Balboa Discovers Pacific, 500 Years Ago Today

Today is the five hundred year anniversary of the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Nuñéz de Balboa. Although the exact date is disputed, it says so on today’s little square on my Porto Rico Importing Company calendar that the clerk gave me when I bought a pound of coffee there around Christmas, and that’s as definitive as we need to get.

Balboa discovers the Pacific.

Balboa discovers the Pacific.

During my pre-P.C. childhood (in more senses than one), I absolutely loved the maps of the Age of Exploration. Da Gama keeps turning left to round Africa. Cabot. Magellan. What a bunch of lunatics. But I always had a special place in my heart for Balboa, because his “discovery” seemed so sad. What happens when we find a vast new land and destroy its people? Anything is possible. We are, like Herzog’s great conquistador he created during the Vietnam War era, the wrath of God.

One day, though, we discover that on the other side of that enormous lump of paradise is another ocean. There is only so much conquist-ing one guy can do. Our dreams are finite, and no matter how little we thought the world was, it’s even littler than that. In my 2nd Grade imagination Balboa was putting his armored feet in the water somewhere around San Diego, and his achievement seemed like the final American discovery: the end of the continent.

I showed a comedy script* to a director named Soham Mehta a few years ago. It had a supernatural element, and some magical moments, and in the last act it sprawled out right where it should have gotten tighter. Mehta’s most insightful comment was that when anything is possible, you don’t know the parameters of the possible outcomes you are hoping for. It’s something storytellers should keep in mind – or at least a principle we should observe by not introducing game-changing elements too late in the story. Give the reader/listener/viewer the pleasure and the respect of knowing the whole terrain of the land before proceeding to the final confrontation.

No one is raising a glass for Balboa today, and it’s not the same lightning rod of an anniversary that Columbus Day, 1992 was. Maybe exposés of the actual, genocidal nature of the Age of Exploration are passé. Maybe there just isn’t a Spanish-American community with a knee-jerk attachment to Balboa the way the Italians took to Columbus. (When the Bay Ridge Italians first suggested naming the Brooklyn-Staten Island bridge after the explorer Verrazano, Robert Moses scoffed that he’d never heard of him.) To me, though, today does define the Age of Exploration. It’s the day you realize you can’t have it all, and have to make real choices.

*Script as in screenplay. Screenwriting has been going on almost daily. More news soon.

La Strada: The Pope’s Favorite Movie

An interview with Pope Francis published today is getting front page headlines because he is trying to shame the conservative wing of the church to make a tactical retreat on sexual issues: abortion, contraception, and gay and lesbian life. Call it a watershed moment, or call it too little way too late, but give the guy at least a little credit.

He also says his favorite movie is Fellini’s La Strada, and we can only guess why. Has he always been an Italophile? Does he identify with Giulietta Masina, and his Catholic faith is Anthony Quinn, who drags him to  the wilderness and abandons him? Or does he just identify with clowns throwing a sad circus?

I recently got my haircut by a 20-something barber who wouldn’t shut up about Naked Lunch. I told him the best Burroughs book was Junky, something I often feel about that generation of writers: their best work was their early, simple stuff, before they had crazy reputations to uphold, and a young counterculture to try to stay a step ahead of. I’d definitely add Fellini (and Bergman) to that list.

As for the pope, anyone whose favorite movie is La Strada, which was written by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ennio Flajano, can’t be all bad. It’s going to the top of my re-watch list immediately.

A Sad Good-Bye to Eliot Spitzer

Like most political New Yorkers I tuned in to the news last night to see the likely winners of yesterday’s primary election, then got up to read the results in more depth this morning, not just to see what they say politically, but to try parsing out things I didn’t know about the vast city. The Chinese-American mayoral candidate John Liu, for example, took only 7% of the vote, but I see by the mayoral map that he won a swath of districts around Jackson Heights, making me wonder if there’s a fourth Chinatown in the city that I didn’t know about.


I won’t bore the readers from outside the area with a (probably fruitless) attempt to explain city politics, but lost in the suspense about the future mayor was another close, citywide race for comptroller, between two decent center-left candidates, Scott Stringer and Eliot Spitzer. Stringer was the front-runner by a mile, until Spitzer joined the race in April.

Spitzer, of course had to resign as governor when he got busted hiring a prostitute. I voted for him this week, along with 47% of Democratic primary voters, not quite enough, and his career in public office seems done.

“Dude, you’re a feminist. How can you vote for Spitzer?” asked a friend of mine, and it’s a fair question.

First, part of my reasoning was straight-up realpolitik. The comptroller’s office is only as meaningful as the political muscle behind it. Scott Stringer has been the Manhattan borough president, no pushover as politicians go, but Spitzer’s widespread name recognition and ability to get headlines meant he would have brought public shame into play as a political tool whenever he announced any investigation into city financing.

Secondly, a paranoid part of me has always sympathized with Spitzer, since his demise back in 2008 had the stink of a political hit about it. When Spitzer hired a prostitute to meet him at his hotel in Washington, he was there to testify about the effects of the coming financial crisis on the municipal bond insurance market.

