Monday, October 29, 2007

The Golden Rule, the Easter Bunny, and the Right to Bear Arms

So there's this irritating new-ish series on NPR entitled This I Believe. In it, a carefully chosen mix of "ordinary" and, I suppose, extraordinary people read pat, bite-size essays explicating various of their deeply held beliefs. I'm not precisely sure why, but this series drives me crazier than almost anything else on the air, including Fund Drive (arg), Radio Reader (is it just me, or does Dick Estelle sound like he's been welded to a morphine drip?), and the spectacularly boring, awesomely useless Congressional Moment.

Part of it is the whiff of faux-patriotic, 1950s-style righteousness. Part of it is the tightly packaged format, so reminiscent of seventh-grade writing prompts, to which the This I Believe essays must adhere (start with a compelling personal anecdote; explain how it shaped your most deeply held beliefs in 300 words or less). But if I'm honest with myself, I think most of my irritation arises from pure, old-fashioned jealousy. Who are these people, and what did they do to earn the luxury of deeply held belief?

Because belief is a luxury. It's a handhold, a support, something solid to stand on in an overwhelmingly squishy world. I crave deeply held beliefs, even as I can't help but be mildly enraged by the folks who have them. Which is maybe why, even though the very mention of "independent producer Jay Allison" makes me want to chew the bedclothes, I listen anyway. I may not drop everything and glue my ear to the radio like I do with Story Corps (yay Story Corps!). I may pretend to be eating breakfast or tying back my hair or rooting around for a sweatshirt. But I'm listening.

What do people believe in? I've heard people cram their belief into small boxes and large, into milk crates, watertight jars, voluminous bags. People believe in nursing. They believe in God. In tolerance, in love, in the big, meaningless words that cover you, like quilts, while you sleep. They believe unabashedly, whole-heartedly, and in tightly-edited prose.

All of which forces me regularly to ransack myself top to bottom, searching for belief like a desperate hostess hunting for the air mattress. I check closets, investigate the attic, crawl around under the bed. I believe in...

walking. OK, it's paltry, limp-wristed sort of belief. But there's not a lot more reliable, more satisfying, or more useful than locomoting, via the placement of one foot in front of the other, from location A to location B. When you walk, you interact with the world on a human scale. You can't pretend its not there, or forget its dimensions, or blot it out in a burst of speed. You can't honk at it, or give it the middle finger, or edge it out for the last good parking spot. Yesterday, I walked. Today I'll walk. Tomorrow, even though -or perhaps because- my life is colossal, insoluble mess, I'll walk. This I (messily, shamefacedly, in far more than 300 words) believe.

Walk with me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Appetizer #4

Scarfing chocolate. Walking uphill. That glorious moment just before sleep when your thoughts escape their pen and spill down the hillside, woolly and lost, into black. Simple pleasures are easy enough to understand. They're like a small, nonthreatening math problem, the kind where a single operation tips the brain into dopamine-soaked resolution. I'm an enthusiastic proponent of simple pleasures.

But then there's the fried pickle. As far as my chastened taste buds can make out, the fried pickle is an anemic, thinly sliced, unrefrigerated Vlasic dipped in a batter consisting of equal parts salt, bleached flour, and faux-lard before being fed the the roaring maw of the deep fryer. In case you had doubts, let me assure you that the fried pickle is, in fact, disgusting. Revolting, even. Wet, slimy, unconscionably salty (this from a woman who has been known to lick salt off the plate) and possessed of a subtle yet distinctive chemical aftertaste. The fried pickle is not your friend.

And yet, there is something overwhelmingly pleasurable about ingesting the fried pickle. It's a dodgy, perverse kind of pleasure, lurking somewhere in the correspondence between the physical object (pickle) and the mental paradigm of "truly foul." It's that match-up -like dropping the last puzzle piece into its slot- that's so profoundly satisfying. Here's the fried pickle; now here's this little mental constellation. See how they fit together!

