February 20, 2015

Borysthene (Dnieper)

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As I crossed the Dnieper, I wondered if Putin really did have a claim to Ukraine, if, like Crimea, this river and its drainage basin were “part of the Russian fatherland,” and if so, notwithstanding, it deserved a chance to define itself anew.

I decided to find an answer based on the river system that runs through this city. I crossed the Darnyts’kyi Bridge and imagined the Sarmatians who lived here two thousand years ago; the Roman campaigns of Trajan that led his cousin, the future emperor Hadrian, to wage war in this taiga; horsemen being swept downriver around chunks of ice; heads stuck on poles; the barbarian chieftains whose language was a blend of Old Iranian, Sanskrit, and Greek, whose modern descendent is Ossetian, today spoken in the highlands of the Caucasus. Ukraine is a wild land filled with a history of virgin warrior women and koumiss, a drink of fermented mare’s milk, and breastplates made from the horse hooves.

Entering, the Vernadsky National Library I considered its imposing facade, a remnant of the stark Soviet yoke of the USSR. My research was limited to English books only, so the overwhelming number which I otherwise would have encountered was immediately reduced to a small fraction, a stack of books about waist-high.

Ukraine’s Early History

I began my research before the founding of Kiev, in the fourth century, when Constantine killed a hundred thousand Goths in his campaign in Sarmatia. The Sarmatians formed an alliance with the Romans against the Huns, and dispersed after their decisive win against Attila at Chalons, the last major battle of the Western Roman Empire. It was during this era that Kiev is said to have been founded.

Over the next few centuries a mix of Finnic, Norse, Turkic, Baltic, Slavic and Hungarian tribes lived around the Dnieper. They wore furs to defend themselves from the cold. They slept in earthen huts. They had no luxuries and their diet was without excesses. They were a hardy, rugged people, who enjoyed no bodily comforts or delicacies. They were distant subjects of the eastern Kingdom of Khazara. To the west was the Byzantine Empire, to the south the Umayyad Caliphate. From the north came the Vikings, the Varangians, who by the mid-9th century, came to rule much of Europe largely through trade.

The Vikings

The Viking Age began during Charlemagne’s Europe at a time when Christians traded fairly only with their fellows and took advantage of pagans. The Vikings’ culture strongly relied upon trade and principles of honor, and some scholars hypothesize that to experience injustice from Christians for their beliefs was reason enough to raid and pillage neighboring lands in revenge.

So came their ships, nearly a hundred feet long, rowed by scores of strongmen. Of oak, bows sealed with walrus fat, prows of fire-gilded dragon heads, scenes from Njaal’s Saga…Thud and bump, the boat has run aground in shallows. The sails are adjusted for stem to become stern as oarsmen jump into the water and pull the barque to deeper waters, splashing carelessly as they vault themselves back into rowing position…

We have relatively few records of what happened during Viking conquests in Eastern Europe compared to the conquests of France and Germany. This is due to the fact that both Vikings and Slavs were non-literate peoples. Those records we do have come from Muslims such as Ibn Rustah, an Iraqi sent on a delegation to the north in 913:

These men, tall in stature and ruddy in appearance, come ashore with onions, meat, milk and beer, and leave their boats to tie these offerings to a stake planted onshore. Here they prostrate themselves on the muddy banks and say, ‘O Lord, I have come from afar with these offerings, let these foreign peoples value my gifts and buy them without much bartering. For this I shall be grateful.’ Then he goes to market and if he does not find a ready buyer, he will return to the stake and present more gifts and offerings, saying, ‘I have brought all of these gifts in thy name, O Lord, please find me a willing trader so that I can return to my homeland with honor.’ Often trade improved and the Viking returned to his boat in the evening to sacrifice goats or cattle and distribute them as alms. The heads of these animals he staked upon poles dedicated to minor gods and the remaining carcasses he left for dogs and birds. The next morning, when the remains were gone he said, ‘My Lord is pleased with me, for he has devoured my offerings.’
Their women come with them, their fair hair tied in braids over their shoulders. They bear necklaces and rings of gold and silver, and the wealth of their men are indicated by how many rings the women have. Above all Northmen value green clay beads. Who knows why? They wear clothing that is clean and valuable, often lined with fur. They are good to their slaves, but are best to their king. He sits high upon a throne with a harem of forty beneath him and four hundred men below. These men are ready to give their lives for him. When he wants to go riding, his men bring him his horse, and when he is done he rides to his throne and makes love to his women.

From this record, a clear picture emerges of the people we know as Vikings, who came to rule over the Slavs. For them, the Dneiper was a primary trade route, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. They crossed the Euxine to arrive in Byzantium with precious amber, gold of the north, to trade in the spice markets of Constantinople.

How big they are! Their red or fair hair differentiates them from the smaller, darker natives. Like the coasts of Normandy and Sicily provided wine, the spice markets held Persian and Chinese delicacies. Also like the way they did in France, the Vikings assimilated readily into this culture, the best becoming Byzantine emperors’ bodyguards. Though they sometimes battled those with whom they traded, it was usually for control of the waters, and for tithing principles.

