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Don't be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It's better not to know.
Either Jupiter says
This coming winter is not
After all going to be
The last winter you have,
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. Be mindful.
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Hold on to the day.
The chair left out in the garden night all winter
Sits waiting for the summer day all night.
The insides of the metal arms are frozen.
Over the house the night sky wheels and turns
All winter long even behind the day.
"I don't want to stay here. I want to stop it."
Was "here" the nursing home? Was it the chair?
The condition she was in? Her life? Life? The body?
. . .
..."Life" seems melodramatic,
Too large and general to fit the case.
But "the chair" seems too small. And "the nursing home"
Too obviously the right answer to be so.
In my reason and health I was outside this world,
Translating her words with a too easy confidence.
But Mary was there, imprisoned in it, sovereign.
The scene changed in the way I experienced it.
It was as if I wasn't in the room
But in the empty lobby of some building.
Mary was in an open elevator,
Old-fashioned, ornate, and beautiful.
The elevator kept moving up and down,
Kept going down to the hell below--when I
Leaned over and looked down then I could see
The suffering and also I could hear
Sounds of the suffering too--then up again
To the hellish heaven above--peering up there
Through the elevator shaft I saw and heard
The transcendental hilarious suffering there.
I heard voices as if there was singing or quarreling.
The Otis elevator never stopped at all.
Mary's body and spirit kept passing back and forth
Before my eyes, vivid, free of the conditions
In terms of which her sympathetic friend,
Standing in the deserted hallway, saw her
Carried up and down in the elevator.
Over and over I saw her going past,
Clinging to the bars, gesticulating,
Frantic, confusingly like a figure of joy.
In the heat of the room on the summer day
Mary, standing now, began to unzip her dress,
With a slowness and persistence that suggested
An indecent purpose, a naked revelation
Of body or soul, embarrassing to a visitor
There at the nursing home on a kind errand.
Perhaps she only wanted to unzip the dress
A little way, because of the summer heat.
But something about it seemed to refuse the suggestion.
There was a concentration and seriousness,
Oblivious of the visitor and his thoughts,
As when she looked so earnestly at the bouquet.
We were in the same room and not in the same room.
I was in the same room. She was in a shirt of fire.
She was out on a plain crossed by steppewinds.
Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations represents a life's work in poetry. The component volumes did not meet with fanfare, yet the work is brilliant with the certainty that comes with contemplation. David Ferry's poems are defined as remarkably by the virtues of theme as by those of style. Plainness grows eloquent as it moves across the subjects of true feeling, from an un-self-pitying awareness that is perhaps more Greek than Roman to a generosity of mind that works in parallel with that awareness. As often as Ferry indulges in classical equability and reserve, this poet of open eye and heart will revert to character sketches full of pathos: These are the moving profiles of unresting souls that haunt Ferry's poetry--aged relatives in homes, the street wanderers in his community and the long-since-changed figures caught with the light draining through them in the sort of old photograph "which, somehow,/Perhaps because of the blankness of the sky,//Looks Russian, foreign, of no country I know." It is not far from any of these subjects to the abyss of non-being: "From this far off you can't hear what they are saying," he writes of one family group, suggesting that the still photo has a sort of speech, hard to catch, and close to that of the demented solitaires who walk his world.
Almost all the guests are under some
kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same
Of being witness still to some obscene
Of listening all the time to somebody's
Whispering in the ear things divine or
In the quotidian of unending torment.
("The Guest Ellen at the Supper
for Street People")
Ferry welcomes into his poems a homespun style of deliberation reminiscent of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell (but more intense than either) as he ponders the layers that mask us from one another. Of the photograph of an aunt subjected to decades of silent distress in an uncouth marriage, the late-born nephew writes that his distance helped him see "Some things she didn't know about yet, or was only/Part way through knowing about, in all the story//Of that future." For aunt and nephew alike, truth needed time to grow; and experience, room to be suffered. One of Ferry's hallmarks is the ample and unblinking attention to pain and to the way we approach and veer off from the nearest hard truth in order to save the precarious self. Photographic illusion is a frequent trope for this work of fragmentation, which the poet explores with a compassionate yet grieving demeanor.
