My worst trait, biggest fault, most flawed characteristic, is that I stare.
It makes people uncomfortable. I get it. I understand. It’s rude. I apologize. I’m sorry.
It’s like I got x-ray vision. I get fascinated by what I look at and I obsessively observe what I see. This is harmless and blameless when it comes to landscapes like Grand Canyon and Devil’s Tower, or monuments like Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame de Paris, or paintings like Leonardo’s MonaLisa or L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, unless I linger too long at a prime vantage where someone else would like to view and I inadvertently inconvenience a fellow gazer. The beauty of nature compels me to contemplate what it is that makes a view a vision, just as art inspires visual fixation for the sake of beauty. It’s when real people come into my fascinated line of sight my habit can be considered intimidating and even provocative. Offensive, especially to women.
I objectify what I see, you might say. I used to justify my staring as subjectifying, as if the semantics legitimized my defense. I acted defensive when I was younger, as if the Right to Look were written into the Constitution. Now I accept criticism as advice and concede an observer of me could feel watched and not like it. This does not usually stop me from looking, I just adopt a more furtive technique. Unless, of course, I want to get caught.
I have always looked people in the eye. This is because I not only stare at people to study their physical attributes and features but also to examine their character, and no other feature projects character than eyes. If you and I were face to face sharing a conversation right now I would be studying you, your face, your eyes as much or more than listening to your voice. So you would feel at ease I might glance away at the room furnishings, another person in the room, a video screen on the wall. I might look at your hands, your coat or your ear, but unless I’ve seen enough of you I will return to you and resume my study, eye to eye. I blink, of course.
My eyes are penetrating blue. Like beacons. To help conceal my conspicuous stare I like to wear sunglasses. As the song says, future’s so bright… I’m very nearsighted, so I wear prescription shades. I like to think of myself as that emoji of the smiley face in shades. Nonthreatening and kind. Maybe it makes me all the more sinister. Without corrective lenses what I see is very much like Impressionist paintings, and for the most I like that, the details only matter when I’m driving, my mind can assemble a coherent vision of what I see. Not wearing glasses may cut down on instances of blatant staring because I have become more self-conscious — self aware — at my advanced age of the effect my naked eyes can have on another self-consciously aware subject who feels treated as an object. That and without glasses I can’t see far enough to distinguish individual faces, though that does not stop me from looking.
Up close my vision is very good, which means I prefer no lenses at all when reading, especially fine print, or when I’m studying pictures, like Impressionist paintings.
In intimacy especially.
Anyway, I cannot trace back to the origin of my staring. I cannot help what my eyes are, I was born this way. Somehow, however, I learned to use these eyes to maximize my visual gratification. Early on I was drilled to pay attention, so maybe I grew driven to keep observing to keep from being punished for failing to see and to figure things out. My parents and teachers expected a lot from me so I felt compelled to stay alert for their expectations. I say to them now, in severe retrospect, be careful what you wish for, it isn’t all innocent fun to produce a precocious kid. The American culture of the 1950s provided primal earth to grow and nurture a visual attraction for beauty, and girls and women were powerfully beautiful.
In 1951, the year I was born, an American photographer named Ruth Orkin framed her camera and made a picture called American Girl in Italy, 1951, a candid shot of one Ninalee Craig, age 23, dressed in a modest calf length dress, sandals, clutching a shawl over one shoulder and a sac purse in her other hand, walking to the corner curb of a street in Florence at the foot of a formidable classical building where the sidewalk for half a block is populated by fifteen men, all but one (and he’s obscure) looking her direction. One old guy in the foreground is absolutely transfixed. The guys down the block in the background (except the one tall swarthy guy in the middle of the shadow arch of the first doorway) gaze after her from behind, still parted on both sides of the sidewalk from where she came, savoring her fleeting presence. She is beautiful and this is after all Florence. Nearer to Ninalee Craig in the center of the picture approaching the curb, the guys are identifiable and leering. Young, about Ninalee’s age or so, they are dressed for business, nobody looking like thugs or degenerates. This is Italy, after all, the birthplace of sharp clothes on average men. Check out the shoes. One guy straddling a motor scooter leers after her with hideous lust, and another juxtaposed by her and the corner of the building at the edge of a sidewalk cafe in a suit and tie grabs at his crotch and you can practically read his lips saying whatever it was in Italian for I’ll give you some a this. Ninalee walks by with her head up, keeps her eyes to herself, takes a full stride, confident, modest, absolutely aware of her surroundings.
I bring Ninalee Craig and Ruth Orkin into this because it was photographed the year I was born, which is as good as any turning point in history, and as good a reference point as any to benchmark the tide of women. There are no other women in the picture, just Ninalee, and no other woman’s presence on the street scene but Ruth, behind the camera. Critics who suggest it was staged fail to deconstruct it enough to realize the variables of the fifteen other personalities in the frame are way too random to stage, even if Ruth knew the territory enough to virtually predict what would happen. Ninalee for her part must have known what she was in for and she keeps her expression sincere and serene. The result is a classic photograph of black and white elegance and a prophecy of the century to come.
Testimony to centuries and millennia gone by.
I only rather lately came across this photo and it’s now one of my favorite images of all time. I am there. I want to look her in the eye to acknowledge the power of her beauty. It’s as if she’s been coming towards me my whole life.
It’s the essence of “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison — not at all the stupid movie, but the song. The man sings his heart out in admiration of the beauty of a woman he sees walking down the street, someone he would like to meet. A man with bad eyesight, prescription lenses and shades. He sings, I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth, no one could look as good as you. Mercy.
That’s right. Mercy.
I’m a cisgender hetero male guy from the middle of America in the middle of the 20th Century, a man by admission and by definition. At some young age I found an attraction to girls — women, ladies, female people. Perhaps it was early exposure to Wonder Woman comics. My mother was a beauty and worked as a local fashion model. My mom had younger sisters, my aunties who babysat me, who had girl friends. Ultimately my mom blessed me with seven younger sisters. Maybe you would think all that would have numbed me or inured me to the feminine side of life but I guess it actually unwittingly may have sparked my lifelong fascination. My younger brothers were seven and fifteen years behind me. I hung with guys, knew crotch grabbers and motorbike sex hecklers among decent dudes trying to find our way in a world of Doublemint gum and Juicy Fruit. I watched American Bandstand after school live from Philadelphia. Girls dancing in their swirling skirts and tight sweaters. As a little kid I wanted to grow up and be a teenager. I imagined having a girlfriend like Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s secret identity. I noticed breasts, nose cone, pointed bra breasts — the likes of what Madonna caricaturized thirty years later were high style when I was a kid, I know because my mom modeled them and wore them. At a young age I was familiar with the vocabulary of lingerie, and for a while as a grown-up I subscribed to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. As a boy I liked to look at cleavage whenever we went downtown or to church, wherever ladies dressed up.
I knew guys who knew guys who sold second and third hand Playboy magazines, sometimes over a year old. It didn’t matter as long as the pictures were intact, the centerfold unadulterated. In my life there was nothing more beautiful in this world than the naked female human body, photographed, or drawn by that Vargas guy, and I would have collected at least the pictures if I would have had any privacy to hide them long term. Alas, at least until high school age.
Yes, surely the easy access to pornography incepted the allure to my passion for naked women. This was before the internet, and so I can only imagine the scores of naked babes out there on line I can gawk at if that’s how I want to spend my cookies and attract spam and phishies, and I’d rather not. Truly, there’s enough true beauty in everyday life to look at even if it isn’t always the naked truth.
Even so, Playboy and other photo magazines served as gateways to other prurient interests. Culturally it was a time of shedding inhibitions that kept people uptight. It seemed to be in my interest to side against shame of the human body when it meant more nudity for me. More exacerbation. I graduated to harder stuff: Fine Arts.
Art history classes gave me permission to formally study pictures of naked women. Art enabled me to stare without guilt and admire without shame. The education of history gave context to the genre. Education raised more and more curiosities and questions about the very structure of reality and the mediating roles of symbolism. It was an exciting time to get educated. I never knew how much I didn’t know. Art enabled me to see what I was seeing.
Slides, color plates in books and in films acquainted me with the classics. My home town museums and galleries offered good examples of marble sculpted breasts and hips, paintings of elegant poses, Egyptian glyphs of stony tits, and bronzes of goddesses from the Renaissance in the local collections, if not any big name nudes like Renoir. I wrote a paper on an oval 1799 French oil on canvas at the Institute of Art by a guy named Anne-Louis Girodet called Portrait of Mlle Lange as Danae which inasmuch accused the artist of sexual blackmail for rejecting his advances by characterizing a popular entertainer, Anne Francioise Elisabeth Lange, as a slut for gold, while all in all painting her as an immortally gorgeous nude. I got a job at the Institute giving me unfettered access to view not only its art collection but also its libraries, including its immense and comprehensive slide library of 35mm slide photos of works of art in other museums all over the world.
This before the internet, with help of a Kodak projector and a crisp screen I could stare and study paintings and sculpture housed in collections thousands of miles away, where I could just dream of ever going to look at in person. Botticelli. Bernini. Ingres. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Titian. Goya. Manet. Picasso.
I learned a new word, odalisque. A French word, of course, it derives from a Turkish term for a harem sex slave or concubine. French painter Henri Matisse called the Turkish meaning obsolete and redefined it to mean any full portrait of a reclining nude woman, after La Grande Odalisque, an 1814 painting by a guy named Dominique Ingres. Odalisque paintings would include Venus of Urbino, 1538 by Titian, Olympia, 1863 by Edouard Manet, Naked Maja, 1797 by Francisco Goya and the Toilet of Venus, 1647 by Diego Velazquez, just to name drop a few of the most famous enduring images of the form according to Matisse’s definition. Girodet’s Mademoiselle Lange would qualify, along with another French painting at the MIA called Nude on a Couch, ca 1880 by Gustave Caillebotte, although the couch all but dominates the picture.
I married an odalisque, Roxanne, my wife, beautiful reclining nude, together 46 years.
She’s no concubine. And if you wonder how she’s coped with my propensity to stare at people in public, she’s endured a life guiding my light away from boundaries of impropriety and inappropriate acts, insinuations and embarrassments. She keeps me under-the-top. She knows I like to people watch but she’s wary when I give the hairy eyeball and she’ll catch me before she thinks somebody sees me giving the stink eye. She knows me. She knows I’m not a stalker.
I’m not sexist, I used to say, I’m a sensualist. I’m not judging a woman against her intellect or professional integrity, I would say. I don’t discount women as inferior people or deny their human rights. I support feminist principles and stand up with respect for equality. Some of my best friends are women. I belong to the YWCA. Nine out of the top ten students — let’s just say the top nine — in my high school graduation class of 1970 were girls. Since then I have had countless women bosses. I am not prejudiced against women, I would insist, and vigorously defend myself against sexism citing all kinds of lame proof just to insinuate myself on the right side of history and the bend of justice.
In my persistent defense I would confess instead to being a sensualist, like pleading guilty to a lesser charge. I freely admit I take sensual pleasure from admiring female form, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s not all I look at and it’s not all I see. It’s not all I am. And I would deny my staring studies treated women as objects. To me they were subjects. All with personalities, back stories, histories, responsibilities, real lives beyond a fleeting vision. And here I would add that not only did I not view women as sex objects but as sensual subjects, it was not true I undressed them with my eyes. I see women as they are and neither strip them down nor dress them up in my imagination. At least not always.
Go ahead several decades and I’ve given up arguing defensive excuses, but I seem to keep mansplaining why. I haven’t been to a strip joint in a long long time. I used to find them very very sad, like casinos. I’ve never engaged sex through prostitution but I used to think it was a victimless crime of lonely people until backstories came out about the sex slave trafficking of the women. The biographies of most strip club dancers aren’t probably any more romantic. These odalisques of underground sensualism. What remains of first amendment right to vice.
There was a song on the radio in the 1980s with a catchy chorus of Na-na na-na-na-na na na na na-na-na-na-na by J Geils Band that outs a home town girl named Angel as a Playboy centerfold. I could once appreciate the young woman’s utter self-confidence and lack of shame in her body to offer herself nude to a Playboy camera. It’s a shame J Geils calls her out like the guy on the scooter to Ninalee Craig, not like a gentleman such as Roy Orbison would sing.
It makes me think of the models who posed for Titian, Velazquez, Goya, Manet. Picasso. I thought of them on Mediterranean beaches where some women bathe bare breasted as naturally proud as the Birth of Venus. The past fifteen years, mostly the past ten, Roxanne and I have gone to Europe several times. All those slide pictures and color plates from art history books? I’ve said before, when I go places I like to go to art museums to see what the community holds dear. I hold myself to this and have spent ages wandering and meandering through the most fabulous art collections in the western world, seeing in person and up close where I can take off my glasses and look at the strokes on the surface of the canvasses, the paintings I’ve adored from afar.
I’ve come across some truly awesome obscure treasures I didn’t expect to see or wasn’t looking for. At the fine art museum in Dijon, France in the old Duke of Burgundy’s palace, the collection is rather bland and predictably French neoclassical until you round a corner of the chateau and gaze down the corridor to a wall at the end where there’s a startling large nude painting by James Tissot called La Japonaise au Bain, an 1864 canvas almost seven feet high and four feet wide, of a naked lady of vague oriental face with a classical Tissot expression of dubious bemusement, wearing red flowers in her lavish hair and a gregariously oversized lavish embroidered floral bath gown, open up and down the front. Totally floored and unprepared for this, I felt so self-conscious whenever somebody else came into this gallery I walked all the way around the floor several times to break up my viewings so nobody would accuse me of fixated perversion.
I still feel shy at Musee d’Orsay in Paris standing in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, the origin of the world, which is a glorious study in gynecology.
In the European painting tradition, nudity was taboo except for depicting classical myth figures or religious themes, presuming I guess, in heaven nobody needs clothing and the divine are perpetually shameless. Call a nude female subject Aphrodite or Venus and an artist could produce a figure erotic and prurient and get away with defiance of moral codes of chastity and modesty promoted and enforced by popes and kings. Paintings illustrating the Old Testament treated naked views of figures such as Judith, Salome, Ruth, and of course, Eve. Hence the Vatican instituted the fig leaf to cover the taboo body parts of secular figures after the Renaissance to try to cover up a rampant popularity of nakedness seen as a revival of amoral paganism.
Michelangelo in his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel not only portrayed mortals nude but God too. God of course is male. Michelangelo’s female nudes are remarkable for their stockiness, seriousness or sadness and not at all for profound erotic emotiveness. His genius for constructing human anatomy in his art is unsurpassed in its audacious frankness. Nothing in his canon can be called cute, except perhaps God’s Heinie in the Sistine ceiling.
Michelangelo supported the Church, its core teachings and philosophies regardless of avante garde revolutionary trends stirring in his Renaissance times, so he can be named among the hard core male establishment. A full wall giant fresco mural in the Vatican painted by Raphael (another ninja turtle namesake) portrays a vast vaulted room of twenty one individuals considered a pantheon of great minds of the day, 1511. All men. Raphael, a mere painter, adored Michelangelo, architect, sculptor and painter, and there in the School of Athens, front and just enough off center to create a pathway to the guys in the middle is Raphael’s hero, reclining on a step at some random platform, drawing on a sketch pad, unconcerned with the activities of the other twenty guys in the vast room, creatively painted on a real Vatican wall looking like an extension of the real room, a scene that centers on a walk-in chat between Plato and Aristotle — Plato painted as the visage of another of Raphael’s heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci — and Michelangelo, crayon in hand, jots away in his own mind, is the only one in the picture wearing boots, everyone else wears sandals.
Michelangelo in his day was considered a man among men. A pillar of Rome, he designed the very pillars supporting St Peter’s cathedral. Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo in 1508 to decorate the ceiling of this vast seemingly-windowless inner private papal chapel, and much as he preferred sculptural work to mere painting, he took on this commission with intense professionalism and dedicated four years of intense perfectionism to paint this monumental fresco illuminating a pageant of Genesis, creation through the near destruction of creation through the flood survived by a drunken Noah. Michelangelo filled the ceiling, every vault and arch, with bible visions as he saw them. Mostly the visions conformed to scripture, and where Michelangelo’s interpretation orbited towards fantasy it was tolerated for aesthetic purposes or because Michelangelo insisted it be so. In the ceiling panel illustrating the creation of the sun and the moon, God is pictured twice, coming and going, on the right of a great orange ball of sun advancing into the blue sky, and on the left flying away in retreat, the robes of clothes parting from the back to the thigh plainly exposing God’s Hinder. Michelangelo’s symbol of the moon.
Legend says one of the pope’s Cardinal henchmen objected to God’s exposed butt as sacrilege and asked Pope Julius to order Michelangelo to cover it up. Michelangelo refused to do so saying the bible says man was created in God’s own image and likeness.
About twenty five years later Pope Clement VII enticed Michelangelo to come back to the Sistine Chapel to paint the Last Judgement mural fresco on the front altar wall. The vast mural shows a tableau of all kinds of anguish and turmoil among throngs and throngs of nudes, many of which were fig-leafed years after. It’s a grand finale to the previous ceiling, the wall completed when Michelangelo was my age.
We call Michelangelo a Renaissance Man. As was Leonardo Da Vinci. It is interesting to observe Leonardo devoted copious calculations, sketches and drawings to the study of human anatomy, and yet he produced no nude paintings. As much if not more than his contemporaries and succeeding artists who study the human form to record how fabric drapes and falls along with poses of the body, Leonardo painted some of the most compelling fully clothed portraits of women ever seen, including Mona Lisa Joconde, and the lady with the ermine, Milanese entertainer Cecilia Gallerani.
Note neither Mona Lisa nor the Ermine Lady are purported to be Venus or any biblical character, both private commissions though Mona Lisa never left Leonardo’s possession in his lifetime. Mona Lisa is enshrined in the Louvre in Paris while the Ermine Lady resides as a national treasure in Krakow, Poland. They are both anonymous beauties recorded for beauty’s sake and not for selling a message. Leonardo’s innocence sets him apart from artists sublimating grand scale with morality pageants featuring Venus or the cult of the Virgin Mary.
On a walk with my grand daughter Clara through the Impressionist gallery at the MIA she looked at the Caillebotte nude on the couch and said, “Grandpa, why are there so many pictures of women naked by men artists? Why are all these artists men?” She was about ten years old, about five years ago.
I explained then that throughout most of history art was controlled by men, just like every other thing in human activity. That seemed wrong to her, and I totally agreed. It wasn’t her first awareness of girl power overdue or my first endorsement of her inquiry into gender justice. The part that confuses her the most is that all her short life she’s been convinced by examples of successful women and girls and the positive attitudes of her supporting culture that girls and women have it equal to boys and men, and it is a paradigm shift of a major mind comprehension for her to think there was a time until recently when women and girls were not certain of equality and were oppressed beneath men. Her limited concept of history acknowledges endless, continuous, nameless wars, a holocaust, a time before inventions such as the iPhone and television, an era when African Americans were slaves and Native Americans were chased off their land, but it’s hard for her to accept there was a time just a few generations ago when women could not vote or run for President of the United States.
It’s unthinkable to her that men controlled civilization for so long, but she’s slowly learning. How she processes and what she’ll do with this knowledge as she matures will somewhat rely on me and the example I set as my generation sunsets the planet. For the day Clara laments to me the overwhelming list of famous artists who are men, I am compiling a list of known women artists and thus far I have 79 names. They range from sculptors to architects to photographers but most are painters. I have found them in museums and galleries in America and Europe. Some like Frida Kahlo are famous and popular. Most of them are obscure. The vast numbers are modern, reflecting the boldness and transformation of this age since about 1901, but I found at least two who overlapped the turn of the 1600s, Sofonisba Anguissola of the late Renaissance, and Artemisia Gentileschi of the Baroque, both exceptionally gifted at rendering human figures. And even if Clara doesn’t need my list to help her feel confident that women and girls are not fairly counted in world history but from now on they matter very much, I keep the list to remind myself to keep growing the list.
I am grandfather of three girls, two teen and tween age, the third an infant. I have a daughter, a wife, seven sisters, at least fifteen nieces, far flung cousins and so on, and friends, and in-laws, and co-workers, and I used to have aunts and grandmas and a mom, lots of women whom I owe respect and support. My daughter Michel grew up doing whatever she wanted in the world and I never said she couldn’t. The teen and tween grandchild sisters suffer me as an overachiever granpa who dotes and indulges in delusions of exceptionalism. And the poor baby, she’ll grow up alongside this weird doddering old fanboy who remembers nothing if not her birthday.
My legacy to them, to all women in my world but especially to Michel, Clara, Tess and Neko, seeks a reverent balance and serenity in a world of perpetual tension and strife. This knowing I’ll never solve all the world issues for them to inherit sublime bliss, much as I wish I had that kind of power. I owe them to stay out of their way and not embarrass them for posterity and not leave them with messes I am empowered to prevent, so they can all progress in this life and not have to turn around to solve something my fault.
While they are left to make up their own minds about shame, modesty, excess and appropriate regard for the human figure, I have my own issues to reconcile with the truth — the naked truth — about beauty.
Faced with a lifetime of hindsight I’m seeing an opportunity to get pious about my false humility. For me the past is not past. In my mind’s eye I can see me peeking down the blouses and between the buttons of the uniforms of my favorite girl schoolmates at St Simon of Cyrene. In eighth grade there was a nun who taught music and math who had oversized breasts such that they pressed the bib of her nun’s habit up like a convex dome her heavy crucifix could not weigh down. I never reported any of this within the confessional — I didn’t trust the priests, and even then I had a cynical view of common sin. Thinking impure thoughts? Not really, not really thinking at all, mostly looking.
If it’s a sin to look then why did God create sight? It’s a lot more than just sensing and sorting light.
Some cultures deal with the matter of men ogling women by disappearing women. Women in public wear shrouded gowns to cover their skin and to obliterate their shape and figure and cover their hair with veils and sometimes their entire faces, and thus deprive men from looking at them to stimulate their sinful male lust. That’s one way to deal with it, surprisingly effective. Women in a paternally protected society may enjoy certain benefits a more liberal minded society might not see, but most modern societies rely on freedoms and rights most women prefer not to surrender or trade off for phony protection.
If they weren’t so good looking I wouldn’t look. My crude philosophy all these years is if a woman is beautiful in any way she will be seen no matter what she wears. I feel sad for women uncomfortable with their beauty and sympathize with their attempts to hide or deflect attention, even as I find them. A beautiful woman in public always knows she is watched, has learned to sense it all her life, and comes to any scene prepared to be noticed. It’s not my fault they’re beautiful. It’s not my inclination to look away. There they are. I prefer they act like they are unaware I know they are in the room, at the plaza, school, church, wherever, and another moment passes, a vision of beauty seen, no kismet, no destiny, simply au revoir, adios, have a nice life. Nice seeing you. If our eyes meet we’ll look away, both aware more or less of what I’m up to, and maybe there will be a teaching moment for at least one of us, but as events go, once again an encounter like this goes by, maybe repeats itself a little, and passes into that subether of nice memories that keeps a serious mind amused amid the chaos of everyday reality. My friends used to tease me about staring at waitresses, and they were right, I would follow them with my eyes as they worked the room. I like to observe women as they work. I found Roxanne working at a Target store, the prettiest girl I ever saw.
Venus was born from the misty foam of the sea. It’s an origin metaphor as dreamy and vague as the male libido. Venus was the original cover story for nude women in art. Men sublimated their adoration of the female body by creating images of veneration of their favorite anonymous females under the classical alias of immortal moral exemption. Venus got a free pass in the Christian era because she was a virtual brand name of a fantasy figure from antiquity who pre-dated baptism and chaste behavior, tolerated in some circles as an example of what to ignore.
As art became more secular, and away from censorship by the churches, and then less under the sway of royal patronage, more democratic, pretense of tried and true pagan mythology gave way to contemporaneous views of undisguised mortals such as Olympia and the odalisques. French painter Edouard Manet in 1863 gets credit for exposing the hypocrisy of sexism in nude painting with Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, Luncheon on the Grass, a big almost 7 by 9 foot oil on canvas painting of two nicely dressed, fully dressed guys in coats and ties, of a mature age by their manicured beards, engaged in a serious manly discussion at barely arms length over a picnic in the shade of a forest glen near a pond, in the company of two women, one wading and dipping her hand in the pond wearing a greco-roman tunic like a nightgown, the other woman, in close company of the men, is all naked. The naked woman, calm as can be, sits full profile, legs reclined, upright with her elbow resting against her knee and her chin resting against her fingers, she looks this way and she alone meets the eye of the viewer.
The picnic basket is spilled of croissants, plums and red grapes. A glass decanter is empty. A rumpled blue dress lies under the basket on the grass, with a blue sash and a woman’s straw hat and blue bow alongside on the ground. The naked woman sits on a rumpled blue cloth, her dress or the picnic cloth maybe, alongside one man and facing the other, looking at neither, looking at the viewer. Her mouth looks a little bemused. Her face and hair resembles Ninalee Craig in Italy, 1951.
Manet’s painting, so large on the wall in person in Paris, stuns the eye for its forceful photorealistic precision conveying a scene so frankly inexcusably erotic as if it were another day at the academy.
It is so much more in person than what it looks like from a slide or a color plate in a book.
They say it caused a sensation when he exhibited. Art historians tell us this work marks a turning point in modern art because after this no artist could argue seriously that pictures of naked women were inspired by anything more symbolic of a higher meaning than any excuse to put a naked woman in a picture.
Art for art’s sake. I come along about a hundred years later but never too late. Privy to thousands of years of scholarship and preservation, with an educated eye and a privileged view, Supreme Court decisions upholding my right to look at about anything I would want to see — drawing a line at child pornography, but I’m not that interested in cherub art — it’s been a golden age of opportunity to study nude women. Studies usually lead to conclusions, but I still don’t think I’ve seen enough to conclude.
My self-conscious observations lead me to be aware of being on the periphery of popular taste in my personal verve for nudes of women. Grace has come to feminism in my lifetime and with it illumination of real no-kidding-around-it sexism everywhere you look. There’s a palpable transformation going on in describing what is sexist and what is sexy, or sensual as I used to say, and styles reflect trends of modesty of the body. Cleavage covered or slightly accidental. It’s no longer shocking to show full frontal nudity but sometimes very mundane, too common. Literally vulgar. Those who preach against naked pictures have a point when it’s said they are used to exploit and oppress women. Nudie pictures aren’t politically correct.
It takes away some of the joy when there’s no one around to share the verve.
In truth the production of quality nude images of any originality has declined since its exposure to mass audiences the past 150 years. An abstract colorist painter I admired from the pop op 1960s named Hollis MacDonald never painted a human figure I ever saw. In a 1965 interview he was asked about nudes in art. “They’re over worked,” he said. “Everybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”
Another sign of the demise of the genre could have been foreseen in the career of Jerry Ott, a photorealist painter who, like MacDonald, happens to be from Minnesota, where I come from. Jerry Ott painted two of the most gorgeous nudes I ever saw. Both are huge canvasses boldly holding presence like murals. One is owned by the MIA as part of its contemporary collection. The other is owned by the Walker Art Center, the other big time art museum hereabouts.
The one the MIA acquired in the 1970s at the height of Jerry Ott’s fame. The Institute, known for its great collection of all past eras, acquired the Jerry Ott to herald its vision of contemporary in the future continuum. Airbrushed acrylic on canvas, it’s called (Untitled) Blood on my Hands and it shows a beautiful, graciously endowed woman, fully nude, in a studio setting against a wall of sheer plastic where a poster sized sheet of coarse paper is held in place by one of the woman’s hands, and on this paper is a reddish handprint matching the size of the woman’s hand.
In the lower right quadrant of the scene is a poster sized self-portrait of Jerry Ott, shirtless and holding a camera like he’s looking above a mirror.
My favorite Jerry Ott nude is the other one, owned by the Walker, Carol and the Paradise Wall, also acrylic on canvas, of a reclining odalisque across a richly upholstered brocaded chair horizontal against a photographer’s studio background of woods and trees. I think I like it better than the one at the Institute because it’s a more dynamic composition with straightforward impact whereas Blood on My Hands loses its visual narrative with ambiguous testimonial symbols until the viewer rests upon the naked woman and gives up on guessing what the title means.
Today neither museum exhibits either painting.
The Byzantine ways these institutions keep their secrets, it’s hard to know if it’s due to an undergroundswell of public protest against conspicuous displays of gratuitous nudes in contemporary art, or a curatorial decision to protect the public from being offended at a time when even university students get easily upset by perceived microaggressions. Minneapolis may be a city mobilized to proactively defend itself from snowflakes of all weather. In any case this disappearances of the Jerry Ott nudes coincides with the decline of the utility of the nude in art. Ten years prior to Ott’s Paradise Wall and Hands, the abstractionist and fellow Minnesotan Hollis MacDonald had said all that could be said with a nude has been said, so Hollis was a bit wrong by at least ten years. Jerry Ott seemed to himself sense what Hollis had meant. Ott continued to paint large airbrushed photorealistic canvasses, exploring vivid tints but no more nudes.
I recall seeing an Ott painted later than the two 1970s nudes, of goldfish in tied-up little plastic bags for sale and shipment on a countertop, and I remember thinking to myself at the time, it’s come to this, to survive Jerry Ott has given up tits to paint goldfish. To his credit he never gave up visual art.
The desensualization of the nude in graphic art, as I said, came of age in the 20th Century along with all the great decadent practices brought about through technological transmission and reproduction. Pablo Picasso broke the picture plane with cubist boobs and vaginas that didn’t look realistic enough to embrace and call honey. Picasso denuded everybody enough to say this is how we clothe ourselves with canvas.
