Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Cubs: A Love Story

Scott Simon spoke at the afternoon graduation ceremony of the University where I work few years back.  I mention this because I actually remember something of his speech, which is unusual.  I have been to, conservatively, fifty college and university graduations and 10 high school graduations.  At the reluctant son’s high school graduation this year, his principal, the graduation speaker, said something that I remember.  He said that people often complement him on what he says, then, when he asks them what that was, they can’t remember.  He went on to give a very good talk – and one that I can’t remember a thing from – like almost all of the other speeches.  And that’s not because I don’t listen – I do.  There is a picture of me at my Ph.D. ceremony in a sea of graduates, all looking in different directions or talking with each other – I am looking intently at the speaker.  I have no idea who he was (I think he was male), or what he said, but I’m sure I knew at the time.

Scott Simon flew to our ceremony after doing the Saturday morning broadcast of weekend edition which I listened to on the way into the morning ceremony.  What he had to say was surprising.  He spoke about Afghanistan – a place from which he had just returned.  He talked about how horrific things had been there before we invaded – Al Qaida had been in charge and he told brutal stories about what they had done.  The surprising part was that he said he was a Quaker and therefore was opposed to war on principle – but this was an exception.  His view was that something needed to have been done and he was glad we did it.  (I wonder what he would think of this spring’s movie – War Machine – which argues against the principle of such wars).

Scott Simon is a consummate conversationalist.  He clearly enjoys talking and listening to the people on his show.  This book, which is partly about the Cubs and partly a memoir, points to some of the roots of this love of talking, and it is based (I think) not just in a love of baseball and a love of the home town team, but of being connected and engaged with men who loved to talk about baseball and life and were very good at. 

Scott Simon’s mother’s best friend was married to one the managers of the Cubs during their century of woeful ineptness, Charlie Grimm.  “Uncle” Charlie was the manager when my Grandfather became a fan – when the Cubs were last in the series before 2016 – in 1945 when everyone’s rosters were depleted by able bodied players being drafted.  They made it to the series but were trounced.  Grimm was immortalized in a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post Cover.  He is glumly watching a game – wincing along with other players in the dugout – at something going on in the field.  The Cubs, who could gather my grandfather onto their train in a moment of glory – were hapless.  Scott Simon knew Uncle Charlie both as the manager, but also a figure in his life.  Someone to talk to - someone who played and managed baseball teams, and played the banjo as well.  Someone who sang him songs that he was not yet old enough, at least in his mother's mind, to hear.

Scott Simon and my Grandfather and his children were fans through hapless times.  My uncle was an usher at Wrigley Field shortly after graduating from college - something my grandfather was probably both pleased and appalled by - and was one of those Cub’s fans who, throughout the rest of his life, was continually hopeful in the spring only to have his hopes dashed by fall.  When the Cubs were in the pennant race last year, his widow and grandchildren decorated his grave with Cubs memorabilia, as I’m sure was done throughout Chicagoland. 

My relationship with Cubs was a long distance one.  Born in Chicago, the Cubs were a connection to a specific place while my father moved the family from city to city around the country as he pursued a corporate career.  Going to visit grandmother (grandfather died when I was about six) always included a trip to Wrigley to watch the Cubs and Ernie Banks play.  Scott Simon was much more closely involved.  He was going to games or, actually, going to Wrigley Field after games and being let in to hang out with his godfather, Jack Brickhouse, the radio announcer for the Cubs, in the Pink Poodle, the ballpark’s press lounge.  There he learned that Leo Durocher, another Cubs manager, who neither paid for his drinks nor tipped, was not a nice man.

So this book is a sweet and tight and well written book about one of the most improbable – and therefore surprising - things – the Cubs becoming not just the best team in baseball – every one of their infielders was a starter in the 2016 All Star game - but finally, after 108 years, winning the World Series again.  And it is a memoir – Simon’s memories of the team are inevitably intertwined with his memories of growing up, a growing up that included his parents – his father moved out of the home because he was addicted to alcohol and died of that addiction when Scott was 16.   In his loyalty – but Scott would say - his love of his team and his father, Scott had to learn to deal with disappointment.  Love is a better term here because love allows us to embrace our ambivalence towards what we love.  We don’t overlook the other’s shortcomings to love them – their shortcomings are part of what makes others dear to us.

