Naked Windows: a voyeur’s confession

kitchen windowMy kitchen window has been naked for the last few days. I have disassembled the Venetian blind and am in the process of washing the slats. I raised my eyes from the sink the other night to discover my neighbor was also naked – as people usually are in the shower. Detail was indistinct, but it was apparent which member of the family it was. An unsettling insight. Why is that? The house I live in is the mirror image of the one across the double drive and the bathroom windows on both are original, having never been upgraded. Fortunately, someone has stuck an opaque film over my top pane. Not so on the neighbor’s, although both have pebbled glass on the bottom. Shower before dark, I guess, and count your blessings that those people haven’t taken down their kitchen curtains.

Naked windows happen to everyone who moves frequently. Sometimes I feel as if I hold a world’s record for that. Inevitably, there is a house or an apartment where the previous people denuded the windows when they left. The last of the furniture gets carried in at dusk. The big truck drives away and, suddenly, you realize that you are on a lighted stage and the neighborhood is getting a good look at the new kid on the block. Finding sheets for the bed is already a challenge. Tacking one up over a window is downright daunting. You undress in the bathroom with a prayer of thanksgiving for the skylight.

It is some time usually before you can tackle the window covering problem. It’s hard to say whether naked windows are worse in the summer when the sun wakes you up just after 5 or in the winter when you can’t avoid turning on the lights and turning the place back into a stage.

My fallback position is to buy vinyl mini blinds, but that works only if your windows are standard size. It takes weeks more to get Sears to cut them to size for irregular windows although Ikea drapes are pretty instant. Most of them can be modified for a rod or a drapery track. Somewhere in that mass of unpacked boxes there are curtain hooks, but you can’t find them. That is why I have several hundred hooks of various shapes in the top of the broom closet. Don’t get me started on the agony of screwing the blinds onto the woodwork. It’s bad enough to make me settle for blinds only for the first few years because I can’t face putting up rods.

Behind the duplex I live in, across the yard and a sunken parking lot, hidden behind trees is a four-story apartment building. For years, it was just there, doing no harm, except for Wednesdays when the garbage dumpster got hoisted onto the truck and the empty one deposited. Then one of the ash trees got ill and one summer morning a team of acrobatic tree-men arrived to put it out of its misery. I, for one, was happy to endure its slow demise, but liability laws dictated otherwise. After they had swanned about on high wires, amputating 18 inch lengths and lowering them down with much yelling of encouragement, they ran the whole thing through a chipper and drove off with the mulch. Silence fell, a silence that still resonated with tree death, as if the other trees were still shivering or timidly unfolding their arms. I stood in the silence looking out at the great hole in my world and saw…. that was no hole. That were eight tableaux. There was the crossing guard putting on her florescent vest. There was a thin chested man -with no shirt – looking at the internet. There was a room that Scheherazade would be comfortable living in. There was a mother showing her toddler the sparrow on the window ledge. There was the totally uncluttered home of a couple who dressed in the white robes of some religious outfit or other.

I mean – tell yourself not to look. How is that possible? Every time you adjust the blinds or open a window, there they are- five or six different dramas playing out. The thin chested man never wears a shirt, at home anyway. Full disclosure here -I am a girl, if an old one, so this next bit is not as creepy as it could be. The most astonishing is the while-robed woman who runs up and down her hallway every morning passing through the living room and past both bedroom doors over and over again, wearing –  red bikini pants and bra!

Buz Lurhmann stole this idea from me for his recent Great Gatsby. The camera pulls back from Myrtle’s apartment in New York City. Tom Buchanan, whose mistress Myrtle is, Nick Carroway and other hangers-on are drinking bootlegged booze, listening to jazz and generally having a hell of a time. We see her fire escape landing where someone seems to be recovering or someone is playing a horn. (I can’t remember.) Then as the camera pulls back and back, we see more and more windows, all in high definition, all sporting men and women similarly whooping it up and just enjoying the jazz age. Did Tom really rent Myrtle a place in Harlem? That scene, which just grows and grows, was worth the $10 I paid for matinee admission.

Really living where I do, I could cancel the cable and still be entertained.

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Mortality and Christopher Hitchens

In his recently released book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of how British journalist John Diamond chronicled his battle with cancer in a weekly column. Hitchens confesses like many other readers, he quietly urged him on from week to week. He says,

But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, 
miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No neither of those would work as endings.
Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this?- a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.
Hitchens’ own story was more elegantly structured. He told it in 7 essays published in Vanity Fair and now collected posthumously in this small book.

Mortality describes his initial collapse in a New York City hotel room during a tour in support of his latest book, Hitch 22, in early June 2010, saying of the emergency responders:

I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much backup equipment, but now I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle but firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

He dislikes the use of the metaphor of battle, fight or struggle to describe what ensued after he was diagnosed with metastatic oesophageal cancer. He says

Myself I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient.

But sitting “while a venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” And yet his dispatches from the Land of Malady are full of his customary wit and irony. His wife, Carol Blue, reports in the book’s Afterward that he wrote the jottings now collected as chapter 8 in bursts of energy and enthusiasm, his computer perched on the food tray of his hospital bed. He continued to hold court whenever he was hospitalized, “making a point or hitting a punchline for his “guests”, whom he treated like “participants in his Socratic discourses”. He had always been a great raconteur, as well as a bon vivant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and a rapier-like intelligence. And he could hold his liquor. After an 8 hour dinner, he would rise to toast the assembled motley crowd with “a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry, limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. ‘How good it is to be us’, he would say in his perfect voice.”

I started reading him in Vanity Fair, after many years of avoiding his work and like many others, I was immediately won over. I avoided him because he had betrayed me. For many years he had espoused causes dear to my heart, workers’ rights among them, what might be called leftwing views, but then after 9/11, he made a sharp turn right and supported the war in Iraq, believing the now disproved weapons-of-mass-destruction premise. Not to mention, he dissed Mother Teresa and rounded on Salman Rushdie, when Rushdie, under fatwa pressure, published “Why I have Embraced Islam”. I read the rebuttals that his friend Martin Amis wrote and imagined, in my innocence, that Amis was actually alienated from Hitchens. I was wrong. Amis remained his great friend, Rushdie was at Hitchens’ memorial and Mother Teresa – well that goes without saying.

Hitchens was a famous atheist, author of god is Not Great, and on his last Thanksgiving Day in November 2011, he was in my town, Toronto, debating his point of view with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Hitchens arranged Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends here and by all accounts carried the day in the debate.

His reaction to the Christopher Hitchens Day of prayer on September 20, 2011 involved wondering exactly what was being prayed for – his survival, his redemption? He examined the nature of prayer -the importuning of an omnipotent being to suspend His laws of nature for personal benefit- and found the practice specious. He noted that certain religious zealots had pronounced that his illness was God’s punishment and in short order analyzed the ill-logic and cruelty of that by citing blameless children suffering from cancer. He said there would be no deathbed conversion and told of Voltaire being badgered as he was dying to renounce the devil, whereupon the great thinker replied, “that this was no time to be making enemies”.

The best gift that Hitchens gave me, besides many good laughs, was the realization that I can listen to a point of view I don’t agree with, indeed that I might find contrary and wrongheaded although, of course, he said much that I found true.

He concluded an essay on The Great Gatsby by saying, “It remains ‘the great’ because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly”.  He died on December 15, 2011 at the age of 62. HIs unflinching voice goes on.