What, indeed, is/was the problem with Michael Jackson?

I was a girl of fifteen in 1983 when “Thriller” came out. That event was somewhat eclipsed by my graduation from school, and my new-found very teenaged-emotional religiosity. I was determined to avoid the materialistic, the faddish, the glitzy, the – well, anything too entertaining that might draw me away from spirituality and religion. So “Thriller,” the number one selling album of all time, passed me by. But not unnoticed. Even for someone like me, determined to avert my gaze, “Thriller” still encapsulates much of the era, though my own 80′s era is obviously a mix of the Afghan war, the General Zia regime, and things like “Thriller.” The childhood and very White world of Jaws, the Six Million Dollar Man, and Star Wars I was behind us. And now, with “Thriller,” “What a feeling” and “Maniac,” here was a much more complicated world, a mixed up one, heavier in many ways.

“What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” the Iraqi soldier in the movie “Three Kings” asks Mark Wahlberg. “Your country make him chop up his face!”

Michael Jackson’s many problems, psychological, physical, physiological, personal, have sold thousands and thousands of magazines and news broadcasts. I do not intend to speak of them here. Perhaps because now it’s too late to ask “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” for it to benefit Michael Jackson himself.

But the question poignantly sums up a whole litany of questions. Why is humanity so fragile? Why do the twisted and the angelic lie so close to each other? Why is the world so hard to make sense of?

What is the problem with fame and fortune? Why is talent so often a ticket to disaster?

Why do we cannibalize others’ humanity? Why does our emptiness so greedily feast on Michael Jacksons and Farrah Fawcetts? Why are the MJs even considered irrelevant in terms of the consequences of our cannibalism to them? They are our meals and this is why we buy them, like so many packaged goods off the supermarket shelves.

In 1982, one of my teachers was once speaking critically of the Pakistani diva Noor Jehan – her behavior, her daring artistic style, her flamboyant clothing, her mannerisms. Noor Jehan’s daughter was in my class, and her inward reaction – never made public – made us all uncomfortable. But it’s okay, my teacher said gently, for us to speak of Noor Jehan, since she is after all a public persona.

What are the consequences of our consumption of these public personalities? How do celebrities pay for our appetites? And then, when we are done, we spit in their faces in disgust – weird, twisted, psychotic as they are. Why are they so out of reach and yet so tantalizingly close to us via the big screens inside our living rooms? Why do we know them and yet know nothing of them? They are like the unattainable beloved of Urdu ghazals.

Ishq mujh ko nahin, vehshet hi sahii
Meri vehshet, teri shuhrat hi sahii

(If you will not permit that I am in love, then, fine, I am crazy. But if nothing else, let my craziness  serve to become your fame.)

Our admiration and our horror struggle with each other: Why are they so obscenely wealthy? The answer lies in our own consumption of these idols. We consume them, and we pay for our consumption. It is a business exchange and it is based in our own appetites. Like prostitutes in a rough neighborhood, many of these celebrities eventually end up in the gutter, victims of our appetites. Then, of course, we are free to malign them, since – used, abused, and twisted – they are so disgustingly useless to us now.

Victoria’s Secret’s never-ending catalogues

I am so very sick of them. They seem to arrive every few days. Here’s the new winter collection! Hey, and here’s the late winter catalogue. Oh wait, here’s the clearance winter catalog. … In case you forgot, here’s the winter leftovers … and it goes on. The anorexic models continue to exhibit unhappy pouts that make you want to call a hotline for help, and they continue to twist their bodies into angles one would not consider physically possible. And now, there are the new underage-looking models in their grownup-mimicking styles (don’t you just see your tweenage daughter modeling this stuff some day? Perhaps she could practice).

