Saturday, March 19, 2005

Two Year Anniversary

How we got here, keep gettin here, and nowhere....


I. Borrowing from his experience as a greeter at the door to vertically integrated petroleum companies, George W. Bush tried a little vertical integration in the executive branch of the US government. Guided by the capable hands that guided Halliburton, Monsanto, Enron, Dynergy, El Paso, MCI, Global Crossing, Arthur Andersen, and the Texas Rangers, George decided that transportation security, infrastructure safety, border control, marine policing and much more, would be integrated into a new ministry of the interior, the Department of Homeland Security.

The ministry was charged with developing a common platform for the collection, analysis, and investigation off all threats to the internal security of the United States. But such a database won’t be built in a day, and so while the new ministry’s budget provided billions for the application of advanced technological protections for the domestic tranquility, for private property, for the unfettered and unrestrained extraction of profit, the Minister’s own prescriptions tended toward the mundane, the simple, even the simple-minded.

Knowing that familiarity is 90% of effective representative government, the Minister decided to really put the home in homeland security, first color-coding terrorist threats and then providing the Home Depot solution to personal protection, plastic sheeting and duct tape. Where Lenin saw that every cook would govern, Bush saw every American safe and secure in a duct-taped zip locked Glad Bag. And since duct tape comes in colors, citizens everywhere could show their patriotic allegiance to the Ministry’s pronouncements by changing the duct tape to match the color of the day’s terror alert status.

Determined to stand fast behind flag, dollar , and consumer debt in the arduous and perilous times ahead, US residents stocked up on duct tape, plastic sheeting, Krispy Kremes, potassium iodide pills, and DVDs.

If defense of the homeland depended on the application of duct tape, defense of the empire required something with a bit more punch: depleted uranium. Having taped the windows at the White House, George commanded his generals and admirals to seek out , close with, and destroy the Beelzebub of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein. Steaming full ahead, the USS Carlyle with the Secretary of Defense at the helm, cruise missiles at the ready prepared once and for all to settle the question of exactly who was running the Bartertown of global capitalism.

Depleted uranium and duct tape, the alpha and omega of advanced capitalism. Depleted uranium and duct tape, items of sinister utility held the whole truth about primitivism of the modern world.

II. History does not exist for capital. In its stead the bourgeois order comforts itself with the records and measures of past performance. Price, volume, supply, demand, cost, all exist, but only as things onto themselves, separate and apart from the conditions of production.
Memory then quite naturally tends towards nostalgia, a wistful recollection of a past performance never quite that good in reality.

Thus the "boon " of the 90s has no history, no origin in the previous twenty years of declining real wages for workers in the US and throughout the world; no origin in the redistribution income from the poorer to the wealthier; no origin in the employment of legions of women at substandard wages in substandard factories for the production of everything from sneakers to chicken parts; no origin in the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the use of its economy as kindling. "History is bunk!" said Ford. "Nothing of value before me," says our ahistorical bourgeois, "Nothing of value after me."

The dreary present of capital and its bleak future combine to make the near past a regular utopia. But it was not, as these things go, by the measures of past performance, the biggest of boons. The average annual rate of growth (AARG) for world merchandise trade in the period 1990-2000 at 6.6% was below the levels for the periods 1950-1963 and 1963-1973. AARG for manufacturing output at 2.5% was one third that for both prior periods.

But when past performance doesn’t quite support the grandeur of a moment, then that past performance is discarded, relegated to ancient history. Nostalgia finds comfort in the performance of the period 1973-1990. And compared to that period’s meager 3.9% rate for merchandise trade, the 1990-2000 period looms as a regular Mount Olympus.

Trade is where every bourgeois sees, hears, tastes, feels the sweetness of profit. Production is only ancillary to exchange, a necessary encumbrance, but still an encumbrance . It’s the market where greed and fear materialize and disappear in the accumulation, or loss, of money. "Circulation," wrote Marx, "sweats money from every pore."

Trade and output, production and circulation, profit and expenditures, growth and assets, are quantities , static measures of capital’s performance. They are the end of history at the bottom line of the accountant’s ledger book.

The rate of growth, the rate of profit are the qualities of capital that take it back to its origins; that bring history up to date, and with a vengeance.

III. The history of capitalism since 1973 is the record of its struggle with the falling rate of return on investment. It is the history of overproduction.

After OPEC 1 and OPEC 2, after stagflation, inflation, recession, the financial arson of the leveraged buyout period, deregulation, the S&L collapse, the first Gulf War, more deregulation, globalization, after all that it’s still overproduction manifesting itself as the declining return on investment that shakes the ground of capital.

Basking the glow of the oil fires in Kuwait, capital thought it had the solution to overproduction. Sense and anti-sense were rolled into one. Capital formation would be the end to overproduction. Capital formation, increasing the need/availability of/for equity and debt was the promise at the end of history. Recombinant capital triumphant!

The first triumph was the emerging markets of Pacific Asia; Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines. Between 1990-1996, annual increases in fixed capital formation in ranged between 20% and 40% of the GDP.

Between 1979 and 1997, China, a globalization all unto itself, received $510 billion dollars in foreign direct investment and an equal amount in loans.

Between 1992 and 2001, capital expenditures in the United States doubled. In the US and the UK, the telecommunications industry led the way , amassing almost one trillion dollars in loans, half a trillion dollars in bonded debt, and issuing another half trillion in equity. Still, with all this capital formation, this two trillion dollars measured only half of the industry’s cumulative capital spending up to 2001.

In 1993, capital investment in communications, information equipment, and software was measured at 37% of all capital investment. By 1999, the amount invested in these areas tripled, and accounted for 53% of all capital spending. By 2000, the proportion had grown to 60% of all new capital spending.

The technical progress of the telecommunications industry propelled forward by capital formation. At the same time it devalued all preexisting capital. Each new Atlantic cable added bandwidth equal to all previous existing transatlantic bandwidth.

Profits grew, and the growth was a direct result of this technical expansion, this transfiguration of labor productivity into the instrument of expropriation. The costs of production for this industry, for manufacturing, transportation and communications as a whole, were driven to historic lows.

In 1993, after-tax corporate profits measured 29.3% of the growth in nonresidential private fixed assets. By 1995, the ratio had grown to 33% of the growing investment in nonresidential fixed assets. The ratio of profits grew yet again in relation to the expansion of fixed assets, measuring 34% for 1996 and 1997 before falling in 1998 to 26.9%, a rest stop on its way down to 16.35% in 2001.

After-tax corporate profits exhibit a similar, and similarly dramatic relation in its ability to replace the consumption of fixed capital in the production process. For 1993, profits equaled 76% of the consumption of fixed capital, a margin that grew to 97% in 1996 and, dream of dreams, holy of the most holies, 102% in 1997. By 1998, the ratio declined to 86.8% and by 2001, it was down to a recession level 67.4 percent.

Any way we turn it, cut it, look at it, 1997 was the peak year for the rate of profit as US after- tax corporate profits reached 7.61% of the gross product of non-financial businesses. That ratio collapsed by half to measure a meager 3.8% in 2001.

While capital investment increased, manufacturing employment was essentially flat, and compensation rates barely moved. The very mechanism for the expansion of profits thus became the reason for the reduction in the rate of profits as less and less labor power animated greater masses of fixed capital.

In this decline, the telecommunications industry again led the way. When the markets proved incapable of sustaining the acceleration in capital formation, the debt and equities of the industry collapsed. By 2001, 60 billion dollars in telecommunications debt was in default. Average equity valuations had declined by half , physical assets were selling for 2 cents on the dollar. Assets only have value for capital to the degree that they can accelerate the extraction of profit.

Money, as the abstraction of the abstraction of exchange value, is the most sensitive link in the daisy chain of capital’s transformations. Thus the overproduction, the capital formation, that precipitated the peak and the decline in the rate of profit manifested itself first in an attack on the currencies of those countries where fixed capital formation had been most intense, Pacific Asia. From there, the manifestations of overproduction spread east and west , attacking the currencies of Brazil and forcing Yeltsin’s government in Russia to default on its GKO bonds.

Mesmerized by the opening and closing bells of the New York Stock Exchange, the US bourgeoisie were not just deaf to the sounds of distress coming across the Pacific, they were amused. Entertained by the disaster in Asia, they trembled at the threat to Brazil, and sweated bullets at the default of Russia. Such was the ultimate product of capitalist circulation.