Writing about disappointment is a tough thing to do.  J.D. Vance navigated this in his memoir about growing up and leaving the Appalachian culture in Hillbilly Elegy.  Sherman Alexie did this in a fictionalized manner in The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian – a book written for adolescents.  They and Scott all did this with grace, though Scott with not nearly the level of detail of the others.  I remember the first memoir that I read that I felt at the time was poorly written – was by Russell Baker who was a favorite columnist of mine for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  It was about growing up (and called that) in Virginia and becoming a reporter in Baltimore.  It was embarrassing to read – everything that he said was entirely human, but I think he did not know all that he was revealing about himself as he was writing.  I felt, when I was done with the book, and this was a very long time ago, that I knew something about him that he didn’t know about himself.  What that was, I don’t remember, but I do remember the feeling of being embarrassed by having what felt like secret knowledge.

Scott tells a story where he is not going to be embarrassed in that way.  It is simultaneously well told, revealing, and it is clear that he has a command of the narrative.  He lets us know just as much as he wants to about the turmoil of his relationship with his father – and no more.  He does not give us undigested bits that we have to chew over ourselves in order to make sense of.  Both Vance and Alexie do a bit of this – Vance, I think, because he tells the story as he experienced it, as facts, but without a sense that he has quite mastered them yet – I think he is still reeling a bit.  Alexie is also reeling just a bit, and so embroiders his story with enough fantasy material that it is unreal.  To be fair, Vance and Alexie are trying to process bigger chunks of trauma – stuff that is overwhelming – than Simon.  And by this I don’t mean to be minimizing the experiences that Simon had – who am I to judge the impact of losing a father who is more tied to drinking than to you – but I think the context in which that happened – a supportive one – where disappointment could be discussed – allowed Simon to better integrate his experience of loss – or to sequester the parts that aren’t and can’t be processed off – to keep them out of the book so that they don’t interrupt the narrative arc.  On a more personal level, I think his love for his father includes the parts of his father that are hard to manage.  He doesn't have to paint the picture in bold colors - he can acknowledge it and let it go at that - allowing us to know that he has a range of feelings towards him.

Truth be told, I am much more comfortable with unprocessed aspects of a narrative being included than I once was.  I am richer for having read Vance and Alexie and not a bit worried that I have access to parts of themselves that they didn’t at the time of the writing – and I think I could talk with them about that without embarrassment.  That is a central part of the task of a psychoanalyst after all – to help people process the experience of unearthing something that they have kept from themselves.  What’s interesting here is that rooting for – and supporting – a losing team (which 29 of the 30 Major League teams are every year) prepares you to be able to talk about sorrow.

I built my own life – and therefore the life of the reluctant son – on a very different foundation than the one that my father laid for me.  The reluctant son has lived in only one town – and it has its own major league team.  He has grown up rooting for that team – and in the way of modern kids who can get access to information about every team – other teams.  And the team here has not won it all since long before he was born. But there is a winning tradition here – and he expects that, someday, they will win again.  It will not surprise them if they do.

I have been ambivalent about having introduced him to sports.  As a late adolescent, that is the lingua franca we have – we can talk about sports.  Not so much about girls or classes or other things that I imagine might be important to him – but we can talk about sports – and watch them together.  We watch games on TV and, occasionally, in person.  He has played baseball.  He has also seen how athletes respond to various situations – with grace and without it.  I have felt – and think I have written elsewhere – guilty about having exposed him to the hubris of ballplayers.

Scott Simon calls our attention to a conversation recorded on Television in the final game between Anthony Rizzo, the young all-star first baseman, and David Ross, the catcher who would retire after the game, in the seventh inning of the seventh game – Rizzo says, “I’m an emotional wreck.” And Ross replies, “It’s only going to get worse.”  Changing a situation – doing something surprising – is difficult.  After Scott watches the Cubs win, he wakes his daughter to let her know that the Cubs won.  She says “Awww… I knew they would.” And she falls back asleep.  His daughter is not surprised – she has not caught the seemingly indelible expectation that the Cubs will lose from her Dad.

