It was a bright and warm early December morning here in Ohope and I had just finished a mid-morning surf. I stepped out of the ocean, unstrapped my leash, put my board under my arm and started heading back to the parking lot at West End. My friend, Debs, was setting up her surf tent so I went over to say hello and at the end of our conversation she whispered, “Supermoon surf tonight around 7 pm.”
I knew that there was a supermoon that evening and I figured I’d walk out to the beach by our house to have a look, but until I talked with Debs, I never thought about putting together surfing and gazing at the supermoon. Plus, the way Debs told me about it made the whole thing feel like a meeting of a secret society of surfers. I wasn’t sure I belonged in that tribe and I almost asked if I needed a password. When I got home I asked Sujata if she wanted to supermoon surf in the evening “Hell, yeah,” she said.
Later that day, while most people were finishing dinner and dimming the lights to watch the supermoon from their decks and front yards, we, along with about thirty other West End surfers stepped into the ocean and paddled out past the breakers, in the gloaming.
The sky over the ocean was filled with darkening cumulus clouds. Red and gold rays of the setting sun peeked through jagged cracks in the clouds off to the west, and in the south east, where the moon was to make its appearance, a black and gray bank of seemingly impenetrable clouds looked like an ominous smudge mark on a white piece of paper. We lowered our expectations for a good view of the moon, but the surf conditions—long, clean, one-meter waves and a convivial group of surfers—were perfect so we all rode the waves in the waning light.
I caught seven or eight waves and as I was paddling out again I noticed that an expectant hush had fallen across the line up. I popped through the last wave, sat up on my board and observed a long line of surfers silhouetted against the darkening sky. Everyone was sitting up on their boards, facing out toward the ocean.
The sky on the horizon looked like a piece of splintered dark glass set in front of a bright candle. Tiny fissures appeared in the clouds on the horizon and a red light began to appear through the cracks. The moon, Yule-log red and orange, peeked out through the widening fissures. A set moved in, but no one turned their board around to catch the waves. We all just stayed there, bobbing up and down beyond the breakers with the noses of our boards pointed toward the emerging light and waiting for the super moon to reveal itself.
I sat there a full five minutes and when the clouds had fully parted and the supermoon pushed through the clouds, hovering over the horizon like a yo-yo, I turned my board around, caught the first wave and rode it to the shore. It was a left-hand break so I was looking over the top of the breaking wave and watching the rays of moonlight cast across the ocean and onto the beach.
When I turned to face the shore I saw Sujata and our friends standing in knee-deep water quietly watching the moon as it slowly rose. Someone had started a fire on the beach and the light from the fire lit up their faces. I picked up my board and joined them. We were silent for a long time and then we all embraced, turned our backs to the moon and headed up to the beach where we popped open a few beers and wondered if we’d ever seen anything quite that marvelous.
Shortly after we decided to move to New Zealand I was researching things to do in the town we would be living and learned that it boasted one of the best surf beaches on the North Island so I resolved to learn to surf.
We were still living in Ireland at the time and it would be another six months before we arrived to New Zealand. Still, I started watching YouTube videos on how to surf, reading surf books, watching surf movies, learning surf lingo and even practicing pop ups on my yoga mat. A few weeks before we left for New Zealand, I bought a wet suit and I started researching the best kind of board for the surf where we were going to live.
We arrived to Ohope and before I even got over my jet lag I called Debs, the owner of the Salt Spray Surf School here in Ohope Beach. It was mid-winter here in New Zealand. The water was about 55 degrees and the air during the day wasn’t much warmer. Not the best time to learn to surf. Plus, Debs was out of the country but she emailed me back and said that she’d be back in two weeks if I didn’t mind waiting.
I did. I had waited and prepared six months for this and I had exactly one year to learn to surf. Not a lot of time. Debs told me to hold on and within a day she got back to me and said one of her surf coaches, Troy, would call me shortly and arrange a lesson. Troy contacted me and we set up a lesson on a cold, cloudy Sunday afternoon in August (the worst part of winter here).
