Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Significant Objects

Last week, I entered this contest on Slate. The contest was to write a 500-word-or-less description of a random object, imparting some kind of significance to it, after which the object, with description appended, would be posted for bidding on E-Bay. Which is all part of a fascinating project/website called Significant Objects . . . and how they got that way.

This was the object:

This was my entry as submitted:

From The Naughty Pine: A History By Tabletops:

Booth 106 was the regular table of Evelyn Nesbit -- it's where she was introduced to Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his famous Gibson Girl drawings; it's where she met the young John Barrymore, who became her lover and got her pregnant twice (once in the booth itself and once in his apartment); it's where she was introduced to architect Stanford White by fellow Floradora Girl Edna Goodrich; and it's where she met her future husband Harry Thaw, who murdered White at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906.

Originally surrounded by red velvet drapes, the booth is now open and unlit. On the wall is a photo of Nesbit from her Gibson Girl days and beneath it, on a small shelf, is a little jar labeled “BAR-B-Q Sauce.” The jar was originally purchased by Nesbit as a gift for White -- whenever White would meet her for dinner, he would order ribs, and she paid the waiters to always keep the small jar full of sauce at the table for White’s special use. Very special, according to suppressed trial testimony after his murder -- allegedly, the ribs weren’t the only thing White covered in barbecue sauce behind those drapes.

After White’s death, Booth 106 was roped off as a sign of mourning, a RESERVED sign was placed on the table, and per Evelyn Nesbit’s wishes, once a week the bartender would refill the BAR-B-Q jar, as if in preparation for White’s eventual return. The table went empty for almost two years (not even Nesbit sat at it), until the afternoon of January 5, 1908, when Harry Thaw sailed into the Naughty Pine, plunked himself down at Booth 106, ripped up the RESERVED sign, tore down the red velvet curtains, draped them around his body like a winding sheet, and demanded a shave. When told that he was in a bar and not a barber shop, Thaw cried, “Then I’ll do it myself,” whereupon he pulled out a straight razor, stropped it on his leather belt, and taking the BAR-B-Q jar, proceeded to slop sauce all over his face as if it were shaving cream. Then, pretending to stare into a mirror, he gave himself a blood-soaked shave while humming “I Could Love A Million Girls,” the song that had been playing when he shot White in the face.

“You must be a lunatic,” said one of the waiters. Thaw just smiled at him. His first trial for the murder of Stanford White had ended in a deadlocked jury; but the next day, when his second trial began, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

And this was the e-mail I received yesterday at 2:48 PM:


Congratulations! A panel of judges at Slate.com and Significant Objects has awarded you FIRST PRIZE in our SO/Slate fiction contest. You beat out over 600 other entrants for this honor. Soon, thousands of Slate and Significant Objects readers will be thrilled and chilled by your vision of Harry Thaw's blood-soaked shaving spree, not to mention Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit slathered in BBQ sauce.

The plan is to announce the winner (i.e., you) tomorrow (Tuesday) on both websites. The story will appear on both sites simultaneously, and the auction will go live at that time, too. Please keep news of your win under wraps until then. However, once we've posted the story and started the auction, please do spread the word via Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. -- all proceeds from the auction go to you.

Thanks so much for entering the contest!

Josh Glenn (director, with Rob Walker, of the Significant Objects project

As you can imagine, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to think of synonyms for, "I am thrilled to death."

Thie afternoon, the contest results were posted on the Slate website and the Significant Objects website, where the jar above is up for auction. Given that I've already received several e-mails inquiring about the precise location of The Naughty Pine, I must confess that, sadly (outside of my own imagination), it only exists here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Funeral Blues 3: Memorable Quotes

