Monday, November 28, 2011

The Singles Party From Hell

            When I hit middle age I found that it was time to re-calibrate my mating radar.  The things that I wanted in a woman were becoming less  relevant.  A twenty five year old man falls in love with his girls’ boobs.  A fifty year old man, if he’s not an idiot, will fall in love with his partner’s character.  If he’s expecting to revel in exciting boobs his whole life, he’ll look like the old fart that married Anna Nicole Smith.  That arrangement did not end happily.
            I continued to behave as if I was twenty five. This strategy wasn't working.  It led me into  ridiculous situations where I felt as if I was closer to twelve  than what I was, a supposedly mature man.  I needed to overhaul my pheromones.  My romantic fantasies needed a serious tune-up.
            Let me say this right now: looks don’t mean a thing.  Love doesn’t care what someone looks like.  Love is a matter of soul, the long run, a lifetime.  Love finds us, we don’t’ find love.  When I met the woman who would become my partner, it was as if love was waiting for both of us.  Love had acted as a match maker, moving us around like pawns until we were together and committed.
            I had spent years doing some of the craziest things imaginable, with one purpose: to meet my life’s partner.  Everywhere I went, to clubs, parties, salons, bird watching expeditions, I went with only one motive: to meet someone!  I went to events that didn’t interest me.  I went to boring seminars, poetry readings by bad poets, turgid discussion groups.  I spent time with people I didn’t like.   I even joined Mensa.  Wow.  (Mensa members, please do not take offense.  I’ll trade you mockeries.  I’m a hippie.  Mock me!  You have my permission.)
            All this frenzied woman-chasing came to a head when I attended a monthly singles party hosted by the local newspaper. 
            I had never attended a singles party.  When I entered the restaurant and looked over the crowd, I realized that I was at a gathering of predators. There was a subliminal noise of growling and hissing, of lips smacking and barely audible wolf whistles. The good looking people became like human bumper cars.  There wasn’t enough room for the girls to squeeze into the space around The Handsome Rich Guy.  It was a maniacal jostle, carried out on the dance floor to the D.J.’s disco beat.
            The scrum around Hot Chick was even more ridiculous.
            There are always a few major players of each gender at a party.  Ms. Hot was exuding a monstrous fug of pheromones that drew men like some protozoan homing beacon.  I could feel the other women hating her with arachnid intensity.  She, she hypnotized.. the men with her jiggling act, the bouncing of her visible parts.
            I began a conversation with an attractive woman. A few moments later a man emerged from a nearby restroom.  He looked me up and down disdainfully and said, “I’m already here.” 
            I checked with the lady.  Our conversation had been fun. I thought she was enjoying my company.
            “Do you want me to leave?” I asked. 
            “He was already here,” she said meekly.  The man, who had thin wispy hair, glasses, and looked like an insurance salesman, puffed up his chest and moved in close to me, getting inside my personal space in an aggressive way.  I could have crushed him with one hand.
            “I’m HERE, get it!?”
            I walked away.  I’m not the crushing type, although I admit there would have been a certain satisfaction in lifting this twerp and throwing him across the room.
            As the evening progressed, distinctive sub-groups began forming.  There were the “alternatives”, that is people who dressed like hippies, punks or eccentrics.  I felt that I was an “alternative”.  I have a tendency to wear loose, comfortable clothes.  I just put on whatever is handy.  I spent some time talking to a woman who dressed entirely in black, like a French intellectual from the fifties.  She wore a turtle neck sweater, a black beret and thick-rimmed black glasses.  Her name was Harry.  Or Hari.  Or Hairy.  I don't know...the music was loud.
            The “office workers” seemed to dress like cubicles even when away from them.  The“Bad People”, tattooed and pierced, grimaced disdainfully and often strolled to the parking lot to imbibe drugs.