Picasso cracked the visual plane. Guys like Matisse turned skin wild and blue and red and yellow. Guys like Salvadore Dali melted her. Guys like Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Charles Biederman, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Hollis MacDonald, Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and Marsden Hartley skipped past altogether.
The nude medium was shattered beyond reassembly when Nude Descending a Staircase 2 by Marcel Duchamp came out at the Armory show in New York in 1913. As unsexual as a crash test dummy it is viscerally sensual in its technological grace, dependent fully on the hard-wired human response to the retina and the optic nerve. It’s a sucker punch to the gut and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Like Manet’s picnic picture it was heralded as prophetic, which means at the time of its first exhibition it was reviled. Now it’s the Eiffel Tower of nudes.
Of the privacy of others there is a censorship we all practice to keep ourselves from seeing more than what we deserve to know if we can help it. It’s hard to accept that Ingres’ The Source inspired the rape and murder of a lonely French girl, but if it had would we be surprised to learn that the painting had a bad effect on a bad man’s tormented mind, and is that the tolerance a free society has and the risks we accept to guaranty free rights?
Perhaps an algorithm calculated by Millennial generation actuaries will predict future liabilities caused by what people see. This could determine future limits of exposure to proven prurients, governed by insurance not by government.
Before that time comes I mean to keep looking. It serves no point to renounce or regret what I’ve looked at or seen. Somehow I think it’s all added up to a montage of experiences comprising a charmed life. In the autumn Roxanne and I plan to return to the Old Country — to us the whole continent of Europe is the Old Country — where we’ll cruise the Aegean and Adriatic seas on a large tour. It will be interesting to have my first look at the greco-ancient world in this context. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but it makes sense to me that if I have spent so much energy and time in my life to looking I must be looking for something. I must not have found it or I would not continue to look. If I find it I would know it, and then I hope I would go on to look for something more else undefined.
A lot of you have been drawn to my story (Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico, 4/25/18) about this place on the Pacific coast of Mexico, so it seems right to offer an update.
Americans are scared to vacation here. The Trump administration’s state department stigma of Mexico as dangerous as Syria, along with Trump’s own vicious characterization of Mexicans, have alienated all but the most ardent Mexiphiles and turned the rest into Mexiphobes.
Not Roxanne and me. We’ve been coming here almost twenty years with no fear. We stay at the Krystal Hotel, where the hospitality is as gracious as the sky is blue. We use public transportation, bus or taxi. We walk the public streets and trails. We hang out at the beaches. We’re careful but not too self-conscious. It’s one thing to be aware of your surroundings but there’s no sense getting over-paranoid, there’s no reason to expect sinister encounters.
No one, of course, can guarantee your safety. The Krystal provides security that is comprehensive but not creepy. As much can be said about the other resorts and the atmosphere of the coastal community in general. Hospitality is so vital to the livelihood of the people here, they protect you, look out for you, and show you a good time. All in good faith. It would do them great dishonor for word to go around that harm came to innocent tourists in their midst.
No one pretends Mexico is innocent of criminal behavior and violence. Drug cartels finance an underworld of exploitation and corruption that reveals itself with gang murders. Political murders. Murders of vice. A visible police presence, discreet and chivalrous, patrols the public thoroughfares. There is a navy base at Zihuatanejo Bay. If you travel out of town you might encounter federal police checkpoints on the highways. On la playa you might see three guys in shades wearing beige cargo shorts, wide brimmed hats and white polo shirts that say TURISTA POLICIA on their backs, wearing sidearms, walking the beach. None of this should worry vacationers who don’t traffic with the underworld. Dangerous events hardly ever involve tourists except when the tourist is engaged in shady activity, and even so, reported incidents are quite rare.
Tourists are in greater danger of being swallowed by the surf at Playa Palmar than being roughed up on the streets of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. There are several drownings per year involving tourists carelessly defying riptide warnings, getting knocked silly by the surf and getting sucked out of their depth into the sea. The hotel and beach lifeguards — the Salvavidas — rescue scores more. It’s part of the drama of la playa at the theater of the beach. Sometimes it’s not safe to swim in the ocean. Or boogie board surf.
But people do it anyway.
There’s pleasure in swimming in the sea.
As I’ve said, we go there every year from around mid-January to mid-February to escape winter in Minnesota. The weather in Ixtapa is always consistently predictable: sunny and hot. We more or less establish residence at the Krystal in an upper floor room facing the ocean towards the southeast, overlooking the pool, the garden and the restaurant they call Las Velas, which has a palm thatch roof. There are palm trees everywhere on the hotel grounds and beyond. Every room has a balcony with a view. (There is also a nice view to the Amara condo high rise next door too if you want to look.) From our balcony we can watch the evening shows and fiestas put on stage in the hotel garden at night, or listen to karaoke down by the pool bar on Tuesdays. It’s a modest room with a table, chairs, dresser and king size bed, desk, night tables, TV and good lighting. The bathroom is up to date and the water pressure very good, hot water almost always available on demand. Adequate closet with a safe. There’s an iron and a hair dryer. And coffee pot. It’s all we need, a nice place to retreat.
Most of our time is spent out and about. We get a palm thatched palapa and a couple of chaises on the beach below the hotel and read. We swim in the pool. We walk the beach. Talk with friends we’ve known for years, mutual tourists, local vendors, new people we meet. Dip in the ocean where the surf isn’t so rough. Get a massage from one of the beach salons. Recline and repeat.
An all-inclusive itinerary is offered at the Krystal but we choose to lodge, eat and drink a la cart. Both restaurants at the hotel are very good and we breakfast and lunch there frequently. The service is exquisite. Good food is just about everywhere, so we dine off-campus a lot, frequently in company with friends. For a nominal fare a taxi to Zihuatanejo can get you to any of an array of welcoming places with great food, some elegant like Il Mare high on the hill overlooking the bay and Coconuts in the middle of el centro, some casual like Lety’s place near the embarcadero and Sirena Gorda and Casa Elvira on the boardwalk, and others a combination of both like La Perla and Daniel’s on the beach, or Bandidos near the old Spanish church.
Within walking distance from the Krystal are at least two dozen good dining options in Ixtapa, again ranging from fine dining at the yacht marina, Mediterranean cuisine with a French singer at Soleiado on the boulevard, or the trappings of Morocco at Bogart’s next door to the Krystal. Casual places include Ruben’s specializing in hamburgers with New Zealand cheese, the seafood platter at Calabozo, Italian at Toscano’s, enchiladas at Martin’s and ribs at Tequila y Sal. Most places blend the fine with the casual. El Tiburen at the Palace Hotel serves huachinango — red snapper — with Vera Cruz sauce. The General’s sports bar serves everything from steak to fajitas. El Cameron Azul — the Blue Shrimp — offers a shrimp flambe created by renown chef Lalo, who passed away last year. Deborah’s place also offers a version of Lalo’s Shrimp expertly prepared at your table by souchef Ayani, though Deborah also offers an Alfredo sauce so rich and delicious you will crave it when you get home.
Roxanne asked Deborah for the Alfredo recipe. She demurred politely, saying, “I cook it to order.” A ginger haired Canadian expat who resembles the singer-songwriter Neko Case, she is likely the canniest restaurateur in town. As a very young woman she apprenticed for Ixtapa’s legendary chef Mama Norma and kept the doors open after the iconic Mama passed away. The young souchef Ayani could have a bright future in the culinary business if she were to follow such a mentor. Deborah is exacting with her staff, most comfortable in her kitchen and can sometimes seem brusque in public with her guests, though she’s never without charm. As if to soften her decline to give Roxanne the sauce recipe she added, “I think about food the way men think about sex.”
Ixtapa’s most popular host is Genaro Salinas, known as the General. Not a chef but an entertainer, he’s a logistics maestro, an orchestrator, an impresario of hospitality as pageantry and hustle. His staff are the most enthusiastic and energetic and among the most polite and punctual servers in the trade. The General paid his dues and knows how to run an operation so busy at times the activity all around looks and feels like chaos — it’s not a place for a quiet cozy meal — when in fact it’s all a mix of quick service, abundant clientele of the lively persuasion, a quality kitchen and bar, and a festive atmosphere boosted by about a dozen video screens all over the interior building, where every inch of ceiling and pillar and wall is bedecked with sports teams logos, pennants, sweaters, posters, pictures and paraphernalia from the NHL, NFL, NBA, FIFA, CFL, the Big Ten and other American college conferences, and even a couple of high school hockey teams from British Columbia. Every night is hockey night so any and all NHL televised games are featured on most if not all the TV screens, with a few devoted to college or NBA hoops, or soccer, and the NFL on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Super Bowl is a big deal, when they sell reserved seats, put extra tables as far into the plaza as they can, offer bar food specials, put up extra big screens and sell commemorative t-shirts.
The General is a local guy who worked across the US in his youth, where he developed a fondness for cheddar cheese and the Green Bay Packers. Back home he settled down with wife and kids and dove into the hospitality trade as a guide and restaurant manager in Zihuatanejo and eventually Ixtapa, where he earned his moniker. He saved his dinero, envisioned his plan, found a couple of Canadian partners and opened his namesake bar and restaurant in the vacated site of a failed tiki bar. It was a smash success from the get go. People come just to watch Genaro boss the place and take a moment to greet his guests. He’s fun and funny. Likes to pepper slow nights like the NHL all star break with music videos, karaoke or setting up a dance floor on the patio next door to stage local acts like one-man band Jimi Mamou playing old time rock and roll.
One morning we ran into Genaro picking produce at the Bodega market and we asked him about some of the new cafes we’ve seen setting up around the Ixtapa plaza which have abundant empty tables. “Yeah, a lot of these new guys,” he said, “think they can put up a kitchen and set up some tables and the tourists are just going to fly in, but they have a hard time serving just one customer the right way and they won’t come back.”
So true. Roxanne and I can think of a few places we would avoid if they were still in business. Yet we like to be on the lookout for places to try. Recommendations from fellow travelers help. That’s how we found Bandidos. I avoided the place because the name of the place sounded cheezy and expected as much, but our frequent accomplice and friend Bob insisted it was a classy place. We discovered their signature dish known on the menu as Molcajete, a kind of gumbo stew named for the vessel in which it’s prepared and served, a heavy mortar pot carved of lava rock, served right there at your table. Their seafood is excellent as well. And they feature a splendid lounge singer named Michele who knows all the standards and solicits requests. She likes to be asked obscure songs she knows.
Itinerant singers and musicians play in the plazas, malls and streets for hat money. At a semi-derelict fountain plaza between Ruben’s, Toscano’s and the Blue Shrimp they take turns playing sets of three or four songs and then go around the outdoor tables of all three restaurants collecting pesos, or preferably dollar bills. Nobody is obliged to kick in. Most restaurants have open air seating and there’s unspoken permission for song buskers (and little kids selling toys) to approach their diners as long as they are polite and respect when people say no.
Several cafes and restaurants employ their own in-house musicians like Bandidos with Michele. There seems to be no end to the talent among the locals.
Like there’s no end to the quality of the seafood. Fresh mahi mahi tops the menu everywhere. At the Blue Shrimp — El Camaron Azul — the huachinango a ajo, whole red snapper grilled with garlic, simple and elegante, is to fish what is a butter knife steak at Murray’s in Minneapolis. They will serve it fileted if you ask, but I recommend the whole fish, the flavor is richer and it’s a useful skill to know how to comb a fish skeleton.
Shrimp is fresh and plentiful, served every which way. Coconut shrimp is more than a fad. And the size of the shrimp are not shrimpy. What inland menus where I live call scampi are the normal size of shrimp at Ixtapa, and what we call jumbo shrimp at home they just call shrimps. On at least ten percent of all the menus of the cantinas and cafes and restaurants in the region, a district named for Jose Azueta that includes Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, like a county, all along the Pacific coast between Acapulco and Manzanillo, you will find the English translations on the menus will feature shrimps, plural. It would seem that a culture which uses a singular word for clothes — ropa — would grasp that plural for shrimp is shrimp, and by and large they do.
One place that gets it is the Blue Shrimp at the north back end of the plaza — Camaron Azul. In a region where seafood reigns — rains — their kitchen features the widest varieties of crustacean recipes, including lobster. This is the patio where young Lalo invented his three cheese shrimp flambe, made of worcestershire sauce (which Mexicans call english sauce) and soy sauce, white wine, onion, mushrooms, brandy, garlic and shrimp, known on the menu as Lalo’s Shrimp, or Camarones de Lalo (yes, shrimp in Spanish is a plural noun, camarones, with an s.) It was like watching a magic act when Lalo wokked and flamed it up before you at your table. Lalo passed away last year from kidney failure complicated by diabetes. They say Lalo was a chef genius, and at the Blue Shrimp they keep his memory alive with his namesake shrimp flambe. Over rice it is so rich and delicious you will order bread to sop up the gravy. Then you’ll kick back in your chair and go wow.
You’ll walk back to your hotel or take a taxi to your abode thinking nobody treats you nicer or feeds you better than the people of Zihuatanejo Ixtapa.
This brings me back to the politics behind the US state department travel advisory scaring Americans away from vacationing in Mexico. President Donald Trump, you may have observed, likes to taunt and scorn Mexico and Mexicans. The origin of his grudge, I do not know. It must be deep seated. Deeply rooted. An unforgiven trauma. Maybe a Mexican nanny slapped him as a child. Maybe he’s sore about protectionist Mexican real estate laws keeping him out of the Mexican resort and condo business. Cemex, the Mexican concrete cement company, among the world’s premier building supplies companies, might have slighted him somewhere along the way, refused him sweetheart deals, maybe even sued him for nonpayment. Whatever the core source of Trump’s pathological antipathy to all things Mexican, whether ego driven, economical or schizosociopolitical, he has directed a proportion of his power to undermine, embarrass, criminalize, dehumanize, demonize, destabilize and demoralize a whole people with a big say in the future of the western hemisphere and the planet.
When I say power, I don’t just mean his governmental position, which he exercises like a fuhrer. I mean his commanding media presence, his near godlike ever-presence, his obsessive projection into mass media and the undeniable appetite of the public for his quips, taunts, proclamations and shenanigans, like a fuhrer.
He says he has the power to shut down the border of Mexico, and Canada too if he feels like it. He says he’s got the power to stop all traffic and all trade between the US and Mexico just to stifle migration into the United States. He says he has the power to create tariffs on Mexican goods as punishment for allowing migrants to try to enter the US via Mexico. He says he has the power to declare national emergencies to fund the building of a wall along the entire border with Mexico to keep migrants from entering the US. He has all that power, but no power to allocate funds for soap and toothbrushes for little kids in the concentration camps where they are being processed after being caught migrating into the US. He acknowledges a humanitarian crisis at the border, and it is, a crisis of his own making. Instead of responding with humanitarian compassion he treats them worse than the conditions they endured and escaped, by which he plans to deter future migrants, the message being don’t come to the United States, they will cage you, take away your kids and let you rot and stink with the lights on all night long.
This is a classic term paper example of the theme they used to call when I was in high school Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
But if we don’t stop them from coming here they’ll just keep coming!
In the face of diaspora the reaction is to create lawbreakers by criminalizing residency.
The fuhrer says he has the power to order rounding up and deporting illegal aliens — his term, not mine. And he will do that unless the US Congress legislates new immigration laws he will sign, and that won’t happen. His goal is to eradicate immigration and kick out immigrants. This will be a campaign focus of his for his reelection.
Among the lives at stake are the ones they call the Dreamers, the DACA migrants, people brought into the US illegally as children who have nonetheless grown up in American society and know no other country, who are now grown up taxpaying adults with degrees, careers, lives and families and now face mass deportation, mostly to Mexico, because they were brought to the US when they were little kids. I can see them being bused in orange school buses to border crossings like Matamoros, Juarez, Las Cruces and Tiajuana, the Mexican authorities checking out the paperwork and looking over all the deportees one by one and saying to ICE, Lo siento, these people all appear to be yours. We’re not taking them back.
Okay, break out the cages again.
Actually, Mexico would likely love to have them back, especially if they speak Spanish. The resentment such reverse diaspora would create would result in terrible damage to the osmotic alliance that exists in reality between Mexico and the US, and that seems to be the fuhrer’s design.
I take it personally because it’s like he’s deliberately trying to ruin my winter vacation.
Last year it was the tale of the caravan of invaders of not so nice people (he didn’t even equivocate there were decent people on both sides in the caravan) coming directly towards the heartland of the United States to harm us. He characterized these migrants as killers. Invaders. Marching through Mexico from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Mean dudes. Predators. Trump wanted them met at the border with his Wall. His Wall was supposed to be a big U-turn for migrants — don’t even dream. That’s when he came up with the idea he could create emergencies so he can invoke the Emergency Powers Act to reappropriate money to build a Wall but not of course to humanely shelter migrants who somehow got through the existing dragnet at the border and surrendered or got caught seeking asylum in US territory.
Because the land route of migration from Central America goes through Mexico, Trump ordered tariffs and threatened an entire border shutdown to castigate Mexico for not doing enough to prevent migrants from invading the US. Instead of a blue ribbon commission to look at the conditions causing people to uproot their lives and travel thousands of miles to the Land of Milk and Honey, the Pastures of Plenty, Trump proclaims he will withhold foreign aid from Central America unless they stop their own emigration. That’s just what these communities need right now, captive repression.
Mexico and Mexicans for their part have been tolerant and easy going in response to the provocations. Trump tried to badger their last President Nieto into agreeing to pay for the Wall and Nieto would have none of it. Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, a white haired genial guy around my age who seems to think things through rather than react fast, a methodical but not radical reformer and anti-corruption populist, has parlayed civil restraint and modest self-confidence thus far to absorb the hyperbolic insults and negotiate for the future, the long haul. AMLO was born in the Mexican state of Tobasco, home of the spicy sauce, but unlike the fiery salsa he keeps a cool tongue and does not let relations with the US distract him from governance at home.
Venezuela and Cuba can rant about their miseries caused by America, but Mexico has good cause to speak kindly about our relationships and deserves far better than the low and vile reputation characterized by President Trump. For this I wonder at the grace and hospitality we receive from the Mexicans. If the president called my home town the equivalent of a shithole, I would certainly resent it and anyone who shared his opinions — oh that’s right, he already did, citing the large Somali migrant population as well as my city’s status as a sanctuary city. The Mexicans for the most part express no recrimination or resentment to us for the seeming official designation of their country and citizens as Bad News.
They are aware and don’t need to be reminded of the reputations of drug lords and the legacies of official corruption — perceptions they would prefer to live down and amend through continuous social and political progress. It does them no good to be known as a crime infested, radically violent zone of terror. This place is not lawless. In fact Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is sometimes described as too boring and tame for tourists who seek thrills and decadent party life because the tourists by and large behave themselves and don’t dwell on seeking vice or raising hell.
Because Zihuatanejo Ixtapa lacks a Spring Break intensity we rather like the nuanced atmosphere of being pleasantly Under the Top. It’s like the predictability of the weather January through March, the chance you will have an unspoiled vacation is almost certain if you care enough to go there. My feelings are mixed about the decline of fellow travelers from the US. There’s a more for me delight about it. Fewer gringos from the States reduces the incidents of Ugly Americanos acting rudely, sometimes out of ignorance but sometimes out of cold malice, casting aspersions on us all in fresh, scathing ways Donald Trump only seems far away and abstract. The decline in numbers of Americanos has not really depreciated the total occupancy rate of tourists. Mainly the drop in tourists from the US is largely being made up by Mexicans. The emerging, rising Mexican middle class likes to vacation and they come from cities like Guadalajara, Zamora and Mexico City with their kids and sometimes their parents for a week at the beach, or sometimes a long weekend. It’s like people where I live go up north to the lake. More Mexicans on vacation means more Latino music and less redundant classic rock or pop country, though some of the decline of American gringo tourists is also made up for by more and more gringo Canadians, which accounts for a mishmash of tastes and the popularity of ice hockey on the video screens in this tropical paradise. Compounding the exotic atmosphere, not only are Canadians replacing Americans among the guest population, more and more of them hail from Quebec Province, where they mostly speak French.
So this makes for a quaintly thriving international village in its peak time, the dead of North American winter. Three winters ago we rode with a tour guide to the town of Petatlan, not far from Zihua, and I noticed he carried with him a French language textbook. He explained to me he was meeting more French speakers and wanted to keep up. It appears he saw a trend. I did not foresee that my college French classes would count at the beach in Ixtapa.
As long as we are welcomed we will abide at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo at least a month of our homeland’s harsh winter. It is a place where we trust to good fortune. Farm to table cuisine — ocean to table. Relaxation on the beach. Latin music. A place to recharge and reenergize body and soul at the beginning of each new year. To commune with the soul of the ocean. A place where we can be sincere, be ourselves away from home and feel so much at home and not at all alien. Where I can observe the Southern Cross constellation, never visible at my home latitude. Someplace rather obscure and unglamorous in a shabby chic romantic sort of way. Not a Potemkin village but a real and vital community. It’s nice to be their guests and to be confided the freedom to hang out unmolested in an exotic land.
Oscar Romero is the GM of the Krystal Hotel. About 260 people work there, with 255 rooms. His goal is to raise it to a 5 star hotel, which should make me worry he will price me out of the market except I know what he really means. His business model is based on exemplary service.
When asked about public safety he refers to the American city Chicago as far more dangerous than Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, and yet people go there for edification and avoid trouble. Senor Romero is an educated and worldly man aware that his hotel brand is on the line every single day and he likes to entertain long time guests at a cocktail party just past sunset to introduce his management team and solicit feedback from the guests. Since I rather love the place I give praise where praise is due, which I hope balances off the whiners and complainers who like to confront managers and get beefs off their chests. Bless their hearts.
Speaking of hearts, I heard word somebody staying at the Bayview Grand condo died of a heart attack on the beach the other day, and I asked Senor Romero if the Krystal had a portable AED defibrillator on its premises. Yes, he told me, saying the Krystal was a primary hot spot for emergency response within a consortium of safety efforts among the four adjoining condos and hotels, the whole beach if needed, a network linked by radio. The Krystal had its own AED ready to share if called upon, he said, and introduced me to Maricio of the night watch of bellman security, one of the trained AED operators always on duty.
Oscar Romero knows the proportion of hospitality that goes on behind the scenes. I am always amazed at having my bed remade every day and they don’t even use fitted sheets. Even more, the housekeepers — camaristas — invariably female — frequently leave behind an origami figure of a bird, puppy, cat or a monkey fashioned like sculpture out of a bath towel detailed with flower petals. This year her name was Vianay. For these things and sweeping up the beach sand, of course we tip them.
Their livelihood relies on serving guests, and when the service is gracious we tip generously. We are aware of the daily wage of these servants and it’s appallingly low by our American standards. Even when we might factor the difference in the national economies and relative costs of living, we come out looking like wealthy aristocrats — and there are others much richer than we are, witness the yachts and luxury condos. At home in Minneapolis we are a modest middle class couple of empty nest grandparents, retired from our middle-level careers and getting along on Social Security and what we saved in our working years to be able to live comfortably enough to travel and go on winter vacation as long as we are physically and mentally able. In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa we might as well be zillionaires.
The contrast — disparity — stuns us sometimes. We realize, of course, we have nothing to feel ashamed of or to feel guilty about because we are American middle class — what the French called the bourgeoisie — a rather enviable status on this planet based on merit and luck but rarely predestined the way it is with the filthy rich. We see ourselves less as entitled, privileged and exceptional as we see us as competent, moral, paranoid and educated enough to get by. We see ourselves invisible, anonymous and relatively autonomous, and at our stage of life rather lucky things seem to have turned out fortunate so far, a charmed life compared to any metric. We have a lot going for us, but we don’t have any money — or at least we don’t think we do.
Until we live in Mexico for a month or so and take a moment to observe what we’re doing here. It’s been about twenty years, and in that time we have formed recurring relationships with the servants. Maybe we have crossed a taboo line somewhere by getting to know them, learn their histories, meet their families, visit their homes, take them out for dinner — cena — at a restaurant on their nights off. If we crossed a line we never really saw the boundaries of the frontiers when we crossed over. It was somewhere in the midst of being nice, and sincere. Both ways. And now we really can’t cross back. Once we have left the friendly confines of the Hotel Zone you end up returning to the hotel and the beach with a deeper connection with the larger community. You realize the people at the hotel serving us actually live here all year long. They grew up here. Their kids grow up here. This is their home town. This is not their hobby. These are not summer camp jobs and then they go back to school to get their doctorates. This is everyday life, and over time if we have been granted privy to see what it’s like the the experience should mean something, and we should treasure that meaning, the understanding, and feel charmed for knowing.
There is no way we can go home without knowing our material luxury seems obscene compared to the simple domestic lives of the families who live on the eastern side of the mountain above Zihuatanejo. These people are poor, decked and zig-zagged on top of one another, humble cement and cinderblock plots stacked up the hillside just one earthquake, mudslide or hurricane away from disaster, a neighborhood clinging to a cliff over the commercial boulevard of the city, a hive of adobe homesteaders all wired into the electric power grid strung like chicken wire through the scrub trees, mesquite and occasional banana trees on this side of the mountain that does not face the ocean. Here our friends cook us fresh huachinango a ajo on the wood fire at their dirt floor patio and serve us first because we are guests.
None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco…”
I have white hair, what hair I have. Mexicans seem to revere white haired elders, although they don’t know what to make of baldness. I am a white caucasian gringo. There is a mystical legend of a White Buffalo, known as Bufalo Blanco, and somewhat because of my name, in jest, and they don’t call me Senor Kelly, somebody nicknamed me Bufalo Blanco, or just Blanco.
None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco, if I show up in Minneapolis next month can you help me get a job and a place to crash?”
El General did a stint working in the USA, and whether he was legal or not I really don’t care. A massage giver — masajista — named Anna who Roxanne likes tells us she used to live in San Diego until she got caught in a roundup eight or so years ago. She wouldn’t mind going back if she could. She has a tween-age daughter with her who was born there and is a US citizen. A young guy named Marco who serves breakfasts at Deborah’s was born in Arizona but came back to Zihuatanejo with his mother when she got caught and sent back. They are all very content not living in the USA.
While we were down there last winter we looked around for any sign of that Caravan surging north, supposedly closing in on Mexico City around that time. Granted, Ixtapa is a ways off the beeline from Nicaragua to Mexico City, but the route supposedly passed through the state of Guerrero, and that’s the state Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa are in. We saw no signs of migrants, though I had read some of them had dropped off the march in Mexico and found work along the way, already knowing Spanish.
The effect of the American reaction to Central American migration on Mexico does concern me. How much of the diaspora they can absorb before their infrastructure buckles, compassion and hospitality wear thin and society questions how come the United States isn’t paying its fair share, all puts a heavy burden on Mexicans to hold the political middle of Central and South America. They have taken on brave roles for keeping peace at both their southern and northern borders, the beginning and endpoint of migrant journeys. Seekers of asylum — the biggest reason to have when crashing the door to the USA — asylum — seeking basic elementary safety from specific harm — are not allowed to apply from within the US border and cannot wait within the US border and walk around free waiting for a hearing of the asylum petition.
People who enter the US first and then turn themselves in or get caught are held in detention camps for lawbreaking, which doesn’t look favorable for an asylum seeker not looking forward to being sent back. The detention camp brutality is a calculated policy by the Trump administration to make the word go out far and wide down the spine of the Sierra Madre to the Isthmus and Caribbean and down the Andes and throughout the Amazon, don’t come here and wade across the Rio Grande and don’t come here to sneak into the US because, asylum phylum, they will put you in an overcrowded pen like in a turkey barn, disappear your kids, scare your ass off like you might die then and there, keep you in caged concrete cells in the hottest region of the United States during the hottest season, feed you crappy food if feed you at all, deny you showers, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, encourage you to drink toilet water, let you sleep under a shiny foil blanket with the lights on all night, won’t help you get legal representation and may leave you there to rot until you agree to deportation.
Or you can stay in Mexico pending a hearing with an American official to plead the asylum claim calmly in front of an immigration judge — maybe within maybe three to five years. That’s a lot of people from Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua hanging out in Mexico three to five years. Meanwhile there are Mexicans who would like to migrate in and out of the United States. Mexicans thus far have shown valor and distinguished compassion for their absorption of this humanitarian crisis and continually seeing what they can do and working things out for the greater good and not making excuses.
There is much cause for resentment of Americans and America but Mexicans would rather so far take an attitude above the fray. Our conversations skirt the most obvious political memes. Being a tourist is designed to transcend ideology. It’s amnesty, asylum and armistice. Tourists live under truce. Immunity. For this we agree not to get too snooty and invoke our superiority of culture, and our hosts agree not to shame us with our own hypocrisy.
Only sincerity survives when you go outside the hotel zone. There are many nice fakes on both sides but only the sincere enjoy the most benefits of the freedom to wander the localities. The Bay of Zihuatanejo alone is a hike through time and culture. The walk begins at the pier in the middle of the marina, the embarcadero, the place where the boats dock. The walk technically should begin at a couple of haciendas on the cliffs at the edge of the bay, but people aren’t allowed to hike on the property, it’s under guard. Also in that corner of the harbor the Mexican navy has a base. So the long day’s trek all the way around Zihuatanejo Bay can begin at the pier. From the Embarcadero you can follow the waterfront on a promenade for blocks and blocks of shops and places to eat. Every block connects to a street deeper into town which leads to more shops layered parallel to the water. Offshore in the bay’s calm water are moored the sailboats and the rowboats. The promenade leads you to temporarily end the shops and restaurants at an open plaza with a pavilion and a central basketball court where somebody’s always playing. Along this stretch of promenade from the embarcadero to the basketball court you can find your meal. A hand made rug. Vanilla. It’s the gateway to the commercial city inside the harbor town, the residences, the food market, surprising galleries and joyerias (crafted jewelry stores) and other shops, cafes and restaurants with interesting proprietors.
