Monday, September 22, 2008

Patriot, Patria, Pater...quid est?

Barring errors in the pathetic bit of Latin I can still pull up, the title of this blog summarizes (via a bad language proof) a big thing that's on my mind these days.

I should preface this by noting: I am currently back in the academic fold, and loving every bleeding second of it. A friend asked me how the program was going, and the only image that I could come up with was that of a lover you can't stand to be away from. Fortunately for me and my colleagues, I am relatively well-adjusted about love. I can and do stand being away--but the passion does not abate. Ah, intellectual masturbation, artistic flagellation, how I do love thee.

A characteristic of being back in the academic fold is that, once again, I spend time with people who think seriously about things like poetry, ethics, etc. Not always at the same time, of course. I would never claim that everyone in my program were involved in grassroots movements or even registered to vote. (Well, they better be registered to vote.) But, in general, these are people who do think about their relation to their country--whether that thinking takes the forms of righteous indignation, fear and loathing, anxiety, etc. (Times are tough, kids. Few apple-cheeked flag-fliers in these parts, these days.)

So, I do feel a little guilty blogging about what I happen to know people are actually thinking about it. To save you, dear reader, and myself the ignominy of trudging through yet another tortuous blog entry on pent-up liberal angst, I'm going to cut right to the chase:

What is patriotism?

I asked S. this yesterday, while suffering another weepy bout of self-serving sorrow and fear that the country is barreling down a mountain in the dark, headed right for a granite wall. The sorrow is self-serving, as I observed to S., because it is predicated on a sense of entitlement that I am not sure I am right to feel. After all, why should I feel entitled to freedom, health care, the right to choose what goes on with my girl bits, peace, etc.? In a true democracy, it is my fellow countrypersons who, along with myself, design the parameters of our rights. We have the guidance of just over 200 years of government, an old document called the Constitution that we (used to) take pretty seriously and a whole bunch of conflicting viewpoints vying for a voice to guide us.

So, whither this sense of entitlement? Is it that I never was good at group projects, or is it that the idea of sublimating my beliefs to the 51% of Americans who (so far) appear to believe Sarah Palin is qualified to be the next president REALLY bothers me?

Being a child of the so-labeled "Entitlement Generation" by the hair of my chinny-chin-born-in-'79-chin, I tend to flagellate myself about the tendency to "expect" too much. Though, if I realize that my expectations may not be "fair" or "justified," I tend to wonder if I really can be lumped in with that crowd. It's hard for me to say. But, I am working under the assumption of responsibility for my generation. Let's carry on.

Lately I feel that I am experiencing a second adolescence, where my country is my parent and I am the disillusioned, angry, idealistic teen. I feel that I am seeing my father-land with clearer, older eyes, and the child within is angry, hurt and righteously indignant in the face of the perceived injustices acted upon me by this so-called father.

I am horrified by the war(s) perpetuated by the hands of those who do not fight.

I am horrified by the looming threat(s) and ever-slippery legislation challenging the one right I never expected I'd have to fear losing (i.e. Roe v. Wade).

I am horrified that my mother is racking up debt so she can afford to buy her medication during the "donut hole" days.

I am sickened that our country thinks less of its children's health and welfare than it does of its old-boy networks of oil greed.

I am disgusted BEYOND disgust at the mockery of progressive-ism (is that an -ism?) that is Sarah Palin's nomination.

And underneath all of these jolting energies is a profound sorrow. It feels similar to the sorrow I experienced years ago after my first adolescence, unpacking the baggage I carried from my short history as a subject in the Kingdom of My Parents, whose parental choices were not always good, whose luck also was not always good, and who had the audacity of being (gasp!) human.

It's the sorrow that recognizes the vulnerability of the child I was, or say the citizen I was. It's the sorrow that weeps to realize that while my "father" and "fatherland" have not acted against "me" on purpose, they definitely acted against the guiding principle of "father"hood -- that of caring for and protecting one's "child." (I am throwing quotes around because when I compare my feelings toward the country to those toward my parents, I am not addressing specifically my father, just the idea of the father.)

Growing up in a military family, I was trained to never ask what my country could do for me, but what I could do for my country. After all, my country was the best place on earth. Just ask my dad. Just ask his tee-shirts that swore he'd fly 10,000 miles to "smoke a camel jockey."

And I loved my country, the way a child loves her perhaps-politically-misguided father--without questioning the validity of that love, with the blind trust that marks all of our childhood attachments to caretakers.

Deep down, I am ashamed to be taking my country to task for its wrongs in the same way I have been ashamed to take my parents to task for past wrongs. The main difference here is that my parents are human, while the country is humanoid. Created by and run by humans, but lacking the appendages and faculties by which healing most easily occurs (i.e. an intellect and heart, a mouth for communicating, arms for hugging), a country has only time by which to heal the wounds of past mistakes.

The dominant American rhetoric regarding post-adolescent angst and anger at parents can be summarized in two phrases: get over it, and/or get a shrink. There is a certain amount of validity to each point, though we all know the timeline for "getting over it" varies widely. It depends on personality. It depends on the parent. But most particularly, it depends on the history, and the graveness of the wrongs--are we talking about not having much freedom to go to parties, or abuse?

I would like to ask Asian-Americans how they feel about WWII internment camps. Has the wrong been assuaged? If so, what accomplished that? Was it time? The fact that their grandparents who remembered the injustice are dead? Because everyone around them (the aggregate intellect and heart that is the base of a country) said it was sorry? Because they got a shrink and just got over it?

I digress. There are so many digressions possible here.

Returning to the point: entitlement. Does one have a right to feel a sense of entitlement toward one's country? Do Asian-Americans have a right to feel that they deserve(d) reparations for the wrongs of internment? Peter Levine's book, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens helps confront this question:
Patriotism is a love of country. For most people, it is not a passionate and exclusive and life-altering love. It's more like love for a blood relative, perhaps an aunt. It doesn't involve choice. It doesn't require a tremendously high estimate of the object's intrinsic qualities. (You may admire Mother Teresa more than your Aunt Theresa, but it is the latter you love.) It implies a sense of obligation, including the obligation to understand and be interested in the object. It also implies a sense of entitlement: you can expect your own aunt, or your nation, to help you in ways that others need not. Both the obligation and the entitlement arise because of a sense of identification, a "we-ness," a seeing of yourself in the object and vice versa. (Levine, 146)
According to Levine (and to a little etymological game-playing with the Latin root pater), maybe this sense of entitlement isn't something about which I should feel shame. Maybe it's actually the mechanism by which patriotism actually works--where "obligation and entitlement" are the two-sides of the tug-o'-war that is the democratic We in action.

When I was living in France, and John Mellancamp saved me from despondent hours by bringing a bit of Americana into my apartment, was that like getting a letter from Aunt Theresa? Was it a way of soldering the tie that binds, building my sense of obligation by fulfilling the needs to which I have become entitled by virtue of my citizenship?

These are big questions. I will continue noodling over this.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Consider the Lobster

Today is a sad day. I read in the news this morning that writer and thinker David Foster Wallace committed suicide Friday, September 12th. This marks the first time since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated that I have actually cried while reading/hearing the news. I almost cried when I read about Palin's nomination, and have almost cried every day since details about her platform and her history have emerged. But those were almost-tears of political frustration, disappointment and fear future-tense. This is different. My feelings about Wallace's suicide are those of grief and loss.

A few of the reasons this loss resonates so deeply:
  1. Wallace was young. 46.
  2. I loved his writing, in particular his essays. His writing entertained, challenged and opened my mind in a way few contemporary essayists have done.
  3. The world of American letters cannot afford to lose such a mind right now. Ever. But especially so young.
Part of me is angry. I'm angry because Wallace's nonfiction writing gave me hope, and I want more. I'm angry because it gave me comfort, and I think it gave comfort to other American writers/thinkers who are bewildered and aghast with the state of our country, both culturally and politically. Perhaps part of this comfort was the sign that live, creative intellects are hard at work, interrogating not only the "high" culture of literature, but also the culture that produced said intellect. He was not only writing avant garde literature--he was an American writer thinking seriously about facets of his/our culture.