Troy and Debs have subsequently become dear and trusted friends. I see them just about every day down at West End. Troy is our kids’ swim coach at the Aquatics Center in town and both kids have enrolled in Debs’ surf school and surf camp (where Troy is also a coach) so they have both spent countless hours in the surf with Troy and Debs. Debs taught me about surf stoked, the exhilaration you feel after you just caught a rippin’ wave, the relief you feel when you have managed to catch, rather than be caught by, a wave and the sweet exhaustion you feel after a long and fun surf day. Troy seems to have a sixth sense for wind direction, incoming swells and the perfect time to get out in the surf so the first thing I do every morning is check the surf report and if it looks good, I’ll text Troy, “Surf looks good! You heading to West End?” Most of the time, he’s already there.
We live on the beach in Ohope but the surf beach, West End, is about a mile from our house. West End is a long beach break ending at a headland that juts out from the beach on a 90-degree angle from the beach. The headland is key to the good surf at West End because it disrupts the winds that are generally blowing in from the northwest. Wind is always bad for surfers because whether it’s coming from offshore or onshore, the wind tends to either bat down the waves if it’s coming from the ocean (onshore) or make it harder to catch a wave if the wind is coming from the land (offshore). A little bit of an offshore wind can be nice because it might fluff up a wave a bit, but for the most part, surfers are looking for windless or nearly windless days.
Besides helping surf conditions at West End, though, the headland, a steep ridge that is chock-a-block full of native New Zealand trees and bushes, towers over the beach and provides a gorgeous visual backdrop when you are bobbing on your board out beyond the breakers. During the early part of December, the Pohutakawa, a venerable New Zealand native tree, pushes out red blossoms and turns almost the entire headland area into a red and green Christmas card. You feel kind of tucked in and protected there underneath the headland and if you look off toward the east, you can see the long sweep of Ohope beach as it angles into the longer stretch of the East Cape, a beautiful and remote region of the North Island’s south eastern coast. On a clear day you can just make out Cape Runaway, the easternmost reach of the North Island and the place, it is believed, that some of the first canoes of the Te Arawa and Tainui made land after their voyage from Polynesia. The Cape eventually got its current name from that scoundrel, Captain James Cook.
Sometimes when I’m sitting on my board taking in all these sights it feels like my heart is going to burst with joy.
West End is unique, too, for its open and friendly surf culture. A lot of surf beaches have acquired rather nasty reputations where the locals are aggressive and rude to novice or visiting surfers. This is especially the case at a lot of surf beaches in Australia and Southern California where the number of surfers seeking a wave far exceeds the number of waves to ride. It’s basic economics: high demand and low supply means people act like idiots. At West End, there are enough waves for everyone and it’s generally expected that everyone—locals and visitors alike—contribute to the laid back, cruiser vibe of the place. I rarely go to West End without finding an old friend or making a new one.
Initially, I had to get over a false assumption that surfing is only for twenty-somethings. At one point, I even typed “Can 50-year olds learn to surf?” into the Google search bar and was pleasantly surprised to find a number of websites written by 50-somethings like me who learned to surf later in life. The demographics on the line up (surf term for the line of surfers waiting for the next ride-able wave) at West End proved this. Sure, there were young kids bobbing on their short boards, ready to tear into the next big wave that comes their way, but there were also a lot of folks (men and women) with grayer hair and more wrinkles than me. Surfing has a reputation of being a male dominated sport but at West End I generally see a pretty even gender distribution as well.
I also had to get over a certain fear of injury. To the non-initiated, surfing can look pretty dangerous. You paddle out beyond the breakers, wait for a wave, pop up as it’s cresting and if you make any sort of mistake or lose your balance the wave eats you up. That, of course, elicited another internet search, “Is surfing safe?” and, turns out, unless you are riding the big waves at Oahu, surfing is a relatively injury-free sport. I’ve strained my back picking up my board at a weird angle but other than that I’ve been mostly injury free for the past six months.