“I can’t believe he didn’t get here on time.” This is my father bitching about my brother David during the wake, like it’s David’s fault he’s in Las Vegas for a business meeting (cough) golf (cough) and has to fly back on Thursday morning to make the 4 PM start time. Which was never going to happen because his flight is due to get in at 4, which means he’ll be here around 5 at the earliest. This is like a mortal sin to Dad, to whom appearances are everything at times like this. You have to be seen by the right people doing the right things in the proper way at the correct time, so that everyone will know you are right, proper, and correct. Women have to wear closed-toed shoes and dark nylons. No laughter or loud conversation. Little boys should be quiet and not run around. I can just imagine my Dad looking at Joshua and Connor as they climb all over my nephew Dennis (are they seven and eight or six and seven?) and yelling “Roll over and face the wall!!!!” I have a lot of theories about why my father is like this, but I’ve stopped being surprised or angry about it. Whatever the reason, it’s how he’s wired to light up when somebody flicks the light switch of Ritual. And if that ritual hits too close to home, or threatens his defenses, he not only puts on the armor of propriety, he judges everybody around him by whether or not they’re safely hiding behind the same spotless shell (cough) whitened sepulcher (cough). If any man meets Life’s vicissitudes by obeying James Branch Cabell’s 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not offend against the notions of thy neighbors.”) it’s my father. And I mean really. Consider the mental gyrations you have to go through to not only blame a passenger on a plane from Las Vegas for the fact that the plane is late, but to accuse him of doing it deliberately. If it wasn’t so absurd, it would be admirable. Makes you wonder what my father did for a living (cough) professor of medieval theology (cough).

“Still whistling?” So there’s this woman sitting next to my Aunt Charlotte, and after a while my brother David goes up to her and gives her a hug, and then says, “Matthew – get over here. Guess who this is.” The woman stands up; I stand in front of her with absolutely no idea of who she is, and because I have a lot of my father in me, I grin and give her a hug and say, “Oh my God! How are you?!?” She looks at me and says, “You have no idea who I am, do you?” “I don’t have a clue,” I say. “I’m Lorraine Grace,” she says, and the expression on my face is probably priceless because David is laughing and even Charlotte is smiling. I figure my face is a cross between NFW and HFS, because Lorraine was THE hot neighborhood looker. Gore juss. Insert favorite synonym for “knockout” here. “The most beautiful girl you’ll ever see,” as Sheila Tagrin used to say, “until she opens her mouth.” At which awkward point you had to somehow reconcile the unlikely marriage of Hollywood looks with a trailer trash vocabulary.

All this goes through my head with the speed of a neutrino. Along with the fact that Lorraine is a year younger than me and I cannot for the life of me see even a trace of her youthful beauty in her current face, not a molecule calls out to me, it’s like looking at two different fingerprint whorls and being told they’re from the same person's thumb. And in less time than it takes to tell, I think five things and say one thing out loud: (1) This woman has not aged gracefully (pun intended); (2) I am an evil person for even putting that thought into words; (3) I have to be polite here, which means I have to lie; (4) “You look great!” I tell her; (5) You are so totally your father’s son, you little hypocrite; and (6) Is this what everyone else is thinking when they say I look great? By the gleam in her eye, Lorraine is thinking of something from long ago. And her reply proves it. “Still whistling?” she says, and everyone within earshot crack s up. Because if you know me at all, you know that’s what I do, and have always done, ever since I was a little kid. I whistle. All the time. As Lorraine says, “You always knew when Matthew was around.” Hell, Lorraine: you still do. Ask anybody I know.

Sidebar: when I say Lorraine was THE neighborhood looker? If you’re younger than 40, you have no idea what I’m talking about, because you grew up in an age where hot women were everywhere: on magazine covers, on billboards, on television, on the internet. Not me. I grew up in an age where the standard of physical beauty had not yet been devalued, like the gold standard, into something debased and common. I grew up in an age where you always judged beauty based on the looks of people you knew in person. And because it was personal, the beauty standard was at one and the same time, more devastating and more accessible. Neighborhood girls competed with each other, not with America’s Top Airbrushed Models. And it wasn’t just a Looks Alone Pageant -- personality was always part of the equation, because (of course) you knew all the contestants personally. Hell, you played Spin The Bottle with them when you were 11. So the queen at the top of the pyramid was not some unreachable ideal, she was the kid in the maroon house with the tree fort behind it. And since everyone else in competition with her was always somebody you knew as well, (a) every level of the pyramid was within your grasp and (b) every girl was a branch of royalty, there wasn’t a one who wasn’t a princess in her own right, or who didn’t create a standard of her own. I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up with a standard of beauty based on magazine covers, or the internet. There’s no way real women can compete with that; and boys being boys, there’s no way they’ll appreciate what they have within their grasp when the standard they’ve been fed is something so facially and physically perfect as to be unnatural. My generation? It sees the girl on the magazine cover for the unnatural thing it is, because we were lucky enough to idolize the girl next door.