Suicide is the ultimate incomprehensibility, for myself at least. It is a negation whose profundity has no edges in the dark night of possible negations. It is the ink well, that once spilled, is spilt, irrevocably.

Yesterday S. and I watched Wings of Desire. It was the first time I had watched the whole film at once, without falling alseep, in spite of my dear friend C.A.'s attempts to the contrary in college. I can't believe I ever fell asleep watching this film. I may need to watch it again, if only to take comfort in Damiel and Cassiel's sorrow before human suffering's mundanities and extremes.

I am full of the echo of Cassiel's cry, "Nein!," when the young man with headphones jumps to his death off the roof. In the background, two people urgently rattle the gate separating them from the young man, their mouths contorted as they yell at him--ostensibly trying to dissuade him from his alluded act. Neither Cassiel nor the man can hear them, as Cassiel hears only the man's thoughts, and the man hear's only his thoughts and his music.

No part of me wonders what D.F.W. was thinking when he hanged himself Friday. That is a romanticization (in the purest sense) that I feel would be a betrayal of the greater calamity of the act. All I can see in my mind's eye is the emptiness of the room around him, how the vitality and energy must have been sucked out of it. How his wife's stomach must have fallen even before she entered the room, sensing the here-not-hereness that is being in the presence of the dead. But I cannot continue even this train of thought. Read not the romantic here: read only horror, confusion and sadness.

Today there is everything that there was yesterday, less at least one. Less more than one, but less one that lends me, particularly, the sense of what can be lost between sunrise and sunset.

If you, too, need comforting, there are many people voicing their feelings along the same lines on blogs around the Internet. Here's just one link to a line of comments where I found sorrowful community.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Overmuch Update.

Well, campers, it's September 1st. Happy Labor Day! Happy farewell to white shoes! Happy barbecue and beer drinking!

And, happy update on the month spent trying to avoid overmuch.

How did it go? Here's the recap:

A) We ate out less, and I spent more time at the gym--membership for which was already paid. Result? I lost three pounds, and am better at push-ups than I was a month ago. That wasn't precisely the goal, but I ain't complaining. The proportion of my upper body strength to lower body torque is distressingly high, and I worry about having to hang from a skyscraper rooftop one day. Step one toward surviving a rooftop fight with assassins: GOLD.

B) I read more newspapers and journal articles...on-line. Of course, the semester started last week, so I dropped way too much money on books. But they are for school. So even though that sort of plays into the "bigger, better, faster, more" progress model, the fact that I study poetry offsets the potential pitfall with its high rating on the chart of economically-useless-pursuits. Result: SILVER.

C) Shopping. Uh, well that could have gone better. However, I am proud to say that I purchased only a few items for the "school year," and did return the one outrageously-priced pair of jeans that I could not, under any circumstances, justify keeping. I mean, I only even wear jeans two days a week max (can you say Saturday and Sunday?). So even though I was feeling smug about losing three pounds, I fought off the desire to offset that accomplishment by succumbing to fashion affluenza. Result. BRONZE. Good try.

D) I learned to make three kinds of Korean banchan, including white radish kimchi. Not only did I preserve vegetables that might otherwise have perished for future consumption...I earned major international points with my friend S.Y. She told me I am now an honorary Korean. Wow! Who would have thought that putting down the affluenza tip would lead to global unity? Result: GOLD.

Now that the experiment is over, I hope to continue to practice avoiding the affluenza bunny. This will be challenging, as I've been designated fashion coordinator for my sister's wedding. Granted, it's her money and not mine. But I am already wrestling with how absurd it is to justify $200 heels. . .even if you can dye them and use them again. And wrestle is not too strong a word, my friends--I can see very persuasive arguments on both sides. After all, if you find Vera Wang dyeables marked down from $400, and you know you can consider it a business wardrobe investment (my sister is a soon-to-be lawyer, who will indubitably need cocktail attire in her professional future). . .does the tax write-off balance out the excess?

And if a poetry anthology drops on your foot but your partner is asleep . . . does he hear you yelp?

Back to work. Probably will be less consistent in posting for the next few months, but in the immortal words of the governor of California: I'll be back.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lemon Yellow Light

The news is bad, kids. BAD. Russia is pulling a sneaky-pete with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and yours truly is frankly worried.

Some of you know I tend to be a bit of a Cassandra. Or, Chicken Little, if you will. I will preface this comment with that excuse: I am concerned that Medvedev and Putin have a plan to try out some Soviet-era domination schemes. I'm concerned that this will happen during a time when the prevailing global police force (i.e. the U.S.) is too overextended, over-compromised and overwhelmed with domestic issues to possibly consider any sort of grand army march over bad intentions. Then I'm concerned that I'm even thinking this way, because I'm ALSO concerned that we (the U.S.) play police too frequently. And THEN I think about all the bad jokes I've heard involving European nations, and the reasons they are all still conducting their governments in their native tongues and not German....and I wonder.

Fear mongering works, as you can see. I'm conducting my own self-experiment to determine just how successful fear-mongering is in America. To date, here are the suspect behaviors I have that, I feel, are influenced by fear-mongering:
  1. I have rental insurance. And yes, I paid extra for electronics coverage, even though I've never been a victim of a fire, flood or break-in. And no, I will not cancel it, despite clearly seeing the apparatus that makes the insurance machine tick hard at work. Because I'm afraid of what if.
  2. I quit smoking. Years ago. And I bug S. to quit smoking, because I'm convinced he will die. This is not an irrational fear--I watched my grandmother die of lung cancer. It's not good, and the research doesn't (always) lie. However, I cannot control what my darling does. I can only sigh ponderously and make weepy doe-eyes at him every time he lights up, hoping this will persuade him to think about what if.
  3. I'm unhappy if I do not have vegetables or fruit in a meal. Because MY GOD people, do you REALIZE what havoc that can cause?
  4. When I travel abroad, I spend more time planning out safety than planning our itineraries. This to me is a shameful, shameful admission. What a waste of time and energy! I still manage to slice off a finger, bruise a muscle crucial to the walking process or catch a cold everywhere we go. The fact that I cannot accept that it is my destiny to be clumsy abroad is like something out of Beckett. I spend hours searching for collapsible finger splints and slip-safe shoes only to twist an ankle randomly in a sidewalk crack. But.....what if that penicillin prescription were necessary?
  5. I notice bags left unattended. EVERYWHERE. Thank you, MTA.
Because, indeed: what if.

Now, I'm not about to come full circle and suggest that we should all ignore Russian hijinks and fear-mongering, that we should throw insurance policies and vegetables to the wind (though I do think insurance is the oddest invention yet for controlling the middle class) and take to the streets for ice cream. No. But I do think a little reflection is warranted.

I don't feel we can ignore history while contemplating skirmishes such as the one emerging in Georgia's provinces, or the ones (oops!) we're up to our necks in in the Middle East. Too much has been ignored already, and I fear that we are setting ourselves up for some colossal troubles as a nation and as a world. (There's that word fear again....)

World War I was started by the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I remember that from World History class in high school. I also remember what my history teacher repeated ad infinitum about every conflict we studied: tensions had been mounting. TENSIONS HAD BEEN MOUNTING. Is it just me, or have tensions been mounting for years?

Okay, that seems self-serving, doesn't it? Just because the U.S. has been involved in a war for six years doesn't necessarily mean that global tensions have been mounting. So is it just my paranoia speaking? Is it the comic-book-caper in my mind that whispers, "Watch out for Russia...they're waiting until you're weak so they can strike!"