Behind the ringing in of the new highs in the stock market, behind the electric sounds of credit cards and cash registers engaged in oxymoronic couplings, exchanging digitized bodily fluids in a billion bits of a million orgasms each second, there was the soft sound of something falling and not yet hitting, a body perhaps.

Somewhere in some back office two accountants worked long and hard into the night, rearranging profits, assets, trades, like molecular biologists rearranging snips of genetic code. "Did you hear that ?" asked one. "Sounds like chickens," said the other. "Maybe they’re coming home to roost," answered the first. The two accountants looked at each other and agreed to book the chickens as assets. But the noise wasn’t that of chickens. It was the wolf knocking at the door. And she was hungry.

IV. The bourgeois class is not organized as a class for the pursuit of knowledge, the advancement of society, science, technology, or even socially necessary production. The bourgeois class exists only to make money.

The history of the last thirty years is the record of the bourgeois order’s attempt the overcome the predicament at the core of the capitalist mode of appropriation. The means of production are organized as private property but can only function, generate profit, as capital, that is, by an exchange with social, wage-labor. The appropriation of unpaid, surplus, labor-time, time not necessary for the sustenance of wage-labor is the basis for the extraction of profit.

For the system of production as a whole, increasing the rate of aggrandizement depends on the technical development of the means of production. At a certain, critical, point the expansion of production outstrips the growth in the relation of profits to expansion itself. Production outpaces reproduction. The rate of profit falls. Then the expense and the development, of the means of production become a threat to the security of the bourgeois order’s private property.

Everything that has been established, science, technology, culture, civil society , becomes, at best, a burden. Then the accountants step forward and transfer all of these "progressive" expressions of capital into the non-performing asset category, the category marked for liquidation.

The history of the past 30 years of the petroleum industry gives this predicament at one and the same time its most crude and most distilled expressions.

When, in 1999, OPEC doubled the price of crude oil, it was another in its appearances as the 51st state of the United States. OPEC had rescued the petroleum industry before, in 1973 and again in 1979. It stepped forward again in 1999 to rescue the industry from the nightmare of its own making, overproduction; and overproduction made manifest by a precipitous drop in oil prices in 1998 as the actual market prices gravitated downwards toward the actual, and historically low, costs of production.

OPEC’s first intervention, in 1973, resulted in the quadrupling of industry profits by 1978 while the industry fixed assets expanded by 60 percent.

OPEC's second intervention, in 1979, boosted profits and financed rapid investment in the fixed assets of the industry. In 1981, oil profits recorded a peak that was seven times the 1973 level. In 1982, the fixed asset value of the industry was six times the 1973 level. That measure of fixed assets was not exceeded by the petroleum industry until 1996.

Earnings, however, slowed and after the price break in oil in 1986, the return on investment dropped below 6%. The lead-in to 1986 was a decline in the rate and mass of profits. Profits in 1984 were half the 1982 measure. The industry responded by reducing its labor force , first by 13 percent between 1982 and 1984 and then by a further 33% between 1984 and 1987.

US petroleum companies embarked on a massive divestment of fixed assets. From the mid 80s to 1993, the companies that participate in the US government’s Financial Reporting System (and account for half of total output and revenues) reported capital and exploratory spending 448 billion dollars coincident with 16% decline in their fixed assets.

The half trillion dollars in capital spending developed and deployed new technologies and methods. These advances were applied to the recovery and extraction of oil from both existing and developing fields. The application of computer -assisted 3D seismic imaging to exploration and development dramatically reduced offshore, onshore, and foreign average finding costs (calculated over three year spans) for the FRS companies. For the 1979-1981 period those costs measured approximately $24 per barrel equivalent. For the 1991-1993 period, the costs were $6 per barrel equivalent.

Advanced drilling techniques both extended the life of older fields, yielding more proven reserves, while maintaining the relatively low costs of production per barrel. The productive life of the North Sea fields was extended by at least eight years , while the costs of production fell before $4 per barrel.

Despite and because of this "progress," this immense capital investment animated by such reduced demands for labor power, the return on investment for the industry remained relatively stable, and relatively flat, and relatively low. Between 1990 and 1995, the ROI exceeded 9% only once, in the buildup to war year of 1990.

Capital spending reached record highs for the FRS companies in 1996 and 1997, due in part to the onset of massive capital combinations concentrating the industry through mergers and acquisitions. At the same time, finding costs reversed their historical decline. More technology, more money, 45% more than in 1995, was devoted to deep water offshore exploration where finding costs average twice that of onshore exploration. These costs were not only the costs of actual exploration, but reflected the increasing acquisition costs of the increasing acreage necessary for development.

In 1996, with production costs below their previous lows, the ROI finally reached double digits at 10.1% , with total profits measuring $32 billion dollars. In, 1997 the ROI grew to 10.8% despite oil prices falling $7 per barrel in the 12 months; despite/because production expanded 3.1% and consumption expanded 2.6 percent. Overproduction was the near immediate response to the recovery of the rate of return. The time, the distance between the recovery of the mass of profits, the temporary surge to the rate of profit, and the transformation of that increase of mass into a reduced rate of growth had shortened. Capital had the world on a string, all right, but the string was already at the end.

In 1998, earnings collapsed, the FRS companies’ total net income was only 40% of the 1997 mark with ROI at 3.8 percent. Capital spending was at the highest level since 1984, with mergers and acquisitions accounting for 28% of the expenditures. Again, offshore exploration accounted for the bulk of the increase in finding costs. The number of onshore exploratory wells declined by more than one-third.

When OPEC doubled its price in 1999, the Seven Sisters of the petroleum industry would have cheered, wept, danced.... if there had been seven sisters. The mergers of Exxon, Mobil, BP, Amoco, Chevron, Texaco had reduced the family by half. And these weren’t exactly sisters, but dowager empresses, having each other over for lunch, ready to have each other for lunch.

Nostalgic for its past performance, blind to its history, capital turns with desperate belligerence on the terms and conditions of its own existence. Property must be preserved, the means of production, fixed and circulating, variable, constant, breathing and mechanical, can, must, and will be sacrificed. Property first and foremost.

V. The second Gulf War has nothing to do with oil and everything to do with oil. It has nothing to do with oil as a resource and everything to do with the production of oil as a commodity. It has nothing to do with supply, demand, scarcity, depletion and everything to do with the terms of reproduction that generate supply and demand, scarcity and overproduction.

At the exact moment that history rushes forward overwhelming the categories of past performance with the reality of production organized by one class appropriating the labor of another class; at exactly the moment that private property runs up the inside of the walls of a cage of its own making; at exactly that moment when private property, when capital, marks down and scraps its own past performance of "democracy," elected government, civil liberties, of the freedoms of speech, assembly, at just that moment the left proclaims its once and future nostalgia for the husks of capitalist corn.

Just when overproduction declares that the elements of civil society have always rested on the expropriation of unpaid labor, slave and/or wage, the left dons the wardrobe of civil society and substitutes the old fashions for class analysis.

Past performance is capitalism’s substitute for history, but sooner or later, history accepts no substitutes. Then, every issue, every opposition, every problem, every solution is posed in the historical terms of class, of the exchange between labor and the instruments of production. Then every struggle is no longer a struggle unto itself but the manifestation of terms of the whole struggle, the terms of wage-labor and capital, the terms of property and revolution.

The time for the coming of such a crisis is announced
by the depth and breadth of the contradictions and
antagonisms, which separate the conditions of distribution
and with them the definite historical form of the
corresponding conditions of production, from the
productive forces, the productivity, and development
of their agencies. A conflict then arises between the
material development of production and its social form.
--Marx, Capital, vol. 3.

S. Artesian
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forthcoming: Clothes make the man; clothes made by women

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Poser Love

Poser Love

The way I had it figured, I figured it to be a snap. Easy as p-i-e, pie. I started figuring it in November, setting up the web site, that being the critical part of the p-l-a-n, plan. Not that I actually set it up myself. No w-a-y, way. What do I know about web sites? Nothing, nil, zero, n-a-d-a, nada. And I don’t need to know, not with the fourteen year old living downstairs, who, always needing another tattoo, one more piercing, will work like a virtual slave in the service of his self-decoration.