“Are all wakes this noisy?” My cousin Joseph's wife Holly turned to me about halfway through the wake and asked me this question. It took me a second to hear what she was saying, because everyone in the room was either talking or laughing. "Our wakes are," I replied. I don't know whether it's the Irish in us or the Italian; or for that matter the Wells or the Coughlan. But when we get together, no matter why, we all have a great time. As Lisa Foley said to me at the graveside service, "The Wellses and the Coughlans. Always thick as thieves."

“Why am I singing 'I Could Have Danced All Night'?” My sister said this when we got home from the wake and repeated it the day of the funeral. I had no answer for her at the time; but now, on reflection, the answer's obvious, at least to me. She was channeling one of the earliest memories I have of Uncle Jack, a memory of his house in Quincy, where he and his family used to live before they moved across the street from us in Randolph. There was a record player in the living room, and a pile of albums next to it, and on top of the pile was the Original Broadway Cast recording of My Fair Lady, with the classic Hirschfeld drawing on the cover:

What was I -- 4? 5? Five tops. I had no idea who George Bernard Shaw was, or what Pygmalion was. All I saw was a wide-eyed girl being used as a puppet by a well-dressed man, and then up in the clouds there was another guy with a beard who was pulling his strings. I didn't have to ask my uncle who that was. It was obvious. The guy in the clouds was God. Who else pulls everyone's strings?

So, thanks to my uncle’s taste in cast recordings, that was my first image of the creator and ruler of the universe. To this day, when I think of God, I picture an old Irish guy with puppet strings hanging down from a cloud. It’s also the second thing I think of when I remember Uncle Jack.

"Go play in traffic." This is the first thing I remember when I think of Uncle Jack. He said it to all of us. And he’s saying it to my mother Lenore right now, over Manhattans.

Funeral Blues 2: The Dream of No Talent

10/23/09. Last night’s dream: I’m watching three female friends rehearse their monologues. One of them is wearing a pale flowered sun dress and looks a little like Rebeca from Maxie’s, who just did a show where she delivered a monologue. This time, with her two friends watching, A Little Like Rebeca recites WH Auden’s "Refugee Blues":

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, "They must die":
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

As she delivers the stanzas, I repeat the closing lines: "Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us." "We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now." "Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that." Every time I do, A Little Like Rebeca glares at me like I’m deliberately doing something to ruin her performance. Which of course I am, but I am totally oblivious, because this is what I do when I act: I listen to other people deliver a line, and only then can I hear the correct way to deliver it in my head. I need somebody else to create something out of nothing, and then what I do is create something of my own based on that. But it’s never original; it’s always a response to what somebody else is doing.

Finally, poem done, A Little Like Rebeca looks at me with a WTF Dude expression on her face and says “That is the rudest thing I have ever seen.” “Oh no, oh no,” I say, totally embarrassed, “it’s how I act, it what I do as an actor,” and when I start to explain, she holds up a hand and says, “No wonder you’re so lousy at it.”

Notes and interpretations:

(1) I’m still smarting about my acting performance at the birthday reading of Countrie Matters.

(2) Years ago I wrote a story about a serial killer who’s an actor. He’s one of the best understudies of his generation, but he’s lousy when he gets to create a role. His best performances are always when he steps in after another actor dies or drops out of a play. This was my creative response to one of the unwritten laws of theatre: you always get more out of a bad performance than a good one. A bad acting performance makes you replay the show you’re watching with line readings that work, line readings you would never have imagined if you weren’t forced to say to yourself, “Oh God, not that way, don’t say it that way --say it this way.” It’s always easier to edit than create. Which is why I named my actor/murderer Ed. Anyway -- in the course of the story, you find out that the only reason Ed is so good is because he deliberately casts bad actors in the roles he wants to play, and after watching them in rehearsal and seeing how not to do the role, he murders them and steps in on opening night and becomes a sensation. So this dream is me playing Ed.

