On Why You Should Watch Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”: Part Two of What Are You Watching, Listening to and Reading These Days?

“You must change your life,” the German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke urges us in the final lines of his poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo.”

Great art does that to us–it urges us to see our lives and the lives of others in a different way. It drives us to think, love and feel more deeply. It is not polemical or preachy–great art doesn’t tell us what to do or even how to do it. It simply gets into our head, or maybe our heart, and points us in a new direction.

Right now, American culture looks and feels more art-less and art-ificial than art-full and that’s why I’m writing a short series of blogs on art and thought that urges, guides and makes us stop to consider things we are too busy or to angry to consider.

In that regard, then, Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, qualifies as great art because beyond it’s quiet beauty and attention to the inner and creative life of its main characters, Paterson, works as an unusual tale about what’s gone wrong with America and how we might recapture the part of ourselves we’ve lost.

Jarmusch has been turning out small, poignant art house films that go against the grain of the mainstream American film tradition for the better part of 30 years. Jarmusch’s films are in some ways like Hemingway short stories: nothing really happens in terms of plot and there is a low-level tension running through the narrative.

 

The film is about a city bus driver (Adam Driver) in Paterson, New Jersey whose name happens to be Paterson and who also happens to be a pretty good poet. Paterson, New Jersey was the home of the great American poet/physician, William Carlos Williams, who, like Paterson, the bus driver/poet, drew his artistic inspiration from the streets and the people of Paterson, New Jersey and whose direct, conversational, koan-like and Whitmanesque poems, in turn, inspire Paterson.

The film is episodic in structure; it takes place over the course of six days (Monday through Saturday). Each day of the film begins with a tender shot of Paterson and Laura waking up in the morning and then proceeds to Paterson eating breakfast (cheerios over milk), walking to the bus depot, driving his bus, walking back home, eating dinner with Laura, taking the dog, Marvin, for a walk, stopping in at the local pub for exactly one beer and then heading back home to sleep.

On the surface, Paterson and Laura lead quite mundane lives, exactly the opposite of the kind of distracted, fast-paced, anxiety-ridden, overwhelmingly busy lives that most Americans currently lead. And, in the hands of just about any other writer or director, the shape of Paterson’s and Laura’s life would be portrayed as monotonous and void of meaning. Under Jarmusch’s care, though, Paterson and Laura and the good people of Paterson, New Jersey inhabit a world that sparkling with creative energy and care for others.

Paterson and Laura live in a tiny, concrete-block house that would be considered more of a pre-starter home. They have little money, they rarely eat out or go to the movies and they don’t talk about their next big vacation getaway. The outside of the home needs serious attention; inside, though, Paterson and Laura have created a world buzzing with creativity and emotional closeness.

After work, Paterson retires to a small room in the basement that’s lit by a single reading lamp. Surrounded by, at once, tools, flashlights, cans of paint thinner and masonry paint as well as rows of books of poetry and prose that includes Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, David Foster Wallace, Luc Sante, a biography on Monk, and, among others, the collected works of William Carlos Williams, Paterson sits at a makeshift desk where he writes verse after verse of direct, conversational poems that filter the stories and voices he picks up from passengers on his route and that synthesize the shape of his days and the tenor of his thoughts.

Upstairs, Laura, (Golshifteh Farahani) is a dervish of creative activity as she busily designs her own clothes, decorates the kitchen cabinets and the drapery and even her cupcakes with bold, Miro-like swirls and swishes. They meet around the kitchen table or on the sofa and talk of their dreams (Laura’s are funny and bizarre), Paterson’s poems, music, art and poetry.

paterson3
Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) amongst her creations

The world of Paterson is enmeshed in a long line of mid-twentieth-century American poetry, prose and music that tried to get at the heart of what it meant to be an American. The larger literary context for Jarmusch’s Paterson are the short stories of Sherwood Anderson’s short stories of rural, pre-World War II Midwestern lives, Thornton Wilder’s pared down, understated dramas, Philip Levine’s poems of working class life, William Carlos Williams’ poems and short stories of the enchantment and humor of everyday life and, of course, undergirding all of it, the arms-wide-open-to-the-world poetry of Walt Whitman. The background music of all this is, of course, tunes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

In one of the best scenes of the film, Paterson is walking home from the bus depot one afternoon when he happens upon a young girl sitting on a loading dock outside an abandoned factory. It’s a rather dodgy area, so Paterson approaches the young girl and asks if everything is all right. All is well, she tells Paterson, explaining that she’s just waiting for her mother and sister who have gone in the building next door. Paterson, concerned for the girl’s safety, asks if it’s okay if he waits with her until her mother returns. The girl readily accedes and when Paterson sits down on the dock, he looks down at the girl’s notebook, which is full of lines of poems that she’s working on. “Are you interested in poetry?” the girl asks and when Paterson says he is, the girl asks if she can read him a poem she’s written. It’s called “Water Falls” and Paterson listens intently as the girl reads her poem.