Continuing along the bay from the plaza the promenade encounters the first public beach, Playa Principal. From there the restaurants get a little more fancy, they’ll serve tables on the sand, and still the prices are under Ixtapa prices which are always a good deal, so it’s often worth the cab fare to the plaza, tips included.
After Playa Principal the hike along the waterfront leaves the edges of downtown Zihua for a series of beaches and stretches of rugged shoreline linked by a public walkway including some steps to navigate small stretches of rocky coastline between these beaches and the aging hotels from the 20th Century Fox back lots. Check out the Hotel Irma sometime for its mosaic inlays. The beaches are calmer than Ixtapa because the bay is more sheltered, so it has always been ideal for waders and swimmers. Playa Madeira is famous as a Spanish launch point for shipping timber harvested from the hills. Playa Ropa is the most famous for being the site of a cargo of fine clothes from the Far East washed ashore from a storm that wrecked a ship, making the people of Zihuatanejo — a Nahuatl word meaning the Place of Women — the best dressed people in the western hemisphere in the 16th Century.
Once you have reached Playa Ropa straight along the sea from the embarcadero, you may consider heading back and calling it a day. You would doubtless be hiking by day and the day’s heat would beckon you to siesta, and even at night in the romantic moonlight it would serve no point to go further than Playa Ropa on foot. You can get a taxi from any of the venerable hotels — you might consider staying at one in the future, for the charm — to return to Ixtapa. Beyond Playa Ropa the coastline along the bay borders on jungle, much as it does the five miles of ocean between Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, only here the rugged coastline exists within the bay and very visible to the rest of the city. Mansions carved out of rock and luxury hotels ascend into the cactus, palms and mesquite, their sailboats moored in calm waters.
This next stretch of hike if pursued to the very end of the bay would involve rugged terrain on the fringe of private property, and more jungle, but there is a legend of a foot path. The most arduous jungle trek, when viewed from a boat, through the space least inhabited which is really a peninsula where there is no road for vehicles to get there, no matter how rich. When you arrive at the very end of the peninsula which is the door to closing the bay, you arrive at a place they call an island because there is no road by land, the foot path is treacherous, and everybody comes and goes there by boat, primarily the water taxis from the embarcadero pier, where the day hike began.
This end point is called Isla Las Gatas, or Las Gatas Island. It’s a strand of beach curved back to a distant view of the city, and all the boats in between, where the sandy beach is a promenade of open air cantinas, places to take a table beneath an awning, get a beach chair and sit in the shallow, calm water of the bay, get lunch and watch the sea crash upon the lava rock breakwaters. It’s like going to an extra resort, a day trip away from your resort, where the cantina’s groceries for the kitchen and the bar arrive by motorboat an hour after you do and since you arrived early you can stake out a keen vantage for people-watching on the beach promenade.
Las Gatas not only translates as The Cats, Isla Las Gatas literally translates as Island of Female Cats, or literally Pussycat Island. This is consistent with the town being named Place of Women before the Spanish arrived. Whether by power of suggestion or matter of fact, there is a strong feminist presence in the Mexican demographics. Women in the workplace. Shopkeepers. Proprietors. Among the Mexican tourists. It would not be surprising to find statistics showing Mexico leading at a world level in women regularly participating in the decisions and the professions. Except taxi drivers — still an all male job.
Genaro El General Salinas was one of the first restaurateurs I noticed hiring women waiters. Twenty years ago being a restaurant waiter was only a job for men. The Krystal hotel hired a few women. It didn’t seem to wreck the esteem of any male breadwinners. Genaro himself has two daughters who will be adults not long from now and who are born of a generation like my own grandchildren who have enough to think about in this life without second-guessing the rights of women.
There’s still a lot of machismo in Mexican men, they just learn to adjust and express manliness in more enlightened ways. Witness singers like Romeo Santos and Prince Royce.
At the Krystal main restaurant called the Aquamarine we opt for the breakfast buffet. I enlisted our waiter Jose to give a deciding opinion whether another waiter on the staff, Toribio, resembled as a dead-ringer the portrait of Benito Juarez on the twenty MX peso bill, the first Mexican born president elected to the republic. I meant no disrespect, so that’s why I asked Jose, and Jose agreed, Toribio looked exactly like Benito Juarez, his face, his eyes, his hair, and he consulted Martin, who concurred. I was given the okay to break the news to Toribio. Come to think of it, Martin bore a striking resemblance to Jose Maria Morelos, the face of the 50 peso bill, an independence fighter. Pretty soon we’re all looking around for faces in the crowd like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Then Jose subtly pointed out a guest at breakfast with his family he said could be past Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and since he wasn’t on the face of any currency I dropped out of the game. It was getting over my head.
It doesn’t seem long ago when Jose was the new guy, a cute young punk shlepping the sand hustling drinks to the beach palapas. Now he’s a senior servant like his mentors, Raphael, Toribio, Gloria, Anabel and the maestro himself, Jesus. Jose has children and they will grow to maturity, like Anabel’s kids, and El General’s, within the reality of their parents’ existential choices and their own perceptions of their own opportunities originating in their home town. They are the future of Mexico. All the years we relied on Zihuatanejo Ixtapa to serve us, feed us, comfort us and allow us to freely pursue our leisure escape from treacherous winter, year by year we notice the kids. Not just the little semi-beggars selling miniature toys from table to table during the dining hours but the school kids during weekdays. Kids of the guests at the hotels and on the beach, invariably Mexican families. Kids like the daughter of Roxanne’s favorite masajista Anna, who comes to work with her mom on days she doesn’t have school and likes to practice English with the massage customers from the US while we wait for our appointments. Kids like the teenage boys I call mozos who practice surfing after school on the waves at the more isolated edge of Playa Palmar. Kids starting out in the workforce serving burgers and malteds at Ruben’s. Kids hanging out with smart phones at the plaza. Kids doing dishes at the hotel. Kids performing at the nightly stage shows put on at the hotel garden.
By kids I mean young people, everybody at least two generations younger than me. The fresh talent. The ones who will take charge of the future of the Earth when the generation of me and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador passes on.
I wonder about these kids and what they make of this world. Technologically worldly, Mexico sports a very high literacy rate, so one can extrapolate probability that people have a lot of opportunity to be aware of what’s going on. Its government and sociopolitical economic system functions as a liberal democracy — if it has flaws, aches and pains, it too struggles in its way to be a more perfect union — it is far from a failed state. I look around to the young Mexicans and wonder what they think.
What is it like to grow up born in the Third World and raised in the age of Google, I wonder. Ponder. I have a young pen pal named Ariel who is nineteen. He recommends books by Chinua Achebe and John Katzenbach. He has a younger brother Uriel, seventeen, who is a dancer, a member of a traditional Mexican dancing troupe that has won competitions at festivals. They are sons of Anabel, who works at the hotel, whom we’ve come to know from our years at the Krystal. Ariel now works the night shift in the kitchen. Uriel is in high school. The primary question in my mind right now is how much do I want to know, to get inside their heads and souls and hearts, how much do I get involved, how much responsibility do I take on for the outcomes of their lives by befriending them?
It’s not possible to un-befriend them now, not without creating hurt feelings and confirming perhaps the worst ugly-Americanisms. I wish I could scholarship the whole bunch and dream dreams of winning the Powerball lottery and getting with our estate lawyers Steve and Jodie and researching the most efficient and totally legal way to give money to our friends in Mexico. As it is, as wealthy as we are compared to Anabel’s family, back home in our real life in America we’re just getting by. Part of that annual budget includes a month of winter in Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, tipping generously. Even so, back home we are just getting by — comfortably. In Mexico we are rich.
How Mexicans eye the disparity might be the key to future attitudes toward the United States. This is no time for gringos to get stingy with trade dollars when Mexico can look elsewhere in the world to export its agricultural products, chemical, mechanical and industrial technologies if the US cuts off the border for trade. The US has been Mexico’s Genie Friend for at least fifty years and should act with pride to sponsor its mature status among western nations and not patronize them as if they were children of a different species raised by foster parents.
In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa the influence of the American middle class gringo is fading slowly along generational lines. We are aging out of the demographics with less and less younger replacements — baby boomer American vacationers are frankly dying off, getting hips replaced and entering memory care while fewer of their children and grandchildren care to risk a sunny beachy vacation way down south in the middle of wild west Mexico. Jipes!
Gradually the Americans are being replaced by more and more Canadians, who suffer winters so ungodly severe it’s almost a law that their worker pensions guaranty a one week vacation a year in the tropics as compensation for being located along the Arctic Circle. (In Minnesota it’s not almost a law but some people treat winter vacations as like a 401.K or an IRA, independent retirement account.) The Canadians are unafraid of the latino armageddon warned by the American state department. Though not worth as much as the US dollar, Canadian money exchanges favorably to the Mexican peso so they can enjoy luxury at bargain prices compared to Florida, Hawaii or some of the southern United States. They have discovered a winter resting place and laid claim with their red maple leaf beach towels.
Among the Canadians the Mexicans make up for the diminishing Americans. They come by tour bus on the weekends. They come in their SUV and crossover cars from Jalisco and Mexico City. The fly in and out on Interjet. Mexicans taking advantage of their own Mexico, days and weeks at the seashore. Families. Couples. Multigenerations. The hospitality marketing to the upwardly mobile Mexican middle class has struck lightning in a bottle appealing to the home market for leisure time at the beach. In the enthusiasm of Mexicans to embrace Zihuatanejo Ixtapa as a vacation destination what I see is no fear. This assures me. It’s one thing to understand Canadians are naive and think only Americans should worry about their safety because they stick out by the way they pronounce their A’s, and still another thing to trust the Mexican fellow travelers for their calm understanding of themselves to expect no harm.
It’s what I said before as a sense the Mexicans are looking out for us, like guardian angels. Sometimes, but rarely, we’ve encountered hard stares right through us by Mexican fellow guests who don’t seem to want anything to do with us. This reminds me of the zombie stares I felt in public in Grenada, Mississippi from people who see you hanging with black people. It seems most Mexicans like Americans and treat us nicely, but some probably don’t like us and don’t express it, while some others express their resentment with cold indifference. These are not in the hospitality trade, but they are not people who would like to kill you. They just wish you weren’t there taking up Mexican vacation space. They know you aren’t Canadian.
How the Canadians are flying down there I’d like to know. The Mexicans I understand, they live in the region and drive a few hours by car or fly Mexican airlines. Some Canadians, I am told, drive their cars to Zihuatanejo from places like Calgary and Saskatoon, not only down through the whole body of the USA but all the way down about as far through the heart of Mexico. But most of them fly in and out of Zihuatanejo International, ZIH. I don’t know about their airports, but the past few years it’s been getting harder and harder to find nonstop flights to ZIH from MSP.
Minneapolis-St Paul used to feature routinely competitive nonstop service to Zihuatanejo several times a week. No more. Northwest Orient Airlines, based at MSP, then our home town airlines, owned a travel service named MLT which touted Worry Free Vacations offering air and lodging packages in an out of ZIH two or three times a week via Northwest. Charter fliers like Ryan Air and bargain airlines like Sun Country competed for passengers between MSP and ZIH offering direct non-stop service almost any day of the week from January through April, often on sale.
Roxanne and I first came to the Krystal Ixtapa on Worry Free MLT auspices, the best deal at the time. We’ve since learned to book our own. We’ve seen a vast drop in direct flights offered by air carriers serving MSP to ZIH with limited availability, strict choices and a leap in price. Delta Airlines acquired Northwest and in the merger divested its Northwest hub headquarters at Eagan, Minnesota, suburban Minneapolis-St Paul, in favor of Delta’s existing world headquarters at Atlanta, Georgia and its hub at the busiest airport in the world. To be sure, Delta still flies a lot of planes in and out of MSP, nonstops between a lot of world destinations through its affiliations with KLM and Air France. Delta competes with United and Spirit and Aer Lingus and Alaska and Frontier and other airline carriers for the domestic and international traveler via the Twin Cities airport. Delta still flies to Zihuatanejo. Round trip direct nonstop from MSP from a Saturday to a Saturday could cost a couple thousand dollars USD. No flexibility for a ten day trip. Otherwise Delta from MSP connects to Zihuatanejo through Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles or Mexico City, and still not much cheaper.
Sun Country, now the Twin Cities only home town airline, still provides twice-weekly direct nonstop service from MSP to Zihuatanejo, but don’t wait for a fire sale. The fare you see today is going up a few bucks tomorrow.
With fewer flights and higher fares that means even fewer connecting flights demanding routes through MSP to ZIH. With Delta making the trip an expensive all day hassle and Sun Country jacking the price and squeezing availability, it feels a lot like the airlines themselves are discouraging travelers against Mexico.
From Minneapolis it’s less than five hours away.
The mid-January outdoor temperature differential can be more than 80F degrees.
I don’t know of any conspiracy to wreck my winter vacation but the situation tests my patience. I figure if in the future we are forced to fly through Mexico City, then que sera, time to visit the Zocalo and Teotihuacan if we need to go the extra mile. If American politics harden the border for us to transcend the Wall, we’ll keep going unless it becomes impossible.
What would stop us would have to be traumatic, shocking and sad. We would have to be told we are no longer welcome guests of Mexico.
The General would never turn us away.
This past year a visitor from Iowa, a place called Okoboji, offered to paint a mural on a blank wall facing into the General’s flank from a little mini-mall around the back of the plaza. The Okoboji artist insisted, offered to paint it for free, showed sketches, demonstrated he had skills. Another wall next to this one already had a mural of sorts, promoting the General’s sports bar as a Husband Day Care Center. The Okoboji guy proposed a political cartoon of a wall across the desert with cacti and sand and the White House on the far side. On the near side are some Mexican guys looking past the wall. The wall is all cinderblocks and barbed wire and it loops back all along the horizon and behind the White House. In the foreground another Mexican (you can tell they’re Mexicans because they wear sombreros and moustaches and pancho vests) is either digging a hole or patching a hole at the base of the wall. (Could it be a shithole? Hmm.) And standing with his back to the wall across the hole from the guy with the shovel is the smiling figure of Speedy Gonzales the cartoon mouse — full copyright infringement no doubt, but defensible as satire — standing guard over the hole in the near foreground, drawn to scale against the cinder bricks to be about three feet tall, dressed in classic sombrero and his shirt adorned with promotion of The General’s Sports Bar.
By the time Roxanne and I saw it the mural was all the gringo gossip up and down the playa. It’s very unusual for someone to express a public stance on a political subject, much less express it in such a permanent fashion. Wherever the Okoboji guy is now, Geraro Salinas is on the hook for the mural and whatever it means. Obviously the subject is the Wall juxtaposed to the White House. The White House is isolated in the desert beyond an everlasting wall. Beyond that the whole scene is surreal. All the cactus are saguaro with their arms in the air. The sand is yellow. The figures are so stereotypical one questions if the imagery is racist, symbolic, parabolic, or gibberish.
It’s satire, I assured the General. Speedy Gonzales says it’s meant to be funny. I think.
Yeah, said the General, but I told the guy, if my next application for a guest visa gets turned down I’m holding him responsible.
Life’s good here. Maybe some people don’t realize it. Others might say, too good, undeserved, and conspire to take it away.
Commies. Commies would admit, though, life’s good here for commies. Long as they don’t break the law, even commies can rag and nag and denounce and protest their living hearts out. I use commies here as a metaphorical example, you may insert any radical antiestablishment group you want. Take your pick among the unenfranchised and the disenchanted, or start your own.
Say something nasty and clever and get your Andy Warhol’s worth before they shut you down. Who they? They who? You know.
It’s considered illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater, but only if there’s no fire. It’s a ruling under the so-called Espionage Act, I think. Even so, in America we never experienced a social order where typewriters and Xerox copy machines could be evidence of transmission of unauthorized information dangerous to the state. Samizdat? Say what? Out front of any crowded theater on Hennepin Avenue any given night somebody might be preaching about the End of the World, some way or other, and that’s free speech. Until or unless it incites a stampede among ticketholders inside the theater, hard to do without hardwiring the preacher outside to the crowd inside, a very deliberate event to which the preacher would be held culpable. Neat trick but not likely to happen, even in Minneapolis.
When I say life is good, I speak to a greater good. There’s no denial bad exists. Bad people. Bad trips. Bad omens. Bad luck. Bad relationships. Bad outcomes. There’s bad stuff all around us. Bad deeds are done. Bad stuff happens. And there is evil. Everywhere.
When I look for the good I don’t ignore, trivialize or overlook the bad stuff. Sometimes that’s all I can think about. Perhaps it’s an ancient obsession illustrated by the Greek playwrights and Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare and Stephen King — evil is much more interesting than good. I am so blessed by such a charmed life I feel compelled to brood over all the disparities and inequities between my life and the less fortunate. I get depressed contemplating injustice, inhumanity and misfortune. I seek serenity sorting the things I can change from the things I cannot. I seek ways I can change things I’d like to change, if I can, how I can, if I care so much. It’s hard to accept things cannot be changed. Sometimes it’s hard to accept serenity.
What helps is the five minute rule, which I learned from my daughter Michel. It’s okay to dwell and ruminate over something that really bothers you, but if it’s not resolved in five minutes it’s time to move on and think about other things. Important things always come back anyway, but it’s no good to obsess. You may even find caution thinking about happiness too much. Living existentially is a fluid soundtrack, voicetrack, movie within a movie. That it’s Real Life, as my granddaughter Tess calls it, then all the more lucid these experiences go mixed in the milieu of life, and the more serious. The more sincere.
An advantage is my age, an accumulation of trips around the sun and an awareness of awareness of trying not to be caught unawares. As I keep saying, mine is the perspective of a charmed life. Born privileged in the heart of the United States of America in the middle of the 20th Century, I got nothing to cry about from lack of opportunity at any level in my lifetime. Not born rich per se, but middle class bourgeousie, availed to all the niceties of life in modern America at a time when our culture prized itself as highly civilized. Such an upbringing leads, as you have seen, to a sense of exceptionalism, in a way not undeserved if not entitled. (See Untitled essay, 29 May, 2017.) I do blame my parents for several events in my life that changed trajectories of my history which I could not control, but not for the outcomes. For good or not I inherited their genes, but not their destinies. My life is a product of mostly unrestricted choices of my own in a universe of exponential possibilities. I made my own mistakes. I accept responsibility. If I enjoy no serenity it’s my own fault.
Arlo Guthrie had a talking blues about the Last Guy. It was a parable about the hierarchy. At the top he might group the ones we call the One Percent. Down under are various levels of the rest of us. And there we look down and down, those who don’t have it as good as we do. But don’t worry, even they can look down at somebody who’s got it worse. And they can look down at somebody even worse off than they. Then Arlo stops playing guitar and asks, but what about the Last Guy?
What if the last guy was a woman? Probably. Or a child.
Look at world migration this way and you see people trying to catch on to the bottom rung. They risk all kinds of unknown doom to escape a sucking abyss of torment for the slimmest, tiniest chance at a sliver, a grain, a crumb of a life I and my peers are born into. Everybody above them, ahead of them are the same way, looking up. Looking to better their place, their situation. Sometimes we fall. Sometimes we get back up. Some keep falling and falling, right off the earth.
Where I live, in the middle of the northern hemisphere and the western hemisphere, where life is good, there is no shortage of sad stories of stuff gone wrong. There’s no shortage of humanity, so there’s daily evidence of best laid plans and worst laid plans going awry. Insurance actuaries make a living calculating these things. The costs get built into the prices. The price of a good life is subsidizing the ones who have a bad life. Prisons, for example. The chronically sick. The homeless.
And on up the ladder we subsidize each other, the charities and foundations, entry level employment, the service industries, the manufacturing jobs, the professions and the trades, traders, the entrepreneurs, capitalists, entertainers and artists, scientists, farmers and tycoons. This constant flow of subsidies is the basic economic climate of a free society. When somebody perceives the subsidies are getting out of hand, the flow changes. When somebody sabotages the flow, the disruptions are challenged. A greater good is achieved.
It’s no good to enact policies to knock the bottom rung off the ladder.
It’s fashionable among some people to hail America First. They know the good life when they see it and want to preserve its history and carry it forward to the next generation. They express resentment to immigrants as intruders, invaders. Some resent legal immigration as much as illegal. I can see descendant Native Americans rolling their eyes. Imagine seeing all these waves of white people, some with black slaves, all claiming land, just six, seven generations ago. See how far we have all come. To build a wall around that, arm the moat, crank up the drawbridge and not let anybody else in is like a religion saying there is no more room in heaven, that’s all the souls we can take, no more baptisms. It’s more than knocking off the bottom rung of the social ladder, it’s pulling the ladder out of reach. It’s saying, sorry, no more Promised Land.
You could argue, who promised what? The facts exist that the American Dream all came true here despite the dodgy white man’s ways. Somehow the Twin Cities on the upper Mississippi River evolved from scratch into prototypical urban modern metropolis amid vast grids of quasi-non urban populations. The tribes of European immigrants who settled in Minnesota the past two centuries all seemed to learn how to make nice among one another here in the New Country. As much so that people of color got a hind start in the social ladder, a factor today in the disparities calculation and worth mentioning in today’s comparisons about the good life.
It could be trendy to be color blind but to miss the subtle shades of individual features is to miss the beauty of each individual face.
Pity to people who hide their faces.
Who avert their eyes.
Assimilation works both ways. What worries the worriers is that we might feel compelled to be more like them. It begins with their food, when it enters the mainstream. Long ago it was Chinese. Pizza and spaghetti. Goulash. Enchiladas, tacos and fajitas. Indian curry. Not to forget ribs, fried chicken and mac and cheese. What could be next? Intermarriage. Interracial children.
We forget we are the first ever multiracial democracy on the planet, however it came to be so. We proudly called ourselves a melting pot, a mosaic. For all our stupid and tragic mistakes there are episodes of brilliance where America, as they call us around the world, showed how to become a more perfect union of We the People, and not just by its government but in the daily dumbass everyday relationships and interactions of everyday life.
Today America is looked upon as a crucible of incivility. A forge of dissolution. With or without Russian assistance, the squabbling memes and tropes are shattering the mosaic society into venal and selfish conflicts of identity. Identities. Less perfect union. Segregated outlooks. Jealousy of those perceived to be getting better attention. Outrage at feeling left out. Outbursts of We Will Not Be Replaced, whatever that really means. A president who pits the screwed against the shafted. Everybody’s got their own class action suit. Blame globalism. GMOs. Blame The Man. Whitey. Blame affirmative action. Robotics. Welfare fraud. Immigration. Blame somebody else for not living right. Feel righteously deprived and forgotten, no matter who you are. Disenfranchised. Disrespected. Disgruntled. Displaced. Deplored.
Cultural Road Rage.
We’re setting a bad example for the rest of the world. We’re misusing our superpowers. We’re disproving democracy.
If we don’t sort things out among ourselves, somebody will step in and sort it out for us. Censorship of the internet already is invoked to keep the peace. The worldwide web is policed. There’s a dragnet of metadata and cyber digitalysis every minute. We leave indelible prints in the Cloud every day. Privacy is surrendered at the door. Hate may be expressed in private, one supposes, but when expressed publicly there is the responsibility of attribution. Is it free speech to simulcast a massacre? To show videos of beheadings? These kinds of suicide missions on the web beg for attribution, there’s nothing stopping the Christchurch and ISIS types except where they might reveal themselves, expose themselves on line. What then of the dispensers of just plain old lies? What authority says what is true and what is fake? Are true examples of hate the sum of something truly fake about the motives of haters?
President Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the clash riot in Charlottesville, equivocating the nastiness of the White Nationalists and Antifa belligerents at the core of the violence. He said he supported the peaceful demonstrators who came to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, top general of the Confederate army in the American Civil War. He expressed admiration for Robert E Lee, which is odd for him, because Lee was a loser, and Trump disrespects losers. Lee commanded the army of rebellion defending the Lost Cause, slavery. Trump expresses a lot of attitudes sympathetic to the old Confederacy. Sometime you’d think he’d like to start the Civil War back up again, just to mess with history and make guys like Lee winners.
Where are our leaders guiding us? Are they goading us? What is the endgame of getting everybody pissed off at one another? Everybody shaming the next one? Where does the endurance of criticism endanger free speech?
This trend of cleaning up the worldwide web from the troll vigilantes who exploit the chaos of ideas with scurrilous and violent propaganda exposes a need to mind both intent and content of all the spectral messages we all send and receive every day because in cyberspace it never goes away, we are all publishing our histories. We all have forums to persuade others, which are linked to other forums. We can grouse our hearts out and be shared around the planet, maybe not everywhere but enough uncensored places to find company for our miseries.
Don’t think this isn’t overlooked by brain trusts who would exploit our naivete of opinion. Somewhere in Russia a guy named Edward Snowden might shed some light on just how sensitively and granular the powers that be pay attention to what people think and can be persuaded to think. It might be guessed that as much effort is being made to confuse and distract you and me as is made to conceal and reveal pertinent facts of life.
If the melting pot is boiling over and the mosaic is shedding stones it’s time to stir the pot, reduce the heat and restore the masonry.
There should be a cultural baseline by which we can measure a consensus of progression or regression of what constitutes the good life. Set the baseline whenever, wherever — 1865, 1965, 2015 — USA, Europe, Ukraine — and measure the qualities from before and after, and see what net values pertain to you, your family, community, region, state and so on. Is it really all that bad?
All the attempts of humankind to perfect itself and universalize the good life have not been in vain. It’s in the eyes of the Syrian families begging for alms and mercy on the street corners of Paris or the Bangladeshi street vendors hawking selfie-sticks around the train station at Milan. It’s why weary Hondurans and Salvadorans trudge through Mexico to get caught crossing into the United States for a chance to become the next Last Guy in America. Why migrants risk death and great unknowns to live in poverty and squalor at the very bottom of the rich world rather than endure one more day in the home town of their homeland.
Migration, of course, is nothing new, not to nature and not to the human race. The notion that people vote with their feet is just a modern meme to put a democratic spin on migration as a historic pattern of humanity. It could be inevitable, a part of human nature in keeping with its species evolution. It’s almost absurdly late to become so self-aware of this characteristic just now.
The latest humanitarian pattern clashes with the American government policy to restrict all entry into the country in order to restrict employment and economic benefits to citizens and authorized foreigners. It also is supposed to vet foreigners for threats to national security. Mostly the policy is meant to reserve menial jobs for unemployed citizens still not working in this current economy featuring very low unemployment, both of the skilled and unskilled variety. The argument that immigrants take away jobs from born citizens is almost like saying slaves took away jobs from free people back in the day. The entry-level labor force of people just starting out at the bottom is not all teenagers working at the Dairy Queen. The pressure in the labor market falls backwards into unfilled jobs at the lower rungs, and policy drives the unemployed and under-employed to take jobs formerly held by immigrants, this to satisfy a political base to placate Americans First. Tariffs and the trade war are meant to ramp up American mining and manufacturing, all to net jobs for all the forgotten and aggrieved bluecollar rednecks howling out there for Trump to give them back a slice of the pie. Will they accept this? More to my point, how forlorn and aggrieved were these people to begin with? Was it really so bad?
Compared to the next guy. All the way up and down. Perhaps the thinking is, stop coddling refugees and they’ll go away. In that case we should stop advertising the good life, it only teases the underclasses and promotes jealousy and despair. As long as hope exists, however, people tend to learn a way to rise. There’s no reason the human survival instinct is any less acute than a common fish or bird or reptile or mammal. Somebody will always seek and find ways to get better than their baseline.
This is a real world example of that abstract thing called freedom, one of the components of how life is good. Like democracy and justice. Happiness. “Freedom”, as sung by Janis Joplin, Roger Miller, according to Kris Kristofferson, “is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Even a white bum can choose the hobo life even as migrants seek destitution as a means to plant roots in new lands. Rather than die out, the migrants go somewhere they hope to be free to live a life without constant threat of death. Sleeping under a railroad bridge in Minneapolis is considered a better life than hiding from gangs in San Salvador.
To characterize the migrants as invaders invites adversarial pejoratives dehumanizing the outsiders, memes and tropes to make your head spin. The president warns us of some pretty mean dudes in the caravans from Central America. Over in Europe Viktor Orban of Hungary is accused of harboring migrant Syrians in cages to encourage them to go home. The attitude persuades that migrants from foreign subcultures — in America the people of the tropics, and in Europe coming from the middle east or Africa — pose a threat to cultural sovereignty. This smacks of the old Nazi Master Race ethnic purity philosophy. At best it’s a white Christian nationalism. In the middle it questions whether migrants corrupt or contaminate an established culture and leans to a fear that the immigrants might someday dominate. Fear of reverse assimilation. Fear of conquest.
The current xenophobia in America has such narrow vision it might suffer from its own success. The trickle-down theory of deprivation could squeeze immigrants out of the labor market enough to raise wages at enough low paying jobs to scare up prices and require higher tariffs to keep foreign products from costing less. Agricultural workers, hotel housekeeping and sanitation jobs could be the earliest vacancies unfilled, and it could work its way up. The servants will disappear. People would cry, it’s so hard to find good help these days.
The straits need not get dire. If people are seriously looking at their cultural legacy they need a positive vision that accounts for the inevitable tides of the humanitarian condition. These refugees cannot remain stranded. Just as good people who foresee the steps leading to global warming and act to prevent the steps, good just people who recognize the human migration patterns and make ready to accept the future shifts of population should step up to persuade policies to accommodate these inevitable strangers and put them to work. Give them a chance. Opportunity.