We don’t know exactly why, but by 880 the tribes in Kiev refused to pay tribute to the Varangian Rus, driving them back across the sea, seeking to govern themselves. Soon thereafter, civil war erupted. The tribes’ internecine rivalries were insurmountable. Soon they sought intercession from their former rulers. It was then that Rurik came to Novgorod, initiating his eponymous dynasty. His successor Oleg moved the Slavic capital to the more strategic position of Kiev to better protect his kingdom from Khazar raids.

The Rise of Vladimir

Alliances between Kievan Rus, Byzantines and Khazars shifted constantly. At this time, the Khazars’ power was waning, despite the tributes they exacted as dominant power in the east. Their culture was very diverse, composed of Turkic nomads, Jews, Christians, Muslims and pagans. For about three hundred years they had control over the area once known as Scythia, between the Caspian and Black Seas, extending north into the Urals. The Khazars must have feared the Rus people for their raids, especially after the Rus pillaged the Muslims of the Volga. That river too was an important artery, leading the Vikings all the way to Baghdad. But when the Khazars prevented the Rus from sailing down the Volga, they effectively declared war.

In the 940s Byzantium was also at war with the Khazars, at the same time seeking an entente with the Rus people of the north. Rurik’s descendent, Sviatoslav I, battered the Khazar Crimean fortresses of Sarkel and Tamatarkha. By 968, he had sacked the Khazar capital, Atil.

Sviatoslav remained faithful to the Slavic pantheon—copper-bearded Perun, whose hammer always returned to him no matter how many evil spirits he threw it at, seemed a stronger divinity than the merciful Christ-figure. What sort of god was that for a warrior?

Sviatoslav headed east to fight the Bulgars next, but was killed. His son Yaropolk inherited the throne. Yaropolk had one natural brother, who he slew immediately after finding out his father’s death, and Vladimir, an illegitimate half-brother through Sviatoslav’s housemaid Malusha. Legend has it that she was a prophetess who was born in a cave and lived to be a hundred. Vladimir knew that if his brother Yaropolk found him, he would have him beheaded, so he fled to Scandinavia, where he stayed with his distant relation, the king of Sweden. In secret he planned a return to Kiev to reclaim the throne from his evil brother.

Years passed. When Vladimir returned, he was accompanied by Varingian mercenaries, who he had ask Yaropolk for a private meeting between himself as Prince of Sweden, and the King of Kievan Rus. Yaropolk flatly refused.

The next day, Vladimir wore his mercenaries’ costume and led them to Yaropolk bearing a message. As soon as his brother unfurled the paper, the mercenaries attacked Yaropolk’s guards and he revealed himself, stabbing his brother.

Christianization of the Rus People

At this time, Anatolia rose up against Emperor Basil II of Constantinople. For help, he turned to the King of Rus, whose territory stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and the Vistula to the Volga. Vladimir knew what an alliance with Byzantium would yield, but he knew also that to make a true alliance he would have to convert to the Emperor’s religion.

Vladimir was a devout pagan. He erected statues of thunder-god Perun and kept eight hundred concubines. Most of his people followed his decrees, though Christianity was on the rise. When a mob killed two Christians for disrespecting their idols, Vladimir sent his boyars abroad to survey the religions of the world. When they returned they told him about the Muslim Bulgars and their prohibitions against alcohol, which Vladimir rejected, knowing that he could not prevent his people from giving into one of life’s greatest joys. They told him of the Jews from fallen Khazar and Jerusalem. Vladimir replied that their God must have deserted them if they could not even control their ancient capital. “But the Christians,” one of the boyars said, “have Hagia Sophia, and in it are all the mysteries of the world. I thought I was in heaven on earth when I saw this temple, such that now I have not even the words to describe it.”

Upon hearing this, Vladimir pledged the Byzantines six thousand men and assured the emperor that he would take on his religion on the condition that Basil II offer the hand of his sister. The Byzantines considered all northerners barbarians. It was unheard of for an imperial marriage to one of these tribes. Yet Basil II knew that he needed help and so he begged his sister to go, assuring her that she would be rewarded.

When Anna crossed the Black Sea, Vladimir met her in the Crimea for his baptism and marriage. Upon his return to Kiev, Vladimir exhorted all of his citizens, rich and poor, to bathe in the Dnieper and become Christians. Following this mass baptism, he hacked to pieces the statues of Perun and the other Slavic dieties, which he had erected a decade before, throwing them into the river and formally beginning the Christian era of the Slavic people.

It was another hundred years until the founding of Moscow.

I was distracted by a loudspeaker call that the library was closing. I decided to end my studies here, before I became overburdened with information, unable to digest what I had learned. I decided to return to the library tomorrow, to learn more about the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Mongol yoke, and the territorial gains that led to Peter’s Russian Empire.

As I stepped outside, it was already dark. My seventh day in Ukraine was concluded, and in a sudden change of heart, I decided not to return to the library tomorrow, but to leave Kiev and proceed east. It seemed that the Slavs owed much to the Germanic Vikings who ruled them in the ninth century, and as I crossed that wide river again, this time to return to my hotel for the night, I felt justified in knowing that Putin’s fatherland did not have a historical claim to the Dnieper, that if anything, the Dnieper had a historical claim on Putin.