            There was a legion of dark curly- haired men with shirts open to the waist, wearing gold chains and Rolex watches.  They danced that eternal dance, The Crotch-and-Swivel.  Their heads rotated, eyes searching, arms groping in the crowd.  Women jumped backwards and collided with other dancers as these hands found private places.  The expression “meat market”, cliché as it is, kept whirling through my mind.  This was it; the erotic butcher’s selection of choice cuts, laid out on a platter, a dance floor, as Abba tunes alternated with Stevie Wonder.  Good god, I was dressed in athletic pants and a t-shirt.  I was overmatched.  I was completely out of my depth. 
            The final assault on my sensibilities occurred when I saw, there on the dance floor, my therapist. 
            My therapist.  
            Ten years of weekly sessions, a whole cataclysm of my soul in a decade of the most intensive work, and I see my therapist at a party so comic and ridiculous that I sensed a foreshadowing of the end of my therapy.  If she’s HERE, why am I paying her to advise me on how to live my life?
            I left before ten and never went to another singles party. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What Isn't Love?

No one has ever read this poem.  There was a period in which I was obsessed with a woman.  It was a terrible, destructive, painful experience.
The woman enjoyed her power over me and used it to pull me in, push me out, toy with me.  She wasn't such a bad person.  She was simply in thrall to her own problems and the two of us constructed an awful parody of "love".  During that period I wrote several poems exploring rage, obsession and the difference between healthy love and obsessive love.  I chose to post this poem because I think such experiences are not uncommon.  Many of us have been through the agony of obsessive, jealous, manipulative and enslaving attachment.

What Isn't Love?

Staring into space at work,
while over and over you rehearse
something you must say to wound your lover.
Or having to replay
again and again throughout the day
some way that your lover wounded you.
Listening to the sound
of cars homeward bound;
to extend the range of audibility
farther and farther down the street,
parsing motor noise as you wait:
car too big, car too small,
how long will he or she be gone?
Wincing when your lover smiles
through a party's unheard talk
with a too-attractive stranger;
it feels so much like danger.
To miss someone is sweet,
but helplessness is bitter,
and love does not taste bitter,
rejection is the acrid morsel on the tongue.
Trying too hard to be good;
trying too hard to be bad;
trying too hard not to feel;
feeling too hard to try,
and wanting to cry
when you beg for love
as if it were a drug,
then moan in shocked surprise
when you don't feel high.
Yet you grow more passionate
with each betrayal.
What isn't love?
Heat without light;
lust without compassion;
compassion without passion.
No word exists for what isn't love
but it's always been around
in promises that are broken
in the language being spoken
by those who cannot hear
its splintered sound.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing a Villain Energizes Your Story

Nothing infuses energy into a story like a powerful and grotesque villain.  If you ardently hate a villain in a book you're reading or a story you're viewing then you're hooked!  You've invested emotion in the battle between good and evil, you're waiting for justice to be served.
            These wicked characters must get under your skin.  They have to arouse a visceral sense of repulsion and fear, the way spiders and snakes evoke primitive terror, the way decaying fecal ooze repels the senses.  Villains are difficult to write because we instinctively recoil from the dark sides of life and the more grotesque aspects of our selves.   That dark side, that shadow, is the only place from which a truly compelling villain can emerge.  We can't  tear off evil like a number at the grocery meat counter.
            "Number Twenty Two!"
            "Here I am.  Let's see.  What have you got that's horrible and scary?"
            A good example of a well written villain came in the film CYRUS.  The cast consisted of John C. Reilly, Marissa Tomei, Katherine Keener and Jonah Hill.
Jonah Hill as Cyrus
            The emotional engine of the story comes from the dark portrayal of Cyrus by Jonah Hill.  Cyrus is twenty two years old.   He  lives with his mother, played by Marissa Tomei.  Their relationship is what the shrinks call "enmeshed".  Mother/child/husband/wife/lover and beloved, all have become confused.  Cyrus wants to be with his mother forever.  She's his best friend, his only friend and he expands his presence to fill her life nearly to the exclusion of other men.