I think this book is about learning how to live with things that are surprising – and for Cubs fans there is nothing more surprising that winning.  Scott is invited to dinners that fete the Cubs including at the White House because he is successful – on the radio – but mostly at connecting with people.  He is being a different kind of parent to his kids than his Dad was to him.  He has welcomed surprise into his life – and seems to feel as comfortable with it as one can.  He seems to be doing this by acknowledging that the world is complicated – and that he plays a complicated role in it.  I don’t know what he thinks now about our being in Afghanistan.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought we should have gotten out some time ago.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he were aghast about a great deal that is going on domestically and internationally, but I think that whatever he is feeling he is feeling with love.  The Cubs may or may not win this year.  In a mirror of one of their great snafus, the center fielder that was a key component in the team last year is now playing with the Cardinals.  They desperately need a new leadoff hitter.  They may not win again – but they might.  And we will have set backs and victories, our sports heroes will disappoint us, but sometimes, as the Cubs did last year, they will win – and do it with style.  Scott Simon helps us poor long suffering Cubs fans realize that this is not something to be feared because it is different and what happens as a result of winning may surprise us, but that living with love means embracing surprises – disappointments – but also great pleasures. 

I have written about the Cubs twice before - once in writing about Wrigley Field and once in writing about Steve Bartman - a post that Scott Simon appears in his analysis to agree with, more or less.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Wonder Woman – Comic Books Question American Exceptionalism – Who knew?

What a surprise – Wonder Woman, a summer blockbuster about a female superhero (something to which I have been dragged in the past with a less positive outcome – see a post on Lucy) turns out to be the emotionally satisfying version of another summer release War Machine.  Wonder Woman is also a comic strip envisioned and executed by a psychologist based partly on his psychological theories.  It also turns out, in my own little universe, to be the culmination of a year of learning about American Exceptionalism and what it is – not so much in a distant, cerebral sense, but more in a lived, constantly engaged sort of way (There have been multiple posts about that this year including Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Cone, and Nguyen's The Sympathizer).  Finally, it is a movie that evokes positive stereotypes in me, not just about women, but also about Jews.

I was not a comic book guy growing up.  Some of my friends were.  They would read them voraciously, save and trade them; putting them in plastic bags and going to comic conventions where they would buy tables and set up shop.  On the surface, these guys were geeking out over the comic books the way that my more sports oriented friends geeked out over baseball trading cards, but behind that they were trading stories about multiple parallel universes – where world events and everyday acts of justice were determined not by humans, but by superhuman characters with superhuman powers.  My friends lived in these shadow universes as collectors  – but more centrally readers – who took these stories to heart – were moved by them – and vicariously lived through them.  This shadow world has been depicted to some extent on the television sitcom Big Bang.  It has been lived in the world of blockbuster films – most of them from the Marvel comics tradition (see a post about The Avengers of Ultron).  I naively thought that Wonder Woman would be akin to that group but, unbeknownst to me, she comes from the DC comic book tradition – the world of Superman and Batman – not the world of irradiated heroes.  This worried me.  Thought Batman can be a bit dark (when not being sent up by Adam West), Superman seems too much painted on the surface to be of much interest.

On the other hand, it turns out that Wonder Woman was written by a psychologist – William Moulton Marsh.  Marsh contributed to the development of the lie detector, noting that shifts in blood pressure could accompany emotional arousal.  He also developed a personality theory and measure that is used by many business consultants today – the DISC measure – that was based on an understanding of the psychological world being divided into being active or passive – on one dimension – and the determination of the person that they are operating in a supportive or hostile environment.  The active/passive dimension was one that Marsh mapped onto gender stereotypes with the active being the masculine dimension and the passive being the feminine dimension.  That said, he had very progressive views about women – he lived in a menage a trois with his wife and another woman, Olive, who was a former student of his.  His wife apparently contributed to some of his psychological work – including noting that her own blood pressure went up when she was aroused – and Olive served as a model for aspects of Wonder Woman – including the bracelets that Olive wore that became the model for the wrist protectors that Wonder Woman wears to ward off bullets.