Since I’ve learned to surf, I see the ocean in a whole new way. Most mornings after I wake up I make my coffee, walk a block to the beach and assess the surf. Surfers like what they call “long and clean” waves. The best way to see this is to imagine dominos set up in upright positions on the floor—you knock down one domino and the rest fall, one by one, right on down the line. A long clean wave is like falling dominos in that it will crest at a point and then steadily and consistently break down the line. If you catch the wave just as it’s breaking you can ride the face until it collapses and if you’re lucky that can translate to a 100 or so meter ride. I’ve never made it that far, yet.
Ohope is separated from its neighboring town, Whakatane, by a steep range of hills and to get from one town to the other you have to drive along a road, Gorge Road, that, as you near Ohope from Whakatane, provides aerial views of the West End surf. Sujata works in Whakatane and the swimming pool and grocery stores are over there, so I drive over the hill nearly every day. There’s a little turn off on Gorge Road that I’ll often take before I descend the hill on my way back to Ohope. I get out of my car and peek over the side of the overlook to see if there are any surfers out there and then I look out toward the ocean because you can see any large swells that might be coming in. On perfect surf days, when there is a consistent swell heading toward the beach, you can see long, graceful ribbons of unbroken waves loping toward the shore. Surfers look at that scene and say, “Corduroy, man, corduroy,” because the long swell lines resemble the tufted channels of your corduroy jeans.
When I see corduroy from the top of Gorge Road, I can feel my endorphins starting to surge.
If the ocean is rough or the waves aren’t breaking long and clean, surfing can sometimes feel like more work than it’s worth. I’ve been out on days where there is significantly more white water than clean wave faces. On days like that, getting out past the breakers is tedious, difficult work. The white water and the waves breaking in front of you keep pushing you back towards the shore and if you don’t get under the broken wave it slaps you in the face or, worse, knocks you off your board. At that point you are what surfers call, caught in, which just means you are caught in that nasty white water chaos. By the time you make it past the last breaking wave you have noodle arms and have to sit on the board until you catch your breath, steel your nerves and get feeling back in your limbs.
When I first started surfing I’d pearl out all the time. When you pearl out, you get on the top of a wave and it feels like you are going to catch it but then the nose of your board digs into the wave face and you go ass over backward or the wave just picks you up and tumbles you sidelong. Pearling out is humiliating and until Troy told me to simply arch my back and shift my weigh slightly to the back of the board, it was my greatest surfing fear. Now, when my nose digs into the wave face I can either get out of it, or since I’m so far back on the board the wave usually just washes by with out scooping me up and making me look and feel like a fool.
Once you paddle out through the white water and after you’ve gotten over the top of the last breaking wave, you are out back or beyond the breaking waves. There, you can sit up on your board, catch your breath and while you are waiting for the next set to arrive, chat with other riders or just look around and the glorious ocean ahead of you.
I’m a goofy foot surfer, which means I surf with my left foot back. That works at West End because it’s usually a left-hand break, which means I’m not surfing with my back to the wave so I can see the face.
I’ll never be a great surfer. I’ll never do acrobatic back- or forehand cutbacks nor finish a ride by turning back over the top of the wave in a dramatic kick out. I’ll never even paddle my board out in waves that are over two meters. I’ll just be happy if I can surf for another decade or so and I’m content being an average surfer in the same way I’m content being an average piano and guitar player, scholar, teacher and swimmer. At my age, I strive for consistency and breath of experience, not excellence. Excellence is for youth. Getting out there and just doing it is for late middle age. If I can catch a wave and ride it trim across the face as it breaks behind me, I am ecstatic and when I get out of the water, I feel surf stoked. Like my friend, Maka, said to me one day as we were bobbing on our boards at West End, “The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun.” If that’s true, then, on just about every day I’m out there, I, along with just about everybody else who’s bobbing, popping up, riding and falling off their boards at West End, are the best surfers on the beach.
