Monday, May 30, 2011

Vessels of Optimism

Everything about our lives is now changing so fast, many people wake up only to find that the world they went to sleep in the night before is significantly different the next day. It happened in Japan after the earthquake/tsunami and it happened again last week in Joplin, Missouri when the 200-mph tornado struck. You go to bed with your life seemingly normal and intact, and minutes later, you find yourself homeless, stripped of everything you once owned.

But this kind of extreme change can also happen in reverse. Last week, a 17-year-old high school student--who was only recently bagging groceries in Garner, N.C.--woke up on May 25th, just four days after Pastor Harold Walker had declared that the world was going to end, to find his fortunes, too, were radically changed; and that, after that night, his world would never be the same again either.

Scotty McCreery was voted (by 120 million viewers) the up-front, winner on American Idol, and so for him, life couldn't be better. See how radiant he looks, together with his equally lustrous runner-up, Lauren Alaina, age 16. They both appeared on stage at the beginning of the two-hour grand finale dressed in white, appearing for all the world like two angels writing in a book of gold. Vessels of optimism so pure as to liberate anyone's embittered self. Just the mere sight of them makes you glad to be alive, and that's before they even sing. At this point, no one knew yet who the winner was, and if, like me, you have no penchant for country music, listen to these kids perform on You-tube and become an instant convert.

The extravaganza on Fox that night, live from the Nokia Theater in L.A., was so unbelievably exhilarating, it made all the global crimes against humanity scrambling for our attention and the collective catastrophes of environmental destruction everywhere disappear, at least briefly, the way the moon will disappear for a while on a cloudy night. For a couple of hours, the world seemed whole again, and millions of viewers were lost in intense jubilation, saturated in so much talent and sweetness. It was human creativity at its zenith, enough to last for a lifetime, enclosing everyone in its wild power.

They took it all in stride, these kids, whirling happily on the globe of life without being hamstrung by their own success or ruined by self-conscious posturings. There were notable high points in the evening, such as when Lauren sang a duet with her idol, Carrie Underwood, and Jacob Lusk, a lumbering black crooner with rhythm that leaked from his very DNA, sang gospel with his idol, Gladys Knight. Most beguiling of all, however, was the 19-year-old runner-up, Haley Reinhart, paired with 84-year-old Tony Bennett, the two of them singing "Steppin' Out with My Baby" from the 1948 musical "Easter Parade" like there was no tomorrow. Check it out on Google if you want to give yourself a special treat.

The other stunner was my new passion, Jennifer Lopez, who was one of the judges, performing "Aquanile" with her sexy musician husband, Mark Anthony. The sizzle between the two of them was enough to take out the most hardened criminal on Death Row. Lopez's smoldering sexuality just knocks Lady Gaga's contrived seductions right off the board. it's no wonder she has become America's sweetheart. Lopez is heart-stopping beautiful and drop-dead talented. You might just think it is hopelessly tacky, even shameful, of me to be so in thrall to a popular reality-TV show. If you do happen to think that, it is only because you are asleep in the waves.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Discovering Evil for the First Time

Time magazine recently devoted an entire issue to "The End of Osama bin Laden," his face on the cover receiving the same treatment--a red X painted across it--as Hitler's and Saddam's once did. In her weekly essay, columnist Nancy Gibbs remembers, ten years later, a conversation she overheard between her two daughters a few days after 9/11. She was driving them home from school; and they were aged 4 and 7 at the time. A program on the car radio was suddenly interrupted by a voice announcing the latest body count.

"They should have been more careful," the 4-year-old declared to her sister. "They should have watched where they were going, the men flying the planes--they shouldn't have knocked those buildings down." "My almost-7-year-old came back," Gibbs writes, "all wise and knowing. 'Galen,' she said anciently, 'that wasn't an accident. They meant to knock the buildings down.' "
"Silence. Stubborn. 'No, they didn't.'"
"'Yes. They did. They WANTED to kill those people. They were bad men.' "

Remembering that conversation prompts Gibbs to wonder when it was, somewhere along the way, that her older daughter had discovered the presence of evil in the world. It set me wondering as well: is there a moment in childhood when the hymen of innocence gets unexpectedly pierced in some raw encounter with evil? I think of this now, because I can so clearly recall the precise moment when it happened to me--although, admittedly, I couldn't have framed it in those terms at the time. Years later, I could.

It was Easter Sunday and I was maybe 10 years old. My mother had given me an (el cheapo) Easter basket with fake green grass, some fuzzy, yellow, baby chicks, and a multi-colored assortment of jelly bean eggs. I was thrilled with it. In those days, we lived in a high-rise apartment building in Manhattan, and I would play on the sidewalk in front of the building--things like handball, roller skating, jump rope. That morning I took the elevator downstairs and went outside, proudly carrying my Easter basket.