January 27, 2015

Fee Simple Absolute

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Past

The sky was mauve and the snow glowed neon, little flurries bouncing through the air toward my window like flies and I, entranced by the scene, alone, was reluctant to sleep. I wanted to catch the purple sky and orange snow. It was like a sunset I didn’t want to miss, but I had to that day we walked along the littoranea on the black sands along the Gulf of Naples. The women were going back to the house because it was cold and as we crossed over the railroad tracks I turned on the overpass to glimpse the sinking sun but a structure blocked my view. Dejected until I remembered we could see it from the roof, I ran up the hill to the villa but it was too late when I arrived, alone; the sun had sunk and all that was left was the descending dusk and I, downcast, returned to the apartment with its cold tile floor in mid-evening of the December gloaming. But that night I came home late, bibulous and young, with work in the morning, I kneeled on my bed, wanting to mentally photograph the view.

Present

Days I stay in without leaving my office, a couch and coffee table, where like a Bond villain in miniature I sit surrounded by screens, my books make me feel like a hermit or a writer. They lie stacked on the coffee table, naked and ruffled, while I, proud and in want of a shower, scratch myself, disgustingly male. I gauge my time and plan it around meals, anticipating my body like a flower in spring. I think of swans and reject myself or give in, standing with juice in my hand on the way to the shower, wondering why I prefer a fake bird to a real girl. It all seems malignant, or at least when it does, I give up. The object of my focus is grander than can be accomplished in a few sittings, and when it is not, it is usually money, which I try to speed to, or distraction, a subconscious peril. The biggest objects in my life are a title Helvetica, big Helvetica letters. Or waterfalls and bus rides, which do not appeal to me less the older I get, though some say they should.

Future

Later, I try not to bad mouth, though I seek solidarity. This is human, I tell myself, and I try to move the conversation into the realm of ideas. This works best under the influence of caffeine. A friend tells me about Arthur Cravan, who once filled a hall by telling people he was going to commit suicide. When the time came he entered the stage in a jockstrap and uncoiled his great manhood and called the audience sick bastards. I wonder if it takes a great manhood to do great things, or if those with excessive dick have excessive pride. Henry Miller had six inches. Perhaps he is overrated, I consider. We move to talk of others and my friend tells me that Gide’s work, not that he’s read it, has not stood the test of time. I wonder if it’s because he turned down Proust. I vow to read The Guermantes soon.

January 2, 2015

On Art in Rome

In the same way we define the beginning of the modern era with the work of Shakespeare and Cervantes, in hundreds of years from now future humans will describe the modern era as beginning with the 20th century. This era, defined by a modernist self-consciousness, led to revolutionary artwork and two wars that changed history. It is this self-consciousness that separates humans from the beasts, as anyone knows who has ever watched a dog stand in front of a mirror.

The World’s Greatest Painter?

Antecedent to modernist painting, which can be traced from Picasso and Matisse to Renoir and Cezanne, the greatest painters in the history of the world are Rafael and Velasquez. If there is any portrait greater than Pope Innocent X’s, it is the one that hangs in the Met, of Juan de Pareja. No one managed to capture the reality of a soul like Velasquez, though Rafael perhaps had a greater ability for composition, and Rembrandt for texture. Bacon also recognized this when he made his study for Screaming Popes (above), and the Pope himself knew it too when he was supposed to have said, “E troppo vero!,” upon seeing his portrait for the first time.

Considering architecture, surely one of the greatest feats in the world’s history is the Pantheon. Its long history of holiness and admiration, especially for being built at a time when feats as unprecedented as a nine meter oculus were hitherto unexplored, must place it near the top of the list of architectural masterworks.

Moving from the Galeria Doria Pamphilij we wandered away from the Via del Corso to the Pantheon, and before we arrived, entered into the church of St. Maria supra Minerva. Seeing two of the world’s masterworks in different realms of art in the same day is rarely possible, except in Rome, Florence or Paris. In these cities, it is a matter of which works you want to include in your list, since the Italian capital has an extra thousand years of history than the French or the Tuscan.

Stumbling upon a Michelangelo

In Rome, discovering the great masterworks of human civilization is as common as discovering hidden back alleys in New York or Rio de Janeiro. In some cases, the joys of discovering new works can be almost tiresome, in the same way remaining lost while exploring a new neighborhood can be exhausting. So by finding Michelangelo’s Cristo della Minerva followed by a series of Berninis, before entering the Pantheon, nearly destroyed me. A rush of guilt passed over me for thinking, “Another Bernini?” as I walked down the right aisle of the church past another tomb of marble as smooth as mozzarella.

Losing myself on the Aventine Hill

By mid-afternoon I was eager to lose myself in a simpler plane of joy. We walked up the Via di Santa Sabina and down the backside of the Aventine Hill, trying in vain to find the neighborhood of Monti, which we’d overshot considerably, though I didn’t know that yet since I didn’t have a map. No one else knew it either, since everyone I asked for directions was a tourist. Walking down Via Sant Albergo Magno, not knowing where we’d pop out, yet content for this very reason, feeling the sun beat on my cheeks and hearing the wind in the cypresses, I was satisfied and I didn’t care if I found Monti or not, this was enough.