Ferry's diction is so transparent and accurate that we do not balk when great symbols flare out. A boy riding his bike to the drugstore becomes regal, "All-conquering," "his bare//Chest flashing like a shield in the summer air." As a father and son take a placid Sunday walk, a loose page from a newspaper--"a leaf/Fallen from a terrible tree,//The tree of anger,/
Tears, fearfulness"--threatens a world of harm. Nor are we surprised that in the service of livid premonition Ferry requires a syntax almost propositional in its precision: "It wasn't/That she was less willing to be helped to walk/But that the walking itself had become less willing." Minute adjustments in diction have in Ferry an arresting, then reverberating effect: "The scene changed in the way I experienced it." Sliding tissues of meaning create new dimensions, occasionally, from the deft yet non-semantic parting of the lines:
He is without mercy
As he is without the imagination that he is
It is as if every percept were the product of a rigorous tightening of definition just to the side of flat truth. A child in a photograph advancing with her people toward the camera lens seems to come
Streaming out of some hideyhole or
Into the way that that was how I saw
The trees of the kind that grew there establish the place.
We know that way the story of what it was.
("Little Vietnam Futurist Poem")
In presenting anew the war photograph of Vietnamese refugees running toward us, led seemingly by the half-clothed, delicate child who quickens her own plane of existence far to the foreground, "screaming something or other//As if her little mouth was fervently singing," Ferry's gulps of circularity suggest waves of reality resuffered, discarded, then reconfirmed. The poem marks out a terrain of brooding that is only beginning once we reach the last line. "We know that way the story of what it was," says Ferry, as if to insist that we re-establish our old connection to this narrative only as we might find our place in a book that cannot now be closed.
When the poet conjures up an amorphous sylvan scene, to see whether there was a secret he might have missed, all at once the pretty place amid the trees is accompanied by "Death dappling in the flowing water," and a toneless wail belonging to his mother rises up out of the ground like both a burning and a writing--it is
A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
("Rereading Old Writing")
If, almost as soon as he staggers under horrors, Ferry's speaker moves on, and the frame of being cheers up, and life delights again, reflexively, in itself, still the mildness is shot through with revulsion at the nearness of dread (never very far in Ferry from simplicity, tact, self-knowledge and the selflessness of candor). In another poem he writes of a few flowers near each other in the yard, some of bizarre shape when looked at closely, others ordinary but for being of identical species and variety, yet sporting different intensity of green in the leaf, or white in the blossom:
There is something springlike and free about the littleness,
Oddness, and lightness of this combination of things,
Observed here at the very tag end of summer,
In my good fortune.
Indeed, the phrase with which this verse paragraph ends practically has the feeling of a coolly calm translation from a complex idiom--"in my good fortune"--is this a callow "In my period of surprising luck and health"? Or rather a more grateful, "In my happiness so paradoxical at the very end of summer when the strength in things is giving out"? What's to come, he asks, of all this "Ill-informed staring at little flowers"? And in this suspended state, questions hanging in the air in a state of wistful well-being as they take their places in life, it was as if everything in the garden,
these trees and bushes, the white ash, the sugar-
Maple, the deutzia, the young unflowering pear tree,
Had all suddenly had the same idea,
Of motion and quiet sound and the changing light,
A subtle, brilliant, and a shadowy idea.
("In the Garden")
The poem ends there. Why is it satisfying? What moves it beyond idle listing? Acknowledgment of mortality. And more than this: a chronically surprised and impassioned comprehension of the randomness of rarity as well as risk. I believe that in all of his work, even when the original is in another language, as in his version of Horace's carpe diem ode (which Ferry shows us need not mean seize the day but the more fragile hold on to the day), the poet peers behind a scrim. He sees through veils (like the tongues he translates from and the unpromising, low-frequency prose of dictionary definitions) to uncover the shadow of nonexistence, which makes the living world--the world of moments--tender and valuable.
There is also an eerie sense that Ferry has created his own precursors, so that he helps us read Montale and Horace and the Gilgamesh epic and even the prose of Samuel Johnson as if, all along, a mineral seam of Ferry's had run glinting through them, on an elegiac current. It is often early autumn or late summer in Ferry's work, "The shade full of light" (as he writes in "Courtesy") "without any thickness at all," but about to slip downward to a place where "Stillness and dust are on the door and door bolt," as in the dream of Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu. The perceptual world is often about to speak about its fading--but then, it fades:
The shadows of wings
Print and unprint erratically on the little
Porch roof that I look out on from my window,
As if to keep taking back what has just been said.