So three hundred and fifty bucks shorter and a day later, I have my web site, and the fourteen year old has more metal poking in and out of orifices than Christ had followers and we’re both happy. I know how to click and doubleclick so I’m in business, o-n-l-i-n-e, online, and the fourteen year old is setting off metal detectors right and left.

Armed, so to speak, with my web site, I can pretend to a certain legitimacy. And pretending makes it so, or almost so. I am virtual so I’m almost real, so I’m close enough. I get the site up and running six months before the Cannes Film Festival opens, dedicated to the proposition that there are far too many color films. The web site can be accessed at htttp:// The home page is titled “Color Me Gone,” a nod in the direction of my youth spent in Detroit, a youth of funny days spent with funny cars, MoPar, ramchargers, slicks, Hurst shifters, etc., etc. I know just a little about cars, but that’s a whole lot more than I know about web sites, or film for that matter.

For six months, I feature reviews and lists of movies filmed in black and white, and drum campaigns attacking Ted Turner, Disney/Capital Cities-ABC, Westinghouse/CBS, GE/NBC, Murdoch/Fox/20th Century Fox, Viacom/MTV/Blockbuster, Touchstone, Castlerock, Miramax, for their wasted and wasteful use of color. Believe me, that part was a s-n-a-p, snap. What’s not to attack in that group?

For six months, I work diligently, too, at my day/night job, self-employed as I am, trading derivatives. No surprise that, I’m sure. Sometimes I think derivatives are all there are in this life.

My home page is my passport. My trading profits will be my ticket, my hotel room, my wardrobe, my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I plan to spend every derivative derived dollar/euro on the good life, or a representation thereof, and secure in my credentials, identifying me as a professional at w-o-r-k, I will film the young women present at this celebration of the posing life, in that greatest of contributions to world peace and happiness, in their miniskirts. I am a man with a plan, even if it is just a collection of ones and zeros. And I ask you isn’t everything just a sequence of ones and zeros, ons and offs, here and theres, now and thens? Is the representation of this life more alive than the life it represents? We do what we do as a representation of what we do in order to receive the sanction to do it again. No matter how far we roam, we’re never far from home where we first learned to be spectators in the spectacle of life and of course, that home only exists on TV or a web page. Excuse me for being philosophical.

So I contact the film festival, via their web site, of course, and request accreditation as a member of the electronic media, because that’s what I am, aren’t we all? Like I predicted, it was easy as p-i-e. First the email, in French, easily translated, and then the package via international courier, a package containing my laminated press credential attached to a blue and white lanyard, a schedule of events, a map, a list of pavillions and exhibitors and an invitation to a reception hosted by the selection committee and this year’s chairperson, Sigourney Weaver.

Sigourney Weaver! Who will always be Ripley to me. Sigourney Weaver, who always looks like she just stepped out of a hologram of herself. I was in celebrity heaven, virtually.

And if I was the sort of person easily impressed with myself I might have been captivated by the charm of my plan. Posing for posers. In Cannes. Charm barely describes it. Pretending to be real where pretending is real. Charm. Charmed. Enchante. And what is charm but the ability to divert one’s attention from your hand in their pocket. You know that. They know that. Who could know that more than the entertainment industry? Besides real estate?. Or the securities industry? Or the legal profession? Or defense contractors? Or religion.

I was halfway there without taking a step outside my apartment, with barely moving a muscle, and still three months to go to my departure, via Delta Airlines, business elite class of course, from Kennedy to Cote d’Azur.

The waiting was the hardest part. For time is the enemy of all schemers, posers, plotters. Time wears away at the beauty of simplicity, the boldness of fabrication. Time also becomes expensive. Excuse me for not being philosophical here, but even the simplest of enterprises becomes complicated as the days and nights stretch on. Plans accrete layers of new plans, poses strike up thousands of new poses. Every breath becomes part of a fantasy where all breathlessly await the unfolding of your grand drama.

And it all costs money. I deal in derivatives and rarely see anything that looks like the amounts of money pretending to move in these machinations, conjurings. The amounts of real money I do actually see are so modest that I might as well be working for a living. In this I guess I am not alone.

I electronically deposit ones and zeros in a bank account, held at a bank I’ve never been inside, utilizing only the machines provided in a teller free environment for those rare occassions when I actually use currency rather than hedge currencies. I make trades that register as book entries in a brokerage account, statements mailed monthly, updated daily on the web, the value of my portfolio appearing as nothing so much as bandwidth.

I busied myself keeping my story simple, admiring my video camera, the new lightweight laptop from Sony in mauve magnesium that I would take with me, counting days down to zeros, I’m off, and dollars by the ones and zeros, I’m on my way. Off and on, zero and one, nothing and everything.

I worked my digits to the digital bone trading derivatives, currency futures, options, puts, call, spdrs, buying and selling enough to keep me in credit cards. And was I ever in credit cards.

Where the emerging capitalists of the mercantile sort measured the virtue, the glory, the power of their wealth with accumulation of gold, I measured my dissipation of somebody else’s wealth with the accumulation of gold cards. I had gold Visa cards, platinum Visa cards, Mastercards, Discover Cards, branded, co-branded, off-branded, with and without miles, with and without hotel upgrades. My favorite was the U.S. Army’s Desert Storm depleted uranium Visa card, embossed with the hologram of the Bradley fighting vehicle, and no fee.. Be all you can be, indeed. No matter what I did, I charged it. Charged it all, discharging it more often than not by transferring it to another credit card. In the business, we call that rolling it over.

I was a debtor nation all unto myself, and thereby sought out, wooed, pursued to consume ever more of the next best thing to wealth, the image of wealth, its positive negation, debt. I owed, therefore I was worth something. I had more credit with more banks than Indonesia, and on better terms.

I was not reckless. No, reckless might have destroyed all I was working for. The trip, the parties, the cocktails in the sun, the girl with more than bare legs and less than micro miniskirts. I am not a reckless sort. At any given moment I knew exactly how overextended I was which is a sign, more than less, of financial responsibility and economic maturity. Or so I’m told.

I am not a reckless person. I calculate therefore I risk. I figured I could float $180,000 in credit card debt, principal and interest, for eight years and eight months before the banks might weary of the musical chairs of debt rotation I had them playing, by which time I might be rich, famous, dead, or all of the above. Not much dread in those 3160 days of reckoning. Rather, just the opposite. I was exhilirated, feeling as though I were fashioning myself anew everyday. I felt that with each purchase I was breathing life into a pioneer me, striding across ocean and plain, into the cosmic ether.

Credit, credit cards, accreditation, credentials I had it all. And the barcode on my passport, and the E ticket I wasn’t worried about losing, proved it. Charm, fraud, credit...a man in full.

Pressure? From what? Pretending to have money to pretend to pay for what I pretended to need? From keeping the digital me afloat in the modulated/demodulated sea? Please. Pressure? Nobody was shooting at me and I got to sleep in my own bed. What pressure?

So, you ask, could I tell where the real me ended and the representational me began, and vice versa?

And I answer, of course not. And what’s more, I didn’t want to. What great leader, fool, charlatan, swindler, visionary, salesman, ever knows, accepts, imposed limits? Thus spake Zarathustra, right? And Dale Carnegie.

Years ago, when I didn’t get to sleep in my own bed, or any bed for that matter and among other things, I learned the virtue of travelling light. I travel light. I hold this truth to be self-evident: everything you need should fit in one bag and that bag should fit over one shoulder. Of course it’s a flexible truth. I did not count my laptop and video camera, travelling in their own bags inside a second handheld bag, as luggage. Neither did the airline.

No cell phone, no pager, no alarm clock, no hair dryer. I was a minimalist traveler. Form and function. I felt almost Scandanavian. Six days, plus travel time. Seven sets of socks and underwear, four shirts, three pairs of silk slacks, two blue one black, one pair of jeans, five shirts, one swimsuit (pure affectation, designed to reassure any customs agent bored enough to look through my bag) extra glasses, extra sunglasses, one book, three thin notebooks, two pens, map, Rough Guide, tootbrush, deodorant, toothpaste, sewing kit, videocassettes. That was it. One bag, and over one shoulder it went. Carry it on and carry it off. Believe me, I planned to carry it off.