This Wonder Woman – the Wonder Woman of the summer blockbuster – is played by an Israeli actress, Gal Gado, and the film is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins.  It opens on an idyllic island inhabited by the Amazons and apparently off the grid of the rest of the world.  This place was preserved by Zeus, after he was defeated by Ares, the God of War, as a place for the Amazons to train to protect the humans by defeating Ares when the world would desperately  need that to be done.  The future Wonder Woman is a girl growing up among women warriors who wants to train as a warrior, but is forbidden to do that by her mother, the queen of the Island.  Against her mother’s wishes, her aunt trains her in the art of war and finally convinces her mother that she should, indeed, be trained as a warrior.  As her training nears its conclusion, it is apparent that Wonder Woman has powers that the other Amazons, amazing as they are, don’t have. 

The Amazons' idyllic existence is interrupted by the world calling in the form of a WWI fighter plane that appears in its skies and crashes to the sea where the pilot is rescued by Wonder Woman – in the ensuing fight with his pursuers, we discover that the pilot is a spy and that the training in bows and arrows and horse riding and sword fighting is impressive but no match for bullets and other modern military weaponry.  When the American spy tells Wonder Woman about the destruction going on in the war, she wants to immediately go and defeat Ares who, she is certain, is sowing the seeds of discontent that are fueling the war, and, by killing him she expects to end the war and return the world to the idyllic state it was in before he corrupted it.  Her mother forbids her to leave, but in an act of compassionate disobedience, presaged by her training despite her mother’s forbidding her to do so, Wonder Woman chooses to leave the island with the American, despite knowing that she can never return.  Her mother regrets not being able to tell Wonder Woman everything she needs to know to fulfill her role in the world – a role that includes using the God killer sword that she takes with her, along with the lasso of truth that makes people tell her what they really think.

So we can already see that the psychologist’s conception of the world is impacting the world he has created.  Wonder Woman is an active person (going against gender stereotyping) who is in a hostile environment – her mother does not want her to do a variety of things – but she is determined to do them.  She is also a person who has a lie detector – but one that is better than her creator’s - it forces people to tell the truth.

Like War Machine, this movie is an anti-war film that provides lots of lust-for-war gratifying violence – actually much more of it than War Machine.  But unlike War Machine, this movie does not preach about the evils of war – it shows them.  Perhaps it is easier to personify Germans as the embodiment of Evil – and that seems to be the old, satisfying version of things that will play out, but this gets nicely twisted to show that perhaps it is the good guys – both the Allied types, but also the apparent pacifists, who are really to be feared.  It is also nice that Wonder Woman’s naïve view that the evil is outside of people – in Ares – turns out to be false.  We are all evil – and we need to be aware of our manifold urges to build a lasting if tenuous peace.

The multiculturalism of my little universe is personified in the band of henchmen that the spy recruits to help Wonder Woman and him take on the Kaiser as a small strike force.  This group, including a sniper who can’t shoot, a guy who’s just in it for the money who works for free, and the Native American tracker who is able to point out to Wonder Woman that his people have been eradicated by the Americans who are represented as the good guys help keep this film from being the two dimensional good versus evil that I feared DC would deliver us.

The real jewel of this movie, however, is the character of Wonder Woman and her portrayal by Gado.  Where this naïve woman could have been coy, she is firmly in the aggressive quadrant of the personality form.  And the eyes of the actress remain open and direct – whether she is learning that her preconceived notions of good and bad are more complex and nuanced than she had believed and when she is seeing her first man – including when he is naked – and later when she is kissing him.  Her presence, which evokes for me the positive stereotype of the Israeli who must confront all of the conflicting and ironic elements that go into creating an assertive country surrounded by hostile others – is played with remarkable directness.  This is a character who is soaking up the world – learning about it – and is not at all afraid that her preconceptions will be wrong – she wants to know what is actually present in the world.

It is refreshing to a see a film that is encouraging us, by example, to look at who we are – and to honestly examine those around us.  Why are we doing what we are doing?  Let’s examine that.  Let’s acknowledge complexity while holding to our own perspective.  Wonder Woman develops from a child to a woman not by following her mother’s example of hiding what the world holds, but by letting her aunt’s straightforward approach to things lead her into saying what she thinks and hearing what others have to say.  Wonder Woman then, in turn, sets a nice example for us.  

