02 December 2010


It never gets old. That’s why I own it, so I can get it out a couple of times a year and watch people so real, it’s as though they’re walking around in our living room. I laid the DVD on the kitchen counter over a week ago but still didn’t have time to watch it until this weekend. I’ll probably watch it again over Christmas break. It came out in 1999, and it never ages, at least for me.

We have a rosebush outside our front door, although it’s not an American Beauty. I think it’s a Peace rose, as a matter of fact. I planted it there years ago, probably at least six. I cut it down to the ground every winter, in the midst of one of the hardest and most dramatic freezes, because I heard on the street that that's what you’re supposed to do. I don’t know if I’m doing it right or not, but it comes back every year, and grows a bit every year, too. Its progress is so slow that if you weren’t watching it with great purpose, really watching it, aware of all the possible little changes, you wouldn’t realize it was happening.

I do watch, though, very closely, not to the exclusion of everything else in the world, but with great intention. As a rule, I notice changes, different smells, colors, positions of things... moods, shoes, haircuts, those kinds of things. I would bet I’ve actually missed a few things in the past couple of weeks, because I don’t feel like I’ve looked up from anything I’ve been doing for even a second, but I know I’ve still caught quite a few details.

This may seem rambling, but it’s not. I think I like the movie “
American Beauty” as much as I do because I notice. I try to make a practice of “looking closer,” as goes the main theme of the movie. It can mean a thousand different things from the beginning to the end, and I’m sure I still haven’t recognized them all.

Lester Burnham opens the film with a narration about his life--and death. It turns out he’s to be murdered, and just when he’s finally rejoined the living. Lester has been in quite a rut. He works...somewhere, in flourescent-office-world, selling ad space in a magazine for an obnoxious young asshole named Brad. The environment is pale, lifeless, toxic, and reflects what must have become Lester’s soul by this point in his life. His wife, Carolyn, is a manic realtor busting with insecurities and a certain measure of self-loathing, which only build after she starts up an affair with the “king” of real estate - yes, Buddy King himself. It’s always curious to me to watch someone grow to hate themselves steadily more as they engage in some act they deeply believe to be wrong but which they’re trying like hell to use to make themselves feel
better about their lives.

This film is loaded with some textbook
cognitive dissonance, in Carolyn's becoming more and more disgusted with Lester even while she’s cheating on him in an effort to mask her feelings of guilt and shame; in the desperately homophobic and deeply repressed gay man next door, Colonel Fitts, who is actually the one who shoots Lester, after trying to kiss him, rather than have to face him again and feel whatever terrifying things he was feeling; and of course in Lester, at each major turning point in the story when he realizes that he wasn’t as committed to his own misery as he had previously believed. When we join the Burnhams in their lives already in progress, we can see the dysfunction oozing out of the pores of the film. They all appear to absolutely loathe each other.

Lester speaks in a voice, when it can be gathered, that rings with “I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of this." Carolyn’s voice pulsates with a withering “I hate you SO much, and I can’t believe I’m stuck here with your dead weight, instead of out winning my way into the stratosphere and beyond, where my real life is happening!” (Her subconscious really would say something like that too... crazy.) Their daughter, Jane, can’t stand either one of them, although it’s obvious that she has no trouble reading Lester’s thoughts and has simply been spending her time adapting to his unavailability, even before it really came. Still, they have a collective frustration about them you might see in a bunch of people trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner with one hand tied behind their backs. The Burnhams don't understand what happened to them or why they just seem to be chasing each other around the drain. As Lester learns to enjoy himself more again, with help from Colonel Fitts’s son and Janie’s new boyfriend, Ricky, and his high-quality pot, he begins to remember what he liked both about himself and about Carolyn, although both are still firmly too ensconced in their communicational habits to get very far.

relational dialectices in this movie are like a fireworks show. Lester and Carolyn continuously cycle through patterns of integration and separation, stability and change. The Fittses express nothing, while the gay "Jim" couple who live on the other side of the Burnhams seem to express everything, even though they could be perceived as being at the greatest disadvantage for doing so. The Jims are happy; the Fittses are not and have too many other issues to discuss in any writing they must share with the rest of the movie.

You don’t always get to pick your catalysts and Lester’s revelatory period is sparked by one of young Janie’s school girl-friends, Angela. From the moment he sees the girl on the high school basketball court at halftime, throwing her pompons around, he basically moves out of the home he shares with Carolyn and directly into his fantasies about the pretty teenager. Fortunately, he’s too much of a coward to engage in any real pursuit of her early on, and as the film progresses and he gets “better” outside, he grows up on the inside as well. He finally is granted a shot with the girl on the night he dies, but upon hearing that she is a virgin, suddenly remembers that he's looking at a child, like his own daughter, like himself when his whole life was ahead of him, and he grows very protective of her, bundles her up, fixes her a sandwich, and
talks to her. The feeling here is that his fantasy was fulfilled after all, and in fact, it was...by him. As he sits down at the dining room table with a beer, gazing at a picture of him, Carolyn, and Janie - laughing, playing together - the muzzle of a pistol eases into the shot, the camera pans away, and blood hits the wall. Earlier in the evening, Colonel Fitts, possibly the single most pained man in the world, had flipped out next door, beaten the crap out of his son, and in his fragile state, had wandered over to Lester’s garage and tried to kiss him. Lester, of course, had pulled away from him, so, so gently, with no judgment whatsoever, but the demon had been let out. Colonel Fitts, it seems, was not ready for beauty.

