Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Farrah Fawcett meant to me

I am known in my office as the "'70s guy," which generally refers to my taste in music. But those who know me well know that I am inherently and unashamedly nostalgic, and it is a general truth that most of my all-time favorite movies, TV shows, and musicians are from that oft-maligned decade. Though I was only seven years old in 1970, when I came of age at the dawn of the '80s it was apparent to me that a large part of myself would remain in that time period that saw Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the White House and accommodated both the Ecology movement and disco.

In Judaism, a boy comes of age at 13; for this Jewish boy, that year was 1976. I barely knew I had hormones racing under my skin and would soon be assaulted by both welcome and unwelcome bodily changes, but all that changed when Charlie's Angels premiered on ABC. To say I was awestruck, starstruck, and dumbstruck by Farrah Fawcett is a vast understatement. I was in love. I had never known such magical beauty existed.

It's not surprising that I fell for the blond Angel, as my youthful crushes had been on such golden-haired lovelies as Marcia Brady from The Brady Bunch, Ellie Mae Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies, and a classmate named Tammy I was too shy to talk to. But Farrah was something else altogether, and that something else was obvious: nipples.

I was playing at my friend Richie's house one day. His mother was out shopping. When she returned, she said she had something for us. She gave us each a copy of Farrah's famous red bathing suit poster. There was so much to look at: her hair, those teeth, the nipples. I stayed on the nipples for a while. Back in 1976, that wasn't something a 13-year-old kid saw a lot of. In retrospect, and knowing Richie's mother as I did, she was essentially saying to us, "You're 13. Here, go learn how to masturbate." Thus my love for Farrah was consummated.

The next three years or so saw my bedroom become transformed into a Farrah shrine, my walls covered with Farrah posters and magazine clippings. I even had a Farrah pillow that I used as a damper for my bass drum (OK, I did sleep with it a few times, too). Eventually, they were all replaced by Marvel comic book covers, and over the years I broadened my taste in and experience with women, but Farrah always remained in my heart as the first clear proof of my heterosexuality.

Today I don't even own the red bathing suit poster, but a few years ago a colleague gave me a mug with that image on it as as birthday present, and this past year my work got me a Farrah cake for my birthday. I took the teasing I got in good fun but I was also aware that she was fighting cancer, and the idea that this archetype of beauty was being destroyed by disease was disquieting. Recently, when the TV special documenting her battle with cancer aired, it was heartbreaking. I even cried at the end. And I knew this day would come, the day I would learn that she had died far too young at age 62.

One colleague hugged me today when she heard the news. Others made pouty pity faces at me, as though someone genuinely close to me had died. Despite my real sadness, I felt I had to somehow justify the impact this quintessential sex symbol's passing will have on me. I can't just talk about lust and tissue boxes, that's too creepy. What, then, does she mean to me really? Why do I care so much about Farrah Fawcett?

I guess it's because she represents an awakening to me, the opening of a new part of my identity and personality; she was a standard to keep with me as I grew up and went out into the world, part of my tastes, my beliefs, my cares and concerns. Not that Farrah herself encompasses all of that, but my eyes literally and figuratively were opened for the first time when I was 13, and everything else I've seen and done and learned and believed somehow has been built on that bar mitzvah-year foundation. It may not be Farrah at all that still draws me to Farrah; it might be that she simply represents the time when I took those clumsy first steps towards physical, mental, and emotional maturity (I'm still working on that last one, actually).

And maybe that's why I'm such a nostalgic person. As I get older, life gets more challenging and confusing, more frightening and less fun. The doors that were wide open when I was 13 seem to be closing. Maybe Farrah is a wedge that I've been using to keep that door open just a little bit. Just to let a sliver of light from my youth pierce the darker air of my adulthood. Something to remind me of easier times. Something to give me hope.

And now that wedge is gone. Of course, her image still remains and ultimately, it was the image I was in love with. And maybe that image can keep that door open a little longer. And maybe that light will also illuminate that wedge, and those things for which I still yearn - love, security, confidence, comfort - might somehow be more possible, more visible for me. Standing out in the dark even. Like her nipples.

Rest in peace, Farrah. And thank you for being on my wall and always smiling at me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Of Mourning

I wrote this last week after going to the wake of someone who died too young.

The grief of a black woman in mourning is overwhelming. We’ve seen it, all too often unfortunately, on the evening news. I saw it tonight in person. It’s noisy and uncontrolled, yet somehow almost ritualistic, like when folks in the black church “get the spirit.” The pain it reveals is impressive, its source so deep and raw that it is impossible to be unaffected by it.

