Monday, February 20, 2012

Volver

I was thinking of David Foster Wallace http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Foster_Wallace as I made my way to Argentina, for no better reason than his initials, which he’s often referred to by, are the same as those of the Dallas Forth Worth Airport, a totally incongruous allusion, except that maybe it isn’t because DFW would be the perfect person to describe Texas and maybe he did…I’ve only read a handful of his essays—he’s a tad too intellectual for me, though like most people I do PLAN to read Infinite Jest one day and recommend his essay on cruise ships, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again...http://www.amazon.com/Supposedly-Fun-Thing-Never-Again/dp/0316925284/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1329786036&sr=8-3. I knew him for a short period when I dated one of his best friends from the U of Arizona MFA program—he even talked me out of suicide once which is too private a story to share and sort of a weird thing to bring up considering how he fought with that urge for much of his life. Or maybe it isn’t, because he believed very much in helping other people. It was something that stood out in his character, and my memory of him is of an excellent person who did what in the moment needed to be done. I've always admired such people. It's easier said than done.

Putting aside the whole coincidental acronym business (after all CIA means ‘and company’ in Argentina, and there’s a Federal Agency here with the acronym FACES—there's nothing more faceless than a bureaucracy), I enjoyed gazing down upon the amazon and its enormous snaking tributaries as the sun rose on my left and the moon shone bright on my right, which is one of those special air travel experiences. Customs was fast and I was happy to find that the $140 dollars the Argentines charge all Americans (so sad to see us pulled aside and lined up separate from everyone else, but it's payback for American immigration hassles, or so I've heard) didn’t apply to me as I paid it last year and it's good for ten years. Then there's Ezequiel waiting for me outside of customs :) 

We took the shuttle into town, got settled into my apartment in the Congreso District, and then wouldn’t you know it, DFW appeared again when I came face to face with his posthumous novel on the front table in one of the local bookshops which this neighborhood is full of. I didn’t even know there was a posthumous novel and already it’s translated into Spanish.

Well, like most weird things, it has nothing to do with anything, or it does. We shall see. I had a rough start here, but things are settling down and it all reminds me that I have become much calmer through the years. Nothing hugely dramatic happened, I’m fine, but as a younger man, I wouldn’t have weathered it I don’t think. Which is the reason I’m in Argentina at 49 and not 25 like a normal person. And, being that I’m proudly—or at least resignedly—not a normal person, that’s as it should be.

Gay marriage is legal here--and pretty cool to watch from afar as Maryland and Washington step up in recent weeks--so I didn’t feel the usual hesitation about attending a wedding which we were invited to, and which turned out to be a complete blast. 

with Ezequiel's friends (clockwise from me...Juan Luis, Virginia, Gabriela)


for a brief moment, the little gay family...Benjamin was an incredibly cute kid and very friendly and I could communicate with him perfectly, since he was the one person at the wedding who spoke very little Spanish! He totally adopted us.


Benjamin's beautiful parents, Federico and Diana, both 19. Note the Popeye behind them and the fact that the kid looks uncannily like Sweetpea

 In the tradition of Carnaval, which followed this Valentine's Day wedding, and which I'll get to, out came the spray cans of 'espuma' which is basically soapy water, followed by confetti which then sticks to your clothes. It's a mess, but then so is Argentina, so 'esta bien'


One is very conscious of being queer at a wedding, and I must say, I felt totally welcomed at this one. Of course, Catholic cultures rarely breed the kind of explicit ignorant homophobia I'm used to back home with fundamentalists, so it’s generally invisible here, which if not ideal, is a big relief. Catholicism is a religion of secrecy, which explains a lot of its current problems worldwide and its horrible track record in this country and others vis-√†-vis violence and fascism.


My little northern heart among the Argentines 



But I still like the churches. Iglesia Santissima Sacramento was interesting as it sports no saints, Marys or Jesuses on the altar…only angels.

You can borrow bikes all over the place in Buenos Aires now. It's really a great system...there are city-run bike kiosks all over town, and you can use a bike for an hour free, then just keep renewing at other kiosks....



