Saturday, November 08, 2014

Catcalls and Harassment: The Mexican Version

Photo by the great Nacho López.
Ever since I saw that video of a humorless woman who walked the streets of New York for 10 hours and endured plenty of catcalls, I have been wanting to add my two cents to this outrage du jour.
Well, here goes:
I grew up in Mexico City. What she went through is Emily Post's version of chivalry compared to the kind of stuff I, and every human with a vagina, goes through in Mexico. To be honest, when one comes from a Latin country this is so commonplace, so accepted, encouraged even, that I was shocked, SHOCKED, when I read that people were calling this gringo version of male attention, harassment. Not that it isn't, but that there are entire countries on Earth where nobody thinks it is.
Of course, upon watching the video brimming with Latinos, I was not surprised.
A little bit of background:
In Spanish, there is a name for gallant, poetic, corny, inventive catcalls. They are called piropos. Examples:
"It turns out that sculptures walk!"
"If you lived in heaven I would die just to see you."
"From what toy store did you escape, doll?"
You get the idea.
I died laughing at the Black guy in the video who comes up with the priceless: "I just saw a THOUSAND dollars!" He would not pass muster in Mexico.
I got only a handful of piropos. Apparently, modernity is the great vulgarizer, so most of the ones I got weren't particularly creative, but they were sort of romantic, something praising one's superior beauty. Those made me smile, and sometimes even say thank you. Men who utter piropos or gallant phrases would never dream of pursuing the issue further. It's just a bon mot, and one's acknowledgement is their prize.
I just found out there are internet websites with lists of piropos to aid males in their conquest of females. Americans, please don't faint.
Then there are the double entendres (a skill Mexicans excel at), some of them clever and some of them vulgar, and many of them bizarrely both: "I'd like to be your blowdryer, so you could hold me by the handle." I got some of those. The really clever ones, you got to hand it to them, they make you chuckle inside; for the vulgar ones, the best response is chilly hauteur.
And then I got some, usually from construction workers, or other men in the lowest economic rungs, muttered under the breath but clearly audible, which were so violently filthy that they actually made my heart pound with disgust, and made me feel violated. I don't remember exactly what they were, and I may have been young enough not to even know what the hell some of them meant, but I knew they were revolting, and had the intention to debase.
And that is not counting the dirty, salivating ogling of one's legs or breasts as if the viewer had never before seen a pair. A typical Mexican female response to extremely aggressive gaping is: "Did you lose something?" I find this kind of gaze far more intimidating and disgusting than catcalling. Also, it is more cowardly.
Further along the scale of objectification, how about the guys on crowded streets that deliberately bump into you just to graze your breast with the tip of their elbow? In the Mexico City subway, at rush hour on certain lines cars are segregated by gender. I was once on a very crowded bus when I felt a digit go up, way up, between my legs. That, ladies and gentlemen, is harassment.
When I was about 14, I was with a big bunch of friends at a park in Mexico City, all girls, all the same age. A guy drove by, rolled down his window and exposed his erect dick at all of us. It was brutal and shocking and we all screamed and averted our eyes, but we also, if I remember correctly, started howling with laughter. I think a couple of my friends pointed at his dick and laughed and laughed. I'd like to think that was the end to that erection.
So permit me if I roll my eyes at the nationwide outrage unleashed by the video (plus the added outrage when it was found that they edited out all the white guys and left only the Blacks and Latinos to represent).
I don't dispute that there is something wrong about men feeling entitled to comment on any female who simply happens to be walking by. They certainly do not do that to their own kind, do they? I wish they'd try it, see what happens. But I find that when guys simply saying "good morning" elicits the kind of outrage almost fit for a sex offender, something dangerous is at play. The lack of a sense of humor is very alarming to me. It reminds me of lynch mobs.
There are degrees, people. I bet if it's Hugh Jackman saying "good morning, beautiful", nobody would call it anything but charming. Women need to understand very clearly the difference between an innocuous catcall and truly abusive harassing behavior, like that of the guy in the video that walks by the woman's side for 8 minutes. If she wasn't being filmed, I bet she'd have screamed 30 seconds into it.
Like porn, you should know it when you see it. When confronted with a catcall, you have three choices: best and most effective to ignore it, appreciate it if it charms you, or tell the motherfucker to shut the fuck up.
As for stronger kinds of harassment as described above, it is very hard, but also very important, to do something. Scream; if safe, confront the perp, if not, report him or ask for help.
"Good morning, beautiful" is okay, but all that other stuff has got to go.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