(3) Acting is a metaphor for living. I don’t live my own life; I see how other people are living theirs and either try to copy them or do better. Either way, I can only live by bouncing my life off theirs, like a game of handball. And, to quote A Little Like Rebeca, “No wonder you’re so lousy at it.”

Funeral Blues 1: The Doggerel In The Yard

The Doggerel In The Yard

A poem based on an opening stanza by William Ernest Henley

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom,
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

Me, I’m just the guy in black
Training up to Boston, Mass.
Ruffian took my Uncle Jack:
Time to kick his thieving ass.

Cousin Brian kicks him first.
When his Dad’s in coma slipping,
He says: “No more getting nursed.
To my place this guy we’re shipping.

“When the second word is Home
And the first is The or Nursing,
Life is like a catacomb:
Death is what each life’s rehearsing.

“If I let my Dad stay there?
Call me ingrate, bastard, louse.
I’m his son. Because I care,
I want him back at my house.”

So he takes my fading uncle
In a special ambulance.
It’s amazing what pure spunk’ll
Do to make stiff nurses dance.

On the drive, my cousin Bri
Props Jack up while car’s in motion --
Lets him see the cloud-flecked sky,
Trees and houses, breach and ocean.

Sets him up in house to lie
Where his sons and children (grand)
Can his passing dignify
With a touch of lip or hand.

Daddy says “Your grandpa’s dying.”
Grandson Connor, face adoring,
Stands and stares – no tears, no sighing –
Shrugs and mutters, “Kinda boring.”

Charlotte sits and (swear to God)
Says, “Okay, our marriage sucked.
But the three boys that we raised?
Gotta tell you – out we lucked.”

Brian’s wife says thanks for Brian.
Joseph’s girls lean down and kiss.
Kelley? Kendall? Can’t stop cryin’.
So it goes at times like this:

Straight-laced aunts of morals strict
Curse like losers at roulette;
Uncles old who cancer licked
Ask you for a cigarette;

Strong hearts crack and spill like eggs;
Weak hearts rise up straight and tall;
Slow and frail will find their legs;
Marathoners fade or fall.

Those who never let you in?
Suddenly it’s Open House.
Those so sweet it’s saccharine?
Everything’s complain and grouse.

No one can predict or know
What the grief of death will do:
Suck you down like undertow
Or write out an IOU.

Either way its day will come --
May take seconds, may take years --
Steady, shattered, weepy, numb:
All will end in healthy tears.

Never think you’re hard and cold
If you see it’s calm you’re keeping,
Or believe you’re uncontrolled
When it’s buckets that you’re weeping.

Each of us greets death alone
And alone we feel its weight,
Heavy like a crown or throne
That we cannot abdicate.

Rule we must so rule we do:
So it goes while we’re alive --
Death will always try a coup;
We’ll defeat it and survive

Till we don’t. So goes the story.
It’s the same in field or town:
Funeral home or crematory --
Ashes, ashes, all fall down.

Do we rise up, having fallen?
Does God say to Death, “Touchè?”
Do our souls sprout up like pollen
En jardin d’éternité?

Madam Life may know the answer
But her flirting drives you nuts:
Woos you like a taxi dancer;
Leaves you walking home with Buts.

Ruffian Death says “She’s a teaser.
I’m the only end you get.”
But he’s just a Little Caesar
Who gets off on pain and threat.

So we stand, constrained between
One and the other on the stair,
While behind them, barely seen,
Shadows flicker everywhere.

Are they pardoned or convicted?
Do they beckon? Do they sneer?
Won’t know till we get evicted
And perceive the building clear.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Once every month I take Death out to dinner.
He tells me who he’s killed and how they died:
The swine flu victim and the Oscar winner,
The author and the teenage suicide.
“God, you know everyone,” I say, impressed.
Death snorts and rolls his eyes and says “I wish.
Old age? The stroke? The cardiac arrest?
They’re just the ones who nibble when I fish.”
“Some pond you’ve got,” I say and shake my head.
I swim myself, but I’m nobody’s fool --
Everyone else on earth will wind up dead;
Not me -- I’m the exception to the rule.
Each time I say, “My check,” and pay the waiter?
“No problem,” Death replies. “I’ll get you later.”

Copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

Poetry in Motion

Astaire and Rogers become Fred and Ginger in "Roberta." File under O for One-take wonders:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

100 Proof: One Life To Liver

Overheard at The Naughty Pine, Monday, 10/12/09:

BRANDI: So how was your weekend?
MATTHEW: Well, I pulled an all-nighter Saturday. Technically.
BRANDI: Technically? How do you technically pull an all-nighter?
MATTHEW: That’s when you take a nap early in the evening.
GUINNESS: Oh; so it’s like the party equivalent of a semi-virgin.
MATTHEW: What in the name of all that’s blessed is a semi-virgin?
GUINNESS: In America I’m a virgin; in France, I’m not.
BRANDI: Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?
GUINNESS: Among other things.
BRANDI: So you stayed up all night.
MATTHEW: Got home at 8:30 in the morning.
BRANDI: Did you push the envelope until it turned into a FedEx box?
GUINNESS: Did you drink enough alcohol to drown a giraffe?
MATTHEW: No, I wasn’t feeling that well on Saturday.
BRANDI: And you stayed out till 8:30 Sunday morning?
GUINNESS: Jesus, if this is what you do when you’re not feeling well, God help your liver when you’re healthy.
MATTHEW: I only had three drinks. Two beers and a rum and coke.
GUINNESS: You were Camera Boy, weren’t you?
MATTHEW: Point to the lanky brunette with the wicked jaw. I took about 200 pictures.
GUINNESS: Dude, that’s nothing; so you were actually partying, too?
BRANDI: As in talking to people?
MATTHEW: Yes, I do that occasionally, even when I’m being Camera Boy.
BRANDI: So was it fun?
MATTHEW: Oh yes.
GUINNESS: What kind of fun was it? Observer fun or participant fun?
MATTHEW: You know me too well. Participant fun. It was one of those easy conversation nights. Talking to new friends as if they were old friends. Looking around at midnight and then five minutes later it’s 3 in the morning, and you spend the next hour trying to think of places to go to that don’t close at 4, and then wind up at someone’s apartment and you have to make an effort not to speak above a whisper because there’s a roommate trying to sleep around the corner, and it’s, y’know, 5 AM, an hour at which you should be sipping coffee, and not a rum and coke. That kind of night.
BRANDI: So you were out with twenty-year-olds.
MATTHEW: Exactly.
GUINNESS: As usual.
MATTHEW: They are the only ones who can keep up with me.
BRANDI: Your inner 19-year-old must have been in heaven.
MATTHEW: He usually is.
GUINNESS: So how does it feel to be the oldest guy in the room?
MATTHEW: It’s just chronological. God knows it’s not emotional, right?
GUINNESS: No comment.
MATTHEW: They did pull the age card on me, though; and when they found out that I was as old as any three of them put together, I couldn’t tell if they looked at me like I was an inspiration or an arrested adolescent.
BRANDI: I'm sure it was inspirational. In a weird "He was born when Truman was President" way.
GUINNESS: And besides, you’re not really an arrested adolescent; you’re more like an adolescent on probation.
MATTHEW: I’m totally stealing that.
GUINNESS: Just like a 19-year-old.
BRANDI: So what did you talk about?
MATTHEW: Art. Life. A photographer asked me if I ever got depressed and discouraged about writing, and when I said "Oh God yes, about once every three months I just want to give up because it's never-ending," she was, well, relieved, I guess, to know that she wasn't alone in the world. That's the kind of night it was. The kind where people afraid they're alone in the world get to talk to people who feel exactly the same way, and the world looks a little brighter and feels a little less burdensome when you wake up in the morning. If you ever go to sleep.
BRANDI: So what did you want to say that you didn't get to say?
MATTHEW: That it's the work which matters. Although I think I did say that at one point. That when you create for an audience, you are at the mercy of someone else's opinion of your talents, so you have to create for yourself first. A piece of advice I always forget to give myself when I'm bitching about how nobody gets my stuff.
GUINNESS: There are people who get your stuff?
MATTHEW: Throws beer in friend's face.
BRANDI: I still can't believe you got home at 8:30. What did that feel like?
MATTHEW: It felt exhilarating.
BRANDI: You must have slept like a log on Sunday morning.
MATTHEW: Actually, I didn’t go to bed until about 9PM.
GUINNESS: You’re kidding.
MATTHEW: No; see, here’s the thing about all-nighters. If you do go to bed when you get home, your body clock wakes up on Australia time, and you’ll be tossing and turning till 5 AM trying to get to sleep that night. Which, when you have to get up at 5:30 like me, is the equivalent of playing Russian Roulette with a full revolver. So in order to survive, you have to stay up all day and go to bed at a reasonably normal time; and the only way to do that is to (a) eat light and (b) keep moving. No movies (you’ll fall asleep), no heavy meals (you’ll pass out like it’s Thanksgiving), and no sitting down for more than fifteen minutes. Drink water and walk everywhere.
BRANDI: So how did you stay awake all day?
MATTHEW: I kept singing the Marmoset Song.
BRANDI: The Marmoset Song?
MATTHEW: Yeah. “Marmoset there’d be days like this.”
BRANDI: Throws beer in friend’s face.
GUINNESS: Followed by pint glass.
BRANDI: So your inner 19-year-old went to bed happy?
MATTHEW: He did. Except for the fact that by going to this party I missed a friend’s show at Rockwood. I feel bad about that.
GUINNESS: Well, you can’t do everything.
MATTHEW: Why not?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The audience just isn't working hard enough

