In 1997 Kevin Kline starred in a film called In & Out. The story is of a heterosexual acting teacher about to marry his sweetheart. When one of his former students wins an Academy Award, his televised acceptance speech drops the well-meaning bomb that Kline’s character is gay. In 1997 this revelation could hush a movie theater and provide an actor of Kline’s comedic talents much opportunity for goggle-eyed scenery-chewing. Not only is Kline’s character emphatically not gay, the televised “mis-outing” comes on the eve of his wedding day to a longtime sweetheart.
His student’s announcement on the most watched television broadcast on Earth comes as a complete surprise to Kline, who initially doth protest too much. Way too much. But slowly he begins to realize his personal tastes, habits, and demeanor are in lock-step with accepted cultural markers for homosexuality. Kline loves Streisand, adores poetry, uses a napkin when he eats, and knows what a split infinitive is. Oh, and he’s driven absolutely mad by having his shirt half-untucked. And so on.
What ensues is a film that wittily but ruinously reinforces what it is to be a straight man, and what exactly it is to be a gay man. When I saw the poster I believed I understood the synopsis—but I’d overestimated both the director, Frank Oz (familiar to Mankind as the voices of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and Miss Piggy, and of Yoda—Dagobah’s diminutive Jedi blabbermouth), and celebrated gay playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick. The self-consciously daring film notably featured a 12 second kiss between raging hetero poster-man Tom Selleck and Kline. Which was just about the only ground broken in this 1997 attempt to tweak retrograde thinking about sexual identity.
Could it be Magic
In the film’s penultimate revelation, Kline’s panicked osterone is tested by a self-help audio course whose voiceover acts as guide and comic foil to Kline’s supposed epiphany. “Truly manly men do not dance” the voiceover assures. When Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive” starts blaring, of course Kline struggles mightily, but finally can’t override his gay gene and—like Superman succumbing to Kryptonite—begins dancing like a dervish. “Stop shaking that booty!” the announcer commands. “Be a man! Kick someone! Punch someone!”
As social history goes, the film is notable for casting in cheap concrete our collective late-90s wisdom concerning the bright line between gays and straights. Kicking and Punching = Heterosexual Man (today you can add Assaulting). My delusional hope when the film began was that the producers were breaking ground, would end the film with Kline’s revelation—and our own—that many straights also have a fervent love for Streisand (to use a little shorthand here), tear up copiously and often, and laugh uproariously with hands clasped and head thrown back.
In fact, heterosexual men have been known to swoon in romantic settings, sob quietly at “chick flicks”, gyrate to Donna Summer (her version of Manilow’s “Could it Be Magic” – are you freaking kidding?!) and otherwise confuse the gender brand. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Testosterone, I shall Pause and Gather Wildflowers with Both Arms. I’m talking of course about today’s Mer-Man. And this is only loosely to do with Ethel.
Here Comes Your Man
Am I manly? Oh hell yeah! But not so’s you’d notice. I have hair all over my back, but it is the hair that has fallen screaming from the top of my head. I am not a Sean Connery type who needs to shave his neck every day just to look civil. When I say I shave religiously, I mean once at Easter and once at Christmas.
On the Man side of the ledger, I have a gorgeous sweetheart of a foreign-born wife with whom I have sired two wonderful children. Yes, when in the throes of that procreative ecstasy I probably sounded a lot like Carol Channing being mugged. My vocal register tends toward the girlish, it’s true. When I’m excited or perturbed, I would not sound out of place sternly instructing Dorothy to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. If I had a dollar for every time a phone solicitor responded to my greeting with “Hello Mrs. Wing!” I could buy and sell you all.
What’s more, I write poetry, am indeed drawn to chick flicks, get a tracheal sob-cramp at every single hearing of Eydie Gorme’s viscera-wrenching version of “If He Walked Into My Life” from Jerry Herman’s musical “Mame”, regard beer as ghastly pre-incarnate urine, am completely mystified by the idea of professional sports, and get fluttery in the presence of Gene Kelly’s happy-faced acrobatic whimsy. On paper I am a gay man. At least as our easy-money pop culture would have it.
Rain-Soaked in Rangoon
But if being gay or straight is technically, if not altogether culturally, decided by sexual preference, I’m as straight as the beeline I made to see a shapely and rain-soaked Patricia Arquette in the otherwise sobering film “Beyond Rangoon”. To this day, the words “Burma” and “Myanmar” inspire in me a feverish excitement that has little to do with my wanting to find the place on a map or delve into its tormented history – and present tense. Those geo-political factoids are best presented by a soaked Patricia Arquette, as director John Boorman no doubt knew.
My unique strain of heterosexual manhood is a golden thread that can be traced back through the misty eons and predates a fully upright gait. My ancient Pliocene ancestor is the hunched, attention-deficient cave dweller who, while out with the tribe’s Hunter-Gatherers simply had to pause to marvel at the wondrous delicacy of the giant leafy Cyathea, and was noisily ingested by a saber-toothed poetry hater.
Chauvinist Straight Guy Warning
Today it’s politically fashionable to pretend that gay men and straight men share an equal footing, but in my view they do not. Possibly these next remarks will draw accusations of “sexism”, but my experience is this, and has been for a long time; wherever you have a gathering of people, the gay guy is typically the warmest, funniest, most easily gregarious, best-looking, and most interestingly dressed man in the room. This may be more straight chauvinism reinforced by a pop culture that anymore posits the gay man as a masterfully scripted wit and bon vivant, but it does seem to me an inescapable truth. Why should this so often be the case? Because (and pardon my ignorance, if that’s what this is) a gay man, like a laudably feminized man, has more of the stuff in him that makes the world go round. Namely: Woman.