With the fried pickle, then, we have ascended the rocky slope of the complicated pleasure. Complicated pleasures are bizarre, often dangerous beasts, feeding off the unstable activity of the forebrain as opposed to the more predictable impulses of the primitive nervous system. Complicated pleasures require mental constructs, intermediaries between sense and reaction. Complicated pleasures, and I speak from experience, give you heartburn.

But I wouldn't leave the restaurant without them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Half Price

Sometimes I think of life as a kind of large-scale flower arranging, a conscious selection and manipulation of elements for maximum aesthetic pleasure. This morning, for example, a friend and I, after lengthy discussion, purchased the following books between us at a library clearance sale:

Bel Canto
Cloud Atlas
Mao Tse Tung: Profile for Children
Science Experiments You Can Eat
Lust: The Other Side of Love

I'm especially pleased with Lust: The Other Side of Love, in which Mel White (married, two children) combines stern proscription ("When you are tempted, God's word can help you. Feed on it! Control your thoughts!") with vivid biblical exegesis:

David lowered the harp to the ground and leaned against the cool rock wall. A movement on a rooftop just below the palace caught David's eye. His thoughts of praise were interrupted by a scene of indescribable beauty. A woman bathed naked in the moonlight. Apparently, she, too, had found it impossible to sleep and now, innocent and unsuspecting, she poured water over her breasts and thighs. David watched it run in rivulets down her flesh and desired to hold that warm, wet body in his arms.

Hypocrisy, guilt, purple prose, Marxism, and edible empirical effort! Show me a more captivating arrangement.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Don't Drink the Science

I've been cataloging dangerous things. There's no shortage: airplanes, scorpions, methamphetamines, cliffs, rumors, cigarettes, running up mountains too fast, people to whom you're uncomfortably attracted, George W. Bush, over-analyzing, rancid peanuts, and sometimes, when rabid, squirrels. But nothing is more dangerous than a little bit of science.

Speech-language pathology used to be an art. Then some hapless clinician contracted science and the practice was convulsed. People began heaving up theories and wheezing about evidence-based practice. There were fits of data collection, rashes of empirical impulse. And then there were Measurable Objectives. Bertram will independently answer who, what, and where questions with 80% accuracy during structured activities over two consecutive sessions. Rosalia will, given verbal cuing, use her communication book to sequence three-word, subject-verb-object sentences with 80% accuracy over two consecutive sessions.

In theory, all of this is great. Prior to the Great Scientific Fever, speech-pathologists were in no small sense modern witch doctors, basing their decisions on a combination of Instinct and Ancient Wisdom. Science has done a lot for speech pathology, providing evidence for practices that work and helping to disprove practices that don't.

But a little science, misapplied, is like a handsome, drug-addled squirrel run amok. Case in point: Measurable Objectives. In addition to requiring the SLP to construct clunky, syntactically-overstuffed sentences, Measurable Objectives, at least as they are utilized in the field, arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of statistics. And that, make no mistake, is dangerous.

I think statistics are fabulous. They are numbers made into rope, tying up the world in neat(-ish) little packages. They are math pulling its head out of its behind. But statistics aren't magic. They require careful, knowledgeable handling. I don't know that much about statistics, but even I can tell that right now the field of clinical speech-language pathology is shipping them to Timbuktu in a milk crate.

Misapprehension #1: If something is true for a population, it's true for each individual in that population. Measurable Objectives assume that whatever intervention prompted statistically significant gains in a population of children or adults will prompt the same gains in each individual client. But statistics are about groups and trends. There's no way of assuring that Bertram or Rosalia will make comparable progress.

Misapprehension #2: Percentages are percentages are percentages. Know how many observations of a target behavior an SLP has time to take in a session? Maybe five. So on Tuesday, Rosalia used her communication book accurately 3/5 trials, or 60% of the time. On Thursday, Rosalia used her book 4/5 trials, or 80% of the time. Aha! the SLP will say, Rosalia has met her goal! But in reality, we're only talking about a difference of one observation. And one observation does not a trend make!