From Russia With Love

I'm very disappointed with Moscow. It was not the chaotic place I expected or what the travel guide cautioned about. Either all the crooks were on vacation or it felt very safe, very normal, like any other cosmopolitan, modern capital. To hear it from our horrid travel guide (Fodor's -- but they all suck), we were supposed to look over our shoulders at all times for pickpockets during the day and bands of marauding drunks at night. All we got was a bunch of mostly local tourists and regular folks, with the occasional drunken bum here and there; nowhere near the amount of homeless people one sees in New York. Perhaps they were on vacation too.

The Bolshoi
Other than giving our brains a workout with the cyrillic alphabet, Moscow was easy. The Moscow Metro is the 8th wonder of the world. I want to live there. Each and every station is spotless. There is no garbage, not on the tracks, not on the platforms. I wonder if the Russians simply don't have that terrible custom of eating "on the go", or maybe they are just good citizens that don't like their city to look and smell like a dump, or maybe Putin sends them to Siberia if they litter, but whatever it is, it's working. Walking the streets of Moscow, from Red Square to far flung working class neighborhoods which were just as clean, I got angry about the cesspool of filth that is New York City. Why do we live in a giant trash can? Why don't we have good municipal cleaning? We should be ashamed of ourselves.
The metro was first built by Stalin (a very evil man) for the people, and it is a marvel of public propaganda and Soviet grandeur, that actually works. Many trains are old but in working shape. You never have to wait over five minutes for a train. And the stations! Each one has a different motif, from the streamlined art deco of Mayakovskaya, to the Soviet rococo of Komsomolskaya. We actually took a ride on its circular line and got off on all the stations, just to see them. It's a great thing to do on a rainy day.

We did not interact much with the locals. Like New Yorkers, they live and let live. A couple of women heard us speaking Spanish and asked in halting English where we were from and we had fun conversations with them.
The first weekend the city was deserted. If there was a war in Ukraine, you could not tell. Peace and quiet, except for the unfortunate custom of restaurants to broadcast techno music at all times. Apparently, this is a thing.
Moscow is an imperial capital. It has grand wide avenues, and huge imperial and Soviet buildings. It is pretty majestic. And it seems that the gazillions made by the oligarchs as they divvied up the spoils have trickled down. The city is clean and well preserved. I imagine this was not always the case.
We saw spawns of oligarchs in some places. The girls tend to wear a uniform of Louboutin high heels and flared miniskirts and lots of bling. Girls who are naturally six feet tall love to wear six inch heels to make everybody else feel like dwarfs. People who look like peasants go into the Louis Vuitton store (catty corner from a frieze of Marx, Engels and Lenin) to buy stuff for their sullen teenage daughters. For Russians, when it comes to luxury, more is more. Like a bottle of vodka that comes in its own Fabergé egg with crystal shot glasses and costs thousands of dollars. We saw that in this here humble supermarket:

We went to the Kremlin's armory museum which showcases the gowns and jewels of the Tsars.
You look at the accumulation of bling and you understand why there was a revolution. Too much! And now it's like that all over again. 80 years of brutal communist rule, to go back to oligarchs. In the meantime, Stalin destroyed a huge cathedral to build the largest outdoor swimming pool the world has ever known. He basically created a new religion of communism, with the same lies and fantasies as any other religion, plus a reign of terror. Now they have rebuilt the cathedral. Apparently, underneath it there is a car wash and a dry cleaner. We looked for them, but could not find them.
Highlight of the trip: Lenin's mausoleum. Lenin is still lying in state, in a somber, cool and sinister art deco mausoleum. He is embalmed. He is a redhead and had a beautiful nose. One of his hands is clenched. He looks rather pasty and shriveled, from all these years of being dead. Everybody loves Lenin (pronounced Lyenyin). There are statues, and the national library and plaques in his name. Stalin, on the other hand, is almost nowhere to be found.
Russian brides take pictures in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, around the corner from Lenin's corpse.  So cheerful!