It’s a gorgeous moment: two strangers, a young girl and a thirty-something man meeting by happenstance and reading and discussing poetry. When she is finished reading, the girl’s mother and sister appear from the building. As the girl packs up her notebook she asks Paterson, “Do you like Emily Dickinson?” Paterson says, that yes, he likes Emily Dickinson very much and as she’s walking away, the girl looks over her shoulder and says, “That’s cool, a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson.” Why not?

paterson2The whole movie goes on like this. Strangers, friends and lovers meet and their conversations drift from everyday concerns like “What’s for dinner?” and “When will you be home tonight?” to ruminations on Petrarch, Walt Whitman, the nature of anarchy and, of course, Paterson, New Jersey’s finest son and poet, William Carlos Williams.

 

Paterson doesn’t hit you over the head with polemics, but it is, in many ways, a meditation on how technology has driven us apart from each other and even from our better selves. Jarmusch has basically scrubbed all forms of screens from the film. Aside from a few moments, the film is devoid of hand-held devices, televisions, laptops, E-readers, Ipads and computer screens. When the digital and televised world does show up in the film, Jarmusch gently reminds us how our lives have been overrun by data.

The point, though, of scrubbing hand-held devices and the like from the film is to examine what our lives can be like when the buzzing in our pockets, backpacks and purses ceases. Many of us pick up our phones to find out what we are missing, but Jarmusch seems to be reminding us to put down our phone to find out what we are missing.

When there’s nothing, in other words, to distract us from our lived lives, what’s left? Quite a lot, Jarmusch seems to be saying, because as digital connectivity recedes, at least in the world of Paterson, opportunities for emotional, communal and artistic creativity increases exponentially.

Had the young girl sitting on the abandoned dock been using social media instead of writing poems, she would have missed the opportunity to read her poem to a stranger. Instead of checking the scores on his phone before he begins his driving shift each morning, Paterson sits in his bus and quietly writes in his notebook. At lunch time, he drives to Passaic Falls, the Paterson landmark that William Carlos Williams extolled in his long poem, “Paterson,” sits down at a park bench, takes out his lunch as well as a worn copy of Frank O’Hara’s poems and continues to write.

paterson6
Paterson (Adam Driver) writing before his shift

 

paterson9
Contemplating Passaic Falls

Throughout the film, Jarmusch seems to be quietly reminding us of the damage the digital world has wreaked on our emotional and communal lives. We all know this to be true. Despite the fact that we go to the digital world to feel connected, the whole enterprise makes us more lonely and depressed. Even the social scientists say so and Jean Twenge, in a recent Atlantic essay, demonstrates how this is especially the case, dangerously so, for young adults.

In this regard, then, Paterson can be viewed as a kind of thought experiment that begins with this question: What would our lives be like if they were not so heavily mediated by technology? Or, to put it another way, what would our lives look like if they were not so heavily medicated by the incessant stream of digital information we consume everyday?

There is a deep-seated struggle in America right now about what it means to be an American and who the “real” Americans are and what they want. The truth is, of course, that there are no “real” Americans any more than there are real elephants or red-tailed hawks. They are all real. What Jim Jarmusch has done in Paterson is paint a portrait of a group of Americans who may not represent all of us, but who, surely, we would all do well to model our ever day lives after.

And in this regard, Jarmusch has crafted a story that can help us to navigate our way through the rocky shoals of contemporary American life. It’s easy to blame the current state of the American republic on Know-Nothing, backward politicians. But as I was watching Paterson and as I was attending to the quiet, creative, lives its characters lived I couldn’t help but think that it’s not just #45 and his crazed regime that have overtaken our country as they busily go about trying to empty the republic of its joy, diversity, compassion and, yes, art.

We have all, in some ways, done this to ourselves and to each other and #45 is the baleful, sorry expression of our retreat. By burrowing, as we’ve done, into our identity groups, our class and race divisions, into the satellite shouting matches on the cable networks and into the digital sand of our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and god knows what other social media apps, we’ve lost something of private and collective selves.

I know there is comfort there, but on the flip side of the encased and digital world that beckons us at every turn is the call of the Sirens, tempting us, further into a private, lonely world that’s cut off from what, if anything, truly makes America great and that’s its diversity of thought and experience.

It doesn’t have to be as it is. We must and we can change our lives. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a welcome and gentle reminder to these things.

paterson7
Jim Jarmusch

French men make khaki look cool

I probably think slightly more about fashion than the average middle-aged American male.

That said, I feel like a slob in Paris.

When I met Sujata in 2000, I looked like a holdover from the late 80s with my pegged jeans, baggy shirts and weird, faux-mullet haircut.

There are a number of critical junctures that can make or break any romantic relationship. There’s the first kiss, the meeting of the parents, the first argument and, at least for us, the first time Sujata critiqued my sartorial choices.