The movie is breathtaking. Everything in it, every relationship, every emotion, has another layer beneath, or multiple ones. Beautiful things can be ugly; and the most seemingly hideous things can be the most beautiful. There’s something to the eye-of-the-beholder angle, but it’s more than that. You just have to look for it, whether it's in this movie (or this blog about it), a sunset, the soft purring of a contented cat, your children's laughter, the rush and rustle of the wind, the coolness of a windowpane at night or it's diffuse warmth in the mid-afternoon sun, a plastic bag dancing alone in an alley, your wife's eyes...don't take anything for granted. Look closer.

06 June 2010

"31" (warning for tender ears/eyes: contains graphic language)

“You don’t need no niggah. You got one, though, don’t you? That’s who you’re callin’. You want my number? Would you call me? I bet you would, wouldn’t you? You’re cute, too...that short hair, those little hips. Mm hmm... then you can call ME ‘daddy’....”
That was as far as I let him go. I was still in the process of learning mass transit in DC and was experimenting with the route 31 Metro bus. He got on talking shit and never shut up. He’d taken a seat three behind me and across the aisle, directly across from a young woman whom, for some reason, he felt entitled to harass from the moment his butt hit the seat, about cell phones, what she did with her money, her social life. As he went on, he was obviously emboldened by the lack of resistance he met.
She said only one thing to him, not too far into his rant about how she was spending her money: “Why you talkin’ to me? I don’t know you.”
He was easily more than twice her age, a little grubby, one eye shut or missing, and loud. There was no missing or mistaking his words or his tone, or the fact that she wanted nothing to do with him; and yet none of the 20 or so people on the bus said a word, including the driver. I know the feeling, as we all surely do, of being in a situation with someone who we believe automatically has the upper hand, and of being helpless to do anything but just take it until we can get away.
Everyone deserves to know that nobody has the right to make them feel that way. And no one deserves to leave such a situation believing that somebody else does have that right. This girl deserved to know that this vile man had no such right, that no matter what common characteristics he thought obligated her to take his crap, he was wrong. She is as human as every other person on that bus, and he had no right to talk to her in the manner he was. No one does.
I waited for the bus driver to do his job and take control of the situation, but even as the man’s harassment extended into more and more personal territory, the driver continued to ignore it. At “daddy,” I turned to the mouth and said solidly, and loudly enough to be heard by the driver, “Alright. Enough. You’re going to have to leave her alone now.”
He didn’t take it well. He’d said his last word to her, but he had plenty left, and I got all of it.
“This fucking lesbian’s gonna get in my business?! I’m not hurtin’ her! We’re just talkin’! She’s not hurt! You mind your own business! ...”
I said, again loudly enough to make sure the driver and all other potential witnesses heard, to clarify that this was not the beginning of the problem, “You were not ‘talking’ to her; you were harassing her and have been since you got on the bus. You’re being rude and disrespectful, and you need to stop.”
“Fuck you, fucking dyke bitch!! You need to worry about you, not me! You don’t know yourself! I know myself, she know herself, you need to know yourself! There’s something in there ain’t right, that you need to figure out! Fucking lesbians, gonna try to tell me what to do!! You need to just SHUT THE FUCK UP!! ...”
We pulled up at the next stop, and the girl took her chance to get off of the bus. Still, there had come not so much as a glance from the bus driver, whether because of ignorance, spinelessness ... or maybe even agreement. I finally called out to him, saying that the man had been harassing the girl for some time, that I had told him to stop, that he was now harassing me, and that he, the driver, needed to do something. I saw him look up into his rearview mirror, back and forth between me and the man, waiting, as though hoping for some evidence in the man’s favor that couldn’t be refuted later by every other person present. For his part, the man ranted away, hurling venomous insults and obscenities at me without pause. For a time, I said nothing in response, only sat and held the gaze of the driver in the mirror. Finally, the driver said, “Sir, you’re gonna have to calm down.”
Maybe his words were distorted by my adrenaline, but he sounded regretful at having to step in, much less on that side.
A couple of other people chipped in comments such as, “Call the police,” and “Just throw him off the bus.” He would silence them with a hard “YOU shut the fuck up!” ...and then return to his tirade against me. The driver continued to tell him, weakly, that he was going to have to calm down, as the man got louder and louder. He moved to a seat closer to the front, leaning in close to me as he passed, to tell me that “we’re on the same team” and then tried again to make his case for having been intruded upon in the “conversation” he was having “with” the girl, and that she hadn’t had any complaints. I responded that it was not a conversation but harassment and reminded him of her only words, verbatim. His volume jumped several decibels.
“FUCKING FREAK, LESBIAN BITCH!! She looks like a fuckin' weightlifter and she’s worryin’ about me?!! Motherfucker, there’s something WRONG with you, FUCKING DYKE BITCH!!!”
I looked out the window and answered, “God bless you, sir.”
“Oh God BLESSED me!! God BLESSED that girl!! God DIDN’T bless YOU!! There’s something WRONG with you!!”