            John C. Reilly, playing a decent shlub  named John, meets Molly (Tomei) at a party.  In the usual sequence of events, John starts dating Molly and soon enough  comes to her house, where he meets Cyrus.
            Like many evil characters, Cyrus is a charmer.  He exudes a disarming "honesty", he's well schooled in modern therapy-talk.
            Let us pause and consider this concept, Evil.  What is it?
            I've parsed my own definition of evil to a simple formula: Evil is the inflicting of pain to avoid pain. This inflicting is often done in the name of Good, i.e. Hitler was saving Germany and the Aryan race from humiliation and contamination.  I exclude those beings who enjoy causing pain because it's their nature.  Such creatures exist but not for the purpose of this essay. 
            Cyrus is going to destroy the relationship between John and Molly.  He's a smart, tubby man-child who can easily read John's psychological roadmap.  This gives him power.  He also gets power from his mother's uncritical support of his efforts.
             Evil characters have malice and they have power.  Many of them are concealed behind a facade of charm or apparently benign goodwill.
            Evil people are trying to wriggle out from under a burden of pain by forcing others to experience pain.  What is the pain that Cyrus wishes to avoid?  He doesn't seem to have any friends.  He isn't engaged with a community of his peers.  He creates techno music on a bank of keyboards and electronics.  The music quickly devolves into sterile monotony.   Cyrus is a twenty two year old loser,  a lonely fat kid.  That's pain enough.  If we follow the formula that evil is pain inflicted on others to mute the suffering of the self, we find Cyrus' motivation.  He will obstruct any of Molly's efforts to be happy.  If she's happy, she will elude his possession.  She might become attached to another man.
            John quickly understands the game that is being played.  It's impossible to carry this information to Molly.  She won't believe him.  Cyrus is too clever.  Cyrus quietly stands behind Molly in a hallway as she talks with John about their burgeoning relationship.  Cyrus faces John while showing cardboard signs over the back of his mother's head.  Cyrus has printed phrases of malice and contempt.  "You don't have a chance."  "I'll get you."   "You're out of your league."
            This is the moment in the film where I truly grew to hate Cyrus and to fear for John.  This is where the bad guy engaged my emotional investment in the film's outcome.  Cyrus' mask slips and he shows a chilling blankness, as if John is simply beneath consideration.  John may be a shlub but he's a decent shlub and he steps up, steps up to the dragon, willing to fight for Molly.  That's the narrative counterpoint to hating the villain.  It offers an opportunity for the hero to draw upon courage he doesn't know he has.  Hate the villain, love the hero. It all sounds so simple, doesn't it?
            Unless we're writing comic books or cartoons, it's not so simple.  Each of us is a composite personality.  Our inner child is really a little car filled with squabbling midgets.  The steering wheel passes from hand to hand, the brakes are fought over, the car veers crazily.
            A villain takes advantage of the muddle of human nature by having a clear point of focus.  A fixation, an obsession, a purpose.  This purpose empowers the villain at the expense of ordinary people.  Bad guys know who they are and why they act.  In many narratives the hero struggles with doubt and obscurity of motivation.  His struggle isn't just with the villain;  it's with his own confusion.  When he sees clearly, when he knows what he wants, he obtains the weapons he needs.
            All through this essay I've been thinking of two characters: Adolph Hitler and South Park cartoon nasty Eric Cartman.  Hitler annihilated millions; Cartman is a fictional character in a television show.  Yet they have attributes in common.
            My emotions regarding Hitler are an historical abstraction.  He's become a universal symbol of evil.  Cartman, on the other hand, keeps my guts in an uproar.   I HATE the fucker, I loathe him!  It's a very personal engagement.