Where does such an unreserved response spring from? Maybe from centuries of historical suffering. Perhaps its roots are in the exuberant kineticism that is so characteristic of black music, dance, and art. The creative impulse in black people, it has always seemed to me, is in some way an act of survival – a defiant display of self-expression that says to the forces of oppression (real or imagined, internal or external): “I am alive.” “I am not still, I am alive.” “I am still alive.”

As it is with creativity, perhaps so it is with the wrenching keening of a black mother approaching the open coffin that bears her prostrate son. She bore him nine months; this ornate wooden box will bear him forevermore. She thrusts her head and her arms upwards but she does not open her eyes, does not look heavenward. She does not cast blame, but cries for mercy. Her anguished wails, her swaying body, make it clear that she is not the one who is dead. The dead cry for no one, least of all for themselves. It is the living who must bear the unbearable pain, feel and endure the loss, ask the unanswerable “Why?”

The dead accept death as no living person can. Certainly no mother of any kind anywhere can accept the death of her child. But I, distant enough to feel regret but not to mourn, for I did not known him, try to find a blessing. This dead man, this young black dead man, knew love and did not die from violence. He died playing soccer, a sport he loved. But his heart took an unexpected time out and his last kick was his last kick. It could have been worse, thinks I.

White, paternalistic impression? Perhaps. To me, it all could have been much worse. Not so to his mother, who shouts his name over and over as she leans over his unresponsive body and strokes his face. (What will become of the tears she sheds onto him, I wonder, when this night is over and the coffin lid is closed? Some of her will be with him always, I presume, even under the surface of the earth.) Not so to his wife, who is white and young, and who will spend their second wedding anniversary quite unlike the first, which no doubt had been imbued with so much hope, so much promise, and the unspoken belief that they had so much time ahead of them in which to fulfill their expectations.

The black mother, the white wife, they will try to go to sleep tonight. They will be haunted by the shock, by the loss, that still seems unreal. Somehow, rest will claim them and they will arise tomorrow morning – at first with a millisecond of hope that it was all a dream and that today will be another day of assuming the world’s terrors are not their own. Then with the hard slap of memory, they will understand that it is true: he is gone. And the sadness will return. And the anger. And the disbelief. And the grief. The grief, the overwhelming grief of a world in mourning.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Will the world ever learn?" Barack Obama and Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald

Today, President Obama visited the Buchenwald concentration camp, accompanied by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a Buchenwald survivor. Of the estimated 250,000 prisoners held there, 56,000 – including 11,000 Jews – were murdered.

I thought the remarks made by Chancellor Merkel, President Obama, and Mr. Wiesel were important enough to devote a post to. I would only add that this visit comes after stirring speeches in Egypt and Germany in which the President effectively reached out to the Muslim world and promoted America's commitment to helping forge a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians. To my way of thinking, this trip by Obama has been both historic and hopeful, and I am inspired by the reintroduction of moral leadership in the United States.

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: (As translated.) Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen. Here in this place a concentration camp was established in 1937. Not far from here lies Lima, a place where Germans created wonderful works of art, thereby contributing to European culture and civilization. Not far from that place where once artists, poets, and great minds met, terror, violence, and tyranny reigned over this camp.

At the beginning of our joint visit to the Buchenwald memorial the American President and I stood in front of a plaque commemorating all the victims. When you put your hand on the memorial you can feel that it has warmed up -- it is kept at a temperature of 37 degrees, the body temperature of a living human being. This, however, was not a place for living, but a place for dying.

Unimaginable horror, shock -- there are no words to adequately describe what we feel when we look at the suffering inflicted so cruelly upon so many people here and in other concentration and extermination camps under National Socialist terror. I bow my head before the victims.

We, the Germans, are faced with the agonizing question how and why -- how could this happen? How could Germany wreak such havoc in Europe and the world? It is therefore incumbent upon us Germans to show an unshakeable resolve to do everything we can so that something like this never happens again.

On the 25th of January, the presidents of the associations of former inmates at the concentration camps presented their request to the public, and this request closes with the following words: "The last eyewitness appeal to Germany, to all European states, and to the international community to continue preserving and honoring the human gift of remembrance and commemoration into the future. We ask young people to carry on our struggle against Nazi ideology, and for a just, peaceful and tolerant world; a world that has no place for anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and right-wing extremism."

This appeal of the survivors clearly defines the very special responsibility we Germans have to shoulder with regard to our history. And for me, therefore, there are three messages that are important today. First, let me emphasize, we Germans see it as past of our country's raison d'être to keep the everlasting memory alive of the break with civilization that was the Shoah. Only in this way will we be able to shape our future.