I’ve taken some time off the blog because I was writing for the local paper and doing some of my own writing but now I’ve got some time and space to get back to blogging.
We’ve been in New Zealand for nearly six months now and I think all of us are feeling just a bit more Kiwi with each passing day.
One way you can tell how much, or how little, you are picking up and fitting into a culture is through language. The Kiwis, like most people and cultures, have unique ways of speaking and phrases that are distinct to them. And we have found that over time and for better and for worse, we are incorporating Kiwi-speak into our daily speech patterns.
Shortly after we arrived I remember talking to a guy in Whakatane. He asked me how long we were staying and I told him about a year to which he responded, “Sweet as.” I cocked my head to the side and gave him a quizzical look, “Sweet as what?” I wondered aloud. It was his turn at that point to cock his head to the side and flash a quizzical look at me. “What do you mean? Just sweet as.”
Over the course of the next few weeks I noticed that this phrase, this partial simile, showed up over and over in Kiwi conversation. A nice surfboard was “cool as,” a tasty treat was “good as,” the ocean on a brisk day was “cold as,” really hot coffee was “hot as” and a red and gold sunset was “beautiful as.”
At those early stages of our time here, I remember thinking to myself, “God, that’s the weirdest phrase I’ve ever heard,” and promising myself that I would never pick up that habit.
At that point and time I was not comfortable at all with this linguistic pull up. I like my similes to be completed, not half stated and then left to dangle over the edge of interpretation.
Before I knew it though, my son, who is attending the local middle school, started peppering his chatter with this Kiwi-ism. “How was your day at school, son?” I’d ask, to which he’d nonchalantly reply, “Good as.” The first few weeks, I’d just shake my head, open my eyes real wide and ask, “Good as what? Your day has to be as good as something else! It can’t just be ‘good as. That just doesn’t make sense!” Of course, this is exactly what a 12-year old wants to hear. “Ah ha,” I could hear him thinking, “something else to annoy Dad. Duly noted.” Before long, my daughter had picked it up. When I got my new surfboard, she looked up at me and declared, “Dad, that is a sweet as surfboard!” [emphasis hers]
Sujata was next to go down that slippery slope of nebulous figurative speech. Her day at work was “Good as,” the tacos I made that night were “Delicious as!” the surf yesterday was “choppy as” and her Pilates class that afternoon was “hard as.”
The longer I’m here, though, the more I’m starting to realize that this way of speaking really fits Kiwi culture. New Zealanders are nothing if not laid back and their live-and-let-live worldview trickles down even into their speech patterns. There’s no need to finish the metaphor here—the listener will pick up your meaning and silently nod her head in approval. Or not. The incomplete simile is also, in many ways, a real testament to the collaborative nature of New Zealanders and their faith in human understanding. Here in New Zealand, the metaphor doesn’t need to be completed—the point does not need to be driven home and it’s the very incompleteness of the phrase that binds the speaker and the listener together. We understand each other to such a degree and on such a deep level that we don’t even need to finish what remains to be said.
All this is to say that I finally gave in and if you were to come by our house tonight and ask me how my day was or how the surf looks for tomorrow, I’d probably turn to you, smile, and say, “Sweet as.”
Shortly after I arrived in Whakatane, I started writing short pieces for the local newspaper, The Beacon. A few weeks ago, one of the writers went on holiday and the editor of the paper asked me if I’d fill in for two weeks.
Here, below, are some links to a few of the articles I wrote.
We’ve been living in New Zealand for nearly two months now, and one of the best things I’ve done to date has been refereeing a weekly basketball tournament at one of the local high schools in Whakatane.
Before we left America for New Zealand, I made a list of the sorts of things I wanted to do and get involved in during our year here in the land of the long white cloud. Getting involved in a youth basketball league was in the top five, so shortly after we arrived I did some asking around and was directed to a man named Te Kawe Ratu, a teacher at Trident High School in Whakatane and the coach of the women’s basketball team there.
