Just One Day Out of Life
(after Madonna’s “Holiday”)
Madonna’s first mainstream hit single in the U.S. was “Holiday.” It was released in 1983, and entered the Billboard Top 20 the week before Christmas. In the corresponding one-take video, Madonna, dressed in a black mesh top and scrunched hair, dances in the center with two other New Wavers—a joyful and gyrating routine signature of early 80’s Danceteria New York. My mother said the video was “kind of trashy,” but she thought the song was catchy and fun. I thought—my already seven-year-old budding obsession with Bowie, Prince and all things punk-lite—it was rad. And when my mom would say, “let’s clean house,” we would bounce around, her singing into the feather duster and I promenading with our kitchen mop, to the candy-pop rhythm.
Madonna recorded the song with her producer, Jellybean Benitez. I didn’t much like jelly beans. But they were all the rage in Reagan-era America. I preferred butterscotch, which is why I was excited for Aikahi Elementary School’s visit from Santa Claus, the week before Christmas. The flyer for the assembly announced, “Santa will pass out Butterscotch candies from his bag of gifts—if you’re good!” We didn’t eat much candy in my house on the Kane’ohe Bay Marine Corps base—my mother had been an assistant at a dental clinic, and was dedicated to ensuring my older brother and I had immaculate teeth.
Aikahi loosely means “Steady Place” in Hawaiian. And it truly was. I loved school. Even though I was a shy child who didn’t raise his hand, I could leave the chaos and anger of my home and learn to sing “Musunde Hiraite,” could watch poorly animated videos on solar systems beyond our own, read about the Big Island volcano, Kilauea, that had erupted on my sixth birthday. I could go to school and listen to stories of how the Islands formed, instead of my ill-equipped father and ADHD brother screaming at one another beyond my bedroom door.
Butterscotch was first known to be sold at Parkinson’s of Doncaster in the mid-nineteenth century, and was popularized by Queen Victoria herself when she sampled the confectionary. Its name derives from the combination of boiled butter and sugar, after which the concoction is “scotched”—or cut into pieces, before hardening.
I was in the first row during the assembly, one of few advantages for being the shortest boy in class, and when Santa emerged from behind the scrim and sat down, I could almost touch him. He was fat and white-bearded, as one would expect. And his “Ho” echoed as loudly here as in any suburban shopping mall rotunda. But there was something off about Santa this day. The white trim of his suit was dingy, and his cheeks blanch instead of blush. And when he sat down in his chair, he sighed heavy and rubbed his temples.
He signaled our teachers to pass out the candy while he proclaimed that toy production in the North Pole was booming, and Mrs. Claus says hello, and how good so many of us had been this year. As I popped the creamy butterscotch in my mouth, I wondered if he knew I had been bad—oh, my thoughts. That last week I imagined cutting out my father’s tongue. I was tired of hearing him yell at my mother across dinner tables and couches, screaming at her things I only heard in the movies my brother snuck on TV. When he would storm out of the house, as he often did, I sometimes hoped he wouldn’t return. My brother wailed and shouted at her, as well, calling her trash—that word again, and I remember my mother calling Madonna that once, but I didn’t quite understand. It was just so much noise. And then my mother, afterward, auburn hair falling around her face as she sat on the bed in her dark room. I wanted people to leave. I would soon be granted that wish, but not exactly how I had meant it.
I savored my butterscotch. I let it rest under my tongue, and would only pull the sweetness when my salivary glands demands. While other kids had sucked furiously to wear their butterscotch down to a yellow imprint on their tongue, or the even more impatient ones had bit into and chewed it up, I was steadfast. Mine was very much whole and round and delightful, even at the moment the teachers could see that most kids were getting restless. So, they began the sing-a-long, first to “Jingle Bells.”
And this is when I really noticed how uncomfortable Santa was. As the room filled with screeching off-key yelps and cackled caroling of “Batman smells” and “Robin laid an egg,” I watched Santa pat his forehead with the inside of his palm, and slide his hand down to his planetoid belly, like he was giving it reassurance. I thought Santa must be coming down with a cold or flu, which explained why I could smell something like cough syrup or hydrogen peroxide emanating from his body.