And cash. Or rather, cash advances, deposited into my bank account so that upon my arrival in Cote D’Azur I might freely utilize local ATMs to access other peoples’ money. Think globally, act locally. I intended to spend freely during my brief stay, for nothing endears you to the heart of a festival, which of course, is nothing but a market pretending it has a purpose other than the separation of money and fools, like freely spending. If the founding fathers had really had vision, a vision of the future, they would have incorporated, perfect word that, freedom to spend, spending freely, into the bill, perfect word that too, of rights.

So there I was, in the towncar operated by a former muhjadeen now employed by former Israelis for the purpose of driving me to the former Idlewilde Airport, knowing that I was lip-synching my way through life and comfortable with that knowledge; feeling shallow and superficial and feeling that shallow and superficial were perfectly acceptable between consenting adults. And he, former guerrilla, mustached, asking me if this will be cash or credit card. I sighed.

Sunglasses, silk slacks, silk jacket, shirt open at the neck. I looked the part. And looking the part isn’t half the battle, looking the part is total victory.

I presented myself at the check-in counter, handing over my passport, flashing a second picture ID, a driver’s license with a digitized picture of myself, a picture that could be changed in sum or in part at will. I could scan myself, if I was so inclined, rearrange the 1s and 0s and, identify myself in any way I wished. I wrote a note to myself to send myself an email once onboard the plane to redo that picture, muting some of the red that was overcoloring my cheeks, a red that was the telltale sign of insufficient memory.

After answering the usual questions about my luggage, yes, I packed it myself, no, nobody gave me anything to carry, yes it has been in my sight continuously, no I’m not angry at the world in general or Delta Airlines in particular, after making it through the metal detector (wondering why the fillings in my teeth didn’t trigger the alarm), I boarded the aircraft, business elite class, extra legroom, extra wide seat, personal entertainment center, headphones, plug and jack for the laptop. It was like home. Better than home, I didn’t have to get up to refill my drink.

I like to drink. It almost makes me social. At least, when drinking I think how I might be social, and it’s the thought that counts. I drink a lot. Actually I drink like a trooper and sleep like a baby, neither of which, I’m happy to say, I will ever ever be again. Count on it.

So as soon as my rear end hit the sit, my front end, my hand went up and the cabin attendant, a young woman so enthusiastic about her job I thought it painful, brought me the first of many glasses of champagne. No, not sparkling wine. Champagne. Some things are better real. Human beings not being one of them, I might add.

Somewhere between the champagne and the cognac, both from Rheims, somewhere between sleep and waking, somewhere been Labrador and Ireland, my mind started to run down those paths that link to paths that link to paths that provide answers to questions not even imagined. Speech passes into sensation, thought into music, almost. I thought, or dreamed, or breathed about the boundaries between presentation, representation, and fact, about blurring the boundaries between creation and forgery, deception and love, fashion and fashioning. Was the blurring art, or money? Was one possible without the other? What, after all, could make everyone believe in the simplest and greatest fraud? Art? Money? Television? What was the difference, anyway. Inspiration? Please, we’re not muhjadeen here, are we? Nothing inspires like money, except maybe a rifle shot, but these are happy times. I felt happy, practically, paralyzed with my own good fortune.

Money. I had something that looked, acted, worked like money. Now I could present myself as my own creation, my own fraud. I believed in that presentation, and I could put somebody else’s money where my mouth was, and who could or would disagree with me? Not even communists could resist the power of money. Then I knew, in that state, cruising at 31,000 feet, air speed 562 miles per hour, globally positioned over the Atlantic, almost, not quite, snoring, not far from drooling, that god was very rich for all those billions to believe him. And I knew also that all of Cannes would be glad to see me, carressing me, feeling that lump in my pants... “Are those your credit cards or are you just happy to see me?” Both!

When we landed, the officer at passport control, light blue shirt, navy blue pants barely glanced at my passport, sighting first on my film festival credentials, waving me through. “Another one,” I heard him think, “I hate this time of year.”

But I love May on the Cote d’Azur. The light, the most perfect light rains down in sheets thick enough to laminate water to earth to sky, filling in crevice, gorge, streets, and old wounds with a crystalline balm. The wind slaps at the water, palms flat, then draws it up into the sky, in talons fashioned over Africa, hurling a mist that shatters into the sound of a thousand bells ringing softly. The sun rises and sets like the master of a very unruly household, calling all to order. May on the Cote d’Azur is almost real enough to be artificial. It can’t be real I keep feeling which is just perfect.

Thirty minutes after landing I was in my rented Fiat, driving west along the N98 to Cannes. If the truth is to be known, as if truth ever needs to be known, I would have preferred to stay in Nice. The light is even more perfect in Nice. There is so much more to do in Nice you feel fulfilled in practically doing nothing. The Promenade is the perfect place to feel doing nothing, save raising your glass to your lips, your face to the sun, and your thoughts to raising the skirts of the women promenading, styling, by , with thoughts of their own.

So near Cagnes-sur-Mer, I swung the Fiat around and headed back to the east. It was still morning. I wanted to go to Nice and who but me would ever care what the real me wanted, even if I wasn’t too sure any longer who the real me was. But something sitting very close to me in the rented Fiat wanted to go to Nice, to sit on the Promenade, sunlight washing, no, suckling me. And in the end, isn’t it all about the light? Wave or particle? On or off? Light and sand, silicon and optics, all the same.

Along the Promenade I drove, turning off and parking on Rue Meyerbeer, feeding the meter, placing the receipt on the dash, stretching, smiling at my good fortune.

On the promenade, just down from the interesection with Meyerbeer is a little snack bar/glacier called Pomm. The owner, a man of cautious smiles, unfailing courtesy, Algerian descent, often stares longingly across the water, tasting a bit of his Africa in the wind. His little space, four tables outside, two inside (in Spring and Summer) is perfectly placed for the maximum exposure to daylight.

When I first visited Nice, I took every meal at Pomm. We became friends, speaking of New York, Paris, Algiers, the demise of empire, and the costs of nationalism. Extraordinary conversations catalyzed by vin ordinaire, carried on under a sun that pushed itself, like a wind, into every crevice, every opening.

He, setting his tables out in this morning’s sun, betrayed no surprise at my sudden appearance, smiling, shaking my hand, hugging me, as we exchanged kisses. He pulled a chair away from the table and I sat, surrounded by the noise of the traffic, the people walking their dogs and the Mediterranean sweeping across the rocks and pebbles of Nice’s industrial strength non-beach.

B. brought out the cafe noir, the Badoit, the pichet of rose wine, the basket of bread and the charcuterie. He sat across from me and poured the wine into two glasses. We toasted and drank and I explained the purpose, if you could call it that, of my visit, my date with destiny in Cannes. He was amused. It was so foreign, so American, to him, to pretend to have some real business at a carnival of pretenders. He laughed and shook his head. Why not stay in Nice, at his place, he asked? I thanked him but declined. No, I am accredited, almost official. I had to stay in Cannes. When in Rome, and all that... I let the words dissipate in the wind, like smoke from an extinguished match.

We finished our coffee, our water, our wine, bread, and cold cuts, exchanging information and the latest news from New York, Nice, and Algiers.

“My friend,” said B., “a bit of advice. If you carry your video camera with you, no young women will talk to you. They’ll think you’re Russian. The Russians film everything here. They film everyone walking along the sea. They film the waiters. They film the food. They film each other eating the food. They take the film home and show it to their friends during their long cold winters. I think they feel warm when they watch themselves on their VCRs. Remember how, sometimes, on a particularly dreary day, we would open a bottle of rose, and sort of warm our hands with the memory of sunlight coming from the bottle?”

I nodded.

“Or find the perfect bottle of olive oil and dip bread in it?”

Again I nodded.

“I think it’s like that for the Russians. Keeping warm by the glow from their televisions.”

“I understand,” I said. Indeed I did. Sunlight on a magnetic strip.

“Yes, it’s understandable, but it scares the young women. You don’t need to carry the camera. Your credentials around your neck will make sure you never drink alone.”

Good advice. I thanked him. I paid the bill and as I rose to leave, he brought out a bottle of Bandol rose, pressing its chilled neck into my hand.

“Enjoy yourself,” he said in English.

I walked back to my Fiat swung around to the Rue du Congres and headed back to the Promenade, emerging in the westbound lanes. Ahead of me and to my right was the Hotel Negresco, looking like nothing so much as a Hollywood studio model of a home away from home for the last Czar and Czarina.