These people today and their children are the future of the human race and cannot be denied a share of the planet’s bounty. America talks big about universal rights, equal opportunity, freedom and innovation, things that drove the motives to found a political, social and economic system for a greater good. A virtuous system like ours should not be hoarded, as if liberal democracy is only peculiar to America and can’t possibly happen anywhere else and cannot be understood by any other people. Treating people as ineligibles, excluding them into incarceration, walling them off from hope betrays the moral high ground and leaves our principles in a ditch, digs our society a mass grave.
The late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”
Just because our union is imperfect we should not flinch from trying to perfect it. The right way. Stop the persecution of refugees and recognize international rights to asylum. Recognize the origination of migration and keep working toward the alleviation of misery. Liberate the refugee camps and enable migrants to join communities in societies. Stop wars and terrorism. Repatriate the displaced. Respect the dignity of these asylum seekers because these are the ones who come in peace and stand between the rule of law and the rule of terror. Mistreatment of migrants creates enduring resentments. Excluding migrants altogether creates an adversarial order. Migrants will either find their way in or be aggressively kept out. An open free society cannot sustain mass forced deportation of its population. Putting them in detention centers makes it worse.
Humane treatment of migrants is future terrorist prevention. Look at Gaza.
Where they will come from and where they will go, the next generation of people who vote with their feet, no predictions are overheard about the next diaspora. If indeed first humans walked out of Africa all the way to the Bering Strait and crossed to inhabit the land masses of the Western Hemisphere, the trend since reaching Patagonia has been a U turn back across the Isthmus of Panama to walk back north to settle in a geographic zone above the Texas border.
In Minnesota, where I live, the Land of Sky Blue Waters, somewhere in the middle of North America, all the recorded human history is a story of migrations. The known people of the Ojibwe and Dakota meandered back and forth between the plains and the forests amid the lakes and rivers. It’s a toss between Norse and French explorers who first tramped through the region from across the Atlantic. French names prevail. The next cycle of migrants from the American east brought pioneers and soldiers to stake out the northern territory of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. As the indigenous people were chased out or sequestered, immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland, undeterred by the cold winters, homesteaded and farmed the open acres. Then from Germany. Ireland. They founded towns and swelled the new cities. Migrants from the Balkans came to work the iron mines. Czechs worked the brickyards. In one hundred years Minneapolis went from a scenic waterfall in the wilderness to a fancy sophisticated little model of Europe transposed via the American east coast.
Europeans, and other old world cultures, and Canada, make fun of America because it has such little history. It’s true, we’ve only been on the map a few hundred years. In that short time we’ve created quite an impact, yet micro places like Minnesota reveal what impact the rest of the world has made on America.
In less than two hundred years Minneapolis has gone from that scenic pristine waterfall on the Mississippi River to a cosmopolitan haven of international tastes and world markets. It’s jumped from pioneers in sod houses to smart houses almost overnight. The French can laugh at us because our grandest cathedrals are barely a hundred years old and are renderings of copies of original old world monuments. It’s okay. For some of us bumpkins it’s as close as they’ll get to baroque architecture.
This is not to justify the invasion of this land in the first place, but what’s done is done. We are eight generations deep. I cannot idealize the process either. Successive generations of migrants have faced conflicts of acceptance by settlers born here — the arrival of white people must have been the Native American’s worst nightmare come true. Like the African American migrations up here from the Deep South after emancipation, Jim Crow, after the two world wars and again in the 1960s, the black migrants worried the established descendants of migrant Europeans, who fretted time and again, there goes the neighborhood.
Minnesota is residence to waves of migrants for as long as recorded history and well into modern times. Both world wars brought displaced persons and refugees — my daughter’s father in law was a child born in a Nazi work camp of Polish parents, who as a family survived the war and came to the United States rather than go back to Poland, but had to wait a dozen years in Morocco first. The Korean War brought war orphans adopted en masse, some of the first Asian looking kids my generation grew up with. Romanian orphans became popular when the Iron Curtain collapsed. The Vietnam War brought a wave of refugee families seeking asylum from the North Vietnamese takeover. The same conflict in Laos brought Hmong refugees from camps in Thailand. Cambodians. Then Karen from Myanmar and Tibetans from Tibet. Liberians in exile from a nasty civil war. Same with East Africans, refugees from civil war. Ethiopes. Adoption of Central American guerrilla war orphans got popular in the Reagan era. Then Somalia failed as a state and its civil war drove some two million people from their homes, and tens of thousands ended up here in Minnesota. And all the while the Latino presence kept swelling in the community like panaderia dough.
Meantime the Ojibwe and the Dakota keep crisscrossing the landscape like shadows.
Suffice to say the puny history of my home state is writ large of human migration and integration of ethnic — shall we say — diversity. Along with the more high profile waves and tides mentioned above are many more examples of visitors and scholars and exiles and romantics and the lost and found from somewhere else found their way into the roots of this place — for example, I have not mentioned the Italians because everybody knows that like the Irish if there’s a town anywhere with any taste at all there are always Italians — frequently Greeks but always Italians, it’s a given. My home town is graced by all the diasporas of the globe.
And every winter I ask why anybody in this world would choose to live here if he or she were not born here. There must be something that fends off extremes. That something-something that makes things flow. Perhaps, as I suggested, it starts with the food. Soul food. Delicatessen. Chow mein. Pizza. Shepherds pie. Gyro. Subway foot long sub. Tacos.
So many choices. So many grocery stores. These are the meeting halls of humanity, the aisles of democracy, the chambers of the good life. The place where all the ingredients of the good life are available. The chapel where an EBT card can get a bite to eat — spend it well, like a votive prayer. The shelves are like stained glass windows of logos and brand names. Bins of fresh produce are like choirs. This is exactly what Woody Guthrie meant by Pastures of Plenty. At every Aldi and Cub there is shared space of security and well being. A grocery store is the ultimate town hall of peace, freedom and prosperity. Even in the moments preceding an April blizzard there is no panic. There is a general sense there is enough for everybody.
There’s no reason to hoard opportunities for the good life, no justification to restrict access to mobility, and no excuse for making life worse for the refugees than if they stayed home. Migration is a fact. To lock people out is to lock people in. Consideration of greater good should prevail against criminalization of seekers of asylum. Such claims take time to evaluate but the answer can’t always be no.
Laws that can be respected are legislated by elected bodies who represent the temperate volition of citizens who agree to abide by rule of law. This is the continuing effort to build a more perfect union so said in the US Constitution. America has to codify its tolerance for the reality of global migration in light of its own success in promoting itself as a beacon of liberty.
Where I live there is a preponderance of evidence of good things contributed to the community by migrant cultures, including the original indigenous ones. If the human footprint has sometimes trod upon itself and tripped in its own tracks, the pathways to resolution and even redemption have been found and trails to more prosperous progeny tend to prevail. Here a girl from Somalia from a refugee camp in Kenya grew up to get elected to the US House of Representatives from a neighborhood district once settled by Finnish homesteaders. Prince grew up in a neighborhood used to be Jewish. Bob Dylan is Jewish. Hubert Humphrey came here from South Dakota. A lot of respected leaders come from Minnesota, which borders Canada.
Minnesota is a nice place. Life is good. Summer is taking hold and the trees are green again. Maybe too much mud for the farmers right now, but maybe the rain will hold off. A lot of sky blue water this spring.
Common cause is as common as common sense these days as we fend through daily bombardments of hype and breaking news. We rely on each other to remain grounded against brainwashing and gaslighting. It’s a conceit to the belief we can make consensus beyond identity politics to make a coherent case for liberal democracy.
That’s what it takes, though. Against demonizing propaganda a clear persuasive argument for the greater good is what it will take to un-inaugurate the current president, who will not go quietly unless he gives himself a stroke.
It’s one thing to hue and cry about the plight of the poor refugee (or just the plight of the poor) and blame reactionary rhetoric and nationalistic ult-right policies for inhumane treatment, and yet another thing to get lawmakers to write comprehensive legislation to establish a fresh immigration code and to elect an executive branch more interested in mitigating the causes of diaspora than punishing migrants. It’s a bleeding heart cause but the eventual will meet the inevitable and America faces vast incarceration and/or deportation of a significant percentage of its population, many of them born here, and almost all persons of color.
Not just in Washington, DC but at the United Nations, America could lead in promoting fair passage of refugee populations and in participating in stabilizing factors to prevent or repatriate diaspora, if there were an administration interested at all in guiding the future of the world, engaged in real world issues. Instead the president dismisses these distressed places as shitholes. He won’t even rebuild Puerto Rico since the hurricanes. He thinks he’s cute.
Until Donald Trump is repudiated at the box office — unelected at the polls — and uninaugurated, the United States Congress does not need him to craft legislation to govern America. If out of spite he vetoes sensible bills passed behind his back, he risks further exposing himself as a fraud more dedicated to his own glory than to Old Glory.
Whatever happens next, don’t be confused that life is good because Trump is in the White House. His administration is an extreme stress test of the resilience of American character. He has no character. No ethos. Those who put him in power and support his regime have nefarious motives. They are like him, dishonest, devious, deceptive and willing to go to extremes to advance their agendas and impose their will. It’s not an economic profit motive so much as a political monopoly campaign to wear out our minds and brainwash us (like George Romney) to hassle among ourselves with unresolved identity issues and contradictory beliefs, giving them the high ground of relentless moral certainty. Don’t be fooled. It’s iron pyrite.
The greater good will come from examples set by people who can envision a world beyond this century and keep sight of existential resolutions in the present tense. Who keep hope alive instead of pandering despair. Who can take criticism and turn it into advice. Who take integrity seriously and ask only honest effort from their fellow human beings. Who reject hate and hatred and persevere with love. Who keep paying attention and don’t get bored.
Minneapolis, at roughly the 45th parallel, north, has gained eight minutes of daylight since solstice. Almost every day this time of year where I live I find myself in the place of a primeval person watching the daily sky and the declining arc of the sun and worrying if the radiant ball of life would this time descend below the horizon and not come back, just keep going wherever it goes. We’ll be stuck with artificial lights forever.
And yet still, people emerged in ancient times who went to great extents to build apparatus to prove on a specific day the sun will peep trough a specific hole on earth, proving hope. Hope for us humans that the universe might be a predictable system of questions and answers. George Harrison gets credit for summing it up in the modern era, “Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and it’s all right.”
Last year was a weird year. You literally couldn’t swing a dead cat without scratching somebodies eyes out. Meaning, the level of outrageous and offensive rhetoric, bad humor, bad english, insensitive metaphors and fandangling with truth kept rising with the public’s irresistible urges to watch ever so closely to shocking, ugly things. You don’t want your eyes scratched, wear safety goggles, or don’t look at the dead cat. And don’t question whoever’s swinging it.
The most audacious thing in the world that happened last year was the killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It stands out from all the detentions and assassinations of journalists last year because it was clearly a state sponsored execution committed within diplomatically recognized sovereign territory inside another sovereign country and executed as if the world would never know, and yet the state security apparatus of the Saudi state failed to anticipate or secure its consulate facility against comprehensive surveillance by the host state of Turkey. Maybe more audacious about it is Turkey publicly acknowledging its spywork. Turkey is not known as a nation friendly to journalists. Saudi Arabia meanwhile can’t believe Turkey would rat them out. The Saudi monarchy seethes with insecurity. Did they drop the ball in surveillance protection at Istanbul because it was merely a consulate, not an embassy? Heads will surely roll. That’s how it’s done there. Nobody has come forth yet with writings or tapes or such from Khashoggi himself which would illuminate what he knew about the regime of the Crown Prince that Khashoggi might have exposed which might predict the collapse of the royal kingdom, just as the Prince is trying to cash out, making Khashoggi literally an enemy of the state, eligible for beheading under Saudi law, such as there is law in Saudi Arabian jurisdiction. Instead of asserting its sovereign rights under its sovereign laws, what one would expect from a monarchy of the status of Soviet Union or Red China, the Arabian Crown regime has to find a Plan B — nobody apparently anticipated, in this modern age of digitalysis, there would be true documented proof of Khashoggi’s murder, except the Turks. So the Saudi rulers have to try to weasel out of this one by any means necessary, which means Khashoggi must have been very important. Important enough to enlist the influence of the President of the United States to equivocate its case to trivialize the incident in the eyes of the world.
This concept of a free press the United States is so famous for in its Bill of Rights of the foundation of its government has been a key attraction to subsequent democracies since the 18th Century and the very age of the written word and the printing press. Authoritarian and Totalitarian states have striven to control the spread of information to control power. In our age it’s to control the information itself. It’s dismal to read that the USA ranks around 35th in the world in freedom of the press when you might think it could be the leader, or at least in the top ten. But it is encouraging that there are countries with even freer press than ours in a world where most countries have it worse.
In America the free press includes newspapers, books, pamphlets, magazines, TV, radio, social media and websites such as this one and many others more popular and less obscure. President Donald J Trump routinely attacks the press — forgive me for using the old fashioned term for the press to mean all mass media — for publishing and posting fake news, and for this he calls the press the enemy of the people. Neither he nor any of his spokespersons nor his corps of supporters have articulated what he means by fake news or offered examples, implying all news is fake unless he himself validates it as real news. The lies he has told and endorsed are public records. He communicates to the world via the most free network of vulgar democratic press the world has ever seen. No one can stop him from his freedom of speech. And no one should, as agonizingly pathetic and hair on your neck dangerous as they tend to get. Free country. You don’t see him giving Mark Zuckerberg a hard time about farming out Facebook data to make mercenary hits on user data, more digitalysis, not how Congress is investigating how to regulate and maybe even tax the internet to somehow keep it free and simultaneously safe from corrupt abuse.
A little over two years ago an enterprise directed by the Kremlin used digitalysis techniques to infiltrate American internet media to campaign on behalf of Donald J Trump for President, and Trump won. He keeps repeating his mantra, no collusion, though throughout his campaign he tantalized his skeptics by asking the Russians to keep hacking his opponents to look for dirt. More secret dirt. The Russians plausibly deny all charges the Justice Department has made and the State Department has substantiated against them for acting to destabilize the American presidential election of 2016 to help elect Trump. Except to know specifics of the federal statute it’s hard to reconcile freedom of speech with prosecuting anybody including a foreign state for expressing favor for a political point of view and influencing an election. After all, the US Supreme Court has ruled corporations are entities entitled to free speech rights, why not foreigners? What hurts about Russian influence in that election is the realization that the Russians apparently speak english better than we do.
The Russian government believes there is no such thing as democracy. It’s a myth. And no such thing as truth. Thus they lie and expect nobody will do anything about it, and they expect nobody to believe them. And nobody does, not even their own citizens. The American government has imposed sanctions against Russian oligarchs and institutions for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea and various other international infractions, but it appears for now to be no big deal. The world seems to accept that the Russian political system condones jailing and killing journalists and political opponents (troublemakers) and has thousands of ways to ruin somebody’s life.
No collusion, he says, and yet Donald J Trump has always expressed an enamoration for the Russian country and especially its leader Vladimir Putin. Nobody except maybe Trump himself knows why. Maybe it’s because Russia is a vast country with untapped riches. He might admire its rich history and culture, although that’s not likely because he doesn’t follow history and prefers cultural ignorance as his baseline. More likely it has to do with real estate and fossil fuel. His fanboy crush on Vladimir Putin is much easier to understand in terms of how Trump sees himself as a player in an international league of strong man boss daddies, and Putin is a proven authoritarian over a world power. Trump admires how Putin runs Russia and keeps order in its part of the world and he probably envisions a more stable world if the United States and Russia were allies (forget those punk states of Europe) and he and Putin could be friends, deals could be made, and some kind of new world order could emerge where all the true strongmen of the world would get together — maybe at Mar-a-Lago, we don’t know — to divide up the planet, secure peace and harmony, eradicate terrorism, solve famine, end gang wars and drug cartels, repatriate refugees and resettle asylum seekers… Always assume positive intent.
If Trump ever spoke the truth it might sound something like, yes I think being allies with Russia in the 21st Century is a good idea, we have much in common and could learn a lot from them about keeping social order in this crazy world. We’ve collaborated nearly a century now in space exploration and it’s time we stopped facing off each other over Europe and get together on this Earth and combine our great countries’ fortunes and intellects and band together to reshape the political and social destiny of this planet. Yes, so what I used Russians to help my campaign but who cares, there’s nothing wrong with getting help where you can get it to advance a great and beautiful cause, which is the Trump presidency.
He really believes he is God’s gift. He should say so more often.
Instead he hides the truth, and hides from the truth, and the real news is not news at all, just a long well known fact, Donald J Trump is fake. And everyone who believes in him is as low, corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unfaithful, disloyal, conniving, untrustworthy and soulless as he is because deep down they all want to be like him, they are all frauds at heart. He seeks approval from deplorable people who espouse Nazi and Confederacy dogma. He exploits plain people with human grievances to pit the shafted against the jacked.
He says he promised to build a Wall, and if he doesn’t get money for his Wall he will look foolish to those who expect him to fulfill that promise. After all the lies he has told you might think he has some way he could weasel his way around the Wall and blame it on somebody else, or even say, hey, I’m the leader here, and I rethought the Wall, I don’t like the idea any more and I’m taking it off the table to negotiate a fix to the immigration system. No, instead he’ll proudly wear the mantel of the one who shut down the government instead of funding it without money for his Wall.
He promised he would Drain the Swamp too, and now that they have stopped picking up trash and emptying porta-potties at the national parks it appears he has broken that promise by filling the swamp back up again.
Not to mention the people he has retained to work on his staff and in his cabinet.
It’s a shame the Republican party sold its soul to get him elected but they will reap what they sown. Confused between conservative governing principles and right wing dictatorial powers they risked common sense democracy to allow radicals to give cover to right wing causes, and lost causes. A mid-term election puts a Democratic party majority in the House of Representatives, and they will use their clout to investigate every shady inch of the president’s tailored suit. It’s a shame the outgoing House traded its majority in a squandered deal to shield this president to advance conservative goals. The Senate will have to reconcile sound legislation with the president they have cut way too much slack.
Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail the past year was as pathetic as a lounge act on its last leg. He conjured up visions of the caravan of asylum seekers, the migrants from Central America making their way towards the southern US border, as a force of invaders — bad dudes. He conjured fearsome hordes. He conjured an assault. He called up troops. He ordered more concertina barbwire. He made a point of saying publicly that the border troops were authorized to shoot back if attacked.
Used to be the United States billed itself as the most humanitarian country on the planet. We had the Peace Corps, an invention of that liberal president Kennedy’s administration. And we used to put a lot of money into the United Nations — which the US founded in San Francisco. There was the Marshall Plan. All over the world wherever you saw the American flag there was a source of charity emanating underneath. Think of all the well-intentioned missionaries of all kinds of faiths the American churches spun out into the Third World back when there was a Third World. If there was a national disaster the Americans were there to help. As recently as the Obama administration, Americans helped draft the Paris climate accords.
Now we are the xenophobic people who need border walls and tariffs to protect our bitcoin, who live in constant fear of shooting each other with guns over opioids. Who are too snobby to overtip NATO for good service and too cheap to toss a coin to UNESCO.
Here in Minneapolis there is a charity shelter called Sharing and Caring Hands, whose founder Mary Jo Copeland says in her solicitation for funds around Christmastime, “To the world you might be one person, but to that one person you might be the world.” And I’d go, what? I mean, I get what she means but literally it doesn’t make sense.
Still, in the most liberal sense, it applies to Donald J Trump and America. He represents us Americans to the world. He shoves the president of Montenegro out of the way to get position in a group photo of world leaders. He insults leaders of allied democracies and cozies up to autocrats and dictators. He shows no kindness towards victims of affliction. He shares no sincere empathy for the aggrieved. He’s indifferent to the plight of diaspora and the inhumane causes of refugee migration. He bullies the weak. He lies egregiously about what he’s up to. He caves to the most special of Special Interests rolling back environmental protection regulations and the oversight of public lands. Now his administration wants to roll back civil rights protections. His government shutdown effectively locks out hundreds of thousands of government workers off their jobs and forces about as many to work without pay, as if to say, “Tough Titty.” Worldwide he’s making us look really bad.
America First is his slogan. Used to be that meant when a challenge was offered somewhere in the world America was a first responder to try to do the right thing. Granted, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a gley, it’s been said (in reference to Donald J Trump’s Scot heritage) but there are worst laid plans in this world too, and they too can go awry. (Brexit.) Nationalist isolationizing incurs local tribal quarrels for fake unity in the face of Them. Them is us. It’s been incumbent of Americans to go for first in leading the world in more than gymnastics. The American cultural treasury has led the world in accomplishments in medicine, industrial technology, agricultural yields, textiles, intellectual productivity and fathoms more, and thus the world itself has generated accomplishments all over the planet aided by American influence, if not inspiration. It is a global world.
The Chinese are the first to set up a base on the dark side of the moon. How did they learn how to do something like that?
Back on earth NASA is shut down over funding for the Wall to wall off a piece of earth as seen from outer space as a slice of North American desert and mountains. How much federal bridge and highway maintenance can you get for $5 billion if you want to pour concrete and erect steel that will actually do something, go somewhere?
Wall Street doesn’t like this Wall stuff either. It’s starting to affect Walgreens and Wal Mart. And Walla Walla. Even Wall Drug. Walnuts. Wally the Beer Man. WALL-E. It affects us all. What would the Waltons do?
Yes, last year was a weird year. Wildfires in California and Greece took tolls of paradise and burned it to hell. Hurricanes and tsunamis wiped out towns, earthquakes toppled dwellings and liquified people like swallowing them in jelly. Volcanoes burned molten paths to the sea. June was the deadliest month of all 323 mass shootings in the United States, though the deadliest single incident occurred in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The US and its allies launched an air attack against Syrian chemical weapons sites for using gas bombs against its own civilians, again. Donald J Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. He met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He fired his Secretary of State, Attorney General, dismissed another Chief of Staff, took the resignation of his Secretary of Defense and got a sketchy Supreme Court nomination past the Senate. All while two of his former henchmen pleaded guilty or were convicted of federal felonies. Trump also signed legislation reducing sentencing terms for non-violent crimes, including white collar crimes.
The special investigation of illegal tampering with the 2016 presidential election conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is under no pressure from a timetable to come to conclusions, as long as it takes to find the truth. Trump’s lawyer, former mayor of New York and former federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani went right to the top of the pops declaring in a live TV interview about the Mueller investigation, “Truth isn’t truth.”
And emoluments are just skin softening creams in hand lotions.
What will be revealed by the Mueller investigation and anything committees of the House of Representatives make public may not rise to treason or high crimes and misdemeanors, but it should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what a shrewd sleazy shady dealer is Donald J Trump. Maybe there’s enough proof to indict him on something when he leaves office, put him under arrest as his successor is sworn in, but it’s all two bit swindling and pulling legal strings and tax dodges, third mortgages and dubious cross transfers of assets. How many more minions and stooges might face jail time on his behalf, depending how shallow his organization really is, is less likely to matter as much as what havoc those same minions and stooges might wreck in carrying out whatever insidious mission they think they are on to Make America Great Again.
The president has had a bunch of chances and keeps dropping the ball. Instead of coming out the better man he comes away as the bigger dick. I did not endorse him or vote for him, and campaigned against him. He’s been in office two years, so nobody can say I didn’t give him a chance. Someday he will be out of office and nobody can say he didn’t have a chance. Any time and place Trump could have asserted the power of his presidency to put the nation’s best angels ahead of his blatant ego, but time after time he surrenders to the urges of his snake brain and he makes a statement, decision or proclamation sabotaging the sacred ideals that made this country admired, even loved. When he said he would make America great again he didn’t say he was going to make it Not Great first. You talk about a president taking the country the wrong direction.
The way Trump blew off the Khashoggi murder was the last Camel.
He is privy to all the evidence and the secret intelligence of the Deep State and instead of outrage that the monarch state of Saudi Arabia executed a journalist he passively deferred blame and recused himself from moral contemplation. After all there’s $110 billion in arms sales at stake where the Chinese and the Russians would love to jump right in. Right. The Saudis are going to recalibrate all their defense technology going forward on the fly and welcome Kremlin agents and very friendly comrades of Xi Jinping, all with deep states of their own — not so fast, nobody wants to be a Saudi monkey boy except Donald J Trump and it may seem the Russians and Chinese can afford to bide their time milking the Arabs building a new Silk Road, perhaps through New Kurdistan, fostering Syria to keep a Mediterranean port, and Persia facing the gulf at Hormuz, while Americans try to reconfigure its own borders to regulate its 2020 census, the rest of the world can go take a hike.
Like the mantra on the backside of Melania Trump’s stylish coat: I DON’T CARE DO U.
My mom used to refer to a condition called Inverted Eyeballs.
For all the fun of demonstrations, rallies, caucuses, media coverage and hilarity it would provide, impeachment isn’t going to happen. It would take two years anyway, and by then he can be simply unelected. Impeachment would incite some of the most deplorable people to deplorable acts to save their fuhrer, and it would not be a cleansing bloodshed. We can learn our lesson the long way. There is much to come out about the shenanigans of Donald J Trump when his tax returns are made public and everybody learns how leveraged he is and how he effectively launders his money, and maybe his entanglements with the Kremlin may prove more sinister and embarrassing than imagined, but by the time any impeachment charges brought to the Senate would be moot, his presidency will be done, not worth the trouble to kick him out even a month early.
This same Senate, a 52 – 48 Republican majority, is the next bastion of restraint of Trump’s executive overreach. His imperial impulses. His autocratic urges. His crybaby presidency. The Senate has actual power to override vetoes of sensible legislation. This is a great opportunity for the Republican party to move towards un-nominating him from the head of their ticket in two years. If all he has going for him is his troop of core believers, Trump hasn’t got enough to win re-election. Senators who buck that trend do so at their own peril.
Even so, he will not go quietly (unless he gives himself a stroke) and the tomfoolery and flimflammery will go on. My hope for the coming year (or two) is that if Donald J Trump remains in office he is virtually neutered, all checked and balanced so he can cause no more harm to the United States or to the world. The lamest of ducks. His justification for what he does is, “I’m president and you’re not.” Sad. But true.
Sad that Trump has even corrupted the word sad.
Sad for me to think Donald J Trump beggars so much of my reflective time. That his presence in the world matters so much and seems to permeate the soul of every human relationship, transactional and personal.
Two years ago in Mexico I got to know a local guide and philosopher named Fernando who said Trump was a good thing and who wanted to bet me a hundred dollars USD that in a year I would be better off than I was that day shortly after Trump’s inauguration. I didn’t take that bet because I didn’t want to take his money, but it turned out I would have owed him, I was better off a year ago. Last year in Mexico I asked after him, intending to pay up, but I learned the previous summer he died of pancreatic cancer. This year though I’m not so well off, though I’m better off than Fernando. I think somehow I owe his family. That’s 2000 pesos. I’d like to know what he thinks of Trump now. And who is this AMLO guy? Are there any Honduran or Salvadoran caravan refugees working in Zihuatanejo?
Last year in my city, Minneapolis, city of lakes, city of Prince, city of plenty, a homeless community settled into a tent encampment on state highway land adjacent to a main transportation artery, a freeway. On a strip of grassy green space abutted by a tall concrete wall sound barrier and a bike and walking path along a busy six lane highway a campground settlement grew throughout the summer to around 300 tents and a lot of people extending a few blocks from a main underpass business district to a public park and soccer field along the big sound wall separating the highway noise from the residences on the other side.
The encampment seemed to emerge overnight and didn’t go away. It achieved instant urban notoriety. Not the first homeless encampment in an American city, nobody seemed to see this one coming. Now there it was. Out there on highway 55 near the Franklin Ave rail station, just off I94 and I35W, near the Cedar exit going south, hundreds of camping tents pitched on the grass between the freeway and the wall and people with backpacks roaming in between them. All in full view of commuters and tourists and truckers and strangers passing by. There were cooking fires at night.
Significant about this phenomenon is what did not happen. Nobody panicked and drove the squatters off the highway land with pickets. The cops did not swoop in with SWAT teams and paddywagons. The National Guard did not deploy. No tear gas. No bull horns. No marchers. No rousts. No threats. And no political grandstanding.
The encampment was allowed by all authorities to remain in place until some form of true housing could be found for every person camping there. This meant intense collaboration between the city, the county, the state (highway land) and a whole coalition of social service agencies and nonprofits, volunteers and faith based organizations to succeed in relocating everyone justly and peaceably.
A large proportion of the campers were Native American Indians, drawn to the site by its proximity to the Phillips neighborhood, home to the largest urban Indian population in America on the other side of the freeway wall. Some dubbed the site the Wall of the Forgotten, a direct reference to the displacement and oppression of Indians over the centuries. Right away Indians asserted leadership in keeping order within the encampment and bringing help to the campers. Indian social service groups based in the nearby neighborhood reached into the encampment to offer housing and health service mediation and intervention. The site attracted volunteers from medical services and every kind of expertise available. Donations of food, clothing, blankets and tents came. The police visited frequently to hang around and get to know the crowds, and no incidents of arrests or confrontations were reported or cases of larceny or assault. Teepees were erected as meeting centers.
Journalists visited the encampment. They interviewed the campers and posted stories of hard lives. Destitution all so familiar and still hard to fathom. The site seemed to come together from people camping under bridges and here and there in the shadowy hiding places of the Twin Cites, Minneapolis and St Paul, the fringes of parks and old railroad yards, dead end alleys, abandoned garages and what’s left of slums, attracted to the safety of a community of numbers like themselves, totally homeless but maybe not so hopeless. A lot of single women with kids — these were the early success stories of the social service activists and urban missionaries helping to triage the individual circumstances to place them in true housing. Bringing so many homeless together in one place and drawing them from their hiding places here and yon not only drew public attention to the homeless population in our midst as a kind of refugee migration of our own underclass, it provided them with security and secured their freedoms without locking them up.