It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you dress, the shirts and pants and sweaters and ties and blazers and whatever else that you choose to cloak yourself in everyday say something about who you are or who you think you are and pretty much no one wants to be told, in blunt or even gentle terms, that the clothes they are wearing look stupid, or out of date or, worse, ugly. In other words, even if you profess to not care what people think of your sartorial choices, you actually do, and you will be (even slightly) offended should someone/anyone raise an objection to anything that you might choose to wear.

That’s partly why fashion as a topic of discussion (or critique) rarely comes up in normal adult conversation and that would especially be the case with dudes. Imagine strolling down the sidewalk with your best friend and offering, “You know, you look like you are on your way to Applebee’s, man, why don’t you change that shirt before we head to the pub?” Because unless you sleep next to the person who is leveling critiques at your sartorial choices, you should really just not go there, unless you are trying to derail the relationship/friendship in the first place.

That said, one of the critical junctures in our relationship was the first time Sujata verbally turned her nose up at my fashion sense. I think her first shot across my couture bow was directed at my jeans, which she declared to be too tight and high-waisted. This was in the early to mid 2000s as low rise jeans were coming into fashion. I, stuck in the mid-80s, still thought that the jeans Springsteen wore on the Born in the USA tour were in fashion and I wasn’t aware of the low-rise craze. Next, came derision cast at the houndstooth blazer that I’d been wearing for upwards of 10 years and then from there, there was a protracted assault on my denim shirts.

I grudgingly took her advice and, over the years, acquired at least a modicum of fashion sense. It’s not like I have a fashion coach, subscribe to GQ, or read the Style section of The Times, but I will go out of my way to find a stylish shirt, a nice pair of dark wash denim jeans, a pair of smart shoes and a few nicely-fitted blazers.

At my age and given my subject position (white, male, middle aged) the object is, at minimum, to not look like a denizen of the American suburbs, which, as it turns out, isn’t that hard to do. You just have to stay away from baseball caps, cargo pants (or shorts!) or t-shirts emblazoned with “Just Do It,” “No Pain No Gain,” or “Go Hard or Go Home.”

And I have to say that as you get older, it’s a lot easier to look older simply based on your fashion choices. A baggy pair of jeans or khakis, a schlumpy collared shirt (or worse, a polo shirt!) and suddenly 50 looks like 60. And I’m not ashamed of admitting that I’m slightly vain enough to care.

We’ve been living in Europe for nearly nine months now and, over time, I’ve figured out European fashion. I bought some beautiful wool sport coats and fashionable European-cut slacks in Italy and a pair of Campers in Spain. In Saigon, I found a tailor who made me three beautiful shirts and, of course, I have the classic sweater that Sujata made me in Ireland.  I’ve purchased a scarf in just about every country we’ve visited. So, I felt pretty fashion forward throughout most of our European journey. Well, at least I didn’t feel particularly fashion backward.

European men favor slim-fitted slacks with an inseam just above the ankle, a style choice which allows them to show off their shoes as well as their socks. Most men over 30 wear a European-cut blazer (fitted, shorter in the sleeves than most American blazers and shorter at the waist as well) with an open-collared shirt. You rarely see ties. Soft leather or suede chukkas or (better) pointed, high-top, wing-tip leather boots (very cool!) are popular as well.

If you had to characterize European men’s style you’d say it’s quite minimal and close-fitting. The lines in the shirts, blazers and pants are straight and smooth and there is no taste for baggy or oversized fits. Colors are, by and large, muted, earth toned. There’s no room for loud plaids or paisleys and forget about wearing plaid on plaid or plaid with stripes.

French men, though, are at the top of the pile of European fashion. In Dublin, for instance, dudes walk around with skin-tight spandex jeans–they look like they just got off the boat from Queens. Romanians dress like guys on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Spaniards dress like San Franciscans and the English dress like they just woke up and couldn’t remember if they were going to the rugby match or the office. The only European men who can compete in a fashion sense with the French are the Italians, whose taste for fine wool blazers and trousers is impeccable.

French men, though, can make khaki look cool.

The other day, as we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, a very fashionable young man walked by us. Dressed in his spring fashion blazer, open-collared cotton print shirt, perfectly creased trousers and pointed wing tip boots, he appeared to have leapt from a catwalk. “Look, children, a flaneur,” I whispered, to which Atticus quipped, “He seems like the kind of guy who should have a television crew following him.” Well played, young man!

All this is probably making you wonder, “How can I look dress more Parisian?” Or, “How can I get my partner to dress more Parisian?”