Discovering the focused intensity of a masterpiece is a more transcendent pleasure than uncovering the beauty of an empty backstreet. Sometimes the traveler craves the equally, more basally gratifying, loss of oneself in the honest simplicity of sunshine and unfamiliar trees, and not knowing where the city will spit you out. Swinging my arms, I crossed the back of the ancient hill and participated in a joy not unknown to many travelers: that of trusting a city like I trust myself, to lead me an unknown destiny.

December 13, 2014

Inherent Vice: An Anti-Review

Inherent Vice3-20130605-57Coming out of ‘Inherent Vice’, I heard a couple of goobers trying to decipher exactly where the FBI fit in in the labyrinthine plot. They were missing the point.

Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the greatest working American auteur (though we’ll have to see what Twin Peaks 2015 has to say about that) thanks to the melancholy ambiguity that pervades his films, from Boogie Nights to The Master, whose characters are all searching for something they’re not quite sure they want to find, but wind up realizing that the journey itself is good enough– simply because it has to be. Beautiful shots make us feel like we’re watching sunset after sunrise and that it’s pointless to try to figure out the plot—-as with most really great art, you’re not going to understand everything; the best way to appreciate it is to let it all wash over you.

Pynchon’s books are worth reading for this very reason. His numerous subplots and idiosyncratic names often leave the reader befuddled. The best way to understand them is to try to understand what we’re doing, not where we’re going. Those moments in the film where Joaquin Phoenix’s character wonders about forces of evil participating in some karmic trajectory against those who stand for good in the world–those questions are left unanswered. That’s the point. You’re not supposed to understand all the connections between characters, you’re supposed to understand that sometimes there aren’t connections, that we live in a chaotic world of evil and pleasure and people who don’t want to hurt others and those who do and sometimes it’s good (Doc) against evil (The Golden Fang) and sometimes it’s good against less-good (Bigfoot) and sometimes it’s good saving good-turned-evil (Shasta).

Sure it’s a little long, but with an amazing cast along for an ambitious and beautifully-acted, beautifully-adapted, often hilariously funny film, I’d say it’s well worth it. Just don’t hold it up against other movies this Oscar season without remembering that it’s based on a Pynchon book, and that Anderson is working in the same mold as this great American writer. He’s working as an artist.

November 18, 2014

Heavy Water

The inside of a room with canvas on the walls and Christmas lights around the ceiling is where I feel most at home. Tough, it was tough to leave this room, which resembled the inside of a heart, with its red carpet, and yet I was determined to go outside, despite the plopping rain. It is good to walk, he used to say, when he loved me, and so to prove him wrong I opened my umbrella and left the heart-room.

I am always telling places by their trash and I was glad to see a plastic bottle outside my room, beside the tree. I wanted to curry the landlord, to open my lungs to him. I bore him love. I wanted to say something but there was no one to talk to, so I walked up the hill and onward to a place I had in my mind. I hated this place so I had no idea why I wanted to go, perhaps because it was raining and it was close. I hated the music and their victuals. That was enough, though everything else was fine. I understood that people were working and I was not. I wanted to undress before the men who watched me, to prove to them that I was not working. Everywhere I looked was water. The water was heavy, it had two hydrogens, and I became invisible. Yolks spilled across the sidewalk, in them water. The place loomed closer and I took the shortest way between two points, lights of a truck flared on my jacket. I might have increased my pace.

The windows were clear and people were inside, orange caps and Russian accents and shiny faces. They were alive enough and my sleeve was wet. I was non-traditional in a traditional way and my face became different. This room was a lodge, like a blood vessel in the tip of my finger. I screamed with every step I took. I pontificated to those around me, silently. I wound up tighter, and finally let loose. Those behind me hemorrhaged and died, leaving me alone. A single sultan remained, screaming in my ear. I endured.

I endured until I could take it no more. I left, cursing the world, wishing that I could swim. I was misrepresented. I took it as far as I could, as fast as I could. A hunger penetrated me and I saw that through the rain, people were changing. Lights flashed and I returned to my harbor.

Jacobeans swilled. I dined. I slowed my breath and whispered that it was fatidic, this day. It was a compensation, recompense. I became very small and quietly the world forgot.

October 28, 2014

How to be Content

1. The Beginning of Discontent

There comes a time in the evening, after nine or ten o’clock, when I cannot force myself to do any more “work” for the day. I have read my quota, and written for about the same amount of time; if it is a good day, I have written more than I have read. Some days are bad, where I can write only meaningless drivel, just for the sake of filling a page. These are days when I cannot force myself to work on my various projects, the dilemma I face being not enough “into” them, so that if I tried to edit or worse, to write, I will wind up having pouring that meaningless drivel into my work, thereby contaminating it. The problem is that this is the only work I am capable of doing at this time of night, having long since emptied out the contents of my soul during the course of the day, so I make certain corrections, or add words that only wind up being cut later, or I find myself in a state of paralysis of knowing that I should be working, but unable to work at all. I always have so much work to do that my situation leads me to deep guilt for not desiring to work, for not being as dedicated as other writers. Or I will open a document and scan it or read the first paragraph and find myself either satisfied or totally disgusted to the point of being unable to add or change anything, and these two feelings, while opposites, compose reverse sides of the same coin, neither become too powerful, taken together or one at a time, they coat my guilt in a veneer of paralysis. At this point I look for Genna, listening for the click of her typing; if she is writing, her doing so will fan the flames of my not-writing guilt, and I will try to do something else, thinking all the time as to how I should be writing.