 As we were leaving the theater, the true delight of the film was to see the reluctant stepdaughter kicking and karate chopping her way into the night - ready to vanquish evil wherever it might raise its ugly head.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer – Confession, Torture, and the Psychoanalytic Process

This brutally beautiful book is difficult to remember, to integrate, and therefore to review or discuss.  Traumatic memories have been described as being recovered like paint splotches – as bits and pieces without a narrative whole that links them together.  The narrative that forms the skeleton of this story is not revealed until page 308.  And it is also at page 308 that we plunge from the ordinary every day trauma of the aftermath of war and its remembrance into the heart – and this is a pun – of darkness.

I will tell the story in reverse order because I think that it will help organize what has happened – and will allow me to clarify how this traumatic book resembles psychoanalysis (and in the process perhaps send every potential analysand among the readership running to the hills).  This will, however, likely take away some of the delicious pleasure of reading this book for those who have not yet done so.  The author of the manuscript, who never identifies himself by name – he is simply the Captain, his title in the South Vietnamese army, is clear throughout that he is writing a confession at the command of another.  Why and for what purpose is unclear, and this question nags at us we move more and more deeply into who it is that the Captain is and what he has done.

The Captain was born in North Vietnam.  His father was French – the village Catholic priest – and his mother was his maid, until she because pregnant.  His father disavowed him, though also preached to him and taught him.  His mother, who loved him dearly and sacrificed greatly for him, remained a committed Catholic believer, but the (future) Captain was credulous about his father.  The Captain has two blood brother friends – Man, who is a communist agent of the north and a true believer in the communist way, and Bon, who leaves the North with the captain and becomes a South Vietnamese patriot.  The Captain – the sympathizer of the title – travels to the US to be educated, returns to South Vietnam and serves as an aide-de-camp to a South Vietnamese General charged with Military Intelligence and torture of captured North Vietnamese and is in regular contact with Bon.  Unbeknownst to Bon, he also stays in contact with Man and serves as a conduit of information about the functioning of the South to the communists – the Captain is a mole.

The novel/confession begins with the evacuation of Saigon and the captain leaving the country with the General and with Bon – Bon’s wife and child die in Bon's arms on the tarmac as they dash for what seems like the last plane to leave the country.  The Captain, ordered by Man to America to spy on the Vietnamese who congregate there, carries with him a text by Richard Hedd (Dickhead is the Bevis and Butthead level translation of this man’s name), an American who purports to explain in it the Vietnamese culture.  The book is used to send coded messages back and forth between Man and the Captain while the Captain is in America – they write, in invisible ink. the page, paragraph, sentence and word number of each word in their messages as letters to and from the Captain's "Aunt" in Paris.

I have told this in a straightforward and simple fashion that drains all of the poetry, mystery and beauty out of a story told by a true poet who is writing so solidly in the American vernacular that you would swear he was Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, both because of the cultural references and because of the stream of consciousness style with minimal punctuation.  But I think that the style serves a very different (though also parallel) function than for the Euro-Americans who use it.  What we discover on page 308 – or thereabouts – is that the first 307 pages have been written while the Captain has been in solitary confinement in a re-education camp in North Vietnam.  Even more disorienting, the ultimate reader of the manuscript, unbeknownst to the Captain, is Man, who has orchestrated becoming the commandant of the prisoner camp to which the Captain is taken in order to oversee the Captain’s necessary torture, re-education, and release as a means of preserving his (and Bon’s) life.

The stream of consciousness style, then, or, as we psychoanalysts would say – his attempts to freely associate – is adopted in order to help his captors know who he is – and ultimately that he is innocent.  But of course he is not.  None of us are.  In his description of the capture of a North Vietnamese operative whom he tortured, the captain describes a dialogue with this man, whom he describes as a philosopher, who points out the fundamental contradiction of the western world.  In the court of law, a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in the foundational cultural and religious beliefs, that self-same person is guilty of original sin.  The point of the torture that the Captain himself undergoes (and, even though he has read the pamphlets that are the basis for the tortures that he endures, they effectively erode his identity as surely as the Napalm that Man ran through erased the features of his face) is that the Captain is not, as he would portray himself by completely and totally confessing his sins, innocent, but guilty.