What is interesting is that remnants of Soviet grandeur are proudly preserved. We went to a fabulous Soviet park that wants to resemble both Versailles and a World Expo.  Besides the Museum of Cosmonauts (super fun), it has pavilions for all the Soviet republics, and things like geology and petrol. The Soviets basically replaced religious iconography with their own iconography. There are always solid, hardworking Slavs looking forward into the future with resolve, when they are not carrying sheafs of wheat. The story of the triumph of the revolution is told through magnificently executed tableaux all around the city, the communist equivalent of stained glass panels in medieval churches. It's all a crock of bull, but at least they had great artists and designers in charge. I'm sure that the more you see thick sheafs of wheat and vases laden with fruit, the more privation there was, but that is propaganda for you.

To infinity and beyond!
Crock of bull
Commie kitsch
The Bolshoi was on vacation, as was the opera, but September promised to bring a lot of culture back. There are a lot of theaters. We went to the Moscow version of Pere Lachaise to pay our respects to Chekhov and Prokofief. Einsenstein was also buried there, but we could not find him. Some of the tombs are inscribed with the hammer and sickle in lieu of a cross. Religion is the opium of the masses, huh?

With my main man, Anton Chekhov.
Boris Yeltsin's grave. A disaster. 

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Crime and Punishment

To quote Chekhov, I am in mourning for my life in this homey restaurant from Hell. 
Hello, tovariches! Back from Moscow, which was surprisingly grand, unbelievably clean, and easy to handle. My cholesterol count must be through the roof, as I spent ten days eating Russian food. This hearty and tasty cuisine, by the way, is the reason why almost everybody on my mother's side of the family succumbed to heart disease, and where I am probably heading as well. Alas, when in Russia, how can you not have the smetana*?
One evening, after walking enough miles for a Siberian forced march, we saw a cute little restaurant on a corner. Aromas of pasta sauce wafted from it. After all that borscht and varenikes, good old Italian pasta sounded like a swell idea.
So we walk in at around 10 pm, and a very sweet, smiling waitress welcomes us. The place looks like somebody cute's living room, full of tchotchkes. There is a big table with Japanese people and a couple of other tables. It takes her a while to bring us the menus. In general, service has been slow and erratic in Moscow, but not rude. Food always arrives cold and with not much chronological order.
My two companions order first, an appetizer and a main course each. She writes it down. Even though all the menus have an English translation, most waitstaff do not speak English, so like Alan Turing, they need to break the code and make sure that that which we are pointing to in a strange alphabet in the menu is the same thing we are ordering in Russian.
Then it's my turn. I order the tomato basil pasta. I am told: not possible.  She taps on her wristwatch. No pasta of any kind. So I order the fish, which Magnificent Arepa has ordered. No fish for me. No fowl either. No entrees. Apparently, my friends can have dinner, but I'm late to the party. While we are trying to figure out what on earth is happening, the waitress keeps running back and forth to handle the other tables and the kitchen, where I imagine, an ogre of a chef is wringing her neck for letting us in so near to closing time (11 pm).
After much pantomime, we understand that she is telling me that I can only have appetizers. At this point, the universal code for dining expectations is broken. How is it possible that two people at the same table will be served dinner, but not I?  In New York, the hostess would have made a face like she's smelling farts and said that the kitchen is closing in ten minutes, but this was not an option here. Here the option was: some of you will eat what you want, but not all.  One of you will eat what I tell her to eat.
Normally, I would not object to the only-appetizers plan, but the list of offerings was not very appealing. I ordered the herring with boiled potatoes and raw onion (like a cossack, you bet), but the rest was further down the scale of foods that hunter-gatherers in the Steppes eat. Stuff like boiled pork skins or cold vegetables. Nyet.
She brings our bottle of wine and starts uncorking it, still without addressing what is to happen to me. We gesture to her that before we drink, we need to solve my dinner problem. Our facial expressions denote a growing frustration. She keeps smiling, the mousy bitch. So far, she has gently steered me away from food but has not offered alternatives. She simply does not seem to understand what is my problem. I am to have herring. Is that not enough?
So, hungry, or rather quite hangry, I have a tiny little meltdown and I stand up and announce that we are leaving. Some sort of ado ensues and then the waitress points to the pasta carbonara and says that she can offer that.  How a pasta carbonara is faster and easier than the tomato basil one is a question that will haunt me until the end of time. Because of this kind of communication glitch, one spends a good amount of time in restaurants pondering questions along the time/space continuum such as, if everything takes so long, why does it all appear at the table at once? Or, it is possible that they were making the sauce from scratch, ran out of tomatoes, or Einstein was plain wrong?
Anyway, the waitress apologizes. I apologize. We drink to everyone's health. Food arrives. To the waitress' utter amazement, I exchange my hard earned pasta for the fish Magnificent Arepa ordered. By the way, Arepa ate pasta carbonara for three or four consecutive days, once both for lunch and dinner. They make a decent version in Russia.
We finish this food, which is quite tasty, and look forward to our friend's beef Strogonoff.  We wait. And we wait. And soon there is no one left in the restaurant, and the waitress is cleaning up. Then we start getting interesting cues, like the chef going out the door with a huge pyrex in hand (with which I'm convinced he will feed my friend's Strogonoff to his family and/or dog). The Strogonoff never arrives. The waitress smiles without explanation or apology until the bitter end.