Well, if that’s the case, then read on. As I’ve been admiring French architecture, the Seine and French Impressionist paintings, I’ve also had my eye on French fashion so here are a few tips on how to look as cool and fashionable as any Parisian man nonchalantly waking through La Marais:

  1. Get a scarf. I started wearing scarves when we were in Cambodia last summer. The Cambodians (perhaps because they were colonized by the French) love their scarves and Cambodian scarves are made of a light cotton that you can wear throughout the summer. I bought about 10 of them when we were in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and hardly a day has gone by since then when I didn’t have one wrapped around my neck, even in warm weather. In Paris, though, a scarf is simply required.
  2. Get a pair of high-top, wing-tip leather shoes. If you are in the States you may need to special order these because I don’t think they sell them at Cole Haan, but, it’d be worth the extra postage and, anyway, get a pair of French boots so you are at least supporting the French (who voted the right way in the last election) and get them before #45 levies import taxes on European goods because after that happens, everyone will want them.
  3. Keep at least two buttons of your collared shirts open. I know, this is hard for American men, but, you know what, you just have to do it and then, eventually, you’ll get used to it and you’ll feel free. In the week that I’ve been in Paris, I’ve not seen one Parisian man wearing a collared shirt that wasn’t opened at least from the last two buttons. Since we’ve arrived, it’s been getting progressively warmer and I’ve noticed that at the temperature rises, fewer buttons get clasped. You just have to try it and then it starts to feel normal. Today, for instance, I left the flat with three of my top buttons undone while kept looking around to see if anyone was staring at me on the walk to the Metro, by the time we got to the Musee D’Orsay, I completely forgot about it and just melded in with all the other Parisian men.
  4. Wear v-neck tshirts. You will never, ever see a Parisian man walking around with a crew neck tshirt. C’est horrible! V-necks are way cooler and fashionable and if you are really freaked out about keeping the first two buttons of your collared shirt open, the v-neck will make you feel safer and more secure.

If you are feeling fashion adrift, I hope this little bit of Parisian advice will get you through the spring and summer fashion season.

 

 

 

 

Living in Other People’s Homes

It has occurred to me a number of times over the course of the past few weeks that for the past six months we have been living in other people’s homes. Because we’ve been renting on the short-term rental market (Airbnb, Homestay, VRBO) we’ve stayed in hotels maybe 10 nights out of the 180-odd nights that have passed since we left Denver. By the same token, for that same period of time, other people have been living in our home in Denver. We get updates every so often from our property managers, but for the most part, we don’t hear anything, so I can only assume that things are just fine.

Living like this prompts you to think about the nature our lives together and the domestic spaces we inhabit. Sipping coffee from other people’s mugs, eating dinner from other people’s plates, relaxing on other people’s sofas and sleeping in other people’s beds for a considerable period of time makes you wonder about things: Where is our home? How do the things we surround ourselves with hold our memories?  What holds us together? What pulls us apart?

A house is brick and mortar. It’s something you buy and sell and occupy or allow someone else to occupy for you. A house is defined by legal documents like the deed or mortgage that sits in a box in your basement, and it’s defined through space–there’s a foundation, walls and a roof and there’s a fence that separates your property from your neighbors’.

A home, on the other hand, gathers up the emotional current of family life; it holds our memories, conversations, arguments, joys and failures. A home is the box of Christmas ornaments in your storage closet, the creaky step on the stairs that you just can’t fix and aren’t really sure that you wish to. A home is the way your front door key slides into the lock and the window in your bedroom that you gaze from in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.

A hotel room is an instrument–you use it for a night or two, maybe three, and it’s primarily a place to drop your bags and return to after a day of sightseeing. There’s a bed and a bathroom and there are some mass-produced cups and glasses and towels, but a hotel room isn’t populated with material objects that hold memories, that carry on traditions and that shine a light onto the interiors of our lives. A hotel room doesn’t leave anything behind. Once you leave, the cleaning crew comes through as sweeps, dusts and wipes away what you left behind.

I often wonder how living in other people’s homes has changed our experiences on the road, and while I’m sure staying in hotels would have been just fine, I also think that we would have missed some of the things we’ve gained. Beyond the costs and the inconvenience of staying in hotels, living in Airbnbs gives you access to a different kind of travel. It’s a travel of existence, as opposed to a travel of instrumentality.

Because you communicate directly with the Airbnb hosts, you learn things about their lives just through exchanging information and sorting out arrival and departure plans. My favorite Airbnb homes are the ones that are occupied by the owners. This situation was actually quite common among the places we stayed and it’s especially the case when you rent outside tourist regions and when you get off that tourist grid. In these homes, you can, in some ways, literally see and feel the imprint of other lives in the houses you are visiting. Generally, these properties are the primary residence of the owners, who clear out when renters arrive. I like these kinds of arrangements because you are actually living in someone’s house and you are sharing in a part of their lives. It’s a home that is populated with material items that have personal and family history.