To put it plainly, women (very generally speaking) are, in my personal view, more interesting, complex, and full-blooded than their penile counterparts—and the more feminine dynamism a man possesses the better. I’m not talking about presentation. I’m talking about the female geist. A woman is more creative, more emotionally intelligent, more expressive, more rational, more deliberative, more empathetic, and more acutely aware of the so-called “30,000 foot view” than a man. In my considered opinion. Anthropology explains this. “You go out and get food and I’ll hang out back here and make our Lives.”
Empathy. Broadsword. Mer-Man
I (think I) know there is an agitating cohort of women for whom association with the above-mentioned attributes is infuriating, and even considered toxic to the very real and deservedly pissed-off struggle in which women remain engaged today. I think some women consider winning at “empathy” and “creativity” a net loss, at least while men are being elevated as being analytically acute, physically unstoppable, courageous, and better at hefting the all-important broadsword. I get it. “Empathy” isn’t going to get women their absurdly long-awaited equal pay for equal work, nor the systemic respect of our self-stroking man-culture.
But “feminized” men, and females themselves, will ultimately save our bacon. Artists, writers, cinephiles, musicians; all ordinary enlightened empaths and payers-of-attention to quotidian treasure—give me as many of those as you can find. They’re slowly moving the needle.
In Ben Stiller’s screamingly funny male-model sendup, his title character Derek Zoolander—a globally famous, vain, straight, and adorably empty-headed nitwit/care bear—“goes home again” and tries to work with his dad in the family coal mine. Zoolander of course develops an effete little cough after a single day in the mines (“..I think I have the black lung, Pop…”).
After work, a lavishly produced moisturizer ad appears on the big screen t.v. in the company bar, Derek Zoolander swimming sinuously with an Esther Williams fish tail and murmuring: “…moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty…”. The gathered mine workers laugh derisively. Zoolander’s father is likewise disgusted. “I just thank the lord your mother didn’t live to see her son as a mermaid!” Zoolander corrects him. “Mer MAN!” *cough* — *cough* “Mer MAN!”
The Leader of the Free World is an unusual case. Something may be wrong. His grammatically unique pronouncements, curious non-familiarity with human culture, and his “hair”, seem to suggest he is other than human. But viewed as a machine he also falls outside the usual baseline metrics, to put it charitably. Experts suggest President Trump’s non-linear decoherence may be that of a mechanical man (or “tick-tock-twit”, as one expert colorfully described It) into which someone has accidentally spilled a can of Pepsi Cola. A whole can. Herewith, 7 symptoms that point to this explanation being the best we can hope for.
It constantly purses its TalkPort Like an AI with a synaptic flutter
It grabs women by the crotch and loudly shouts about that, and in the next breath yells about buying furniture with a married “bitch”, suggesting It is using a repurposed behavior packet from one of the discontinued AssholeWorld models
It squints and has a wildly protuberant thoracic module – familiar dual symptoms of cola syrup herniating an overheated Midsection Ophthalmic Bundle
It reflexively makes the “zero” sign with its right hand when emphasizing a talking point, suggesting Its Onanism Impellor is locked to the “on” position.
Its startling golf swing suggests that of a retrofitted animatronic Panda
Its strangely avian scalp cover is clearly designed to be quickly flipped aside for emergency tech intrusion into its misfiring blabbervault
what is this geologic crawl
but a time of large and small adventure
a time to “do” things.
something the dinosaurs couldn’t manage
in their 140 million-year “dominion”
why all that excited Cambrian hustle
an efflorescence so sudden and bizarre
it made Darwin a stammering dyspeptic
whence the animating spirit
flatter the fuck out of the trilobite
then walk away?
don’t mean to pry.
Brontosaurus. what’s that shit about.
flintstone burger. oil company emblem.
huge tooth gouged out of the hillside by the interstate.
Trilobite’s like; seriously?
chair in a room, lights out
door closed, closed till it latches
we are all asleep
all around the house
behind the door
inanimate chair in the inanimate dark
something must disturb the air around the chair.
that’s the intuition.
not nothing. something.
if nothing, then there is your horror
we can’t intuit nothing
that’s been a longstanding problem
Dear Jesus take this from me
take away my jughead childhood reverie
a chair in a dark closed room
the door latched
dark air undisturbed
for as long as you care to imagine.
I reach across the coffee table
yeah yeah yeah
lever the pizza to my expectant face
yeah yeah yeah
take some care not to let the granular salt
roll off the surface of the pizza slice
that’s how much I salted;
grains are layered and unstable
they may roll off
it’s a lot of salt
I read a comic when I was 10
some ships discovered mid-ocean salt mountains
later a princess said
“this is the best meat I have ever tasted!”
there go the eons.
asteroid? come sailing in
our eager telemetry means you can’t surprise us
but we’ll still get the torn clouds and the sound
and that will surprise us.
a spielberg boy will pause mid-pitch
track your progress across the sky
his hand raised to shade his eyes
though he’ll be wearing a baseball cap.
stir the laundry on the laundry line
give us our Rockwell closure.
you shall be as a fragrant spring breeze
or the metal joy-smell of sprinkler water
on the hottest day of the year.
At 6am on an otherwise dull Monday morning in 1968, a group of 12 black students strolled without ceremony into UCSB’s Computer Center in North Hall and proceeded to make history by barricading themselves inside. They did it the old fashioned way, with stacked chairs and heavy furniture pushed against locked doors, with chains run through push bars. First, though, they’d had to clear the building. They’d surprised a handful of computer techs there and politely asked them to leave, to which the understandably uptight Guardians of the Nascent Age of Intel replied “Uh, yeah, right!”
One imagines the scene with wonder. The contrasting haircuts alone signified a coming tectonic shift in the zeitgeist.