It's not Russia...particularly. It's world politics at large. Paul Krugman's editorial today summed up what I'm trying to articulate, in a way that an econ professor at Princeton can do way better than moi. He gives a fruitful (if abbreviated) reading of J.M. Keyenes' 1919 comments regarding the state of the British economy and the resulting psychology of the urban British citizen, who firmly believed the world around him could not come crumbling down. He makes the following point toward the end of the essay:
"So are the foundations of the second global economy any more solid than those of the first? In some ways, yes. For example, war among the nations of Western Europe really does seem inconceivable now, not so much because of economic ties as because of shared democratic values.

Much of the world, however, including nations that play a key role in the global economy, doesn’t share those values. Most of us have proceeded on the belief that, at least as far as economics goes, this doesn’t matter — that we can count on world trade continuing to flow freely simply because it’s so profitable. But that’s not a safe assumption."
Word to your mother, peeps. I've been thinking this for years (albeit in less eloquent form) and am privately convinced that my diligent contributions to my 401K are really less important than my ability to forage for edible greens.

Of course, now I'm curious whether his striking a chord with me makes him a Chicken Little, too. Fortunately or unfortunately, I've never been one to ignore my gut sense of things. I suppose we'll see.

And what does this have to do with lemon yellow light? Nothing directly. But isn't it a nice way to ice a terrible situation? Repeat that phrase to yourself a few times and see if you don't feel a tad better. It's like a linguistic cupcake.

Good night, and....well, you know. Good luck.

Monday, August 4, 2008


When I started this blog, I was determined to keep my politicizing largely out of it. I know I am prone to getting up on my soapbox, and in general prefer to reserve my indignant, self-righteous diatribes for S. (lucky man!).

But--and this is a big but--but today, I read Maureen Dowd's column on Obama and could no longer resist. The thing about Dowd that irks me can be summed up in this editorial. It's not that she's stupid. She's not, though occasionally I find her logic lacking. It's not that she's a bad writer. She's not! It's that she has a way of writing editorial that sets my blood cold, usually by applying inept metaphor and/or offending my politics.

Now, you can't take someone to task for offending your politics. That is the right of a writer, and in this country, the right of us all. But would it hurt so much to adopt a tad more of the finesse of David Brooks (who, as my friend S.M. so perfectly stated, is the only conservative a radical liberal intellectual can have a crush on)? Would it hurt to THINK for two seconds about what her message really is?

Today's editorial is a strong example (perhaps the strongest) of her stylistic wont to annoy. She uses a sloppy comparison between Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and our presidential candidates to (ostensbily) tease out some of Senator Obama's shortcomings with blue-collar women voters. I'm guessing its with blue-collar workers primarily. It's hard to be really sure from the essay, which bandies about references to "feminists" and "mac-n-cheese"-eating blue-collar woman in the same breath. Are these the same women? Are they different demographics? Is "mac-n-cheese-eater" a real category?

I love Jane Austen. I love PBS for loving Jane Austen, and I love the dickens (pun intended) out of any actor who's played even a wee bit part in a film adaptation based on any of her fine novels. And perhaps one of the first things I learned about Jane Austen whence first a copy of Emma came my way, was that Ms. Austen was British. That's right, British. As in, NOT American. And what did she write about? Comedies of manners involving nineteenth-century British society.

So, let's check out this parallel Dowd makes between Mr. Darcy and Barack Obama. Beginning with their height and slimness, she then extrapolates from "a prayer to the Lord at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a note that was snatched out and published" to the fact that Obama is all too aware of his own propensity for pride. (This is a grave American crime, apparently. So grave that it, in fact, is British.)

Might it be that the savvy politician suspected his prayer would be so desecrated, and thus chose a spin that would help offset concerns the American people might have with his audacity to be black, educated and opinionated? No, of course not. Clearly, this is just the first step in the epistolary struggle between Darbama and Ameribeth, with America fronting as Elizabeth Bennett, in all her " spirited, playful, democratic, financially strained" glory.

I just ate lunch. I don't really know if I can muster the energy to unpack the ballyhoo that is this metaphor. But I will give a fighting shot at at least this much: perhaps comparing blue-collar, mac-n-cheese-eating feminists to Elizabeth Bennett is a tad . . . well . . . daft. Elizabeth Bennett was spirited, playful, financially strained and caught up in certain prejudices. But democratic?

Please, Maureen. Please give me a close textual response illuminating how Ms. Bennett was democratic. Because in my reading, she's a feminist, perhaps even a liberal -- but never a proponent of democracy. She demands equal franchise between the sexes, and expects a partner who respects her mind and opinion. BUT SHE SAYS NOTHING AGAINST THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND. She does not mention the vote, she does not mention suffrage. She never suggests holding an emergency session in the Houses of Lords and Commons for a restructuring of the patriarchal model that requires daughters to obey their fathers. In fact, there is the textual suggestion that had her father demanded she accept her first proposal to Cousin Collins, she may have acquiesced . . . or been out in the streets, on her fine, British arse.

Please, for the love of your Lord (you know, the one who didn't mind when Obama's PRAYER was swiped from its resting place), consider your metaphors. This editorial appears like the result of a quick session on the laptop after a long brunch. (One with mimosas. Lots of them.) Perhaps, at this mimosa-laden brunch, you had been discussing your love of Jane Austen, and your secret attraction to Obama's embodiment of the very qualities that make Mr. Darcy a toothsome bit of literary man. Perhaps you then thought of macaroni and cheese, and then perhaps read yet another distorted blog post claiming feminists are turning against Obama out of defiance. Perhaps you lastly thought, sighing, "well, isn't that just like a Jane Austen novel. 'Twhatever shall become of these lovers?"

Perhaps you didn't think at all, beyond the assumption that female readers of your column might appreciate this literary nod to their stereotyped proclivities, and that just maybe they'd consider Obama for the presidency.

My main question, though, is whether the whole thing is but a mish-mash. We all are curious about whether we can, as a country, overcome our terrible history of prejudice. But are you trying to be supportive of Obama by comparing him to Mr. Darcy, or are you trying to put yet another doubt in the mac-n-cheese-eaters' mouths? 'Cuz frankly, I don't see how suggesting Obama is a noble Brit will help his cause at all.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Overmuch by How Much?

I think I've been looking at the etching of "Excess," personified in the being of a pale, fleshy woman who looks maybe a tad too much like me for comfort, for too many days. Maybe I'm starting to see myself in this etching because excess has got me down. Regardless, Monday I will have to find a new bugaboo.

But today is Saturday, my chickadees, and tomorrow is Sunday. And you know what Sunday's children are full of: being fair and wise and good and gay. (And...oh, never mind.)

So in my effort to harness a touch of the fairness, wisdom, goodness and gayness that must mark the lucky child of Sunday, I want to find a way out of the excess mess.

It started Friday when I read Judith Warner's editorial in the NY Times, reprising an article earlier this week about affluent parents' behavior (specifically, their difficulty letting go of control of their children, their demand for exceptional attention and their flagrant disregard for rules).

The latter article caught my attention because, as a teenager, I worked two summers as a camp counselor at the glorious Camp Wekiva in Florida. Camp Wekiva was the farthest from a $10K-a-week camp that you could possibly get. The benevolent members of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs personally saw to it that children in need had the chance to apply for scholarships, and even for those who did pay full-kitty. . .it wasn't pricey.

My experience as a camp counselor was a fairly idyllic experience, marked by skinny-dipping with other counselors while my junior counselor tended to our bed-wetting wards, confiscating cigarettes from a few plucky campers and occasionally writing snarky nature haiku.
N.B. To my dear friend T.E., I will never forget your prize-winning haiku, nor our chants to the spirit of the sacred titmouse.