A banner waved from the dome of the hotel, “Welcome Romanoffs,” I imagined it to say.

Now here was a winter palace. Imagine the strategy sessions with the hotel publicist.

“We must advertise. ‘Playground of the British pseudo-aristocracy.’ ‘Innkeeper of choice to all ancien regimes.’ Lets find someone claiming to be the Dauphine and use him as a greeter.”

I took my time driving the thirty five kilometers to Cannes, savoring every bit of light and water that presented itself in inexhaustible supply, enjoying the brightly colored pink and blue dolphins at the Tex-Mex Cantina/Disco on the beach just outside Cros-de-Cagnes, slowly driving through, not around, Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, entering Cannes like a lost boy coming home.

I had selected the Hotel Cristal as my base of operations. The hotel is set back a long city block from the Promenade de la Croisette, and as I had expected the Promenade was almost unnavigable with bodies upon bodies undulating in place, straining to be somewhere else in the long chain of flesh. I knew I would actually have to spend more time than usual, than I liked, with actual people and so I chose a hotel, of unquestionable quality, that afforded some refuge from participating, some basis for observing.

On its sixth floor, the hotel offers an unobstructed view of the Croisette, the harbor, the big boats, the beaches, the sea of blue and white umbrellas planted like flags on the moon, if the moon had a beach. After, during, between a hard day’s/night’s taping, I could retreat, without my camera, with my credentials, and with one of my stars to the safety of the bar and watch the crowds below.

I checked in, presented my super-platinum platinum Visa, my passport, my credentials, and received my room key, seven pounds of press releases, party invitations, schedules of showings, maps, and a phrase book.

Once in the room, I showered, changed into my work silks, and took a minute to gather myself, which meant, of course, opening the bottle of Bandol, pouring a glass, placing the bottle next to the bottle of champagne thoughtfully provided by the hotel in a bucket of ice and congratulated myself.

I had made it from New York to Cannes. I was here, there, an ocean away, and home almost free, all at the same time. I shared a toast with myself, savoring the wine, and then, gathered a pen and notebook and headed down and out into the crowds and to Palais des Festivals, to check in once again and get my photograph laminated to my credentials, proving that I was indeed the person I pretended to be.

And crowds there were. In the harbor, on the beaches, on the Promenade. A sea of flesh in various degrees of dress and undress rose and fell sympathetically with the little waves rolling onto the beach. There were your film types of course, wearing, I think, contact lenses made from crystal to get the extra ounce of shine and sparkle in their eyes. There were your film type admirers of course, trying to look like film types. There were your abnormally good looking men and women who appeared to have nothing quite as important to do as to look exactly the way they looked.

There were your normally good looking 40-50 year olds. The women were wearing three inch high heeled sandals. The men were wearing skin the color of their belts but not quite as soft.

There were your abnormally rich people, slumming, so to speak, by moving in the midst of so many people of ordinary wealth or no wealth whatsoever, totally pleased by their discomfort, totally comfortable knowing at any moment they could cross the road and return to their yachts, their suites.

There were your normally rich people, easy to spot because they travelled as couples, the women dressing well and the men wearing pressed pre-faded jeans and loafers.

And then there were your legions of young people, girls and boys, young men and young women, from all over Europe and the Americas. The girls were dressed to show the wealth of their youth, a wealth the abnormally rich could never purchase, the girls wearing shorts, sandals, miniskirts, minidresses. I filmed them all in my mind. The boys wearing.... Well, boys don’t know anything about dressing do they?

There were big men in yellow silk jackets, looking like misplaced traders from a commodities pit, yellow silk jackets and black silk tee shirts and bald spots.

There were crowds of people buying sweaters and denim jackets just so they could tie them around their waists.

There were men and women who composed their hair according to instructions accompanying magazine pictures of film stars and models.

There were men who thought they looked good, looked better, with their shirts open to fourth button and necklaces hanging down to the third.

And Cannes spoke to each and everyone of these people, whispered to them, crooned, lullabied, promised, each and all a chance to promenade, to drink, to dance, to really pretend.

Cannes said: Send more of those people who own big boats. Send more of those women in tight pants and men in cowboy boots. Send them from Britain, from Denmark, from Spain, from Italy, from the United States, from Argentina,we love to tango, from Canada, from Japan, from Israel, Lebanon, from Syria. Send them all.

This scene rolls by like a spool of thread unwinding with no end, hour after hour. So there I was, a poser cork floating in a poser sea. I thought, in a flash of paranoid recognition, that somewhere out there in space, light years away, there was a predator looking down at this endless stream of meat, looking down and drooling all over his telescope.

I crossed the Croisette to a strip of green clogged with white canvas pavillions, the structures advertising the studios, production companies, banks, telecommunications corporations, TV networks, cable TV networks, so essential to big money entertainment. At every one of these, my credentials secured me entrance to the private areas were the champagne flowed freely. It was there making the smallest of small talk that I revealed my purpose, committing to videotape the importance of the miniskirt, to those others drinking big and talking small.

Stating that the miniskirt was an event of world-historical importance was probably not what Hegel had in mind when formulating the notion of world-historical. But Hegel was an idealist. I am not. Every heterosexual male knows what’s world-historical is his world. Was this project adolescent in origin and scope? No doubt about it. But lets be clear. Who uses the web? Who determines its content? Adolescent boys. Where was my tape going to wind up? Where does everything end up? The web. The logic was irrefutable.

Dressed in my silks, my sunglasses, my credentials, I walked around the old port and back to the Alles de la Liberte where I picked a seat in the sun in a cafe that served faux tropical drinks in plastic margarita glasses, tilted the sunglasses up on my head and waited, smiling at every woman who looked my way.

I didn’t have to wait long. They sought me out, or rather they sought out my credentials. They came in sandals and heels, and boots, and espadrilles, and after a few words and the exchange of phone numbers and addresses and agreement on time and place, they were off, to check their clothes and prepare for the next days filming.

I taped them. I taped them, over the course of the next couple of days, walking. I taped them sitting, crossing their legs, getting up from the table, smoothing their skirts. I taped them climbing uphill to the Musee de la Castre. I taped them walking cautiously downhill to the Boulevard Jean-Hibert.

They were twenty years old, thirty years old, forty years old, even fifty years old. They were brown, red-brown, yellow-brown, pink-brown, black-brown, white-brown. Africa really is mother to us all .

They walked into the water in their miniskirts and dresses and walked back out, the fabric clinging to their legs in a way that was as beautiful as exposed skin. And after filming, we always had a drink, a toast to the way women walk.

I did not, however, attempt to take advantage, or force myself on any one of them. Not one of them ever felt the need to sleep with me to conclude our arrangement. As a youth I had never wanted to be President of the United States, and I certainly wasn’t going to pretend I was one now.

Every woman was given my card, my phone number, my address and was promised a copy of the tape. A promise, by the way, which I have honored.

I was there to film them not sleep with them. That’s the way I wanted it. Until I met Danielle.

It was at a rooftop party held on a rooftop so perfectly situated on a night so laden with warmth that it made me think that if god was going to get married this is where he would have the reception. The night smelled like a baby’s breath. The wind gurgling, playing with its own fingers, taking you on its arm, leading you from conversation to conversation. The sky, painted in shades of slate blue, dropped down, draped itself around our shoulders and licked us with a tongue dipped in seawater. Marty was at the party. Dirk and Dick. Pedro, Pietro, Isabella, Luke, Luc, Sigourney.

I was just standing there, drinking something that might have contained alcohol, eating something that definitely contained salmon when Sigourney came over to me and pulled me aside.

“I heard about your project,” she said.

I was flattered. Imagine, Ripley, third officer of the Nostromo, seeking me out.

“Are you interested?” I asked.

“What? Me? Oh no. But Danielle wants to meet you.”

“Great,” I said. “Who’s Danielle?”

Sigourney leaned across me and nodded toward a tall woman in simple blue summer dress, espadrilles and long dark hair. Sigourney waved. Danielle waved back and walked towards me. I don’t know why but I felt suddenly uneasy, almost dizzy. The feeling confused me.

“She’s a singer from Israel,” said Sigourney. “She won the Eurovision sing-off contest this year.”

I was impressed. “You mean,” I stammered, “the same Eurovision contest won in 1974 by ABBA singing their smash hit “Waterloo?”