("An Autumn Afternoon")
One recognizes the tact of the poet in not saying too much, remaining composed before the experience that is part celebration, part sorrow, part distraction and part rage. In his oeuvre, so perfectly attuned to an unearthly simple witnessing of hardness by goodness, the trace of annihilation is profoundly caustic, as he describes it in the great new poem "That Evening at Dinner":
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Every fiercely quiet and strangely heroic poem David Ferry has given us casts the light of insight into the valley of this shadow.
The first time I saw Anna Deavere Smith, I realized a new meaning had been given to the term "body politic." She was appearing in Fires in the Mirror, her show about the conflicts between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and that area's eruption into violence in 1991; and as she performed, a whole neighborhood seemed to congregate in her. One after another the people stepped in, many of them voicing mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, hatred; and yet these conflicting individuals had been brought together, if not harmonized, by residing in this one woman's flesh. How did she do it? Through a combination of sociological fieldwork and shamanism. First Smith interviews people by the hundreds and edits the material she's elicited. Then she learns to impersonate her subjects--literally to incorporate them--so that she may present them to the audience entirely in their own words, with their own inflections and mannerisms.
A year after the Crown Heights riots, she went to the other side of the country and began a new cycle in this process, developing a show about the police beating of Rodney King and its bloody aftermath. Now we have an expanded version of this play in Twilight: Los Angeles.
Shot on video by the incomparable Maryse Alberti and directed by Marc Levin, Twilight: Los Angeles features documentary footage about the Rodney King beating (including excerpts from the infamous, on-the-scene videotape) and newsreel scenes of the ensuing trial and riots. Another element in the collage is footage shot for this production in 1999, when Smith revisited some of the people she had interviewed. But the main reason for watching Twilight: Los Angeles is to see Smith's performance, which is re-created for the camera on modified stage sets--principally a looter's playground of furniture, cardboard boxes, odds and ends of clothing, ground smoke and flashing red lights. Over the course of eighty-five minutes, Smith populates this set with her portrayals of some thirty people who witnessed or participated in this horrendous civic rupture. The roster of characters is so wide-ranging that I'm tempted to call it comprehensive. About the only interested person who doesn't get to speak--either through Smith or through the documentary footage--is Rodney King himself.
That omission may well be the main point of Twilight: Los Angeles. Out of all these people, the only one to discuss King as a person is his aunt Angela. ("It took three plastic surgeries to get Rodney to look like Rodney again.") For everyone else whom Smith calls up, King is an occasion, an excuse, a justification or (very often) a blank. Why bother to think about a man who's had his head kicked in when you have your own claims of victimhood to assert?
I soon lost count of the self-described victims in Twilight: Los Angeles--although I can tell you that the main body of the picture begins with Smith's portrayal of one of them. Popping her eyes behind huge glasses and speaking in a heavily italicized singsong, Smith becomes Elaine Young, a real-estate agent in Beverly Hills. What is Young's account of the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who stomped him and the subsequent three days of riots? She never quite gets to that. Speaking without benefit of commas, Young concentrates instead on rattling off her résumé, with special emphasis on the cosmetic silicone implants that made her a victim for a year: "I almost died!"
Young serves to represent one extreme of social blindness in Twilight: Los Angeles, as localized in (but not confined to) Beverly Hills. Henry "Keith" Watson might be said to represent the South Central counterpart. To play this very young man, accused of tearing a truck driver from his cab during the riots and beating him half to death, Smith puts on a leather porkpie hat, a zippered jacket and a machine-gun laugh. Gleeful in destruction, her Watson sobers up only when speaking of how the mayhem he inflicted has hurt him: "I've been placed next to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I mean, that's a lotta pressure, y'unnerstand?"
Between these poles are characters who can see more clearly; and some of their grievances tear the heart. With her hair pulled back in a bun and tears in her eyes, Smith gives us Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who lost her store in the riots. "We are nothing. Nothing," she says, speaking of the Korean merchants who saw their lives go up in smoke, while the police were busy cordoning off Brentwood and Beverly Hills. And then, pulling herself together, she expresses her happiness for the black people who had felt that they, too, were nothing, and who rejoiced when two police officers were at last found guilty of beating Rodney King. "I wish I could be part of their enjoyment," she says.
