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A few years ago, as I was driving south down I-95 late one night, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, I saw a house on fire.  The highway was mostly empty, and I slowed to look.  Emergency responders were already on the scene, but they seemed on stand-by—the house looked like a total loss, and they were on-hand to keep the fire from spreading.  It was eerily beautiful, the way the flames ate away the night.  In my car, I could only imagine the intense heat, the smell of the cinders, the smoke of a person’s life in the air.  When I drive by that area now, if I remember, I look to see if I can find where the fire had taken place, but I can never find it.  Another house has already grown over that spot, I imagine, like scar tissue.

In The Hidden Fortress, revelers at a fire festival intone an existential prayer as they slouch their way around a bonfire.

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it in the fire
Ponder and you will see the world is dark
And this floating world is a dream
Burn with abandon

And at that last line, they dance in a frenzy.  And as a fortune in gold is added to the fire, a princess and her bodyguard, who have been trying to evade capture with the gold, abandon their worries and dance.  The two peasants who have been helping them, however, look at the fire with sadness and dismay—the gold they’ve tried to protect is now melting, and as the bonfire blazes, it burns away their hopes, their dreams, their futures.

I tell myself that if I ever suffer a catastrophic house fire, I won’t rebuild.  The things that can be replaced, I won’t replace.  The books, music, and movies that I’ve spent a lifetime collecting and curating, I will no longer need.  If I’m ever reduced to zero, I’ll somehow make peace with zero.  As 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide writes:

Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon.

Tonight, I returned home from a long day at work to find the house lit up with paper lanterns—the Harvest Moon Festival.   I walked in to see, in our dusky living room, warm, glowing colors, floating in space.  Each lantern a constellation, a nebuIa, a galaxy.  I hesitated:  Is this my house?  Yes, it was.  Matthew had used up the last of the tealights, including the red ones that smell faintly of bayberry.  Dinner was warm on the stove.  Afterwards, as we prepared to retire upstairs, Matthew said, Oh, the lanterns! and even though there was no risk of them catching on fire and burning the house down,  we went back to blow them out.  And from the second floor of the house, in the room we call the library, where I keep my autographed books and my Criterion Collection DVDs, we got a better view of the rising moon.

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For a while, I only trusted gay men with my hair. As a child, my mother cut my hair: every two months or so, I sat on a chair set upon spread-out newspaper on the basement storeroom, and my mother worked my head with a trimmer set that nicked my ears and spewed out hot ozone. In middle-school, she started taking me to haircut franchises: Great Clips, the Hair Cuttery—but after one too many fucked-up cuts, we settled on a Vietnamese woman who had shop in the Far East Shopping Plaza. While I got my hair cut, she shopped for groceries.

Patrick, though, was my first stylist. He worked first out of Cherry Creek, but when he opened his own salon in Englewood, I followed. We hung out for  coffee and occasionally hit the bars together. He introduced me to having my hair slightly askew and tousled, as if I’d just woken up. (How can anyone tell the difference? asks Matthew.)

When I returned to Denver after grad school, Patrick had closed his salon and had moved to San Diego. I tried other gay men, but results were spotty, depending mostly on the mood of the stylist that day. But Matthew introduced me to Meechie, who worked at the Supercuts not far from our apartment, and from that day on, only sassy black women have cut my hair.

I have great respect for hair stylists. When I told Tomacina, my current stylist, that I’d like a Mohawk for the summer, she didn’t bat an eye, but worked the clippers until all the white hairs at my temples were on the floor. “Not too bad,” she said.

In The Rock, the gay barber (“stylist,” he insists) is played for laughs. He’s a hideous stereotype: prancing, mincing, and prone to the vapors. His complaint that he’s not allowed to use scissors is played off as evidence of frivolity. What’s a pair of thinning shears when compared to the fate of San Francisco, a city under threat of being poison gassed? He’s on-hand to give Sean Connery, a wrongfully-imprisoned British intelligence officer, a haircut. They sit, guarded by FBI officers, on a high hotel balcony, with the San Francisco hills roll behind them.