Biking is big in Buenos Aires and growing in leaps and bounds, a part of BsAs view of itself as a European capital. It's sort of like the gay thing. Even though much of the country is living in a sort of quasi-third world, Portenos (those who live in BsAs) see themselves as something else—exiled Europeans who insist the country keep up with those it aspires to be like…France mostly, but they love Italian fashion and shopping in Miami as well.

Of course, you have to be careful on your bike, or on foot, as there are potholes everywhere. 


I’ve been watching this as it sort of intrigues me….workers come and dig up a sidewalk for electrical or plumbing repair, but apparentely they aren’t responsible to fix the sidewalk--and whoever is doesn’t appear for weeks, or months. Here’s a pothole resulting from one of these ‘repairs’ a block from my apt.

It's to the left of the bus 

At one point, those boards were a little cabana to warn folks of the pothole. But it’s slowly collapsed due to time, cars clipping it, or drunks at night crushing it for fun or to get ahold of board to bonk their opponent with. Ezequiel joked it's now at the stage where some cartoneros will grab what’s left to make asado on the sidewalk (that’s traditional Argentina barbecue). Which does happen here. Homeless people are not predominantly vets, the mentally disturbed, or substance abusers—most are poor people from the province who live off recycling, often whole families, who then cook on the streets, sometimes full-on bbqs with a fire and everything.

One is very aware of the poverty of this country even though Buenos Aires is an island of the most fortunate in the country. But at night and on weekends, lots of kids and mostly young men come into to town to panhandle, etc., some pretty aggressively. And the weird thing is they all look like Roman emperors or Gods. Hard to turn away. You do what you can, and the little kids especially break your heart.

I’m getting caught up on movies I was never able to get to, and it’s fairly easy here and educational, because the American movies are in English with Spanish subtitles: First we saw the Descendants, which I liked more or less, though I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I suppose because one of the reasons I’m here and like Argentina is because that whole obsession we have in America with doing too much and missing your life (George Clooney’s character and the basic point of the film) is just not what Latin culture is about. So, on one level, I found the film really clich√©—also the fact that the mother is hooked up to a machine, almost dead, and the older daughter has drug issues while the younger acts out in school, which seems to me just the usual beating-us-over-the-head with drama because it’s the only way to get a numb American’s attention? I don’t know. Well, this isn’t a blog about Hollywood and it’s a very Hollywood movie, and sorry, but I'm not really buying it.

Let’s talk about Juan Nanio instead, Ezequiel’s documentary filmmaker friend here in Buenos Aires. And not just because he’s hotter than George Clooney, but because he’s talented too. 


At only 24, he’s already completed one documentary, Kuan Yin (http://www.bafici.gov.ar/home11/web/en/films/show/v/id/306.html --beware of bad Argentine English translation). He's also acted in a film that will be shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival this year and he's doing a documentary on Ezequiel’s household (which is why I muled an HD camera down for him, saving him upwards of a grand because the taxes are so high on imports here. He graciously presented me with a bottle of JB Scotch--class act). Eze's household is unique as it's a group of gay artists—3 of the 4 are dancers—attempting to pursue their dreams in Argentina while not being a part of the upper class, which is how dreams are generally done in Argentina. Which isn’t to attack the rich so much as point out that there are so few opportunities, the rich grab whatever is available, and that goes for pretty much everything. Which leads me to my increasing cynicism about Peronism (in power for most of the last 28 years), which Miguel Gomez, a writer and dancer from Cuba and one of Ezequiel’s dance instructors, helped me sort out.