Here is author Ruben Martinez, who bubbles over with amused scorn when describing the petty, daily victimhood inflicted on Latinos by the police, who bust them for everything right down to jaywalking: "You're, you're, you're, you're, you're, you're--you're just not walking right." And here is Elvira Evers, a cashier by profession, who picked up some stray gunfire after 8,000 federal troops were sent to Los Angeles. She covered her wound with her gown so as not to alarm her children, drove to the hospital and had an emergency caesarean section, giving birth to a daughter born with a bullet lodged in her elbow--all of which she describes not as proof of victimhood but as evidence of having been blessed: "Open your eyes."
A word about the way in which Smith pauses in her portrayal of Elvira Evers, to wipe her hand across the plastic cloth covering a tiny kitchen table: Most of her impersonations are built around one such observed gesture. Smith is stingy with these moments, doling them out to convince you of the authenticity of the scene, but also making sure that this detail, though apparently circumstantial, sums up something about the character. With Elvira Evers, for example, you see both the modesty of her possessions and the care she takes with them. Angela King flips through a magazine while she speaks; you see a woman who has some contact with the world of ideas, and who is controlling her emotions through distraction. Sgt. Charles Duke of the LAPD shows you the correct way to beat someone into submission with the baton and decries the loss of the chokehold, then pauses in his demonstration to sip water and cough; you glimpse a sliver of vulnerability in a man who is damn well defended. As for Mrs. Young-Soon Han, nothing needs to be explained about the way she stutters over the word "incendiary."
I mention these naturalistic details to suggest how thoughtfully Smith constructs her portrayals but also to point out a curious feature of her talent. She is an astonishing mimic without being a transformative actress. By that, I mean that she always looks like Anna Deavere Smith; her wigs and costumes seem only to emphasize her features, not to disguise them, so that you're always aware of the oval face, deep eyes, rounded mouth, robust figure. This characteristic becomes most striking when she impersonates famous people, such as Cornel West, Jessye Norman, Charlton Heston, former LA police chief Daryl Gates. And because she's always revealing herself while she's portraying the character, Smith likes to start a scene broadly, almost caricaturing the subject and sometimes verging on ridicule, from which point she can tone down the performance while letting a deeper emotion come through. To let one example serve for many: She begins her portrayal of Cornel West by emphasizing his peacockery. For her one naturalistic gesture, she has him discuss the riots while enjoying a snifter of brandy. And then, sounding a lower note, she shows him pausing to say, "I don't think whites could bear to feel the sadness of black people."
Shortly after this moment comes an extraordinary segment of Marc Levin's recent documentary footage: a scene of a dinner in someone's home, where the guests at the table include Smith, Daryl Gates, Ruben Martinez, author and scholar Elaine Kim and Paul Parker (a black activist who describes the riots as a "revolution," and who organized a legal defense committee for the men who assaulted truckdriver Reginald Denny). As the conversation becomes heated, Smith intervenes: "Since we're talking," she says, "we should also listen." I can think of no better summary of her art, nor of the social and moral impulses at its core.
And if I were forced to sum up Anna Deavere Smith? I'd call her a clear-eyed, hard-working utopian. That's a tough combination to maintain; witness the recent closing of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she'd been running at Harvard. Smith had hoped that the listening that goes into her work might be practiced by groups of people who would come together in the theater. Not having witnessed the events she mounted, I can only guess at why they didn't work; but I suppose that other people simply weren't as good as Smith at this kind of thing. But that doesn't mean the attempt was unworthy. As Twilight: Los Angeles so brilliantly demonstrates, listening (like art) is not just an ornament to society. It's the thing itself.
Screening Schedule: Nation readers who receive the Turner Classic Movies channel might want to know that Wednesdays and Thursdays in October will be devoted to a series called "Ideology and the Movies." Each Wednesday, TCM will show purportedly conservative films, selected and introduced by Spencer Warren, a writer for National Review and The American Spectator. On Thursdays are films of the left, selected and introduced by the film critic of The Nation. The leftist roster includes The Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief and Dr. Strangelove--so obviously, we win.
One of the most haunting images in David Riker's film La Ciudad is of the New York City skyline seen from a work site miles away from midtown. There, a group of Hispanic dayworkers scrape off bricks, carry them to a designated area and pile them neatly on top of one another. No one, including the film viewer, seems to know where he or she is. The images evoke a vivid sense of place/
no-place that reflects the condition of multitudes of Hispanic immigrants to this country--not as much the ones like my parents, whose sense of place had as much to do with their schooling as with their new geography, but immigrants who enter the global Norte in search of a way out of strife and into life itself--improvement, fulfillment of dreams, a future that will be better than now. Like many Latin American renderings of reality, the reality of La Ciudad is informed by the imaginary.