The owner of the shotgun row home we rented in Sydney, Australia collected Asian art and had children’s drawings (his nephews and nieces, I presumed) taped to the refrigerator. The flat we rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was owned by a British national whose bookshelves were stuffed with French literature and Cambodian history and whose walls were lined with  portraits of family members. With their fine English suits and dresses and their knowing, confident gazes, they looked like they came from a long line of diplomats. The frayed edges of the blanket on the sofa of the young woman’s flat in Tokyo, the chips and stains in the tea cups of the Chinese couple’s hi-rise in Auckland, the weathered picnic table in the backyard of the farm house in Rotorua, New Zealand–all these things, all this stuff, makes up the history of other people’s lives that we, in some small way, participated and shared in. It causes me to wonder: what will our home in Denver feel like when return?  Will it feel, for a time, just like another short-term rental which we are passing through? Or will we immediately reconnect with the material world that we’d left behind?

Five years ago, the short-term rental market barely existed so we would have spent the better part of the last six months in hotels. There are some real benefits in renting off the short-term rental market. From a purely economic perspective, you save a lot of money. A three-star hotel room in any given European city would be a minimum of 150 euros a night, about twice what we generally spend on an Airbnb. So, thinking like an economist, this is great for everyone: we have more money in our pockets to spend in restaurants and shops and the local economy, in turn, the community benefits from our extra Euros floating around. By the same token, our house in Denver is nearly fully occupied, so are we bringing in revenue to pay off the mortgage and there are people in the house, making it less likely to be broken into or flooded from a broken pipe.

The short-term rental market also offers you a wider range of geographical places to stay in most cities. Most hotels, that is, are located in central tourist areas (city centers) or commercial areas (like near airports) so you can get caught in tourist traps and geographical spaces that are dominated by multinational commercial interests. The short-term rental market, though, is made up of properties in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout most major cities.  When we were in Sydney, for instance, we stayed in Surrey Hills, a neighborhood about three light rail stops from the main business district. We ate in locally owned restaurants, shopped in small markets and just sort of mixed in with the other residents of Surrey Hills. This was the case, as well, in our stays in Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Budapest, Rome and Seville.

But lest this starts to sound like free advertising for the short-term rental market, let me say that there’s also a dark side to this whole thing because while it’s easy for me to hail the cost and convenience of Airbnb rentals, the reality is that Airbnb rentals can do real damage in many places. Think about it: you own a two bedroom flat in downtown Barcelona and you start to realize that you can make more money renting your place through Airbnb. What are you going to do? Or, worse: you are an estate agent/real estate developer and you start buying up whole apartment complexes in downtown Barcelona, turning a majority of the units over to Airbnb rentals. That’s great for the developer and the landlord and for people like me, but if you live in one of these areas, how would you feel if swaths of the real estate market in your neighborhood started getting turned over to short-term rentals?

It took me way too long to come around to this understanding. In fact, I remember almost the exact moment that I snapped out of this optimistic haze and started thinking about the deeper and darker implications of short-term rental market: Sujata and I were out for a stroll in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful evening. There were loads of people out on the streets, there was music in the cafes and bars, folks were walking around with bags of groceries to make their Christmas meals and bags of presents to give to their loved ones. Everyone seemed happy and I just kept looking around in wonderment that I was here, in the middle of Barcelona, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, during the holiday season. Sujata broke my naive reverie by declaring, “You know, this is great and all, but what is this city going to look like in five years when this whole neighborhood is turned over to Airbnb rentals.”

Thud.

Most of us enjoy living where we live because we know and trust our neighbors. Strong communities and strong neighborhoods are made up of families and individuals who have a stake in the communities they live in and who watch out for each other. Back home in Denver, there have been countless times when I’m making something in the kitchen and realize that I’m short one ingredient so I just send the kids over to our neighbors to make up the difference. They go over to Wayne and Darlene’s for an egg or an onion or down to Matt and Malia’s for a fist full of basil (or more likely, two fingers of whiskey). And what we take is always paid back: homemade cookies for the eggs, a bowl of fresh pesto for the basil and, a beer or two for the whiskey. And it’s not just about borrowing household items. It’s quid pro quo; you take a little and you give a little and in the exchange you develop relationships with your neighbors. Sure, you get people watching your back, but you also get the richness of knowing the people who live on your block.

You can’t operate that way, though, in a community that’s dominated by short-term rentals. It’s not so much that people don’t trust each other; they just don’t know each other and ultimately not knowing breeds mistrust.

So, I get it that great cities like London, Barcelona and New York are wary of short-term rentals eating into their communities. This dynamic is a testament to the complexity of living in the globalized world we live in. The benefits abound, and an argument can be made that those benefits are shared, to some extent, across a diverse and wide range of participants. The deleterious aspects are there as well, although they are a bit more difficult to see (or easier to ignore). This, I suspect, is the nature of the economic world we live in.  Multinational corporations like Apple and Airbnb (I think it will be offered as an IPO this year) provide us with reasonably inexpensive goods and services that make our lives easier on many levels. So easy, in fact, that it benefits us to ignore what lies underneath. That said, I don’t expect that we will stop renting Airbnbs because of ethical considerations. But it does, I think, point to the fact that we need strong and ethically-minded public officials who know how to establish fair and thoughtful legislation that allows for the kind of freedom and adventure that a traveler experiences through Airbnb and, at the same time, protects and nourishes the integrity of community life.