As a Cuban, he knows what socialism is and how it functions--Peronism is not socialism no matter what leftist Peronists (ie Kirchneristas) say because it is not about ideas, ideals, or even society—their lack of support for the arts is a glaring example of that. Peronism is about power. Peronists are always promising things to and talking about the poor, and then once elected, forgetting about them. And the poor keep voting for them because they have no one else, because Evita gave their grandma a life-saving doctor's visit or a house, and/or because Peronism is a religion and it’s about faith and hope, not reality.
Make your own conclusions, but I warn you, it's the weirdest mix of left/right you'll ever find: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peronism
Miguel is a really interesting person. He danced with Cuba’s National Ballet for over 20 years, defecting to Argentina when his career was winding down and he fell in love with Gladys, who he’s married to and has a son with, Julian. Gladys is a tango dancer of some renown and she wants to teach me tango! God help us. Anway, we sat in their charming little plant-filled New Orleans-style balcony apartment in the rough Constitucion neighborhood--a lot of prostitution, rateros (...from the word for rat, rata ….Miguel explained this as the term for petty thieves who take small stuff…purses, wallets, cameras), Dominicans, and immigrant Peruvians who use the street as their front porch, they joked. Miguel’s lived the life of an artist from day one and continues to and was eloquent on what that is…not pursuing fame, but doing the work; not focusing on personality and celebrity, but the work. He reminded me of my friend Frank Shawl who runs a dance school in Berkeley and is one of the other true artists who has mentored me, along with the painter Ernest Posey...


Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson of the Shawl Anderson School of Dance in Berkeley

The inimitable Ernest Posey

As for Miguel, he was thrown out of his house at 8 years old by his military father when he expressed his interest in dance which his father assumed meant he was gay. He isn’t, and had the good fortune to be taken on as a student in Havana to study and become a world-class classical ballet dancer. At 61, he continues to teach, ‘because that’s what I want to do’ he laughs. ‘And it’s always about doing what you want to do. That’s what teaching is, asking people what they want to do and helping them do it. It’s not about telling them anything.’ He was all smiles and inspiration as we shared Quilmes and peanuts. Eventually, we headed off to meet Juani for dinner, and in parting, I asked him if he missed Cuba. He smiled and said "Yes, but I never say it, because Cuba, my country, misses me and I know that, but it doesn’t speak or say it, and so neither do I." He smiled big. I know I got this eloquent answer wrong on some level, as it came out as a poetic sort of statement and I mangled it in the translation because my Spanish is so limited! But you get the idea I hope. Miguel also gave me an anthology of Argentine short stories, 3 of which are by him.

I walked away wondering about the US. Does it miss me? Ezequiel assured me, it's not an occidental thought. Probably so. I often feel so alienated. I know the Sierra Nevada Mountains miss me. We’ve been in love for decades. If I have a country, those mountains are it.

I look forward to seeing Miguel and Gladys again. So I need to read Miguel’s stories along with my juvenile-level Spanish books which are more my speed…I’m reading a graphic novel about Lawrence of Arabia and still stumbling through Ivanhoe. And I’m reading lots of books about Argentina and South America in English! For a complete list see my goodreads page:  http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/834772?shelf=%23ALL%23


I’m currently engrossed in Thomas Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, a really great book if you want to understand Evita, and I warn you, understanding her is like understanding string theory….her story keeps slipping out of your hands. Who was she? Well here’s a start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evita_Peron


Because she was an uneducated and fairly simple person, it’s hard to see her as we see most politicians—cunning and wiley. Then again, those are primitive emotions and the best explanation of her is that she is almost pure subconsciousness, which is why she is remembered as a saint, a whore, a myth, a goddess. I only wish Jung had lived long enough to see this particular emergence of the shadow.  For more than half of this country, she became the Virgin Mary, more or less…shrines, candles, prayers, the whole bit. For modern people, I think she is the best argument for proof of the illusion of religion, certainly Catholicism. Because you can watch the whole thing, the whole projection, unfold before your eyes, and much of it was captured by television. In reality, she was just a girl who had been dealt a bad hand and was resentful about it, but also willful and determined. Enough so that she successfully got the biggest role of all and didn’t waste time with it…she told the establishment what they’d done to her and that there were millions like her and they were now going to be the future…the meek inherited the earth….and now they are surely making the same mess of it the proud did, and they've paid for it in blood. There’s endless speculation about what she could have done if she hadn’t died of cancer so young (33, same age as Jesus—the myth stuff relentlessly appears in her life story…bastard child, not pretty, but she found the right hair color and hairdo, rose to prominence in a country that is beyond sexist, a veritalble Catholic Kali). But the fact is, resentment isn’t revolution, just like Stalin isn’t Trotsky. I agree with those who believe she would have continued to veer right, as her husband did. She’s the opposite trajectory from Che—she’s the anti-intellectual who barks at the rich and then puts on a fur coat and pearls and wants to be buried in their cemetery. Che was, of course, middle/upper class, so he didn’t have the class resentment, he got to go to medical school and developed the ability to see outside his own drama, and was not at all interested in being part of the establishment. Consequently, Che is more of a saint than she was if you’re going to go along strictly Christian lines…he DID sacrifice himself for others, he was not into wealth and certainly didn’t buy his fame, he was frighteningly clear-headed, physically courageous, and yet he wore the blinders of dogmatic Marxist revolution, which is where I always part ways with him.