Boom goes the sand pine
onto the soft forest floor.
During my tenure, only one experience still stands out to me--and it wasn't a pushy parent. Rather, it was a camper who, the eve before her session ended, woke with night terrors so severe that she crawled under the bunk, clung to the bed coils and refused to come out.

We had to wake the head of the camp, as no group of terrified 15- to 18-year-olds is equipped to handle such a situation. By the time they were able to pull her out from under the bed, one of her fingers was broken from her grip on the coils. I have never in my life seen such terror in a child. The worst part, of course, was that it turned out that her estranged father, a suspected child-molester no less, was picking her up from camp the next day. And the camp had no choice but to release her to her father's care, per the mother's specifications. That's right, ladies and gents. When the head of the camp called her the next morning to see if perhaps she could fetch her daughter instead (given the broken finger, night-terrors, suspected diddling and what-have-you), the mother refused, and was annoyed by the request.

So, when I read about overly-concerned parents, it doesn't exactly rub me the wrong way. I've never had to deal with them, give or take a few stroller-wars on the sidewalks of Brooklyn, and even if I gripe about their gross sense of their child's entitlement (to, say, lay on a busy CITY sidewalk to better explore cement), it could be much, much worse.

The children, after all, are our future. And no one knows that better than a crack-smoker, isn't that right, Whitney?

Ahem. I digress.

Warner's editorial addresses the effect of "affluenza" on parenting, and considers the potential problems said-parenting promises the future. Her argument is that certain groups of affluent parents cannot merely stop at showing their children all the beauty they possess inside. No, nor can they merely teach them well, then let them lead the way. (I'm sorry, Whitney, but it's too easy.) Instead, they inculcate expectations of privilege and exception based on purchasing power.

I was familiar with the "affluenza" term, but I had never read the exact definition of affluenza. I will share, thanks to my good friend Wiki:
n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of the American Dream. 4. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
You mean, Doctor, there's a name for it? Condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.

I really thought for a long time that this was the description of living in New York. I didn't realize it was an actual socio-psychological DISEASE. But seriously, pathologizing this phenomenon makes me feel better. It actually gives me hope that the particular malaise I fall into occasionally (say, after buying three pairs of shoe on sale), is not just me being crazy. That there actually is ill-effect to be had by the pursuit of overmuch.

For a while, I thought it was class guilt. I have a tense relationship with an inveterate fashion-whore and general aesthete, I can't help but care about clothing (for example). As a reader and bibliophile, I cannot resist having (too) many books. Yet, I notice that after making many purchases (say, the week the toaster breaks, the luggage we've been wanting for years goes on sale and the scheduled-maintenance for our work wardrobes come due at the same time), I do not feel good. I feel actually the opposite of good.

In spite of our "success" in obtaining what we want, in reaching the "next level," I feel overloaded, anxious, indebted and stressed. Even if I'm not technically overloaded or indebted, the anxiety and stress of the stuff tends to lead to feelings of indebtedness and overload the next day when I go to work. These feelings then tend to lead to a feeling of deep dissatisfaction, a lack of desire to be productive (as productivity is linked to stuff) and a depressed desire to run out into an open field, lay down, close my eyes and disappear for a while.

Now. I'm fully cognizant that this may just be me. Truly. I mean, few children have anxiety dreams that involve them being buried in all their toys until they can't breathe. It may be my own particular relationship with so-called pleasure-objects (toys or shoes or books, they are much the same) and the listlessness of a wasteful, bloated existence.

I'm not exactly saying let's all run off and go Walden. Hell, I don't even like camping. But there is something to be said for being content with what I have, and breaking off from the bigger-better-faster-more mentality. There is something to be said for making my way to that empty field and taking a deep breath, taking an hour, and not worrying that I have to get to the gym before 5pm so I can make it to CVS before it closes to get that toothpaste I read about. There's something to be said for just saying no, and, as Ms. Warner has pointed out in other editorials, opting out.

So my new experiment for self-improvement, and in consideration of what this may means in terms of Maslowe, affluenza and poetry along the way, I've decided to opt out for the next month. I'm still hammering out what "opt out" will mean, in practice. As of now, this is what it looks like:
  • Make no purchases beyond necessities such as food, soap, etc.
  • Avoid "up-grading" any necessity purchases. (This would mean getting the happy hour special rather than paying twice as much for the glass of viognier, for example. I'm not advocating asceticism, but rather temperance. Uh, I mean prudence.)
  • Finding things to think about and do that do not involve accumulation or vanity.
  • Writing about topics (especially poetically) that endeavor to avoid self-indulgent navel-gazing, or striving to be greater-than or more-than they are.
  • Avoid chastising myself for not adhering perfectly to my plan. (Aren't unhealthy standards partially responsible for the affluent malaise?)
Other suggestions? I'm all ears. But don't try to one-up me. . .I'm not playing that game again until September 1st.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Safety Dance

I think we've all noticed by this point that the American economy is in the proverbial crapper. If for some reason you've been deaf and blind to the thousands of articles and/or news reports on the state of the Dow Jones, the housing market or the cost of food, there is always the personal experience of realizing that you cannot, in fact, afford something that once was taken for granted.

As S. points out to me when I start getting apocalyptic (the sole reason I work out is to be sure I can run after scarce goods when it all comes down), we are fortunate to have enough expendable income to cover most extremes. If rice triples in price, we will still be able to afford to buy it. It doesn't mean priorities won't change. It doesn't mean we won't feel the squeeze, or that psychologically we won't feel anxious. But we'll be able to eat.

Remembering this helps me to be thankful for the fact that I am in the top itty-bitty percent of this world that is not truly suffering from poverty. Real poverty. Not "I-can't-afford-to-live-in-Manhattan-and-I-don't-have-any-new-Prada" poverty. Not "waxing-my-eyebrows-AND-my-bikini-line-is-getting-too-pricey" poverty. No, not even the poverty that wakes up at 5:30am to take a train an hour before working nine hours of manual labor. Even that (which looks like poverty to most first-worlders) is poverty relative to the wealth of (in this case) New Yorkthat rubs up against it on a daily basis--poverty that only knows itself by immediate comparison to those who "have" for as far as the eye can see.

There are days when I feel poor. Days when I've sweat myself into a funk on the platforms of the city's heaving underbelly, only to finally get on a train without air-conditioning, packed to the gills with people, their unsavory offspring and their large plastic sacks filled with stuff. (And that's on a car without any homeless.) Days when I fall down the stairs, when my back spasms from carrying my groceries home after a long day at my desk, when I stub my toe on the door, when the refrigerator breaks, when our neighbors blast bluegrass just as I'm going to sleep, when the air is so polluted and heavy that I become asthmatic just from stepping outside, when the sidewalks are covered in dog shit, when....when everything conspires to make city life the dirty, ugly hell suburbanites claim it is.

But this isn't poverty, really. Poverty of the spirit, maybe. Definitely poor morale. But not the poverty that looks around the room (if there is a room to be looked around) and sees no possibility of food, water or shelter. Instead, it's a psychological poverty. The poverty that is fed, but that is fearful of not being fed. Of being full, but fearful of not being full. Of having, but forever fearful of losing.

Some might call this the purest expression of the animal human drive to live, to procreate, to conquer. There are certainly moments when this view feels true, and right. There are other moments when I wonder whether it's a terrible lie. Whether a perverse extreme of Maslow's hierarchy has taken over our psyche, causing us to run laps around the first level, which is the only level, of his nifty triangle.

As we see in the illustration above, our primary drives are for obtaining our immediate physiological needs. (I never really viewed sex as one of these needs, per se, but I suppose I can see the point.) But I'm left a little cold once we start moving up the ladder. Isn't safety just the control (or illusion there of) that our physiological needs will be met? How did property and morality come into the safety level, I wonder? It seems that for all the jargon, all levels save the top level are little more than stages of security that must be met in order for a being to strike out on the path of self-actualization.