Misapprehension #3: Progress means progress. There is a way to conduct valid single-subject research. It requires multiple baselines, a theoretically-unrelated control behavior, and lots of observations. Asking Bertram 10 why questions on Tuesday and then asking him 10 why questions on Thursday isn't it. Maybe he hit is head on Tuesday. Maybe his brain grew a few more neurons over the course of the week. Maybe he's distracted by the disturbing nerdiness of his name. Something's being measured, but Lord knows if it's actually progress.

What happens in the real world is that speech-language pathologists, required to construct and take data on Measurable Objectives that are effectively impotent in their ability to describe what's actually going on, look for loopholes. I've seen it in action at team meetings. What's Bertram doing now? someone will say. Let's write that in the goal. After all, we have to make sure he can meet his goals.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Think of England

Ah, potato chips, let me count the ways. Potato chips are crisp! Potato chips are ravishingly salty! Potato chips come in pleasantly pneumatic packaging! Park one on your tongue; taste the pepper and the oil plus the indefinable underground funk of potato. Potato chips are lovely and amazing, if anything is lovely and amazing. If I open a bag of potato chips (yes, even the big bags), I cannot rest until every chip has been (deliciously) conquered. If I see a bag, I cannot rest until I've opened it.

This is why I try not to buy the bag.

This is also why I was so disturbed to come across the following advice, italicized for emphasis in the midst of a sheaf of materials I received to help me prepare for an important interview:

Be yourself.

OK, be myself. As in, don't pretend to be Margaret Thatcher (easy) or Tony Blair (harder; we're both wafflers). As in, wait to transmogrify until after the interview. As in, eat the potato chips.

Because here's the thing: if I went through life being myself, truly myself in the sense of obeying my most basic impulses, I would be a housebound potato chip whore. I would never see the light of day, or talk to anyone, or come within fifty feet of a mechanical object. I would weigh 250 pounds and speak in tongues.

Why would you ever want to be yourself? Most of us don't (and those who do are George Bush). Which is why life is in many ways an elaborate chess game between who you are and who you want to be. You have to think three steps ahead: predicting, anticipating, taking corrective action. Pick up the phone. Put down the bag. If you can't control yourself around the potato chips, control their presence in your life.

Of course, this makes for an existence both surpassingly virtuous and surpassingly dull, the kind of existence of which Margaret Thatcher would be proud. Which is why sometimes you have to buy the bag. And set it in front of you. And ogle it, hard.

Maybe a gentle tug.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Inside Early Music

I figured I'd left the whole thick envelope/thin envelope thing behind me (has McLuhan's medium-is-the-message shtick ever received such satisfyingly literal support?) I mean, I'm done with being eighteen. I graduated from college. I've even waded most of the way through grad school.

But I hadn't counted on literary magazines. And after years of craven avoidance, I finally, six months ago, entered the submissions fray. Yesterday I got my first thick envelope in the mail.

I suppose I should be thrilled. I expected to be thrilled. A journal I've read and respected for a long time accepted one of the four poems I sent them and is publishing it this winter. I've got a contract, proofs, the works.

But I'm not thrilled, unless thrill feels like a mild case of indigestion. Because what, exactly, is the point? Certainly not money: my total recompense is a grand total $0.00. No, make that -$0.85, which is what I spent on postage. Basically, I am paying 85 cents for the privilege of having my poem printed in a journal that will be read by approximately seven people, one of whom will do so on the toilet.

And I'm certainly not doing it to "express" myself. I am not breast milk. Nor do I think the point of poetry is to convey the experience of the poet. If my life were interesting enough to write about, I wouldn't have time to write. The poem the journal took (not my favorite) is my contribution to the classic music-slash-sex genre, but in real life I'm more likely to think about laundry (where DO all the socks go?) than sex when I'm playing.

(And just why is the music/sex thing so enduringly popular, anyway? Why are all the movies about music -The Red Violin, Touts les Matins du Monde- really about sex? I don't think most musicians associate music primarily with sex. The general public must think we spend all our time rutting on top of pianos.)

No, mostly what I feel -the "point" of it all- is relief. Phew, alright: at least I'm not one of those self-styled "writers," one of those the self-published, self-important, self-deluded Poets with a Capital P. The ones who write dreadful poetry in the their basements on weekends and then inflict it on their relatives. At least I am not excruciatingly, mind-numbingly, throat-closingly awful.

