Sunday, October 11, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 5 - Part 1

Let's call this one Estrella Guimaraes, or maybe we should call this one Sonia Croquet. She always kept her name shrouded in secrecy. Come to think of it, everything about her was deliberately concealed. And yet, as so many people do who wish to conceal their true identities, the truth would come out like a torrential flash flood beneath the break of a dam.

I don't know the precise timeline of when Estrella Guimaraes changed her name to Sonia Croquet, or when she changed it back, or when she started mixing and matching the two so that her life story might remain mysterious in case hormone besotted bloggers devoted posts to her exactly like the upcoming, and mysterious she certainly remains in ways completely unlike the manner she probably wanted to be.

She was electric in the manner of a woman who wants to be noticed above all else. When I first met her, she was a college freshman. She tried desperately to be elegant without quite knowing how, and would pile foundation and lipstick on her face to the point of looking like a harlequin. Yet by the time I graduated a year and a half later, she got it exactly right and never forgot how. She had an allure that people lazily associate with Latin culture, only in her case, it was quite real: eyes formed out of dough, clothes that were inevitably form-hugging, a massive shock of thick black hair, clown-like lips that protruded like braille off a page which concealed enormous, shark-like teeth. I always wondered if she found it cumbersome to form that enormous mouth into words, because it seemed at times to give her a slight lisp. But no excess of lip or lipstick could conceal the brilliance beneath. Estrella was one of the most dazzlingly articulate people to whom I'd ever spoken. She also was, unfortunately, a person with more imagination than critical eye, and trying to play a role in which being a critic of people was far more important than imagination.

The only thing I truly understood about her was that she wanted more than anything else to be a muse to a great man. It was plainly obvious. She based her whole life around it and concealed all of those parts of herself worth knowing so that a certain kind of man would be besotted with her.

Lou Salome, Alma Schindler, Dante's Beatrice, The Dark Lady, Zelda Fitzgerald, Camille Claudelle, Kiki de Montparnasse, Edie Sedgewick, these are all important names in cultural history. They are not great creators in their own right, but they inspired the men in their lives to great creations. What is sad but inevitable is that not a few of them could have been creators of true distinction in their own rights, but no such identity was open to any but the most dominating and charmless of women. The myth of the creator, all the more powerful because the myth is probably true, is that to be a great creator requires enormous work, enormous concentration, and enormous suffering. But to be the muse of a great creator is like a badge of endorsement - the genius of entire women goes into being vivacious and charming to the world and providing the ideal domesticity for the solitary creator who is her companion, who broods in his study. This woman who brings him tea is his sole source of mirth and cheer, his sole reason for trudging on, and is immortalized in the inspiration she draws out of him.

I know you all think you know where this is going, but you really have no idea...

Apparently she came from one of New England's many Portuguese immigrant families, or at least her original name betrayed that. Some Portuguese families came in the mid-20th century to escape the persecution of the Estado Novo, known better in America as the Salazar Dictatorship. Others, probably many more, came over during the still ongoing economic and political chaos that followed Salazar's death in the early 70's.

Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, the Right-Wing Dictator of Portugal who ascended a year before Hitler. Salazar was no fan of Hitler who allowed a few thousand Jews to take residence in his country and allowed tens of thousands of Europeans to escape to America through Lisbon (as documented in the movie Casablanca). By 1943, he was firmly onto the side of the Allies and allowed them to use Portugal as an airbase. In 1940, Life Magazine named him 'World's Best Dictator.' To the world after Ataturk, Salazar personified the benevolent autocrat. Anyone living in a Hitler or even Mussolini-level dictatorship choose to live in a Salazar-level dictatorship in a heartbeat. He was still, however, a true authoritarian with enormous imperial ambitions in Africa, who used an enormous surveillance network and arbitrary imprisonment of the innocent as means of maintaining order.

Since Salazar's death in 1970, the economic and political chaos of Portugal is unremitting. In 45 years, Portugal underwent more than two dozen governments. So great is the fiscal chaos that the IMF granted Portugal three separate bailout packages since the 70's, which Portugal still has no hope of repaying. As of 2013, national debt was 129% the size of its GDP.

In his time, Salazar was considered a financial wizard who brought economic order to a country which new nothing but chaos. The truth seems to be that his economic model was quite simple: profit from the raw materials of Portugal's African colonies, and extreme anti-communist views also made an enormous impression on the generations who grew up in his rule. In Portugal, the Communist Party thrives to this day as it does few places in the world.