But the horn-rimmed and outnumbered Spartans were hesitant to abandon their million-dollar baby to the black activists. UCSB’s vaunted IBM360/65 Mainframe was the pride of modern computing, a research machine that also was the keeper of student records and other invaluable data without which the campus would be sunk. The burnished, button-festooned beast featured a sweeping 1MB of memory and in photographs looks like an enormously complicated washing machine. Never mind that UCSB computing was associated with the storied ARPANET, forerunner of today’s internet, whose DNA does indeed trace straight back to UCSB. The computer scientists were, in the later words of reputed student ringleader, today’s Murad Rahman, “absolutely astounded by what was going on. They must have thought it was something out of a comic book.” Later accounts described the black student activists as comparatively polite and accommodating, even as they bounced on the balls of their feet and tried to hurry things along. But the black students did make one thing clear. Any attempt to forcibly dislodge them would result in a broken computer. In a markedly postmodern threat, one of the students reportedly issued these words of caution.
“Look, leave us alone and we’ll leave the computer alone. We have your mechanical brain. Give us justice.” One official report typed up in the immediate wake of the takeover describes “…some of the students crouched in front of the computers armed with heavy hammers and large wrenches…”
The threat cast a chill on the proceedings. UCSB’s Chancellor Cheadle, whose previously elusive attention was the object of the students’ ire, briefly considered having the black students ejected by force. In his later written record of the day Cheadle explained the humane calculus that informed his decision to hear the black students out.
”The first option was to…persuade the occupants to leave the building peaceably. The second was to clear the building by force, an option involving predictable and unwelcome consequences. First, the substantial destruction of computer equipment valued at approximately two million dollars…second, personal injury….”
Yeah, the occupiers knew their audience.
UCSB: A History of Silence
UCSB is today a world-renowned research university, consistently ranked at or near the top of many of those cryptic “World’s Best Universities” lists that celebrate both academic firepower and actual contribution to human culture. UCSB’s campus has an almost unseemly number of clustered Nobel Laureates. You can easily spot them because they go everywhere with their medals on. There are but a handful of globally respected Institutions of Higher Learning whose topographical largesse allows the student to come in from the breakers and minutes later take a seat in a lecture hall where a medal-wearing Nobel Laureate is dispensing arcane, graduate-level brain food. Seriously.
But UCSB wasn’t always the enlightened bastion of liberal munificence it is today. The twelve black students who took North Hall and the Computer Center on the morning of October 14th, 1968 (namely Jim Johnson, Maurice Rainey, Arnold Ellis, Tom Crenshaw, Dalton Nezy, Ernest Sherman, Booker Banks, Mike Harris, Vallejo Kennedy, Stan Lee, Don Pearson, and Randy Stewart) were all members of the freshly-minted Black Student Union, which had itself evolved from an earlier black student organization begun in 1967, called Harambee (Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together”). Both these groups had been formed as a reflexive bulwark against what the few black students on UCSB’s campus found to be an institutionalized racism. This wasn’t the ugly, hothouse racism of hooded, spelling-challenged Master Race morons on horseback setting crosses alight on people’s front lawns, beating and murdering with impunity. This was the quieter, happy-go-lucky racism whose infected perpetrators aren’t always aware they’re carriers of the illness, white college kids in blackface strolling down the street at UCSB’s 1966 Homecoming Parade in white top hat and tails and waving giddily at the camera, or taking up shoe polish and a fiddle to effect a bracing, good-humored antebellum jig. As recently as a couple years ago a yoga studio in town hosted a “ghetto fabulous class” replete with inner city garb and costume bling. N.W.A. they called it: Namaste with Attitude. Yes, even the Enlightened stumble. These people of course don’t regard themselves as racist and surely wouldn’t self-identify as a members of a Master Race. But racism isn’t always a belief system. It’s not always about what you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s just about what you’re doing. UCSB had a problem.
A Bulletproof Coach Under Fire
The proximal cause of the takeover of North Hall’s computer center that year was rising frustration with the rumored passive-aggressive racism of UCSB’s deified Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice, whose unrivaled record of UCSB football wins, inconquerable passing game, and central role in UCSB’s football program achieving NCAA Division I status made him a living bronze statue around which the campus establishment gathered and covertly knelt. Complaints lodged against Coach Curtice by the black athletes in his charge fell on deaf ears, or elicited vague promises of investigation which never came to pass. The complaints described a litany of slights that aggregated to something less than the strutting racism that could be called out by school authorities but which made the experience of the black athlete at UCSB feel like something less than the thrill of victory. One typical grievance was that of an athlete who was tired of being served his meals after the white athletes on his team had eaten. Black athletes’ luggage would be lost on trips away, the black athletes would be refused service in hotels with no recourse and no backup from coach Curtice. Black athletes complained of being called “boys”. In early October of that year the BSU had issued a petition signed by 22 black athletes accusing the athletic department of racism, charges which were quickly dismissed by the Intercollegiate Athletic Commission, frustrating the campus black population further. UCSB’s athletic program fleetingly became the actionable nexus of a subsurface campus racism that was a nagging, unsung feature of everyday life for black students there. By the time of the occupation of North Hall’s computer center, the 40 or so black students on campus (out of a total student population at that time of around 13,000) had futilely gathered the signatures of 4000 sympathizers who agreed that something was amiss, and that UCSB as a campus was maybe due for a change.
It Was Not a Very Good Year
1968 was a “year of change”, as is said euphemistically by those who have never been shot at or beaten up or chased across the quad by a phalanx of upset National Guardsmen. The conflagrations that year were large and small, characterized both by the fiery, deafening explosions of the watershed Battle of Khe Sanh In Viet Nam (which would see American troops ditch a besieged base for the first time in that war), and the brief lethal whisper of a.30-06 Springfield bullet crossing a parking lot to break a minister’s jaw on the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis. In the wake of Dr. King’s death a visibly broken Bobby Kennedy calmed a surging, anguished crowd of hundreds in downtown Indianapolis with an extemporaneous speech and plea for unity that is now considered a classic of unrehearsed truth-telling. The crowd dispersed peacefully, and two months later Robert Kennedy was shot in the head while speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. In May of that year radicalized French students swarmed through the streets of Paris in a spasm of disgust with capitalism and the established order, in time bringing that country to the brink of collapse, and the Tlatelolco massacre would see the Mexican army gun down 300 gathered student protestors. 1968 had the character of a denouement, an almost stage-written wrapping up of a decade that would see the global Establishment take a flurry of finalizing body-blows and be laid to rest ringside, supine in its grey flannel suit.