Naloxone became a familiar word associated with the encampment when stories of drug overdoses made the news. Four fatal overdoses occurred over the existence of the encampment. Conflict emerged between users and those who wanted to stay clean and scuffles broke out evicting dealers.
Through the summer and into autumn the best minds and hearts of the arts of social science met to make plans and policies to not only move the people out of the encampment by this winter but also develop an ongoing network of methods to effectively keep up with homelessness before it happens. While elected officials and neighborhood organizers kibbutzed among nonprofit coordinators, churches, educators, clinicians, physicians, politicians, soup kitchens, electricians and musicians, what to do to move three hundred-some people and their tents off Highway 55 before it gets really cold. Alternative sites were proposed and discussed when it became clear that an already heavily burdened social welfare system couldn’t possibly work that fast to get that many people with problematic residential histories placed in structured housing facilities. It looked like somewhere in the city would exist a few blocks of FEMA-style temporary trailers, if only suitable ground could be found. Nobody could estimate how many people the site would have to accommodate who wouldn’t by then be diverted into true housing, the population at the encampment kept growing even as the social service groups almost magically kept placing people who fell through the cracks. There was worry about people refusing to leave the encampment, talk about taking a stand for that track of land, and others worried about being driven into an asphalt concentration camp. This was a very delicate humanitarian situation. Nobody gave up.
Highway 55 through Minneapolis is locally called Hiawatha Avenue. That part of the city grew with a peculiar affection for a particular popular author and poet, a Bob Dylan of his era, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Avenues all over that part of town, two lakes, a famous creek and falls are named for his characters, more than a few of them Native American Indians like Hiawatha and his sweetheart Minnehaha, both of them busy avenues that run parallel to each other two blocks apart. Hiawatha is a busy state highway that runs diagonal through the city grid that tries to mimic north, south, east, west and creates a transportation wedgie into the city following a bee-line straight from Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers over land to downtown Minneapolis and the site of the most powerful flour mills of its age, St Anthony Falls. That beeline exist today as the direct route between downtown and the airport and includes the light rail line. It’s what’s left of an unaltered trade route between an army outpost and bread.
So the Hiawatha Encampment it was called, or the highway 55 encampment to be more politically correct. The Wall of the Forgotten was more or less forgotten, or at least forgiven in the sight of its fame. The actual wall of concrete is at least thirty feet high and runs several blocks along residential Phillips neighborhood bordering a town home development called Little Earth, where a lot of Indians live. The architecture of the wall is molded in decorations of Native American designs and features a soft blue accent, a pleasant look actually for a highway barrier. It made a cozy backdrop to the array of tents and the teepees.
The Red Lake Nation, home of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, a reservation located in northern Minnesota, recently bought a chunk of property across Hiawatha Ave from the Little Earth housing which was the site of an old kaput manufacturing plant. The long range plan of the Band was to develop units of affordable apartments, being near the rail station and the Franklin Avenue corridor. Red Lake Nation stepped up to offer the site as a place for temporary relocation of the Hiawatha encampment providing a way the site could be demolished and cleared suitably to house people. The city, county, private donors and who knows who moved heaven and earth to level the site, but it still took time.
Winter approached. A cold November. A goal to have the encampment vacated by December first looked unattainable. The highway department put up a fence between the freeway and the encampment to keep the snowplows from spraying snow at the tents. It became a gated community. Fires broke out in tents where makeshift camp stoves were tried as heaters. Medical emergencies increased with cold weather. Any time you drove past there was a fire truck standing by with an ambulance. Anyone illusioned with romance for this hobo jungle adventure need not apply.
Eventually the Red Lake property was rendered habitable. It consisted of four large fabric tents like big quonset huts. Three tents would be used for domeciles and sleeping, screens available for privacy, the fourth ten a community center, dining, health and sanitary and showering facilities. They called it a Navigation Center, a temporary place to get help to find true housing and to find resources available to mitigate whatever problems cause the homelessness. Administration of the Navigation Center was assured by a coalition of social service organizations. People started moving around Christmas. Between finding true housing for some and the promise of help through the Navigation Center, the encampment dwindled and disappeared. After the last ones left, free rides provided by the highway patrol, the gates through the snow fence were padlocked with no trespassing signs posted. The grounds were groomed and rendered trash free. Recent snow glossed over the scars on the erstwhile lawn, and with its fence it looks along the wall like a cemetery without headstone markers.
The deal with Red Lake is to keep finding alternate space for those who seek shelter there. Substance use within the Navigation grounds is prohibited although intoxicated users will be admitted, and treated. The land is still intended to be developed into apartment housing soon, so even this temporary shelter will be temporary. The missionary work continues.
What draws me to dwell on this little saga is its comparison and contrast to my obsession with the malfeasance and maladaptation of the Trump administration. Here in my home town a humanitarian crisis emerged, and over time, a relatively short time, the powers that be and powers that aren’t usually to be worked out navigation policies and procedures to solve the crisis, if not once and for all at least towards that goal in an ongoing way. In a year of weirdness all over the world, in my home town a community set sights on a project with dozens of cultural ramifications and made it happen, somehow, some way. My city came to the rescue — not just city hall, but the city of fellow citizens — to do something moral and upright about a phenomenon nobody really wants to look at, think about and talk about because this is America, because this is America.
This gives me hope for the new year. Here in a flawed place and time I see hope and hope for more hope for the human race. By this I mean hope for the planet because humanity is not about to relinquish or abdicate its assertion of dominion but can only concede to nature as if practicing the Serenity prayer — owning up to responsibility for altering the biosphere and conceding that nature is beyond control. Accepting humanity’s responsibilities and coordinating efforts to improve life is more than theoretical sociology, it can be practiced in everyday expressions not necessarily political of intent but sincere. And this comforts me about my community.
What I will remember most about last year and what gives me more hope is the birth of Vincent and Amalie’s baby they named Neko Roxanne. My son and his wife had been arduously trying to have a baby for several years. Neko is the third grandchild for Roxanne and me and Roxanne’s first namesake. Vincent and Amalie’s first child. It’s been a long time since we’ve taken care of a baby. The elder two grandkids are grown up enough for Book Club and here we go again with basic la la la. And so it begins all over again like with Clara almost fourteen years ago, and the Tess almost three years later, Granpa Kelly comprises his personal guidance of a new human being. Roxanne as ever is such a world class grandma everybody who knows her wishes she were their grandma. With the benefit of experience and innovation along the way I hope to impress her precious mind with all the wonders of the world available to a grandpa, which usually comes back many fold to me in nice little life lessons of existential meaning. A new hand to hold.
So happy new year to all with hope for all for civic virtue and personal relationships creating loving bonds and tides of joy.
Thank you all for reading and following this chronicle of passion.
In Americana the legacy of Hugh Hefner collides again with real politics. The year of Pulling a Kavanaugh. A lodestar of memes. The only way to illuminate the encryption that blocks atonement for the age old subjugation of women is for men to man up and mansplain our own sexism.
Jill was my first fingerfuck. Her wet, silky rough inner flesh swaddled my finger all the way up to the knuckle. Jill was my girlfriend and we agreed to rendezvous on a summer afternoon to make out in the woods.
We knew each other at St Simon of Cyrene, both in the same grade but not the same class. She and her girlfriends came to our football games. She hung out with a bunch of east side girls who hung out with a bunch of us west side guys, meeting up at the record shop at a central shopping center called the Hub. We had cokes and fries at the Pixie Diner, met up at the movies, hung out at kids’ houses and roamed Southdale.
Jill reminded me of an image I once saw of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen. She had an exotic face, though not especially ethnic, it was mostly her way with black eye-liner and smoky eye shadow. Her eyes were vivid hazel. She had thick, straight black hair, always cut in a bob. Mad eyebrows. Her face was white like ice cream with tiny freckles like vanilla beans across her nose. She did not suntan.
She was not especially a leader among her girlfriends. Mostly she blended in with their plaid St Simon uniforms, red sweaters and fluffed up bobbed hair. They wore bows. They all slung big purses like duffel bags. An aloof sarcasm set her apart. Not outspoken, not especially shy, she spoke in undertones if at all, not even asides. She had a low voice, but not raspy.
She knew me when my name was Sturgis, before my parents divorced and my mom changed our names to Kelly.
I liked Jill. This is the generational origin, by the way, of the social network Like. Back then you liked somebody, and maybe somebody liked you, and maybe you might date for a while. Jill liked the Beatles, though she said she wasn’t a huge fan. Her favorite was George Harrison. She went to A Hard Day’s Night, though not with me. She also went to their concert at Met Stadium, though again not with me. I asked if she screamed, and she said with her usual sardonic undertone, “Are you kidding?”
I don’t recall what her grades were like except she passed. I don’t know what her parents did and never met her family. We talked on the phone at night. She didn’t have a lot to say but she was a good listener. She didn’t gossip but she knew what everybody else was doing. I don’t remember if she had any ambitions.
I thought she was pretty and she seemed to get prettier as she got older.
She was a great kisser. The afternoon we agreed to meet and go to the woods was a lovely day. We met at the Snyder Drug soda fountain — probably had cherry cokes. We held hands walking to the woods. It was the same woods where my guys and I used to play toy guns when we were little kids. Jill and I had a smoke out of sight of civilization. She smoked Marlboros and I liked Winstons. I knew a nice cozy niche in deep vegetation off a remote path. I shared some Stik-O-Pep Lifesavers. And so began the kissing.
Petting. Heavy petting. All me. Her butt under her panties was so round and smooth. Her fuzz was scintillating. Her lips so puffy. Her clitoris like a grape. She just kept kissing me. When her eyes were open they were amber in the shady sunlight. Rapt around my finger, I thought. Gone as far as I could go with one hand, I withdrew to unhook her bra and lift her cups to let her breasts fall free beneath her blouse. I recall vividly thinking these were full womanly breasts with smooth, budding nipples. I confess to this day I regret I never saw them with my eyes.
All too soon she said she had to go. The kissing stopped. We smoked again as she straightened her culottes and fastened her bra. I hoped she would stick around and walk with me on my paper route, but she said she had to go home. I walked her to her bus stop, waited until the bus came. Call me, she said. In those days boys called girls but not the other way around.
If not true love at least I found a mate. If not a soul mate I believed I found a companion, a girlfriend, somebody to like who liked me. I probably celebrated with a cup of coffee and a doughnut at Krispy Kreme, sniffing my finger in ecstasy. When I look back at that day as fondly as I can, it occurs to me I never offered or exposed my penis. What’s more, I wonder, where were her hands — not fondling me, yet not sweeping my hands away. Had she so much as touched my groin I would have gone off like an underground nuclear test.
I called Jill that night and she told me we were breaking up. What?
“I only let you do what you did to give me a reason to break up with you. I can’t trust you,” she said. “We’re breaking up.”
And so we never dated again. We kept running into each other at school and around the record shop, soda fountains and Southdale but we never got close again. There was no sense of shame between us so much as Jill’s vibe that we weren’t meant to be. If I felt a little paranoid and somewhat shunned by her girlfriends it was temporary. Soon my family’s scandalous discombobulations altered my social life and I didn’t see her after we graduated St Simon of Cyrene. I called her once in a while in high school to confide my angst and loneliness and ask her out, and finally she said I should stop calling her when I was horny and depressed. That was about as close to talking about our afternoon in the woods as we ever got.
I never apologized and never felt sorry. Far from consenting adults at the time, we were well beyond the age of reason. It was wrong for a lot of reasons in the way that the songs say makes it feel so right. It’s the essence of that song by Neko Case about “That Teenage Feeling”. My lust for Jill remains justified somewhere deep in my soul’s memory that’s almost too genetically territorial to surrender. An instinct of sovereign exception. There was no drug administered or shared except nicotine and Stik-O-Pep Lifesavers. Hormones. Pheromones. To me it was Adam and Eve in the woods. I am sorry now because #MeToo and #balancetonporc call me forth to account for my examination of conscience.
From this pubescent romantic interlude flowed a template for future adolescent seductions leading to seeking Peacock rubbers from a sympathetic pharmacist and learning the benefits of K-Y Jelly versus Vaseline, all based on kissing it might seem. I truly hope the incident didn’t cause Jill harm or trauma and I would offer her just reparations if she wouldn’t cynically question my intentions.
Whatever she may say about me, this is the first time I have ever told about our encounter. No, I never bragged about it to the guys. Never told my best buds around the campfire. Never confided to another girl, or to my wife. Never confessed to a priest. To me sexual intimacy is the only sacred kind of shared secret worth keeping.
Sure as I would like to cast my lesson from Jill as a saintly Pre-Raphaelite painting, if this whole polemic is going to get real I’m obliged to confess to the devil’s truth. I was a boy in a locker room. I shared Playboy magazines like book club. Anybody remember a Terry Southern novel called Candy?
My best friend at St Simon of Cyrene was Micmac Murphy. Murph. He had a voice like a foghorn, even when he whispered. He was a natural comedian whose quips in class got him the most face slaps and trips to the principal of any kid in the history of St Simon’s. Class clown, school wiseguy, always in trouble with the nuns and suspected of being up to no good, he nonetheless got A’s and give all the right answers when called upon and never got expelled or suspended. He was also known for great kindness and stood up against bullies. Played football. And was the most obsessed guy with sex I knew besides myself.
Especially after he transferred to the public junior high after sixth grade at St Simon’s. He said he’d finally had it with parochial school, always getting blamed for making people laugh, sick of getting ragged on by nuns, tired of getting treated like a moron when he was smarter than half the other kids, and wary of getting queered by a priest who liked to hug altar boys. Murph said the last straw was when in sixth grade the school instituted uniforms for boys. In the whole history of St Simon of Cyrene since 1948 only the girls were required to wear uniforms. The rationale was to cut clothing costs and equalize fashion. Who knew in the 1960s boys would dress like mavens? The school introduced standard light blue short sleeve shirts with flyaway collars for boys and blue and white flecked Tweedaroy pants. Red cardigan sweaters. Murph hated the Tweedaroys the most, the flyaway collar shirts next. He couldn’t wait to get out of St Simon’s jail and wear sporty Levi’s and shirts with button-down collars to school. He said he heard that next year we would all have to wear saddle shoes. Since he wasn’t going to go to St Bernard’s, Cretin or De La Salle for high school, why not make the break to public school with junior high.
We kept in touch until high school because he lived in the neighborhood and was still eligible to play on the St Simon football team through eighth grade. Murph extolled public school. What he seemed to like best were the girls. They dressed foxy in tight v-neck sweaters and short skirts and flirted all day long. He said they padded their bras, used the word fuck, wore heavy make up, dared you to look down their v-necks and some didn’t even wear panties. Some kids even made out in the hallways. Public school was to him like moving into the Playboy mansion. He said public school girls were practically asking for it. I knew better than to believe too much of what Murph told me, though I had to think public school more libertine than parochial school and looked forward to serving my sentence at St Simon’s and going to public high school too.
One of Murph’s fascinations with the hijinks of public school was a practice called Bagging. You staked out a vulnerable, voluptuous girl and, seeing the right moment, under cover of a crowd and distraction, give one or both of her breasts a squeeze and run away. Like the pantomime of Al Franken pictured in the USO airplane reaching over the sleeping Leeann Tweeden. A sort of game of Ring and Run played with boobs. Murph swore he hadn’t done it himself but said he knew some guys who had and he was always on the lookout for an opportunity. He named some girls he would like to stalk, whose names meant nothing to me but he assured me were true babes, one of them he speculated had tits so big she might not even feel it.
This kind of conduct to me crossed the line beyond the Irish pale. This was something nobody should ever do to the most disrespectable girl ever, much less nice girls like Jill and her friends. Thinking guys behaved like this with impunity made me reconsider public high school. I didn’t want to spend four years with any preponderance of these kind of clods, and gradually I lost touch with Micmac Murphy. I heard he became a lawyer.
One night at the end of a movie — Khartoum with Charlton Heston, I think — I was exiting the theater during the credits when I abandoned impulse control. The girl was among the crowd waiting for the theater to clear for the next performance, behind the velvet rope. Public school. She had short blond hair and oval glasses. She wore a red and white horizontal striped jersey. Her breasts jumped out at me across the rope. In one sweeping motion to run to the exit I honked her right breast. Before I could take my first step in flight she shouted, “Hey you fucker,” and punched me with her fist with her left hand and slammed the side of my head so hard my legs and feet could barely keep up as I reeled out the exit and down onto the asphalt of the parking lot like a drunken bum, where nobody asked me if I was okay or offered to help me up.
That summer my clique of neighborhood pals talked furtively about a new pastime at the municipal swimming pool they called Getting Some Tit. Essentially it was a variation of Bagging conducted under water. They would survey the females in the moderate and deep end of the pool. When a guy saw someone vulnerable, and the coast was clear (as they put it) he would swim as deep as possible below the subject, give her a gentle fondle, and keep swimming like Aquaman along the bottom into the crowd as far as he could hold his breath.
There were five or so in this club, three active submariners and two or so voyeurs who talked big but didn’t really have the nerve to try. A hot, crowded day was optimum and would bring out the best array of babes. They had wish lists of known mature girls by name they hoped to target and made up nicknames for girls they didn’t know, not from our school, like Plaid One and Budgie. Jill may have been mentioned on somebody’s wish list but I didn’t warn her. She didn’t sunbathe much but some of her friends did, who were definitely on the lists.
I didn’t do this. Like my opinion of Bagging before and after I learned my lesson I considered Getting Some Tit at the swimming pool a cowardly, lowlife act and totally disrespectful to the girls. What’s more, with lifeguards on deck patrol and sitting in highchairs above the water it seemed too easy to get caught. Far as I know none of them got caught and by the end of summer abandoned the practice and lost interest in hanging out at the pool. I did nothing to stop them. All I did was not join.
Now that I have confessed to at least three felonies — the last one a plausible charge of conspiracy to commit Getting Some Tit, along with two counts of actual sexual assault — what do I expect to get? Amnesty? Immunity? Time off for good behavior?
This goes back more than fifty years, so the prosecutability of these crimes is moot and the statutes of limitations only provide guidance in framing an academic discussion of what if any penance is due. Obviously I welcome arguments or I wouldn’t write and publish this. Risking recriminations and unanticipated dangers is explicit with free speech. Confession might make my soul feel good, more good than somebody might think I have a right to feel. Had I and my cohorts been found accountable back then we would have been disciplined at home and shamed at school, possibly expelled, forced to apologize and been placed on probation for the foreseeable horizon. Some may have been severely beaten. There may have been increments of restorative justice involved but more emphasis would have been placed on keeping us and our victims apart. Apologies would have been mandatory but not necessarily forgiveness. Eventually we would all have been allowed to outgrow our bad experiences, learn and get along.
Today we would be facing trials as adults with possible jail time, perpetual registration as a sex offender. Ankle bracelets. Community service. We would be called terrorists like the wilding young men at the Christmas market at Cologne. Since we know today what the consequences are, a guy would have to be pathological to indulge in sexually harassing behavior, or very stupid. Fifty years ago formal sexual education, secular or faith based, emphasized biology and the hollow ethics of abstinence for the sake of staying out of trouble. At St Simon of Cyrene if you wanted to go deep with St Paul, or St Augustine, or St Teresa of Avila, there really wasn’t anybody capable of guiding and explaining chastity as a philosophical moral imperative. It was just no. Just so. I can imagine now that it wasn’t just us Catholics, but the Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, obviously Moslems, all had their own sex rules against sex — they said the Baptists were the strictest Christians. Besides church, we had vague civic reminders of the boundaries of sex. There was this crime some of our friends called Statuary Rape, sometimes mentioned in the bull sessions of the swimming pool offenders — bagging Venus De Milo. It was also against the law to peep in windows. We were over the age of reason. We sensed if we were doing something this secret it might be something wrong.
And yet our informal sex education teased us to immerse ourselves in the inevitable essence of the subject, the sex. The biological reason we are all here. The reproductive imperative. The complex moral and emotional ways we attract and repel attraction. We were schooled in the street. All that rock and roll radio going on about holding somebody tight. All that flirting and courting on TV. Movies and movie stars. Fan magazines. Sexy novels. Playboy. Masters and Johnson. Secrets of sensual pleasure were being revealed, and yet it seemed if something used to be kept so secret it still might be something wrong.
Like I say sometimes, in the wrong hands Jesus is the devil.
What do I expect to gain from this confession of pubescent pornography? You could say it’s all better left unsaid. What’s to gain — another cautionary memoir where the confesser gets off scott free and the confessor, or confessee gets to bear graphic scars.
Or better yet, a retrospective homage to a more innocent time, the era of Free Love.
Needless to say, I won’t be running for public office soon. Or seeking a high ranking job. Or coaching any more girls basketball teams. It could be my eulogy at my funeral I went down as a known lecher. Maybe this essay will fall to the very bottom of the Google search engine, however the algorithm sorts these things, and I won’t get so much hate mail, and maybe I’ll remain undiscovered. They say what you say into cyberspace remains out there forever, although I suppose infinity still allows room for errata.
On the album Rubber Soul the voice of John Lennon sings, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man… Run for your life if you can, little girl…” When he recorded that song he was confident everybody knew what he meant, literally. Love in song can be torturous that way. John Lennon’s dead but were he alive he would very likely repudiate the song as misogynistic. Still, so far nobody has risen to have “Run For Your Life” deleted from future releases of Rubber Soul.
President Donald Trump says it’s a very scary time for men in America. Man, I hope so. Women in America have had a scary time this whole while. This whole American Experiment. Trump speaks for American men and their dedicated ladies. The old pussy grabber knows what to be scared of. He’s 72 years old, old enough to know. He aspires to be an icon to admire. He has a lot of followers — obviously, he’s President of the United States. He’s scared his followers will find out he is a fraud, learn he has been scamming them, his whole life is a hoax, and they will turn on him. He is scared of truth.
What scares me is that Trump indeed speaks for a lot of Americans who are like him, corrupt and sleazy and proud, who will never let truth get in the way of power, privilege and a social order of an elected authoritarian oligarchy. If this is what passes for moral leadership in the 21st century then there’s little hope truth will be enough to educate his base to reject him. Woebetide us if his base of followers expands due to desperate men with something to hide. Sad.
The Hope found last in Pandora’s Box is Pandora herself willing to bear responsibility to account for all those things set free. One hopes she did not close the lid and lock it before letting Hope fly out to compete and contend with all the other vices and virtues set free in this world.
The prevailing attitude we were taught at St Simon of Cyrene was sex was ultimately a matter of self control. Boys were predictably more aggressive and more prone to strong urges. If ever the phrase boys will be boys rang true it was like a known fact boys were genetically hardwired — naturally prone — to sexual desire, more so than girls. About this fact the experts stumbled into getting right. What the authorities tried to do about it was vaguely chickeny. Girls were appointed guardians of boy virtue. Boys were taught to respect girls, and girls were obliged to act respectable. To dress modestly. To resist and say no at all times to sexual advances. Boys were taught to use self control to resist asking. Boys were obliged to take no for an answer, but the onus was on the girl to say no.
Other than this they tried to keep us as separated as possible during adolescence.
The fundamental theological premise of sex being sin is based on the Roman Catholic number six of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not commit adultery. The other nine were pretty straightforward and simple to impart to elementary school minds — thou shalt not have strange gods, honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not kill, not steal, even thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife was comprehensible in a family context — but what the hell was adultery?
Turns out there were several amorous stories of the Old Testament we skipped for our own good at St Simon’s. They tried to portray celibacy as the ultimate choice virtue of Jesus God Himself, they being the priests and nuns, symbols on earth of Christ and Virgin Mary. Adultery, they vaguely implied, was for us kids a matter of semantics, engaging in sinful behavior reserved for adults, acting as an adult in such a way as to have knowledge of such adult behavior as unchastity and therefore committing the sin, adultery. Some kids inferred it as a sin to contaminate or corrupt something or somebody — to adulterate. Otherwise we would have to grow up and become adults to learn more about the Sixth Commandment at St Simon of Cyrene.
Out here in the secular world so many decades later it’s women who set and enforce the standards of sex. Better than Women’s Lib, this latest wave of female empowerment promises to tip the male monolith. Two Nobel Peace Prizes in five years. Michelle Obama’s Global Girls Alliance. The lasting impact of the testimony of citizen Christine Blasey Ford will inform cultural history beyond the token flimsy tenure of the accused judge. (Judge not lest ye be judged, my hyperbolic, hypocritical mom used to say, usually when she had something to hide — she would have loved President Donald Trump.) The open season the president and his sleazy minions fear is that what goes around comes around moment when they get what they deserve, what they’re asking for, all in enduring good time. For women there is no walking it back, no backing down, no retreat, no surrender.
If Lysistrata really happened, the women would win. Ultimately most powerful of the species, women will determine the survivability of the planet. Men who contribute to survival of the species and civilization as we know it could be, already recognize women’s just and inevitable participation in the events that shape the world. Men who man up and stop sexist preoccupation with themselves as a divinely dominant gender will survive where bully guys will not. Natural selection. Humanity will benefit like workers covered under a bargaining agreement who don’t belong to the union. Observe the next span of time, so many news cycles, TV seasons, Oscar years, time it takes for daughters and granddaughters to go through high school, see where the drama of gender and sex boundaries of behavior will go. How it will affect fashion and justice, politics and economics. How it affects love and romance.
It’s been many months since I’ve seen a commercial for Viagra or Cialis on TV. It’s highly possible our post-modern society has lost interest in sex. Who would know? Playboy magazine is long defunct. Even Spike Lee doesn’t make movies sporting breasts like Rosie Perez anymore. What titillates the libido today is up for grabs, eludes description. Leonard Cohen passed away. They say there’s all the porn you want on the internet if that’s where you want to plant your computer cookies. Aside from justified rage against human trafficking and exploitation of children, the righteous moral guardians who used to rave about the evils of our permissive society seem satisfied with the current level of exposure to sexiness. Maybe it’s gone underground, like reruns of Two And A Half Men and Two Broke(n) Girls on cable. Showtime network ceased its late night explicitly raunchy movies. The sinister agenda of homosexual promiscuity the Tea Party people warned us about didn’t actually happen. I’m lucky I have a loving committed relationship to keep me aroused. I can only imagine what motivates other consenting adults to find others to consent with or how they rendezvous. It’s gone from lowdown to the down low. It’s not sex in your face 24/7 anymore. Has it gone out of style?
Thank god, you might say, for dating websites, social media. Maybe my perspective is just jaded, being older and so experienced — which is a way of saying having gotten away with a lot of things leading up to where I am today in life. Jaded and almost willfully unhip, looking through the telescope with a blind eye, there’s a chance I’m not seeing something hidden in plain sight because it’s none of my affair to look, none of my business to see. For me it’s a delight to see female undergarment shops as prominent legitimate businesses at the fashion mall, free to ogle, stare and admire lace on mannequins. Lingerie. I’m not really the target market for who’s buying and wearing this apparel, but somebody is and does. Once upon a time I was a member of a modern generation. It was the hippest generation ever lived. That was then.
It’s my impulse to cry out to the generation after the next one after the next one, risk spoiling all their fun. I feel impelled to chaperone from the grave, as it were, a version of JD Salinger’s catcher in the rye where he imagines a kind of guardian angel protecting kids from falling off a cliff (a problematic metaphor considering Salinger’s relationship to a young Joyce Maynard, which I suppose ironically illustrates the futility to project innocence upon a future generation). Some writers write about yesterday for yesterday, for today about today and tomorrow, about yesterday, today and tomorrow for today and tomorrow. Usually it all ends up yesterday.
In high school my daughter Michel absolutely forbade me from volunteering to chaperone any high school social events like hayrides and dances. She clearly told me she didn’t want me hanging out where I could spy on her. So I never did. Never dared to question if she was hiding some kind of behavior, I believed Michel simply didn’t want me inhibiting her social life, not her anticipating my acting out a helicopter dad. Not that she was ashamed. It was enough I coached her basketball team three years in middle school. I respected her demand to allow her privacy at the sacrifice of my never getting the experience of observing my daughter partying with her peers in high school. I had to get to know her as an adolescent in other ways. I am not disappointed in the adult woman she became.
My son Vincent may have had an even more obscure, enigmatic adolescence and he turned out good too.
Congratulations, you say. Thanks. I am proud of them both. Their mother seems to have had an extraordinarily magical influence on their character. My influence, however well-intentioned, cannot be retrofit into my own past. Their dad’s dinner table opinions came from a man otherwise renown as an expert in pictures of naked women. Pictures. Sometimes I look at my grown kids and appreciate what they put up with me as a father, and what I really wonder is how I get treated so respectfully as an older old man. This calls forth testimony. I know stories I am reluctant to tell my granddaughters which for now I prefer they simply do not read — until they are older. Adults. My son and daughter may prefer I bury my stories for keeps but they can’t help me. Can’t keep me from singing. Coming clean.
Will sex ever be clean again, well yes of course. We used to talk about rebelling against Victorian mores and now there’s a popular historical drama series on TV portraying what a pair of rompers were Victoria and Albert behind closed doors. Perhaps from a discreet parallel baseline a civil dialog of sex will arise beyond the recriminations, criminal convictions and revelations of debaucheries yet to come, after guilt is adjudicated and innocence restored. A normal bandwidth of appropriate interlocution will need to volunteer itself or sex will only belong to the clinical and the depraved.
The arts will be expected to express the vocabulary of the future of Eros, but everyday workaday life gets to be where practical Eros is acted out and explained. For example, normal people will listen to Top 40 radio and buy the songs. Listen up, watch and see these young crooners all falling down all over themselves mansplaining their feelings of deep respect for Aphrodite. We’ll see who’s sincere and who’s zooming whom as time goes by, as this is the nature of mating in the real world.