I often speculated as to why Estrella needed to feel so needed by smart men. But I doubt she needed a better reason than that she felt like a fish out of water. I did meet her parents once, at her college graduation, and they seemed like perfectly nice Portuguese immigrants: very friendly, and, of course, very dapper. You could see easily where Estrella got her looks. But I'm sure that her parents being aesthetically pleasing and nice people didn't matter much to her. Like any children of immigrants, she probably didn't need more reason to feel isolated than to grow up in a family without much understanding of the world in which they raised her. She dreamed, as so many smart people have, of better things - a more exciting world, a more glamorous one, a different world that would appreciate her particular qualities. And as so many women from immigrant families are brought up to believe, or American families for that matter, she probably assumed that people would only notice what was extraordinary about her if she was tied to an extraordinary man.


When I was an American University student, tuition at AU was already roughly $40,000 a year, with an alumni giving rate of roughly 18%. At the time, AU didn't even have the 'sterling' academic reputation it has now. It was, basically, a babysitting school which hoped that by charging underachievers through the nose for a college education, it could give scholarships to lots of promising students who would then raise the school's reputation. AU reasoned that between grateful parents of underachieving children and upwardly mobile alumni who made good in the world after scholarships from AU, perhaps they could get the money to become a better school. It was a plan set into motion a few decades before any student I knew had ever come to AU, and the plan was fundamentally successful, but AU's progress from an expensive 'party school' to a school that was taken seriously would always be at a snail's pace and incur many problems along the way.

Fundamentally, there were three types of student at American University.

The first, who still comprised the plurality of the school when I was there, was the fratty douchebag and his female counterpart - the sorostitute. Hailing from relatively rich families, they were intellectually lazy kids who simply needed a college degree before entering into some kind of job that ensured a lifetime of middle management. In fact, one of AU's many nicknames was 'Middle Management University.' These kids didn't really care whether they went into middle management in the public or private sector, they just needed a degree before they would take a job that made them anonymous members of the upper-middle-class. They would often major at the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), but were more likely to major at the Kogod School of Business or the School of Communication (SOC). It's curious to think that at a school as notoriously political as AU, they probably didn't care a fig for politics at all except for their general annoyance at the AU kids who cared about politics. I was probably accepted into AU because admissions looked at me on paper and thought I might turn into this type of student.

The second type of student at AU, a rarer student, but the student AU is probably most stereotyped for, is the 'ethno.' It didn't really matter whether AU's 'ethnos' were from Casablanca or Des Moines. They were students so interested in a particular culture that they would absolutely immerse themselves in it. Every day, you could encounter the bizarre sight of two girls with fashionable looking hijabs; one covering a girl with black hair and brown skin, another covering a fair-skinned blonde girl with blue eyes. You could also go Anime screenings after which the lights would come up to reveal more white students wearing Akira and Princess Mononoke T-shirts than East Asians. You could go to Salsa Dances at which white kids would be the best dancers. These 'ethno' students could either be rich or poor - though they were inevitably very rich if they came from abroad, and rarely were any of them averagely middle class. What united them was a sense that they were born to the wrong circumstances. Inevitably, they all came to AU to study at AU's School of International Service (SIS). The SIS students from America came to AU to learn how become the culture they idolized. The students from abroad came to AU so they could be more American, but the students from the USA came to SIS to study the politics, the culture, the atmosphere of the place which their 18 year old brains told them they were truly from. Halfway through their AU experience, they would go to the place of their dreams for a semester or two abroad, where they inevitably thought they would live ever thereafter. Reality was a tenuous concept for these 'ethnos', and perhaps their politics therefore tended toward the progressive. But the early 2000's was precisely the time when America began to realize by the barrel of history's gun that they needed a bit more 'ethno' in their worldview. To the shock of the rest of us, a lot of what these annoying ethnos believed was vindicated. I no doubt came to AU believing I was this type of student.

The third type of student at AU, the true backbone of the university, was the future community servant. These were kids whom the vast majority came to study at the School of Public Affairs (SPA). They were also kids who could expect to end up in middle management, but they were middle managers of a very different type.

In retrospect, it amazes me how many AU kids came from small towns around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Upstate New York, even Ohio. These kids were almost inevitably white, and they were almost inevitably the kind of kid who wasn't supposed to exist anymore - small town American kids with very mid-century, Kennedyesque ideals about government and public service. Many of them, it's true, had political ambitions, and could be rather insufferable about them. Many of them, however, did not, and even among the ones who had higher ambitions, it seemed to come as much out of genuine concern as about ego (though hardly always...).

I may have been accepted on the thought that I would be the first, I may have thought I was the second, but it turned out that I fit in best among the third, and fit in among them better than I have anywhere in my life. It was at AU I discovered that I was not too emotionally damaged to follow my bliss, it was at AU I discovered was a better writer than musician, and put the writing to better use. It was at AU that I made the best friendships of my life. Would that more places in the world had room like that for me, but there are still pockets of the world that are, or were at least, built for people like us. But the future, however, is built far more for people like Estrella Guimaraes.

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