Monday, September 29, 2008

See This Immediately: MAN ON WIRE

In 1974, crazy Frenchman Phillippe Petit walked a high wire strung between WTC 1 and WTC 2. He didn't just walk it. He went back and forth eight times, laid down on the wire, knelt, and spent a total of forty-five minutes in the clouds.

I must live under a rock, because before Man on Wire was released, I had never heard of this stunt. This seems impossible, but true. The New Yorker did an incredible job with their hommage to Petit on the issue the week of 9/11.

Petit didn't just walk between the Two Towers, either. Prior to that impossible feat he also walked the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the two turrets of Notre Dame. (Later conquests include the Eiffel Tower and the Louisiana Superdome). And, of course, he didn't do these things alone. He had a colorful crew of losers and friends to literally help him string the wires. The documentary is heist-tale of sorts: the crew had to find a way to get to the top of the World Trade Center without being arrested, manage to string the wire and get Petit across it all before being apprehended by the police. After several hilarious and nerve-wracking gyrations, they succeed.

The footage of Petit practicing his highwire and the photographs of him exercising his passion are perhaps the most impressive, breathtaking aspect of this documentary. But it is the focus on the relationships of these people, and how this singular event changed their lives forever that becomes the most heartbreaking, most meaningful reason to see this film. All involved parties are interviewed and their piecemeal accounts combine to form the narrative of the events leading up to the highwire walk on August 7th, 1974. But interspersed there is video footage from the seventies, mostly in Petit's backyard in France, where he practiced his walk. The same people telling us this incredible story are immediately transformed into their younger selves in what feels completely seamless: as if the moment of Petit's ascension aged them by thirty years.

In what seems to be a very French philosophy, Man on Wire seems to tell us to live our lives to the fullest, pursuing our passions and unabashedly worshiping our obsessions until they become a reality. But in what I believe to be perhaps the most poignant message of the film is the solitude and the resounding silence that occurs after said mission is won. Petit achieved an incredible and impossible personal goal that day. When one is confronted with the success of a lifelong dream, that changes everything, well, what then?

I find the parallels between Man on Wire and the demise of the Trade Towers eerily profound. (And yet 9/11, for understandable reasons, is never discussed). The Two Towers, for so many New Yorkers, and Americans represent those unattainable goals, those impossible passions and obsessions. And even if they are built, they can crumble around us. But, for those brief moments they survive, the journey is worth it. And then we must confront the ghostly reminder of our past, and its formidable mist that gathers at our feet.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Autumn in New York

Happy Fall, everyone, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Commitment for Sale

Oh my goodness.

Olivia Judson, in this piece on the NYTimes' "The Wild Side" blog, discusses the discovery of the arginine vasopressin receptor 1a gene, which has recently been found to support and encourage the maintenance of committed relationships in humans and other mammals. While the gene is present in both sexes, it's more important to males, as it corresponds to other behaviors such as "aggressive posturing, scent marking of territories, courtship and sex."

Too much of the gene, however, can be a bad thing. In a recent Swedish study, men who had two copies of the gene, a variant known as RS3 334 "were less likely to be married, and more likely to report difficulties in their relationships, than other men. Their partners were also more likely to report relationship difficulties."

When introduced into lab rats (a species that Judson notes is NOT, by any means, a monogamous species), the male rat became interested in cuddling with a partner, and when a new female was introduced into his environment, he "prefer[ed] to consort with the old partner." The question here is: if we were to insert this gene into human males who have a proven aversion to commitment, would we achieve the same result?

Of course, as Judson mentions, this isn't exactly an ethical move. And I, for one, am not a huge fan of altering human behavior through gene therapy.

So, ladies: seeing a guy that won't commit? Time to throw in the towel.

Shit is biological.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I have never read Infinite Jest, but the novel means a lot to a dear friend of mine, so I've been meaning to read it for some time. I'm sure many others will be motivated to do the same now that the man behind it is dead . . . for understandable reasons suicide creates a shroud of mystery around the artist's work which gives it another level of permanence.

I have, however, read several of David Foster Wallace's essays, and found them quite intelligent and entertaining. There's also a sense of pain and raw emotion present in his writing that my favorite book reviewer, Sam Anderson, pegged as almost a feeling of "self-help" in his memorial on New York Magazine. In it, he mentions Wallace's commencement address to the 2005 Kenyon graduates. Here are a few lines that really spoke to me:

"If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-type hell situation not only as meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the starts: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that the mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it."

Things can be bad. I, for one, know that I make them worse when I let my anxieties and insecurities get the best of me. I know what's quoted above seems flouncy and Buddhist, and perhaps it is, but I can't hear advice like this often enough. So much of my reality is often colored by my negative perception. If I could learn, as DFW suggests, to seek the positive, even in times of stress, I think the world would seem less fruitless and that people would seem more kind.

I only wish his own advice had been able to sway him from giving up. My thoughts are with his family and friends. His words survive.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Missing

Every anniversary I read Susan Sontag's brave piece from The New Yorker, which was published on September 24th, 2001. You can read other writers' and thinkers' reactions from that day here. Sontag received (of course) a great deal of criticism for her agressive stance, but I find her points to still ring true after SEVEN years . . . which unfortunately says more about the ignorant, impotent administration than the American people (I hope). So, once again, Susan.

"The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

—Susan Sontag

[emphasis mine]

* * *

God knows how many people never came home on September 11th, 2001.

Dr. Sneha Anne Philip's case has been perhaps the most publicized and the most mysterious. But I can't help but think what else is missing from this country: an awareness that the right-wing, isolationist stance that George W. Bush and his ilk take is flat out wrong, racist, ignorant, and the only thing it does is gets us (not to mention other people) killed. I still can't fathom how we were struck dumb enough to elect this man for a second time. Anger, Revenge and Blood-lust are inevitably part of being human. But I believe that our leaders should, with the help of a well-informed administration, be able to rise above our initial impulse to seek and destroy.

And while many Americans feel down-trodden, disgusted, and helpless when it comes to our election process, I must urge everyone to vote for the missing. For those people who never came home on 9/11, and for the compassion, intellect, and capable leadership that has been missing from this country for nearly eight years.

* * *

To my friends and family, I love you. Take care of yourselves and others.

And to New York, no matter how much you test me, you are still the most vibrant, resilient city: let's hope the rest of the country catches on.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Norma Jean Nostalgia

Vanity Fair has acquired incredible access to the letters, mementos, clothes and various other personal items of Marilyn Monroe's that were recently discovered in two filing cabinets originally sold at auction.

After clicking through most of the scans, I think the most touching are her letters to her step-children and father-in-law, with whom she kept in close contact with even after her divorce from Arthur Miller. Her letters to Miller's father are all addressed, "Dear Dad."

This one is written to her step-son, Bobby, in the voice of Hugo, his basset hound. [click photo for larger view]

Or this cheeky little note regarding some off-color remarks Tony Curtis had made:

You can browse through the entire archive here.

I've always been a huge Marilyn Monroe fan, my reasons ranging from the conspiracy theories that surround her death to her astounding beauty. I do think had she survived she would have gone on to be respected as a serious actress. And her life-long dream of becoming a mother, never-realized, is absolutely heart-breaking. But, obviously, more than anything she's a reflection of the decade that defined her success and made her an icon.