I am therefore very grateful that the Buchenwald memorial has always placed great emphasis on the dialogue with younger people, to conversations with eyewitnesses, to documentation, and a broad-based educational program.

Second, it is most important to keep the memory of the great sacrifices alive that had to be made to put an end to the terror of National Socialism and to liberate its victims and to rid all people of its yoke.

This is why I want to say a particular word of gratitude to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, for visiting this particular memorial. It gives me an opportunity to align yet again that we Germans shall never forget, and we owe the fact that we were given the opportunity after the war to start anew, to enjoy peace and freedom to the resolve, the strenuous efforts, and indeed to a sacrifice made in blood of the United States of America and of all those who stood by your side as allies or fighters in the resistance.

We were able to find our place again as members of the international community through a forward-looking partnership. And this partnership was finally key to enabling us to overcome the painful division of our country in 1989, and the division also of our continent. Today we remember the victims of this place. This includes remembering the victims of the so-called Special Camp 2, a detention camp run by the Soviet military administration from 1945 to 1950. Thousands of people perished due to the inhumane conditions of their detention.

Third, here in Buchenwald I would like to highlight an obligation placed on us Germans as a consequence of our past: to stand up for human rights, to stand up for rule of law, and for democracy. We shall fight against terror, extremism, and anti-Semitism. And in the awareness of our responsibility we shall strive for peace and freedom, together with our friends and partners in the United States and all over the world.

Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Chancellor Merkel and I have just finished our tour here at Buchenwald. I want to thank Dr. Volkhard Knigge, who gave an outstanding account of what we were witnessing. I am particularly grateful to be accompanied by my friend Elie Wiesel, as well as Mr. Bertrand Herz, both of whom are survivors of this place.

We saw the area known as Little Camp where Elie and Bertrand were sent as boys. In fact, at the place that commemorates this camp, there is a photograph in which we can see a 16-year-old Elie in one of the bunks along with the others. We saw the ovens of the crematorium, the guard towers, the barbed wire fences, the foundations of barracks that once held people in the most unimaginable conditions.

We saw the memorial to all the survivors -- a steel plate, as Chancellor Merkel said, that is heated to 37 degrees Celsius, the temperature of the human body; a reminder -- where people were deemed inhuman because of their differences -- of the mark that we all share.

Now these sights have not lost their horror with the passage of time. As we were walking up, Elie said, "if these trees could talk." And there's a certain irony about the beauty of the landscape and the horror that took place here.

More than half a century later, our grief and our outrage over what happened have not diminished. I will not forget what I've seen here today.

I've known about this place since I was a boy, hearing stories about my great uncle, who was a very young man serving in World War II. He was part of the 89th Infantry Division, the first Americans to reach a concentration camp. They liberated Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps.

And I told this story, he returned from his service in a state of shock saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, alone with the painful memories that would not leave his head. And as we see -- as we saw some of the images here, it's understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock.

My great uncle's commander, General Eisenhower, understood this impulse to silence. He had seen the piles of bodies and starving survivors and deplorable conditions that the American soldiers found when they arrived, and he knew that those who witnessed these things might be too stunned to speak about them or be able -- be unable to find the words to describe them; that they might be rendered mute in the way my great uncle had. And he knew that what had happened here was so unthinkable that after the bodies had been taken away, that perhaps no one would believe it.

And that's why he ordered American troops and Germans from the nearby town to tour the camp. He invited congressmen and journalists to bear witness and ordered photographs and films to be made. And he insisted on viewing every corner of these camps so that -- and I quote -- he could "be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever in the future there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda."

We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished. To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.

Also to this day, there are those who perpetuate every form of intolerance -- racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and more -- hatred that degrades its victims and diminishes us all. In this century, we've seen genocide. We've seen mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground; children used as soldiers and rape used as a weapon of war. This places teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests.

But as we reflect today on the human capacity for evil and our shared obligation to defy it, we're also reminded of the human capacity for good. For amidst the countless acts of cruelty that took place here, we know that there were many acts of courage and kindness, as well. The Jews who insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur. The camp cook who hid potatoes in the lining of his prison uniform and distributed them to his fellow inmates, risking his own life to help save theirs. The prisoners who organized a special effort to protect the children here, sheltering them from work and giving them extra food. They set up secret classrooms, some of the inmates, and taught history and math and urged the children to think about their future professions. And we were just hearing about the resistance that formed and the irony that the base for the resistance was in the latrine areas because the guards found it so offensive that they wouldn't go there. And so out of the filth, that became a space in which small freedoms could thrive.