 

 

 

 

The New America Comes to Rome . . . Or Does it?

We have been in Rome for five days and I am happy and relaxed because traveling like this tends to keep my mind off The Unraveling of America. I am more focused, for instance, on admiring the multitude of public fountains, obelisks and statutes in this great city than I am on checking in on the latest Cabinet appointment or tweet from #45. That is as it should be. There will be plenty of time to mire myself in and fight against the reactionary forces that have become my country. For now, I’m just trying to bask in the ancient sunlight of Rome.

For the most part, that’s all gone fairly well. Until last night, that is, when Sujata and I, in that hour or two after sightseeing and before dinner, left the kids in the flat and trundled down the stairs and out the door to a quiet, cozy little wine bar just steps from the Pantheon.

Sujata had stopped in on her own the day before to get a bottle of wine for dinner and the young Italian barkeep, Alex, greeted us warmly and welcomed her back.  We sat ourselves in the middle of the bar’s only table–a long narrow wood-top that faced myriad bottles of Italian wine.  Alex suggested a bold, fruity Cab and in no time at all we were swirling our wine in glasses and chatting with Alex about his life in Rome. Alex is an uncommonly friendly and generous host. He shared stories about his own life and asked us where we were from and about the travel adventures we’ve had over the course of the past four months. At that point it was just the three of us in the bar and we were all laughing and enjoying the conversation.

I felt a cold breeze at my feet and turned to see the door swing on its hinges. A tall blond woman with a fur coat emerged from the street and behind her was a man in a Patagonia jacket and carrying (could it be?) a forty ounce bottle of beer in a paper bag. They had that charmless American habit of talking (loudly) as they entered a room and that, combined with the accents, gave them away as American passport holders within seconds.

Fair enough, there are plenty of Americans here in Rome and most of them we have had contact with have been perfectly nice, so I just tucked my feet under the chair for more warmth and turned back to the conversation with Sujata and Alex.

It became, though, increasingly difficult to focus as the New Arrivals paced up and down the bar, making audible observations about the decor and announcing to Alex that this was exactly the kind of wine bar that they planned on opening in St. Louis. The woman began taking photographs on her iPhone while the man, hunched over his beer, began a discourse on “price points” and square footage.

Alex, who was very happy to serve Sujata and me and to go into great detail about wines we were sampling, made the New Arrivals serve themselves. I was ready to down the wine and get the hell out of there, but, at the same time, I was enjoying myself and why should these people force us out? We stayed, ordered another glass and the New Arrivals, after 15 minutes or so of  continued public observations, picked themselves up and scuttled out the door, in search, no doubt, of another space to call their own.

While all this was happening, I (unsuccessfully) tried to supress a dark thought, so I just whispered it to Sujata. She winced.  Maybe my speculation was just that, just speculation. But, maybe this was it. Maybe this was that Two Americas that we’ve read about since 9 November, that has divided homes, enboldened some citizens to sucker punch, verbally harrass and deface the property of other citizens. The New America that we have  been protected by from our travels.

I hope I was dead wrong and I hope that my thoughts were rash and harsh judgements on perfectly reasonable and kind fellow countrymen and women.

But the sad thing is that the thought even occured to me and that I believe it is occurring to people all over the United States, every day and every hour.

Thoughts on the American Election from Abroad; or, Blue on the Danube

When I woke up in Budapest at 4 am on 10 November, the early returns started coming in, and it didn’t look good. By 4:30, we were all awake, huddled around my laptop, eyes glued to the live CNN feed. Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania had all gone red.

It was over, and a new chapter of American life had begun.

I started to feel like the walls of our flat were moving in on me, so I laced up my running shoes and jogged up the Pest side of the Danube. It was a hazy, blue-gray morning. The sun was rising behind me, and I kept the Danube to my left as I ran west past the Chain Bridge and the Parliament Building before finally turning around and heading home.

Blue Danube alright.

It felt good to move, but my chest and my gut were hollow and I kept thinking of Yeats’ words, “All changed, changed utterly.”

Almost 80 years ago, Allied bombs destroyed all of the major bridges that connected Buda and Pest. As I ran up the river, admiring these rebuilt steel spans and watching the runners, cyclists and walkers moving across them, I couldn’t help but think of the political climate in Europe at that time–a period of rampant nationalism, forced marches of vulnerable people across international borders and truculent rhetoric aimed at outsiders. We say “never again,” but the words of Trump and his followers are not that dissimilar from the war cries heard across this part of the world in the middle of the last century. I worry that the threats of political violence that Trump and his supporters expressed during the vitriolic campaign season won’t be neatly put in a nice box with a bow on top.