Wild-Eyed Radicals Read Out Their Wholly Unreasonable Demands
Within hours of “seizing” North Hall (as nearly every newspaper that day described the event, though the students had actually just breezed in and rousted those inside), the black student occupiers of the Computer Center issued their demands in classic revolutionary style; from high windows above a gathering crowd of onlookers, through megaphones. As the hours passed and word got out that some actual revolutionary drama was afoot on UCSB’s sunstruck campus (or as the October 17, 1968 edition of UC Irvine’s student paper put it: “Santa Barbara? The campus of parties and keggers and TGIF’s? The campus where more students learn surfing than calculus, where more money is spent on booze than books? Yes, friends, demonstrations have spread to that academic playground by the sea…”), a crowd of onlookers naturally began to gather around North Hall, skeptical and restive at first, then grudgingly supportive, and finally offering themselves as a massed 1000-strong bodyguard for the black activists should the state make good on its threat to send in forces to enter the building and bring the thing to a conclusion. There was one instance of disaffection as an apparent faculty member in the mid-afternoon couldn’t take the standoff any longer and with an unsuccessful rallying cry of “C’mon!” forced his lonely way into the building, his righteous fever quickly doused by a black undergrad with a fire extinguisher.
The occupiers had 8 demands whose sum expression was the desire for increased minority enrollment at UCSB, an end to institutional and academic racism on campus, and the expansion of minority-based studies in UCSB’s curriculum. A year later, UCSB’s Black Studies dept. would spread its fledgling wings and take off on a journey that has to date been characterized by constant change and interdisciplinary outgrowth. Chancellor Cheadle, who had so successfully dodged the black students’ athletic concerns in the months-long run-up to the occupation of North Hall, capitulated so completely in the end, it stunned everyone. Once the activists had secured the beleaguered Chancellor’s accession to their revolutionary demands, making campus history and setting paradigm-changing institutions in motion – they more timidly asked for one more favor. Could they please not be disciplined for this little dustup? Cheadle agreed, offering them a collective “suspended suspension”, a whimsical little disciplinary flourish that was the equivalent of the dad-like “It’s okay this time, but one more of these and you’re grounded!”
This further incensed critics of the blacks’ brazen lawbreaking and Cheadle’s enabling. The Chancellor’s acquiescence would royally piss off then-Governor Reagan, whose battles with UC Berkeley and Clark Kerr (whose namesake building is coincidentally right next to North Hall on the UCSB Campus) would soon enough prompt the Governor to angrily invent tuition (heard of it?) and begin the country-clubbing of university education. But Cheadle didn’t completely stand down. He did refuse one of the group’s demands – that of the firing of odious but indispensable Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice. Agreeing to reasonably mitigate the academic hegemony of Eurocentrism on the college campus is one thing. But you simply don’t screw with a successful passing game. I mean, c’mon.
The Fruits of Determined Activism
Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, Chair of UCSB’s Black Studies Department, is about 8 feet tall and has the shambling gait of the “beloved outlier professor” who is always crossing swords with admin in those 60s movies about life-changing educators and the stiffs who run them down. Not to put too fine a point on it. When he speaks it is with the easy, laconic manner of a guy with all the time in the world, but as he talks his eyes fix you with a scholarly glare. In 2012 black students on campus again drew up a series of demands for the Chancellor (Dr. Henry Yang this time), with the result that Stewart was asked to oversee an installation at North Hall that today commemorates the events of that October day in 1968. He refers to North Hall as “sacred space”.
“The idea was to create something so that black visiting students could see that they had a presence, and were making a real contribution here.” Chancellor Yang asked Dr. Stewart to work with admin and students to make it happen. His team was comprised of Director of UCSB’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum (ADA) Bruce Robertson, ADA Exhibition Designer Mehmet Dogu, and UCSB Facilities kingpin Mark Fisher, and together they helped make the students’ dream a reality. Former Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas was a booster of the project and even authorized Dr. Stewart’s course in Curatorial Methods that would train the determined students in the mounting of an exhibit of this kind. Dr. Lucas’ successor, EVC David Marshall, likewise supported the installation.
With the help of Stewart’s team the students put the thing together, and it is a sterling example of the power of the image. The series of larger-than-life photo panels that line the breezeway of North Hall are eye-opening. One panel shows the excited black students draping the handwritten “Malcolm X Hall” out the second story window, while another features the inevitable black and white child looking at each other with that bewildered “what the hell is the problem?” expression that for ages has caused shame-faced adults to look at the floor.
“The research shows that right after the takeover you begin immediately to get more courses in the black experience, in sociology, in history, in English, in education,” Stewart explains. “Later, Chancellor Cheadle authorized a feasibility study and the Black Studies department was announced in ’69.” For the record, the Black Studies department had its budget slashed by $10k in the 70s, another story. Dr. Stewart continues, “Immediately after the North Hall takeover, there were courses offered in the urban experience, black literature – suddenly you had the option of taking courses in black culture. Right away.” The atmosphere engendered by the episode opened conversations that led to UCSB’s Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Department of Asian-American Studies (the first such department in the U.S. to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian-American Studies), the Department of Feminist Studies – a culturally and politically varied menu of mind-opening disciplinary departments that may also be considered the fruit of the North Hall occupation. Could the young occupiers of October 14, 1968 have really foreseen the culture-opening shock wave their passion play would set in motion? What if things had gone the other way, if Chancellor Cheadle has called in the troops? Ringleader and head event planner of the takeover, Murad Rahman answers this way.