When the American GIs arrived they were astonished to find more than 900 children still alive, and the youngest was just three years old. And I'm told that a couple of the prisoners even wrote a Buchenwald song that many here sang. Among the lyrics were these: "...whatever our fate, we will say yes to life, for the day will come when we are our blood we carry the will to live and in our hearts, in our hearts -- faith."

These individuals never could have known the world would one day speak of this place. They could not have known that some of them would live to have children and grandchildren who would grow up hearing their stories and would return here so many years later to find a museum and memorials and the clock tower set permanently to 3:15, the moment of liberation.

They could not have known how the nation of Israel would rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust and the strong, enduring bonds between that great nation and my own. And they could not have known that one day an American President would visit this place and speak of them and that he would do so standing side by side with the German Chancellor in a Germany that is now a vibrant democracy and a valued American ally.

They could not have known these things. But still surrounded by death they willed themselves to hold fast to life. In their hearts they still had faith that evil would not triumph in the end, that while history is unknowable it arches towards progress, and that the world would one day remember them. And it is now up to us, the living, in our work, wherever we are, to resist injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take, and ensure that those who were lost here did not go in vain. It is up to us to redeem that faith. It is up to us to bear witness; to ensure that the world continues to note what happened here; to remember all those who survived and all those who perished, and to remember them not just as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed just like us.

And just as we identify with the victims, it's also important for us I think to remember that the perpetrators of such evil were human, as well, and that we have to guard against cruelty in ourselves. And I want to express particular thanks to Chancellor Merkel and the German people, because it's not easy to look into the past in this way and acknowledge it and make something of it, make a determination that they will stand guard against acts like this happening again.

Rather than have me end with my remarks I thought it was appropriate to have Elie Wiesel provide some reflection and some thought as he returns here so many years later to the place where his father died.

MR. WIESEL: Mr. President, Chancellor Merkel, Bertrand, ladies and gentlemen. As I came here today it was actually a way of coming and visit my father's grave -- but he had no grave. His grave is somewhere in the sky. This has become in those years the largest cemetery of the Jewish people.

The day he died was one of the darkest in my life. He became sick, weak, and I was there. I was there when he suffered. I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words. But I was not there when he called for me, although we were in the same block; he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there.

And I thought one day I will come back and speak to him, and tell him of the world that has become mine. I speak to him of times in which memory has become a sacred duty of all people of good will -- in America, where I live, or in Europe or in Germany, where you, Chancellor Merkel, are a leader with great courage and moral aspirations.

What can I tell him that the world has learned? I am not so sure. Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war -- every war is absurd and meaningless; where people will stop hating one another; where people will hate the otherness of the other rather than respect it.

But the world hasn't learned. When I was liberated in 1945, April 11, by the American army, somehow many of us were convinced that at least one lesson will have been learned -- that never again will there be war; that hatred is not an option, that racism is stupid; and the will to conquer other people's minds or territories or aspirations, that will is meaningless.

I was so hopeful. Paradoxically, I was so hopeful then. Many of us were, although we had the right to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one's life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.

We rejected that possibility and we said, no, we must continue believing in a future, because the world has learned. But again, the world hasn't. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.

Will the world ever learn? I think that is why Buchenwald is so important -- as important, of course, but differently as Auschwitz. It's important because here the large -- the big camp was a kind of international community. People came there from all horizons -- political, economic, culture. The first globalization essay, experiment, were made in Buchenwald. And all that was meant to diminish the humanity of human beings.

You spoke of humanity, Mr. President. Though unto us, in those times, it was human to be inhuman. And now the world has learned, I hope. And of course this hope includes so many of what now would be your vision for the future, Mr. President. A sense of security for Israel, a sense of security for its neighbors, to bring peace in that place. The time must come. It's enough -- enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It's enough. There must come a moment -- a moment of bringing people together.

And therefore we say anyone who comes here should go back with that resolution. Memory must bring people together rather than set them apart. Memories here not to sow anger in our hearts, but on the contrary, a sense of solidarity that all those who need us. What else can we do except invoke that memory so that people everywhere who say the 21st century is a century of new beginnings, filled with promise and infinite hope, and at times profound gratitude to all those who believe in our task, which is to improve the human condition.

A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: "After all," he said, "after the tragedy, never the rest...there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate." Even that can be found as truth -- painful as it is -- in Buchenwald.

Thank you, Mr. President, for allowing me to come back to my father's grave, which is still in my heart.