My revised hierarchy:

So, we are big babies. Essentially. But what does this mean in terms of psychological poverty versus economic poverty? Arguably, one will never make it up the ladder if one doesn't obtain the barest means of preserving physiological needs. So, if one is truly poor, one probably cannot make it to safety or love/belonging. Does that mean that the poor do not love their children? Does that mean their children do not feel safe with their poor parents? Hmm.

Let's attack it from a different angle. Let's look at artists. Are we to assume that because one has reached the "top," and thus tapped into creativity, that he or she has obtained safety? Sexual intimacy? Self-esteem? The consistent means with which to buy food and other trappings of a safe, middle-class life? Hardly.

In fact, it seems anyway you cut it, this structure is based on a very middle-class assumption that "safety" is the prevailing force moving us around. That we are but in search of health and property. So why doesn't art stop being created in poor countries? During times of war or famine? (There are clearly stressors put on artists NOT to create during these times, but the history of humanity speaks against any sweeping argument for economics-based creation.)

My mother used to tell me that in China, telling a man his wife was fat was taken as a compliment. I suppose Maslow would agree.

I'm going to think about this a little more.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Punctuate Me

Ah, excess. Let me count the ways. Sometimes excess arrives in the guise of Sunday afternoon, reading in bed until 4pm before sluggishly realizing that Sunday is almost gone. I hate that Sunday-almost-gone feeling. Nothing touches on my mortality anxiety like Sunday afternoon.

This might be a good time to bring up one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning."

COMPLACENCIES of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 5
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead, 10
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. 15

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries: “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering;
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun, 20
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or Island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 25
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings. 30

This is but the beginning. If you like the vibe, check out the link. Especially on a Sunday morning, when you are lounging in your favorite peignoir.

Right now some of my favorite lines are:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of night and day,
Or Island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable."
That covers all the bases of Western religious/mystic thought for the past few, oh, millenia. And, at least as of 1917 when this was published (Thank you, Harriet Monroe), we arrive at solitude. But not just any solitude -- solitude bookended by absolute freedom and mortality, basking in the mythic shadow of religious tradition. Now is that poetry or what? (I know, I know, it's that whole Wednesday's child thing again.)

What here is excessive? I suppose it depends who you ask. It might (understandably) be the image of me in a peignoir eating oranges and sighing over my soul's mortality. Some don't like Stevens dated syntax. Some don't like his lush, trip-to-Byzantium-by-way-of-Conneticut imagery. Others just find his work obscure, and (heavens!) difficult. And then, to add insult, there are all the end-stopped lines which comes across as archaic and pent-up today. (Or so I've heard claimed.) For the sake of argument, these are not unfair claims when made by twenty-first-century readers. What life is left in the canon of poetry if we do not continually trot out these questions, after all, and decide (if not for others, then at least for our writing selves) what is useful?

Now, I will throw down my punctuation gauntlet right now. I adore end-stopped (whether comma-stopped, hyphen-blocked and colon-spotted) lines. I adore punctuation in poetry in a way that sometimes makes me afraid for my writing life. I've had knock-down-drag-out debates with other poets about comma-bracketed adjectives that appear mid-line (i.e., "silence, expectant, sings"). I've walked out of poetry readings led by highly-estimable critics and poets because their readings were rife with crimes-against-punctuation. I've suffered goosebumps, imaginary nosebleeds and spiritual seizures while listening to "actors" stumble through recitations of Othello.

Okay, so I'm a serious punctuation-head. That much is established, and I promise not to list my credentials again. Before I end this tangent and come back to my target, though, I'd like to explain why I feel so strongly about punctuation. It isn't (as many likely suspect) that there is a buttoned-up schoolmarm holding court in my brain. Heck, I like contractions such as "ain't" and "ya'll," and fully believe that any word that can be spoken is in fact a word--whether it is "correct" or not. The issue I take with punctuation is that it's purpose is so simple, yet so gravely abused--and nowhere is that abuse more severe than in poetry, a form relying more than most on rhythmic speech.

There are varying theories as to when and how punctuation came to into use. For my concerns here, I will take the emergence of punctuation marks in fifth-century B.C. Greek plays as a start. Euripides and Aristophanes (et. al. and others) employed a simplified system in order to guide actors in how to perform/read their plays. This formula was improved upon by that hot-shot Shakespeare, who used punctuation (and capitalization) to similar ends.

What does this mean to poets? It means that if an adjective is set off in commas, it is MEANT by the writer to be set off in commas, so that when read, it achieves a specific effect or emphasis. If I had meant to write "silence expectant(ly) sings," that's what I would have written. If I had meant, "expectant silence sings," then I'd have written that. But what I meant was "silence, [pause] expectant, [pause] sings."

So too if Stevens, or Eliot, or anyone, had meant to enjamb his lines, then enjamb they would. And if you are reading them, you darn well better stop that line when the lines tells you to. It would be disrespectful not to, and sets a terrible precedence for interpretation. Like with translation, opportunities still abound within poetry for interpretation. With poets like e.e. cummings or W.C. Williams, these opportunities are greater than with Stevens or Marianne Moore. When enjambment is more common than end-stops or purposeful punctuation, then the reader does have choices.

And some are better choosers than others. To date, Philip Levine is still my most favorite reader of other writers' poetry. When I heard him read W.C.W.'s "This is Just to Say," I could have almost been convinced to leave S. in the dust, and offer my long-gone plum to Mr. Levine for the taking. What did he do? How did he do it? Well, he followed the lines and the punctuation, and added enough of his own experience to the intonation to make it come. so. very. alive.

That is a gift. Not everyone has it. When I heard Harold Bloom read Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day," I left the reading in tears. I love that poem. Intensely. And that poem provides us with a clear punctuation map. So why did Mr. Bloom read it as though he had taken three Percasets and swallowed a metronome? My main regret for leaving the readings is that I did not get to ask him that question. I have no doubt that Mr. Bloom would have had a clear, cogent, well-researched answer that would have made my feelings feel two-feet small. He probably would have launched into a lengthy explanation of Jacobean rhythm, and how original manuscripts of Donne's didn't even include punctuation. (Sort of doubt that last bit, but who knows.)

I should be most embarrassed to admit that I still don't know the answer to that question. I think the punc poet inside me doesn't want to know, because she loves the poem how it reads in all it's punctuated glory. And that, my friends, is nothing less than a weakness.

On that note, I will end with a poem that first set all of these thoughts on poetry and punctuation into motion, one close to my heart and also one that I find to be maddeningly challenging to read. If you know any good recordings of this, let me know. I'm always on the look out for punc. porn.

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other; then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

e.e. cummings

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Shine a Rock-Star Light

So, tonight I am going to attend Jarvis Cocker's concert at Terminal Five with my friend S. (Not to be confused with partner S., as he largely prefers to abstain from shows in general, unless there is promise of comfortable chairs and cocktail waitresses serving sidecars. And who can blame him? Standing-room-only makes my feet hurt just thinking about it.) There is the distinct chance that we may go backstage after the show, as my friend S. is a friend of a friend (if you get my drift).

This may be the first time in my entire life that I've ever had even the glancing opportunity to "go backstage." And thus, my first experience of the feeling: I'm not sure I want to. But not just that I don't want to...that it actually makes me NERVOUS to think about this happening. Which (as Wednesday's child and a generally inquisitive person) makes me ask, "why?"

Why would I be nervous at the prospect of shaking hands and making brief small talk with a sweaty British pop star? Why would I be actually indignant about the opportunity to gain access to the hallowed area stalked by fan(atics) searching to touch the damp hem of a headliner's tee-shirt?