Sigourney paused. “I don’t really know. I guess it’s the same one. Let’s ask her.”

By which time Danielle was standing directly in front of me with her hand extended. She was beautiful with legs that were sublime. Her skin was more brown than olive. Turkish ancestors, I thought. I took her hand in mine and felt something go through me that I had never felt before, well maybe once before when I had thought, mistakenly, that I had won the New York State Lottery but misplaced the ticket. Turned out, I had the ticket but not the numbers.

We stared at each other. She took my arm and said in English. “Let’s go for a walk.”

We walked to the harbor, gazing at nothing but each other. We hardly spoke. Our connection was immediate, direct, instantaneous. It was hard to believe. Actually it was impossible, like winning the lottery.

I know what it was about her that attracted me. Her long black hair, her almond shaped and colored eyes, her perfect legs. I was so consumed with her beauty that I didn’t ask myself what attracted her to me.

We spent that entire night together. Talking as little as possible. Touching much more and for much longer than I am usually comfortable. It had to be love. Total, immediate, ignorant. Only flesh could make itself so vulnerable.

The next morning we met after breakfast. The three of us, Danielle, me, and my camera. We walked along the sand beaches of the Plage du Midi, she smiling with every step I filmed. We feasted on olives, tomatoes, bread, cheese that we purchased at a street market. For two days, we did everything that had nothing to do with the festival. And on the third night, in my hotel room, we made love. We made love like we were born to each other, like we had been sculpted, both inside and out, to fit each other exactly and nobody else. Tongue to tongue, hand in hand, leg around leg.

After breakfast, I walked Danielle back to the Carleton Intercontinental where she was staying. She had an appearance to make and we were to meet later in the day. I returned to my hotel and sat dreamily on the balcony, dulled to anything but the sense of my own well being.

The phone rang. The voice at the other end spoke Israel-accented English, and sounded like it was speaking it through a handkerchief. The voice belonged to Danielle’s brother, who, accompanied by Danielle’s other two brothers asked to come to my suite and speak with me. Family members? Family is one thing I never counted on. In this world of presentation and representation, of self and more self, I assume that everyone just leaves family out of it.

But then there was the knock at the door. I opened it to reveal three identical looking men. Height five feet ten inches. Weight about 187. Hair, black, curly. Eyes, brown, almond shaped. Skin, almond. Turkish ancestors, I thought.

The brothers dressed identically, white shirts open at the collar, sand colored slacks, navy blue jackets. They pushed against each other to be the first through the doorway and into my room, wrinkling their slacks and jackets in the effort. I stood back and waited. Finally after they, more than less, tumbled into my suite and lined themselves in one rank, 1,2,3 left to right, brother number one spoke.

“What are you doing with our brother?”

Then number two interjected, “Our sister?”

And number three chimed in, “Both?”

Brother? Sister? Both?

“What are you talking about?”

“We want to know what your intentions are towards our brother.”

“Sister,” said number two.

“Whatever,” said number three.


“Don’t pretend you don’t know who we’re talking about,” said number one.

“Maybe he doesn’t know what we’re talking about,” said number two.

“How could he not know?”, said number three.

I wasn’t pretending. I had no idea what they were talking about. “Brother? Sister? Both? What are you talking about?”

The brothers looked at each other.

“Are you sleeping with him?”, said number one.

“Her,” said number two.

“Either/or,”said number three.

They looked at each other again.

“He doesn’t know,” said number three.

“ Doesn’t know what?” I demanded.

The brothers looked at each other and at me. Then they spoke in unison. “Danielle was our brother, before she had the operation. Now she’s our sister. She’s transgender.”

I stared at them. “I don’t believe you. We’ve been together for days. I would have noticed something, scars, irregularities.” Indeed, I noticed something. I took it for perfection.

“Not at those prices, you wouldn’t,” said brother number one.

“It wasn’t cheap,” said number two.

“Which brings us to the business at hand,” said number three. “She is a pop star. She is here at the most famous festival of stars and she should be working. Instead she spends her time with an unknown Ejournalist! She’s wasting her hard earned self.”

“Right,” said number one. “She should be photographed in the company of Sylvester Stallone.”

“Sharon Stone,” said number two.

“Both,” said number three.

I was silent. Stunned. And awed. Danielle had done with her own flesh and blood what I had attempted to do with ones and zeros. And she had succeeded. What commitment to illusion, what authentic artifice, what synthetic realism, what balls! If I hadn’t been in love before, I certainly was now.

“So,” said number one, “what are your intentions.”

“Strictly honorable,” I said.

“I was afraid of that,” said number two.

“Would you marry him?”

“Her,” I corrected before numbers two and three could speak.

“If she’ll have me,” I said.

“And ruin her career?”, said number two. “You call that honorable?”

I didn’t know how to answer that.

“You Jewish?”, asked number three.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“What kind of answer is that?”, said number two. “How can you be ‘not exactly’ Jewish?”

“Well, I think one of my grandparents might have been Jewish, and my brother married a Jewish woman, but he’s dead now.”

“Figures,” said number one.

“Well, that settles it,” said number one. “You’re not Jewish. It would kill our parents if Danielle married a goy.”

I understood. Radical surgery and gender transformation are acceptable, but marrying outside the faith is a crime.

“If you love Danielle,” said number three, “you’ll leave her alone and let her make the name and money for herself he/she/both, whatever, deserves.”

“And if you attempt to see Danielle, we’ll have you arrested as a stalker.”

“Or maybe we’ll just take care of you ourselves,” said number three. “Israeli paratroopers,” he said, as if he were identifying himself to school children.

With no further words, they turned to leave, bumping into each other again at the doorway before spilling out into the corridor.

As soon as they left, I called Danielle. The phone rang. And rang. And rang some more.

I walked over to the Intercontinental and left a message. I called again. Nothing.

I saw Danielle the next day, at a press conference, surrounded by her brothers, answering questions about stories of her simultaneous affairs with David Bowie and Grace Jones. I knew her brothers had planted the stories. The whole scene was so dishonest I could have puked.

That’s when I realized I was in trouble. Since when did I require honesty in marketing? I had almost felt something that might have been real and it threatened my whole world.

As Danielle left the press conference, I called to her. She turned to look, but brothers one and two, on either side of her, took her arms and hustled her out the door. Brother three came over and punched me sharply in the gut. It might have hurt had I not been so distracted. Before he could punch me again, I stamped down hard on his foot. He began to crumple. On his way down I grabbed his ear, twisted sharply, pulled his head back and grabbed his trachea.

“New York East Villager,” I said. “Fuck your airborne ass.”

I had to leave Cannes and I did. I wasn’t just going through the motions any longer, my heart had gotten into it, and that could have ruined me forever.

I drove back to Nice that next day, took a room at Hotel L’Oasis and explained the whole sorry story to B.

He shook his head. “What are you going to do?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll try to get out less often.”

“Is that possible?”

“It’s possible all right.”

“Life’s a funny thing,” he said. “There’s no explanation for the passions of the human heart.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Very funny. A regular laugh riot. What’s that phrase? Best laid plans of....”
I finished my wine and walked across the Promenade to sit and stare at the coastline of an Africa far beyond my vision. Thinking of the best laid plans of... a man with a mouse.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

While I'm Away....

.............for your reading pleasure, and in the hope you will forgive me for being the slacker I am.....

Surfin’ USA

Slow. One thing I’m not. Nobody I know thinks I’m slow at anything. A woman I know said that I come out of the sky like a falcon plummeting towards its prey. A mildly disconcerting feeling, she added, for most women. Just moving with a purpose I told her, then showing my hands, pointing out that I didn’t have talons. She said that’s hard to notice at 200 miles an hour. But I’ve learned to slow down, to take my time, to take more than my time. For example....
It took me a little longer than planned to find myself a surfer girl. I was 52, not exactly an age where I spent hours on the beach, frugging to the Rivieras and waxing down my board. I didn’t have a ’34 wagon called a woody. The thing I did have that I called a woody I had been waking up with everyday for forty one years. I hoped to wake up with it for another forty one. I didn’t own huaraches. I wore baggies, it’s true, but they weren’t meant to be. I think. Besides at my age, "baggies" had a whole different meaning, several different meanings and applications, none of which I care to think about much less discuss.