Michael Bay admits that Connery essentially reprise his most famous role: “a rusty James Bond,” he describes the character. A friend recently explained why she doesn’t like James Bond movies. “Whenever I see Bond driving through a crowded marketplace, overturning the stalls and sending everything flying, I don’t care that Bond is trying to save the world,” she said. “All I can think about are all the poor merchants who’ve just had their lives upended.”

“I guess I’m not the right audience,” she concluded.

Connery uses the haircut as a pretext to escape, of course, flinging his captor off the balcony. The stylist flees into the elevator, where he cowers from Mason. But he knows that his work is no less important than Mason’s work to save the world. “All I care about is,” he says, “Are you happy with your haircut?”

I first saw Laurence Olivier’s ‘oysters and snails’ speech to Tony Curtis, not in Spartacus itself, but rather in The Celluloid Closet. In that scene, Olivier argues to his slave that sexuality is a matter of taste, rather than of appetite, and being a matter of taste, is not a moral consideration. “It could be argued so, Master” says Curtis. The Celluloid Closet was part of a queer studies class I took as a junior in college, at which time my own preferences had already ossified. ‘Skinny Jewish intellectuals’ was my taste, rather than a moral judgment on chubby Gentile fools.

***

Years later, I was in New Orleans with my skinny Jewish intellectual, for a conference. He had never eaten raw oysters before, his father having instilled in him the fear of Vibrio vulnificus, rather than Leviticus. We sat at open-air bar at Felix’s, and, around us, was the sultry autumn air, the sound of granular ice, and quick-fingered men with shucking knives and chain mail gloves.  “OK,” he said, “I’ll try one,” and several dozens later, the area was around us a denuded shoal, a mother-of-pearl graveyard.  “Oh, I’ve missed out on so much,” he bemoaned. “I lived in Boston and never had any oysters.”

***

Censors suggested replacing ‘oysters’ and ‘snails’ with ‘artichokes’ and ‘truffles,’ but even after Kubrick reshot the scene, they cut it, leaving audiences, presumably, to wonder why Curtis’ slave has a sudden attack of drapetomania. And while could be argued that the scene dealt with sexuality in a progressive way, for 1960, it might be that the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, conceived of the scene much differently.  According to Howard Fast, the author of the novel, the more abstract decadences of starvation or slavery were inconceivable to Hollywood types.  But sexuality—this was a decadence that Hollywood could understand.  Most people in Hollywood either knew someone who indulged in it, Fast says, or indulged in it themselves.

***

Matthew and I know oysters. We know the different types: the briny ones from Maine, the mineral tang of those from Prince Edward Island, the creamy flesh of Puget Sound breeds. We don’t slather them in cocktail sauce, but opt instead for a shallot-champagne mignonette or, if that’s not available, a squeeze of lemon and a dab of horseradish. Escargot is fussy: handling the little forks, and maneuvering the shells out of that specialized divoted pan. No, when we feel decadent, it’s much easier to slide an oyster whole into your mouth, liquid and all, even if ‘decadence’ is relative, and, of course, a matter of taste.

***

I learned recently that the ‘oysters and snails’ scene is a reconstruction—the audio long since lost. Tony Curtis, almost 30 years later, re-recorded his lines, and Anthony Hopkins was brought in to dub Olivier’s. Kubrick supervised via his fax machine from England. But even in its cobbled-together state, it still has a delicious charge to it: filmed from behind a gauzy curtain, the two men half-naked and oiling each other up.  “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Olivier says, before concluding: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

Today marks the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  I remember when Bill Clinton issued the directive.  I had just started college and attending meetings of the gay student organization.  DADT, at the time, was a terribly disappointing compromise, though, in retrospect, necessary.  Clinton’s promise to repeal the ban altogether would never have passed, given the hostile climate in Congress and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I came to know two gay ROTC members:  a short, curly-haired lesbian from Georgia, Noel, and Patrick, a good-looking, blonde.  They took pride in their service but knew the possibly consequences if they were ever discovered.  I imagine them marching in uniform the way I’ve seen ROTC students practice their formations on campus nowadays.  I never knew what become of Noel — she transferred to another school — and Patrick hinted that his military career would continue after graduation.  In The Best American Short Stories 2006, Tobias Wolff’s story, “Awaiting Orders,” deals with DADT.   In it, an army sergeant hesitates calling his boyfriend a ‘partner.’  His fears of discovery and blackmail overcome his desire to reach out to the sister of a deployed soldier.  I wonder if this is what life was like for Noel and Patrick.  The need to hide.