            The lessons of Cartman are numerous.  All of his actions are manipulations.  He is completely without sincerity.  He's a bigot.   There is no minority group who escapes his ire. When he's told that white people have become a minority group, he simply doesn't hear the message.  This may be Cartman's greatest signifier: his inability to hear anything with which he disagrees.  Intellectual and moral deafness is a widespread symptom of evil.  Cartman, and villains in general, like to blame other people for their own emotional discomfort.  This profound moral choice, to blame others,  is a basic step into the world of evil.  When writing a villainous character, it's useful to give him someone to blame. Give him a scapegoat.     
            A villain can't be frightful without power.  It may be supernatural power, political power, military power, physical power, but a villain cannot elicit fear, revulsion and anger without significant power.  It's the abuse of power that sparks the reader's anger.  Most of us see power as a privilege that entails responsibility.
We get angry when power is used for gratification of the ego and the appetites.
            Cartman's power comes from several sources.  He's clever, inventive, without moral scruple and completely selfish.  His mother gives him everything he wants because it's easier that way.  Cartman is a fatherless boy.  His mother always takes the lazy way out; she gives in to her son's demands.  If I take South Park as a microcosm, a model for the larger society in which we live, Cartman's mother represents economic power.  She makes him rich in comparison to the other kids.  He has all the latest toys, the best video games and a total lack of supervision.
            To further amplify Cartman's power he has a follower: Butters.  This sweet but witless innocent will go along with any outrageous scheme Cartman dreams up. Cartman generates momentum.  While Stan, Kyle or Kenny may have qualms about Cartman's ideas, Butters is always there to support him.  The plan, the idea, the scheme always seems to run away with itself before it can be thought through.  Its consequences are never anticipated.  The only brakes on Cartman's destructive power are the other boys' common sense and lack of malice.  In the end, Cartman always brings himself to destruction, but he will never admit defeat.  In some people this is an admirable trait.  In Cartman, it's merely irritating.
            In Hitler it cost millions of lives.  If Cartman were a real adult person he would be a frightful monster.  Think what Hitler and Cartman have in common.  Scapegoats.  Blame.  Moral and intellectual deafness.  Unwillingness to take responsibility for errors in judgment.  A will that generates great momentum,  and attracts followers who are willing to obey without question.
            In the episode called "Breast Cancer Show Ever" Cartman takes a schoolyard beating by a mere girl, by Wendy Testaburger.  She played the righteous avenger when Cartman mocked breast cancer and persisted in telling hurtful jokes on the subject of breasts.  When she established the time for the duel, when Cartman realized that Wendy was serious, he tried to buy her off.  She would have none of it.  In spite of the fact that Cartman was pounded to a bloody mess, he twisted events in his mind so that he won the fight, that he was still "Cool", or "Kewl" in the eyes of his compatriots.  Kyle and Stan told Cartman "You suck, you've always sucked.  We hate you."  Cartman can't hear these declarations.  He is still Kewl.
            This amazing deafness made me want to jump through the screen and pound the fat twerp to a pulp.  My emotions were completely engaged.  When a writer can raise the emotional stakes to such a pitch, that writer has succeeded in creating a compelling villain.
            I have used a silly villain in a silly cartoon show to highlight the power of a villain to propel a good story.  Ignore Cartman at your own risk.  He's a first class little asshole.
            People ignored and dismissed Hitler as a buffoon.  We know what happened to those people.  Monstrous villains  have arisen throughout history.  We are writers;  we deal in fiction.  The  most frightening villains in fiction draw resonance from history's tyrants.  Lazy writers may imitate these tyrants in their narratives.  Good writers draw villains out through themselves, knowing that each of us is capable of monstrosity.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We Don't Know We're Insane

            We're just like the fish; we don't know what water is.  But the element in which we swim, the element that is impossible for us to recognize, is stress. 