I nodded. “Yep, that is what God likes to hear.” It was the last thing I said to him, but I am no saint for my lack of replies. I thought so many more things...ugly things, things that would have stayed with him, would have wounded him, because they, unlike the things he said to me, would have had meaning, would have been direct hits on exactly the aspects of himself and his life that must haunt him every second, the things that were probably responsible for making him as vicious and predatory as he is. The things I could have said would have been nothing more than a weapon, not even my genuine feelings. Saying them would have constituted the only regret with which I could have been left, so I am grateful for the control I had over it, wherever it came from.
“Don’t you bring GOD into THIS!! He BLESSED me!! He didn’t make no MOTHERFUCKIN’ LESBIAN DYKE BITCH!!”
This assault actually went on for several surreal minutes while I sat, numb, watching him bury himself in his own poison. The driver finally buckled beneath the man’s visibly growing agitation and the low grumbling of the other passengers and declared that the man would have to leave the bus. He was now yelling at the top of his lungs and barely controllable. As he stood up, he whipped around and snapped at the woman who had been sitting silently next to him, “WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU SAY??!!” His stream of profanity continued as he stomped down the steps, cursing and beating on the side of the bus as the doors closed and he was left behind.
Suddenly I could feel again, and the horror of it overwhelmed me. My whole body shook, and tears forced themselves out of my eyes in streams, as though pressed through a crumbling dam. I stared out the window and tried to breathe deeply and maintain some control of myself. The others rode silently as the bus made its way through traffic.
I was filled with emotions that were hard to sort through. I didn’t feel embarrassed, necessarily, because I hadn’t done anything to embarrass myself. I wasn’t really even hurt by the man’s words, because they weren’t personal enough, in any way that mattered, to be hurtful. They were just empty words flung like rocks by a man who didn’t know me and had only taken the opportunity to pour into me all his frustration at being who he was, living in his world with his own share of ugly people, and then having his fun interrupted.
I did feel residual fear, and anger, lots of anger, even betrayal at the actions of the driver and the other passengers on the bus, or lack thereof. As I calmed down, I worked on how to not hate the man for initiating the situation, for his behavior and his opinions, and for his blame of everybody but himself. Mostly, I was just exhausted by the rush and retreat of the adrenaline, and terribly, terribly sad that any of it could happen--that there are still, always, enough feelings of indignation and pain, exclusion and need in enough people to fuel that much bad behavior.
Further up the route, a tall man who had been seated up front, across from where the man had relocated himself, stood up to wait for his stop. He was in the aisle next to my seat, holding the bar, and after a few seconds, he glanced down at me and said quietly, “Thanks for speaking up.” I looked up at him and nodded weakly, and he said, “It was the right thing to do.”
“Thanks,” I managed. I took a few slow, deep breaths and sat up a little straighter.
A few stops later, a young woman leaving the bus stopped and touched my shoulder and said with sincere and surprising emotion, “Don’t you listen to a word that man said! You’re beautiful, just the way you are!” I hoped that there was someone out there who would tell the first girl the same thing. Shortly after that, the man sitting closest to the driver leaned over and told him that he had let it go on for way too long; and another said he should have called the police right away, that the man had seemed to them dangerously close to violence.
I know "scenes" like that are exactly why many people don’t “get involved,” why people say "pick your battles" and probably never would have picked this one, but it’s not a good enough reason. For my part, I just fight the battles that pick me, and there is nothing special or unique about me. Of course it was an awful experience, but if I found myself in the same situation tomorrow, I hope I wouldn’t do it any differently. I'm not a martyr: as bad as I felt, I know that it was better than I would have felt if I had just stuck my head in the sand and stayed out of it. It's always my goal, at the end of the day, to have been the person I most want to be, and at least for that tiny part of that day, I was. I can't control anybody else, and wouldn't want to.
It was several days before I realized the irony in the route number -- 31 -- the same as my favorite psalm, a laminated copy of which I carry in my wallet (yes, really). It is filled with verses asking for protection from those who speak wrongly and viciously against me, for grace and mercy in the face of their attacks, for the silencing of their lies, for shame to fill my antagonists while sparing me, and finally, that I “Be of good courage” while he (in whatever form your “he” takes) shall strengthen my heart. Its truth isn’t lessened by any divergence in beliefs. Courage and heart go together and, like anything, grow stronger with exercise.
It is my own personal prayer as I go through my life, judged by a whole other set of people for a whole other set of inaccuracies: my corrupt “lifestyle,” the thinness of my general moral character, my lack of concern for the feelings and rights of others, my threat to the institutions on which our whole society is based, etc., etc., etc.
My response is the same, no matter the circumstances, skin color, religion, sex, orientation, or setting: All I can do is be me.