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120_howtogetahead_originalMy mother is in the hospital for an infected wisdom tooth. She thought at first that the soreness was her sensitive teeth, and, to compensate, she chewed on the side of her mouth that didn’t hurt. As the pain progressed, she self-medicated with Tylenol, with its effects diminishing after an hour or two. Before long, her jaw had swollen, and she could only open her mouth a crack—not enough to eat or drink. A friend urged her go to the emergency room.  If that infection gets into your blood, my mother’s friend said, it could be fatal. And so, my father took her to the hospital. He called to deliver the news, deadpan:  Happy New Year. Oh, I’m fine, but your mother is in urgent care.


In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag enumerates the ways in which people conceive as cancer as the Other: a mutant, an invader, a colonizer, “a cosmic disease, the emblem of all the destructive, alien powers to which the organism is host.” But sometimes I think the body itself is the Other, unknown and unknowable.  Despite the holistic promise of mind-body unity, who knows what’s really going in there? The medulla oblongata throws up its hands and takes a nap.


In the hospital, my mother wasn’t allowed to lie down and had to sleep reclining. She was forbidden to eat or drink and received nourishment through an IV. But despite the fluids, she complained of an aching thirst, a mouth-dryness that could not be quenched via the median cubital vein. My mother is eighty, and this is the first time she’s been hospitalized. She hadn’t fully read the admittance forms, so she didn’t know that she had to request painkillers. She suffered the discomfort until it became overwhelming. The nurse went straight to the hard stuff: morphine. But what if I get addicted to it? my mother asked, as if contemplating the ways in which her body could continue to work against her, as if it were separate from her conscious mind, now frightened, unsettled, disoriented.


Our bodies betray us constantly. They sabotage us at inopportune times: a sudden erection at a dinner party; a sphincter unwilling to hold its gas in a crowded elevator; a boil that speaks its mind and refuses to be placated. The corpus gives the middle finger to the consciousness: You think you’re in control? Just you wait. Our bodies, our subversives.


My mother is back at home now. She can only eat purees through a straw but seems in good spirits. The offending wisdom tooth will be extracted two days from now. If she wanted to, I imagine, she could confront her tooth: How could you do this to me? Did I not care for you? Did I not brush you with Sensodyne? It doesn’t matter, I suppose: soon enough, her tooth, a hard nugget of pulp and enamel, will be dead, extracted from its host. But maybe its dying wish will be to bite back, one last time.


The last time I saw Do the Right Thing, I was in Brooklyn for a sleep-over.  W___, my best friend, had invited me to meet Y___, who lived within throwing distance of Sunset Park.  Y___ was Nigerian; his wife K___ was South Asian; and, as the other guests arrived, the party resembled, more and more, a U.N. General Assembly Meeting.  I was the only delegate who had not brought his own pillow.

The gathering wound late into the night, and those of us spending the night staked out floor positions.  But even at 2 a.m., no one was tired.  We debated books and art and politics, and nibbled on leftover chaat.  We were, all of us, overeducated, despite (in spite of?) our various international upbringings, and K___’s naan tasted just as good cold as it did warm.

Y___ had set up a projector to beam pictures from his laptop onto his wall.  Someone stopped the slideshow and pulled up Do the Right Thing on YouTube.  We watched, pausing every ten minutes or so as the invisible hand guiding the cursor searched for the next section.  During those interstices, I thought about how far this slice of Brooklyn was from that one:  20 years and two bus transfers away.


Lee Klein, as he was supervising the transfer of the film to DVD, recalls cinematographer Ernest Dickerson saying, Redder, redder, redder.  “The instinct was,” Klein says, “not to go that red because it seemed too far, but that’s how he shot it and that was the intention, and it’s easy to back off the red to be safe.”


I was in Y___’s brownstone again two years later.  W___ had moved into the apartment below Y___, and she was throwing a house-warming party.  Many of the invitees I had met two years before.  I brought W___ a glazed Portuguese tile with a portrait of Fernando Pessoa.  She had already settled in quite comfortably:  a vertical bookshelf made it look as if books were climbing up her wall.  She had filled her disused dining room fireplace with books.  An arch of books, a parabola of paper.  Our lives are fire hazards.

The party moved into Sunset Park.  It was a pleasant fall late-afternoon, and the blanket kept the cold from seeping into us.  The park was a patchwork of picnics.  As we gathered around the homemade red velvet cake, a Hispanic toddler waddled up to us.  His nose and mouth were a transparent slick of mucus.  Someone offered him a slice, and he looked at it hesitantly and wandered off without taking it.  Around us, lingual cacophony:  the park of Babel.

Then:  sunset, something that would have been apocalyptic if it weren’t so beautiful.  The air turned to blood.  Loud Chinese music came over some loudspeakers as a group of dancers prepared their evening practice session.  The red grew increasingly intense, as though someone were infusing oxygen into the blood.  As other housewarmers returned to W___’s apartment, I watched the sky:  redder, redder, redder.