             We have become denizens of a culture that is actually a Torture Machine.  It drives us insane by presenting demands so complex as to be impossible to  achieve.  Every day, it issues thousands of orders.  Turn your left blinker.  Pay your insurance premium.  Pick up your kids' school uniforms.  Don't forget the doctor's appointment.  Where'd you put the McFarland file?  Where are the paper clips?  Why is this milk sour?  Now I have to return it to the store.  Screw it; not worth my time, flush it down the sink.  Are the dogs' vaccinations up to date?  Do I have the receipts for my tax audit?
            Why am I always left with the feeling that I've forgotten to do a homework assignment?  Who is this screaming at me, right next to my ear so that it hurts?  Our government is letting people steal on a massive scale.  My bank account is auto- siphoned each month, it's gone and I've got nothing left to spend.
            I think I'm going crazy.  I don't have any sexual desire at all.  The last time I felt truly alive was....when?  Have I ever felt truly alive?  I truly don't think so. There's nothing to look forward to.  My old age will merely be a time when insurance machines squeeze the remaining dollars from my estate, leaving my kids with nothing.  Zero.  The globe is warming up.  It's true.  The waters are creeping on shore, slowly.  
            OUR SOCIETY IS A TORTURE MACHINE, so complex that it takes a genius to maneuver its daily routine.  It tortures by its relentless pressure.  We don't need Stalin or Hitler.  We have modern life in Amerika.  See that guy with the cardboard sign sitting at the parking lot exit?  "Will work for food."  He isn't a pathetic loser.  He's you or me or someone we know who just cracked under the pressure and opted to sit in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone.  He couldn't take the complexity any more.  Now he's doing better. He has a shoe box where his money piles up.  He's doing better than I am!  Could I take sitting in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone?  I don't think so.  I'm not tough enough.
            Life has always been complex, but not like this...Hunting, gathering, fighting off raiders, that was easy stuff compared to this.  The modern Torture Machine can't be dodged.  Your assignment is late!  Punishment will be swift and merciless!  Your interest will rise, your credit will sink.
            The injustice of it!  I'm choking on injustice.  I can't breathe!  Give me a cigarette.  Where are all these voices coming from?  Let me turn off the radio.The off switch doesn't work.  The voices are coming from my pocket.  It's my Z-Phone.  Its off switch doesn't work either.  The argument continues, shouting everywhere, lies compound in blatant and shameless huckstering.  Everything is a trick.  Even the tricks we know to be tricks conceal more subtle tricks. They say those Occupy Wall Street types are going to burn Manhattan.  Quick, we'd better launch a pre-emptive strike, mow them down before they find out where we've stashed the money.
            The fish don't recognize the sea.  The people don't recognize the element that dominates our lives.  I will coin a term for it: Phobagonovia.  Phobe-ago-NOVE-ee-yah.  It causes us to curl up inside our homes with the giant TV playing football games and scripted "reality" shows where people are abused by their in-laws.  Phobagonovia.  We are afraid of new experiences.  The Torture Machine has implanted this condition in our nervous systems.  We are afraid of relating to one another openly, of crying in front of strangers, of expressing feelings easily, of hugging or kissing spontaneously, lest we be inappropriate, our strait jacket is "Appropriate", we haven't a clue how to dance in a circle while deeply in love with members of a clan, to sing ancient songs, to sit around a fire feeling wonderful under the stars.  I don't mean we need to go backwards.  We need to invent new kinds of communities.  We are dying of Phobagonovia.  Our neck ties are cutting off our breath.  Our high heels are warping our skeletons. The future is over.  Rush Limbaugh will be reborn as a talking pig that can only sputter nonsense. The people of his remote village will laugh at him holding their sides with mirth.  They will postpone the time to eat him because he's a tourist attraction.  People come from distant villages to see him.  They stare in disbelief, listen to his pompous mutterings. They throw him pieces of rubbish.  His time will come, at last.
            When the chief takes the first bite, he will spit it out.
            "We laughed too long," he will say.  "This fat talking pig tastes like shit."

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