2. The Extremes Defined

The reason I have described my work is that it is analogous to my life. I alternate between phases of extreme monotony, evenings such as the one described above, for example, and total deviancy, where given the chance I will spend the early morning dancing and singing and drinking and smoking, and although this is bad for my health, it is good for my spirit. What is really at stake here is the distance between myself and my self. My self, the self, in fact, is a very fragile thing, which can be disturbed and colored by new experiences, which, once understood, can be valued for their newness; there is also the monotony of routine which further engrains one in a set state of selfhood. Do you follow me?

3. Where Extremes Come From

In other words, there are these two extremes in my life. Always I have been a writer of extremes, probably due to my parents, who, if you have ever met them you would wonder how they could have possibly been together, though now, upon reflection, upon my desire to describe them to you, it is impossible to describe them without making them sound alike, but perhaps it is best represented by the fact that my mother is the dancer, singer, drinker, and my father is the editor, the reader, the student. These two extremes are my existence, I have no choice but to embrace them; if I chose one I would die from either suicide or exhaustion, and I think you can figure out which way of life would cause the corresponding way of death.

4. The Faux Comfort of Materialism

The other night I came home at two in the morning and thought to myself, my god how bourgeois my life is! I have a steel colander, an unfinished bottle of red wine, and various pieces of Ikea furniture. Look at me! Look at this path of normalcy, and I laughed to think at the guise I was showing to the world and myself. I don’t need ANY of this shit, I thought, as I proceeded to drain the red wine into a crystal glass from West Elm.

5. Knowing Less Now Than Then

These books I read, these examples through history prove to me that humanity has become worse off as we gain a longer history. Like this girl I knew in a writing class. She was pretty, blue Asiatic eyes, fair skin and thin wrists, Brazilian by descent, meaning that she spoke perfect English. She was thirty-one, she had a literary agent and she seemed to have no understanding of what she wanted out of life; she was trying to break into advertising though she had no experience, and despite her having an agent, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to write a novel; she was single, having broken up with her former love who gave her a baby she aborted, she confessed that when she was my age, she thought that she knew things about life, but over the next few years, her experience and emerging apathy made her realize that she knew less at thirty than she did at twenty-five. I pitied her for wanting to start a new career and not following through with the novel she was supposed to be writing, according to her agent. I told myself to never be in that position of knowing less now than I did then, but sure enough, here I am, approaching a self where a state of pure comfort is repulsive to me at times, because this comfort I equate with warm indolence and letting life continue the way it did before you were born without adding anything to the world, which is really the point of life, after all, to change the world as much as we possibly can through a manifestation of our willpower and love. Yet the notion of renunciation is so drastic, so large and looming that I can only find myself stuck in this position in the middle of these two feelings, trying to enjoy my spaghetti bolognese and “friends” who “grab a drink” with me to help me mask how totally and furiously alone I am, and yet at times I wish I could be even lonelier. The thing is, if I actually were, and here is where I become actually maybe a little sick, or entirely normal, which are really the same thing depending on my mindset and concept of self, if I were totally alone, I would want exactly what I had given up, a different variation, of course, a different neighborhood with a different girl and a different different. Rather than occur these changes, I settle into contentment, which is actually a state of approximate happiness.

6. Being Content and Settling

Being content is one way to live a life of extremes. You can be happy at moments in a state of contentedness, but until the moment comes when you have to choose one extreme and still not want the other or want to sample the other in your imagination or in moments of freedom, oscillating wildly between these two poles, until that moment comes, you will not be truly happy.

Another way to escape being content and to reach happiness is to renounce one life, one state of approximate happiness, for another that’s totally different, a la Gauguin in Tahiti, so that even if it’s not better than the life you left, the state of knowing that is enough to produce an approximation of wisdom, which is a higher level of happiness-approximation than contentedness. And then, of course, there is the other option for dealing with extremes and being content; it is that most final option, which, personally I don’t think is worth pursuing unless you have already done something with your life that is a manifestation of supreme willpower and love. If you haven’t, then you have to put up with being content, which, let’s face it, most people don’t mind, and perhaps isn’t that bad at all.

October 5, 2014

…Where I Settle Into Derangement

Yesterday I was in a cafe where a woman I went to college with was sitting across the room from me, the girl I named the female antagonist in my book after.

I wondered if I would talk to her; she clearly remembered me because she looked up at me and when I was seated she walked across the cafe to obtain the key from the counter, making sure that I saw her as she proceeded to walk to the bathroom without wearing a bra and shit, which is what she must have done since it took her so long to come back and sit down again to draw; unless, of course, she spent the time after she pissed fixing her hair and reapplying her makeup, though, no, she didn’t bring a bag with her, and unless she had pocket makeup she didn’t fix herself up, she’s not that kind of person anyway, the kind of person being that kind who wants to impress a former courtier seven years after the fact; rather, she’s the kind who would rub off her makeup to lessen that former courtier’s desire, to show simply that she could care less about said courtier; but what’s strangest about this scenario, an actual reason I didn’t talk to her, was that it might have been her twin sister, with whom I never had any relationship, but whom I knew from around campus, though that was really just a pragmatic reason that I told myself took precedence on the list of reasons for not wanting to talk to her, whereas in reality, the real reason was that if I didn’t say hello, I would be better able to retain the fantasy of my approaching her, including what I might have said, whether I might make a faux pas, stutter, or otherwise display my anxiety.