So, in the end, we have two holy people who became sort of religious icons, who were both more or less martyred for it, and who stand before us — if you have eyes to see and ears to hear—as if to say: So how do you like your religion now, Mr. Death? (oblique allusion to a great ee cummings poem, Buffalo Bill’s, which is a complete digression, but I so love ee cummings, I can't resist): 
Buffalo Bill's
defunct
       who used to
       ride a watersmooth-silver
                                  stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat
                                                            Jesus
he was a handsome man
                     and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death


But really, there is SO much to be learned from the lives of these two people…they are arguably the two largest myths of the 20th century. Add them to my estimation of South America:  Marxism and Democracy both died in Chile in 1973; Religion died in Argentina in 1952.

Anyway, speaking of powerful women—and one who has incidentally not died yet, nor has her epoch—the next film we went to was Dama de Hierro (The Iron Lady), which I really liked, not because of the subject, but because good art gives you a way to empathize with people you don’t like. If only the iron lady herself had seen this film, perhaps she would have had a little more empathy for her people, the Irish or the Argentines. Well, what can I say, I like history and Meryl Streep is truly amazing.

But back to this idea of making unlikeables likeable. It’s all about showing vulnerability, and it creates understanding. This has been done with  Evita countless times, often during her own lifetime and by her own words and actions. And it’s the reason Mad Men and Paradise Lost are great. Sympathy for the Devil basically. And in that, it can be dangerous for those who aren’t clear-headed. I mean, what's next? "The Steel Man"? (that’s what Stalin means actually); Adolph can’t be far behind. I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel for Adolph, but do it in the privacy of your own home and don’t make a blockbuster film about it. The irony in all this is that Margaret seemed to have very little empathy (the most astute description of Reagan imho--and it certainly applies to Maggie--was that he lacked empathy, which one can also say for our current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, and sadly most people of the right in general). But perhaps that is too simple…it’s the lack of a complicated empathy really, the kind humans have the intelligence to get to if they work at it and don’t fall back on lazy moralizing and platitudes, which sadly, seems to be what Margaret repeatedly did as her city and her country burned around her.

A lot of it does come down to where and what someone comes from. Margaret was the daughter of a grocer, and she had the economic viewpoint of a small business person, with the usual blinders about microeconomics vs. macroeconomics, which are two very different things, though you’d never know it if you did nothing but watch politicians talk about the economy. Microeconomics is not macroeconomics (am still looking for a good website to explain all this in layman’s terms—feel free to suggest! But in a nutshell, grocery stores can’t engage in stimulus, monetary policy, war, to name just a few). Microeconomics isn't and never has been Macroeconomics, and never will be, regardless of what the current neoliberal orgie on the world stage continues to preach. Keynes could never have existed if he had the small mind of microeconomics, and Keynes is arguably the most important economist of the modern era, and yes, it's true, he was generally of a conservative political mind. But again, macro is not micro, even for your politics, and we all remember a time—even Nixon for godsakes—when conservatives knew the difference. But lest you think I’m a windbag with no solution, I’ll offer a modest proposal:  A lot of this is about globalism, jobs having gone from the first world to China. Those jobs have to be replaced by jobs with comparable wages to ‘fix’ western economies. I’m not sure unions can do the trick right now, not until they become international like corporations and are able to organize actively in China to begin the process of creating some sort of humane equilibrium in world labor markets. In the meantime, we’ll have to create opportunities and redistribute wealth some other way I’m afraid--sorry 1%. There are a lot of ways to do that, but it’s what needs to be done. Let’s get on with it. I’m no Paul Krugman, so let’s have him weigh in: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/opinion/krugman-pain-without-gain.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212

