Monday, January 31, 2011

Carpe diem

Seize the day

Gil Scott Heron notwithstanding, it seems nowadays the revolution will be televised, live.  That is why I'm glad I learned Arabic and I'm grateful for Al Jazeera for giving me an intensive refresher course.  Nothing like understanding the people  directly as they express their democratic aspirations in their own language. The wave, as it may be domino effect, of revolts against repressive Arab regimes that began in Tunisia has spread dramatically a month later to Cairo, where I spent two of the most memorable years of my life. 

Now, thanks to Al Jazeera, not to mention a plethora of fine photojournalists, I've been following the most exciting events in Egypt since 1952 almost minute-by-minute 24/7, despite attacks on Al Jazeera's Cairo headquarters and arrests of  their local representatives.  And solidarity has been expressed all over the Arab world and among expatriates in the West and that too has been reported live.  This has gotten through loud and clear, despite the regime's shutting down the Internet and most cell phone networks.  The channel's primary Arabic broadcasts come through stronger online than Al Jazeera English, or the BBC.

The Egyptians have said it in a least a dozen different ways.  Mubarak must go.  The people.. desire.. the fall.. of the regime.  The people and the army will change the president.  Go away, Mubarak.  And then, more wittily, in English:  Game over.  

Mubarak:  a stuffed crocodile of a man with tight matted died hair, an older version of Berlusconi.  Much older: is, amazingly, 82.  How can he be that old?  Tough old reptile, he refuses to move.  He appoints a vice president.  So what?   In the street, Egyptians say they won’t leave till Mubarak is gone.

I once worked within a short distance of Meidan el-Tahrir, and now this sprawling open space named "Liberation" is the central stage of great and thrilling events that seek freedom from three decades of repression.   What may become a long, not-so-slow wave of revolts began when a man with a university degree who could not get a job set fire to himself in Sidi Bou Zid,Tunisia after police beat him for selling vegetables in the street to support himself. The sticking point:  the Tunisian regime had swallowed up any businesses its kleptocracy wanted, starving the economy and the people.  In Egypt the battle was particularly with that bugaboo of Nasser's time, the Mukhabirat, intelligence, and the Shurta, the police.  They had spied upon, wrongly imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and humiliated citizens for decades, and so now it was appropriate that in the streets of Egyptian cities the people should do battle with the Shurta and win.   It was, as Al Jazeera's title said,  جمعة الغضب/Jum'at-al-ghadb, “The Friday of Rage.”  There were waves of citizens, mostly young but all ages and classes and women as well as men.  They stood up to tear gas, rubber bullets and live ones, supplied by the USA.  As some of them grew tired they fell back and were replaced by fresh waves.  At least a hundred, maybe hundreds, died and a thousand were wounded but their spirit grew stronger by the hour.

Eventually police disappeared, and in following days were replaced by the army, in antique tanks covered with graffiti:  Down with Mubarak.  The army is friendly, its spokesman gives a statement declaring the aspirations of the people legitimate.  But is this just a tactic of the regime to stall for time?  Mubarak has hung on for thirty years; he can hang on for a while longer, waiting for warring political factions among the people to tear each other up and destroy the energy of the revolt.   Now, there is a spirit of cooperation.  People help each other and tidy up the square.  Checkpoints prevent looters.  Fifteen-year-olds direct traffic, they say, better than the police did.  But problems loom.  Roads are cut off, traffic is blocked, food runs short and goes up in price.  A general strike is planned.  How long can the country be shut down?  More than the seven days so far, clearly.  Tunisia's went on for weeks.

Ben Ali of Tunisia has fled the country, but the Tunisians don’t have the government they want.   What guarantee is there that Egypt will have the government its people want?  When has Egypt ever been free and democratic?

However it goes, the moment has been seized and it is a sweet one, a springtime when people are full of defiance and hope.  Reporting in tweets from Tahrir Square, the young journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous has declared this to be a new Egypt, and said that it will never go back to the way it was under Mubarak.  All this is a tribute to the spirit and connectedness of the Egyptian people and also one of the most impressive effects of collective power of satellite TV, Facebook, Twitter, the new media that put people in touch and on constant alert.