They offer an easy way online to get ON their mailings. Okay, and to “reduce” mailings (I guess, to just under 75). BUT to STOP their mailings, you have to call 1.800.411.5116. And when you call, you waste 10 minutes waiting for the end-catalogues option which DOES NOT HAPPEN. You ask for customer service and the honey-toned voice insists that “I think you asked for Customer Service but I can help you if you just give me a little more information.” So you hope for the best and pronounce your address clearly, whereupon the voice assures you excitedly that in just a few minutes you’ll be able to RECEIVE their prolific mailings (NOT remove them).

So you hiss Customer Service and the voice cannot seem to make out what you are saying and asks you to repeat. Then you eventually get through to a person (of course you have your inevitable wait) …. And congratulations! I have at last gotten off the mailings (Of course they are pre printed so it will take 90 days for me to stop receiving them.)

Meantime if I make the mistake of ordering a single pair of PINK socks from VS, the deluge will resume. Thank goodness it’s not being taken from the Canadian caribou for now – though who knows where else it’s coming from. If you are one of its victims, don’t feel alone: your catalogue is counted among only about 400 million mailings.

Who are we

You’ve seen her – the uncaring, almost cold individual you work or live with. But then one day, when you pull up in the park, you see her buckling her child into his car-seat, smiling tenderly, talking gently to him. You don’t really want to look at that persona: it’s confusing. Who is she? Is she the kind, tender, considerate person in this moment, or is she the unpleasant, harsh person she is to almost everyone else?

We’d rather deal with the simple, one-dimensional estimation of the nasty person, because otherwise, how do I conceptualize the world, if it is all uncertain, if it is all still in process, or indeed, perishing and coming into being every moment?

You’ve read about criminals, murderers even, who will turn into blubbering sentimental idiots when they speak of their mothers, or their children, or their beloved. They exhibit great self-sacrifice, almost self-forgetfulness, vis-a-vis these loved ones. So who are they, really? Is the real self manifested in those moments that they connect with or speak or think of their loved one/s? Or is the real self really manifested in those other, many moments of cruelty and selfishness? Or is the real self the good, self-sacrificing one, and it is blocked from growing – like a stunted vine – over into other connections?

Who are YOU, really? Are you the charming, sweet, kindly person who helps little old ladies cross the street? Or are you the cold, selfish person who wouldn’t let the other car pass just because? Are you the generous, giving soul or are you the envious, angry heart? Are you both? Which are you more? Which one tips the scale? Why doesn’t the kindly person grow through like a vine into the selfish driver? What are you in your everyday persona, and what are you in bud, or in potential and promise?

Savoring well-being

It’s a hot day. June 1st in Oklahoma – what do you expect? I just got home after picking up my daughter from preschool. I felt sweaty and hot even in a lightweight outfit. She wanted to drink her milk right away, and then she dozed off.¬† I’d turned on the air-conditioning (we are careful because our old rental house here is a monster for utilities), and it was still hot so I turned on the fan. I lay there by her side in a cool room, knowing it was hot outside. She nuzzled into my body, threw her limbs over me for safekeeping, and fell to a gentle snoring.

I lay there, cool, in my pajamas, comforted by the tranquil sound and feel of toddler sleep, with the knowledge that I was part of the toddler’s tranquility.

I was flooded with a sense that said I was well and at peace. I reminded myself, in body, soul and mind, that I was full of well-being. I was at peace. I was happy in the deepest sense in this moment. This is a moment to treasure and concentrate that sense of well-being. My mother tells me, “Khushi dhoonda karo” (Search for happiness). She means that it doesn’t just happen. You can’t wait around, wondering when it will appear and gather you up in its arms like a fairytale prince. You have to search for it, recognize it, find it, savor it, roll your tongue around it, and capture the flavor.

Then, like Wordsworth, you can recollect that emotion – except not in moments of tranquility but in moments of non-well-being. The life of this world is not an endless series of moments of happiness. You have to find those moments, and hold on to them. And then make your way through the other moments of not-happiness, accompanied by the warm comforting sense of well-being, like the taste of a delicious meal lingering on your palate.