Te Kawe told me that he runs a weekly basketball league on Monday nights and Trident and he invited me to drop by.
So I did.
The first week, I just sat there and watched the games. Midway through the third game, the score keeper up and left. I noticed this, slid into his chair and commenced keeping score. Te Kawe gave me a thumbs up and asked me to come back the following week.
So I did.
At the beginning of the second week of games, Te Kawe threw me a refs whistle and said, “You’re in charge of gym 2.”
I told him that I wasn’t aware of a second gym. He nonchalantly pointed down a hallway that I commenced to run down until I ran into gym two.
I’ve never refereed a basketball game in my life. All those hours of watching college and professional basketball since I was a small boy, though, came in handy that night when I was in charge of gym 2.
I made a couple of bad calls, but for the most part, all went smoothly and I was able to keep a modicum of control over the three games I refereed.
The following week, though, I was prepared. I spent the better part of the week watching YouTube videos focused on basketball ref tutorials. I watched and re-watched videos on how to call a charge (when an offensive player with the ball runs into a defensive player) against a block (when the defensive player fouls an oncoming offensive player with the ball). I studied the different hand signals and even illustrated them in my notebook. Put your hand behind your head for a charge. Both hands on you’re your hips for a block. Grab your right forearm with your left hand and open your right hand for a hand check. Two thumbs up for a jump ball.
By the third week, I was feeling very comfortable with the whistle. It’s a good thing, too, because that week I had to ref a game between Whakatane High School and a team from the hospital where Sujata works. When the hospital team walked on the floor they all pointed to me and said, “You are Dr. Fretz’ husband, right?”
This made me slightly nervous. What is I really screwed up? They’d tell Sujata and then she’d make fun of me.
And, as it turned out, that game was a doozy. I suspect these two teams had met up before and there was a bit more tension than friendly competition. There was a lot of pushing, some angry words and it culminated at the end of the first half with one of the players kicking the ball in frustration. Yes, I gave him a technical foul.
I started realizing very quickly that refereeing basketball, probably any sport is much less about getting the calls correct every time as it is about keeping control over the game.
So, during the next game, I called things pretty tight for the first five minutes. Any swat was a foul, any time a defensive player put his hands on an offensive player with the ball was a hand check. This had an interesting effect of keeping the players honest right out of the blocks and that tenor was maintained throughout the rest of the game.
Beyond all that, though, what I enjoyed most about the Monday nights at Trident high school was getting to know the high school students and community members who came out to play. All of them, even the guy who kicked the ball, were exceedingly kind and friendly. They made me feel welcome and respected, they gave their teammates and opponents and me hugs after the games and they all just comported themselves with grace and good humor. Oh, they also made fun of my Maori pronunciations and they tried to help me say things correctly.
Whakatane is a small, rural community so things like community basketball leagues look different than they do in, say, Denver. It wasn’t unusual for some players to be shoeless on the court. Shoes are, by the way, pretty optional across New Zealand. My kids have taken up the shoeless habit, sneaking out of the house for school on more than a few occasions without any shoes on their feet. Sometimes, it went the other way and I’d see kids on the court wearing a pair of Wellies. Most of the time, though, they just had normal basketball shoes on.
Basketball is a popular sport here–Steven Adams, the awesome center for the Oklahoma Thunder is from Rotorua, a town not far from Whakatane. The Kiwis often beat the Aussies (who think they are pretty good at hoops), to the never-ending anger of the Aussies. Rugby, though, is the reigning national sport, so basketball and other sports like netball and field hockey take second seats to rugby. That said, the level of play here is decent, and some of the kids are quite good and could compete with their American counterparts.
What’s more, the league was co-ed and it was required to have at least two women on the court for each team at all times. I found this to be an excellent rule as it gave the men and women opportunities to, as Te Kawe, told me, “trust each other and learn how to respect each other.” Moreover, aside from the tense game I described above, the co-ed nature of the league, just made the games more fun and congenial.