*Cream: it's on everything.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Recurring Nightmare

Deja vu all over again. Every time that a new provocation threatens to deepen the violence between Israel and the Palestinians is yet another time of anguish and despair. Why is this conflict so intractable? The reasons are many and complex.
But nobody really wants to hear them, on either side. In the now hysterical echo chamber of social media, it boils down to one thing on both sides of the divide: propaganda.
I don't trust that most people, regardless of their stance on the matter, can tell the difference between information and propaganda. Propaganda is manipulative, easy to digest and aims to inflame passions. Information, on the contrary, is hard work. It relies on facts. It's supposed to be objective and most importantly, it makes you think, consider, weigh, make up your mind. It's too much work, so people go with propaganda.
Well, I'm sick of the propaganda on both sides. I'm sick of scrolling down to rivers of  hatred unleashed upon Israel, the likes of which other terrible crises, indeed even worse crises, never manage to provoke. I don't hear such passionate outrage about Assad's ongoing genocide of his own people, or about the depredations of ISIS in Iraq, about the horrifying perennial conflicts in Africa, about America's drone attacks, or even about the humanitarian crisis of undocumented immigrant children right on our border. Such outpourings of virulent outrage are reserved exclusively for Israel because Israel is perceived to be the sole bully, the oppressor, the eternal aggressor in this conflict. Also, in many cases, because it allows antisemitism to come safely out of the woodwork. And please don't tell me that I perceive antisemitism because as a Jew, I am too sensitive. Antisemitism is like porn: I know it when I see it.
Newsflash for both Jews and non-Jews alike: being critical of the policies of the State of Israel does not make you an antisemite. Many Israelis and Jews, myself included, disagree with the continued occupation and other right wing policies of the current Israeli government. We are appalled and concerned by them. That does not mean we do not support Israel. On the contrary, we are worried that they are detrimental to Israel's survival. We want a better way.
Hating Israel, on the other hand, claiming that you are an anti-zionist, questioning Israel's right to exist, and spewing vitriol against Jews, that is a different story.
I am equally sick of Israeli propaganda about thousands of Hamas missiles (not remotely hitting anything, yet) and how the kind Israeli army sends leaflets out to warn Palestinians, and how restrained it is. And what would you do if your neighborhood was showered with rockets every day? These spiffy memes neglect a fundamental issue: they neglect to consider the occupation. They neglect to consider that the Palestinians living under it in permanent humiliation and distress, have a right to fight it, just like Israel has a right to its self-defense.
No one looks at a map. Well, here's another map:

No one cares about the geopolitics, the demographics, and the frightening political complexities of the Middle East. People are busy posting pictures. Of fizzling flying missiles, to Israel's public relations misfortune, rarely landing on top of as yet unscathed civilians; on the other side, and far more damaging in every sense, of scores of Palestinian children killed and maimed by the Israelis. You tell me what provokes more outrage.
But much worse than the propaganda are most comments. Caught between two sides of a world citizenry that, with the advent of social media, has taken it upon itself to be the bearer of bad news, defender and apologist for one cause or the other, one is at the mercy of unrestrained lunacy, bordering on idiocy, on both sides.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a rapidly spreading cancer that threatens its existence. It is morally untenable. It is fraying the fabric of civilization, let alone democracy, in Israel. In my view, it has become a grave strategic error. All it has unleashed is a threat to Israel's survival as a modern nation, from the oppression of the Palestinians to the unconscionable coddling of religious Jews in the expanding settlements. If Israel continues its path towards the extreme right, it may survive as an obscurantist theocracy, but that, my fellow Jews, should be cause for alarm and our most vocal opposition. Because if that happens, it will be the end of Israel. 
Having said this, many people see this conflict as Israel's sole responsibility. They choose to ignore the fact that the Palestinians are also oppressed by the vested, byzantine interests of the Arab world, to whom the Palestinians are a convenient tool for directing elsewhere the frustrations of their own oppressed citizens.
The only way out is to find the political will of all parties involved: of Israel, of the different Palestinian factions, of the neighboring Arab states and the rest of the Arab world, of Iran, of the US, the EU, Russia, China, etc, to sit down to serious negotiations and commit political will and economic resources to find a viable Palestinian state or some other option that ensures Israel's right to exist, preferably in peace.
Good luck with that.
Still, nobody, it seems to me, is thinking creatively. Part of my despair comes from realizing that Israel always falls right into Hamas's traps. I admire Israel's technological ingenuity and its human capital, but it amazes me that it has been unable to come up with a surprising, out of the box strategy against its enemies that does not entail a massive show of force, making Israel look like the worst villain the world has ever known. Think of something that will find its enemies off-guard. It can't be easy, but the predictability of the reaction is getting to be very depressing.
I have no solutions, but, perhaps unlike most people screaming like banshees about the conflict, I think about them. What's more, I've seen a map, and I have lived in Israel. I am not a Pollyanna (see maps). I am well aware of how a hostile Arab world in turmoil must look like from Israel's vantage point (hint: not good). But at this point, there has to be a more intelligent way to protect and defend Israel.
In the meantime, this is it. I will refrain from posting or commenting, defending or attacking, arguing and wasting my breath. If you bother with a screed for or against, don't expect an answer. I'm tuning out of this nightmare. Wake me when it's over.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Problem With Puto

Mexicans are up in arms at FIFA's investigation of discriminatory misconduct by Mexican fans in Brazil, who have been heard to chant the word "puto", which means "faggot" at opposing teams. Mexicans only recently are slowly becoming aware of their own deeply ingrained prejudices, mostly thanks to the internet. We are always amazed that slurs that to us are perfectly common, such as "puto" or "blackie", are found offensive by others. "We said it in jest", or "it's a term of endearment", some of us will protest.
Mexicans will say that the word "puto" in this context was not uttered in the spirit of discriminating against any gays. This is true. The Mexican fans that were so maturely and in such a sportsmanlike fashion screaming "puto" at the opposing team were not berating any particular player because of their homosexuality. In Mexico, the word "puto" has become an all-purpose insult, not necessarily aimed at gay men. Think of Alec Baldwin or Jonah Hill hurling "faggot" at the paparazzi. People choose to neglect the fact that the original intention of both "faggot" and "puto" is to denigrate homosexuals, and when used against straight men, to disparage them by accusing them of being gay. It's the worst thing you can say to a guy (in Mexico, without mentioning his mother). Even if it is directed at the straightest man on Earth, the connotation is sissy, weakling, crybaby, coward, less than a man.
In Mexico, people are making outraged jokes at the whole situation. How dare FIFA, a corrupt organization with no ethical credibility, chastise Mexican fans for their innocent chanting? A jokey letter to FIFA is making the internet rounds. Written rather pathetically in bad English, it clarifies the definition of homosexual as a person who likes someone of their own gender and the definition of puto as "whoever reads this". It's funny, but that is exactly the crux of the matter: people prefer to ignore the fact that the insult, whether directed at gays or not, is inextricably linked to homophobia. And the word homophobia has in itself become a bit of an empty cliche, so let me remind you: it means fear (and loathing) of homosexuals.