While Juan Gonzalez's Harvest of Empire deals with reality in a conventional sense--it is filled with charts, numbers and facts--his book cannot help conjuring up a series of past and present constructions of what it is to be Latino (or Hispanic, or Latin American, or Spanish-American, or Spanish-speaking, all identities modified by residence, however brief, in the Coloso del Norte). Indeed, a more diverse group is difficult to fathom, as Gonzalez makes clear not only through his facts but by the very structure of the book. He covers more than 500 years of history; the internal politics (historical and actual) of scores of countries; racial, gender and class conflicts within the multifarious national groups; varying US government immigration policies and practices; and all this in an attempt--a welcome one in my opinion--to create a sense of unity among all the ethnicities calling themselves Hispanic and living in America (capital: Washington). Imagine the difficulty: What could a Kanjobal indigenous-language-speaking peasant fleeing Guatemalan repression in 1980, who might later work in the tomato fields of South Florida, possibly have in common with a black Panamanian ex-cop (son of a West Indian) who left his country for New York out of guilt for having participated in quelling an anti-US demonstration and now is in the Air Force living in Alaska? These are two real people whose cases are discussed in Gonzalez's Harvest, or better yet, harvests. Yet in light of all the peaches and pairs, Gonzalez has made a compelling case for unity.
A veteran of sixties left politics--co-founder of the Young Lords--and now co-host with Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now!, Juan Gonzalez lays out those figures and charts in the service of what some in cultural studies might call his "subject-position," a position he never disguises in a voice of academic objectivity. His subject reads as follows: "I was born in 1947 to working-class parents in Ponce, Puerto Rico. My family brought me to New York City's El Barrio the following year and I have lived in this country ever since. As a journalist, and before that as a Puerto Rican community activist...
I have spent decades living in, traveling to and reporting on scores of Latino communities...devouring in the process every study or account of the Latino experience I could find." And his position: "Mine is the perspective of a Latino who has grown tired of having our story told, often one-sidedly, without the passion or the pain, by 'experts' who have not lived it." Indeed, we hear the voice of a hard-hitting social critic from the inside.
Gonzalez shows not only his advocacy/journalistic flair for making a convincing case but also a sense of narrative. His accounts of Puerto Rican immigration along with his own family history--a story that could have been an added segment of Riker's film--give him an air of authority, but always an authority that leaves itself open to other authorities, which includes anyone with a border-crossing tale to tell. And there are many in this book.
Gonzalez's subject-position notwithstanding, the force of the facts is a crucial dimension of his narrative. There are several important depictions of Hispanic immigrant reality in Harvest of Empire that have not been given the attention they deserve. Perhaps the most important is that The United States Empire--this designation is not taken lightly--has at once created and fed on Hispanic immigration. The expansionist policies of the nineteenth century, including the military annexation of a great chunk of Mexico, the cold war obsession with a perceived Soviet threat and the enrichment of US-based corporations through exploitation of Latin American labor and raw materials are the foundation for the desire of our neighbors to the (global) South to move to the (global) North. And once over the frontier of El Norte, Hispanic immigrants further the enrichment of US elites by providing cheap labor. For Gonzalez, this foundation places US government officials in a hypocritical position of decrying the effects of demographic movement northward--welfare payments made out of the pockets of US citizens, rising crime, drug trafficking, general social disintegration--when US financial elites have caused and benefited from them. Surely we have heard the indictment about US world domination before, especially in the pages of The Nation (not as often in the mainstream, though), but what makes Gonzalez's take unique, I think, is that he frames the critique within the specific realities of Hispanics living in the United States. Note one of many examples: The consequences of the repeated annexation of Mexican territory between 1836 and 1853 were as lucrative for the isolated yeoman culture that characterized the United States at that time as they were devastating not only for the Mexican residents living in those vast territories but for Latin America as a whole. Mexico lost half its land and major mineral resources, and the new US territory would later pave the way for cheap labor for US corporations.
