Friday, October 29, 2010

69 Days

I had forgotten all about the miners. Last I’d heard they were found, trapped but alive in a refuge half a mile down. The multi-million-dollar rescue effort at the San José mine near Copiapó, Chile was gearing up. That was back in August.

Then, a few Tuesdays ago, I stopped for a slice of pizza and saw the live CNN coverage unfolding above the bar, beside a Yankees game. A couple of the kitchen staff were chatting in Spanish as they awaited the first ascent, and at a table next to mine, an older man was having a beer and staring at the screen. Around the time a video feed showed the red-white-and-blue Phoenix capsule hit bottom, I heard a sniff and realized the man was crying. At first he turned away, but then he looked at the TV again with shiny eyes, shaking his head a bit as if in awe, unable not to watch. The beer was maybe a factor, but still, it was touching to see. And pretty soon I was swept back into the epic narrative—the utter darkness, the health concerns, messages passed up and down through the borehole, the Elvis sing-alongs—so that I hardly noticed the long lapse in my attention to the story, which was roughly the entire length of the miners’ ordeal. In that moment, it all felt big, fated, historic. I sat there with my Coke and pizza for a while: me and the teary guy beside me, two Latino line cooks, Anderson Cooper and crowds of joyous, flag-waving Chileans, taking it all in.

The next evening, I heard David Shields read from his new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and talk about, among other things, the failures of conventional (i.e. novelistic) storytelling in the modern world. During the Q&A, the miners inevitably came up. Someone asked Shields what he thought about it all, and he admitted he wasn’t interested. Maybe it was callous, he said, but he didn’t care as much about the fate of the miners as he did about a single photograph he saw in the newspaper (this one, I believe). It shows Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing President in decades (who is riding a sudden wave of popularity on account of the rescue operation), embracing the first man to surface, Florencio Ávalos. Partly obscured by Piñera, though, are a woman wiping a tear from her face and a young boy—presumably members of Ávalos’ family who are waiting, as if in an on-deck circle, for the President to finish with his international photo-op so they can greet their loved one. What is wrong with this picture? This, for Shields, is where the real story was. As a critical reader and writer, some part of his brain rejected the pre-packaged narrative that the media was trying to spoon-feed him. He didn’t want a bright, burnished story of deprivation and spirit and triumph, even if it was mostly true. He wanted something else, something deeper: the subtext, the dirt.

Shields wasn’t alone. In the days before and after the subterranean rescue, others seemed to crave a similar kind of subversion. Back in early September, reports were already breaking of clashes at “Camp Hope” between the wives and mistresses of various miners, all of whom were making claims on the buried men’s hearts and, by extension, government compensation. One argument over Yonni Barrios, whose wife overheard his mistress calling out his name at a vigil, nearly came to blows (in the end it was his mistress, not his wife, who met him at the surface). Judging by the number of news outlets covering these above-ground scuffles, the public was almost as rapt by the romantic scandals as by the rescue itself, and even afterward, many articles about the miners’ reception and recovery gave at least a nod to the mistress parade. Other pieces, like this one, used the miners’ circumstances to shed light on widespread safety issues and the death toll in the mining industry as a whole.

What people were looking for, it seems, were cracks in the master narrative, fissures through which we might catch a glimpse of a few unflattering (if not terribly surprising) details about the situations of these 33 men who, through the reductive lenses of patriotism and media, have been cast as national, if not global, heroes. They are heroic, of course. They endured unimaginably stressful conditions in the mine, they struggled and persevered and helped each other, and they deserve all the praise, free merchandise, book deals and charitable stripteases now being lavished upon them. But people tend to frown when they realize that a person who’s been built up as larger-than-life is actually living one. How do we square the will and fortitude these men displayed while underground, the world might as well have been asking, with the ordinary, flawed lives they left up above, before the tunnel collapse and the media crush? How do the sweeping, engineered drama and the messy human drama fit together?