“We were highly aware of the risks and possible consequences of our actions if we failed to carry out our mission with skill and precision. We did not want to make mistakes or jeopardize the success of the operation. The consequences of failure would have been disastrous for those coming after us as well as African Americans in general.” As for Cheadle…
“Personally,” Mr. Rahman says today, “I was astounded by his graciousness and willingness to negotiate with a bunch of what he probably considered to be wild and crazy misfits who didn’t belong on his pristine campus. I will always remember him as a man for whom I will always hold the highest level of honor and respect. He could have ordered us to be forcibly removed from the building, which was in fact our expectation. The Chancellor took the high ground, which I believe was the most vexatious but prudent decision he could have made. May God and history reward him for that.” The Establishment, in the form of Vernon Cheadle and the finally sympathetic crowds who gathered, seem to have seen a glimpse of the light that day.
“To me that’s part of what ’68 is about,” Dr. Stewart says. “In ’68 though they did have, you know, black power, black students; it’s not just about black subjectivity, though, it’s about an inter-subjectivity. Look at the page of El Gaucho where they cover the North Hall takeover. That page also has a piece about ‘Berkeley going on strike against grapes’ – then over in the corner Eugene McCarthy coming to campus on an anti-Vietman War mission. All these things were in conversation with each other.”
The North Hall breezeway installation tells the tale of a group of sixties students taking over a university building at a time when boldness was the default and young people would leverage any opportunity to right a wrong. Truth and beauty aren’t phony ideals. Even cinderblock can be made new. Dr. Stewart has a final thought about the commemorative North Hall installation. “I always was interested in the aesthetics of this thing, as well as the history,” he says, then breaks into laughter. “And that space looks a lot better than it did before!”
But were Rahman and his activist pals really prepared to wreck the storied mainframe computer that day? A gee-whiz reporter wants to know. Mr. Rahman’s answer is brief.
And one other thing; how to walk down the main street of one’s home town without blanching in horror at glimpsed scenes of seemingly ordinary people getting pedicures? Pedicures? Leave aside the timeworn First World/Third World shame reflex. “I mean, in some parts of the world people have no FOOD and here we are managing our CUTICLES and having our shins DEPILATED.” Listen, I’ll see your filthy limbless beggar in Calcutta and raise you one bored, well-off, recumbent shopping maven having her calves massaged as she flips stone-faced through the latest issue of Tipsy Showbiz Toddler. Limbless Beggar; take me away from here!
And yet…and yet. We’re fascinated by grotesquerie, aren’t we? Mesmerized by the morbid? Compelled by the creepy, hesitantly hippity-hopping in the vicinity of the hideous? I’m drawn inexorably to the pedicure mystery, like a fly is drawn to a really good-looking other fly. In awe of the toenail-centric rituals whose imaginings torment my waking hours, I’m sometimes able to work up the courage to sneak a peek through the doorway of one of these pedicure ‘establishments’ as I pass by at a nervous trot. What I have seen, people! As William Shatner demonstrated in the classic ‘Horror at 37,000 Feet’ (not to be confused with his Twilight Zone episode at a mere 20,000 feet some 10 years earlier), a spiritual abyss merely glimpsed is sometimes sufficient to paralyze the visage in a silent but otherwise powerfully over-acted scream.
What I have seen, I say! My brave investigative forays have revealed to me such scenes of spirit-breaking horror as one expects when gazing on the flaming canyons of the damned. Sound the Mission bells! Fetch the holy water and give me a quick shot! Bring me some rotary beads or whatever those things are called! I have seen row upon row of the penitent; supine, eyes closed, pants and skirts hitched up, feet trapped in whirring little machines while throngs of smallish chattering foot-folk hover busily about the lower legs, fussing and plucking and kneading, kneading KNEADING; a Personal Space Blitzkrieg that beggars the imagination YES!
Um, yes. I have intimacy issues. Yes yes yes. I would rather have a fulsome bee beard go angrily wrong than suffer a stranger placing his/her/its hands on my body for purposes of rubbing, knuckling, or doing that two-handed chopping thing I saw once on the Bob Newhart show. Begone professional comfort-wielder with your portable metal table, chipper demeanor and slightly botched dreamcatcher tattoo. Hit the road, foot-handling hellion. And you, muumuu-filling Earth Woman friend of a friend, who at the dinner party approaches in a cloud of patchouli and would massage my temples if only I would stop making like a terrified weasel with the wide eyes and pursed, scream-suppressing lips. Healer, your touch catalyzes in me the shrinkage of many parts and appendages. You want to relax me? You want to repair my troubled soul? Go over there. Way over there. Little further. Okay, that’s good. Now fold up your lil’ aluminum ping-pong table and get out.
I’ll be the first to admit it; I’m unenlightened. A Californian in name only. I’m unnerved by your Groovy Empath friend and his de rigueur 4 minute hug. Why are his eyes squeezed shut like that? And when I release, shouldn’t he? And huggers who solemnly flutter their eyelids and say “C’mere”, or “C’mere, you” while gesturing you closer with waggling, ringed fingers? Huh uh. On the other hand I’m totally cool with an orgy as long as nobody looks at me or touches me or cracks wise about my argyle tube sock. I get enough grief about the argyle from my wife, so lay off. I have rules – too many rules, some would say. “Why the sock? Always the sock!” My wife says. Oh yeah? What of it! That’s what…..of it.