I’m politically tuned in and not afraid of a page of text, and I can’t get my head around this crap to save my life, but Spitzer said, “If we do not take action, this could be a financial tsunami that causes substantial damage. The Bush Administration has looked the other way as this crisis moved from the financial markets into the entire American economy. This will affect the cost of college loans. It will affect museum budgets. It will affect state and local taxes. A collapse of bond insurers will adversely affect municipalities, investors and, if unchecked, many average Americans.”

Then he went to the famous Mayflower Hotel, just one flight up from the room where FDR wrote, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” He registered his room, without telling him, to a wealthy old friend of his named George Fox – a detail I’ve always found heartbreaking: why not ask Fox to make it happen for you? – bought a classical music CD in the gift shop, and had sex with a $4,000 hooker.

In other words, Spitzer was among the first to ring the alarm about the Wall Street crisis, which everyone knew was coming and wasn’t saying, and its effect on government budgets, which is still a leading cause of the economic stupor we’re in. Wall Street was going to keep gambling till the creditors came to shut the lights out, but governments, Spitzer was saying, needed to start planning for the collapse. Of all the specious wire transfers paying for prostitutes that day, that’s the one that federal agents were monitoring. Which might be a coincidence.

Most importantly, Spitzer’s 2013 campaign seemed to me like a blueprint for political comebacks. We are so hard-wired to understand people via their stories as opposed to their ideas, that we constantly ask “What is his/her story?” In politics we respond to a biography more than a platform. Nationally, Obama, Bush, and Clinton have been 18 straight years of small majorities (or in 2000, a large minority) voting for a compelling one sentence narrative. A poor boy from Arkansas works hard and makes good; a prodigal son finds Jesus and joins the ranks of his well-regarded father; etc. So, what does happen to the sinners banished to the political wilderness?

Spitzer attempted to show a way forward by taking a demotion. Six years ago he was the governor of the second largest state. This year he was willing to take a job as New York City Comptroller. A six year political exile, followed by a severe demotion, seems reasonable to me. He was unfortunately sharing front pages with Anthony Weiner, whose shorter exile he was trying to follow with a promotion.

Stringer’s victory might say something good about New York primary voters: to a degree unheard of in national politics we respond to long-term commitments more than headline-grabbing sensations, but I still feel the blues for Spitzer today. It’s telling that I publish this only after the election. I guess I didn’t have it in me to go out and actually campaign for the hypocrite. It sure would have been nice if he won, though.

Labor Day and Seamus Heaney

It’s Labor Day in the U.S., that holiday the Congress and president offered to American labor just when the international movement was starting to celebrate May Day to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs. Call it a coincidence, but in the solar year May Day comes at the peak of creation, when wanderlust is in our hearts, and the landscape and life seem full of possibility. Labor Day is the end of summer. A last dance with the sun.

You could argue it’s a harvest holiday – and I will be boiling corn and slicing raw tomatoes today, of course – but we already have a famous harvest holiday. If symbols matter, and they do, then maybe that’s why we work longer hours with fewer benefits than the rest of the developed world: We associate Labor Day with crying ourselves to sleep the night before school starts.

I could go on about the light in September, the insects, the squishing of rotten figs in one’s toes, and the landscapes with the color of every wildflower jacked up to eleven. I could, but I’m not a poet. The poets I know get up and write it every morning, and I don’t.

This morning was Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Ireland. A part of me, naturally, is jealous of a nation whose leaders can speak knowledgeably about a poet in their midst: If Philip Levine died last week, would Obama, John Boehner, and Bruce Springsteen all have cleared their schedules for today, on a par with the showing in Dublin? And how hard would it have been to find anyone at Coachella who could speak with as much feeling about him as The Irish Times found at Ireland’s Electric Picnic?

But Heaney, whose work was the gateway drug that got me and many people like me hooked on poetry, demanded honesty. His poems such as “A Dream of Jealousy” taught me how direct and raw – not bomb-throwing raw, “I-am-flawed” raw – poetry ought to be. There are fewer people in Ireland than in New York City, across a country the size of South Carolina. It’s easier to know “everyone” there, and so of course a Nobel laureate who writes about common people crossed paths with many of them.

Heaney owned up to the title “the great Irish poet” decades ago, and yet, when reading him,  you often feel you are reading about something other than national identity. When you read Orhan Pamuk, for example, only once in a while when you squint your eyes do you see some engagement with any material other than the great quandary of the Turkish intellectual.  His books are like trophies you keep on your shelf to show how serious you are.  Heaney’s books, full of farming stories and obituaries, and quips about sad grandparents, are for camping trips and nightstands, ones you want to re-read.

Years ago, before my friend Jay Leeming published his books, before I ever read Levine or Tony Hoagland, I sat and memorized “Bogland” one day and can still sit and type it from memory, give or take a bit of punctuation. The Great Irish Elk is his country, but it is also ourselves: the deeper and deeper we look inside, the more we realize there is nothing there. This junk on the outside, and the peripheral details about us – our grandmothers’ accents, our worn-out tools, our symbols – that’s the whole show.

BOGLAND by Seamus Heaney

for T.P. Flanagan

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening –

Everywhere the eye concedes

To encroaching horizon,


Is wooed into the Cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.


They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.


Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter


Melting and opening underfoot

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They’ll never dig coal here,


Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,


Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.