It might have gone something like this: “Hey,” pause for her to look up and acknowledge what I had brought to be bear; namely, that I, who courted her when we were sophomores in college, who helped her get her an A on our science project, who sent her a friend request and had to wait days for her to respond despite the fact that I’d seen her in class that week, am now also living in Bushwick, that I’ve been living her for years in fact, which I’d imply with my casual familiarity, that ‘you come here often’ look I’d give her with my eyebrows slightly raised, eyelids heavy with disdain, to which she would reply with a half-smile of noncommittal intrigue, “Hey.”

I’d counter, “Is your name Lexi,” to show both that it’s been so long that her breasts have begun to sag and that I may not remember her name, and also, that I knew she had a sister, and that her value as a human was easily confused with her identical twin, making her thereby less of an individual, and less important to me, but unblinking, she’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and smile, because she’d appreciate my coming to see her from across the cafe, and I’d slide onto the leather stool across from her, having received that confirmation, only to realize that it might have been better to keep standing because by now her mouth is pursed like spoiled fruit and I felt an overwhelming pressure to begin, to say something that wouldn’t bore her, to define the purpose of my arriving here and sitting across from her, to show what exactly?—that I recognized her, surely more, surely it must be a relic of a former infatuation if I’m sitting down, since we were almost friends, since that day we walked to Broome Street together and smoked Marlboro 27s and I felt extraordinarily cool and attractive for walking next to her as though I might be her boyfriend, since that was something at least, at least until I told her I didn’t know who Animal Collective was, thereby undoing every coolness that I’d built up to that point. Since that had happened however, so long ago, she would know that by my being here again, sitting across from her, that all the power was in her court, that I after all, was the one to show up at her table to probably try to flirt, which she would be slightly displeased by, and so, sensing this, I would say, you live around here and she’d say, yeah, and I’d press, where, and she’d give the cross-streets of a place nearby, a place I wouldn’t have expected her to live, but which would be sufficient to, or better than my own apartment simply based on location, which I would obligingly reveal the location of and try to smile at, to show her that I was by no means proud but modest, but she would continue to be unimpressed, and to not even be concerned with what I thought of her apartment because all that mattered was that she be comfortable in her dwelling, which she would convey in how she brushed hair back from her ear and looked away so I could see her sublime chin and throat, before sensing that she was crushing me when she turned back to look me directly in the eyes, and then, being aware of being boring, I would walk away, preceded by a goodbye and a ‘see you around’ thrown in casually but bearing a trace of libido, further confirming her opinion of me as pathetic, demonstrated by a vague silence in the cafe before me as I return to my seat, and everyone around gained the understanding that this beautiful girl, though in decline, was warding off yet another suitor, and that I, sexually frustrated and dressed all in black to hide an emerging potbelly, was batting way out of my league with that approach; yet I, full of confidence in the past that we had shared, I would return to my seat and open my book, read half a page pretending to have comprehended it fast and proficiently while in reality having understood absolutely nothing, and while I returned to the top of the page to take in what I had missed, the color in my face would rise in embarrassment for having been proud and it would take another few minutes for me to settle into my groove, to feel comfortable about how things had turned out, for being happy that I was brave enough to approach her, even though she hadn’t been exactly nice, friendly sure, but not exactly nice, and recalling this as a capstone in my career with this girl, I would forget about her and resume my ‘work’.

And the joy of writing that, wasn’t that better than ACTUALLY talking to her and seeing what might have happened? Because in reality I just sat there, going about my ‘work’ and throwing a casual glance in her direction to admire her sublime chin, until finally on a whim, having felt like I’d been there too long, and also out of response to the hunger pains in my stomach, I abruptly closed my iPad, sending my former classmate a mental message that if she did live around here, I would invariably see her again, that being the nature of Bushwick, and continued to walk cooly into the descending evening, the sun still warm as it moved behind the buildings at the end of the long industrial road, helping me feel like I deserved a treat, so I bought some Thuycidides and a Kombucha before coming home and settling into a long evening of quiet domesticity and frenzied confusion, self-doubt, and occasional self-loathing.