The end of the policy came with little fanfare, which was what the military had wanted.  Just another day in the war machine.  In the media, however, there’s been a small flurry of stories:  a Navy lieutenant who wed his partner at the stroke of midnight in Vermont to mark the end of the ban; soldiers coming out to their comrades, superiors and families; remembrances of soldiers who could not.

The damage has already been done, though.

Late in Alexander Nevsky, the scene that follows the kinetic battle on the iced-over Lake Chudskoye slows the film to plaintive pace.  Prokofiev’s score takes an operatic note.  Eisenstein scholar David Bordwell calls the music a “threnody.”  Wounded and dying soldiers, German and Russian alike, lie heaped upon the ice, and Eisenstein tracks across them diagonally.  One lifts his head momentarily before crumpling face-down.  On the ice, torches appear, carried by women who peer into the faces of the fallen.  One man rises long enough to say, “Maria.”  As the women move from body to body, another soldier says, “Izaslavna.”  Another:  “Anastasia.”  “Sister.”  Wives, family members, all of their beloved:  their last breaths.  On the field of battle, a mother collapses on a body lying in the snow.

All the years the ban was in effect — how many gay soldiers weren’t able to speak the name of their beloved, even at death?  Who carried torches for them?  Who was allowed to mourn them?  This was the real tragedy of the policy:  silence.  Even in grief.

Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first gay servicemember to fight the ban, had this inscribed on his tombstone:  “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino ruminates on five “qualities or peculiarities of literature” that he holds dear (he died before he finishing the sixth memo).  The first quality, ‘lightness’ (leggerezza), describes not frivolity, but a nimbleness — with story, with language — that makes the gravity of the world easier to bear.  “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness,” Calvino writes, “I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.  I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational.  I mean that I have to… look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”  For Calvino, lightness and weight are two indivisible sides of the same coin; the presence of one does not necessarily indicate the absence of the other.

As an example of this, Calvino cites Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The novel, he writes, is “a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading opporession that has been the fate of [Kundera’s] hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be.”  According to Calvino, Kundera “shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”

The film maintains this delicate balance, veering from erotic comedy to serious relationship drama; from a gritty political realism to a satire of Soviet totalitarianism.  What’s the best way to equilibrate Juliette Binoche’s debilitating paranoia?  Stellan Skarsgård’s ass, of course!  I’m not sure what about the Czech Republic invites this mixture of light and weight (Calvino also mentions Kafka in his memo), but the film captures this mood visually:  early on, Prague appears vibrant and thriving; later, dilapidated and confining.

But perhaps this reflects Prague itself.  When Matthew and I traveled there in 2008, the film’s landscape ran in reverse.  On the bus ride from Ruzyne International Airport, Matthew noted, with a look like he’d just bitten into a licorice jellybean, the Soviet-style block housing zooming by.  But once we arrived in the Old City, Prague had become fantastic (in the classic definition of the word).  As one of Matthew’s colleagues described it, “Disneyland done right.”

Nothing, though, encapsulated the heady interplay of weight and lightness better than the changing of the guard at Prague Castle.  As with any quasi-military ceremony, it was performed with the formalized dignity of a Viennese waltz(except with bayonets and sabers).  The guards wore powder-blue uniforms, a tri-color herringbone cord looping around their shoulders and disappearing between the buttons of their jackets.  They marched gravely and lined up in formation, each soldier stretching out his left arm to ensure the proper distance between him and the next.  One held a flag embroidered with the words Pravda Vítĕzí, while, from windows overhead, a military band played — trombones, tuba, snare drum.

