors, and actors from all over the continent. A Burkinabe film about rural African life had won the prestigious European Lion d’Or for ‘Best Independent Film’.

The Hotel was a lively, social place from sundown till midnight, and a buggy, hot, stifling place for the rest of night.

Once the gunfire had died down and the foreigners felt safe enough to at least come out of their rooms, they realized that the staff had fled with the first rumbling rebel tanks coming from the East.  The larder had been raided, but most of the heavier provisions – canned fish, meat, sauces, oils, and condiments from France – had been left untouched; but these were hardly enough to make a meal.

Electricity had been cut completely by the rebels who had quickly taken over the power plant, and without anyone to run and fuel the generators providing emergency power, the hotel was dark.  Worse, there was no longer any air conditioning.  Sleeping with the windows open invited swarms of malarial mosquitoes, so the hotel 'guests' tossed and turned on sweat-soaked sheets.

Lucas and Esther had never met before this UN mission, but during the weeks before the coup had become friends and then lovers.  No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service. The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Paul Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

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Brown and Martha Pineda are Graham Greene’s lovers in his book The Comedians.  Brown is the manager of an old, Victorian, grande dame of hotel in Port-au-Prince, and Martha is the wife of a South American ambassador.  Greene knew that their love affair could never happen beyond Haiti, nor could that of any two lovers outside its voodoo, charmed, romantic world. There would have been no lovemaking in the balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  Lovers danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cape Haitian; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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The lovers would never talk about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They would only share experiences from Cornwall, Vienna, or Johannesburg.  Haiti would give  their stories a common context.  Lovers’ homes would only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

Men and women have always strayed and always will.  Foreign travel is a welcome release from family, mores, and responsibility.  For the traveler on the plane to Ouagadougou, wife, children, church, and community quickly fade and disappear.  It is not that Burkina Faso – or Chad, Mali, or Nigeria – have any real promise.  All are developing, poorly-governed, and inchoate; but to the foreign traveler they represent chance, opportunity, and romance.  Insecurity, disease, heat, dust, and bad food mean little in the context of romance – not necessarily a sexual romance, but a storybook one.

Temples, sacred rivers, holy shrines, seedy hotels, surprising friendships are all part of the particular exoticism of foreign places.  If actual romance and sexual intimacy are part of the algorithm, so much the better.  Not expected, always hoped for, and prized better than any if found.

And so it was for Lucas and Esther. The coup was threatening, life in the hotel strenuous and uncertain, but sitting by the rancid, scummy pool drinking warm beer, waiting for the vampire bats to leave their roost at sundown – great black, silent things leaving en masse and returning before sunup to the same baobab tree whose branches shaded the terrace where the beer drinkers sat – dining on peanuts, pate and sardines until it was cool enough to to the room, would never be traded or forgotten. 

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Many years late Lucas was caught in the COVID-19 Corona virus pandemic and was self-quarantined with his wife in a Washington suburb.  There was little to remind him of Ouagadougou.  They had plenty of food and provisions.  He could walk in the neighborhood and shop at local markets; and although he missed the company of friends and the life of bars and restaurants, he was free.  There was no romance, no special camaraderie, or feelings of solidarity.  One managed, waited, and assumed that the worst would pass.

Being trapped at the Independance, never knowing when the violence would end or the food would run out, and sheltering in place was a different story altogether, a promising one.  Perhaps, Lucas and Esther thought, the airport might be closed for weeks, and their affair would be extended in this suspended place.  Family had already become a second thought as the moral obligations for both, never severe, had disappeared.  They would be forced to be together and never return home.

However, isn't travel only a hallucinogen, filled with insights, new perceptions about self and environment with some spiritual dimension with a renewed sense of romance but leaving the traveler with only residual memories?  Isn't travel anything more than a pleasurable high, a vacation, a welcome respite from judgment, responsibility, and concern? While the philosophical insights of Theroux, Wolfe, Nabokov, and others may be valid, is anything so temporally confined and passing of any real value?

Lucas never doubted that without Burkina, the coup, and confinement at the Independence, his affair with Esther Thomas never would have happened; and there was nothing unreal about it.

An older friend of Lucas’ who had recently had an affair with a young woman thirty years his junior had often repeated the Coleman Silk line about love with a much younger woman (Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain). “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”.  Lucas’ friend said that he would never forget that surprising gift under the Christmas tree.  The affair was indeed a hallucinogen, but no less real because of it.

There is something about finding things when confined by age, coup, or circumstance.  They are all the more surprising and delightful because of the confinement.  The COVID-19 confinement was not complete enough, threatening enough, or different enough for discovery of anything surprising.  All was all laid out simply and obviously. It was something to get through, to be recounted as an anecdote, then filed away; but the short, intense, hot, malarial affair in Ouagadougou was permanent.