I have found that in my brief and stilted career of meeting "famous" people, I suffer from a curious combination of star-struck and star-sour. I am mightily annoyed that I am intimidated by the prospect of going backstage, and even more mightily annoyed that I am nervous about that. I am catastrophically annoyed that, despite my deep disinterest in things-and-people-famous, I am not immune to the strike of starlight.

I cannot say star-struck. That would be too strong. I haven't ever been to one of Cocker's concert, or to any of Pulp's. In fact, yrs trly doesn't really go to shows all that often unless they involve costumes or jazz interpretations of Bjork. In other words--sillyness mixed with pageantry. The Sincere Rock Show (or Pop Show, or whatever the kids are calling it these days) gives me the hives, in the way that seeing middle-aged men exposing chest hair at art openings while chatting up younger women does. I DIDN'T SAY IT WAS FAIR. It's just the way I feel about star culture in general, and rock culture in particular.

Yet the possibility for a strike o' starlight to become a star-striking looms in the eves, and I am sore afraid. How much easier it is to meet a famous person in less famous settings. Like, say, at a friend of a friend's party, where the conversation can go something like this:

Friend-of-a-Friend: This is M. She is a poet and designer. M, meet Star. He's a star.

Star: Hi. Poetry, huh. What do you design?

Me: Nice to meet you. I work in advertising...designing advertising stuff. You know, to support poetry. Whew, it's hot tonight, huh?

--Silence falls as Star looks at his/her shoes or over
M.'s shoulder, and M. does same.--

Friend-of-a-Friend: Friend said you two went to see the new MoMA exhibit yesterday. How was it?

--Palpable relief followed by stilted, idle chit-chat.
M. excuses herself and wanders back to bar.--

What exactly is motivating this exchange? Well, embarrassment for one. For some reason, I always assume famous people are so tired of meeting people that they don't have much to say. So, I don't really expect them to say anything, and I don't really like asking them questions. The closest I came to letting myself run off at the mouth before someone whose work I admired was when I met Anne Carson in April. Let me just say


I did not tell her this, in so many words. I did not wax rapturous about how much I like her work, and her daring, and her long, gray-speckled braid. No, I did not. Instead, I said:

Me: Nice to meet you. I really admire your work.

She (placidly, sweetly): Thank you.

Me (unable to leave it at that): In particular, your book on eros. It had a large influence on me.

She: Yes...I liked that book very much once, too.

--Awkward pause. Will M. continue to rhapsodize about A.'s work?
Will compliments become saccharine? Will A. cry and run from the room,
or will she turn her back on the maladroit young poet?--

Me: Well, I guess books are better than kids. When you don't like them anymore, they're easier to get rid off.

She: (Actually laughs.)

This was one of my better moments, trust me. But afterward, I thought, why on earth didn't I just leave it at "I admire your work." And then I said to myself, "why not??? Don't people like to hear that people admire their work?" And then I thought, "why do I have such complicated, WASP-y feelings about fame? I was raised Catholic, dammit! I should be on my knees, kissing her proffered knuckles and weeping!!!"

Yet there it is. Maybe WASP-y is the wrong word. I was tempted to write blue-collar, but I'm not sure that would be accurate, either. I never saw either of my parents interact with someone of insinuated prestige, except perhaps a general at a National Guard ball. Does that count?

It may actually be the perfect example of why I'm pent-up about fame. Growing up in the military, hierarchies bear a tremendous amount of weight on one's life. Fortunately for me I did not grow up on base, where I've heard it's worse (i.e. hierarchy among the officers' kids versus enlisted, sub-hierarchy among generals and colonels versus majors and captains, etc. etc.) My fathers dealt with these hierarchies like they were Protestant caste systems. Yes, you were born into your place--but with hard work, sobriety and tenacity, you could rise to the top by virtue of your, well, virtues. Whenever I did see my father interact with superior officers, he was every inch the army professional. "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs." and "Thank you, sirs" would float in the air around his head, stiffly perched until he was given leave.

That's right. Given leave. I seem to recall that my father was the superior officer in our house, and our interactions were guided by a similar principle. This may be an exaggeration of my memory, but I suspect it's at least partially true. There was obeisance and discipline before those who must be obeyed, with the hope that one day my virtues would lead up to a satisfactory, independent life where I was master of my own domain.

But what if you are supposed to be awed into obeisance by someone whose "virtues" you find spurious? What if you are confronted by an entity whom society places "above" you, in terms of accomplishments and recognition, but whose accomplishments you find less interesting than their person? What if, under all of this, you chafe at the idea of hierarchies and are resentful of your innate response to the heirs-apparent? And what if you hate their art AND their person?

Well, I suppose those questions are a good start at summing it up. But we can't forget vulgarity! While I may greatly admire someone's work, and may also be awed/intimidated by their power and success, there's a part of me that finds the whole thing vulgar. Hence the WASP comparison. But my leanings are definitely more's not that I feel anything-they-can-do-I-can-do-better, but that just-because-you-make-good-music-doesn't-mean-that-social-workers-aren't-as-worthy-of-adulation-so-why-am-I-making-a-big-deal-about-you-when-I-don't-even-value-what-you-do-enough-to-pay-for-the-album? (Shh. Don't tell.)

Or it could be fear that I will say something embarrassing because I'm fighting these internal struggles? Fear of being rejected by someone generically valued by society? Anxiety of influence?

THAT IS IT. I am afraid that I will want to wear Jarvis Cocker glasses. I am so, so afraid.

He does have great style, though. Maybe I should just relax and go with the flow. Even though I was a fat kid, it's no reason to be pent up about the guy. I never robbed anyone, after all, so why be a chump. I'll even tell him I admire his work, should the opportunity come to pass.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oh, the Misogyny...

If you were a girl-child in the late '80s, you probably remember playing a game called MASH. MASH was prototypical of girl games from my childhood. Centered on pubescent girls' budding interest in sex, the game envelopes those interests in the safer trappings of adulthood-as-we-then-knew-it.

On a sheet of paper, the capital letters M-A-S-H were written at the top. These letters stood for Mansion, Apartment, Shack or House. Under this header appear categories involving other features of our futures...features such as cars, husbands, jobs and more, depending on the tenacity of the players. Each category held four options, which were eliminated through a complicated counting process that involved (I think) the roll of a die. Once only one option was left in each category, you had your future--be it living in a shack with Billy Brat with six children all named Starlight, or holed up in an apartment with the janitor while pursuing a career in hair-braiding.

Here's a sample:

I am still vaguely outraged that my parents allowed my sister and I to play this game. That despite my father's desire for me to be overtaken with a hot, burning love for soccer, he mirthfully shook his head at us instead, sitting in a circle on the living room floor, planning out the social architecture of our futures with notebook paper and pencils.

But then, I suppose I may never have bothered with college had I known I would end up living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn without even a bicycle, making money by perjuring my creative standards daily in corporate America, far far away from the goals I imagined myself reaching before I stood teetering on the cusp of 30. But then there's S. Though it's hard to speak for my ten-year-old self now, the promise of a sweet bald man probably would have tipped the scales heavily, thus convincing me to continue my studies and not end up barefoot-and-pregnant in Florida. Probably.

Which brings me to the second in today's bugaboo blitz: M*A*S*H, the movie. Just in case the clip of the movie poster to the right isn't clear enough, here's another shot of the graphic used to market Altman's film:

Tasteful, right? Because what better way to make an anti-war statement than an inverted peace-sign made of a pair of legs?

I used to love watching this television show. From my recollection of the series, the female characters were nothing like those portrayed in the actual film--i.e. they were not barely-veiled targets for harassment and abuse.

Now, I grew up in a military house, and spent enough time around officers and at military events to kinda guess that even in the '90s,the military wasn't exactly a haven from sexism. However, I also saw a very positive side of the military--dedicated fathers and husbands, members of the community, working together for a cause they believed in strongly.