Here’s today’s artistic topic: how much prior knowledge do you need to enjoy a work of art? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot these days, mostly because for the last year and a half I’ve been working on a play about Hamlet, and wondering just how much the average theatre-goer needs to know about the original play in order for them to (a) understand what’s happening on stage and (b) get all the jokes in it. The answer seems to be (a) not as much as I feared and (b) just enough (I’m thinking of the running gag about Ophelia trying to drown herself –- happily, everybody so far seems to know that Ophelia and Virginia Woolf have that one thing in common) (even though half of them are now saying “Virginia Who? You mean that Burton Taylor movie?”).

[Sidebar: we won’t even go into the amount of prior knowledge you need to enjoy or even grasp current mainstream superhero comics. Suffice it to say that the fan fiction factory that is DC and the event-driven online-game-in-pamphlet-form universe that is Marvel are both prime examples of stories and characters which require Wikipedia entries to bring new readers up to speed.]

What brings this topic to mind today is the fact that I saw the dance piece Decreation by William Forsythe at BAM last night, and nowhere is it mentioned in the program or the online description that Forsythe based the piece on an outside source.

Here’s the entire description from the program:

In Decreation, all communication is mediated, detoured, in a seamless flow of configuration and displacement as the piece re-forms itself continually around three questions. Sound is transformed, weeps, and soars through bodies that move in constant, oblique tension. Dialogues, characters, and physical commands migrate between the dancers; a rapid, slithering switch from body to body as the piece unfolds in a labyrinth of deformation, tenderness, and rage.

Now I don’t know about you, but to my mind, those three sentences were written by a publicist who couldn’t actually admit he didn’t understand what the hell was happening on stage, and wound up using as many buzz words as possible to make the piece sound fluid, focused, and intelligible. When what was really needed was this:

Decreation is William Forsythe’s creative response to the essay "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God," by the poet Anne Carson, in which Carson compares the work and lives of three women -- the ancient Greek poet Sappho, the 14th-century martyr Marguerite Porete, and the philosopher Simone Weil. [PUBLICIST’S NOTE: Insert brief description of essay here so we know what the hell is going on.]

"I have to read what to see what now?"

So how did I discover this Anne Carson connection? I did a quick internet search this morning when I got into work, just to see if there was anybody besides my friend Deej who had reviewed this dance piece play POS thing, and I found this, which made me feel both kinda stupid and kinda peeved. I mean, was there a program note at Sadler's Wells that explained all this? Or does every dance aficionado in England walk into a theatre with a brolly on one arm and the complete works of Anne Carson in the other?

"Please complete reading list before viewing."

And actually? All that research still won’t do you a damn bit of good because the entire evening is a cross between “I wish somebody intelligent had written the script,” “Oh my God, look what they’re doing to their bodies!” and that wonderful number from Evil Dead: The Musical, “What the fuck was that?” If I had to sum up the 65 minute show, and not go on too much about how it felt like three hours, I would say the word "jerky" applies, in all three of its meanings: (1) the physical action of the dancers, (2) the annoying dorkiness of the spoken sections, and (3) a dried out petrified piece of meat that has to be chewed on forever before you can either taste or digest it. To me, it felt like the dancing equivalent of "No Soap Radio" -- you have to pretend to get it or else you'll look stupid.