Whatever the pessimistic views of jaded analysts may be, the media-devouring Arabic-speaking public is filled with excitement and hope by the tumultuous events in Egypt. Today Al Jazeera Arabic online polls asked two questions.  First, Do you think the Egyptian people will achieve their demands?  Second, Will the Egyptian example spread to other Arab countries?  A resounding majority responded نعم/n'am, yes, to both questions.

Facebook page gives instructions for the January 28th "Friday of Rage."

Monday, January 24, 2011

The wisdom of self-doubt

Almost the minute I’d opened this new media outlet I was filled with dread and self-doubt.  It was as if a wicked child had beckoned to enter a dangerous playground, even if that wicked child were myself.  The blank page is terrifying because it can be both a void and a mirror.  I may see nothingness, or myself, both potentially disagreeable prospects.  Or what I come up with may be disappointingly ordinary, like the “mere chitchat and common sense” Oliver Goldsmith was disappointed to discover in the words of his Chinese sage in The Citizen of the World.  An open-ended conversation risks going nowhere. If history "has many cunning passages," so does the self, all leading back to the same untended garden.  I become more powerfully aware of the courage as well as, at the time, the originality of Montaigne in making himself the primary subject of his book.  Now that idea is crushingly unoriginal, though obviously there are blogs and blogs.  Bad to use the word, especially twice in succession.  But some are outpourings of sought-out, specialized commentary and wisdom.  Some are immature day-to-day journals, chitchat without the common sense,  read by other adolescents going through the same crises or older people who want to comfort them and enjoy safe nostalgia for their lost youth.  And these plod and then flourish a while and then sputter out as their subject and sole contributor moves on.  

 And so much the better, because a journal that goes on faithfully with the same energy year after year may become ultimately daunting and numbing.   I'm thinking about two pitfalls here, the one of talking excessively and unamusingly about oneself and the other of lacking a specific structure.  So I seem to be embarking on a dangerous and dubious enterprise.  The self-doubt is largely out of fashion in America these days (if it was ever in). I'm not declaring myself indifferent to fashion, just to this one.

Speaking of fashions, there's a move these days among some to say electronic and computer tools are undermining human attention spans and even rewiring our brains to be less capable of carrying out challenging tasks or remembering things.  True, we are become the tools of our tools, as Thoreau said was happening. This could never not have been happening, since the invention of the wheel.  But I don't buy the idea that there are two ways of being, one of deep concentration and lengthy focus on single things and another of flitting about like a butterfly.  The concept of the "attention span" is naive and superficial and seems not to recognize in what complex ways the mind usually works. This seems partly again an American mindset, to think the drugstore clerk can only wait on one customer at a time, while in Cairo he can cheerfully and successfully deal with five at once.  Such head-shaking also seems unfair to women, whose lives have always involved juggling many tasks simultaneously.  But it also fails to recognize the approach of magnates who oversee broad enterprises and must move rapidly from one subject to another all day long. Gianni Agnelli was said to attend a play till he got the idea of it, and then leave.  

Then the argument says that books are dying out (not proven) because they contain long continuous trains of thought contemporary iPad-dissected minds cannot follow.  True, the writing and the reading of a book involve lengthy concentration, but it's not certain that concentration must come or could come all at once.  Finishing Infinite Jest and À la recherche took some focus on my part, but it was a matter of coming back, not sticking in one spot.  Who's to say that people's disjointed conversations, Internet-surfing, and reading aren't all long continuous strings as perceived and reconstituted in their brains, like a book read over a period of weeks or months?