September 30, 2014

Last Night I Was Nebuchadnezzar

I, Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabopolassar, have conquered lands far and wide, from the Great Sea in the West to the Gulf in the east, from Nineveh in the North to Ur in the South, along both Tigris and Euphrates, but of all my cities, my favorite is Babylon. I have built the Hanging Gardens as a testament of love for my wife, to remind her of the forests of Media and the mountains of Elburz, where during the winter, snows cover the peaks and the wind breathes its secrets; with the help of eight hundred Parthians, we brought her native plants to the banks of our river and built giant ziggurats one hundred cubits high, and running water from the aqueducts and reservoirs comes cool and quenching for the forested plants in the midsummer heat, running to these Gardens I have built not only for Amytis but also for all of mankind to see and worship, that I, Nebuchadnezzar, can bring water to the driest places in our land at any time of year; these, my gardens, my gates, my city, demonstrate my greatness to eternity so that in thousands of years, when cities across the sea become capitals of the world, and my empire has perished into dust, these Ishtar gates will remain as a symbol of my power; let the world remember Nebuchadnezzar as a man who gave to his people memorials of strength and beauty, who brought unity to Assyria and Babylonia and created one of the greatest empires the world has ever known; who, with the help of the gods, has brought cool waters and shady palms to stifle the summer heat, stone bridges to withstand the river’s floods, and objects of great and wondrous beauty to admire and fill man with awe; these accomplishments are testament to my greatness, this, my kingdom, the greatest ever to exist in the history of mankind, greater than Assyria or the Media, encompassing Hittites and Egyptians, Cimmerians and Israelites, yes my Babylonia is the product of thousands slaughtered for the sake of a unified kingdom.

Only one is greater than I, Nebuchadnezzar, who striketh and taketh away without concern for the empires of the world, that G—d who preserved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego against my will, the G—d of Daniel; only He decides when my empire shall fall, long after I am dead; after my name has lasted a thousand times longer than my enemies; and yet this: when Marduk entered my soul to cast judgment on those I have conquered, to destroy and rebuild what I deem worthy, where was G—d of the Israelites then?—for when I was a youth riding into Judah, where I saw the walls of Jerusalem and the glowing dome of their temple dedicated to their god above gods, and yet was I still in youth, and the fall of many lands to my dominion had not yet passed, methought the forested city atop the hills should prove difficult to my forces, but with my army we did march through the gates, laying seige to the highest towers and conquering their holy temple—then where was G—d?—Marduk was stronger in me than in the Israelites, Marduk stronger than G—d, and since, I too have wondered if G—d is Marduk, for making me grow the talons of an eagle and the coat of an ox as a punishment for my arrogance and so I, Nebuchadnezzar become meek, as a great conqueror and yet also ever subject to myself; G—d punished the Israelites for their own arrogance when I razed the Temple of Solomon; and G—d was punishing me with insanity for my arrogance; surely, this is the judgment of Marduk for being stronger in me than in the Israelites, for while Daniel and his people pray to G—d, they are not I, and rule not in Babylonia, and while Daniel the Israelite has the power of G—d in his reading of dreams, and yet though the gods are in him, I wonder for whom they are greater, since he is the one to guide me, Nebuchadnezzar, builder of Babylon; wait, no, let not the insanity return, I am beneath Daniel, an ox while he remains a man with reason; and for G—d to make me a slave, then surely he must be powerful; since he rules regions farther than my own; beyond the stretches of my river, to the mountains in the north, the mounts Amytis called home, beyond, to the farthest regions of Scythia, and beyond, across the Great Sea, the city-states of the Greeks and the reaches of Etruria, and when I consider how vast His empire is…yet I know that should I attempt more, I, a hoary-headed old man, should lose control of Assyria, where always there are those rapacious generals of Nineveh, willing to stab an old friend to take his rank, fools who would sell their children into slavery for a plate of gold; and before dawn, when death’s cousin has left me, Marduk will enter my mind and bring me to those lands of afar; and G—d reminds me that my son is weak of constitution and I cannot trust my generals to go west, for to reserve my son in Babylonia would be to show his weakness and end his life sooner than it will end of itself; and again, I hear the voice of Daniel telling me to keep my empire intact, for in that there is consolation, and evil happenings shall not come to pass; ends of empires and beginnings of new nations shall come when I am gone, and until then, let the hovels that line my river where the Israelites live fall away, let the creepers and vines growing with the water of their tears turn to wild jungle, golden flowers and trees, let my statues of idols and gods decay along the shore, towers and mausoleums crumble, so that the legend of my godliness rises as the towers fall; when, before the dawn I gaze into the darkness of the river, still and quiet before the rooster crows, then I know that my gardens foretell this; in my towers too I see conquests and death, empire in decline; if only I knew how mine empire should end, whether I have built it strong enough to last a hundred foolish kings, or whether my son and his line will preserve and protect it for hundreds of years; if I knew, then I should know that it is I Nebuchadnezzar who am above Daniel; and yet, by the time the cool night has changed for the heat of the rising sun, I am in the face of the king of gods, G—d, Marduk, whose everlasting dominion shall outlive even mine own.

August 30, 2014

How I Learned to Play Stickball

Before we moved we stayed with my grandfather for a few days in the Bronx. I can’t remember if we had already sold our house or our new house wasn’t ready, or they had to truck our cars across the country and this had something to do with it. But Papa Doon’s house was never very comfortable for me. The brown carpet in the hall had been almost worn threadbare and the phone was one of those where you put your finger in the ring and move it to the number you want to dial and then it slides back to zero. And he didn’t have cable. Which to me always symbolized a certain poverty that my family would never deal with, even though we used to not even have a couch, just a mattress we were so poor.