IMG_4990.jpg
The Chain Bridge, below. It connects Buda to Pest

When I got back to the flat, Atticus greeted me with a long, sad hug. He knows what all this means and he feels it deeply. I, for better or worse, don’t hold much back with him–I think he should know how his parents deal with this sort of thing so I just grabbed him and said, “We lost our country today, son.” That’s not hyperbole and it’s not whining. It’s just a fact.

Sujata comes from a family of immigrants, we are a mixed family, and brown and black people will be marked in news ways in this new America. I fear for my kids, but I also know that we have a good deal of privilege and protection so I fear more for my undocumented friends, my LGBTQ friends, and my black and brown friends who are more vulnerable than we are. I will help, support and be an ally for them when I return.

So, we move on.

I’m in Budapest to give some lectures and visit some classes at Karoli Gaspar University, a beautiful campus just south of Budapest’s Inner City. We’ve been treated with kindness and we’ve witnessed random acts of graciousness just about everywhere we have traveled in this beautiful and welcoming city. The professors, administrators and students at Karoli Gaspar have accepted me, a guest, a stranger, with open arms and even on the busy Budapest metro we’ve seen people helping each other out. This all feels so contrasting to the images we are getting from the States.

On Monday I lectured to a master’s level class of theatre students. I talked about the theatricality of American political and public life from the nineteenth century to the present, and I concentrated on the historical trajectory from PT Barnum and a nineteenth-century culture of public exhibition to the branded politics of the the Trump campaign.

Today, I was scheduled to talk to a class that has been following the American election for the past six weeks. The professor asked me to begin with some personal reflections on what it’s been like following the election from aboard and then to talk about how the United States has arrived at this political and cultural juncture.  I prepared a set of notes long before the class and before I left the flat to go to class, I took the notes from my back pack, quickly read them over . . . and then crumpled them up and tossed them in the trashcan. Those notes were written, I realized, with the assumption that things would basically stay the same. What I assumed then, made no sense now.

I draw a great deal of energy from teaching, and I always look forward to being in a classroom with students. Today, though, I dreaded walking into the classroom. My legs felt heavy and my tongue felt thick. I felt ashamed of the racist, misogynist, xenophobic and hateful America that elected Trump, I felt angry at the Democrats for letting it get to this point, and I felt helpless that there was nothing I could do about it. I was also very worried that I’d break down and cry in front of these strangers and that I’d further tarnish their sense of who we are and what we have become.

I didn’t weep, but I felt heavy and somber for the first 20 minutes or so and then as we began interacting I started to feel some physical and emotional levity. The students asked good, thoughtful questions and I think they sensed my sadness and reached out to help. It felt good (cathartic) to speak a bit about how this election has affected me and I’m grateful to those students for listening and dialoguing with me about it. Afterward, I spent the last hour walking them though a short history of populism in the United States. From Shay’s Rebellion to the fear of secret European societies (the Free Masons), Catholics, Jews, Communists, blacks, Asians and now, just about everybody, populist (what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style of American Politics”) sentiment has become a significant st(r)ain on our collective political and cultural life. Today, it reared up again.

There’s another more noble and honorable strain of American public life and, for me, it’s best represented in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” so I closed the class with that, thanked the students and wished them good luck. They’ll need it. So will we.

This class felt important to me. Sometimes I feel that the academic life is too conceptual and abstract. What are we really doing, anyway? Are we making a difference? Are we helping to make a more just, thoughtful and civic-minded society? Most of the time I can’t answer those questions in the positive, but given what just happened in America, at least for myself, I feel a new obligation and a new energy to show students who we are as a people and to provide spaces for them to talk, disagree and shape their own lives and societies.

We are back on the train–heading home to Timisoara. It’s just 24 hours since we heard the news, but it feels like a lifetime.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Timisoara. I can’t wait to see my students tomorrow and to hear what they have to say about the election. More on that later.

Blogging Methodology

A note on my blogging methodology, if you can even call it that.

When we arrive to any given country, I search for one or two books to download to my Kindle. In Indonesia, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I downloaded Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc. In New Zealand and Australia, I read introductory books on the history of those countries and I also bought a few bound copies of bird and tree books. Buying the bound books is a bit of a problem because they are more expensive and they are also heavy–we are all still carrying one backpack and we’ve even lighted our load by shipping things home periodically so anything we buy has be fit in one of the packs.

As an aside, I’m not generally a savvy or interested shopper, but shopping in Bali was intoxicating. There is stuff everywhere and it’s cool and off-beat and cheap, so you just want to purchase things everywhere you go. We’ve been relatively careful, though. Before we left Bali, I gathered up the things we bought, sans the Garuda and dancing dolphin miniature woodcarvings that the kids bought (and had already been wrapped up). It’s not too much:

IMG_3847.JPG

Oh but I forgot to mention the sauer wood dining table we purchased from Ketu, a woodworkers in Ubu:

IMG_6411.JPG

Back to the methodology: I’ll read the Kindle and bound books at night, if I’m not too tired, and I’ll take notes on some of the things that I think will make it into the blog.