The next bit is something that I think bears saying because I think it helps us make sense of the text, but I think it will ring hollow to those who read it without having read the text: the Captain is guilty of nothing.  In the context of the story, he is guilty of having done nothing – both of his sins are errors of omission – he did not prevent a horrible crime against a communist woman (whose name was Viet Nam) and he did not follow the order to stay away from a return to Vietnam, which he felt was justified because he was protecting Bon by coming with him.  He is also guilty of murder – a murder he committed in order to be able to return to Vietnam,  but this is a crime only to himself – he is haunted by the ghosts – but not a crime in the eyes of those to whom he is confessing because the murdered man was a Vietnamese man hostile to the communist cause.

The text is told with the authority of someone who believes he did no wrong.  We live inside our own heads and I think it is possible to believe that all that we have done has been done for a reason.  I remember when my grandfather died – I was about six years old – he was a very upright, but also judgmental man.  I assumed that he had access to my thoughts because he was dead and the dead can see such things (this somewhat crazy thought stuck with me longer than I care to admit – in fact, it is there, or vestiges of it, to this day).  In any case, as he served as a very real representative of my conscience, I was able to avoid his harshest criticism because, after all, he was privy to everything and thus could see – even better than I could – that I was acting in the best way possible given the circumstances.  How could I not ogle that woman?  I was an adolescent male, after all – and he would know that.  I think it takes this kind of confidence – the confidence that the captain had that he was working on behalf of the revolution – that he was doing what the communists wanted – that allowed him to freely and openly confess to all sorts of sins – in part because he saw them as justified, but also because he saw his actions as justified through the eyes that he imagined to be reading his confession.

I think it is this kind of freedom – the freedom to believe that what we are doing is right – that it is justified – that this author is really trying to get at and to undermine.  He wants us to know that American exceptionalism – our ability to overlook our own failures to implement the values that we believe in so strongly when applied to ourselves when we apply them to others – is something that he wants us to wrestle with – the idea that, even though the courts may take the position that we are innocent until proven guilty – he knows otherwise – is an important lesson for us to learn from this text.  But he teaches us this not by preaching (as Brad Pitt does in War Machine – where Pitt nicely demonstrates that the counterinsurgency tactics first articulated in Vietnam inevitably lead to failure), but by applying this to himself. 

Actually, I think, the three split selves in the text are all guilty.  Man, the representative of North Vietnam, tortures his closest friend and most reliable ally because this friend has betrayed him by returning to Vietnam.  When Man is feeling the pain of having his family look with horror at him after his disfiguration, his only solace is that his friend the Captain has it worse than him because he has to live in America.  By returning, the Captain robs Man of his only pleasure.  But, I think more primally, by embracing American culture, as he so thoroughly does in his use of the American vernacular and his American imbued understanding of himself, the Captain has betrayed his heritage.  Finally, Bon, by allying himself with Americans and with the South Vietnamese government has betrayed the ideals of the country that are espoused by Ho Chi Minh, and he feels the guilt of having been responsible for the death of his wife and daughter - something that effectively paralyzes him. 

My rather dry exposition of this somewhat philosophical position takes away the visceral experience of the terror this novel visits on the reader.  In the same way, any description of a psychoanalysis reduces the terror that is at the heart of opening yourself to yourself and to another in the ways that the method invites you to do.  To know what you are capable of – and to accept that, to the extent that you are able to do that not by the exceptional justification of getting a pass from the internal benign grandfather, but by sitting with it – perhaps not in a white room with bright lights on 24/7 while being shocked each time you nod off to sleep – is a deep and terrible revelation. 

Ho Chi Minh’s slogan “Nothing is more precious than independence and liberty” is the graduation bar that the Captain must cross in his re-education.  His ultimate realization, and there is a Zen beauty to this, is that he – as nothing – as he has lost all that he is and was – is more precious than independence and liberty.  The Captain is released from the camp, Man assures that he and Bon will have perilous passage “home” (to the US), and the book ends with the Captain’s asserting his will to live.

