My illness is mostly over, I think. There’s still residual coughing, weak, tremulous breathing and difficulty sleeping, but I’ve been able to walk for miles each day, a restorative act that gets my blood flowing, and, of course, seeing people lifts my spirits. Here in Tirana, there are enough benches and green spaces to rest, and a strong sun has been out.
Although Tirana has almost no ornate buildings commonly associated with Europe, no fancy friezes, wrought iron balconies, fluted columns or caryatids, etc., Tiranians maintain southern European habits. Weather permitting, they prefer to be outside among their kind. Cafes and restaurants spill onto sidewalks. Yesterday, I walked by four old men playing domino, with a small crowd watching them. At another concrete table, there was a card game.
While there’s certainly collective grief, physical pain is always private, and once you’re afflicted with anything, all you can think about is escaping that condition. During the worst days of my illness, my small room suddenly appeared huge, simply because everything in it was so inaccessible. The distance from my bed to the bathroom door became a much dreaded challenge, often to be postponed for hours.
Though it was hard to think about anything, I thought of Fred Reed’s 2019 article about having 14 operations on his eyes, after they were injured in Vietnam. I was too much of a mess to reread it, however, but this morning, I finally revisited this unspeakably painful account, and the incredibly tough man who could endure such ordeals, though, typically, Reed downplays this aspect.
A 12.7mm round had gone through Reed’s windshield, “So I got choppered to the Naval Support Activity hospital in Danang with the insides of my eyes filled with blood, which I didn’t know because my eyelids were convulsively latched shut. An eye surgeon there did emergency iridectomies—removing a slice of the iris—so that my eyes wouldn’t explode. He also determined that powdered glass had gone through my corneas, through the anterior chamber, through the lens, and parked itself in the vitreous, which is the marmalade that fills the back of the eye. It had not reached the retina, though they couldn’t tell at the time, which meant that I wasn’t necessarily going to be blind. Yet.”
With calmness or even a weird sense of humor, Reed recounts one horrific operation after another, “The thing is, the patient can see all of this going on inside his eye. Really. It’s like watching shadow puppets. The microvit is clearly visible like a little rotorooter and you can see the snipping action of the cutter-part. Ms. Pacman, I tell you. I remember watching it go after a piece of black crud of some sort, snipsnipsnip, and eat it. It is a tribute to the efficacy of federal dope that the patient doesn’t leap up and run screaming from the room. You just don’t care. The whole business is dreamy, a sort of warm glowing Buddhist light show.”
Thinking about Reed’s enduring hell puts everything into perspective, all right, so whatever I have is no more than a minor bout of hiccups, and it’s almost over. Having cured myself, though, I can safely declare myself, with no immodesty, as a medical doctor, physical therapist and shrink. Fortified with this body of knowledge, I must send an urgent message to Joe Biden.
Listen up, Joe. What’s the point of having six million Jewish geniuses in your administration, if none of them can point out the obvious solution to this Covid crisis? Why hasn’t Rachel Levine, for example, whispered in your ears, “Mr. President, you must sign an executive order immediately, mandating butt plugs for all Americans.” Levine is already an expert at rearranging everything downstairs, even with the nastiest scalpels, so this is nothing but the gentlest of remedies.
There you have it. Why bother wearing three or four masks and keeping your social distance if the other end of your plumbing is exactly like a howling tunnel in the middle of a hurricane? Farting away, all the Covid-infected are gassing up America with a massive apocalyptic miasma of toxic viruses, so all you’re breathing in, night and day, is this evil exhalation.
You must lead by example, Joe. To reassure your anxious citizenry, you, and Kamala, too, must show everyone how it’s done.
Biden, “Good evening, my fellow Americans. Tonight, I have great news for everyone. After more than a year of collective suffering and collective sacrifice, not to mention collective loss of living, we’ve reached the end of the tunnel, and I mean this literally, as you shall soon see. Tonight, I’m signing an executive order mandating butt plugs for all Americans, even the newborn, and you must never take it off. With this easy, affordable and painless solution, Covid will finally be defeated.
“Many of you may not even know what a butt plug is. You may think, Doesn’t it sound rather pornographic? Not at all, my fellow Americans. It’s just a piece of rubber that you shove up your anus, like this,” and here Biden pulls down his pants, with admirable dignity, to show a snugly fitted and even stylish purple butt plug up his ass. “Kamala, will you show them yours?”
She readily complies. Her crimson butt plug is so huge, however, several journalists can’t help but gasp. They pull their pants up.
Biden, “They come in all sizes and colors, my fellow Americans, and many are quite cute, I must say. Even wholesome. X-ray scanners will be installed in all public buildings, including supermarkets, restaurants and bars, to ensure compliance. With this simple solution, our lives can return to normal, immediately!”