Another argument in Gonzalez's "harvest" is that the Hispanic influx is different from other immigrations to this country. It is not that the Hispanic situation is unique; in fact, Gonzalez uses other immigrant experiences as models for comparison. It is rather that certain dimensions of late-twentieth-century capitalism (on the global scale) have made for differences. Hispanic immigration is occurring at a moment when multinational corporations enjoy a prosperity and control over markets that were not the case during previous periods of high immigration to the United States. In addition, the fluidity of Hispanic immigration--the fact that many Spanish speakers come here with the intention of returning, an intention realized in many cases because of the greater accessibility of travel--is different from previous patterns. Moreover, what makes Hispanic immigration different, perhaps more in quantitative than qualitative terms, is the relative importance and unity created as the result of language. The polemic over language instruction, the use of Spanish on the job and in the media, its marker as a definitive ethnic trait that transcends national boundaries, the debate about the United States as a bilingual nation by definition--all serve to strengthen Gonzalez's insistence that we as US citizens would do well to pay more attention to Hispanics regardless of the European ethnicities that, as Todd Gitlin puts it in The Twilight of Common Dreams, are chosen like flavors of ice cream. Mexican society recently witnessed a political transformation that is sure to have far-reaching consequences for all US residents. Yet if our media continue to focus their attention on the pathetic Hispanic imaginary, i.e., the Elián Show, we will remain unprepared for these repercussions.
There is no end to this in sight, says Gonzalez, which is another argument in his crop. The much-mentioned statistic that, by the mid-twenty-first century, one in four US citizens will be Hispanic is simply one projection out of many that point to the writer's hope (along with that of José Martí) that North America will come to know the other America, so that it will cure itself of its scorn. More and more Hispanics are becoming citizens; the median age of Hispanics is far younger than that of most other Americans; there is a rising political consciousness among Latinos, as well as a rising middle class; and all this is occurring as free-trade ideology is wreaking economic havoc on the people most in need of improvement of material conditions in their native lands.
No, there is no end in sight. If I may add a Midwestern story to Gonzalez's all-encompassing one, I'll point out that we've got troubles too, right here in mid-Missouri. Sedalia, Marshall and Mílan--communities that I'm sure the sophisticated Latinos of San Francisco would consider pueblachos de mala muerte (cowtowns)--have seen dramatic increases in their Hispanic populations because of work opportunities in the meatpacking industry. Outside of a few gruesome accidents and violations of child-labor laws, we don't have major problems (yet). But what if the boom economy runs out of steam? What if there are layoffs of these hard-working young women and men?
The images of La Ciudad that caught my imagination return. Perhaps the shot of the New York skyline from that working no man's land lurks in our memories because it fuses a cityscape with the lives of people, people whom we first see as others. Yet with the wide angle, we come to know them as mirrors of ourselves. Carlos Fuentes puts it poignantly when, in The Buried Mirror, he evokes without mentioning it the North/South division that is the mainstay of Gonzalez's discussion:
California, and in particular the city of Los Angeles facing the Pacific basin, the North American bridge to Asia and Latin America, poses the universal question for the coming century: How do we deal with the other? North Africans in France; Turks in Germany; Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia [before the division]; Pakistanis in England; black Africans in Italy; Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Latin Americans in the United States. Instant communication and economic dependence have transformed the once isolated problem of immigration into a universal, definitive and omnipresent reality.
We don't have a TV at home, so we've missed the much-drubbed NBC Olympics coverage. So when a little friend of my son's said she'd been watching, I asked her if any of the events had inspired her to want to be an Olympic athlete when she grew older.
"Yeah!" she raved. "Just wait! I'm gonna be a rock star and I'll ride onto the field with my helmet on my head and my crossbow on my back and I'm gonna have a band and six backup singers, and then when they light the torch, all the soldiers I've been saving in my disk drive are gonna burst onto the screen and do a dance and then there'll be fireworks, fireworks, fireworks, boom, boom, kaBOOM! Like you've never seen before!"
Flushed from such imaginative exertions, this dangerous little person ran off with my precious son, she humming a tune by Britney Spears, he shouting a song by the Backstreet Boys. (It was a perfect fugue, by the way. Has anyone else noticed that Britney is just Lance hung upside down and played backwards?)
Each culture develops its own sense of sport, I suppose. When I travel, I confess I make up for the deprivation at home by watching a lot of hotel-room television. I am always fascinated to see the kinds of competitive sports that people will sit up late for in other parts of the world. I've been to Edinburgh during sheepherding finals (sort of a par course for sheepdogs grafted onto a running of the bulls, except with large shaggy rams. Like Babe, but vicious). I've spent time with friends in Minnesota where ice fishing--which is, I assure you, one of the slower sports known to mankind--took up Real Time in dinner party conversation.