The pedicure may be the nadir of legally-sanctioned, comfort-seeking personal zone annulment, but here’s a close second; those massage places that roll out the face-down padded chair and invite sidewalk passerby to press their frontsides into maroon vinyl and be molested in broad daylight while visiting Japanese and Belgian tourists stare in slack-faced wonder. You sir? The hipster masseuse pivots, points to me; my viscera twist like a wet towel. Me? Oh, please, yes! This’ll be great! Shall I just lie down and press my face into this padded vinyl hemorrhoid donut? Right here? Is this good? Can you touch enough of me? Is enough of my back available to your invasive stranger hands? Can everyone see? Gather round, good people! Gather round, I say! Don’t be shy. Take a close look! You’ll like this, because in about 90 seconds I’m going to turn completely inside out in a fit of otherworldly revulsion. Like an inkfish. Woo Hoo! Massage THAT, soul-patch guy.
We’re desperate for comfort in this town, and in our cash-soaked Western World generally. I mean, desperate! Acupuncture, Rolfing, our collective glad surrender to occasional woodland episodes of extraterrestrial anal probing – these are the signs of socio-structural stress. Santa Barbara alone sports dozens of pleasure domes and they run the gamut from Evan’s Relaxing Station to the thrillingly named Center for Lymphatic Health. Why? Where’s the stress? What was the tipping point? Was it the closure of the Stanley Kubrick Macaroon Shop and its brilliantly overlit single smocked attendant? Earthquake jitters? The fear that your neighbor may own a nicer 100-year-drought shower-bucket? Let’s relax, people. If we stop offering these flesh-and-foot-grabbers our patronage they will likely gather up their sapphire files, pumice mittens and vibrating love bullets and head on to the next little town willing to buy their outlandish snake oil. Go ahead, fools. Step right up and let them rub your shoulders, your arms! Let these charlatans rub the back of your fool necks! Sure, that’ll make you feel better. Oh a little deep tissue massage oughta feel pretty good. Oh, for goodness sake!
I must conclude with a true and horrific story of Personal Space Invasion. For a time I was writing sporadically for a magazine called Healing Retreats and Spas. Incredibly, my gig was going to day spas, receiving the treatments offered and reviewing the experience for the magazine. How I managed this I’m not sure, but it was a writing job and that was everything. That is, until the day I was sent into the Spa Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, in the L.A. area. When I arrived and introductions seen to, I gestured carelessly at a menu item, began with a bracing swim and segued into a hot sauna. Finally I was shown to a plain, unadorned room, where a fastidious little man in Cambodian casual bade me remove my towel and lie down. Ever the professional, I did as I was told. It was then he produced a large metal pitcher and poured hot milk slowly over my body, from toes to scalp, and proceeded to massage my quickly mummifying carapace. Any curious security camera shooting from directly above would have recorded a stock-still, mortified nude man with the pin-eyed panic-face and fluttering thorax of a hard-breathing gecko making its fight-or-flight preparations, his lithe and quick-moving tormentor scuttling around him with arthropod fussiness and working the victim/client as a crab might its recent catch.
After an eternity of whole-milk drenched mortification and the not inconsiderable kneading of the expressionless little guy in his white button-up Phnom-Pen blouse, I was released to shower, dress and interview my hosts in a stunned murmur. When I finally made my way out to the parking lot and my car I concentrated fiercely on not breaking into a run. It was then I spotted my masseuse. He was sitting at the edge of the lot in a lawn chair under a shade tree, smoking a cigarette, regarding me carefully through narrowed eyes. I’m sure I needn’t add the whole episode was incredibly relaxing.
Milk. It doesn’t always do a body good. You have been warned.
*Jeff writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where an ineptly edited print version of this particular piece can be found this week.
Nordie boycotters, Prancing “Patriots”, Freedom Fakes, Primacy of the Individual Phonies and Constitutional Amendment Scholars; your Russia loving, Kristen-Stewart-obsessed comb-over experiment is not a change agent—he is a world-sized diaper filled to the brim with publicly steaming crap. In six short weeks your diarrheic lightweight has already stunk up your beloved country so badly we’re going to have to tear out the carpets to get the smell out. At this writing our chronically squinty Pres is massively expanding his deportation mechanism in order to keep America safe. But who will protect us from Trump? Nobody. This has stopped being funny. This isn’t despotism, isn’t machiavellianism, isn’t even runaway narcissism. It’s plain Amateurism on a Godzilla scale that challenges descriptive language.
Peece in Our Time
I went to a speaking event at Campbell Hall this week where a couple of scholarly heavyweights, David Makovsky & Ghaith al-Omari, had a public discussion on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process in light of signals coming out of the Trump White House. These guys have each been on their respective negotiating teams since the 90s; they have granular knowledge of the process and the U.S.’s history as a broker.
They are also dear friends and articulate, witty spokespersons for the nuances of their respective sides of that seemingly endless process. They were both at pains to describe, in non-inflammatory terms, the vacuum of direction coming out of the White House, and Trump’s public remarks. They both referred fleetingly (and with faces bowed) to Trump’s apparent determination to put his son-in-law at the head of the negotiating table in future talks and—oh, wait…hang on, here comes Danny Kaye.
Yea, Verily, Yea. President Trump actually said that. He’s done his homework, you gotta give him that. No contemptible pointy-headed intellectualism evident in this humanoid twine doll.
Paging Dr. Kozinski. You’re Needed in the Oval Office, Dr. Kozinski
Trump’s dry-drunk press conferences, indecipherable pronouncements, impulsive and cavalier covert operations, middle-school lexicon, frank, blinding stupidity and unexplained Russophilia are more than a problem for columnists to gab about at the National Watercooler. The guy is an unfolding national and historical tragedy.
Though there is very very slow-moving evidence that the country is beginning to see into the maw of our common abyss, we’re still approaching the matter of our new “Leader”as if he is a Bad President in the standard mold. If only. He is as global and sobering a disaster as a tsunami on Christmas Day.