The answer is they don’t, at least not in any obvious way. To tell the 'true' story would have meant painting the miners (and their anxious families, and their lovers, and President Piñera) in something other than the broadest strokes, which the mass media is generally not very good at doing. To capitalize on the Hollywood-ready nature of the tale, the heroes had to be heroes and not much else, their predicament had to seem dire but hopeful, and the ending, if all went as planned, would be blindingly happy. Check, check, and check. And maybe this is what the majority of the public wanted to be shown, in spite of its ever-present lust for shock and scandal. I would never have the heart to devalue the experience of that man sitting next to me, crying in the pizza shop. Was he being manipulated by CNN? Probably a little. So was I. Does that depreciate what he was feeling as the capsule rose? Of course not.

However imperfectly told, the miners’ story is a stirring one and surely worth some of the world’s attention, if only because it’s one of the rare large-scale accidents where the final outcome, unlike some of the survivors, was essentially unblemished. Eventually books will be ghostwritten on behalf of the miners, which might bring anyone who’s interested a touch closer to what actually went on above and beneath that patch of Chilean desert. Still, every narrative has its limits. Aside from the 33, no one will ever know what it was like to ascend, through a narrow shaft from 2,300 feet below the ground, after two months of darkness, up to the terrific glare of those lights.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Dangers of 'Empathy'

“He needs to connect better with the public,” she said. “He cares, but he has to show he cares.”

It was my mom talking, and we’d gotten onto the subject of President Obama. She was making a common point that, with the economy still rocky and the midterm elections looming, the President needs to imbue his speech with a greater sense of compassion. He has to convey that he not only understands, but empathizes with the individual fears, tribulations, and financial woes of the nation. Words, even carefully chosen ones, aren’t enough. His transmissions to us should be one part intellect, two parts feeling, she and many others seem to be implying.

While I mostly agree with this, I was annoyed. Not so much with my mom as with the idea that the President—or anyone, really—should be required to wear every word on his sleeve for others to accept what he’s saying as honest or credible. Given his office, and the fact that he was placed there by electoral vote, shouldn’t the straightforward, grammatically sound answers that the President generally gives to the press and the public be worth something? When he says, simply and seriously, that he knows many Americans are still in a difficult spot, and that his administration is doing what it can to alleviate what was known from the start to be a protracted economic slump, should we dismiss the claim because his face doesn’t seem to betray the right amount of pathos? What exactly do we want from him? For his voice to crack? For him to wring his hands in despair? For his hair to turn even grayer? Isn’t it the role of a leader to take a reserved, confident stance when the rest of us are teetering toward hopelessness?

There’s some reason to be suspicious of the sort of conspicuous passion that Americans seem to be calling for from their commander-in-chief. In Washington, Mr.-Smith-style bluster doesn’t play as well as in the movies, and the most effusive and vociferous public servants often end up looking more foolish than heroic. At the President’s health care address last year, excessive emotion got one congressman from South Carolina (“You lie!”) into trouble. On the other side of the aisle, New York Representative Anthony Weiner, in July, held the House floor with a furious rant when Republicans attempted to delay a bill that would provide health care to 9/11 responders, a spectacle that is fun to watch but ultimately pretty silly-looking (“The gentleman is correct in sitting!”). We may admire, in theory, a politician who’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but do we want that sort of person in the Oval Office? Maybe these are extreme examples, but the fact is that strong visible emotion—good, bad or ugly—is not always an asset when it comes to political discourse. If you watched any of the bipartisan roundtable discussion on health care, which was televised last September, the way in which the President calmly dispensed with the arguments of certain combative right-wingers should have given you at least a sense that it’s nice, sometimes, to have a cool head running the show.