Now, I use slurs (in the privacy of my own mind) and I hate unbridled political correctness, which also largely thanks to the internet, has created a climate, at least here in the US, of self-righteous censorship and mob accusations of racism and discrimination that threaten to turn everybody into either the thought police or hypersensitive whiners. Now college teachers need to warn students that there may be "offensive" passages in books dealing with the usual depredations in human history. People scream "racism" indiscriminately. Everybody is a victim. It's as if we are pretending that we are better than we are and that having prejudices is not the norm in human behavior. Newsflash: it is and we all have them. But that doesn't mean that people should not be aware that words have history, they have power, they can keep others down. The anti-discrimination Fare network, which reported this behavior to FIFA, considers "puto" a slur because it is, no matter how good humored the usage. They don't know that in Mexico people think there's little wrong with it. This is common. We liberally use slurs and then pretend they are not racist or derogatory. By the same token, but inversely, I have heard some fellow Mexicans try to avoid the use of the word "judío" (Jew) in my presence because they think it is a horrible slur. It is not, but they resort to rather amusing euphemisms, asking me if I am a Hebrew or an Israelite (do I look like I'm 5000 years old?). And when I say I am a Jew, they flinch because in their minds "Jew" means someone terrible. Obviously, the more ingrained the prejudice, the deeper the lack of awareness.
So let's simply turn the tables for a moment. I bet Mexican soccer fans would be delighted if their rivals would disparage our team in the same good-natured fashion. The Mexican team, a bunch of putos? I didn't think so.
I can understand to a certain point the frustration of Mexicans with the solemn humorlessness of the correctness brigade. We are great at humor, but still lag in the awareness department. At the second decade of the 21st century, however, it is about time that we look into our dark little Mexican souls and simply acknowledge our deepest prejudices. It is the first step towards diminishing them.
Something else gnaws at me. Forget about political correctness for a moment. Why is it necessary to root for our team by insulting the others? It is bad form, vulgar and completely unnecessary. Whatever happened to our good manners?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Nationalism, Politics and Frivolity

The Oscars just blew into town, leaving nothing but despair and destruction in their wake. Apparently, Mexico and Kenya almost went to war over the nationality of Oscar winner and classiest new star since Audrey Hepburn, Lupita Nyong'o, a daughter of Kenyan diplomats who was born in Mexico and left at the age of one. Lupita gamely averted an international crisis by saying that she is Mexican-Kenyan or Kenyan-Mexican and she loves carne asada tacos and both countries equally.

Poor Alfonso Cuarón is first lambasted for not making films in Mexico, then treated like a national hero for winning a bunch of Oscars. National pride surges to an all time high, since his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, is also Mexican. Some Mexicans consider the Poncho-Chivo-Lupita a Mexican axis of world domination. The last time this happened was when the Three Amigos (Del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu) all had nominated films.

Venezuelans bent on overthrowing their abject, incompetent, irrational, yet democratically elected government, organized a campaign asking Hollywood people to mention Venezuela's plight in their Oscar speeches. Apparently, Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto got the memo and mentioned, among other things, Venezuela, Ukraine, his mom, AIDS, etc. A lot of people liked his speech. I was not that impressed.
People who win Oscars are suddenly foisted upon a soapbox in front of a billion people, but they are still in a circus called Hollywood, not in the circus called the United Nations. Increasingly, I think they should stick to thanking their agents and costars and directors and moms. If they want to do something for world peace, they should do as Angelina Jolie and actually work it.
I know many Venezuelan friends will disagree with me on this one, but asking people who have nothing to do with that country to give it a political shout out at an entertainment ceremony is absurd. Why Venezuela and not Syria, where things are far more dire? Why not some war torn country in Africa? What makes Venezuela so special? The request is both disproportionate and inappropriate, as was the Venezuelan government's response delusional in the way that only ideologically perverse regimes can muster: they banned the Oscars. Reductio ad absurdum on both sides of the divide.
People have been trying to call the world's attention to sundry plights at the Oscars since Vanessa Redgrave lashed out against Zionism and Marlon Brando sent a Native American to retrieve his award. Except in very few instances when the issues are relevant to the films, broadcasting them from the winners' perch is misguided and frequently embarrassing.
And even when relevant, as in the case of 12 Years A Slave, it was rather jarring for Steve McQueen to mention that almost 30 million people are still slaves today, then jump around the stage like an overgrown schoolboy with his coveted Oscar. There is a tonal conflict at work. The possibility for gravitas is almost nil.
Bringing serious issues to the most frivolous event in the universe belittles and cheapens those issues. Unless the winners happen to be intelligent, articulate and self-possessed enough for impromptu eloquence, they all look like pompous asses trying to be something they're not when using their thirty seconds for some cause or another. Lupita Nyong'o did more against racism and for women with her poise and her refreshing lack of ego than any bombastic speechifying ever has.