The fact is, it’s not simple. People want life to be simple and Thatcher and Reagan especially played on that. But it’s not, and when we’re honest with ourselves we know that. Think of the last time someone made that comment that life is simple. What did they mean? Were they being lazy, or were they unable to be honest with themselves, or were they copping out and/or just tired or exhausted or confused? Which one, because I don’t think we’re being truthful when we say life is simple. “Not for me” to quote Elaine screaming back at her mother as she ran out of the church at the end of The Graduate. Once again, a massive digression, but everything is connected to everything. Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahFARm2j38c&feature=related

And something else that ain’t simple—trying to have a healthy diet in Argentina! I’m giving it a go, but it’s just a ‘monton’ of fat. I like that word monton because it sounds like 'mountain' and it means a lot of something, so it makes perfect sense in that onomatopoeic way. Anyway, all this food frustration makes me cook and save money, so it’s not all bad. And Ezequiel is a good cook too, and he’s totally game and into searching out tofu and soy and gluten which are all staples of the low-fat veggie diet which I’m slowly finding resources for. But it ain’t California, so I’m eating cheese and meat in quantities unimaginable in my former life…pero bueno…

Here’s Argentine artist Marcos Lopez's take on it as the Last Supper:

In the richer neighborhoods, I even found vegan food!




I do love the old cafes ('notables'), probably the thing that keeps me most in love with Buenos Aires, because my idea of paradise is pretty much a chill cafe with a nice cup of coffee, a stack of books to read and a nice window from which to watch people walk by...and it doesn't hurt when 9 out of 10 of them are stunningly beautiful..and there's some tango music playing quietly in the background.....this one's called 'The Orchid'


As you can see, in cafes 'notable' there are many traditional touches, such as fileteado, which is a style of painting right up my alley...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fileteado



But paradisiacal feelings aside, the sidewalks remind you of the disappeared from the time of the dictatorship and the dirty war (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_War
 These sidewalk tiles are placed in front of houses where people were 'disappeared' and are one of the few constant reminders of the 30,000 who vanished between 1976 and 1983 during one of the ugliest and nastiest dictatorships the world has ever known. Think about it...in a country of 30 million people, 1% were killed by their own govt. That would be 3.5 million Americans, which is the entire population of the city of Los Angeles.

Speaking of shadows, let me leave you with an appropriately Argentine dark thought. If they made a movie about Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, they’d have to call it La Viuda Negra (the black widow). Because she still only dresses in black after her husband Nestor’s death, even though many of us thought she’d cease doing that once re-elected. She doesn’t strike me as in anyway evil, which gives me hope that the age of mythos is over. But black widow spiders, the obvious allusion, are still a symbol of the darker aspects of nature, no? Will she too drift into myth? Or is that just more sexism? Countless men murder their wives and are never called Black Widowers. Dictators kill even more and live under luxurious house arrest in Recoleta. Perhaps, Evita just keeps coming back, as she said she would…. “and I will be millions.” I don't know what to think of her, and I don't completely trust her, but there's a part of me that wants to shout: You go girl!

But let's end with Carnaval instead...I love the sounds of drums in the city streets.....for one fleeting moment, we're all free of the machinations of politicians and bankers....









3 comments:

  1. Oh Trebor, of course America misses you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. My you do *ramble* dear (like I do ;) in some of that... ha ha ;) but I do always learn a lot by the time I'm done -- even if it's a potluck... a jambalaya (!) of politics, iconography, and poetry... in that familiar voice which always shines through (!!) and makes me miss you, like 'mericuh do, too. ;)) continued safe journeys, dear Treb, with our " ...queer shoulder to the wheel!" hugz, -dk http://youtu.be/9v-ANXLaViw

    ReplyDelete
  3. Elizabeth, George Washington's birthday

    You make me miss the walks we went on. You write, you talk- it's all the same. I'll try and save your apartment.

    ReplyDelete