Passion has been big in the news lately. It was passion, or outrage, that helped to turn last week’s 9/11 anniversary into an occasion for as much protest (for or against the Islamic Center near Ground Zero, not to mention the planned burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor) as quiet remembrance. Also dealing in outrage is the Tea Party movement, which seems to thrive on the intense, vague connections forged between rousing speakers and mass crowds. Chief among the agitators is, of course, Glenn Beck, who recently presided over a "Restoring Honor" rally at the National Mall, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech (a piece of oratory which, most would probably agree, was nothing if not heartfelt). Beck, in spite of his broad following among conservatives, has drawn some criticism for his incendiary antics on his TV and radio shows and his tendency to well up on the air. Do I think he’s faking it? Actually, I’m not sure. Even if he isn’t, it’s precisely the ‘sincerity’ with which he delivers his pronouncements—which are usually sanctimonious or apocalyptic, or both—that troubles me. Beck makes a maudlin show of fighting back patriotic tears, and suddenly an insinuation that the U.S. could be headed in the direction of Nazi Germany (universal health care, apparently, is the first step on the path to eugenics) strikes an emotional chord with hundreds of thousands of viewers. Wow, he really must care about this country. He’s actually crying. He scribbles emphatically on a chalkboard and thrusts his face toward the camera, ranting and raving, and his ideas gain a persuasive weight by virtue of his theatricality.

It’s a similar phenomenon with Sarah Palin, who at her speaking engagements is prone to make impassioned pleas to “take back our country”. From whom exactly? I’m not sure any of the people nodding in assent at a Tea Party rally could answer that question. And if they did, I have a hunch the explanation would be less than convincing. Gusto, however, is convincing, and it can give to even the leakiest arguments a sense of truth and urgency. It can also give the distinct impression that a speaker feels what he or she is expressing more deeply than he or she does. Whether they mean what they’re saying or not, Beck and Palin have a knack for strumming the emotions of their supporters like a star-spangled six-string.

Politics depend on this type of grandiloquence. Succinct, high-flown assurances were Churchill’s specialty during World War II. FDR made the leap to the minds and hearts of citizens over the airwaves, saying, “Together we cannot fail.” Later, Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A beautiful turn of phrase, but would most of us actually agree with it today? Much more recently, we have Bill Clinton, who for all his flaws is a master of harnessing the power of social connections. So was John Edwards, though like Clinton he fell hard from grace and left us to wonder just how hollow his words were. I don’t mean to lump in Beck and Palin with these relative heavyweights of articulation. FDR, I’m sure, would have sooner eaten his fedora than said “youbetcha” during one of his fireside chats. And yet, you might argue that the effect of their words and presence, and their appeal, are similar. They inspire people. They get people riled up. And most tellingly, they make those in the audience feel as if the individual and the speaker are sharing the same emotional and ideological space. They project empathy. She’s just like me, is a common sentiment among the scores of “hockey moms” who follow the former governor of Alaska in earnest. “You’re not alone,” Beck confides to the camera, his chin quivering.

In the end, it’s a very fine line between stirring rhetoric and something like manipulation, maybe so fine as to be imperceptible to the naked ear. What counts, I suppose, is where that manipulation is taking you, and what’s behind it. I don’t believe that most Americans could be coerced into taking a position toward which they aren’t already predisposed. A fire can’t be made in a vacuum. But still, a compelling orator is able to fan existing flames this way or that.

As he’s occasionally shown, our President can inspire too. It’s his talent for sweeping statements of optimism that got his career going in the first place, and from time to time—his victory speech at Grant Park, his call for interfaith peace in Cairo, even his eloquent final push for health care reform—the sound of his language reaches a moving, historical pitch. In those moments, he lets us in. We feel we might know him, and he might know us. But the public memory is short, and maybe in recent months we’ve seen too many measured responses to immeasurable problems. In the times ahead we’ll see if the President is made a victim of a perceived coolness and inaccessibility, or if we can learn to trust a leader who, for whatever reason, seems to be saying all the right things in not quite the right way.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


