The Shape of Water

As the temperatures in my area were arctic this weekend, I did a rare thing:  I went to the movies twice.  My first movie was The Shape of Water.  I had read about this and was very impressed with Guillermo de Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  However, having seen the dark fairy tale of Pan’s Labyrinth, I was prepared to expect some graphic violence and yes, it is there.  The story, however, is about difference and how our fear of it leads to our own destruction. But acceptance can redeem us.   Each of the characters, both good and bad, are isolated from the rest of the world because of some aspect of non-normalcy, of difference.  The main character is, of course, an aquatic person who is treated as a monster creature by his captives but profoundly accepted by the janitor Elisa Esposito, a mute who was abandoned at birth with scars to indicate that someone had cut her vocal chords, depriving her of speech.  Her friend Giles is gay and suffers from the  rejection by the society around him, the early 60s in Baltimore.  Elisa’s friend at work is black, exemplifies courage  and looks out for her but is marginalized for being who she is.  Dr. Hoffstetler is the scientist with compassion for the creature as he observes Elisa communicate with him but he is also a Russian and this takes place in the middle of the Cold War.  In the end his own countrymen execute him  The villain of the fable is Richard Strickland and while one cannot help but hate his cruelty and torture of all around him, he too is afloat in a world where he is rejected and dismissed.  Instead of reaching out to others, his response is to try to kill anything different.  Similar to the ending of  Pan’s Labyrinth, the finale leaves us with the hope that  magical realism offers, a fairy tale ending that suggests it is both true and yet possibly but a dream.  We humans cling to that one item left in Pandora’s Box where all evil, illness, cruelty, and divisiveness escaped.  We were left with hope.

My second movie was both completely different and oddly similar:  Call Me by Your Name–a coming of age story set in 1982 Italy where a professor’s summer assistant falls in love with the professor’s 17 year old son.  This love relationship is a secret one as both are young men.  Tuscany plays a leading role in this beautifully imagistic film which borrows images from Hellenistic statuary of sensuous young men to echo the flesh and blood relationship as it slowly develops.  Desire, fear, regret, and joy intermingle with the ripe apricots that grow on the orchard trees.  However, here too, Oliver, the assistant, leaves and during the winter snow, calls Elio and tells him that he is engaged to get married.  The sadness is the abandonment of identity so as to fit in, to “be normal.”  Yet both young men are Jewish–yet another form of otherness in their social settings.

Both movies trace the importance of courage in facing who we are, and who others may be–however different,  Hope offers an alternative ending to tragedy:  we can be ourselves and accept others.  We can offer eggs as friendship to an alien water being.  Just as Bach can be transformed through the lenses of Liszt and Busoni into other forms, so too can we humans see humanity in the face of the other.  And how wondrous that experience might be if we can let it happen.

The evil that is email

I can recall entire summers when I was not teaching at my college and would hear nothing at all until the end of summer letter inviting us back to campus for fall term.  Ah.. Those were the days.  Or at an office job:  the weekends were yours in privacy unless some unmitigated catastrophe occurred that necessitated a phone call to your home phone.  

Now we are all of us bombarded by emails all day, every day.  I will confess to being guilty in both initiating emails over the weekend and in the evening hours as well as responding to them.  

But is this so bad?  Isn’t it great to instantly touch base with someone when you are thinking about an issue or problem and get a response back?  Or catch up on work from the luxury of your own back yard in a summer evening? And do not all these emails signal how indispensable we are to our places of employment?  And how dedicate we are in responding?

And therein lies the rub.  If we ignore emails over, say a weekend or a vacation, when we return we face pages of unread messages, many of them out of date as the senders get increasingly frustrated by our silence and move on to a “more important person.”  And that silence serves to brand one as not committed, not really all that concerned about one’s all important places of business–i.e. the source of our paycheck which measures our value to our company.  You can see how this spirals downward fast.

But the electronic barrage sucks the vitality our of us as we can never redirect our

attention to that which is at hand.  We must always be living in the land of work.  As most of us are not the president of the United States, one has to wonder why we have to sacrifice our personal lives for the omnipresent work life. We cannot be alive to the bigger world around us:  the sound of crickets in the late summer, the biting cold of the winter wind on a winter’s walk in a forest or down an urban street.  We miss the joy of a child playing at pretending to make stone soup and we cannot smell the baking bread as we are buried in our laptop, firing back emails to someone who is likewise disconnected from the 3-D world around them. Our minds are full of buzzing electronic waves that shout to be heard and rule our every thought, waking and sometimes in the middle of the night.

The irony is that I am not convinced we are really accomplishing any more than countless generations before us achieved.  The medievals lived full and adventuresome lives with nary a computer in sight and often died at an age we would find tragically young.  And yet look at  all they accomplished.  Empires were built and destroyed, music and art was created, novels were written, people lives fulsome lives.  Businesses grew and created the modern world.  Without email.

My daughter types letters on a typewriter and for a number of years lived off the grid on a farm.  Maybe we need to rethink the ways in which technology has mastered us and made us its slaves, even as it promised us that our lives would be immeasurably improved with its presence.  Walk away from it.  Advocate for a workplace where weekends, vacations, days off are silent.  Regain privacy and retool the ancient forms of communication knows as our five senses.  Breathe.  Look.  Hear.  And walk away from the computer.  Like I will do now.

Next meditation:  the cell phone…

Marshall Goodman-an artist

Marshall Goodman painting


Growing up in New York City my brother and I were privileged to know my parents’ wide assortment of wonderful theater friends, some of whom babysat my brother and I (Angus and Rufie), others who drank screwdrivers for breakfast (name withheld for obvious reasons), some who ‘hated children’ so keep-a-low-profile-kids (Fred Tobey) and then there was Marshall.  Marshall Goodman was an artist who always lived on the edge.  He was bigger than life, flamboyant, a known ladies man, and an elf.  Loud, exuberant, he would burst into our house and everything just got more colorful.

He struggled, painting fanciful images in Lord & Taylors, doing sketches down at the Courts for newspapers, and annual Christmas cards, usually featuring cats.  He adored cats.  He once had an ocelot that when it became too big and began to scratch him, he donated to the zoo.  Alas, it was attacked by the big cat in the next cage and bled out.  He was devastated.

After my father died he came to the memorial service. He was back in New York City after a stint in Jersey City (cheaper rent) and I began to visit him periodically in his city apartment.  He was a Buddhist at that point–interesting choice but he honored all living things. He would regale me with tales of his time at the RISD in his youth.  When he became sick and ended up on the hospital I visited him.  When he passed away, I was genuinely sad and met his lovely brother Seymour, who was as rational as Marshall had been the opposite.  Seymour had to empty out his flat, full of art, sketches, tons of stuff.  At the time I saw a painting that struck me as simply beautiful. He featured a slim young woman with a Siamese cat.   Seymour has arranged with a gallery to buy all of Marshall’s artwork in bulk to sell.  I tracked the painting and years later, it seems to still be for sale.  But the price is now listed at $15,000!  Marshall, the quintessential artist, never had any money at all and I cannot help but regret both that there is no way that I can afford that painting, and that Marshall cannot know how much they are asking for it.  I am sure he would be astonished.  I hope my father and he are toasting it with cocktails in heaven’s bar.