The NY Times, the WSJ—all the venerables, really—while continuing with their austere, clipped mockery of this eye-poppingly inept thumbelina, still parsed his ‘Israel Statement’ for clues to his approach to Mideast peace. What are we all doing, pretending this way? He can’t find Israel on a map or his ass with both hands. He doesn’t know anything and doesn’t want to learn anything. He’s going to smash the place up and not even know it. There is no malice. There is no anything.
The optimistic view is that Trump is merely an intellectual gnome and can be guided. It’s becoming clear, though, that he is in fact either damaged, drug-blunted, or suffering from some sort of chronic mental deficit. Honestly. And he waves off guidance. Can we all begin calling him out? He is not a conservative, not a racist, not a white supremacist, not an anti-semite, not a containable bad guy. He’s an extraordinary empty suit on roller skates with two machine guns. Maybe earning billions by putting up skyscrapers in Dubai isn’t that hard? Who knew?
Wanton Moron Gets a Press Pass
I personally believe Trump is deranged along some DSM continuum, and that this is an unfolding historical emergency. Meanwhile we snicker angrily at his “cabinet” appointments, bitch about his “racism”, “misogyny” and “anti-semitism”, feel only garden-variety embarrassment about his 5th Grade Class Treasurer statesmanship. The whole media mechanism is stunned into bland repose.
Trump is an historical accident so huge and tragic and ruinous we can scarcely bring ourselves to face and discuss him in those terms.
“Bill Maher Just Made a Very Serious Point about the Trump Circus”. There’s a screaming headline. Here’s one from the ever-reliable bait ‘n switch HuffPost. “McCain Unleashes!” What does McCain say in the piece? “…in many respects this administration is in disarray and they’ve got a lot of work to do.” Settle down, former tortured prisoner of the communist NVA. What happened to you, John? Whatever it was, you’ve forgotten it. Your President is on the side of your tormentors. At least until he gets a better real estate deal from the ARVN.
Will you and the other spotted ‘I-forget-what-I-signed-up-for’ jackasses SAVE YOUR COUNTRY? Congress, which famously does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, has an historic opportunity to haul a deranged Tourette’s wrecking ball out of the oval office for the common good. Our legislators will never have been so heroic as the day they cross party lines and drag this shit-for-brains out of the White House before he does lasting damage to the U.S., or worse.
Left-Haters Turn Sharply Left
Yes, the Repubs wanted “ANYTHING BUT HILLARY”. She’s a harpy! Nobody likes her! Too left-leaning! Her party’s programs are too socialist! She likes too much government! Gotta keep the Pinko Left out of power at any cost!
Hey Tortoise McConnell, Hare Ryan, and all the rest of you a-historical asswipes: your guy is in bed with Russia, Bitch. Have you lost your minds? Or at least your McCarthy-Lite Decoder Rings? What do you have to say about Trump’s warm feelings toward the President of Russia?! That is, have you closeted everything you used to value? Or is this more of the Republican Heisenberg Principle?
Trump isn’t a troubling bump in the road we have to ride out. He’s a blood-borne illness that we in our Sea-to-Shining-Sea laziness and torpor have self-injected, just to see what happens. The Trump infection could hobble us for a generation, or cost us a limb. Trump is an historical accident so huge and tragic and ruinous we can scarcely bring ourselves to face and discuss him in those terms. He needs to be called out. He is a damaged man and he has the power and raw stupidity and momentum to fuck up the Republic.
Burning Down Your Own Tree House
Shame on our elected furniture on the Hill — “The Right”, the “Conservatives”, or whatever they uselessly call themselves anymore. In the wake of Obama’s term (which thanks to you deafened clods looks more like Camelot with every passing hour, THANK YOU) you angrily sold your souls to get “Any Not a Democrat” into the hen house. Congrats!! Some of you people have worked your entire lives for your ideologically defensible idea of what makes the U.S. a great place. What. Happened.
All your deeply held political philosophy, your veneration of the Individual, of Liberty, of the country’s founding charter – and of Reagan’s facing down the communists across the Berlin Wall—all that party majesty inheres in Donald Trump? You idiots have given away the farm to a shitheel who can’t spell f-a-r-m, and whose bestie is named Vladimir. That’s how desperate you were to have a “Republican” in “Power”?
Save Our Ship
Dear Bland Bastards/Would-Be Leaders—both “Left” and “Right”. Please – FOR ONCE – want something more for the United States of America than simply winning your decades-long ninny argument with the other side of the “aisle”. Please – FOR ONCE – want something more for the United States of America than your useless re-election.
Repubs, if you would really rather have this dumpster fire in office than literally any Democrat, you’ve forgotten everything you’ve ever stood for, everything your country yet stands for, and you need togo home. You are doing harm.
Dumbocrats. PLEASE DO SOMETHING REAL, YOU INCONSEQUENTIAL VAPOR. If there was ever a time that called on you to do something with repercussions beyond your re-election, this is that time.
CONGRESS: PLEASE PLEASE STAND UP. TOGETHER. There won’t be another opportunity like this one to actually find common cause in the salvation of something you love. Storm this barricade and gift us the sea change Trump’s radioactive ascension demands. Reset the whole game. This is that moment. What more do you need as a catalyst?!? An approaching asteroid? You’ve got one! Do the Michael Bey thing and make some history. You’ll save us from a real-time accident of epic proportions while earning the awed respect of an electorate that has grown accustomed to Congress doing ZIP. Write this ticket. This guy is no “Republican” and you know it. This isn’t about politics. At all.
The Patty Duke theme says it best: “Meet Cathy, whose lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights—what a crazy pair!” How beautiful and true. Human beings, in all their full spectrum variety, are herd animals (at least that‘s my takeaway from the Patty Duke theme).