What is it about a story of gross imbalance?
The Spartans hemmed by two million Persians;
Theseus and the Minotaur; Jonah
inside the Whale. And the most-cited one
of the Biblical would-be king
hurling a rock that, in my mind, did not possess
luminary smoothness, a neat crosswise design
or any mark of Providence. It was
an ordinary hunk of earth, picked off an ordinary plain
of dust, rolled in the boy’s palm
as the armor was fitted across Goliath’s shoulders.
When he emerged from the tent-mouth like a monstrous
god being born, it was dull brown
eyes watching him, and slight forearms
tensed like strips of leather
from an unremarkable calf, bled like any other.
He might have bowed his head, in prayer or fear, before the object
was whirled round and let go
striking the giant’s orbit, crushing the temple. It was
deemed a miracle. What is it about
a story of wild implausibility to make us feel
everything that never happens
will? The accuracy was nothing—luck or God.
What moves us is the rush of blood and courage
that spins the stone into the sunblind noon.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

DQW: 4

"Ah, did not the climate change at all, did it not grow milder round about Ulsgaard with all our warmth? Do not certain roses bloom longer in the park now, even into December?

I shall tell nothing about you, Abelone. Not because we deluded one another: since you loved someone, even then, whom you have never forgotten, you lover, and I loved all women; but because only wrong is done in the telling."

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, translated by M. D. Herter Norton


Friday, July 09, 2010

King LeBron, a Tragicomedy

This is a parody I whipped up about yesterday's outrageous press conference regarding where LeBron James will be playing basketball next season, and about his egomania generally. It's based on the first scene of King Lear.

King LeBron
A tragicomedy, by William Shakespeare

Act I, Scene 1

Enter ESPN and CBS

I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Cleveland than Chicago or New York.

It did always seem so to us. But now in the auction of the kingdom it appears not which of the Dukes he values most.

Enter LeBron, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Jay-Z of Jersey, Miami, Los Angeles, and media attendants

Now we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have discussed
With six our kingdom; and 'tis our fast intent
To sell the skills and business of our age,
Combining them with offensive strengths, so we
Unhindered can drive toward titles. Our Duke of Cleveland,
Jay-Z of Jersey, and no less loving Duke of New York -
We have this hour a constant will to publicize
Our numerous suitors, that our head
May be inflated. The others, Chicago, LA, Miami,
Great rivals in our dazzling player's love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answered. Tell me, my suitors,
Since now we will divest us of self-respect,
With interest of territory, cares of fame,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our massive bounty may extend
Where millions doth with merit challenge. Chicago,
Of Jordanian legacy, speak first.

Sir, I love you more than news can hype the matter,
Dearer than highlights, press, and dignity,
Beyond what can be valued rich or rare,
No less than life, with rings, wealth, ticketholders,
As much as GM e’er loved or sponsor found;
A love that makes fans poor and foes unstable;
Beyond all manner of ‘so much’ I love you.

Cleveland (aside):
What shall Cleveland speak? Love, and be silent.

Of all these offers, even from this day to this,
With shadowy meetings and with champagnes rich,
With plenteous flashbulbs and wide-winged jets,
We make thee wait. What says our second suitor,
Our dearest New York, keeper of billboards?

New York
I am made of more mettle than Chicago
And can outprice his claim. In my true heart
I find he names my very deed of love;
Only he comes too short, that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other teams
Which the most precious slammer of dunks considers,
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness’ net worth.

Cleveland (aside)
Then poor Cleveland!
And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s
More ponderous than my checkbook.

To thee and thine citizenry then
Remain this ample show of indecision,
No less in span, drama, and displeasure
Than that conferred on the others. - Now, our home,
Although our last and least, whose seasoned love
with lines of kids in shirts of burgundy
Strives to be impressive: what can you say to draw
A deal more opulent than the others? Speak!

Nothing, my lord.

Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot match
My heart unto your ego. I love your majesty
As much as a hundred million, no more nor less.

How, how, Cleveland! Mend your cap a little
Lest you may mar your fortunes.

Good my lord,
I have begot you, bred you, loved you.
Why have New Yorkers Yankees, if they say
They love you all? Happy I was when I signed you,
A lord whose hand did take my plight and carry
All my team with him, all my care and duty.
But I shall never again marry as such,
To love my franchise player all.

But goes thy heart with this?

Aye, my good lord.