And on a personal level? Given my propensity for writing things that require footnotes to their footnotes? It was a nice little wake up call to keep things simple and straightforward, and to make sure that everything you need to know is part of the piece itself, and not something that requires either a doctorate degree or a storage space full of reference books.

I am Matthew's target audience.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The New Confederacy

So I’ve been thinking. (I know, I know. "Danger, Will Robinson.") And it occurs to me that when you lay out the opposing arguments over what’s behind the current roar of anti-Obama rage --

THE LEFT: It’s all about race!
THE RIGHT: It has nothing to do with race at all!

-- it’s just a modern version of the same shoutfest that happens when you bring up the War Between The States:

THE NORTH: It’s all about slavery!
THE SOUTH: It had nothing to do with slavery at all!

It's the "nothing AT ALL" that's the over-the-top giveaway. The South isn't saying "It's not just about slavery," and pointing to state's rights and anti-federalism as the major causes; no, they're taking slavery off the Reasons For Fighting table completely. Same with the anti-Obama tea-party movement. To listen to them, you'd think they didn't have a racial bone in their bodies. And while that might be true, the fact that they will not admit even the possibility that it might be false is what gives them more in common with a South Carolina plantation owner in 1859 than it does a South Carolina senator in 2009. I think we should call these people the New Confederacy. Now let's see how they stack up against the 19th-century version.

OLD CONFEDERACY: It's not about slavery!
NEW CONFEDERACY: It's not about race!

The other thing the New Confederates always say? “Obama’s 50% white!” “He’s not even black, he’s half white!” The implication being, “So how does that make me racist?” But the real message being, “He’s so uppity he’s claiming he’s something he’s not. But I know the real truth.” To which the proper response is, “No, you know a real fact, but the truth is, you wouldn’t be making such a big deal out of it if it really didn’t matter to you.”

NEW CONFEDERATE: It doesn’t matter.
ME: Then why bring it up?
NEW CONFEDERATE: Because you need to know it doesn’t matter!
ME: People don’t keep shouting about things that don’t matter.
NEW CONFEDERATE: They do when no one listens to them.
ME: Oh we can hear you fine. I’m just saying, that’s all we’re hearing. And from personal experience? People yell the loudest when they know they’re in the wrong.
NEW CONFEDERATE: We are not in the wrong!
ME: I hear you. But I don’t think you really believe it.
ME: Because when Glenn Beck says things like: “Obama has a deep-seated hatred for white people and white culture,” not a single one of you ever says: “But he’s half-white, Glenn!” Or does that mean you guys are just 50% hypocrite?

Don't hate me because I'm 50% beautiful.

OLD CONFEDERACY: God damn Republicans!
NEW CONFEDERACY: God damn Democrats!

Typical Yankee vs typical Flower of Southern Womanhood
(As Portrayed By A Brit).

Look -- America is a frontier nation. Always has been, always will be. That means two things. There's always a line we have to cross, because frontier means borders, and borders means fighting over what's rightfully ours. And we can't feel good about ourselves unless we have an enemy to fight. How badly do we need that enemy? Well, let's see -- we fought the previous inhabitants of this continent, we went back to the old continent a couple of times to fight against a couple of their countries, and we even went so far as to fight a land war in Asia, which is like the third stupidest thing an army can do (right after trying to invade Russia in winter and setting foot in Afghanistan, period). And whenever there's no obvious enemy out there, we just turn around and start fighting amongst ourselves. Over what?

OLD CONFEDERACY: You won’t conquer our country!
NEW CONFEDERACY: You stole our country!

This has been the New Confederate cry since the Clinton administration, but was never heard once during the administration of the guy who actually did pickpocket the Presidency. And because stealing implies a period of prior legal ownership, the mind-set behind this attitude is to rational thought what the orbit of Pluto is to our solar system. These people actually think they rightfully own the country. The horrible truth is that the upper one percent of them actually do.