Yes, we’ve walked on the moon and invented words like “autoclave” and “ideation”, but these startling “top-of-food-chain” magic tricks do not change the essential truth of our species; we all need to do and wear and say the same stuff lest we become vulnerable and exposed. This somewhat poignant state of being is almost surely the result of our anthropological hard-wiring.
The human race has attained a truly bossy and sometimes benevolent dominion over all the realms of the Earth—the “…houseplants and barnyard fowl and pets, the creeping things and beasts that hop and shout,” as the book of Genesis so movingly phrases it. Our species has reached the top of the Chuck Darwin step ladder due in part to our individualized instinct for vanishing into the warm center of our roaming herd as it plies the tundra. When the wolves come loping relaxedly out of the woods, descend on us with bored wolf expressions and begin picking us off from the edges of the herd, does it profit one to be an outlier? Yes, if you consider being torn asunder without anesthesia a plus.
HIPness = Life Itself
In modern sociological terms what we’re talking about is a Herding Instinct Proclivity (HIP). It’s everything in the game of survival. Your public school has long infected your child with the toxic message that there is some majestic humanist value to being as individual as a snowflake, but all that really gets you is devoured. It’s time we told the kids the truth, and modeled it for their edification. We all need to be as anonymous and indistinguishable from each other as possible as we all make our way down the aptly named evolutionary Plain. Are light brown polyester pantsuits all the the rage? Well, we may be the paragon of animals, but this month the paragons are in light brown polyester. And so on. Let’s look at a couple of familiar instances of HIP; 1. Our species-wide adoption of the flimsy, ridged down jacket, and 2. The habit among young men of spitting something out of the mouth in a gesture of salivary insouciance.
Lightweight Ridged Salvation
You can’t fearfully raise your eyes from the sidewalk these days without seeing an immediate dozen or so people walking unself-consciously around in the same ridged jacket. These jackets are everywhere. The stunning ubiquity of this ridged outerwear would be amusing if it wasn’t so central to protecting our viscera from toothy predation. The ridged jacket is lightweight and supple, and comes in sleeveless and sleevy varieties. Its horizontal ridges are closely spaced, such that the wearer somewhat resembles a bi-pedal armadillo. And it is mostly available in black and navy blue.
Those who incompletely adopt the current HIP, acquiring the ridged jacket in red, say, are quickly plucked from the periphery of the herd and noisily devoured. One day you will see, among the placid sea of pedestrians in their ridged black and navy blue jackets, a few clueless outliers in red or purple ridges. How did these doomed snowflakes not get the memo, you wonder. It doesn’t matter. Within several days they will have been removed from the general population. That is the nature of Nature. Is nature cruel? No, nature is but a mindless, autonomically self-improving machine, a Blind Watchmaker, as soft-spoken Creationism Complainant Richard Dawkins calls it. That the Blind Watchmaker hates red or purple-ridged jackets is inexplicable, and can be chalked up as another of the infrequently entertaining Mysteries of Evolution.
At the other end of the HIP spectrum—the less benevolent end—is the haunting phenomenon of the Sputum Cutie. All the males are doing it this year, and it is maddening. You’ve seen this guy walking our streets and sidewalks in his pricey blue jeans and shades. His hands are in his pockets and he is staring straight ahead with a studied nonchalance as he strides, Starsky-like, down the street. Without warning a strangely coherent wad of goomba loops balletically from his unmoving yap and falls to earth in a tiny ballistic arc. This deadpan fashion-spitting is all the rage. Still, one is compelled to ask; what and why are you spitting, spit men? May I approach you and ask that very question without you pushing me down to the ground with a hand on my startled face? “You there! What the hell did you just spit out?! Why are you people spitting all the time? By g*d, I’ve got to know!”
You see, our herd’s evolutionary perch atop all the Earth’s dominions and stuff—it has come with a price tag. Our opposable thumbs and Darwin-approved tool making have driven us into a cul-de-sac. Combine our reckless ingenuity with our desire to all do the same thing and you’ve got a looming extinction event. These are the days a person can go to his or her death while typing behind the wheel of a moving car, for instance. Typically the driver’s last message to the world is something like “I’m typing and I’m driving”. This is the future. Even you missed it, Nostradamus, and who can blame you?
Mourning is Broken
There is, anymore, a helpful sameness to our grief, too. In the wake of these fiery text-based crashes, the heartbroken are known to express their unspeakable grief through social media. A little cartoon of a bawling face with cartoon water splashing out of the eyes is today’s most typical gesture of consolation. Sometimes we are shocked by a loved one’s “heartbreaking tweet” and are obliged to reach out with a little yellow face contorted with sorrow and flying water. “Oh my God…the love of my life just died…” Concerned and stricken friends of the bereaved will have the unpleasant task of selecting the perfect little yellow cartoon face to represent their sympathy and support.
If we had half a mind left as a culture, the very phrase ‘heartbreaking tweet’ would give us pause. Alas we do not have half a mind as a culture, and neither has this Gilded Age of witless advances managed to stamp out world hunger or eradicate poverty. Just sayin’. On the other hand, our laudable tendency to mass sameness makes it easier to suffer this foolishness.
So do practice your fashion-spitting. It’s got to look very natural, not like Jack Elam or some other grizzled cowboy actor theatrically squirting mouth juice into a spittoon. It’s gotta look cool. If you are wearing a lightweight black or navy blue ridged jacket while casually spitting into the Queen Anne Palms along State Street, all the better. Remember, these jackets come in sleeved and sleeve-free versions. Either one will cloak you when the wolves come out. Celebrate your uniqueness in absolute quietude or you’re screwed. Tell the kids, too. Again, the Patty Duke theme offers helpful guidance:
“Where Cathy adores a minuet, the Ballet Russes and crepe suzette, our Patty loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control — what a wild duet! But they’re cousins! Identical cousins!”