Monday, January 27, 2014

La noche que conocí a José Emilio Pacheco

La noche que lo conocí, hace ya varios años, una noche rara en la que José Emilio Pacheco aceptó salir a tomarse un trago al Bar Nuevo León con algunos amigos literarios, le comenté que una de mis tesinas universitarias fue sobre los Cuatro Cuartetos de T.S. Eliot. Me dijo que llevaba unos catorce años de su vida traduciéndolos y generosamente ofreció regalarme los que ya había terminado, algo que cumplió unos días más tarde, y que yo atesoro, en su versión de copia engargolada, hasta el día de hoy.
Al parecer, José Emilio Pacheco no solía salir mucho de su casa. Esa noche, estábamos cenando y conversando tranquilamente. La cantina estaba casi vacía. De repente, en una mesa del fondo donde bebían dos señores con pinta, quizás, de burócratas, uno de ellos tomó el servilletero, de esos de metal que parecen cajas fuertes, y se lo estampó a su amigo en la cabeza.
Creo que nos percatamos porque solamente oímos un crack y al voltear, vimos a un hombre de cuya frente chorreaban borbotones de sangre; una cantidad de sangre exagerada. El atacado permaneció sentadito, calladito en su silla y su amigo también. Si se quejó, no lo oímos. Si no mal recuerdo, el amigo hasta le pidió perdón. No hubo gritos, ni una vulgar pelea. Un mesero impasible acudió al socorro del agredido y un garrotero se dispuso a limpiar el charco y la pared estrellada de sangre con un trapo.
Lo insólito, además de que fue la noche insólita en la que Jose Emilio finalmente aceptó salir de su casa, es que fue como ver una película muda, de violencia tristemente cómica y trágicamente sangrienta, algo que solamente México es capaz de producir.
José Emilio estaba bastante impactado, me imagino pensando que estos despliegues bizarros de machismo alcoholizado eran de rutina en este lugar. Creo que le juramos y perjuramos que no era así. Fue una escena totalmente surrealista, y yo pensé, qué extraña suerte tenemos todos, incluyendo a José Emilio: peleas en cantinas hay de sobra, pero estas cosas sólo pasan en presencia de un poeta. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's It All About?