Shakira came into my life in Cancun, Mexico in the mid-90s, though I did not know Shakira was Shakira then. What anglo would?
First trip to Mexico, the whole family, Roxanne and the kids, a midwinter break in the balmy Caribbean. We stayed at the DoubleTree — ocean view. It was the time I insisted we take a taxi into the old town, to see how the real Mexicans lived. After a while of meandering a few shabby blocks near an old bull ring rodeo stadium and some shops of meager everyday merchandise and not finding a cantina where we all might take lunch, daughter Michel implored we get out of there and go back to the hotel zone.
“We don’t belong here,” she whispered. “We’re invading their privacy. Dad, we get it, let’s go.”
My intent was to share experience of a foreign culture with my kids, expose them to life beyond the resorts and the mall. That was the time we also took a bus trip tour to the temples of Chichen Itza, and a ferry boat tour to Cozumel Island. It was touristy but we rode a bus deep into the Yucatan and visited towns of adobe and Spanish stone and learned about the Maya at the places they actually live. We climbed up and down the great pyramid and saw from above the altar of Chac Mool. At Cozumel we snorkeled amid neon fish and vibrant coral and took a tour after lunch at a little family factory that made coral jewelry, where a lady gave me a little sample twig of black coral. Except for our venture into old town Cancun our contact with Mexican Mexico we kept within a comfort zone. At old town Cancun — nobody I asked could recall what the little town was called before the 1970s when FONATUR established what is now the famed and iconic Riviera Maya — the four of us stood out like neon fish out of water. No one approached us and asked us what we wanted, everybody just eyeballed us and seemed to stay out of our way. Some smiled, and that’s about all.
“I’m with Michel,” confided Vincent, putting a hand on my back. “We should go. These people don’t want us to see them this way.”
From nowhere a taxi came round a corner and Roxanne hailed it. I felt bad. Once again Dad risked everybody’s lives pursuing some kind of social adventure. They persuaded me their discomfort and paranoia was really about us encroaching on people’s space and crossing boundaries unwelcome, and I felt bad about that too — impressed with the wisdoms of two young teenagers, and their mom of course.
We probably ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, where Michael Bolton and Kenny G were the gold record icons. We sunbathed at the beach at the Hotel Presidente because the beach along the DoubleTree had been consumed the previous season by a hurricane named Roxanne. The beach will come back, a concierge told us. “The sea always gives back it’s dead.”
I have never met Shakira, and this story will not end that way. However, the first time I heard a Shakira song was in Cancun. Down below and next door to the DoubleTree was a big tent like a quonset hut where a night club pounded dance music from a live band. With the hotel balcony glass door slid open to feel the night air off the sea the music put everybody else to sleep, but the pulsating Latin beats and rhythms rocked me more awake. With Roxanne’s permission I got up, put my clothes on and left my wife and kids to go down to check out the club.
“Don’t make me worry,” she said. “Don’t stay out too long.”
There was no cover charge but the guy at the door said there was a two drink minimum. I lucked into a seat at a table at the front by the dance floor. The waiter seized on me as if to chase me away and I ordered a pair of rum and cokes. The band ended its second to last number and went into its finale. They were tight, featured horns and a wicked drummer. I was sorry I hadn’t arrived sooner to see more songs. When the band quit and started to pack up, the sound system played recorded music that sounded to me like Latin disco. Even if some of the crowd thinned out at the tables after the band stopped, more people came to the tables to dance and filled the dance floor. In my early 40s, I was maybe the oldest man in the room. I may also have been the only anglo man. The sound system was state of the art, and the music coming out of it impeccably produced — the hi fi delivered these sensational dance songs in Spanish with a hyper Latin beat, the likes I never heard before and I loved it. The songs got faster, more people got up and danced, and a song came on everybody recognized and everybody got up to dance, so I got up and danced too.
It was a woman singer with a voice of authority and conviction, and the chorus went Estoy aqui! It’s imprinted in my memory because so many of the clubbers sang along as if it were their anthem, and I knew enough high school Spanish to know what it meant, I am here! And it seemed so appropriate to me a rum and coke and a half into dancing alone with a club full of young Latinx closing down the club. The song ripped into its final verse then chorus and confetti and balloons dropped from the ceiling. Dancers raised their arms to catch the confetti and stomped the balloons as they danced and chanted. To me the words of this song sounded like she was singing, Estoy aqui en creme brulee, which is not right but that’s how I tried to remember it. I had never seen one song incite and impassion a whole room of people that way before. When it ended most people picked up their jackets, purses and belongings and meandered out. The sound system played a slow dance and a few couples lingered, collapsed together on the dance floor. I knocked down my remaining rum and coke. Tried to get another but the guy — same guy as the guy at the door — said I missed last call. The end of this slow dance was the last dance. Time to go. I came away thankful I somehow found an authentic Mexican experience.
Back at the DoubleTree I whispered to Roxanne, “Estoy aqui. Daddy’s home.”
About ten years later I was browsing the CD racks at Target at a place called Eden Prairie. Roxanne went all the way to Eden Prairie to get her hair cut and styled by our niece Kelly Kelly. To both me and Roxanne the Eden Prairie mall by freeway from Minneapolis is located in the Bermuda Triangle of suburban mapping. We travel together to help each other navigate, and it seems we never seem to find the mall the same route twice in a row, much less the way out to drive home on the first try. But Roxanne likes to support family, and niece Kelly Kelly has a flair for comb and scissors, so every month or so Roxanne made the effort to get her hair cut at Eden Prairie, and I would browse the mall. One day at Target, waiting for Roxanne, I felt inclined to find some music.
Specifically some Latin rock. This was maybe a dozen or so years ago, back when CDs were still mass merchandised, and at the time Target stocked a Latin section, even such an anglo market as Eden Prairie. I just didn’t know what to buy. After Cancun and then Punta Cana and a bunch of stays at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo I developed almost a craving for Latin music and was trying to find artists beyond Gloria Estefan and Juan Secada. I bought a couple of hits anthologies, and they were interesting, some catchy, but not as good. I lucked into Duo Guardabarranco and a kickass Mexican R&B band called Inspector, but mostly things I picked left me discouraged, as if my benchmark expectations might be too extravagant. Ricky Martin seemed inauthentic. Marc Anthony failed to inspire. I tried the original Selena (not Gomez) but couldn’t fathom why she was supposedly so popular.
At Target that day, not just in the Latin section but across the whole pop CD section they were promoting a two-CD package deal from a singer named Shakira for only $12.99, Fijacion Oral vol 1 and Oral Fixation vol 2, with a DVD video included. It was packaged like a boxed set. One side, vol 1, against a vermilion background a radiant blond woman with luminescent skin in a white lace wedding dress holds a baby pulling at her necklace. On the other side, vol 2, a tanned muscular naked woman with her private parts obscured by a tree and a vine holds an apple in her hand in an athletic stance rather like Michelangelo’s David, and looking down from the boughs of the tree is not a serpent but another little baby — maybe the same baby as the cover of vol 1, maybe not, even the two Shakiras don’t quite resemble the same woman, which made me briefly consider Shakira might not be the name of a person but a band or orchestra. I had never heard of this Shakira.
At $12.99 it seemed a clearance price, which made me the more suspicious, but I bought the package anyway. Almost reluctantly I played it a few days later, alone in my loft on the big stereo, time I reserved to catch up on my correspondence. Vol 1, from the top, volume lower than average in case what I heard sounded sour.
Stop! What is this? Turn it up and start over. The song starts as if in mid conversation, like a high school girls choir singing in French. Acoustic guitar strings guide a narrative, now Spanish, in a voice vaguely familiar and infinitely unique. The song progresses as this beautiful voice torches the heart and falls back knowingly wistful, and it doesn’t matter I don’t understand most of the lyrics, something beguiled me to trust her voice, the most beautiful voice on the planet.
Gradually I upped the volume on the old Utah speakers. Her voice song to song carried each progressive melody, she the lead instrument within a band impeccably arranged and exquisitely produced. The album was a wonder to listen to. The third song had me in tears. A duet with some guy named Alejandro Sanz, call and response, imploring and rebuke, it was the best Latin rock and roll song I ever heard. And I couldn’t understand the words. It was all music, the voices, instruments in the band. What a frikken band, I thought. And wept. I played track 3 again just to be sure I wasn’t halucinating.
She sang, “Ay amor…”
It was the most beautiful album I ever heard in ages. Executive produced by Rick Rubin, who I later learned was a recording maestro at Columbia records. Better than Moondance. Better than Silk Degrees or Songs of Love and Hate or Layla and Other Love Songs, Tea For the Tillerman or Court and Spark. It approached A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul. An exquisite recording.
The first three songs celebrated new love, lamented lost love, and said good bye to love unreliable and unfulfilled. One called “Dia Especial” was guitar band like the early Beatles, I could imagine Shakira with an electric guitar and singing into the mic wearing wraparound shades, both Lennon and McCartney. The song “No” — about halfway through the CD — she escorts you to the seams of depression, an aria so full of pity Gene Pitney would have cried. Then next she’s smirking and teasing with another rocked-up disco dance piece about las mujeres son las de la intuicion. Next thing it’s the voice of innocence and barefoot naivete. She rips into the blues on a song she calls “Lo Imprescindible” which I think of as Bleibe, Baby Bleibe, Baby, so eurotech and nasty, so persuasive and commandeering. Then the disc ends with a reprise of the second song, titled “La Pared Acoustica”, a version accompanied only by her pianist, and in Spanish the torch of her voice could be a cello, a string quartet of instruments. I was beginning to believe Shakira could sing more than one note at the same time. The album closed with a different version of my favorite, track 3, “La Tortura” (the torture), remixed without the duet with the Alejandro guy and stripped of the band, instead set to the beat of a techno military march.
Oral Fixation vol 2 was in English and I compared the contents to see if maybe it might be a straight translation of vol 1, but it was not. Actually “Dia Especial” turns up as “The Day and the Time”, and the enticing, enchanting opening track of vol 1, “En Tus Pupilas” which opens so abruptly like you’ve happened into a conversation among a high school girls choir, finally shows up as the 11th track of 12, called “Something”. And a reprise of “La Turtura” with an English dub of a few lines is the bonus track. All these match the Spanish ones on vol 1 note for note.
The rest of vol 2 is fresh and includes the one hit single by which she is mostly known, “Hips Don’t Lie”. In English her lyrics challenged the sanctity of her own voice. There was no excuse to pay no attention to the story, and if the story didn’t add up there were no Spanish poetics to bail her out. “Illegal” yearns for romantic truth and justice — “It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart” — guided by aching guitar interludes by Carlos Santana. “Don’t Bother” is as American hard rock as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Songs mock show business, reminisce old times (when she was, what, 20?) and call out God. The album ends, not counting the bonus track, with a rousing dance beat anthem accompanied by a children’s choir about political attitudes and references to the 2004 tsunami that hit East Timor — “What about the people who don’t matter anymore…”
Who is this Shakira? How did anybody this good get past me?
I asked around. People laughed. Seriously? Either people knew nothing or said she was a jailbait tart singer like a latter day Andrea True, like she’d be a Stormy Daniels with a record contract in her day. My son Vincent didn’t respect her because she was a product of the starmaker machine. Daughter Michel cringed to think “Underneath Your Clothes” might get introduced to her baby girl Clara on grandpa’s stereo — I didn’t even know what that song was until I researched Shakira’s backlist.
I’ve had crushes on female singers since I was 13 with Dionne Warwick and Mary Travers. There’s been Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Dido, Carole King, Dusty Springfield, the Heart sisters, Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Delores O’Riordan, Stevie Nicks, Kim Carnes, Sarah McLachlan, Gloria Estefan, Om Kolthoum, Jennifer Warnes, Enya and Roberta Flack, and over time each more or less broke my heart and moved on, all except maybe Bonnie Raitt. After Shakira came Neko Case, Adele and Lady Gaga. Be it said Buffalo Kelly crushes deep with female vocals, and it was hard for me to accept Shakira existed without my knowing, even conceding I hadn’t listened to Top 40 radio since about 1987.
It was a meager trail. At Target in the S section of pop/rock CDs I found Laundry Service, her first album sung in English, released 2001. I was looking for Pies Descalzos, 1995, and Donde Estan los Ladrones? from 1998, Shakira’s earliest available work, and I found them along with Grandes Exitos (greatest hits) in a Latin CD and video shop on E Lake St. I now had enough Shakira going back enough time to convince me if she’s for real. Or not. Her body of work was already a dozen years old, she had a greatest hits anthology already and I just learned she existed. “Hips Don’t Lie” was already an oldie. As they say in Spanish, Ya!
First of all I learned she is not Mexican. She’s from Colombia. I saw pictures of her as a young teenager, hair all teased and frizzed with lopsided ponies, black lace scrunchies and wristies like Madonna’s “Borderline” and “Lucky Star”. The cover of her first album, Pies Descalzos (bare feet), is simple and austere. Sepia tone photos suggest a long haired hippie girl in bell bottoms and peasant blouse, barefoot with acoustic guitar. Her expression is moody, petulant perhaps. She was 18.
This is the album of “Estoy Aqui”, the anthem of the dance club at Cancun, and listening to it again was a solemn formality to confirm what I thought I remembered. Still, I listened through the whole album and decided she wanted to debut a folk singer. I promised to revisit.
The second album, called Donde Estan los Ladrones? (where are the thieves?) presented a problematic album cover of Shakira in tight long sleeve leotard with her face very angry while her eyes spark, her dark hair in dreadlocks and her hands filthy with dark tarry oil. Now she’s 21. Her band sounds fantastic. Like Descalzos, Ladrones is all Spanish, so again her voice is the band’s lead instrument, no lyrics to distract. Measured to Fijacion Oral it was delight to listen to Ladrones end to end. It was a Blood on the Tracks. Deja Vu (CSNY). From the first track, “Ciega, Sordomuda” (blind, deafmute), a mariachi vaquera caballera anthem, through “Ojos Asi” (eyes like yours), a Latin Arabian rocker with power chords so sharp they slice your ears, the album astonishes.
A power ballad called “Tu” breaks your heart with a melody so familiar it’s like you heard it Americanized on a country western jukebox but you just can’t place how.
Reading up on Shakira there’s a story about her instruments and notebooks getting stolen from the Bogota airport ahead of recording this album, setting her back to start over from memory with the songs. I guess this might be why she looks so depressed on the back cover.
One song on this album convinced me beyond any doubt Shakira was for real. “Sombra de Ti” (shadow of you). It’s a tender torch song rendered as if backed by a trio on a sultry corner stage in a steamy cellar club of lovelorn expats. The song, buried deep as an afterthought, second to last track, a simple moody testament in whispers and full throat anguish, spare accompaniment, proved to me she was a genuine authentic singer songwriter. No starmaker machine could ever manufacture such a voice.
I realized I was late by ten years. Four albums — five if you count Fijacion Oral/Oral Fixation vol 1 and 2 separately — six if you count her Grandes Exitos. In her early 20s she already had a greatest hits anthology which predated the releases of Fijacion Oral (which included “Sombra de Ti”, so somebody noticed) and “Tu”, and I learned later, she won some Grammy awards. Not so odd, even the Rolling Stones had a greatest hits anthology (High Tide and Green Grass) a mere three years into their career. Matter of fact, at the time I found Shakira music I really didn’t have any fresh hobbies, so I devoted some spare time looking her up as I kept replaying her songs. I came to Laundry Service deliberately in chronological order.
It came out in November 2001, about three years after Ladrones and six since Pies Descazos. Laundry Service was designed as a glam album. On the cover cute face close up Shakira is blond and curly with a tattoo on her naked shoulder that reads the title of the album. The music inside verges on classic rock. This album, like Ladrones, was produced by Emilio Estefan, the Miami Sound Machine. It was Shakira’s first releases in English.
Still, some of the best work on the album is in Spanish, and that I guess will ever be so. Even songs she sings in both languages seem to sound a little better en espanol, maybe because they sound exotic to my anglo ears and I wonder if there are clues to hidden meanings within idioms I need to listen to over and over to understand. Her band picks up right off Ladrones in its exploration of Latin rock and roll. “Objection Tango” (or “Te Aviso, Te Anuncio” the Spanish version) rips into the traditional Latin dance vocabulary, rocked up fast like a wedding reception band with Shakira nonstop pleading and scolding breathlessly. “Whenever, Wherever” (called “Suerte”, lucky in the Spanish version) is a word for word translation, I have found, and in the right markets could have been a big radio hit. It goes, “Whenever, wherever, we’re meant to be together, I’ll be here and you’ll be near, and that’s the deal, my dear.” And then she sings, in both versions, “Le lo la le lo le,” whatever that means — it just sounds so cool, folk rock with an Andean flute, super cute. Among the Spanish songs not redone in translation is a kickass rocker called “Te Dejo Madrid” that captures the band’s incorruptibility. Indeed, like “Tu” from the album before, a ballad called “Underneath Your Clothes” clearly crosses over into country pop radio as she sings of possessive entitlement to her lover’s body.
There’s a lot of sensuality to the album, but it could be expected. It was the new millennium and she was a pretty girl of 24. I looked for evidence of integrity. I wanted to know if the star machine corrupted Shakira.
Who is she?
Born 2 February, 1977 in Barranquilla, Colombia, Shakira Mebarak. Shakira means thankful in Arabic. Her father was of Lebanese descent, which may explain why her name is spelled with a K instead of Shaquira. The family seems to have been fairly well off. They moved to Bogota, the capital city, when she was a child. Her father was a jeweler. A story tells that when Shakira was a little girl her father brought her to a place in el centro, downtown Bogota, to show her crowds of beggars, homeless people and barefoot children, and he told her to look at all their faces and always remember she had the grace of privilege and to be ever mindful of these who were not so gifted and be grateful for what she had. From the success of her first album and the single “Estoy Aqui” she established Fundacion Pies Descalzos, Barefoot Foundation, an NGO charity devoted to building schools and providing nutrition for children of poverty in Colombia. She was named a United Nations goodwill ambassador to UNICEF to promote political initiatives to end no access to education. US President Barack Obama named her to an advisory commission on educational excellence.
For a little while late at night on weekends on TV when the ad rates were low the local stations would run a black and white PSA (public service announcement) of Shakira in jeans and a chambray shirt representing a charity soliciting funds for an international effort to feed children so they would be nutritionally fit to learn in school.
There used to be a Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Minneapolis (it’s now at Mall of America) and one time my employer held a quarterly rally there, and I was disappointed (but not surprised) there was no Shakira memorabilia displayed. (The collection understandably was heavy with stuff from Prince. There was, however, a garter belt from Madonna.) I was surprised when I inquired, however, to be led to the gift shop by one of the servers where there were t-shirts for sale designed by rockers like Bono with proceeds going to UNICEF. There was a black shirt designed by Shakira with a pink guitar with white angel wings. The inventory tag called it number 23. I bought the smallest one they had and gave it to my three year old grandchild Clara. It was big as a dress. Today she’s 13 and has passed it on to her sister Tess, who is 10.
I am disappointed Shakira was skipped off U2’s concert tour montage of women they call Herstory.
Autumn 2001 was not a good time to release a glam rock album unless it was a remastered remix of Sophie Tucker — Kate Smith, I mean, just kidding — belting out “God Bless America”. 9-11 jinxed all civilized psyches. It rendered all social contracts absurd. Everybody revealed the plain truth about ourselves, none of us are to be trusted in this world.
Even so, a pretty blond of 23 with an Arabic name had one of the top ten most popular songs in America going towards Christmas that year nobody likes to remember. “Whenever, Wherever” got as high as number 6. It’s possible Shakira sang at that year’s local KDWB Clear Channel Radio Jingle Ball, I wouldn’t have known or cared about American Top 40 radio at that time. These were serious times.
A war with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, possibly Iran and more than likely against Saddam Hussein seemed as likely as any pathway to the end of the world. I was 50 years old that year. Not a Top 40 demographic. Almost too cynical to hear Springsteen’s call, “Come on up for The Risin’…” Deaf to Shakira singing, “I’m ready for the good times…”
My bad. When I finally heard Laundry Service it was about six years late. Some of the songs seemed quaint and canned like Pepsi. Even the best songs hark back to pre-Fijacion production values like vintage retro records. Laundry like Ladrones was produced by Emilio Estefan. Track 11 (of 13) is in fact “Ojos Asi” note for note from the Ladrones album except sung in English as “Eyes Like Yours”, including the cryptic electric violin and Egyptian surfer guitar power chords so sharp they slice your ears.
“Ojos Asi/Eyes Like Yours” turned out to be Shakira’s very first bellydance song. I learned this about ten years ago when I special ordered a video DVD at my favorite music store the Electric Fetus, “Shakira MTV Unplugged”. It’s a quality video stage studio performance of essentially the album Donde Estan los Ladrones with some “Estoy Aqui” thrown in. She wears jeans and a jersey like her cover for Ladrones but her hair is loose, brown, no longer in dreads. Hardly any make up. She plays a blue acoustic guitar sitting in with the guys on “Antologia”. For the grand finale she belts up a chain of bangles and jangles around her hips and the band goes into the Arabian intro and surfer guitars and Shakira bellydances into “Ojos Asi” power chords and electric violin and all, bangles jangling around the hips of her jeans. When it was done the studio audience applauded and cheered and Shakira stood there looking around the set with the look of somebody who realizes a dream. It is not a smug look. It’s a naive look of wonder at being a place you always wanted to be.
Philadelphia music writer Tom Moon included Donde Estan los Ladrones in his book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (2008) and in correspondence with him about Shakira’s legitimacy as a rock artist, we differed on the merits of the Oral Fixation albums for consideration among 1,000. He thought it was overproduced, too souped-up. I thought she was using all available engineering tools. He also thought “Toxic” by Britney Spears was the greatest song ever recorded, whereas I stand by “La Tortura”. Maybe he had a thing against Rick Rubin. Tom Moon did acknowledge as if it was a warning, Shakira is swimming in deep water.
The Oral Fixation albums engendered a world tour, and a concert video recorded in Miami came out in 2007, which means I first saw it in maybe early 2009 — catching up to real time. It seemed a great leap from MTV unplugged to an American arena concert. Again the production values don’t disappoint. The band fills the room. The voice of Shakira resonates and reverberates every note and phrase. It’s obvious she never lip-syncs or employs autotune. The cameras bring the visual dimension from an excellent audio performance anthology recording. You can see her face grimace and smile. Her eyes dash. She dances around the stage with the microphone like she’s compelled to be multiple places at once, but the thing is she doesn’t have to, she can stand still five seconds and still make everybody watch every move, to read her lips, see her eyes look at the audience, pump her fist to the bass and the drums.
The audience knows the words and they sing to her phrases like le lo le le lo le. There are thousands at this Miami arena. Mostly women, mostly young, mostly Latina. The video’s so good I wish I was there. She does a lot of her early stuff in Spanish and the crowd roars its recognition. Usually I take a pass at most live recordings because they usually don’t match the studio musicianship, it’s not a worthy example of the artist in person, doesn’t offer a prize outtake or rare performance, or only serve as vanity plaques with lengthy applauses. There are exceptions, of course, from the Allman Brothers to the Little River Band, and Shakira’s live recordings are exceptional, even when the crowd intervenes.
I remember Jon Landau’s famous words, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” I want to trust Shakira with the future of rock and roll. In the words of her song “Dia Especial”, “Quiero creer” — I want to believe.
It’s the video that woke me up realizing rock and roll ain’t all audio anymore. Hearing is what I’m seeing. Shakira is a strikingly beautiful young woman putting herself out there deliberately, sensually, sexually.
Before the #MeToo movement and the Man Up doctrine came along the sensual dichotomy was hard enough to navigate but it’s no easier. Shakira may draw from Arabian culture or even genetics but she appears to be no Muslim. She likes to show her tummy. Bare arms and legs, oh yes. Hair. A free woman of the 21st Century, these are her prerogatives. I look at her early images, album covers, the MTV Unplugged video, modest and naive, and then the glam blows up, there’s pyrotechnics in the arena and the lady offers herself all of a sudden as a sexy babe of desire and passion and a reasonable man has to stop and ask who is getting played here, me or she?
I’m having Camille Paglia momentos overthinking the sensuality and sexuality of art, worrying about object vis a vis subject and who may be victimized, who’s zooming who. Catching up with Shakira’s videos after Laundry Service did not make me worry she was being exploited by a cartel of ruthless pornographers. She looked like she was having too much fun. She looked like she was boss. I think I read about Donna Summer, that she was somewhat held hostage part of her career, forced to sing bad girl naughty songs to make money in the disco days. I looked and above all listened for any hint Shakira might be acting out with a gun to her head, but there was no other force to blame than a young woman proudly flaunting her sexy.
As I recall there was once a photo book of Madonna hitch-hiking along a New York throughway wearing no pants. At all.
Shakira’s questionably inappropriate behavior is almost quaint by comparison, piquant. Never nude, always implying nakedness. Bawdy dancing. Lewd and lascivious gyrations. Bobbing her tiny pechas. Flirting piteously. All the while singing. All the while possessed of grace. She loves to slow down a concert to sing “Underneath Your Clothes”. It’s a ballad about possession of a lover’s body, in her words, “all the things I deserve for being such a good girl…”
I could see my daughter Michel’s uneasiness with my exposing Shakira videos to Clara and Tess. Some scenes are not appropriate for children, boys or girls. I respect Michel’s wishes not to grow her children up too fast or too soon. I let Michel grow up at her own speed. I was not strict and I also never made her wear a hijab.
I was introduced to belly dances and the voice of Om Kolthoum in the 1970s by a friend of my family, Azzam Sabri, an entrepreneur of Palestinian descent who established a middle eastern restaurant in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, where the Oblivion record shop used to be, next door to Theater in the Round. He featured live belly dancing three nights a week. Cannot remember the restaurant’s name, but it burned down in the late 80s. He never reopened. Too bad, the food was delicious.
Shakira’s Oral Fixation video offers not one but two bellydance songs, both “Ojos Asi”, the concert closer, and “Hips Don’t Lie”, the encore and grand finale. She is dressed in arabesque silks, full regalia, like one of Azzam’s dancers. In some ways she has come a long way from MTV Unplugged, and some ways not really, there is something very essential, fluid and organic about her moves, a confidence that only comes from enduring devotion to something. I’ve read she took up the bellydance as a young child, about the age my grandkids took up gymnastics. On the video Shakira entrances the screen in the interlude of electric violin, breaking the trance for the final chorus and electric guitars. The encore reintroduces Shakira in her skimpy silks — Shakira, Shakira — with trumpets and tributes by special guest Wyclef Jean, who banters lyrics with her about the CIA and how refugees — Fugees — run the seas because they own their own boats. The show and the song ends with “No fighting, no fighting.”
I really truly wished I was there.
I wrote fan letters. I asked questions like what inspired the lyrics “le lo lo le lo le” and how she might describe her process of creative flow, her ten thousand hours of practice. To me she was a genius like Springsteen or Prince. She was the most beautiful voice on the planet, and I told her so. I said she didn’t have to prove she was sexy. I said I was worried she might end up a Las Vegas porno cliche. I caught myself on the verge of almost committing stalking, the guy in the Smithereens song “Wall of Sleep” rationalizing his obsession with the woman in the band who played bass like Bill Wyman only he’s not like them, all the other fans. I wanted to protect Shakira, be her grandfather.
Was she influenced by Pablo Neruda, Federico Lorca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Carver, Leonard Cohen? Isabel Allende? Let it be said, the subject did not make herself available for an interview for this essay. I thanked her for the joy her music gave me, and for the Spanish lessons. She never answered, not with letters. I would mail them to her talent agency. I tried to be transparent and sincere, disclosed I was an awkward older married man, grandfather of girls, not trying to hit on her at all, just a fan profoundly affected by her work, that’s all. Some letters I wrote longhand. I kept asking her to play a concert in Minneapolis-St Paul. She never replied. That’s okay. I understand. Textbook case is what happened to a crush on Jodie Foster. With me and Shakira it’s like if Larry David had a crush on my daughter. Who do I think I am, Arthur Miller? Henry Miller?
Call me Abuelo Don Miguel de Cuchichear.
One summer I came home after a gorgeous time at a cabin way up north at the boundary waters wilderness to learn while I was gone Shakira played a private show in Minneapolis for an audience of certain selected employees of Target Corporation, whose world headquarters are located here. Not only first I was bummed I wasn’t around and knew in advance so I could find someone I knew who worked for Target who could get me into that show — the boundary waters are always there for me but seeing Shakira sing live was like a comet, at least the aurora borealis — and then I realized I really didn’t know anybody who knew anybody who worked for Target — then stories about the show came out in the media describing some reactions from the audience to Shakira’s lewd and lascivious dancing. And it was not the bellydances.
Shakira’s label Epic records released the album She Wolf. Target offered a deluxe edition CD featuring six bonus tracks and a yellow album cover, not green and just four bonus tracks you get at other stores. Word went around Shakira squirmed on the floor like a slut dancing to the title song at the Target show, according to attendees who said they were offended by the show and Shakira’s writhing She Wolf dance. Disgusting. Voices suggested Target sever its ties to this product. The video for the song didn’t help, reviews hyping the pink vaginality of the imagery of Shakira getting all slinky to the new song. Critics got after her for pushing the limits of free speech, drawing undue attention to the boundaries of censorship, now several years past Janet Jackson’s wardrobe. Free speech won in the end along with the invisible hand of the marketplace because She Wolf was a music epiphany.
On the album her big band downsized morphed into a small island synth acoustic jam. Her lyrics chased after images of corridors and windows, sabotage and wishes of revenge. A suicide waiting, then gibberish. Lycanthropy and lunar cycles. “Mirala, caminar, caminar.” It’s a sober and stripped down album, almost unfinished. The cover shows Shakira in a hands on hips stance, hair all tangled, her face all mad. Like angry mad. Like crazy mad. Like maybe what she later called “Rabiosa”. She’s wearing a sleeveless snake print dress and her eyes say she’s the boss. La Jefe.