I had always wanted a surfer girlfriend. Not that I surfed. Not that I lived in California. Not that I spent a lot of time on beaches where some people surfed and others combed the sands with the home version of a mine detectors, picking up change, rings, the occasional dental crown. Not that any of that mattered. In high school, where I didn’t want to be but was, I wanted to be on a beach, where I wasn’t, with a surfer girl, a sensitive, intelligent, loving surfer girl with a tan, a bikini, a sweet, sweet ass, and a preference for my type of woody. I was very young. It was high school, after all.

The image, the projection, pardon the pun, of one’s own desire, a self-deluding picture of freedom and fulfillment gift-wrapped and bow-tied, never disappears completely. So even after high school, when I continued to be in places I’d rather not have been, during my radical days, drop-kicking tear cas canisters back toward lines of cops, during my post-radical days, when I spent the deepest of nights holding my breath, during my period of adjustment, drinking myself into oblivion or fist fight, during my recovery, getting a job, making progress, raising a family and money, I always thought of the girl on the board, riding the waves, steering a path of crystalline purity through foam and backwash, rushing over the water and sand into my arms. I saw her every day, shaking her hair dry, smiling at me, as I wrapped her in a towel and sucked the salt water from her lips.

She would be from California, naturally. Astounded by my New York presence. "I’m so glad you came," she would say. "I’m so glad you waited for me," I would say. The scenes played out in my head like a particularly weird episode of The Twilight Zone.

Even later, after my adjustment, my recovery, my reentry into an atmosphere and gravity that I couldn’t, for some reason, regard with complete seriousness; even when I began to feel that there were some places on this planet in this lifetime where I didn’t really mind being, after years of telling myself "this isn’t so bad," I thought of her, the surfer girl.

Blame it on the radio. I was not, am not, a television person. I don’t pretend to any cultural superiority, I just never found television interesting, funny, or entertaining. There was no persistence of television for me. Television, like school or home, was just another of those places that seemed better off without me, that didn’t need me, leave any room for me, for what I wanted.

Movie were OK. Movies were dreams circulating in the public domain. But radio....
But radio, what I heard on the radio, in all periods of my permanent maladjustment, the words and music, the pictures of hope and loss painted in the synchronized steps and voices of the singers, the warnings, regrets, eagerness and hesitancy of the instruments, the defiant melancholy of a not-yet-broken heart, painted pictures for me that hummed inside my head. They were always there. She, surfer girl, among them. So that during the midst of bopping along to George Clinton or Prince or Warren Zevon or Donna Summer or Janet Jackson, I saw her out there, waiting, waiting for the wave that had my name written on it.

Blame it on the radio. When they sang, "Last night a Deejay saved my life..." I knew what they meant.

Those were mostly idle thoughts. A preoccupation. A daydream. My life didn’t allow for much idleness however. Until I hit my fifties. And I began to desire something other than 16 hour workdays, midnight phone calls, nationwide paging, and all the pretenses of a life that couldn’t really be that important.

I began to disconnect, literally. I was already divorced. My children grown. The electronic tethers that bound me to this life were chains of my own making, a way of lashing myself to the mast of a storm tossed life, of making myself appear normal. It was exactly the feeling I had had about my marriage to a definitively non-surfer girl. So I stopped taking the 2 AM calls, stopped interrupting dinner to answer the pager, stopped taking the cell phone with me, stopped all of it, all at once. Like I had quit smoking. Over and done. And I explained to all those who worked for me, that it was their turn, their turn to get no sleep, to miss a meal, to worry when others were laughing and drinking. At first, they didn’t think I was serious. And I couldn’t blame them for that. But they learned. In a hurry. Slow I wouldn’t let them be.

I took vacations, lots of them. I had taken vacations before, but not like this. Two weeks in Paris, a month at work; a week in Nice, two weeks at work; Ten days in Denmark, five days in Holland, 5 more days at home to recover from my 15 days abroad.

Then, and not because I was tired of Europe, I turned my gaze west, thinking about all those days spent thinking about California. What I knew about California revolved around Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and Oakland again. Southern California existed only in the songs in my head, chords and notes stolen from Chuck Berry. I changed the words to suit my mood. I had, over the years, developed six or seven different sets of lyrics to accompany The Beach Boys "Surfin’ USA" and Jan and Dean’s "Surf City," all of which, particularly the set developed after the drowning of Natalie Wood, my then wife made me promise never to sing in front of the children. She was right about that, of course. It was the only thing she was right about.
So I had not actually been to Southern California. But I had heard about it. And that was more than a start for someone like me.

I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove to the ocean and then over to Santa Monica. My impression of LA had always been that it had invented itself according to the street names in screenplays of several detective novels transformed into movies. Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, Sunset, Wilshire, Santa Monica Boulevards-- I couldn’t believe any of it. I knew they were made up names. It was better that way.

I stayed in Santa Monica because it had a pier with an amusement park, a big beach, and a rather exclusive hotel that seemed just right for cocktails while discussing the terms of blackmail, hats off to Raymond Chandler. The hotel had a garden that was shielded from the sight of the ocean but not its smell, its roar, its muscle power as it rolled across the sand. You could hear it. It reminded me of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, for some reason. Radio, I think. Somebody was narrating everybody’s stay in this hotel. Entering the hotel was like entering a picture painted on the airwaves.

And there was surfing. Not for me. But for her. Surfer girl. Whoever she was, she was out there on the water, and my hearing, more accurate than my gaze would bring her into view.
Not that I ever thought I would actually find her. Not by sitting there in my beach chair, wearing my sunglasses, slathered with sunblock, reading my book, listening to my radio without headphones. More likely I would be checking in as she was checking out of some hotel on some other beach. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time being kind of an enduring theme for me.

But she was there, not five hundred yards out. I watched her wait, turn the board, drift, paddle, and time the waves, raising herself to standing before the board picked up too much speed. She wore the board. It was chained to her ankle by a rubber cord. She walked the board front and back, pushing it forward or pulling it back across the face of the wave. She wore a wet suit.
She spun off the wave as it turned to froth and spittle, paddling back out. Repetition in the service of mastery. The waves were regular that day, five to six feet, with an even steady drive to the shore and an unturbulent break. Starter waves, I suppose, for some.

I watched her on the water for an hour, thinking the most positive thoughts I had thought in thirty years, ready to believe in a just, merciful, god if that would get her to surf back in and give me a chance to say the words I longed to hear. Not that I knew what those words would be. But I wasn’t worried. I knew I would think of something. I always had.

God or no god, she stayed out on the water. God or no god, she decided to come back in. It was the early afternoon, a time when most people’s thoughts turn to Margaritas on a deck, chilled shrimp, pico de gallo, cilantro, lime in the sunlight.

She untethered herself from the board, carrying it easily up the sand. I was surprised by how small the board was, how much smaller it was than I remembered imagining boards to be. But that’s progress, the women get bigger and the boards get smaller. She was just a little bit on my side of that progress line in both size and age. She was not quite 5’ 6", and she was definitely no girl. She was my age. She was beautiful. White hair, silver green eyes, inviting and awaiting attention, her face slightly wrinkled with the effort of years of thought and attention.

I walked over to her as she unzipped her wet suit, the nylon zipper unsealing with a sound like a fish being scaled. I shivered and admired the shape of her arms, her back, her legs all at once. The sun sparkled off the thin film of water the wetsuit had used to insulate her from the cold ocean.

"I watched you surf," I said in a burst of originality and wit.

"I noticed," she said.

"I thought you were pretty good."

"Not bad for a beginner is a more accurate characterization."

"You’re a beginner?"

"Yes, third day I’ve been out. It’s not getting any easier. I’m just working harder on it."

"Like most of life," I said. She smiled. That was a good sign.

She extended her hand. "Louise Larsen," she said.

"Rubin Rubinnelli," I said shaking her hand.

"Great name," she said.

"Not bad for a beginner would be a better characterization. I had nothing to do with it. Got it from my parents."

She laughed again. What was it someone had told me? Once you get her laughing, move with a purpose before she changes her mind?

"Are you from around here?" I asked.

She shook her head, loosening her hair from the elastic that held it away from her face. "No, I actually live in Wisconsin, near Madison. You know where that is?"

"Do I ever. Ninety miles north of Chicago, home to the University of Wisconsin, situated along Lake Mendota, where the plane carrying Otis Redding and some of the Bar-Keys went down."

"Very good. You know your history."