Last night was the final game until next season. I’m glad that I was able to participate even for these six weeks and now I can continue studying up on my refereeing skills for next season.
“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.
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?
The 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.
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.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, many Americans did two things: First, they googled what it would take to move to Canada or New Zealand and second, they stumbled into their local bookstores searching for books to help them figure how their fellow Americans could have turned against all of our best interests.
I imagine what it must have looked like at any given independent book store in any given American city during those dark days following the election: A sea of tear-stained faces gathering in front of the “Politics” and “American History” sections, mournfully gazing at the book spines and looking for titles to answer their most pressing question: What the hell just happened?
In the ensuing weeks, apocalyptic fiction that we read in college and that had suddenly turned prophetic–Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon–started flying off the shelves.
Later, a panoply of books attempting to explain the origins of American and European populism as well as the nature of the American citizens who voted for #45 (who were these people?) emerged, and progressive Democrats snapped up books with titles like Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash, Strangers in their Own Land, On Tyranny, What is Populism? and The Populist Explosion.
Perhaps you have perused all these books and you have come to a position of understanding and acceptance regarding the state of our republic. If you haven’t, though, I suggest you set aside Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash and (god help you) The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Because if you really want to find literary and political succor in these dark days of the republic, Albert Camus is your man.
Camus was an Algerian Frenchman, a pied noir, who was born in Algeria in 1913 and died in a tragic car accident in France in 1960. Camus wrote novels, short stories, plays, nonfiction and political and philosophical essays. No matter what genre he was working in, though, Camus focused on two central questions that are relevant to many of us in America today. The first was how we as individuals can create meaning in our lives in the face of an absurd, violent and irrational world. The second central concern for Camus was related to our obligation to others: given the absurdity and violence of the world, how can we create just and fair political systems that protect the vulnerable, the poor and the oppressed.
Living in France during the second world war, Camus had a first-hand look at violence and absurdity. He spent the better part of his life trying to figure out how to live in the midst of a furious, irrational world and, more importantly, how to make it more just and equitable. He did some of his best writing in the early 1940s as the dark cloud of Nazism was descending across Europe. Camus finished the manuscript of his most famous novel, The Stranger, in May of 1940 while he was also busy writing for Combat, a French magazine with an aim to defeat fascism and inspire ordinary French men and women to stand up against the dark forces that were sweeping across the continent.
When the Nazis smashed through the Maginot in June of 1940 and as their war machine sped toward Paris, Camus, along with the editorial staff of Combat and thousands of other Parisians, fled the City of Lights for the French countryside. Before he left the city, Camus threw the manuscript of The Stranger into the boot of the car and didn’t stop until he reached Clermon-Ferrang where he promptly restarted his work with Combat. After the war, Camus became deeply involved in the Algerian war for independence, taking controversial and provocative positions that managed to infuriate both the French and Algerian nationals (it was the final nail in the coffin of his tenuous friendship with Sartre) but that were always about extending the rights of French citizenship to Algerians, especially the politically disadvantaged Berbers.
I first came across Camus during my sophomore year of college in a general education class called “World Views.” Camus was presented as an existentialist, one of a loosely knit group of European thinkers who argued that humans were on their own, that there was no god to save us and that it was up to us, not a transcendental order, to create fulfilling lives and an equitable world. Nineteenth and twentieth century European existentialists from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger held a wide range of views, but it’s probably safe to say that all of them were committed to maximizing human freedom and amplifying human agency. Although he chaffed at being called an existentialist, Camus, felt strongly that it was our duty as human beings to find ways to be free from the shackles of church, state and popular opinion, and he forged a deep and abiding faith that human beings had the power and the ability to create a better world.
Sign me up.
I came from a fundamentalist Christian home and I attended a fundamentalist Christian college, so there was no talk of existentialist thought around our dinner table and there were no worn copies of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Heidegger stacked up on our bookshelves. At the college I attended, Camus was presented in a fair but pitying manner: I think the professors at my college admired his attention to social justice, but they disapproved of his atheism.