I think this is a profound book about the complicated nature of identity.  We are not unitary beings.  We are complex, convoluted, internally contradictory people who are guilty.  I think that the author is proposing that the acknowledgement of our guilt brings independence and liberty.  We are free to acknowledge who it is that we are and what we have done – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The author of this book is a proud citizen of the USA – and an angry one.  We can learn a lot from him – especially if we allow ourselves to realize that he is encouraging us to recognize ourselves in him – not to turn away.  In doing so, we will see our divided selves (I think it is his own divided self that is so nakedly on display in this tremendous novel).  And, if we honestly do that, if we acknowledge our contradictoriness, this will lead us not into a feared shameful position, but will be a process that, though painful, will position us to move forward – to live – more fully aware of the complicated and messy ways that we do that.    

To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here.   For a subject based index, link here.

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Megan Gogerty’s Lady MacBeth and Her Pal Megan: Fun at the Fringe

The Fringe Festival is Pop Up Theater that appears every June in our town.  It occurs in what used to be a fringe neighborhood, Over the Rhine, a ghetto for the southern Catholic German Immigrants who crowded into our town in the 1800s and lived in tenements and rowhouses until they made their way up the social ladder and moved out to better parts of town, leaving the crumbling buildings behind for the poor – mostly African Americans – to create a ghetto of despair in the shadow of the skyscrapers of downtown.  More recently, gentrifiers have realized that this is prime real estate within walking distance of many of the highest paid jobs in town, and expensive new condominium buildings sit cheek by jowl with boarded up buildings, buildings with tenants barely hanging on and rehabbed row houses with beautiful new windows and doors.

We parked our car in a garage that is all but hermetically sealed, and took our ticket as we would need that to re-enter the secure seeming structure to walk a couple of blocks to the site of this one hour play – an arts college classroom converted into a performance space for this one woman play.  Megan Gogerty, the playwright and star, played to a very appreciative audience of seventy five or so.  Rated PG-13, the audience leaned toward women, but included more men than just me – with older, middle-aged, hipsterish, and a smattering of young teens in attendance with their parents.  We were the reluctant wife, the daughter who is president of her college’s feminist club, and a friend who let us know that this was likely to be a good performance.

Megan Gogerty is, according to the bio, a comedian and faculty member at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights workshop and the title suggested that the play would be about Megan’s relationship with Lady MacBeth, which it was.  And like all things that are this specific, it was about much more.  It was also a wonderfully psychoanalytic play without ever once mentioning Freud because it was about the discovery of one's identity - one's character - through interactions with fantasy creations of the world and with very real other people.  The plot revolves around Gogerty’s reaction to her actress friend’s observation that Megan’s secret ambition to play Lady MacBeth is ridiculous – in part because she has never read MacBeth, but even more importantly because Megan’s character is not dark, evil, deep and sexual, but more akin to a Golden Retriever.  What follows is her construction of both Lady MacBeth and herself – and, in a weird and fitting twist of plot, her exoneration of Lady MacBeth, herself, Hillary Clinton and the feminist movement.  No matter how I portray it, I fear that my representation will feel dry and didactic – for that I apologize in advance.  Megan’s, of course, was funny – and poignant.

Lady MacBeth is one of Shakespeare’s few really good roles for women – and, as Gogerty pointed out – it is an almost invisible role with about a quarter the lines that Shakespeare reserves for MacBeth himself.  MacBeth promises Lady MacBeth that they will, when they have fulfilled the prophecy of the witches in the opening scene, be equal partners not just in the killing that gets him to the throne but in the governing that follows it (there are more than a few overtones of House of Cards here).  The promised sharing of power with a woman, of course, does not happen.  Lady MacBeth finds out about the post crowning machinations only after they have occurred and she is increasingly marginalized in the tragic end to the play, ultimately killing herself, something that, when MacBeth is told that she is dead, Gogerty intimates he knows how she has died – by her own hand.

Megan, the comedian, having discovered the tragic life of Lady MacBeth is now confronted with two dilemmas – how can she become the dark temptress – and how can she avoid the temptress's fate – to fall on her own sword.  This is a thinly veiled description, I believe, of Clinton’s dilemma.  How can she become the true partner in power – and how can she do that while pretending to have stayed home to cook pies for Chelsea.  Megan does not imagine herself as Clinton – at least not overtly – but chronicles her own – and here sordid is called for and sort of fits – trajectory as a comedian.  She makes a go of it first as a twenty five year old – and finds herself a woman in a man’s world.  She sticks with it because, when she kills, it is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute… and discovering that you have wings!  She makes a go of it a second time – at thirty five or so – and finds herself a more cunning woman in a man’s world.