The graphics of the back cover suggest blunt force trauma. The music barely exceeds the fundamentals. Fade out endings give songs inconclusion. Bonus tracks amount to live alternate versions or Spanish versions. Again Shakira’s voice proves sometimes the Spanish versions are the best because the words don’t intervene. On this album she again duets with Wyclef Jean and also collaborates with Kid Cudi. Then Lil Wayne crashes the scene and does Shakira no favors with his creepy rap. Oh well.
Still no concert in Minneapolis or St Paul. Saw her on SNL hosted by Ricky Gervais. Wore black long leotards and her hair tight in a pony. She did three songs, including “She Wolf”. Didn’t seem that lewd to me. Did the very song Lil Wayne wrecked only without Lil Wayne. Saw her on David Letterman backed by Paul Shaffer, a simple drum and bass dance to “Why Wait?”, in Spanish sung as “Anos Luz” (light years). No Shakira on my local radio though. I did hear “She Wolf” one time on the streaming soundtrack at a local Walgreens. The CDs seemed to be selling down when I checked at Target. $9.99!
For Barack Obama’s first inauguration Shakira performed at the Lincoln Memorial. Wanda Sykes saw her and commented to Jay Leno, “Shakira sings. Who knew?”
Browsing at Best Buy when Best Buy stocked rows and rows of CDs I found a Shakira live album from just after the Laundry Service era called Live And Off The Record recorded at a concert at Rotterdam, Netherlands. Included for $5.99 was a DVD of the show, subtitled Cobra and Mongoose. Again the audio is exceptional and brings out just what an exquisite band backs up her gorgeous voice. What makes this performance oddly remarkable for the Shakira canon is the exact repertoire. Like Miami it’s an arena concert, albeit in Europe. Recorded before the Fixation era, there’s no Tortura and no Hips. It’s all material from the first three albums. She opens with the Arabian “Ojos Asi” and that’s it for the bellydance. She closes with “Objection Tango” and encores with a grand finale of “Whenever, Wherever” — le lo lo le lo le. Two songs elevate this show beyond excellent documentary. One is from the Ladrones album, called “Octavo Dia”, here rendered not unplugged but plugged in. In Spanish it’s about what God did the eighth day, the day after the seventh day of Genesis.
The other song from this concert is a significant recording from Shakira’s career for several reasons establishing her bona fide standing for the rock and roll hall of fame. It’s a song with searing critical lyrics from the Laundry album I passed off as the band sounding canned and the words just snide and clever. It’s called “Poem To A Horse” and it makes no allowance for a horse’s literary comprehension. First of all, on this concert album the band courses into the intro hard and heavy from a surprise buildup and goes almost heavy metal. Her voice is calm and fluffy, then wicked and accusatory. She calls out her boyfriend for having an empty brain on hydroponic pot.
“So what’s the point of wasting all my words,” she sings, “it’s just the same or even worse than reading poems to a horse.” Her attitude gets more and more nasty. “I hope you find someone like you, there’s a foot for every shoe,” and as she sings the word shoe she makes her voice like she’s kicking someone’s tailbone, “I wish you luck but I’ve got other things to do.” And at her bluesiest grittiest, a preview of bleibe, baby bleibe, baby, she belts out her chorus, “I’ll leave again ’cause I’ve been waiting in vain, but you’re so in love with yourself. If I say my heart is sore it’s just a cheap metaphor, so I won’t repeat it no more,” bad grammar and all.
And then she screams the most wailingest rock and roll scream in the universe. Her scream by itself could qualify for the hall of fame. But the third thing besides the lyrics and the scream that sets this song off from anything else Shakira and this band have done is the guitar solo that ensues from Timothy Mitchell, a torturous, arduous treacherous hard rock stanza shredding the air. And if you are listening to all this on speakers or headphones you might think this is glory, but if you’re watching the video you see Shakira dancing to the guitar solo, writhing on the stage, squirming in her lacy leather chaps and halter top, the fourth reason this concert recording is important, she’s inventing the She Wolf dance.
When she started out she wanted to be a folk singer like maybe Om Kolthoum, the Egyptian superstar. Soon she wanted to be a dancer like Isadora Duncan or Josephine Baker. All I asked was someday Shakira might play Minneapolis-St Paul. In 2010 she released a single called “Waka Waka”, the theme song of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa that year, but it got no airplay in the Twin Cities. We weren’t that kind of football town I guess.
Then when I wasn’t looking she released an album called Sale el Sol. “Cuando menos piensas, sale el sol.” When least you think, out comes the sun. Mostly Spanish, the album was a delight. Strong songs. Tough songs. Songs tender as butterflies. Dance songs. Escape songs. Rock songs. Songs sexy and pink. The band is back! Every track could be a hit single. But not in my home town — no airplay. I found the CD by surprise on an endcap at Target — $9.99! It featured collaborations and duets with Latin hip-hoppers and the future Pitbull. We almost could have seen her in Dublin when we were there September 2010 — she sang there December 16, near my birthday. Roxanne and I considered getting tickets and flying down to see her world tour concert in Costa Rica, but that spring Roxanne needed surgery for an ovarian cyst. It was benign. It paused our travel plans and rebooted our world.
It’s not that I forgot about Shakira after that because I couldn’t. Life had given me too many mementos. All those CDs, DVDs and MP3 recordings. Lyrics and translations. Sparkles and Kitty, my singing grandkids knew her songs by heart. In Mexico they play her songs on the radio, at bodegas, tiendas and cantinas, in taxis and at the hotel swimming pool. In Europe, not surprising after seeing her audience reception in Rotterdam, we occasionally heard Shakira songs on the radio, streaming at cafes and train stations, airports, even overflowing from iPod earbuds, when Roxanne and I went over there to visit the kids living in Switzerland. Once in a while she might make a guest shot on TV — sing “Gypsy” with Rascal Flatts, make a cameo on Disney or “Ugly Betty”, or shiver through an awkward, demeaning “Santa Baby” on new year’s eve from Times Square. Along with a boodle of other artists she contributed to the Haiti benefit telethon in response to the devastating earthquake with a song of steadfast loyalty backed by the Roots, an anthem respectfully parodized to this day in a Flo advert for Progressive Insurance.
Shakira popped up in Paris on kiosks on Rue St Michel showing her happy tummy promoting yogurt. In the Sunday supplement her smile promoted tooth whitening products. She made the cover of Cosmo — white lace, this time Stella McCartney. Her stint as a coach on The Voice on NBC didn’t add to her credibility despite host Ryan Seacrest’s assurance her IQ was above 140. This was not the Shakira who verbally sparred with Dave Letterman. It was hard to watch. She was an awkward coach. Her protege who made it to the semifinals determined herself to go down paying respect to Aretha Franklin. Tepid, rote homage to the Queen of Soul in critical competition might have satisfied her family but showed off no originality. I wished Shakira would have made her sing Bleibe Baby Bleibe Baby, full tilt boogie with the NBC orchestra, “Lo Imprescindible”, in Spanish (and German, the one word bleibe, stay) full throated, and let her still wear her chosen gown, not that Shakira’s kid had a chance in the blond-blue-eyed country-centric milieu anyway, but at least the kid would have gone down singing something unique even if ultimately in flames. It was embarrassing to watch Shakira demoted from coach to cheerleader for the finals.
Again browsing CDs at Target I found without advance notice the CD/DVD Shakira made of the tour for Sale el Sol. Titled En Vivo Desde Paris it’s recorded live at Le Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in mid June 2011. Still in stunning voice she brings forward her old stuff (but not “Estoy Aqui”) woven among the She Wolf era and dyed or bleached within songs from El Sol. It’s a milestone for Shakira because she’s 33 years old and as she proclaims in the intro to the song “Loca” it’s Dance or Die. The band never better, they give the heavy metal approach to “Why Wait” (Anos Luz) and the hard rock treatment to disco “Las De La Intuicion”. She holds the classic long note of “Inevitable”. She gets two bellydances with “Ojos Asi” and “Hips”, delivers a slinky writhing “She Wolf” dance, and dances rapido through “Loca” (“I’m crazy but you like it, loca loca loca…”) and “Gordita”, sitting or standing relatively still torching her ballads, “Underneath Your Clothes” and “Antes De La Seis”, she knows when to move and when to rest. She gets the Parisians to sing along. Out of nowhere she covers Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and the audience all knows the words, and the she’s off dancing again, Flamenco this time, making it a medley with her moaning “Despedida” (from the soundtrack of the movie of Love in the Time of Cholera, it means farewell). Later she gets them going in French with a cover of frenchman Francis Cabrel’s “Je L’Aime A Mourir” (I love her to death). She closes with Hips. “Waka Waka” is the grand finale encore.
Her birthday is the 2nd of February. I remember that because it’s alongside Roxanne’s birthday and we are always in Mexico. Shakira is a year older than our daughter Michel. They do not celebrate Shakira’s birthday in Mexico but they celebrate Roxanne’s. Shakira shares her birthday with Groundhog’s Day, the North America six week mark towards the end of winter, or if you are Bill Murray a day of deja vu all over again. I’ll usually drink a Modelo oscura under the palapa and toast the weird chick from Barranquilla on the far side of the Panama Canal who was exiled by the nuns from her grade school choir for singing too loud. Kids made fun of her voice, said she sang like a goat.
Thankful for all the songs and all the video history, it would seem this wise old grandfather might mosey along and let the girl be. She made it clear early on she was ready for the good times. She wasn’t passing up the good stuff. She knew what she’s gotten into. Way back with “Estoy Aqui” she sings about the photos, notebooks and memories. She is la jefe, la loba. It’s not for me to worry about her legacy. Cyndi Lauper got it right, girls just want to have fun.
Coming from a macho culture, striving in a male dominated business, outside her songs you never heard Shakira complain or dodge responsibility. One of the best songs on the She Wolf album is called “Lo Hecho Esta Hecho” (it is what I made) or sung in English “Did It Again” that speaks to patterns of mistakes. On the same album on “Men In This Town” she wails, where are all the men in the LA skybars who are not hustling projects? “It’s a suicide waiting, yo no se.” On the Laundry Service album she sang about seeing nine-legged cats. On Oral Fixation vol 2 it was “Animal City”. Even before the hindsight of the #MeToo and the Man Up, I watched after Shakira’s career, worried if she got harassed or victimized because she asked for it. Swimming in deep water.
I admire her so much I am hypersensitive to any scent of scandal. And it’s weird to see yourself awestruck by a person you will never really know, who will never know you, and even so share tangible, fungible insights and experiences.
Shakira has influenced a generation of female singers like Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Rachel Platten, Adele, Meghan Trainor, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, and nobody gives Shakira any credit. No acknowlegement. See Reese Witherspoon on the cover of Elle magazine, February 2012, she’s the She Wolf album cover only nice faced, deja vu all over again, unattributed. Even contemporary Jennifer Lopez owes thanks for creating for her a template to find relevancy on the Top 40 and TV at such and such an age.
I think the more I liked Shakira the less I wanted to know about her, like she’d given so much to me the best I could return (besides the $9.99s) was her own privacy. I’ve never joined her fan club or registered at her website. Maybe I’m being agoraphobic. I’m not a joiner usually. Thus like an accidental tourist I catch news about her in random bits and pieces like a fleeting horoscope or a burst of I Ching. After the Sale El Sol tour I heard she mused about having children. I thought, oh great, she’ll retire and take care of her kids and never go on tour again, never come to Minneapolis-St Paul. And why bother? Shakira was modern day grown up Infanta Margarita of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” just the way Picasso saw she would be. It turned out she had boys, two of them in a succession of years, with her man Gerard Pique, a futbol star of Europe who plays center-back for Barcelona’s professional team and also played for Spain’s national World Cup teams. The ultimate soccer wife and mom. Her sons are named Milan and Sasha.
A little while after she left the Voice show she released an album named after herself. Shakira. She got a new talent agency, Roc Nation, and a new record label. She went from Epic records, label of Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, the Hollies, the Yardbirds, Dave Clark Five, to the label of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Hall and Oates, RCA Victor. What it really means has to be totally symbolic because she’s still distributed by Sony. This all means Shakira doesn’t politically correctly qualify in the music world as “indie”, or independent. She’s all establishment now. It’s the music business. She’s part of the starmaker machine.
So in the market where I live she gets no airplay on the hot hits radio because she has no name recognition, no fan base. There are a lot of Latin people in the market but no Latin radio. The hipster radio stations don’t consider Shakira serious music but rather like a novelty act, Latin Ke$ha. Indie rock stations, classic rock, alternative folk rock and current rock stations don’t consider Shakira’s body of work suitable for their audiences. She’s not country. Not Americana. Not hip hop. Not public radio. No Twin Cities radio format plays Shakira. She’s a radio orphan.
And that’s why she never plays Minneapolis-St Paul.
The day her self-titled RCA Shakira album came out I went to my neighborhood Target. There I met a very tall skinny blond woman in her young early 30s named Shelly who also came there at the same time to get the new Shakira CD, when we both arrived at the endcap where it was displayed in bulk. Shelly was excited to meet another person on this earth who loved Shakira so much as to come to get the album the first day. She hugged me when we exchanged names. She was so skinny but put so much into her hug I thought she might snap. So friendly. Took a selfie of us together in front of the cardboard cutout of Shakira at the endcap display. She tried a selfie of herself alone and didn’t like it, so I offered and took pictures of her and the full endcap. She said she’d heard some of the songs and they were good. She showed me where on You Tube I could download a live version of “Hips Don’t Lie” in Spanish, “Que Sera”.
At home I didn’t play it very loud, at least not all of it the first play. I wouldn’t so much call it canned as maybe a little overwrought, overproduced, an attempt to be too perfect in the way She Wolf took itself too lightly. There’s a recording style I call Dreamtime, named for a 1986 single by Daryl Hall, a recording so buttressed with overproduction it sounds so too loud at soft volume and seems to be blaring from the walls, like music in ALL CAPS. People talk about Phil Spector being some genius with his wall of sound, but I never liked the wall thing, I thought it was too one dimensional. I liked hearing instruments spatially apart horizontally and vertically, soundless places between them, not a solid wall. “Dreamtime” by Daryl Hall to me was the epitome of the 1980s wall of sound. And it seems every trend in music builds upon itself and gets more and more loud, fancy and full of itself until it hits Dreamtime. Shakira’s Shakira album was living in Dreamtime.
Not a bad album, what I’m saying. Daryl Hall’s “Dreamtime” was a good song, it was just so dramatically hyped like an epic Hall and Oates aria made up like a Pink Floyd anthem, it was literally incredible, lost its credibility. Shakira thrusts songs into overdrive and where you’re in for a penny she’ll give you a pounding. It’s not as simple as the band crashing heavy metal with synth power chords. The song “Empire” is a classic example of what happens when a goddess sucks up so much power. Leadoff single “Can’t Remember To Forget You” is a way way better song than the clever title might make you think, and the collaboration with Rhianna produces some sisterly giggles from two — wink — girls gone bad. The Spanish version is more authentic, less pressure packed, “Nunca Me Acuerdo De Olvidarte”, a classic polysyllabic Spanish rock aria, buried deep in the back of the album, not a language overdub at all but a fresh take. “La La La”, or “Dare” as it’s titled for English dancers, could have been a worthy submission for the soundtrack of the Lego Movie. Most of the songs could be post cards from maternity leave saying save her a place at the table, she’s working from home.
I wouldn’t call my love for Shakira platonic, though it isn’t erotic. It’s not agape. It’s somewhat familial in its unconditional loyalty. I would be astonished and horrified if she were to shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York, contrary to some people’s blind affection for a blond public figure perfectly inclined to do such a thing, and I’m not talking about Lil Wayne. My love is not like the opposite of a grudge, unyielding and unforgiving, but a positive force entwined within my soul’s modus operandi.
“Waka Waka” has turned up at least three times at gradeschool choir concerts I have attended since Clara and Tess repatriated from Switzerland (with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” a close second). It’s a soccer anthem that says when you get knocked down you get back up, go for your goals, persist with life. “Waka Waka” is supposed to mean “go and do things”, or “walk while you work” in some unspecific African tongue. The chorus goes “Zaminamina Zangalewa” (wherever you’re from). One critic called it the stupidest pep song he ever heard. I figure if third graders like to sing it, fifth graders and seventh graders, Shakira must have succeeded. The only complaints I have heard are from parents who are growing waka waka weary, not that it’s a Shakira song per se. Nobody accuses anyone of forcing Shakira music on a new generation, though I fervently support influencing the kids as long as it is age appropriate.
Everybody loved her in the movie Zootopia playing the rockstar Gazelle at the end. That same movie opens with the song “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift.
When Shakira turned 40 I knew I was really aging because it meant my daughter would turn 40 the year after. Inevitable, as the song goes.
The album El Dorado came out last fall without any advance hype or anticipation that I could tell, but who am I, not the hippest guy in the Twin Cities. No reviews or mentions in the mainstream media. No news, fake or otherwise. Just a release date notice with a bunch others in the StarTribune. I found the CD at Target on a shelf of a new release endcap as if it had been there all year, somewhat rifled through, in disarray, so I shuffled the jewel boxes back in order before I left with mine. I looked around for a minute in case that skinny Shelly lady might show up, but then what were the chances. I noticed El Dorado dominated the Latin bin. $9.99. The store selection of CDs consisted of a meager aisle. I browsed the $4.99 bin for some backlist I might not have yet — Journey’s Greatest Hits was in there, but I have it already.
El Dorado is an exquisite album. It does not care if it is reviewed or prized. You get 13 tracks, no bonus and none bogus. Mostly Spanish, not enough English, if that’s a dealbreaker you won’t be happy. She is in gracious voice. The band is simple. You wouldn’t call it rock so much as Latin skiffle. Understated. There’s a beat underneath every song, every ballad, but the pulse never pushes blood pressure into dreamtime, the production is just so.
When I was young there was a radio format called Easy Listening. As different from Rock and Roll. Contemporary Pop. Jazz. Country Western. News and Information. Classical. MOR — middle of the road. Top 40. I used to think of Easy Listening as the Old People’s Radio Network. One thing that could be said about the Easy Listening station, it was on FM and it was stereophonically perfect. Mantovani. El Dorado is today’s FM stereo Easy Listening station. Shakra has her own Deep House going. This is an album of the future. An album to grow old together. Gracefully.
Princess Margarita all grown up for Picasso sin meninas.
El Dorado will be one of those albums to revisit in ten more years. The time will pass too quickly.
No sooner I learned Shakira scheduled a world tour for El Dorado I learned it was postponed. Rehearsing for the tour she blew out a vocal chord. A hemorrhage. Oh God.
She needed treatment. She needed to heal.
I could only imagine how difficult it was for Shakira to not sing, not use her voice. Be quiet.
She rescheduled her tour. Instead of opening in Cologne, Germany in November she would begin there in June. A bunch of dates across Europe into July and then North America in August. The Chicago concert scheduled 23 January was rescheduled for 3 August. No, there was no Minneapolis-St Paul. It was the night before the night before the night before Christmas. The website said all tickets to the 23 January show would be honored 3 August. I found two seats at an angle on the second deck at a price I knew I wouldn’t get yelled at.
“Bebe,” I called out to Roxanne coming down the stairs from the loft to the room where she was reading and watching TV. “You want to go to Chicago August third and see Shakira at the United Center?”
“Sure,” she said. “I always wanted to see Chicago.”
There’s a refrain in a song on El Dorado that goes, “Personne ne t’aimera comme moi.” It’s a song in French sung by a guy with break-up verses by Shakira in English. The French phrase above means “Nobody will love you like me.” However, there is an all-English version of the song and in place of the telling French line above it goes, “And this is what we’re stuck with now.” One has to beware of songs Shakira offers in different languages. It may be the same music but it doesn’t always mean the words identically translate.
This what I always liked about Shakira’s love songs, things could always go either way but they always work out for Shakira. I now held two tickets to Shakira the 23rd of January 2018, good for Friday, August 3rd. Good thing, too, because the 23rd of January we were booked at the Krystal hotel on Playa Palmar in Ixtapa, Mexico. It would be like almost seeing her in Dublin and missing her in Mexico City too. Looking at her original tour schedule, we would have been in Mexico most of her time in all of North America except Mexico City. Only because she got injured could we see the Chicago show. Only if she healed would we ever see her at all.
Classic Roxanne booked our hotel and air just as smooth as if we were going to Paris. I anticipated it like a trip to Paris. It was nine months from getting tickets to the day of the show. I remembered Adele needed vocal chord repair about the time her 21 album took off and she went overnight from clubs like First Avenue to civic center arenas, and she healed. If Shakira could not heal then where was hope, justice and charity? Karma? Modern medicine would guide her. It must have been very difficult for her to be quiet, but she would have discipline for the greater good. I kept checking the website every month or so, and the tour was still rescheduled to begin in June.
Heal, Shakira, my winter mantra.
I suppose I could have followed her progress through her social network. I never joined. Seriously. I’m not on Facebook, or Twitter, which means I have no friends or followers. Y’all probably think, what a lonely, backwards, pathetic guy. You might say, hey, that’s why he writes like he does, to alienate as many people as he can. In my experience most people who read stuff like this are trolls. You’re welcome. My expressionism, my graphomania is best channeled here where no one is obliged to care.
You don’t get paid for clicking me and no expectation you will forward or retransmit any of this. Your only reward is my thanks you are reading this.
I on the other hand, despite my compulsion to write, am not a lonely guy, someone who people who mix up archaic and arcane would use one of those words to describe me, not at all. I have ten siblings, I being eldest. Connecting outward to a social world has never been a deprivation issue in my life, I have been blessed with connections to keep me informed of what’s going on, enough to get along. I have a land line. Roxanne has a cell phone. I get postal mail. Subscribe to newspapers. Got cable. A library card. DVD player (not Blue Ray, not yet — the regular one still works). I play CDs, and iPod too. Computer literate, both office and home. Screen, pad and app savvy enough to correspond and find answers on the fly. I’m not a hermit. In fact I rely on people like my kids and Roxanne to inform me of stuff they learn from social media, so in a way I cheat, I eschew — literally a word I eschew but it really literally fits here — as much social media as I can get away with as a challenge to keep finding things out some other way. In this way I find my life greatly enriched and have to admit I benefit from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter vicariously. And where without the search engines like Google would I be? In my work career I got addicted to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Email (not so much Bluetooth) so I’m no Luddite (just an eschewer) keeping a low profile on the worldwide web. Eschew and swallow.
Month to month I checked to make sure our Shakira tickets were still good. We Googled points of interest in Chicago. I mapped routes from MDW airport to the hotel, and the hotel to United Center. Millennium Park. Grant Park. The Art Institute of Chicago. Concert on a Friday.
People asked, are you taking any trips this summer? We would talk about our planned family road trip to Wisconsin Dells after the 4th of July. And we’d say we planned to go to Chicago in August.
Chicago? Not Paris or Amsterdam? You going to see Hamilton?
Roxanne said she always wanted to see Chicago. All these years just driving through on the Eisenhower and the Dan Ryan on route somewhere else east. I’d say I wanted to see the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Roxanne would say, and Buffalo got tickets to Shakira — it’s on his bucket list.
Really? I’d say, “Really. Lo que mas.” And as long as that person asked, I’d go as far as I could to explicate in elevator format the lyrical and musical charm of Shakira’s body of work until the enquirer said sure and changed the subject. Sometimes they would suggest we visit the old Sears tower, or Hancock tower, and the Magnificent Mile, and be sure to go to Navy Pier. Or they asked to hear more about what we planned to do with all the kids at Wisconsin Dells. I always got the impression my fascination with Shakira’s music evoked to most listeners a core skepticism like I was trying to say I really did read Playboy magazine for the reviews, the essays and the fiction. I actually read Billboard magazine every week when I was in high school. I remember reading in Springsteen’s autobiography he said his daughter was a fan of Shakira, and Springsteen’s daughter is an equestrian. She could speak to reading a poem to a horse.
My son Vincent’s mother in law gave us a tip to take an excursion boat tour up the Chicago river to get an appreciation of the architecture.
Along with fun at the Dells, this July had Le Tour de France, the FIFA World Cup, the litte kids had no school, Vincent’s wife Amalie was eight months pregnant, The Minnesota Twins sucked but the weather was gorgeous, the Minneapolis Aquatennial fireworks over the Mississippi river astounded even inveterate viewers and Boz Scaggs played the State theater. Another great summer in paradise.
Starting with the June debut, in Hamburg now ahead of Cologne, I followed the setlists of Shakira’s tour and noted from sources like Billboard the tour was going well. Saw she added a gig in Turkey and wondered how that would go. Took a hiatus after the show in Barcelona, where she is said to reside with Pique and her boys, her own sagrada familia. Chicago would be her opening night in North America.
It would be a hot summer weekend in the Second City, Carl Sandburg’s city of broad shoulders. Like Roxanne I had very little experience with Chicago, so this was an equal adventure. We took the L from Midway to the loop and rode the underground to about Michigan and Superior. We could have guessed better which direction to go at first but corrected ourselves fast — we’ve made wrong way guesses in Munich, Paris and Vienna before and figured it out — found our hotel and checked in. Nice place. The Cambria. (Not pre-Cambrian but the Cambria.) First rate service. Accessible to everywhere we wanted to be. We walked to the lakefront. Browsed Navy Pier. Ate hearty. Wildberry for breakfast, Cafecito for lunch. Bandera dinner (upstairs). We tried two different pizzas and Roxanne learned for us that Chicago style deep dish pizza is a myth created for tourists and Chicagoans themselves who love pizza love extra thin crust, God’s truth.
With thanks to Amalie’s mother Yvonne we took the excursion boat tour up the Chicago river and got a fantastic guided view of profound skyscraper history. The Art Institute of Chicago blew me away a little but I should have known the moneyed collectors of this American city would have been competitive with the Met, MOMA, the National galleries in both London and DC, and what became the Uffizi, the Orsay and the Vatican museum. In Millennium Park there is a super-reflective monumental sculpture of stainless steel mirror shaped like a kidney bean — selfie nirvana. Nearby is an open air amphitheater called Pritzker designed by Frank Gehry, renegade architect who designed the Weisman in Minneapolis.
Grant Park was closed off, so we could not go to Buckingham fountain, which is supposed to be Chicago’s Trevi fountain, because the Lalapalooza music festival was going on just south of Millennium Park. Bruno Mars, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys. Lots going on in Chicago. Lots of young people, and that refers to people in their twenties, thirties, early forties, hanging out in public. Navy Pier the night before the festival started was jamming with the blues and the giant ferris wheel. We walked the grid between lakefront and the hotel checking out the skyscrapers from street level. The Water Tower. We rode the bus. Saw a little of the campus of Northwestern University med school. A lot of the tall buildings in the Loop are residential, which means of course the locals have means. There is evidence of homeless people as in great cities everywhere — if you are homeless you might look for someplace to live in a great city more than some little town. And everywhere sophistication of the air of epic self appreciation among everybody self conscious about being in Chicago, living there or visiting, with all the cool savvy of hipsters who know where to go and where they’re going.
Roxanne and I settled on a building we wanted to buy, a skyscraper with a Swiss clock tower style roof. We tracked it down on foot by gawking on our way to lunch Friday. There was upscale retail and eating on the main floor, occupying a block, all local brands, no chains. A uniformed guy at a desk near the elevators didn’t know jack about the history and wasn’t there to dish with walk-ins, and he directed us to the brass plaque on the marble wall by the elevator, that the building was called the American Furniture Market once upon a time.
The hotel called us a taxi to the concert at the United arena. We arrived early. Showtime was 7:30 and I wasn’t going to risk missing a minute. Arrived at the arena before they shut down the street. There was noplace to hang out outside the arena, but that was okay, once inside there was food and drink and spacious lobbies. We found our seats so early the usher checked our tickets twice to make sure we belonged, even if it was up some stairs on the second deck. Neither of us were very hungry from lunch but we shared a beer and checked out the scene.
The arena is home of hockey nemesis the Blackhawks and NBA rival the Bulls, and there hung across the ceiling the banners of championships. Down below there was a stage with a long runway up the middle of the main floor leading to a round stage. Behind was a blank wall with two big round video screens showing animation of a rotation of credit to Rakuten, solicitation to Viber, identification of the El Dorado tour, and a cartoon face of Shakira giving the crowd the wink.
We arrived way ahead of the crowd, and that itself put us at ease knowing that if all else we made it to our destination without a hassle. Gave me time and space to reflect a moment how important this event was to me while the stage roadies got the place ready. In August 1965 I saw the Beatles play at our old Met stadium. The show could be criticized from a number of viewpoints but it was in truth a significant event — I could feel it was a big deal and took it all in as much as I could, strained to hear the guitars and the words, looking at those guys down there on a stage at second base actually playing “I Saw Her Standing There” while girls screamed, just like on Ed Sullivan, just like A Hard Days Night, screamed their lights out and everybody was standing up to see because everybody in front all the way down was standing up, almost dancing, and it was real, the Beatles were playing live and you could hear, if you listened, they were a great band and would have sounded incredible if they had the sound equipment available to Shakira in the rock and roll future.
C’est la vie.
Waiting for Shakira the last hour, hour and a half, was a cheap metaphor for waiting my whole life for this show, never sure until that moment, waiting, that the tickets might be bogus or something could go wrong to stop the show. I do not believe in jinx but we were in Chicago, home of Mother Murphy’s Law, so named after the lady who owned the cow that kicked over the lantern that started the Chicago fire. No, Mr Kelly, the name was O’Leary, and there’s no absolute proof it was her cow, though there was a hell of a fire.