And that’s when I saw it. While the assembly rocked in their chairs to a shouting, spirited rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Santa slowly tilted the left side of his body ever so slightly, and right at the “won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” he released a melisma of tone-descending farts that began as staccato raspberries and slowed and flattened with the resignation of a balloon that knows the hole won’t ever close; ending with a tiny, almost imperceptible squeak, like Tinkerbell had exhaled her final breath. The look of relief on Santa was profound; he was a different man; happy again, jolly even. And I realized something at that moment, a sudden wisdom equally profound as Santa’s relief: the eruption of Kilauea was mother earth farting.
One day we come together, to release the pressure.
I was so shocked that Santa had squeezed out such a musical display, that this otherworldy not-quite-real-human could even fart, so moved by the subsequent correlation I had made between the body and the world, that I forgot about the butterscotch stowed under my tongue, and in my reactive gasp, sucked it down my windpipe. And it went deep. I tried to cough but couldn’t catch any air. I even raised my hands over my head like I had been taught in school, but I did so with too much oomph, and sailed backwards out of my chair, which is when everyone stopped singing and looked over at the commotion. The next thing I know the butterscotch is stuck in the berber carpet a foot from my mouth, and Santa is looming over me, “are you all right, kid?” Disoriented, but still clear enough in my eureka, I said to Santa, “volcanoes are buttholes.”
More than the trauma of being asphyxiated by my favorite candy, I was mortified that I, tiny and quiet Miah Jeffra, had cut the first-grade Christmas assembly to an early conclusion, one of the few events all kids looked forward to. I didn’t dare to speak, from the muttered epiphany to Santa until I was safely in my bedroom. I knew I would suffer at the gathering cruelty of seven-year-old vocabulary those three long days before Christmas break. The torture would be real, and it would be heinous. I had compromised my only Aikahi. The class didn’t even get to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas. And maybe, just for that only, I was relieved, because I didn’t know what I’d have told him.
When I finally got the courage to emerge from my room, there was my mother. I’m not sure where my father and brother were, but it was quiet, and I was grateful. She had the feather duster in one hand and the mop in the other, which she extended to me, and said, “Santa told me you were a pretty wise fella,” and grinned. I flipped the mop over, so that the gray tendrils fell like dreadlocks around the flat-headed girl I had named Molly. My mother turned on the stereo, and we wiggled, to Madonna’s “Holiday,” as we had done many a time—the feather duster her microphone, the upside-down mop my dancing partner. And, all was forgotten—the embarrassment, the chaos—at least for now.
Soon after the New Year, my mother would leave us and move in to a small apartment on the other side of Kane’ohe Bay. I guess she wanted the noise to stop, too. My mother knew that before we all hardened, she had to cut our family into pieces. But at that moment, all was forgotten.
Just one day out of life. It would be, it would be so nice.
(after Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”)
Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” is a full-color five panel photographic installation that features twelve men at a banquet table with the artist herself standing, nude, in the center, a white shawl draped over her outstretched arms, as if giving blessing. When the piece toured in New York City, it was met with fury by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. He said that it was “outrageous”, that it was “disgusting and anti-Catholic,” that it was a gross misrepresentation of the original. Cox’s initial reply to the mayor was, “Get over it. I don’t produce work that necessarily looks good over someone’s couch.”
At a friend’s BBQ in a sunny Oakland backyard, I struck up conversation with an acquaintance’s 12 year-old daughter. She told me that she’d made the decision to play a nerd in high school and become a lawyer because she’s “not pretty enough to do other things.” I wanted to ask her, “pretty enough for what?” but was so stunned by the frankness of her self-determined position in the societal pecking order that I let her continue on with the grocery list of imperatives for her guaranteed life success. Finally, after sharing the colleges she would attend (Berkeley and Columbia), where she would live (Manhattan), and what kind of law she would practice (Environmental), I told her that I thought she was pretty. Her response: “Thanks, but my nose is too flat.” I asked, “What do you think pretty is?” Without hesitating she said, “Taylor Swift.”
I was walking along Merrimon Avenue in downtown Asheville with Pauline, my McGuffey’s Family Restaurant co-worker and favorite smoke-break companion, when I waved across the street upon sight of my neighbor. Pauline gasped, “you know Jesus Guy?!” I laughed, “Mikey?” She looked at me with incredulity. “Come on. Long blondish hair, always in those sandals, kinda pretty? We call him Jesus Guy!” I shrugged. What I wanted to do was scoff, to summon my liberal arts rationale, to argue that Jesus certainly wasn’t a shaggy-blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy. But decided against it because, shamefully, I realized I had often thought the same thing about Mikey, too.