One of the delights of this play, by the way, is that multiple story lines are evolving simultaneously as this apparently ditzy but actually well-crafted comedic narrative unfolds.  There is something about being in the hands of a comic who knows her craft that there is a kind of hypnotic experience – the narrative unfolds – we are increasingly willing to follow her where she leads because she has repeatedly met our concern that she is going off the beam with a laugh that reinforces that we are on the same page.  At one point she tells the story of being invited to headline for one of the comic masters that we all would recognize.  She was – and this was another consistent thread in her tapestry – concerned more about what she would wear – as a woman she is constantly aware of being evaluated based on how she looks – and so she has to be brutally honest with herself about her looks as she works through the narrative to articulate who it is that she is – and to incorporate this into who she is – and so, in this case, her concern with what she will wear derails her from preparing for the moment on stage – and she bombs.  The comic takes her under his wing and advises her to get to know herself better because what a comic does is to expose themselves on stage.  Her response to his question about who she is – a person who has nice skin – exposes the need to look deeper – to look inside herself.

The failure to make use of her big moment causes both self-doubt but also a kind of doubling down on the self (and Lady MacBeth) exploration process.  She works to both emulate and find a different way out of the dilemma.  She discovers darkness within herself – darkness that she both owns and denies – as when she earlier states that she doesn’t have stage fright, but that she does occasionally experience stage concern.  And in this owning and denying of the selfsame thing she seems very real and immediate and human.  She then does the same thing with her sexuality – exploring it as she takes on a different persona.  And she walks us right up to the edge of the destructive capacity of owning her sexuality before reassuring us that this doesn’t occur (whether it did or not is irrelevant - for the arc of this particular narrative to work, it mustn't have).

Ultimately, she connects deeply enough with Lady MacBeth to be able to re-create her – giving her a first name – something Shakespeare neglected to do – and humanizing her.  But rather than identifying with her – rather than becoming her – she chooses a different identity.  She identifies with the witches in the play and works to deputize us, the audience, as auxiliary witches – who use our magic to rehabilitate the newly minted Colleen (or whatever Scottish name she gives her) MacBeth – not through comically killing (though she does some of that in her bits about Lady MacB) but through love.  In a parallel manner, her comedy is transformed – from the harsh masculine killing – the sin that our Lady MacBeth can’t wash off - into the laughter and inclusive playfulness of childhood. 

In one brief hour, Megan has, indeed, conjured magic.  She has transformed one of the truly bloody tragedies of Shakespeare into a comic feel good moment.  Along with that, she has managed to exonerate Hillary Clinton, clarifying that Hillary was trapped by role expectations that tragically doomed her to political suicide – because she was not able to function as herself.  But she does not leave us rolling in the mess, but instead offers hope that we, through living with integrity can achieve a positive outcome – when she returns to her friend who dismissed her wishes to play Lady MacBeth and announces that she is a witch.  Her friend totally agrees that she is a witch and could easily play the part.

This comic ending plays well in the moment.  Megan was met by an enthusiastic standing ovation.  But I fear that it does not acknowledge some of the difficulties in wending our way through an ambitious life in which many of our ambitions are realized.  We fail along the way – when tempted by the siren call of sexuality we are lured onto the rocks – we can get stuck in our dark nights of the soul – we portray ourselves on stage to escape objectification and invite that very same objectification simultaneously.  We need to laugh at all of this, and at ourselves.  We need to offer expiation and atonement.  But this won’t prevent our having done the deeds to begin with – nor in doing them again.  After a year of hearing Ta Nehisi Coates and James Cone – after reading Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, after seeing a potential terrorist elected president, and because I deeply care about the world – it is hard not to be in a tragic mindset.  Even though Megan mirrors my own inner Golden Retriever – the hopeless optimist who sees lots of good in the world, a position that I have taken in these posts countless times – and despite this having been a great respite – I am increasingly feeling myself to have a tragic impression of the world.  I don’t think that we can achieve all that we would without cost – whether on the global stage or the ones we inhabit on the fringes of the world – in our own homes and local communities.

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