As an adult, I recognize that many of those "dedicated" members of the community could very well have been alcoholics, wife-beaters, philanderers, liars, cheats or even sexists. And, as a cultural participant, I am not immune to the histories of terrible actions taken by troops, past and present, during war. But the protagonists Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest and their male cohorts go far beyond the call of middle-brow hazing during their "use of humor and hijinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war" for the sake of entertainment (Thank you, IMDb.)

I don't want to trot out the details, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure, because it makes my blood pressure rise recounting just how these two use female soldiers to redirect their anger at having been drafted, their frustration with military protocol AND their self-congratulatory prankster/playboy ways. What I DO want to address is the issue of viewer identification. Like with the MASH game I played as a kid, participating in a game (or film) only works if one can identify with it.

My huffy outrage turned to genuine puzzlement after watching M*A*S*H, because the reasons women may have had for enjoying this film in its heyday seemed inscrutable. Then I remembered Laura Mulvey. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?)

According to Laura Mulvey's highly-influential "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," "classic" film puts all viewers in the masculine subject position, leaving the women in the film to be viewed not as selves, but as objects of desire. (In a very reductive nutshell.) Thus, even female viewers who may be politically opposed to the dynamics of a film will find herself more likely to identify with the masculine eye of the camera--the eye that almost always pursues heterosexual, masculine objects of desire: women and power.

In light of these thoughts, it is not surprising that an enormous feminist outcry was not heard when M*A*S*H came to the silver screen. The main thrust of the film, after all, is war, which in 1970 had a tad more interest for most Americans than did feminism, unfortunate as that may seem. War affects everyone, especially when there's a draft. Thus, my conclusion is that female viewers of this film must have identified with Hawkeye and Duke--the bucks brave enough to flout the authority that sent so many Americans to die in Vietnam.

Yes, they must have identified with the renegade soliders--not the nurses terrorized into granting the two access to a private hospital ward, not the young women taunted with bawdy requests for sexual favors and certainly not the doomed Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan exposed during her shower for the ostensible purpose of finding out whether she is or is not a natural blonde. (Nothing but class.)

And why should they, when other female soliders take part in the humiliation too, laughing at Houlihan as she flounders, wet and screaming, on the floor of the collapsed shower tent? It isn't that Houlihan's character is at all sympathetic. Rather, she is a standard Army-issue rule monkey, and a prig. Add a little sadism, and we'd have Nurse Ratched. Unlike Ratched, though, who is attacked because of her power, Houlihan is sexually harassed into a submission that was never denied. From her first night in the camp when she has sex with one of the soliders to her impotent attempts to lodge complaints to the General, Houlihan's "power" is a joke from the get-go. She is humiliated as an unfortunate emblem of the Army, and all of the humiliation centers around her sexuality. Which, apparently, she can't control, given the number of her attackers she ends up sleeping with before the movie ends.

And yet, women probably went to the movies with their boyfriends/husbands/lovers and enjoyed this film. Were it 1970, and were I a child of the '60s, would I have enjoyed it? I hope I would have been helping Gloria Steinem start Ms., or knocking on doors to advocate for pro-choice legislation. What scares me though, is not knowing whether that would have kept me from spending Friday night at the movies yuking it up.

On a positive note, I've moved past MASH the game, and I can safely say that I've somehow come out on the other side of adolescence without the internalized male gaze...or at least not the part of that eye that can look past violence against women. One could say that looks something like progress.

Monday, July 14, 2008

La Vie en Rose: Proud to be French-Fried

As today is Bastille Day, I felt it would be appropriate to pause from my trap-door ravings in order to muse on francophilia. Last night, S., J. (a visiting friend from Boston) and I had a lovely pro-Frenchie evening: we saw a French film, drank French wine, dined on steak frites and moules frites at a French-ified bistro and then moved on to drink even more wine while discussing literature. Though our last glasses of wine were not, in fact, derived from the French vine, I feel that our two-plus hour conversation about literature (and poetry!!!) sufficiently ups the french-quotient of our evening.

I've always loved how seriously the French take literature and language. Where else but France could a film like Haneke's Caché be made, where the main character is the "star" of a television show dedicated to interviewing writers? That's right, mes amis, a talk show about books.

Ah, la France. The hexagon. The land of frogs' legs and fries, berets and baguettes, pouty lips and ponderous sighs, birthplace of the bourgeoisie and existentialism, home of the can-can and Tin Tin.

I salute you, and will certainly raise at least one glass tonight in your honor.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trap Doors, Part Deux

Okay. I've been away on vacation, and victim to the shadowy sloth that always awaits my return. Perhaps others experience this post-vacation malaise, too. I suppose that's what people mean when they say they need a vacation from their vacation.

My thoughts were trained upon the trap door even as we were zipping down the steamy Florida corridors and downing Greyhounds. (Not, of course, at the same time.) Just before we left the city's mossy mouth for another humid endroit, I read David Orr's essay "The Politics of Poetry" in the current issue of Poetry magazine that really set my "trap door alarm" into high alert.

Here's a picture of what that felt like:

Not bad as a photo editorial, huh?

Now, after the first three paragraphs (assuming a singular exclamatory remark counts as a paragraph), Orr presents a well-balanced and interesting discussion of poetic versus political rhetoric, and how the arenas overlap. However, I had to approach the article on FOUR separate occasions in order to get through the disastrous trap door that is the introduction.

Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. "Give me a break!" snarled Buffenbarger, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine." And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: "He's a poet, not a fighter!"


Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn't go unanswered—within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post, declaring that he "would be happy to step outside" with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. (Smart money is on Lundberg, as Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.) Yet what was most interesting about the Clinton supporter's remarks wasn't their inaccuracy or intemperance, but the way in which they neatly summarized two assumptions often made about contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics. (Orr, "The Politics of Poetry")

The first time I read Orr's introductory remarks, I was so annoyed that I kvetched at S. for a good half-hour about hyper-masculinity, its attendant anxiety in those following "non-masculine" career paths and how counterintuitive Orr's "amusing" remarks are to his greater purpose.

Upon the next two attempts to get past these paragraphs and into the meat of the essay, I found myself confronted by an internal roadblock. No matter how sternly I trained my eye on the fourth paragraph, it took me yet another attempt before I could find the escape ladder out of the rabbit hole:
One would think poets might get a little more respect from political speakers, and that political speakers might refrain from comparing their purely verbal existence to the decidedly non-verbal world of physical violence. (Orr, "The Politics of Poetry")
Whew! Finally, we're getting somewhere.

Was it really necessary for Orr to begin his essay with such (frankly) hyper-masculine anxiety? Of course not. Was it creative? Sure. Does it demonstrate skill and virtuosity? Definitely. It's not ever day, after all, that one encounters such elegant turns of phrase when insulting another's rotundity. (See: "Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.")

If the war of rhetorical styles is that of the passive pen against the aggressive sword, I find it hard to believe that Orr's application of schoolyard-taunt to pub-brawl principle scores a point for poetry. Hilarious in a conversation, yes. Funny in a poem, perhaps. Amusing as a preface to what I assume is meant to be taken as a serious look at poetry's rhetorical power in the political sphere, no.

Aggressive posturing is common, indeed charming, in children. When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a) a boy and b) very sensitive about playing the piano. He was quick to assert that though he played, he still could deal a black eye to any punk who dared to call him a sissy. To my adult ears, the anxiety behind this assertion was obviously a product of the conflict he faced on the complicated road to maturity. (I would say "manhood," but that opens up a whole 'nother issue, and implies that women are never perpetrators of this crime.)