Once I spent five days in a small German town in a university dormitory built on the site of what had been a Nazi bank vault. This being truly the belly of the beast, I was not at all surprised when the heat went out the moment I got there. Within hours, I fell sick with a raging fever, my body temperature rising with each degree the room temperature fell. As I lay shivering beneath the thin cotton blanket, I used my last ounce of strength to flick through the channels on the steel television set (which was bolted to a fixed rod hanging from the ceiling, like the ones in hospitals or prisons). Aside from the ubiquitous CNN, all the available stations were displaying the same sporting event--in German, Swiss German, Farsi, Turkish and Basque. The event in question appeared to be a particularly formal version of Austrian dressage: horses with knotted manes and beribboned tails prancing rigidly through backbreakingly unnatural placements and postures, two-stepping, then waltzing to martial music. The riders, who wore high hats and polished boots, put the animals through their paces with the reins tightened so as to hold the horses' necks upright, the bits so tight the horses looked as though they were leering. The riders were tense and ferocious. The horses were precise, wild-eyed, slobbering with foam.
In happier times, I've been to the far north, up around the Arctic Circle, where Icelandic log-tossing is what in other climes might be called "hot." These are not little logs we're talking about, if the broadcast I saw is any measure--contestants trained by hoisting Yugo minivans on their backs. Indeed, in a side event to the log-toss, they ran a course where every thirty feet or so they stopped to pick up a 350-pound block of stone and chuck it in a rain barrel. "These Icelandic strong men" the voiceover explained, "consume from eight thousand to ten thousand calories a day"--a conceivable goal if, like me, you're thinking of the energizing properties of Ring Dings and marshmallow fluff, but an impressively ambitious one when you learn that a professional log-tosser's diet is fat- and sugar-free.
In South Africa, I once watched a spoofy (I think) combat in which a white gladiator and a black gladiator battled each other up the sheer face of a wall, the goal being not just to reach the top first but to dislodge your opponent so that he has no chance of ever making it up.
Then there's Wisconsin, where, back in the eighties, I lived through three deer-hunting seasons. The season was only nine days long but with more than 600,000 licensed hunters on the prowl, around 260,000 deer could expect to meet their maker within that time. "I guess they have bad aim," said my sister dryly when she heard this bit of data, but the truth is they did indeed have exceedingly bad aim. If memory serves me, Wisconsin was the only state that actually gave blind people a license to shoot. I was told they had to wear a neon-red sign that said: blind hunter (thus giving other blind hunters the chance to duck, I suppose).
Not only did more deer die at that time of year than at any other, more Wisconsiners did too. So the real suspense of the daily television tally was always the human toll, not the animal. Lost bullets seeking their mark took shortcuts through people's breakfast nooks and open bathroom windows and attic hideaways. Stray bullets always caught people by surprise in the middle of some intensely private act. Not that every such death was a complete surprise: One year the sheriffs and game wardens got worried about hunters who shot across busy highways at deer on the other side. So they set up lots of deer decoys by the sides of lots of busy highways to catch the sort of people who would do such a thing. Many of us just hid in the basement until they thought the logic of that one over.
I'm optimistic that we humans will always express our sporting instincts in locally interesting and richly varied ways. Indeed, a recurring criticism of the NBC coverage has been precisely its homogenization of the Olympics--the sappy human interest, the weepy mood music, the breathlessly overdramatized replays. But when I think about what the youngest consumers of American sports culture are exposed to as routine athletic fare, I guess it's no wonder some of them would opt for the halftime song-and-dance act. They already know that too often the real action is played out in culturally revealing games like the Bobby Knight Memorial chair-tossing competition, Hide and Seek the Steroids, the Million Dollar Endorsement Dash, Soccer Mom Slugfest and Hockey Dad Death Match.
The two entertainment unions, already angered over runaway production, have tenaciously met the challenge and escalated the fight.
Christina Hoff Summers is hot with righteous indignation on boys' behalf.
We've got too many stimuli and not enough places to put them. And so, perhaps, we keep moving around the surplus excitement, sticking it onto this or that image, with the unintended consequence of creating the hyperreal.