When A and I broke up, laying in our bed in a tucked away bedroom of a tucked away part of Highland Park, Los Angeles, I was certain that it was not the end. I was certain. I knew what love looked like—human beings made songs, films, books, a catalog of culture on the matter—and our love fit the look: the serendipity, the wordless knowing, the close-cropped laughter. It was every third act in an atmospheric indy-film romance. So I waited for A to come to his senses. And waited. Stared at a ceiling fan for a week’s worth of hours with the waiting. And a month later, thousands of revolutions, and 25 pounds less, my certainty devolved into obsession, and my last words to him before he closed me out for good were lyrical incantations from highly recognizable and beloved love songs.
For his retelling of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson dedicated himself and his 30 million-dollar budget to fastidious accuracy. He measured his film scenes in the approximate real-time of Jesus’ last hours. He consulted with Biblical experts for exact textile replications in costume, only filmed actors eating produce that would have been harvested during that era. He even had the script translated into Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue, a language long since diminished, and spoken by only the smallest pocket of people in a far corner of the Middle East. And then, curiously, he cast Jim Caviezel as the title character. Irish and Slovak, blue-eyed Caviezel. And despite historical knowledge that it was uncustomary for men to wear their hair long in Judea at the time, Caviezel’s Jesus sported luxurious shoulder-length tresses worthy of a Pantene Pro-V commercial.
René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a painting of a pipe with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ below, translated as ‘This is not a pipe.’ Concerning the painting, Magritte said, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So, if I had written on my picture 'This is a pipe', I'd have been lying!” Was this painting more warning than wax? Did Réne clutch the Old Testament—particularly the book of Exodus, particularly the 2nd commandment—in his hand while holding his paintbrush in the other?
I look through all the pictures taken while A and I were together. We are laughing, all teeth and crow’s feet. We are pressing our foreheads together, sharing a wordless knowing. We are akimbo in the thrill of our mutuality. There are no pictures of our disagreements, no record of the six-month slog into dissolution. Only a sequence of what was gleaming and sweet, along with the cooing comments of our 3,000 closest friends and acquaintances below. These are the documents of our history. For a while, a selection of them—the most convincing depictions of our love—were framed and hung over the couch.
When Giuliani accuses Cox’s photographs to be a misrepresentation of the original, what is he referring to? The final dinner shared by Jesus’ apostles? Wouldn’t that have been a gathering of poor and shabby men eating a meager meal of bread and wine? We must all wonder what it really looked like. Unfortunately, there were no cameras in those days, no selfie sticks, no drones flying overhead. Our imagination is how we paint the moment. That is the beauty of our minds. But what happens when we don’t use our imaginations at all?
When you see a lie over and over again, you begin to believe it is true.
What image comes to mind when you think of the last supper? More than likely, it is Da Vinci’s legendary mural housed in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan. DaVinci used Italian models and the current Renaissance fashions as source for his depiction more than he did history. He used the beauty of his mind. Doesn’t the artist have the right to depict the subjects of their work in any way they choose?
I am writing this essay. I am representing mine and A’s relationship through the parallel device of “Yo Mama’s Last Supper.” Is my rendering accurate to history? Not really. Is that possible? Not exactly. Does it matter? Perhaps. We want to be the finger pointing to God, but we also want to make God herself, particularly a version that would glean the most likes. Which fails more? Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”? Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”? Gibson’s film? Is this even the question to be asking? Perhaps that is what all art is: to figure out why we do it, in spite of itself.
What we can reason is that the last supper wasn’t a bunch of long-haired Mikey-looking white men feasting at a lavish banquet table wearing crimson robes that swept the ground. What we can reason is that representation is always a lie. What we can recognize is the liberty of our imaginations. And yet, when Giuliani accuses Cox of her gross misrepresentation of the original, he in fact is referencing—as his original—a gross misrepresentation of the original.
Ceci n’est pas Jésus.
Taylor Swift currently appears on more magazine covers than any other celebrity. Her nose is thin, barely a sliver of flesh in such an eggshell face—breakable, hollowed, white.
Ceci n’est pas un beauté
When you see a lie over and over again, you begin to believe it is true.
I listen to a lot of highly recognized and beloved love songs. I watch a lot of packaged serendipity, close-cropped laughter, in my Netflix feed of independent coming-of-age gay romances. I see a lot of images made with cameras, drones, selfie-sticks, on two-dimensional screens. I see it again and again and again. Perhaps it is time for me to watch something else.
Perhaps it is time for us all to tell new lies.