It was June and it got dark late so that after my last days of school Mom picked me up and we drove twenty minutes to the Bronx and I had all afternoon to do my homework, even though in that last month of school, after all the standardized tests, there was very little to do. I had most of the afternoon to myself. I was at the age where although this wasn’t my neighborhood, I could go out and play without needing a time back. So I wandered outside and passed a school. In the concrete yard the local kids were playing stickball.

I loved baseball at this time of my life. More than anything. And even to a Westchester kid like me, who’d lived for years in South Brooklyn, stickball had a certain romanticism to it; it was what they played in Hey Arnold!, a real city kid game, not the open-field catch of the suburbs.

I lingered, watching at the chain-link fence. I lacked social confidence since I’d recently become a pariah after trying to fight my old best friend. I’d cried after the teacher broke it up before anything could happen, that day I tried to jump him in the hall after lunch when I’d finally had too much. I told the principal that he’d been making fun of me for months, even though I was the one to end our friendship earlier the year before because I was jealous that a girl I had a crush on liked him better. I spent ten minutes in the bathroom, looking at my swollen eyes in the mirror, wishing it weren’t so obvious I’d been crying. After that, the ten minutes of homeroom that started every day were agony. No one talked to me. Girls would grimace if I sat at their table. I was a loser, and even my clothes—oversized baggy pants instead of the flared too-expensive JNCOs, a FUBU parka that gave me some street cred but didn’t make up for my lack of AND1 tees—insisted that I was not going to fit in. So I wasn’t expecting anything except a moment of yearning as I admired these Bronx kids play in their own standards.

But they saw me watching and invited me in. And I played. Not only that, but I got a hit. I, notorious for striking out in Little League, a K waiting to happen sometimes three times a game, used a skinnier bat than the ones I was used to to hit an even smaller ball. I slammed a double. The joy of meeting these city kids playing a bygone game in an era when most of the Westchester kids who used to be my friends were playing basketball, this was not lost on me. It seemed like a parting gift from New York before I left for another coast, a place of loggers and rain and bigness. For that hour I played with those strangers, they didn’t know about my scenes of frustration or my trying to be cool, and I was good.

I went back before dark. I ran home for dinner and told my mom what happened, that I’d made friends, had been invited to play this anachronistic game from her era. She must have known how great I felt, especially after seeing me so pathetic for so many months. We ate macaroni salad and pizza from Katonah Ave. and the purple dusk fell. One of those midsummer, nine o’clock sunsets in the dirty linoleum kitchen. That night, as I fell asleep on the scratchy sheets, I knew that everything I was leaving behind dind’t matter any more and that pretty soon, I’d have new chances, new friends, and a new life.

August 27, 2014

My 50 Best Films of All Time

This best films of all time listing started when I was 14, and I discovered the AFI 100 Years, 100 Films List. I spent most of my summer watching movies and at the end, my best friend and I tried to create a top ten, but my viewing and experience was so narrow that I couldn’t stand by and believe in my criteria (however, I still feel like I haven’t seen as many important films as I could, so feel free to recommend any egregious oversights in the comments below).

Last week, at Armando’s, he showed us his list, which he’d created with his best friend, and a dozen years later, I was prompted to re-attempt a definitive list of the best films of all time. These are in order and largely based on first and foremost, respect for auteurs who directed, produced and wrote their films. I also accounted for the excellence of the auteur’s complete oeuvre.

In my opinion, Kubrick, Kurosawa and Hitchcock are the greatest directors of all time, though Fellini, Coppola and Godard also figure prominently on this list. I also surveyed a movie’s influence, so The Lion King got cut largely because of The Lion King 1 1/2. Furthermore, I considered how pure the vision of one person a film was, so the fact that so many people were brought in to work on The Lion King didn’t help its case either. That said, here it is, my list of the 50 best films of all time:

1. The Seven Samurai (1954)
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
3. The Seventh Seal (1957)
4. Godfather I (1972)
5. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
6. La Dolce Vita (1960)
7. Citizen Kane (1940)
8. Taxi Driver (1976)
9. Vertigo (1958)
10. Breathless (1960)
11. The Searchers (1956)
12. Andrei Rublev (1966)
13. City Lights (1931)
14. Scarface (1984)
15. Ordet (1955)
16. Annie Hall (1977)
17. Apocalypse Now (1979)
18. Rashomon (1950)
19. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
20. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
21. Persona (1966)
22. Pulp Fiction (1994)
23. Psycho (1960)
24. Blue Velvet (1986)
25. The 400 Blows (1959)
26. The Rules of the Game (1939)
27. Godfather II (1974)
28. La Strada (1954)
29. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
30. Spartacus (1960)
31. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
32. 12 Angry Men (1957)
33. The Graduate (1967)
34. Jeanne Dielmann (1975)
35. Contempt (1963)
36. Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)
37. Paths of Glory (1957)
38. On the Waterfront (1954)
39. Metropolis (1927)
40. North by Northwest (1959)
41. Ran (1985)
42. Titanic (1997)
43. The Wages of Fear (1953)
44. The Good, the Bad the Ugly (1966)
45. Tokyo Story (1953)
46. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
47. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
48. Chinatown (1974)
49. L’Avventura (1960)
50. Journey to Italy (1954)