A few minutes later, the teen bully I'd seen around a few times before suddenly appeared and, with a malicious sneer, he grabbed the basket out of my hand. Before I could fathom what was happening, he smashed it into the gutter and ran off. I stared at the strewn contents and was devastated. Shrieking with terror, I ran upstairs to find my mother, By then, I was crying hysterically and could not be consoled. Once my mother finally ascertained the cause of my traumatized emotion, she dismissed the whole affair. After all, I had not been personally assaulted or suffered any physical injury. The basket wasn't really worth anything, and my mother was not exactly an intuitive scholar in matters of human evil and psychic trauma.

For years I never understood myself what upset me so much--until I finally did. That was my first encounter with gratuitous evil--with someone else's power to destroy and take pleasure in violence and aggression. It might have made more sense to me had the young man stolen my basket. But he didn't want the basket. What he took instead was my innocence, my ability to feel safe--the same thing Osama bin Laden took from the American people when he orchestrated the destruction of the Twin Towers.

I don't remember where or when I first heard the following story about a father, his small son, and the staircase, but I did know immediately that something about it was dangerous to the heart. I don't suppose it is actually a true story, but it was, and still remains, an object lesson in the breaking of trust, potent enough to leave its imprint on the recipient for life. A father decides to engage his little boy in a game, instructing him to go to the top of the stairs and jump, reassuring the child that it is safe because he will catch him at the bottom before he falls. The child jumps and the father catches him. Excitedly, they repeat the same ritual several times--the child enjoying this risky but thrilling interaction with his father. Suddenly, however, instead of catching his son, the father deliberately lets him fall. It is an initiation of sorts into the ways of the world, an inoculation against betrayal. So what do those marks on the floor tell you? "Never trust anybody," the father tells the son, and in that moment, the nectar of trust is surrendered to the bee's tongue.

When trust is shattered, it scars one's confidence in life and the possibility of trusting it. What matters is the sharpness and severity of the particular incident. Lions leaping out of walls will fill you with terror at any age--whether it is your Easter basket that is destroyed, or your tallest, most prized building. Either way, you will suffer because, at the time, you have no way of defending yourself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Osama bin There, Done That

Hey ho, the witch is dead. The wicked witch is dead. At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump and taking credit where it is not due, I have to tell you something you don't know. It wasn't the Navy Seals who just pulled off one of the most spectacular special ops in modern military history--the killing of Osama bin Laden--it was me. I did it. I shot the sheriff, in a secret compound in Pakistan.

It took many years of searching and then months of planning, but the raid itself was over in forty minutes; afterwards, we dumped the body into the sea, a watery but thoroughly Muslim grave. You know, without a trace? It's a program on TV. However, don't expect to read much about my part in this, since the operation is highly classified. Just know that I'm really proud of what I've accomplished, something no one else before me has managed to do. Unlike the Donald, I do plan on keeping quiet about what I've achieved. I won't brag about it--I know it's important to keep the exact details to myself. But I do want reveal one photo of me from the archive, practicing my aim in a friend's back yard, years before events this weekend pushed me into my big moment.

I am proud to have done what I did for the president, who has discussed a crucial thematic connection with his aides in the West Wing, explaining that the death of bin Laden signals something far greater than a national-security accomplishment. “He views this as a demonstration of this country’s capacity to overcome skeptics and do things that people had decided were no longer doable,” White House press secretary, Jay Carney, elaborated in an interview on Monday afternoon. “There is sort of a grit and resolve. And not in a John Wayne way, but in a commitment and focus.”

I confess I did mention something to my hairdresser about it all this morning--I asked her what she thought about the Osama events--but honestly, she didn't have a clue what I was talking about. She doesn't follow the news. I had to apologize profusely after my jaw spontaneously dropped several inches, while she kept on nonchalantly blow-drying my hair. So, no responses to share from there. Instead, I am appending a few assessments culled from Andrew Sullivan's blog the next morning. He was live-blogging the event for half the night, while I was sleeping in ignorance:

"And, yes, I am happy to use the word 'victory'. Not a final victory against Jihadist terrorists. But a victory against this one, the man who set off a decade of war and chaos, the symbol of them all. We need apologize not a wit for the joy we feel. Not joy at vengeance; nor joy at death. Just joy at justice. Immense and profound joy....And [Obama's] steadiness under pressure, well, let's just say: The cat is cool. The poker face of the man has for the last few weeks been pretty damn impressive. Just because he's calm doesn't mean he isn't lethal. And imagine what must have been going through his mind as he was getting closer and closer to this just as Donald Trump was doing performance art with a birth certificate...This has the feel of the kind of operation John Kennedy would have loved to have pulled off - and had a martini after. Here's hoping the president enjoys at least one Martini and one cigarette. 12.08 am. Can I say how deeply moving it is that a man named Barack Hussein Obama gave the order for the operation that killed Osama bin Laden?"

Virgil suggests that we not take these inner ruins to Rome. It is wise to stay at home, he says, and ask yourself, "What do you really think of the world, what do you love, fear, hate?" Eventually your thoughts and your writing will clarify.