So pissed, and so untender?

So pissed, my lord, and true.

Let it be so! Thy truth then be thy cash cow!
For by the sacred radiance of South Beach,
The mysteries of the Heat and the night,
By all the operation of the orb
With which we do dribble, or cease to play,
Here I endow all my contractual care,
Propinquity and property of brand,
To thee, Miami, now. The glorious Wade
And Bosh, who made entreaties to their bosses
To gorge our appetite for wins, shall be
As well neighboured, outscored, and relieved
As thou my sometime teammates.

Good my liege –

Peace, Jay-Z!
Come not between the phenom and his cash.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

DQW: 3

"The Island of Koh-ring, a great, black, upheaved ridge amongst a lot of tiny islets, lying upon the glassy water like a triton amongst minnows, seemed to be the centre of the fatal circle. It seemed impossible to get away from it. Day after day it remained in sight. More than once, in a favourable breeze, I would take its bearing in the fast ebbing twilight, thinking that it was for the last time. Vain hope. A night of fitful airs would undo the gains of temporary favour, and the rising sun would throw out the black relief of Koh-ring, looking more barren, inhospitable, and grim than ever."

—Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line


Monday, June 07, 2010

DQW: 2

"It used to be I thought of death as a man something like Grandfather a friend of his a kind of private and particular friend like we used to think of Grandfather's desk not to touch it not even to talk loud in the room where it was I always thought of them as being together somewhere all the time waiting for old Colonel Sartoris to come down and sit with them waiting on a high place beyond cedar trees Colonel Sartoris was on a still higher place looking out across at something and they were waiting for him to get done looking at it and come down Grandfather wore his uniform and we could hear the murmur of their voices from beyond the cedars they were always talking and Grandfather was always right"

—William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

I’ve never read The Sound and the Fury. The book was assigned in one of my college lit courses, and though I neglected to read it then—probably because I was wrestling with a paper that was late, or reading something else for another class—I must have decided to hold onto it. The other night I woke up fitfully, and when I couldn’t get back to sleep I reached for the bookshelf in the dark. I pulled the first spine I touched—I had a feeling it was a Norton Critical Edition, glossy with hard-squared edges—and opened the book. When I turned on the lamp I saw the passage above on page 111.

I have another book of Faulkner’s, a collection of hunting stories, which I started not long ago and put down soon after. The lead story was about a boy on a bear hunt with his father and some other men—a good premise—but the writing felt so ponderous and overwrought to me that I lost interest. Like this excerpt, the story was written in a stream-of-consciousness style, but in the third person, and without the same simple lyricism and beauty. The lack of punctuation in this kind of experimental writing can be jarring at first, at least for me—the prose seems to ramble on without inflection. But once I get past my presumptions about grammar and fall into the author’s rhythms, the effect is less confusing and more impressionistic. Especially in the quote above, where Faulkner lulls the reader into something that is not so much a scene as an atmosphere, one character's gauzy vision of the afterlife. It’s the sort of passage that makes me feel badly for never giving his books a fair chance.

It also got me thinking about my own grandfather. He died a few years back. Last week I was in the house where he lived, and where my grandmother now lives alone. I walked onto the porch where he used to sit during the summer in his olive green recliner, reading the newspaper or the Bible, pens jutting from his shirt pocket. Sometimes there was a tumbler on the side table, his daily martini. I would sit on the swinging sofa and we would have well-meaning conversations about banal things. Sports, the weather, what I was up to at school or work. Now, his absence was palpable. It struck me that losing people we love results in a strange irony, making our lives heavier by a process of subtraction. The longer we live the more people vanish around us and our day-to-day experience becomes weighted, full of memory and longing, or regret, or thoughts of our own impermanence, how nothing we know can stay the way it is. We go on and assume it gets better with time, but it doesn't really.

Maybe one way to help ourselves is to try and coax our minds back to how they were in childhood, when it might have been easier to imagine the dead as the narrator in Faulkner’s story does, talking and moving quietly through the light beyond the cedars.