At the nadir of my sickness, I had basically one emotion, dread, so to warm up my soul again, I listened to Glenn Gould and watched John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz and Woman Under the Influence, movies I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years.
Cassavetes’ films are characterized by long takes of people making each other uncomfortable, although this is almost never their intention. Many of them are just too self-absorbed, thus lost. Tension abounds, screaming erupts, and too often, there’s even physical violence. Almost never entertaining, his flicks are excruciating investigations into the hidden pains of being humans, especially American ones. You go along, endure these torturous scenes, because you recognize yourself, or should, in all these characters.
Minnie (Gena Rowlands) has a lunch date with Zelmo (Val Avery), an Armenian who oddly declares himself an Arab.
“No… I mean, I don’t look like an Arab. I don’t wear blankets like that and I don’t have any camel. How tall are you?”
Even with the “How tall are you?” there’s already an awkwardness between them, but Cassavetes’ characters blunder routinely, just like we do in real life.
At the restaurant, Zelmo tries to get Minnie to talk about herself, a basic tactic, but when she’s unresponsive, he has no choice but to go on about himself. Too vehemently, he snarls, growls or shouts, “I hate business, Minnie. It’s funny, ‘cause I’m a fairly rich man, but I hate making money. I don’t know what to do with it. I get up in the morning, I ask myself, Zelmo, what am I gonna do with my money? I give it to charity, I give it to friends. I buy a big house, take a vacation—from what, I don’t know? I’m not married anymore. I was married to a woman that was… a very nice woman, we had no children… it didn’t last… not very long… I made a mistake on our wedding night… personal stuff, you know. You’re very easy to talk to, Minnie. You look like you care about me. That’s a terrific quality to have—a rare quality. I think those people that can listen endlessly are much more fascinating that the people that talk.”
Digging deeper, he tells her, “Minnie, I got to tell you… my problem is that I have hair down my back, and on my chest, and down my arms… but not on my legs—my legs are very smooth. I don’t know why I’m telling you this…”
“That’s all right. I have the veal piccata.” With Zelmo talking so much, they haven’t even ordered.
“You look at a man like me, Minnie, and what do you see?”
“I see a very nice man who’s taking me to lunch.”
“I can’t seem to make you feel what I’m feeling. It’s very hard.”
More of the same, and these takes are usually very long, and Minnie has finally enough, “Zelmo, I have absolutely no interest in you personally. All I wanted to do was to go to lunch.”
“Not one dirty thing did I say. Not one off-center thing did I say.”
“Zelmo, I want to go. I’m terribly sorry.” They have eaten nothing.
“Always with blondes. They got some kind of Swedish suicide impulse in them. Took a girl out to lunch once—the next thing you know she wants me to kick her. I said—me kick you—for what? What’s that supposed to be… something?”
Finally, Minnie runs outside, with Zelmo chasing after and shouting. The sunny parking lot is a relief after the claustrophobic restaurant scene, yet even here, Zelmo can’t shut up, “I took you out, I was sorry for you. Bleach blonde hair, $90 a week worker… I wanted to take you out. Give you a little education. Let you understand there’s some kindness in the world.”
Seeing Minnie abused, the parking lot attendant, Moskowitz, has to intervene, thus begins their unlikely relationship.
If anything, Woman Under the Influence (1974) is even more painful to watch, for it involves Gena Rowlands going mad for nearly two hours, and I found myself howling at points, with tears streaming down my face, but hey, all of my emotions, even those I didn’t know I had, were revived. Great art does that.
For Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes got an Academy Award nomination for best director, and Rowlands got one for best actress. Even the lowbrow New York Daily News gave it a glowing review, but America was a much different country then It was much more serious place, with people who could still think.
The movie’s simple yet very poignant and elegant soundtrack was done by Bo Harwood. To celebrate their Academy Award nominations, Cassavetes and Harwood went onto a fire escape to drink some cognac.
Harwood, “He brought two shot glasses, and he poured one for me, and one for himself, and he looked at me with that wonderful smile of his, and he lifted his glass over the city, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Fuck them!’”
I interpret that to mean Cassavetes made movies to follow, most ruthlessly, his own vision, and nothing else. Of the major studios, Cassavetes laughingly said, “They help us destroy them […] If we make a good film, they will only suffer.”
Awards would be nice, but you must never pander, “You have to fight every day to keep your sanity, and stop from censoring yourself.” To censor yourself, then, is to lose your sanity, but that’s all we do now. Cowering, we’ve long lost our minds.
In the safest space online, we can still flaunt our belligerence, glibness and stupidity, but that’s just more proof of our cultural, intellectual and emotional regression.