In adults, this posturing has no allure for me--especially in adults who are appealing to readers as intellectuals. That is sort of a question of personal taste, however. Objectively I have no trouble seeing how Orr's ass-kicking remarks might thrill many readers, girding their poetic loins with visions of warrior-bards busting lips in a show of epic power. It's Orr's use of one of our society's baser myths that creates a trap door.

By framing his essay with such remarks, Orr speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Out of one side, he says, "Surely you recognize that my tongue is in my cheek." Out of the other side, he says, "But I will be the first to feel better when one of my poetic brethren punches the ticket of anyone who dares say poetry is weak." Why else mention John Lundberg's response to Buffenbarger?

Now, let's pause for a moment to consider catharsis. During my two-week break, I’ve been turning over my trap-door anxiety (yes, there I said it) to see if it’s really MY problem. After all, who doesn’t enoy a humorous riposte every now and again? Who doesn’t crave that dinner-time comment that turns conversation away from the tiresome and toward the light-hearted? Don’t we ALL sometimes laugh when a politician stumbles on his words, thus rendering his point, for all intents and purposes, null and void? Sure we do. Aristotle covered this all ages ago when he argued against Plato’s misguided proposal that poetry led humans into the clutches of chaotic and uncontrolled passions.
Aside: there is scholarly evidence that the term “catharsis” derives from kathairein, “to purify, purge," and which was normally used as a medical term until Aristotle trotted it out as a metaphor. According to one source on Wikipedia (LOVE you, Wiki), “usually referring to the evacuation of the "katamenia", the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material.” JESUS.
So, as a poet, I would be a bit of a silly-pants if I didn’t stand on the “for” side of the cathartic divide. Of course catharsis is good! This is part of the reason people (the same people who argue with you at your cocktail parties about why poetry no longer functions) turn to poetry at weddings, births, graduations and funerals. The act of breathing in measure and using symbolic/metaphoric/contemplative language brings not only relief to those pesky inner passions, but solace to the suffering. If one were so disposed, one might agree with Aristotle that it keeps us from murdering each other quite so frequently. (When I first typed “frequently,” it came out “freakquently.” Pure coincidence….I think not.)

On a less-exalted tip, humor can provide us with a break from our lofty pensées. I would accept the argument that Orr is doing precisely that—introducing a humorous bit before plunging into a topic that just may be to many readers (surely not readers of Poetry magazine, however) a tad dull or difficult.

But, like any trap door worth its well-engineered salt, it will hit us on the ass the minute we enter if we’re not careful. Humor provides catharsis that, in my humble trap-door-fearing view, can actually release us from the responsibility of pondering the important issues raised by the very practice of release. Instead of sharing outrage of Buffenbarger's, er, less-than-astute Obama-slurs, we end up participating in the very sentiments guiding B's warbling.

But to assume NO ONE spends any time noodling over this textual puzzle would be like assuming that none of us thinks about what gave us an orgasm once we achieve one, right? (We can talk about my hierarchical lingo here in reference to sex later. "Achieve." I should be ashamed.) As such, I assume that I’m not the only one to find herself jammed up by Orr’s comments even as I laughed at them.

Like the foie-gras PBJ, it’s not that Orr’s humor doesn’t work. It’s that the underpinnings of his comments give those he argues against a reason not to listen to the thoughtful remarks that follow. They provide instead a trap door down which some readers may fall without finding their way out. And while I am tempted to claim this is the reader's fault, there is something to politically- and ethically-charged speech that can entrap even the most tenacious of us.

Caveat lector, indeed.

It would be unfair not to mention that Orr can be excused (sort of) for his anxious banterings by virtue of the venue in which the essay appears. If readers are ever to be expected to be aware of how such a text functions, it’s probably in a publication devoted to the rarefied ramblings of poets and poetry critics. Still, in closing, I must mention that the worst crime of this particular type of trap door is that it provides an excuse for readers to dismiss the subject at hand (here, poetry) not only as passive, but as passive-aggressive. And I don’t think Orr would want that, do you?

More thoughts to come on this topic, but now I’m off to prepare for pre-Bastille Day celebrations. Vive Petanque!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Trap Doors. Part I.

As today is Wednesday, and as Wednesday's child, I'm primed to launch into the woeful bugaboo that really coaxed me into the blog-o-sphere. Anyone who's suffered recently through a dinner party or other social gathering that involved too much wine has heard me wax spastic about this concept I call the "trap door." I now intend to exploit my blog as a stage for my personal peccodilloes.

To the right of the screen, I've provided a picture of one genre of trap door. A particularly creepy trap door at that.

Side note: Recent discussions regarding the endangered hyphen push me to it trap-door, or "trap door." Surely we haven't devolved so much that it's now an overly Teutonic "trapdoor," have we? I found multiple uses of the term with and without a hyphen. Since the on-line OED requires a monthly payment of $29.95 or a yearly subscription for $295, I'll have to wonder until I get home tonight.

Back to the trap door at hand. This creepy trap door reminds me of "Deliverance," or "The Hills Have Eyes." Which is only to say that despite my quasi-rural upbringing, man-made holes in the earth make me think of deranged maniacs. A useful association, actually, when one thinks of the trap door as a bugaboo.

Another, and I promise the last, aside in this post: "Bugaboo" is a fun little word, isn't it? It has two equally fun meanings:

1. An object of obsessive, usually exaggerated, fear or anxiety.
2. A recurring or persistent problem.

The fact that marketers have co-opted this term as though it means "cute little children" is hilarious to me. For I, mostly, see children alternately as objects of exaggerated, obsessive anxiety or recurring, persistent problems. Delightful misstep, don't you think?


Trap door is the term I have begun to apply to rhetorical devices which allow writers (or speakers, though I'm much more interested in how this manifests in text) to evade battering out cohesive, balanced thoughts on an issue just after introducing a topic--especially topics of an uncomfortable, challenging nature.

Via the trap door, the writer/speaker evades any responsibility for the stickier implications of his or her point. A trap door is the hole into which the "response" part of "call and response" falls to a bloody death, especially if one is dealing with this phenomenon in conversation. (There's that Wednesday's child again...bloody death indeed. For shame.)

What makes the trap door insidious is the fact that its ultimate goal is comfort. It is more comfortable to end a complicated conversation with a platitude, or to change the subject, or to use a joke, or (worst of all, I feel) to fall back on irony. (Irony is another bugaboo, which I'll get into a bit later in my explorations of the trap door.)

My goal for the rest of the week is to find solid, illustrative examples. Right now, the most boorish one will at least begin to sketch out what I'm getting at.

[The setting is a trendy restaurant in New York]

Party A: Honestly, this neighborhood has become unbearable. I moved to New York for dirt, for passion, for art and transgression. And now there's a Baby Gap on every corner of the Village.

Parties B-D: [sighs] Yeah. It's so true.

Party A: I mean, I'm starting to wonder what I'm staying here for.

Party C: Well, the city does still have it's strong suits.

Party A: Yeah. Like restaurants! I cannot WAIT to try the foie gras's supposed to be fabulous. And who doesn't like a little foie gras with their urban discontent?

Parties B-DL: [laughing] True! Pass the wine.


Now. We've all tried to avoid the tedious, never-ending conversation that is how-our-city-town-or-village-has-changed. Especially at dinner. Especially when we're tired, and not all that interested in really digging into a socio-political debate about the relative rise and fall of Manhattan's cultural scene.

What gets me is the trap door -- the use of humor (in this case) to dismiss the question and move on to easier and more palatable topics. If you call foie gras PBJ palatable. Which I do.

Trap door.

It would be very, very simple for me to end my blog entry with that snarky comment about foie gras. If I may applaud myself, it was a stylish way of summarizing a rather tedious topic, and evading taking any responsibility for what I'm arguing.

It also means that you, as the reader, can stop working, too.

And that will not do, black shoe.

to be continued...