OLD CONFEDERACY: No city slicker is going to swindle us.
NEW CONFEDERACY: No government hand-out program is going to swindle us.

According to the New Confederates, there are two classes in this country: the good, productive people with jobs, and the lazy good-for-nothing loafers who want to steal the good peoples’ hard-earned money. Basically, the New Confeds equate freedom with capitalism (which means they treat the Constitution like it’s a set of corporate by-laws), believe that patriotism means correctly answering the question “What have you done to support the free market system?” and preach the gospel of fiscal conservatism by making sure that money is never distributed to those who do not work. Their battle cry is "You can give my money to the Army, but not the homeless Army vet." Their definition of prosperity is not when Main Street is making money, but when Wall Street is.

OLD CONFEDERACY: Your laws are not binding on us!
NEW CONFEDERACY: Your laws are not binding on us!

The South has never forgiven the North for using numbers and resources to defeat passion and a principle. Because they fought for a principle, that made the Old Confederates morally superior to everybody else, which is why they considered themselves beyond the legal jurisdiction of the North. Currently the New Confederates consider themselves beyond the jurisdiction of civility and politeness. Why be polite to someone whom you do not recognize as an authority figure? Why show respect for the office, when the man inhabiting it is anathema to you? The Left did it during the Bush administration, right? Damn right. They went over the line. And they would have carried guns to town hall meetings, too, except that they were too busy getting arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.

NEW CONFEDERACY: Respect for the office only applies when one of us holds the office. When one of you gets elected? The office is vacant.
TRANSLATION: It’s not a World Series unless the Yankees are in it.

OLD CONFEDERACY: God is on our side!
NEW CONFEDERACY: Satan is on your side!

To the New Confederacy, the world is full of godless Northerners, who raid their homeland like Vikings with Boston accents. But what do you expect from a group of people who think that Jesus wears a T-shirt with WWRRD on it (for “What Would Ronald Reagan Do”)? They prefer the Christ who comes with a sword, and love to quote the time when He said “Suffer!” like He never added the words “the little children to come unto me.” And meanwhile the rest of us have to suffer through the sermons of pastors who pray that God will make the President of the United States die of brain cancer, like, yesterday -- a sentiment echoed by their gun-toting parishioners, who wish Obama would hurry up already and "die and go to hell."

OBAMA: Whatever you do to the least of my citizens, you do it to me.
NEW CONFEDERACY: No! No! A thousand times no! That’s atheistic socialism!
JESUS CHRIST: Actually, it’s the essence of Christianity.

So yes, what's happening Out There is caused by more than racial anger, just like the War Between The States was caused by more than the South's peculiar institution. But on another level it's exactly the same thing, because what's happening Out There is the rising of the New Confederacy, and Obama is their Fort Sumter.

Will there be a war? There already is. Every day you can hear the battle cries of those who feel they have been betrayed, disenfranchised and marginalized. And because they feel that no one is listening to them, their cries are only going to get louder. And as Abbie Hoffman would be the first to agree, volume translates into numbers -- the louder you shout, the more of you there must be. And the more your message gets repeated, the closer it gets to becoming a fact, rather than an opinion.

Will the war ever end? God no. The only thing more satisfying than fighting for a Cause is fighting for a Lost Cause, which is why you can distinctly hear a lot of New Confederates whining about the Lost part. Jefferson said that the tree of liberty needs to be watered with blood every generation or so, to which Aaron Burr is supposed to have remarked, "If you want that particular tree to live longer, then you had better pluck all the sour grapes off it." But no, those sour grapes hang there still, and the loudest shouters on either side cannot utter a word without the smell of them on their breath. They get drunk on them, so drunk that they have no wish to ever be sober again. That's why the war will never end. The anger is so intoxicating that those in the front lines of both sides will continue to drink from this particular cup, and look forward not to victory, because that would end the fighting, but the next battle, because that will fill their cup up to the brim. It's like cancer research -- there's so much money invested in the problem that a solution is unthinkable.

NEW CONFEDERACY: We'd rather fight than win. Winning is like death. We only really feel alive when we're revolting.
THE NEW CONFEDERACY'S MEDIA CONSULTANTS: Will you listen to what you're saying?
NEW CONFEDERACY: And it's not about race. We just don't want this country run by a Muslim.