After eternity even the roadies run out of things to putz with and the recorded pop music plays on, some Coldplay. Hardly anybody is in their seats and if I hadn’t seen the video marquees outside the arena with Shakira’s face I might have wondered if I got it all wrong. Then a deejay takes the stage, all busy with his hands on his console, mentions Shakira’s name, the audience such as it is cheers, and he proceeds to play a long series of long dance cuts. It’s really good at first but it gets old fast and still nobody’s in their seats but me and Roxanne, although the people coming in from the lobbies hung out on the walkways, took selfies and danced a little before they went to their seats and kept dancing. Why should I act so impatient, wishing my precious life away? I am here, I thought, estoy aqui. Sit back, enjoy that beer, check out the people watch.
Seventy percent, maybe eighty percent of the attendees were female. A high percentage were Latina. Most of the men were Latinos escorting a date. Ages ranged from a few teenagers with their moms to somebody Roxanne spotted who she estimated to maybe be 80. The anglo women — anglas — and the African Americans were all ages too, but usually young. Everybody was dressed up. Hair done. There was glamour and beauty in the audience. Handsome men. Roxanne wore a nice dress, looked fabulous, to all appearances she was the fan and I was the boyfriend. I wore my best cargo shorts and my finest silk floral shirt of blue to accent my eyes.
Finally the deejay gave up the ghost. The air went back to vague murmurs of pop music and the lights roadies played around with the lights, strobing people, and the video screens went back to Rakuten and Viber. Go on Viber and win seat upgrades and prizes. Cartoon Shakira winks. The seats fill like a sink with low water pressure. Some of the crowd gets restless. They applaud and cheer at every shadow on stage. Then the chanting begins, and ends. Then out comes the Wave.
Really? I suppose. This is Chicago, where they invented the na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey-hey good bye.
We learned on the boat excursion architectural tour that the term Windy City was given to Chicago not because of any propensity for the lake wind to chill the city but in reference to its loquacious politicians.
A block of seats across the arena that looked like it would never fill up finally took their occupants and the place went dark. The crowd roared. Video pictures of young Shakira played on the screens and a montage played on the wall behind the stage like a public service announcement while Shakira’s voice and a guy sang a duet in French, prerecorded. An unfamiliar song. About the time the arena barely fell silent wondering what was going on, there she was.
She opened with “Estoy Aqui” and the place lit up.
“Estoy aqui, queriendote…” I am here, loving you. The audience sang. Shakira aimed the mic to the crowd and we always obliged, those who knew the words — especially her Spanish songs. She danced side to side, up and down the runway, up the rampart stairs both sides of the stage. When she stayed in one place she kept moving, kept pace, and the video cameras tracked her every move, every nuanced expression while she sang with all her heart, every note, pacing the band, and the sound was perfect.
Shakira can sing. Everybody knows.
And after the songs ended and the applause roared, the crowd went quiet. Before song two she expressed her thanks to Chicago for hosting her and for all the people who hung with her through good times and hard times. Looking back I now find this funny: there was no Doctor Woo in the house. Every other concert there’s always a guy who fills the silences between the crowd and the performer who, uncomfortable with silence or what, yells a cup handed Woo! into the peace. Second place is Freebird and a shrill whistle. Not with Shakira. Not even on the video live albums, though they are edited. Not in Chicago. Nobody gets rude a a Shakira show. People sing and dance — from the opening beats nobody in the house sat down more than a minute. They talk and shout applause and jump up and down. They clap and raise their hands and move their hips and laugh out loud, but at the Shakira show everybody listens when she speaks and when she sings and watches her every move. There is no more fascinating entertainer. She did everything but gymnastics. No lip sync. All real.
Song two came out of the dark and she gave permission to howl. Instead of Dr Woo we now had an arena full of wolves, and so commenced the She Wolf song. Owooo! Lycanthropy Warren Zevon would admire. She danced through it but no writhing, no slithering, no bellying across the floor. In the hands of a basic four piece band with some strings and another singer the usual synth robotics of the music sounded like the solid rock band missing from the studio original. Crowd pleasing three minute single.
Next they rip through “Si Te Vas” from the Ladrones album, and that reveals more of the long-timers in the crowd, people longer fans than me. It’s another three or so minute allout rocker, maybe upped to four with a dexy guitar solo and a smash smash smash ending.
The crowd’s blown up ready for more but Shakira slows it down with a couple of new ones from El Dorado the new easy listening album. Far from being still with slow dance poses, she and the band play plugged-in unplugged and get a fair hearing from a crowd raptly swaying to the sorrow of “Nada” as it builds to its crescendos. I sense Roxanne’s reactions and she’s obviously taken. She’s surfed along with my addiction to music nearly half a century but for her part admits general ambivalence to most songs and musicians. She likes Chris Isaak, Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen from seeing them live. It’s hard to get her to dance, even tipsy at weddings. She’s uncomfortable with loud rock bands. Here Shakira made it easy for her, no earplugs necessary. “You can hear her so well I wish I could understand what she’s singing,” she said sotto voce in my ear, bopping to the beat. I think you basically get it, I answered.
Song five, as long as Shakira has our attention in Spanish, is the best song on the album, “Perro Fiel” — faithful dog.
And then she slows it down for real to render her country girl serenade for her man, the “Underneath Your Clothes” ballad. The video cameras magnify her drama. Then she returns to Spanish with cut one from Dorado, called “Me Enamore”, or simply, fall in love with me.
Then it’s back to the Ladrones days with her classic ballad “Inevitable” where she met the moment of truth, the point in the song where she holds the high note. Yes! Shakira is healed.
Next song “Chantaje” is a collaboration with a phantom named Maluma. It means blackmail. It was a single a couple of years ago I first overheard it playing in a cantina in Mexico and it stopped me in my tracks because to me it was new and unknown and I recognized Shakira. In Chicago Shakira turned it into a call and response game with the audience with lyrics on the screen behind the stage. By and large the stage was bare except for Shakira and her band and the twin video screens. Now the back wall came more and more into the show as a screen of backup graphics.
An interlude illustrated an origin legend of the Andes in animation on the screen to the haunting song “Despedida” (farewell) pre-recorded. And then came “Whenever, Wherever” and she was off dancing everywhere again.
Then another interlude, this time a movie of Shakira in a flesh bodysuit dress swimming in creamy murky water like lemonade set to a recording of another song from Dorado called “Trap”.
“What does she mean?” Roxanne murmured in my ear.
“She swims in deep water,” I guessed.
Then, still Spanish and playing to her lifelong fans she belted out her song of loss, “Tu”.
Then one from the newest album called “Amarillo”, a rousing color song for the kids, playing acoustic rhythm guitar with a picture of spouse and kids taped to the face of the guitar.
Next the song I came to see and hear, “La Tortura”.
“No pido que todos los dias sean de sol, No pido que todas las viernes sean de fiesta..”
Yes, we sang — way loud — at least the first verse through. It means I don’t wish every day will be sunny, I don’t wish every Friday was a party. It’s the scoldingest where-the-hell have you been song I ever heard since “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles. It includes the lines, “No solo de pan vive el hombre, y no de excusas vivo yo.” (Man does not live by bread alone, and I don’t live on excuses.) And “Mejor te guardas todo eso, a otra perra con ese hueso, y nos decimos adios.” (Better save that for yourself, take that bone to another dog and let’s say goodbye.) “Ay amor, me duele tanto…”
Next she reached back to another sing-along ballad unplugged at the stage at the end of the runway with “Antologia” to close her faraway past. Then she rocked up again with a perfectly scaled “Can’t Remember To Forget You” which included a pre-recorded piece by Rhianna. The background graphics got exciting, computer images of a screenful of dancers modeled in real time effigy after Shakira, with a medley of “Loca” (“I’m crazy but you like it, loca loca loca…”) and “Rabiosa”, both from Sale el Sol. The rest of the way it was nonstop Dance or Die with another medley of “La La La” or “Dare” (the Lego song) and then the closer, “Waka Waka”.
We wait in the stage darkness, our unending ovation weakening from near exhaustion. “Imagine how she feels,” Roxanne says. “She’s all over the place. What I don’t get though is how… naughty…”
“Lewd, lascivious,” I volunteer, flicking my Bic lighter a few times just for old times sake. “Shall we say inappropriate?”
“Yes, that’s one way to put it. Some of her dance gestures are…”
“No, not obscene. We’re all adults here. I don’t know. They cross over the edge of innocence.”
“It’s not a gymnastics floor routine.”
“No. But Clara and Tess are definitely too young for some of this.”
“Are you and I too old?”
“I wouldn’t say that. She’s really amazing actually.”
The screen played a little movie about little kids encountering obstacles to going to school and overcoming.
Just as the clapping ebbed Shakira appeared on a tiny round stage in the back of the main floor near the sound and light tables, where she sang the quietest song of the night, “Toneladas” (tons). Accompanied by longtime favorite pianist Albert Menendez she hushes the crowd spotlit in a long gown. It is the song which concludes the Dorado album, almost a lullabye. Whatever it’s about will have to wait until I go home. It’s in Spanish. From the small island stage she steps down as the crowd cheers and she wades her way across the swelling sea of people who want to be close to her, and even with bodyguards guiding her there are people’s hands all over her.
Back on the end of the runway stage she sheds the gown and reveals the night’s bellydace outfit, a crazy pyramid shaped skirt just as triangular as the dress worn by Princess Margarita Teresa in the Diego Velasquez painting Las Meninas, so envied and studied by Picasso. The big bustle skirt amplified all Shakira’s butt moves. She showed her tummy a couple more times and sang “Hips Don’t Lie” along with the prerecorded banter of Wyclef Jean along with Menendez filling in with male vocals. “No fighting, no fighting.”
Finally she closed with “La Bicicleta” with a dubbed Carlos Vives, another radio hit in Mexico I first heard in Zihuatanejo. A smooth landing. After Shakira said goodnight Chicago and thank you so much, she exited the stage but the band played on and finished the song. Last to wave goodbye were the guitarist and the drummer, Tim Mitchell and Brendan Buckley, giving the crowd one last satisfied look, sort of how Shakira looked at the end of her Unplugged show. The arena lights went up.
There was a kind of aura of shock it was over. Closure, catharsis and a sense of unfinished business. I asked Roxanne if we could just pause at our seats a while before leaving, to watch the crowd slowly drain out of the auditorium, looking at the blank, empty stage. She said she’s in no hurry. “Was it all you hoped and more?” she asked.
“Lo que mas,” I said. “Best ever.”
We melted among the crowd lingering in the lobbies and flowing down to the main level concourse. The lines at the merchandise stand was not a line or a series of lines but a crushing crowd, if an orderly crush, and I stood back not to block the next person and eyed the swag. Roxanne assured me I could get anything I wanted, and I was tempted to spend the extra half hour or so to get to the front. But I decided I didn’t want anything. The t-shirts so elegant were way too elegant for me — I really don’t wear branded logos much anymore, however subtle, but this was a full frontal across the whole shirt portrait of Shakira in her El Dorado golden gold — I said to Rox when she said, “You can you know,” I know, but I would never wear it, and I would have to frame it.
I’m too old and used to rejection to try to get backstage to get it autographed.
On the way out I paused at the video billboard against the outer wall and looked at her picture one more time, and Roxanne took a photo. She asked a security lady where we could hail a taxi.
Out in the muggy night the street immediately outdoors was still closed to traffic, the cops were directing cars and waving pedestrians across. A surface parking lot on the adjacent block leaked cars. We crossed with the crowd looking for taxis. Our driver who brought us there implied the curbs would be lined all over with taxis.
Honestly I was in a mood to walk home. To walk all the way to our hotel. I knew I could find it by reckoning, especially once we reached the river. I wanted to walk with Roxanne and talk along the way, like we did in Paris and Rome, and so many places together. Like Ixtapa. I wanted to talk about the concert. I knew it would take an hour at least, it would be a couple miles, but it was a beautiful summer night in Chicago and we’d just seen the concert of a lifetime.
Instead we learned from taxi drivers we tried to hail a couple streets from the arena we would have to phone a request to get a ride because the taxis in the area were already booked to pick somebody up. So on Roxanne’s iPhone we called a number in area code 312 from the side of a registered taxi company and within minutes got picked up in front of an apartment house address I read to a dispatcher.
The driver told us the traffic was a little crazier than usual because Lalapalooza was letting out by the lake. He got us back to the hotel near the Magnificent Mile in time to get a thin crust pizza on E Superior St before closing time and a Goose Island before bed and a nice talk about the show, about Shakira. I never mentioned walking home. I wanted to be sure Roxanne had a good time. She can be so critical of concerts. I could tell she was impressed, not just shining me on.
I think she liked the Art Institute too. She liked Chicago. We say we’d go back.
I’d like to go again to Shakira. Whenever, wherever.
Before I conclude I must say something about a song Shakira did not sing in Chicago, track #11 on El Dorado, the prettiest song on the album, “Deja Vu”. It’s a duet with a guy named Prince Royce and it is the quintessential Latin/Latina song. It’s magical. You have to watch Shakira albums for what she buries at track 11, you’ll discover songs like “Deja Vu” — trust me, I’ve heard her sing in person. I am eternally thankful for that.
Still trying to decode “Toneladas”, song 13 of El Dorado, she and her pianist, something critical she sang in Chicago to a hushed house, wearing that bustle under that long gown, body armor, I think of Shakira singing “Pienso en Ti” on her first album, her folk album when she was barely eighteen. The ten thousand hours that got her that far fascinates me to ponder as much as the subsequent twenty three years of choreographing such spontaneity. At 41 Shakira is young. Vital. There’s a lot more to come. She averages an album every three years but she records when she recoreds. She tours when she tours. She doesn’t have to compete on the charts with either the young divas or the Eagles, los hecha estan hecha, she does what she does. It fascinates me to know her back story and I would love to interview her collaborators she has worked with through the years, people I would expect to bear expert witness upon Shakira as a friend. Wyclef Jean. Santana. Beyonce and Rhianna. Carlos Vives and Alejandro Sanz. Rick Rubin. Kid Cudi, El Cata and Pitbull, Dizzee Rascal, Residente Calleiz, Maluma, Nicky Jam, Black M and this Magic! guy. I want to talk to Tim Mitchell, Brendan Buckley and Albert Menendez, and the whole Estefan family. Not just the array of cosingers and longtime band members but the dozens of people she acknowledges in her liner notes. Her parents she credits for sculpting her character. And the guy I would most like to talk to is named Luis F Ochoa, her earliest song collaborator on record.
I would love of course to meet Shakira herself and ask her about stuff. I suppose if I met Gerard Pique we could talk sports. It’s a little like that song on the album Pure Heroine by that young singer who calls herself Lorde, “Royals”, it’s never going to happen in this world no matter how many times I listen to “Give It Up To Me” on the She Wolf CD (bonus track). I’m thankful for all the CDs, MP3s and DVDs and all the memories. I’m thankful for all the associations Shakira brings to mind.
I wonder if somebody at the StarTribune newspaper has a grudge against me. For the umptienth time since last fall the daily carrier skipped my delivery.
I phone it in. I know the number by heart, it’s been the same since I was a paperboy. Mostly I connect to the VRU — voice response unit, the automated system — but sometimes it forwards me to a live customer service rep. The VRU accepts verbal responses to given questions, including phone number and house number. I don’t trust the voice word recognition system. It seemed prone to loops of misinterpretation, and don’t dare cough — I’m sorry, would you repeat that? I prefer to key my information from the keypad — numbers pertaining to explicit answers like 1 – delivery problem, 2 – no paper. 1 – yes I would like them to send a paper.
When the VRU forwards me to a live customer service rep I wonder if the computer has flagged me as a frequent caller or if the VRU itself is just overloaded just then. The lady whose voice transacts the VRU business sounds a bit disingenuous, and I might say a little poochy and a mote insincere, and after numerous calls and careful study a bit untrustworthy and unempathetic, so it’s okay with me to get forwarded to a real person to whom I verbalize the story.
The person always apologizes as he or she verifies my name and address. You might think this is a perfect opportunity to rant and rave. Maybe so. I’ve been at the receiving end, I used to work at the circulation department of that very same newspaper and heard out the most vociferous complaints you could imagine and entertained the most uncivil language ever spoken. I listened without interrupting, at least until they repeated themselves twice and it was time to recap the call and bring it to conclusion — redelivery or credit and a note to the DM (district manager) — and a thank you for their business if they didn’t hang up on me first. Yes, in my time I was a customer care legend and when supervisors were busy, and sometimes when they weren’t, they would transfer hot calls to me and I would endure the customer rage and seek service satisfaction, acknowledge mistakes and propose improvement. They called me HotKall Kelly.
When I call in these days and get referred to a real person it’s about six after six in the morning in my time zone, usually a Monday, and my mind needs a jump start, no newspaper and who knows where this person on the other end of the phone exists — used to be downtown Minneapolis, could be Iowa or South Dakota, I never ask — whose duty it is to report no paper at my address and to initiate a special delivery, maybe jot a note to the carrier with a cc to the DM and ask if there is anything else he or she could do.
When this issue of missed deliveries first emerged as a pattern last fall and I spoke to a live rep I asked if she noticed anything on the record about disruption on the route. Was it an open route — no permanent carrier — a sub — substitute carrier — or a down route — something fishy going on like the carrier didn’t show up. A guy who said he was the DM brought a replacement paper one day when I happened to be on the porch and he apologized for the bad service — I was getting missed days in a row at that time, and when it did come it was tossed casually on the lawn, not placed on the porch — and he explained it was an open route, looking for a regular carrier, and soon everything would be regular again. That didn’t happen and I kept calling it in. A special driver would bring a paper to my porch, usually by nine or nine thirty — thump. And sometimes I would get a callback from someone at the paper asking if the special delivery arrived, and I could say yes, thank you — please fix my route.
When I call in and get routed to a live rep it’s always interesting to get somebody fresh working the phones. They um a lot and stall while they type their keyboards, and when they get me and see on their screens the delivery history and its commentary I can almost see them look pleadingly at their monitoring supervisors and cringe, getting ready for the barrage of articulated recriminations to come. And then I ask if it’s still an open route, and the person says no there’s a regular carrier. I ask if my delivery code on my subscription is still Front Porch (code 9 I think) and the person confirms. I ask they please remind the carrier to deliver here every day, on the porch, please cc the DM, send me a paper by special driver and thank you very much. I’m thinking the stats speak for themselves.
Lately when the VRU kicks me to a live rep I don’t even bother feigning a mood of interest in the carrier’s well being. By now I sense animosity and am willing to accept bygones if only I could count on delivery in some form, but nothing but the plain facts gets discussed with the phone rep. It’s not his or her fault, it’s the carrier. I laugh when I remember the olden days when we used to offer the carrier’s phone number so you could call the carrier directly and say, hey, where’s my paper? Today it’s best to limit the service discussion to business professional terms and not even joke about any incendiary thoughts about the carrier’s motives. Today revenge is not funny.
If there is comedy in any of this it is in the pattern of defiance and my reaction. The daily carrier — Monday-Friday — the past eight months, despite my constant reports, keeps skipping my house two or three times a month, usually Mondays. And when the paper does get delivered it can be found in the front yard or on the sidewalk, never ever on the front porch per the placement code on the customer profile which prints on the route list.
The weekend carrier, by contrast, Saturday and Sunday always puts the paper on the porch at the front door, and has been doing this for several years. His name is Gonzalez I believe, from writing him tip checks in response to his Christmas fliers, and he drives an old Chevy Blazer with a bad muffler. He used to have an assistant, a teenage girl, who used to zip out of the car and up the sidewalk to the porch and back like a cat. He’s been working alone a few years now but every weekend he faithfully stops his Blazer, gets out and treads up steps to my sidewalk and wings the paper onto the porch. He’s an older guy, maybe older than me. When I’m up — the weekend delivery deadline is seven — I go out and meet him, say good morning, take the paper in the baggie from his hand, say thank you.
The daily carrier, M-F, barely seems to get out of the car and for all that has a rag arm, can’t seem to get the paper even close to the house. Every day both carries enfold the paper within a promotional plastic bag, which keeps the paper dry against rain and snow. Unless it lands in a puddle with the bag wide open in a rainstorm. (The bags can be recycled at Cub Foods or used to pick up poop if you have a dog.) I don’t know when the daily carrier swings by but it’s either way early or not at all. Always too stealthy to wake me up. I think maybe if I see this person in person I can get inside their head and figure out why they have so little regard for me receiving the paper.
I used to deliver the Minneapolis Star after school when I went to St Simon of Cyrene, sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Picked my papers up at the shack at 64th and Lyndale. My big tire bicycle had saddle baskets. Big thick Wednesdays I might pull a wagon. Or a sled. Sometimes I just trudged with sling strap sacks crossed over my shoulders like bandoliers on a pack mule. Every day. The evening Star carriers had the extra privilege of delivering the Sunday Tribune. The daily Tribune was a morning paper, Monday through Saturday delivery — the Tribune carriers got Sundays off. Most Sundays my dad drove me on the route — neither one of us glad to be up at five a.m.
Rain, snow, thirty below zero Fahrenheit or a hundred degrees above and 80% relative humidity, I delivered the Star door to door nine blocks a day. About 72 dailies and 80 Sundays. I’m no martyr either. I was making good moolah, enough to finance a cool wardrobe and a collection of 60’s rock records. I read the product every day, free. The tips were generous, at Christmas phenomenal. All I had to do was pick up my papers at the shack and deliver them door to door nine blocks on a residential route two blocks from the shack. Every day. No matter what.
If I screwed up I could count on getting reamed by my DM, Mr Layton, who cruised his district in a green Ford LTD. He dressed like Sid Hartman in a suit and tie and a beige trenchcoat. He had white hair cut in a flatop and wore a gray green fedora so you usually could just see his shaved temples. You saw him coming and you better be busy, not flirting with the girls who lived along the route. I liked to be one of his choir boys or stay under his radar, so I did my route right and paid my bill on time every two weeks.
The DM who delivered my paper last November wore a North Face vest, jeans, flannel and a wool hat. Haven’t seen or heard from him since. Can’t describe his car. Mine might be a highly unprofitable route, and I might be the only daily customer (left) on the block (the weekend route has a few subscribers among my neighbors, I can tell by the sounds of Mr Gonzalez’s Blazer.) It would seem my M-F subscription is a write-off.
Lately when I call in about a missed paper, no matter what assurance I’m given the paper will be redelivered it does not come. When I worked in circulation we would dispatch redeliveries to people we called Special Drivers who worked territories in their own cars who were equipped with radios to call in and get addresses for missed papers. Today one would expect the Special Drivers would get their redelivery lists via smart phone. Lately I’ve been encouraged by the paper to contact it on line at their dot com, so I have learned how to access my account to register my missed paper and request redelivery. I do it on line more as a redundancy to the phone, and at first superstitiously because the first time I went online to report a missed paper and request redelivery the paper arrived within the hour, wow this must be the way to go — the redelivery is pledged by 11:30 a.m., same day. Beyond that you can only get credit. Sure. So lately I’ve been logging in again later in the day to get the credit. Tom Petty might say the Special Driver don’t come around here no more.
There’s a local monthly ragsheet comes out every month called Southside Pride. Put out by a guy named Ed Felien, a lifelong Minneapolis southsider, one time alderman, who refers to himself as an unapologetic Maoist, the paper prints local ads, covers neighborhood events and runs stories critical of government, private business, law enforcement, education and all facets of the establishment, all presented in civil prose and an almost naive format. Faithfully and without fail the carrier for Southside Pride puts the paper in front of my door on my front porch. No wasteful plastic bag, just rolled up and bound by a (reusable) rubber band to keep it from blowing away, placed safely under the shelter of my porch against rain and snow. Faithfully and without fail.
Monday – Friday with the StarTribune it’s always iffy when I get up around six and unlock the front door. Most days it’s a relief to see an orange or yellow or green baggie out there somewhere. When there isn’t I am now conditioned not to expect one at all that day. Lately Mondays. Someone could argue there’s rarely news on Monday mornings, no business news, usually just fluff from the weekend or things you already know, but I still would rather not miss a day — you never know. Sometimes a decent essay shows up on the opinion page when least expected. Or letter from a reader. Monday is the day LK Hanson’s cartoons lampoon goons and buffoons.
Is this any way to treat a loyal reader? I keep musing about writing directly to the publisher, Glen Taylor. It’s an LOL moment too because it reflects the inaccessibility of the StarTribune’s circulation and distribution system by the subscriber. On its webpage where it says Contact Us leads you to a street address you can mail them a letter and both a local and a long-distance toll free phone number — but no email. No comments box. No digital way to write a delivery complaint in your own words. The home page may offer options to make editorial comments and newsroom feedback but for delivery issues everything is fundamentally obscure to access, and once clicked it defaults to Damaged Paper as the first option, as if offering the carrier an alibi will encourage the customer to think twice before calling the carrier a deadbeat.
When I used to collect from customers face to face and door to door every two weeks it cost $2.40 for seven day delivery for two weeks. Today two weeks costs $17.62. And now it’s prepaid, in 13 week increments. We used to collect for delivery in arrears. Prepaids were rare luxuries, though prepaids didn’t tip.
Everybody knows there are cheaper and more immediate and often customized sources to get news, and if the StarTribune collects news at all it is self-aware. With a measure of conceit and a concession to old fashioned readers like me they put out an e-edition that mimics the hard copy I get at home, page for page. Recent subscription policy says when we put the delivery on hold when we are away — a vacation stop — charges to the account continue, and in lieu of the paper paper they allow a daily and weekend view of the e-edition we can log into on wi-fi. Otherwise a subscription to the e-edition alone is same as the print edition. I pony up because the StarTribune’s version of the news is worthy.
My son on the other hand generally disagrees. He says the StarTribune publishes dogwhistle stories, which means to him they deliberately hook a slant into their reporting which is meant to stir controversy from either side and bait debate. So, I say, so what? And nonetheless he keeps reading it in digital format, making him I guess an informed expert in what he’s saying.
I respect the reporters and writers and the integrity of the editorial staff. I appreciate the content of stories appropriated from big sources such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Economist. They have not one but two high-end music critics, one for older fans and one for younger. They got a smart sports department. The arts and letters coverage aims at insight. I think they check the facts, not check the facts at the door.
The word Star means point of light or top performer. The word Tribune comes from a concept of being a representative of the populace, an advocate for the people. Aptly named, the StarTribune excels (shines) at standing up for its community. Some call it a liberal newspaper. My son says it promotes dogwhistle content. The way I see it, any newspaper reporting facts that authorities try to hide is a liberal press, and I agree with HL Mencken journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. When everyone approves of every story then it’s a sign it isn’t being honest.
The owner and publisher, Glen Taylor, a long established local tycoon in the printing business and latter day owner of the NBA Timberwolves and defending WNBA champion Lynx, is said to be a Republican, but there is no discernible political party bias in the paper’s news, features or editorials, just an overt reaction to liberal bias by conservative compensation where due, a pledge to keep the debate fair. And civil. To think Taylor isn’t looking head-on down the road of print journalism and seeing the niche limitations fading away like AM radio sells his business acumen short. The StarTribune newspaper of ink and paper will likely evolve itself out of existence, starting apparently with a service shortage on the east side of south Minneapolis.
The paper gave up its downtown real estate and storied presence in the physical corpus of the city and became another virtual concept with a logo and brand recognition renting office space in a skyscraper. The times they are a changing, I get that, especially here in the old home town. Since the Cowles family heirs cashed out their shares in Cowles Media there have been a bunch of guardian publishers like McClatchy who took the rap when the StarTribune kept downsizing to keep up with increasing costs and decreasing revenues in the newspaper business, stripping itself down, turning itself into the Strib. Alas somebody had to take the fall of unpopularity without fouling against union contracts in place and stiffing readers and writers. The ethical survival of the paper into the 21st century must have taken a strong measure of dedication to preserve its relevance in the age of video. Enter now the digital age of devices, whereas yours truly prefers information on printed pages of paper I recycle. Somebody still goes to the computerized trouble to budget and format over half a million daily copies. One anticipates the Star Tribune isn’t going to fold any time soon.
I would prefer not to be driven away from subscribing. I get up before dawn, even in June, the longest days, and I look forward to jump starting my mind reading the morning paper. I worked my whole adult life after 26 to become a morning person just to retire and find myself slept enough at the first glimmer of civil twilight, the first birdsongs, to want to get up, brew coffee (if the auto timer hasn’t activated yet) and go to the front door, open it to the porch and look for the paper, read what’s going on.
It makes me sad after all the trouble the production staff went to produce and distribute a first rate, sophisticated daily metropolitan newspaper, my copy gets missed and nobody cares, nobody’s looking out for me, it’s just too bad. They’re sorry. They can credit me a little over a dollar per missed daily, extending the prepaid subscription another daily. My ultimate recourse, of course, is to quit the paper. Obviously nobody’s bonus is tied to keeping my subscription.
I might write a letter to Glen Taylor though. It’s an old tactic I’ve seen before, hot calls demanding to speak to the publisher when it used to be Roger Parkinson. Saw the same tactic when I worked for a bank and the outraged customers demanded to talk to the president, Jim Campbell. Or if they merely wrote a letter to said big boss, it would get handed off to a vice president who might hand it off to me to solve and present to another vice president to manage and send the matter back to somebody to compose a letter under the boss’s name addressed to the complainant, which might be as much as would happen over the telephone except any real involvement with the big boss — unless the complainant used threats of bodily harm, and then it was time to invoke security procedures. Today even the tiniest innuendo could evoke a visit from the FBI.
Instead I’ll just post this essay and hope no one retaliates by cutting off my circulation.