Yes, you can go batty if you're so overstimulated you keep jumping from one thing to another and can't think about anything for long enough to conclude or enjoy it.  But doing several things at once is as natural as chewing gum and skipping rope or painting a picture while listening to jazz; and starting new things and shifting mental gears is good for the brain, and everything else, as long as it doesn't make you have a car crash.  As I said, my life itself is compartmentalized, always has been, bipolar, bisexual, bicoastal, hip and square, shifty and on the run, while also finding time to be in a rut, a variety of ruts.  I used to like the saying, Apprendre une langue, c'est vivre de nouveau.  To learn a language is -- what? -- to live anew?  There's some real doubt if this is actually a French saying, by the way.  French Google doesn't bring it up.  American Google takes you to American college language departments.  A French Canadian friend had never heard it and pointed out the predicate was ambiguous.  The idea to me is that a new language gives you a new start, a new personality, a new voice.  My first French tutor, the charming Breton lady Mlle Annick Soubigou, wrote a little note to my mother telling her that my "French voice" was good.  I hope my French personality was too.  A more pretentious saying is the blasphemous one that, as they say at the University of Dallas, "To learn a foreign language is to acquire a second soul."  A foreign one, no doubt.  I wouldn't go that deep.  I'd be happy just to lose my American accent.  And in fact the greatest compliment I've gotten in speaking foreign languages is that I had an accent but it wasn't identifiably American.   Oliver Sacks says learning new stuff, like a game, a musical instrument, a language, is good for old folks' brains.  Well, yeah.  We kind of didn't need a bestseller-writing British neurologist to tell us that.

My simple point is that switching subjects, spoken languages being a good example, is both a welcome escape from the tyranny of the quotidian and a freshening up of the brain.  Talking about nothing is good too, as is thinking about nothing.  As far as I can tell, thinking about nothing is a good basic definition of the thing they call "meditation."  And we know this lowers the blood pressure, calms the emotions, and perhaps soothes the soul, and if you do it enough and are lucky brings on moments of enlightenment.  Close down your computer and shut your eyes and begin slowly counting your breaths...

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Since the Internet is my life, I surely must need a blog.  Isn't the community of people on the Web the Blogosphere, so that the webbed connectedness of the Internet begins with a blog?  To say anything "is my life" would have been alien at one time.  I picked up the turn of phrase from River Phoenix in Sidney Lumet's touching 1981 film Running on Empty.  It comes in one of the first scenes and he tosses it off rapidly and ironically:  "baseball is my life."  He means it isn't.  That maybe he doesn't have a life.  If anything is his life it's music. But transitoriness is his life.  One of the ways the film is touching is how it may have been such a good role for River because of the way the story paralleled his own disruptive early life, being about a family dragged around hastily from place to place, on the run.  Other things are my life.  But I may be on the run too.  Why not?

A blog floats in space with millions of others.  Nothing is more trivial than oneself, yet nothing is more important to oneself, let's face it, than oneself.  "I myself am the subject of my book," wrote Montaigne, and he made something good out of that.  His book was even successful during his life.  It sold, though he may not have desperately needed the money.

Here, I won't promise what this will be like, because it may change as I go along.  On my website there are formal spaces for writing about three things, politics, movies, and art, with movie reviews taking up the most space.  Over here, there will be no rule about what can be talked about.  It can be about anything.  That in itself is a daunting prospect, of course.  There's a risk involved. If you can talk about anything you may wind up talking about nothing.  And how can you choose among the zillion possible things, what to say, what to choose?  The blank page, the empty canvas:  the terrifying void of the vague possibility of self-expression without any certainty about what to express.  The abyss.  Ener the Void.  But let's not get too dramatic -- or trippy.  My world isn't drawn in stark, dramatic darks and lights.

But it is compartmentalized, as in the website's subject categories.  Hence it seems good to have another compartment.  One way my life is divided is between coasts, since home base is California but I spend a lot of time (sometimes it seems the best time; bu is it the most essential?) in New York City.  The laid-back-ness of the Coast seems to balance out the intense energy of the Big Apple.  The movies and plays, the quick E Train rides to breathe in Malevich's Supreatism,  Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon and "Abstract Impressionist New York" at MoMA before lunch is necessary, the two films at IFC Center followed by a play; but then after all that, it may be necessary to look out my bedroom window on Walnut Street at the spruce tree and the lichen-covered bricks of the patio, an expanse of quiet green. Then back in a month or so for the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincon Center.  Where does it all end?  Not any time soon, I hope.

This  I once saw as a big dilemma  What to do?  Where to live?  But the answer seems to be not to choose at all, simply to compartmentalize.  The back and forth is a rhythm of contrasts that seems necessary.  Don't stay too long in one place or the moss grows on your feet and not just the bricks.   So perhaps this is another world to escape into, while remaining, of course, much the same.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  Or whatever Montaigne would say.