A car salesman gave Matthew and me an exegesis on the origins of ska.  Ska, he said, originated in Jamaica in the 1960s.  This original wave of ska gave rise to rocksteady and, later, reggae.  From reggae, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, by cutting and looping master tapes, developed dub.   The second wave of ska, also known as the Two Tone Revolution, came in the late 70s in the UK, and blended punk elements into ska.  Dancing to ska was known as skanking.  The third wave emerged in the US, during the 1980s and 90s.  In Philadelphia, he said, there’s an annual Ska Blowout, which takes place at the Trocadero.  Do you skank? I asked him.  No, he said.   Matthew listened quietly.  All he wanted was a checkerboard front license plate for his new car, and I had said, Someone’s going to think you’re a rude boy.


The Harder They Come suggests that two things keep the poor in Jamaica from breaking out in open rebellion:  music and ganja.  In one scene, people pick through the refuse at the dump, triumphantly holding up a carton of eggs; then, in another, they dance at a club, losing themselves amongst the rhythm.  Still later, they smoke spliffs the size of a baby’s arm.  But these trades are controlled by the police and the military, and when the police cut access to them, the tide turns against Ivan, singer-turned-criminal, the film’s hero.


In Amsterdam, I was five miles into a 20-mile bike ride when I got a flat and had to walk my bike back to the rental station.  Tired, frustrated, I decided to go to a coffee shop later that evening.  There, I was presented with an extensive menu.  Each item had an accompanying picture, the buds and leaves in infinite variations of green, from silver-tipped and sage-like to a dark, dusky green.  I couldn’t decide:  harsh, grassy, smooth, velvety, graceful.  What was this, a wine bar?  Not to mention, I was giggly:  this was my first time!  I decided on a brownie with whipped cream, whereupon Matthew had half, because, after all, it still was a brownie.  We both fell asleep soon afterwards.


In a recent visit to Colorado, I noticed neon-green crosses advertising the dispensaries that had sprouted up across the state.  Then I remembered:  Oh, it’s medicinal now.  Our close friends, H. & J., have a grower’s license and grow a small crop in their yard.  J. didn’t sell but kept it for home use.  The trick, she told us, was to continually prune so that buds emerge.  Many people claim that cannabis elevates your consciousness, but I wonder:  does it sharpen the mind or blunt it?  Whom does it benefit in its structure of money and power?  Does it foment revolution or mollify it?  J. gave Matthew and me a Mason jar of homegrown — all-natural, organic — and a metal pipe with which to smoke it.  I hid it in my parents’ house, behind some books, like a teenager, rebellious and wicked, as if this were really something to get excited about.

This semester, I taught a section of the First Year Experience, a one-credit, pass/fail class that’s essentially a banner announcing, ‘Welcome to college.’  My students, for the most part, are good kids:  sometimes rowdy, sometimes apathetic, sometimes distracted and beyond my reach.

But, as I said, basically good kids.

Prompted by the recent spate of high-profile gay suicides, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to talk to my freshmen about anti-gay bullying and harassment.  In particular, the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after an intimate encounter with another student was broadcast without his knowledge by his roommate, raised issues that went beyond the bullying — negotiating privacy, living with other people, controlling your on-line image.

The discussion went well, I thought.  When I told Clementi’s story (amazingly, some hadn’t heard about it, which I expected from the international students, but not the English-speaking ones), one of the guys in class (who looks familiar with the Jersey Shore) commented, “That’s fucking demented.”  Towards the end of the conversation, he glanced up at the clock repeatedly, but he got it, I thought.  He understood.

That night, when I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, the first thing that popped into my head was:  Joan of Arc, gender warrior! Of course, she was persecuted for heresy, but when the warty, jowly judges press her about her preference for men’s clothing, it brings to mind Daphne Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress.  When Joan is first asked, Renee Falconetti, wide-eyed, nervously fingers her collar, as if the clothes are tightening around her neck.  When another judge presses — “So God orders you to dress as a man?” — her eyes are half-closed, as if in resignation.  Her answer doesn’t receive an intertitle, but her whisper is unmistakable:  Oui.

Yesterday, I took my class to the student center on campus for a lecture.  On the front of a building were posters announcing an upcoming drag show.  The featured drag queen, Sahara Davenport, was plastered on every window, in every conceivable color Hammermill provides:  fuchsia, goldenrod, lime, taupe — a Warholian whirl of fabulousness.  As we entered, the Jersey Shorean student muttered, “Seven bucks for a fucking tranny?”

Fucking tranny.

What upsets me is not that he said what he said — but that I didn’t stop right there and say something.  I kept walking.  Students sat at tables, eating their lunches.  The smell of fried Chik-Fil-A sizzled in the air.  His words hung there, unconfronted, unaddressed.

I’m no Joan of Arc.  At best, I’m Jean Massieu, the monk (played by Antonin Artaud) who knows better but is cowed into silence.  He supports Joan in spirit, but when things get hot, he bows his head, and lets his tonsure reflect his shame.  We share cowardly silence.  As punishment for our sins, how many more martyrings will we be forced to witness?

In grad school, the de facto point man for my group of friends, A___, assigned us all superpowers and corresponding code names.  C___ became ‘The Deconstructor,’ able to use his aporetic powers to destroy bullets by demonstrating that they’re simply texts with irreconcilable and contradictory meanings .   I was ‘The Persuader,’ who could cajole almost anyone into doing his bidding.