"More than I care to, I assure you."

She smiled but didn’t laugh. Which was fine. It wasn’t meant to be a funny remark.

She wasn’t wearing a bikini and she didn’t have to. She looked fine, in her one piece cobalt blue suit, her strong smooth legs arching to the ground. She had small round breasts, shoulders that weren’t ashamed of themselves, and a sweet, sweet ass. I didn’t even attempt not to look at it.

"Hungry?" I said. One word that meant date, invitation, care, concern, love, the whole story.


"Good. Place I know has an upper deck with umbrellas, if you want shade, a view of the ocean, and cold, cold beer."

"How’s the food?", she asked.

"Now that you mention it, not too bad."

That made her laugh again. I was making real progress. She wanted to put away her board and wetsuit in her room. I promised to wait for her, having a much shorter walk to my room to return the radio and chair. I offered to let her use my room for her gear but she said she wanted to take a quick shower. "Even better," I said.

"Not yet," she said.

I shrugged. "Just moving with a purpose."

"Are you ever."

I laughed.

When she returned, she was wearing a shocking pink sun dress, shocking pink lipstick, sandals. Her toenails wore the same shocking pink. The combined impact of the pink, with her white hair, the endless sunlight, made me hear things. Music, drums, cowbells. Color and percussion were one in my innermost of inner ears.

We sat on the upper deck of the restaurant, eschewing the umbrella, drinking our beers, eating shrimp and avocado, and generally taken for granted our good fortune. It was the way life should be. We discussed careers. Hers was definitely more interesting. She was an obstetrician-gynocologist tending to the needs of old and young alike, providing diagnosis, examination, counsel, contraception to all her patients without regard for the wishes of parents, husbands, priests, or cops.

"This is what medicine is supposed to be. To practice it any other way is to provide poor care to the patient."

I nodded. "Takes a certain amount of courage."

"No more than being a woman does."

I drank to that.

"And what brings you here?", she asked.


"You surf?"

"No, I just believe in it. I’m not a good enough swimmer. I love to watch it."

"I wind surf at home," she said, "and I wanted to try to real thing. So I told my partners in the practice to take over for a week and here I am."

We were sitting next to each other facing the ocean. While we talked she moved closer to me and let her leg rub against mine. It felt good. It felt better than good. I wanted to drop my hand on to her thigh, but I didn’t. I was taking my time. It was difficult.

"I should go back, get some more board time in," she said.

"Or you can stay here, and have another beer with me and watch the ocean."

She was silent. "Will you be here tomorrow."


"Good," she said. "Then we’ll meet tomorrow."

She got up to leave. "Stay," she said, "Enjoy the view. I’ll see you tomorrow." She was taking her time.

I watched her as she walked, making the sun dress sway. The thing about watching a woman walk away is you know exactly what you’re missing. That’s not easy.

I had another beer and another and watched her return to the beach in her wetsuit, strap the board to her ankle and push back into the water. She paddled out and straddled the board, raised a hand and waved in my direction. I didn’t believe she could see me, but she knew I could see her. I appreciated the gesture.

She surfed for another hour, framed by a setting sun, nuzzled, almost, by a calming ocean. I almost wished I had a camera.

I enjoyed my sleep that night, something I do more often now that I take my time. I don’t think I slept well, waking up several times, staying up once to read, once to listen to the radio, once to walk out on the balcony of my room and listen to the night whispering to the ocean. But I enjoyed the whole thing, the sleeping the waking the thinking the anticipation.

I tried to take my time the next day. I left my radio in the room. I ate breakfast in the hotel dining room at a table not facing the ocean. I read the paper. I went for a walk. I busied myself counting every minute as if minutes didn’t matter, as if time I took didn’t have a purpose.
But of course, I did have a purpose and I finally surrendered to myself just before noon and moved with and to that purpose.

She was out there in water more turbulent than the day before, water that threw her from the board several times, the board sailing, twisting, spinning, until the tether yanked it down into the water, like the wind pushing down a kite, ordering it out of the air. She came back in, breathing hard, and smiling.

"Rough day?" I said.

She nodded. "I thought you’d never come and give me an excuse to stop falling off the board."


This time she agreed to use my room for her board and wet suit. And her shower. She had her dress and sandals in a nylon gym bag. She came out of the shower wrapped in a towel. She kissed me. I kissed her back. I unwrapped the towel and held her wet and naked against me.

"Can you do this, just this, for awhile?", she said.

"I’d say ‘yes,’ I’d say anything right now just to keep you here. But you know men, we’re always on recon, probing perimeters, boundaries. My mind is focussed but my hands would wander."

"I understand," she said, not pulling away.

I’m a man. I was on recon even in her arms, and my hands did wander. She let me feel her before pulling away.

"I’m hungry. We need to eat," she said.

I agreed. I’m a man. I was still on recon even out of her arms. I would say anything.

We returned to our place on the second story, our table without the umbrella, our cold, cold beers, shrimp and avocado, view of the ocean, legs pressing against each other. We were almost too close to eat.

"You’ve still got some board time left," I said after we had spent an hour not tasting our food.

"Or I could stay here, have another beer, and watch the ocean with you."

I ordered the beers.

"So much for board time," she said a couple hours later. The sun was on its glide path to the other edge of the horizon.

"We could stay here and have another beer," I said.

"Or we could go back to the hotel and make love," she said.

"Let me think about that," I said, jumping up signaling for the check and starting for the stairs all at once. She followed.

I don’t think we actually ran back to the hotel. But we did walk very fast. I would call it moving with a purpose. And when we arrived, I opened the doors to the balcony, pulled open the drapes, and the covers off the bed. I wanted to hear the ocean. I wanted the ocean to hear us.

She pulled me close and said one word, "condoms." It wasn’t a question. Nor a request. It was a requirement.

She came like the ocean, rolling up me in wave after wave of green and blue, covering me, all of me with a thousand wet fingers sinking into my every pore, releasing a thousand tiny voices of life emerging from a storm. The salt I tasted on her was her own, tasting exactly like the salt in the ocean.

We stayed that way all evening, all night. The next morning we went back to it, finding our way with our eyes closed, finding our way by touch, seeing each other with lips and hands. We ran out to eat. We ran back. We ran to the ocean to swim. We ran back.

That night as she lay in the bed, dozing almost, I thought about it, all of it. I thought it was time again to move with a purpose.

"Will you marry me?", I asked. She didn’t stir.

"Will you marry me?", I repeated.

She sat bolt upright, as if somebody had fired a gun in the room.


"Will you marry me?," I said again, not wanting to repeat it ad infinitum, thinking third time is either the charm or the end.

She looked at me. "Why would you think you want to marry me?"

"Well, for one you’re not tattooed. And we’ve spent three days together without discussing, even once, reincarnation, our astrological signs, or herbal cures for cancer. I always thought if I met an untattooed woman who didn’t believe in reincarnation, astrology or herbal cures for cancer I should marry her."

She laughed. "Oh Rubin, I am flattered. But I can’t marry you."

"Why not," I said. "I’m not tattooed either."

"Rubin," she paused, "I’m already married. I have a husband back in Wisconsin."I was stunned.

That wasn’t in any song I could recall. They made no mention of married surfer girls. I stood in front of the open balcony doors, confused, almost speechless. I stared out into the ocean. A picture came into my mind, a picture of a picture of John Garfield and Lana Turner, swimming in the deep water of the ocean after killing Lana’s husband, she swearing her love through the assumption of risk by drowning. But it was only a picture. I knew I could never do that. I knew I wasn’t a good enough swimmer.

She came up behind me and wrapped her arms around me. "I’m sorry," she said. "Perhaps I should go."

"No," I said, hearing another song, lots of other songs. "Don’t go. Please stay." I stopped before singing the next line.

We stood there silently, framed by the wind and the noise of the sea. I heard more songs. I heard Jimmy Ruffin singing "What Becomes Of the Broken Hearted?"

"It doesn’t get easy ever, does it?", I said.

"You just work harder at it," she said.
She took my hand and led me out onto the balcony into the sound of an ocean wet with darkness, a night cloaked in mist. Songs. Lines of songs. I whispered.

"New York’s a lonely town..."

She sang back to me. "When you’re the only surfer boy around."

We stood there, naked, holding hands in the dark. Listening to the ocean drumming the beach, listening to the ocean playing our song.

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