During the day, I try to talk to as many people as possible about anything that has to do with the history or culture of the place where we are. The reading helps with this, because I know just enough to ask questions that are laced with a modicum of intelligence and, I hope, demonstrates my interest in the place to the person I’m talking with. I’ll take notes on these conversations, sometimes as I’m talking with the person, sometimes after I get home.

In Bali, it was easy to talk to just about anyone. The Balinese are a gregarious, friendly people and they want to know where you are from, how you like Bali and what you have seen. They are also very keen to talk about Hindu ceremonies, the village banja or entertain questions about Balinese culture, like rice production or wood carving. I did not find this to be the case in Australia or New Zealand. It wasn’t that the Aussies and Kiwis were unkind or rude, but they are more closed off and suspicious of strangers, more like Americans, I guess.  I generally have been waiting until we leave or about to leave a country before I write my posts because I feel like I’m gathering information that builds and builds.

I write the posts pretty quickly, usually within an hour, although, I might start one, leave it for a bit and then begin another one.

 

Colorado Beer

As I was riding my bike home this evening, I stopped in at Mondo Vino, our local liquor store in the Highlands. Mondo is the premier spirits store in Denver, maybe in the the whole State of Colorado. It’s owned by Duey Kratzer, a good friend of ours. Well, Duey is a good friend of just about everybody in the Highlands. He keeps us happy.

Mondo is the kind of place where you can approach anyone who works there, look them in the eye and say, something like, “Risotto with asparagus, walnut salad and pan-fried zucchini,” and they’ll, without a moment of hesitation, walk you over to the exactly-appropriate pinot noir or Beaujolais often with the accompanying question, “French, domestic or Kiwi?” I try to stump them, but they always prevail.

Today, I picked a six-pack of Dale’s Pale Ale out of the cooler, walked to the register, placed the beer on the counter and, like I usually do, started bantering with the folks that work there. Josh is a Michigan guy and a cyclist, so we usually talk about one or both of those things. Matthew always asks where the kids are (if they aren’t with me) and I always say, “I have no idea.” Shana always wears a beautiful scarf, so I complement her on that. When Duey’s there, I give him a big hug and we talk about our kids, who are all friends. As I was chatting with Josh, it occurred to me that this was the last six-pack of Dale’s that I’d have in quite some time; that is, I don’t think I’m going to find any in Phenom Phen or Osaka. Oh my. I got a little teary-eyed at that thought.

IMG_3448

That’s to say that for us here in Colorado, craft beer is a really big deal. Colorado has an interesting history when it comes to beer. Everyone knows about Coors, of course, that monolithic brewery just a few miles west of Denver. Coors started brewing beer in Colorado around 1873 and, except for the dark years of Prohibition, has been churning out a watered-down version of a Czech pilsner since then. I will admit, though, that I will drink Coors sometimes, and that I kind of like it. In a pinch.

After Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1978 that made it legal for bars to sell home brews (HR 1337), the craft beer brew tradition started in Colorado. The first craft beer brewery in Colorado was the Boulder Beer Company, and it’s still going strong, but, I have to say, it’s been outpaced by some of the other breweries, like Oskar Blues and Odell. Currently, there are over 300 craft breweries in Colorado. My good friend, Cath Kleier, is a professor Biology at Regis, and she also started a Brewing Certificate in our Biology program, so even academics can get in on the beer action here in Colorado. If you live in Colorado, you could probably only drink Colorado beer for a good portion of your life and be quite happy.

Given the attention to local breweries and craft brews, there is a vibrant brew pub culture here in Denver. Here’s an example: last weekend my folks came to visit from Pennsylvania and on Sunday afternoon we said, “Let’s go to Goldspot [a brew pub adjacent to my University], have a few beers and play Trivial Pursuit,” to which my folks replied, “What are we going to do with the kids? You can’t take kids to a bar.” But the truth is that a brew pub isn’t a bar–it just serves beer that it makes, and the culture in just about any brew pub in Denver is family friendly–they want you to come in with your family, sample their fare, play some games, talk to people from the neighborhood. It’s a kind of a malty democracy.

Beyond all that, though, Colorado beer is important to me not just because it tastes good and because when I buy it I’m contributing to our local economy. It really has more to do with memory and relationships. When I have a Dale’s, for instance, I always think of our dear friends, the Sheas, who introduced me to Dale’s and always have at least a six-pack in their fridge. Every Easter weekend, the Sheas and the Fretzes go to Fruita or Moab for a mountain biking weekend and after a long day on the single tracks, we sit around the campfire, clutching our Dale’s and watching the children burn marshmallow after marshmallow.

Even if I did find a Dale’s in Bucharest or Bratislava, I guess, it wouldn’t taste the same as it does here, in the high desert. That’s okay, though. I’m sure I’ll find plenty of other beers to drink and plenty of other folks to love and care for, as we make our way.