It’s an old parlour game, of course — a chestnut amongst college students who like stretch out hypothetical questions before them like a red carpet.  But for nerds, geeks and dweebs alike, the question takes on a particular resonance.  A superpower isn’t merely a neat trick one — it’s a replacement for an identity.

Take the X-Men.  I was reared on them.  At one point, I had a subscription, and every month, I waited patiently for the mailman to deliver my copy (I was also concerned that he might fold the comic in order to fit it through the mail slot, which would irrevocably diminish its resale value; eventually I found it easier to visit a shop — plus, that way, I wouldn’t have to wait a month).  And I daydreamed about – – as most young comic book readers do, I imagine — about what superpower I would have.

But just one!  How to choose?  I was able to narrow it down to three:  1) the ability to walk through walls, à la Kitty Pryde (a manifestation of a desire not to be excluded?); 2) the ability to turn invisible (a desire to go unnoticed?); 3) the ability to fly.

Indeed, in Brazil, this third ‘superpower’ is what low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry finds himself daydreaming of:  his mechanical wings gliding through the clouds so that he can rendezvous with a diaphanous woman.  It’s the desire for escape.  (In the documentary What Is Brazil?, Gilliam describes how he came up with the idea of Brazil:  on a visit to Port Talbot in Wales, he noticed that the sand on the beach had been blackened by years of coal shipments trundling across it on conveyor belts.  He went on to imagine a man at sunset, sitting on that beach, surveying the black expanse around him as the song “Brazil” comes on the radio next to him.)

I didn’t have a dystopian, bureaucratic state-corporate apparatus from which I wanted to escape — high school in Aurora, Colorado had its drawbacks, but mistaken renditions were not a daily worry.  But what high school student doesn’t dream of escaping his surroundings?  Of flying above the familiar landscape towards something more exotic?

Of course, flying would have its drawbacks.  How do you keep bugs out of your mouth?  What about the lack of oxygen?  If you’re flying fast enough, wouldn’t the air pressure keep you from breathing properly?  How quickly would your arms tire of flapping?  But that’s the thing about daydreaming:  it arrives unencumbered by reality.  It’s only when you try to bring those dreams into reality (like poor sam Lowry) that the trouble sets in.

Funny:  I’d always assumed that, in the future, there’d be nothing but techno (see, for example, the subterranean rave in The Matrix Reloaded).  But Godard loves defying expectations.  So, in Alphaville, instead of the futuristic soundtrack one expects from a film nominally set in the future, we get ominous horn stabs as Lemmy Caution goes about his dirty business.  (Of course, Kraftwerk doesn’t put out Autobahn until nearly a decade after Alphaville — so while supercomputer Alpha 60 has the vocoder thing down, it still needs to work on the bangin’ beats.)

There is, however, a more explicit reason why I link Alphaville with techno.  During my “industrial” phase of high school — my junior and senior years — my music collecting began in earnest.  I kept an index card of band names that I wanted to check out between the pages of a dictionary.  I came across most of these on Teletunes, a music video show that played in the wee hours on Denver’s secondary PBS-affiliate, KDBI, or on the local “alternative” radio station, KTCL, long before it got gobbled up by Clear Channel and changed formats.  In bookstores, I scanned the magazine racks for angry, glowering Germans who wore studded leather jackets and stood pouting with their arms crossed.  That, I thought, has got to be a cool band.

So with this, I hunted down Laibach.  I knew little about them except that they had released an album, Kapital.  So I made a pilgrimage down to Wax Trax to pick it up, not knowing that Laibach is Slovenia’s second-best export after Strast chocolates.  Indeed, the band is probably best known for their possibly Leni Riefenstahl-inspired version of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” On Kapital, I was drawn to their militaristic rhythms and Wagnerian bombast.

But the track that most grabbed my attention was “Le Privilège des Morts,” an ominous track with a deep sub-bass and a distorted, computerized voice speaking French.  With my busted, high-school French, I understood maybe every other sentence, but listening to it — with headphones late at night, lights off, eyes closed — evoked suffocation, claustrophobia, especially with the repeated last phrase:  “La porte est blockée.”  I didn’t realize it, but “Le Privilège des Morts” was composed primarily from snippets of dialogue and sound effects from Alphaville.  The song takes its title, for example, from Lemmy Caution’s first interrogation by Alpha 60.  When Anna Karina reads from Paul Éluard’s Capitale de la Douleur, mid-song, she whispers it like a cri de couer, and, when they lift the condemned man’s speech on the diving board wholesale (before he’s dismembered by synchronized swimmers, no less), I didn’t comprehend the man’s harangue, but I knew some bad shit was going down.

So when, almost a decade later, I finally watched Alphaville, it was a moment of déjà vu (possibly déjà ecouté?).  I didn’t experience the film as much as I re-edited it to fit my memory of “Le Privilège des Morts”:  Here’s where this bit came from.  Oh, so that’s what that meant. I don’t Godard would mind, given his own penchant for cobbling together disparate parts — detective noir, science fiction, futurist architecture — into a memorable, haunting whole.