That said, when Camus was pushed under my nose at 19, I was shocked, surprised and attentive.
Over the years, I’ve continued to read Camus, like a tonic. Every few years I’ll re-read The Plague, a novel that uses a plague that descends on an Algerian town as a symbol for the rise of fascism in Europe, and when I’m feeling especially bad about the state of the world, I’ll turn to Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
So, it makes sense that shortly after the 2016 American election, I returned to Camus. One cold and cloudy January morning, I cast aside the latest edition of The Nation, threw The New York Times in the recycling bin, slammed shut the open copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and opened a copy of Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
Sisyphus was a Greek king and, in the eyes of the Greek gods, he was a little too cheeky for his own good so the gods condemned him to carry a boulder to the top of a mountain, over and over, for the rest of his life.
Before Camus, nearly every reader saw Sisyphus as a victim of the gods’ ill and capricious will and nearly everyone read the Sisyphus story, to varying degrees, as nothing short of a tragedy.
And, it’s no wonder that most readers interpreted Sisyphus as a helpless victim of the gods. On its surface, the conventional interpretation of the Sisyphus story conveniently maps onto traditional Christian thinking: Sisyphus, a mortal, is punished by the gods for his transgressions and condemned to a life of meaningless and hard toil. So, to someone coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sisyphus looks a lot like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Camus, an atheist who believed that humans are obligated to solve their own problems, was having none of the notion that Sisyphus went gently into the good night of his punishment. To put it another way, had Camus rewritten the Adam and Eve story, it would have concluded with the guilty lovers flipping off god, plotting to capture the serpent and figuring out how they could kill all those damn weeds in the garden.
By the same token, where Sisyphus distinguished himself, at least according to Camus’ interpretation, was in the manner that he refused to allow his sentence to define him. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus revolted against his sentence. It’s not that Sisyphus refused to push the rock up the mountain. He had no choice except to obey the will of the gods. At the same time, though, according to Camus, Sisyphus never bends to the will of the gods. They took his body but Sisyphus refused to give them his mind.
Re-reading this on that cold January morning after the election, I found more inspiration and hope in this idea than I would have in, say, listening to “Give Peace a Chance.”
At the early stages of his sentence, I imagine Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, over and over, and ruminating for a long time about his fate. He’s vacillating wildly between despair, anger, resentment and fear—feelings that many of us in the sane, rational, anti-fascist world feel every day. But you have to remember that Sisyphus was clever, so at some point he must have realized that while he was condemned to push the rock, revolt was still possible. In fact, I imagine he came around to thinking that revolt against the absurd position the gods had put him in was the only possible response.
Maybe it was days, maybe it was years of pushing that rock up the hill and watching it violently and mercilessly roll back to the bottom, but at some point, I imagine Sisyphus getting to the top of the mountain, standing erect, lifting his head high and regarding the gods above him. I see Sisyphus point his finger to his head and shout with all his passion and intelligence, “You don’t define me!” and bouncing his finger off his head now, screaming, “And you aren’t allowed in here! I will do your bidding because I must, but I refuse to abide!”
And that brings me back to America because if there’s anything we need right now, it’s the will and the controlled revolt of Sisyphus who refused to be defined nor cowed by his sentence and who labored on, against everything.
It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or just walk down the street in many American cities and not be confronted by waves of absurdity. A sitting president with a weak grasp or reality and an even weaker moral drive leading an administration that routinely trots out alternative facts. Neo-Nazis demonstrating in American cities. Elected officials who refuse to govern. Underneath it all are the rest of us, ordinary people helplessly watching the dizzying loss of cultural, political and economic capital. And, like Sisyphus, we go on almost in spite of ourselves.
Camus ends “The Myth of Sisyphus” with a powerful statement that might resonate with you in these dark days of the American republic.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Camus speaks to us today because, like us, he lived and worked during anxious and violent times and through his writing Camus found ways to understand, resist and make sense of a world that seemed like it was coming apart at the seams.