What could have possibly stir up the long dormant ranting of the Grande Enchilada? Governor Christie's Bridgegate? That spawn of Satan, Assad, massacring his own people in Syria? Vladimir Putin (every day)?
All of the above, of course, but what got my goat yesterday was something infuriating enough, but far less tragic.
First, some background. I have seen a couple of those Broadway musicals (yes, this is today's incendiary topic) that are supposed to be about young, hip people being bohemians, all rebellious rock & roll. Apparently, nobody involved ever notices that the words "young and hip" and the words "Broadway musical" are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. If you are truly hip, then you are nowhere near a Broadway musical. And to judge from the audiences, the same goes for "young".
With the exception of Hair in its day, which has some pretty nice music and some disturbing war stuff going on, I hold this to be truth to be self-evident.
The first one of these youth-centered musicals I saw was Rent, which is supposed to be La Boheme transposed to the now defunct starving artists of the East Village (currently to be found gentrifying the far edges of Bushwick, or getting free housing in Detroit). Every single thing about that show was neither hip nor authentic, nor really bohemian, and the music was a saccharine travesty of rock. Then I saw Spring Awakening, of which I remember nothing but a bunch of intolerable young people, choreographed to act rebellious, climbing on walls.
I must alert you, I hate young people. In particular in America, they are fed on a steady pablum of personal reinforcement and cheerful, if delusional empowerment that leads them to believe they can actually do anything they set their minds to. This is not always bad (think Lena Dunham, or Mark Zuckerberg, or your precocious genius du jour), but it seems to breed an overconfidence in their own talent that we are supposed to forgive in lieu of its youthful exuberance.
Which brings me to the case in point.
Kyle Riabko, an enterprising young talent, decided to bestow the genius of Burt Bacharach on the people of his generation. This, on paper, is an awesome idea. God knows his generation needs to learn a thing or two about crafting spectacularly melodic, original, unforgettable songs. His show, called What's It All About. Bacharach: Reimagined, is where the concept went south.
I grew up with Burt Bacharach (he was huge in Mexico). Just reading the titles of the songs in the playbill brought their melodies instantly to my mind. "I Say A Little Prayer", "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", "Walk On By", "I'll Never Fall In Love Again", "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"... etc. I was intrigued by several glowing reviews that claimed that the sparse arrangements (no Dionne Warwick, no amazing brass section) brought a fresh light to Bacharach's iconic music. Sure enough, the show sheds a new light on the songs, but not always for the right reasons.
If an opera singer sang "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", and eluded most of the quickfire notes that cascade in the second phrase (na na na na nana, nana nana nana nana), they would be torn apart by the audience. If they had to cheat and lower their pitch one register as they sang "Walk on By", I shudder to think. As I listened to the young, not particularly spellbinding performers, I did get an epiphany about Bacharach's music. The songs bloom with notes, resembling baroque arias or complex jazz melodies. But that is because of what's missing in Riabko's arrangements: they avoid many of the notes that make the songs a challenge to sing and a beauty to listen to. Some of the arrangements sound like U2, or Coldplay, some like those ubiquitous TV commercials that think they can sell you anything with a ukulele and a xylophone. Some of them were perfectly nice. The most fortunate was a quiet group rendition of "(They Long To Be) Close To You", a song so richly gorgeous that it's pretty impossible to screw up. But with any of the more challenging melodies, my sense is that the arrangements took the easy way out, leaving the audience to mentally hum the missing music. Which is not totally criminal, if done the right way. Burt Bacharach's best songs (he wrote some treacle here and there) are so intricate, the melodies so unpredictable, that even in the hands of unseasoned, if well meaning artists, they still soar.
Alas, as I watched the very young performers mug for the audience like an overgrown troupe of Mousketeers, I was reminded of the essential Noel Coward theatrical dictum: "Don't just do something, stand there". Unless you are at the opera, or a traditional Broadway musical with a dramatic libretto, you don't need to act the songs. Sing the glorious music with those crazy cool lyrics by Hal David and call it a day. The music does 75% of the work. But the cast was mimicking reading love notes, then tearing them apart, smiling maniacally, dancing halfheartedly at some stupid choreography intended to evoke youth, or in the case of the promising singer who tried her hand at a bluesy adaptation of "Don't Make Me Over", actually forcing herself to cry while looking at the floor the entire song. Honey, the tears are already in the music and the lyrics. The direction and the conception are both sophomoric and hokey.
Then, as the Magnificent Arepa cannily pointed out, how can this be a show for Riabko's "generation" if the median age of the audience is 65? Or, in my case, if it feels like watching Up With People? Arepa was reminded of the Catholic spiritual retreats of her youth, which tried, with guitars and bonfires, to seem cool and hip.
If you want to be cool and hip, you either have to be Patti Smith, or you have to play in cool and hip places, like the Mercury Lounge or the Bowery Ballroom or any cavernous hall in the boonies of Greenpoint or Gowanus. You are not hip and cool if you put on something that works too hard to be likable; that wants to behave like a Broadway show.
Which is a pity, because Burt Bacharach is the coolest and the hippest, as Elvis Costello, who was in attendance, can attest to, since he has collaborated with Bacharach. Also in attendance, and sitting right next to Costello was Mike Myers, Austin Powers to you, which was bizarre and thrilling, and ultimately mortifying. I doubt that they went for the painfully fake, utterly unhip, youthful exuberance shtick.
This show could have promise if it were stripped entirely of its annoying theatrical pretense, and packaged as an intimate recital of a bunch of amazing songs.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Now Showing At a Theater Near You

It's awards season, so if you live in a densely populated urban area, you probably still have a chance to check out many of the remarkable movies that came out in 2013 and perhaps some notorious clunkers, included, for your reading pleasure in the link above.