The solemnity was leavened, however, with the knowledge that those uniforms were not of strict military origin; instead, they were designed by Theodor Pistek, who won an Oscar for his costume work on Amadeus.  And though the soldiers paraded themselves with the utmost solemnity, I sensed that the soldiers knew that what they were really did was less a military necessity and more a show for the throngs of tourists crowding outside the gate, snapping pictures and reveling in the ceremony, and I sensed that beneath their po-faces, they put some extra lightness in their steps for our benefit.

Orlando, from Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, on the nature of cruises:  “This is the funny thing about sea voyages:  after a few days, you feel as if you’d been sailing forever.  You feel you’ve always known your fellow voyagers.”

David Foster Wallace, from his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” on the same subject:  “The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure, but that you will…. That they’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun.”

Frank Conroy, on his cruise, as quoted in “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”:  “We entered a new world, a sort of alternate reality to the one on shore.”  And, when asked by Wallace why he wrote that:  “I prostituted myself.”

***

Who hasn’t dreamed of dining with Astors and Guggenheims in gilt Grand Ballrooms?  Dancing to the orchestra; clinking champagne glasses; chewing very, very slowly as not to distort your face while eating.  I’ve suggested a gay cruises to Matthew before, but he takes one look at the brochures, fraught with glossy men who have gestated in tanning oil, and says, “Are you kidding?”  I try to convince him that every cruise will feature an opera competition in the boiler room — but no dice.  He suspects — probably rightly so — that we would most likely be roped off on deck somewhere, like Serbian refugees.

But cruises as a sign of class status have disappeared.  But the democratization of sea voyages isn’t a bad thing, per se — it’s allowed, for instance, people like my parents to travel.  And though they may be the targets of Wallace’s good-natured scorn (retired, prone to videotape and photograph every little movement), they’re still my parents.

Their first cruise they took spun them through Central America.  They retruend with a fist full of photographs and t-shirts for the whole family.  Did I want the nautical flags under the word Panama or Panama: Puente de los Americas?  I chose the former.

I looked through the pictures.  The first was of a tiger.

“That was at the lunch buffet,” my mom said.  “It’s made out of cheese and chocolate!”

The next was an Arcimboldo-style spread.

“All fruit!” she said.  “Every breakfast, you can have all the fruit you want.”

Then came pictures of the bath towels folded into origami animals:  a swan, a snake, a giraffe, a lobster, a lobster wearing my father’s glasses, my mother sitting next to a towel lobster wearing my father’s glasses.

“Never the same animal once during the whole week,” my father said.

“Where’s the Canal?” I asked.  “Where are your pictures of Belize?”

My parents looked at each other and shrugged — “Did we tell you about the midnight buffet?”

About twenty minutes into watching Henry V, Matthew pulled out a Wordsworth Classics edition of the play and tried to follow along.  I didn’t even know we had copy in the house.  He flipped the pages of the thin paperback; there was still residue on the cover where the price sticker had once been.

“Hey,” he said.  “They’ve taken stuff out.”

Yes, I told him.  And not only that, but they added stuff in as well.  During the death of Falstaff, we skimmed the pages to no avail.  Falstaff isn’t even in the cast of characters.  What?  Messing with The Bard?  Who in his right mind would do that?  Laurence Olivier, according to Bruce Eder, trimmed approximately 1500 lines from the source material.  Entire scenes have fallen away; in their place, a mounted knight duel, a flurry of arrows, a bravura tracking shot of horses going from a trot to a full gallop.

Honestly, though, Shakespeare’s histories and I — we don’t get along too well.  Comedies, yes; tragedies, yes; but I’ve never found the histories that compelling.  What? I hear people saying.  And you teach English literature? Indeed, but I never claimed to teach all of English literature.  The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sixty-plus lines recounting Henry’s lineage might be incredibly informative, but it’s also incredibly dull.

The genealogy craze has exploded in the past few years — two television shows in the last year alone — but I find it less than compelling.  Being a recent immigrant to the United States (1975), the wealth of information available to others who have been here longer — church records, immigration papers, employment lists — isn’t useful.  Friends of mine have made pilgrimages to small rural towns to check parish records, to thumb through yellowing, water-stained pages, to glance through stocks of microfiche to track down the various branches of their family tree.

And, in any case, listening to someone else recount his ancestry is like watching a vacation slide show:  they get to relive their history, I get to live my own boredom.  It’s not that I’m not curious about my roots, but that I’m willing to accept the version of history that my parents have passed down to me:  I’m descended from royalty.  It’s every eight year-old girl’s dream, and it’s something I accept as a matter of faith.

Despite my misgivings, I typed my name into an family tree website but got no further than my parents’ names.  I realized that I didn’t know my grandparents (except for my maternal grandmother), beyond seeing their pictures on the altar in our living room and sporadically burning incense for them.  I didn’t know their ‘real names’ — I only knew them by the functional Vietnamese words for grandmother and grandfather:  ông nội and bà nội (ông ngoại and bà ngoại for the maternal grandparents).  They were a continent away and decades removed.  I could piece together snapshots of them from family stories — my paternal grandmother’s fiery temper, for example — and that makes them real enough to me.

Would it be so terrible to discover, further and further back, that I’m descended from a stablehand or a rice farmer or a drunken French colonialist?  Not at all.  But it doesn’t help illuminate my own person, even if, as Henry V proposes, it entitles me to a nice piece of property across the sea.

Who doesn’t love Jean Gabin?  I suppose if you’re going to start a new project, it might as well have some form of Jean Gabin in it.  He exudes an effortless cool, and his fleshy face invites (or at least suggests) pinching.  And, as the world-weary French officer Maréchal in Grand Illusion, he lends an earthy charm to a film that examines class, warfare, and class warfare.

Matthew and I watched the film in the evening, even though we were slightly tired from a day of teaching.  For me, first days (despite this being the second week of classes), are always accompanied by inescapable feelings of awkwardness — meeting a room full of new faces that look up to you to either teach them or to entertain them for an hour and fifteen minutes.  On top of that, I haven’t taught an undergraduate creative writing class for about five years, so I felt I was explaining too much and not enough simultaneously.  The day I can’t think of something interesting to say about Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael”…  My fiction writing students skewed heavily towards those who seemed mostly interested in fantasy and/or vampire novels.  Which in itself isn’t a problem, as I was once a total sci-fi/fantasy/horror literature nerd.  But I don’t remember what knocked me out of my lavender-colored gossamer space suit, but it sure as hell wasn’t Ann Beattie’s “Janus.”  (Come to think of it, it might have been Nabakov’s “Signs and Symbols,” but I slogged through the Norton Anthology so long ago that it no longer matters.)

The less said about composition classes, the better.

Instead, I’ll mention my two favorite scenes in Grand Illusion.  One is the obvious one:  the discussion of fading aristocracy between the French POW Cpt. Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and his warden, Cpt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).  Their conversation about — and understanding of — their diminishing place in the world holds such poignancy.  Their stiff manners and noblesse oblige might be the products of a ridiculously privileged life, but it’s what they have, and damn it, they’re going to keep at it until the end.  They’re like two dinosaurs circling each other, knowing that they’re already fossils.

The other scene takes place earlier, in what I’ll call the POW camp of love.  For a film that only has two actual females towards its end (a ministering nun and a widowed German hausfrau), the first half of the film has females:  1) mentioned in passing as playthings at the French mess hall; 2) pinned against the wall at the German mess hall; 3) or dismissed as Jody-fucking harlots at the first POW camp.  In such a male-occupied space, females only exist as fantasies, projections.  So when a baby-faced POW Maisonneuve puts on a dress in preparation for a all-prisoner!, all-singing! cabaret show, the other prisoners pause and stare as he wanders through the hall, asking, “Don’t I look funny?”  It’s a moment of disbelief and misplaced lust that would almost make me fear for poor Maisonneuve, if it weren’t clear that the scene were being played for humor.

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