Is publication really about nothing more than soothing our pettiest fears? There's got to be more to it than that. Or else I'll need to find another hobby. I hear the tops of pianos are quite comfortable.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Truth and Punishment

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Bullshit, right? I never paid much attention in math, but the last time I checked, one plus one plus one still equaled three. And even if we wax all metaphorical, decreeing that the "whole" is the Team and the "parts" are the irreplaceable contributions of each Team Member to the Group Effort- well then, the whole thing still bears a startling resemblance to the excrement of a testosterone-addled cow.

Because I know what Team means. Team means a bunch of people taking three hours to do the work a single person could do in one. And as for Group Effort? It consists of a series of heroic contortions designed to maintain your grip on both tact and control. Either that or redoing everyone else's work on the sly.

Did I mention I play well with others?

Actually I'm not quite so bad. But I've never had much faith in Glorious Synthesis, or Pulling Together, or any other phrase that requires spurious capitalization to make its mark. Until, that is, I stumbled on Step-Strength Seventy-Five.

Step-Strength Seventy-Five comprises a wide range of elements I hate. First off, there's lengthy exercise (fifty-five minutes of intensive flailing followed by 20 minutes of Extra Torture). Add to that loud, dreadful music; idiotic moves; spandex; floor-to-ceiling mirrors; sorority girls; and a manic, unpleasantly cheerful leader barking commands.

Only I love it. I'm absolutely crazy about it. I've fought tooth and nail to attend Step-Strength Seventy-Five through three years and two graduate programs, stretching my schedule, straining credulity, and, when necessary, lying through my teeth.

Because here's the thing: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Somewhere between the Michael Jackson remixes and the Ace of Base medley, between the Super Stomp and the Rocking Horse, all the unsavory ingredients sit down to business, toss around ideas, and get things done. And nothing -nothing- beats lying exhausted and sweaty on a dirty gym mat, Kenny G wailing in the background, feeling like a rug that's been thoroughly beaten.

Some might call this a disturbing addiction. I call it Synergy.

Monday, October 1, 2007


So far the only movie I've seen alone in a theater is, of all things, Shortbus. I can't really explain why I selected Shortbus for my maiden solo cinema outing, other than to say that I was in a restless mood during a restless month, and it was what my local film series happened to be showing.

And it was definitely an odd movie to go to see by myself: Shortbus is sex, sex and more sex -so much sex, in fact, that sex becomes background rather than accent, page rather than text. Sex in Shortbus was like the stage business writers give characters to break up dialogue: "So there," Maya said, drawing the knife across the bread. Or, Darius fingered the dime in the pocket of his jeans. "Why?" he asked. Only here was more like: "Have you seen my car keys?" asked John, writhing ecstatically.

I got so I was actually bored by the sex, and it's hard to be bored by sex. It was as if the bread-cutting and the coin-jiggling and the thousand other tiny daily tasks had seized the narrative and were shaking it by its scruff. Every so often the story would emit one pitiful mew, but overall it had been handily subdued.

What reminded me of all this was an article in Sunday's NYT by Mireya Navarro about the trend toward real sex scenes (i.e, people actually having sex) in movies (Shortbus was used as an example). The article paraphrases Linda Williams, a UC Berkely professor: "These films...fall under 'hard-core art.' They escalate the explicitness, trying to step beyond the conventional but not veer into pornography."

I'm tempted to say that what separates pornography from "hard-core art" is that the sex in pornography is supposed to make you feel good, whereas "art" sex is supposed to make you feel bad. But this is perhaps too cynical a view of art (not to mention too lenient a view of porn, which can be awfully depressing). After all, "hard-core" artists (I think I'm every so slightly too amused by this term) are trying for something noble: they want to make sex in movies more real and less staged -on the theory, one assumes, that reality is more galvanizing than artifice

I'd argue that one any day, but I'm even more puzzled by the notion that real on-screen sex is "realer" than simulated on-screen sex. Sure, it's more of a physical reality for the actors involved, but cinema isn't about recreating actors' subjective experiences in the minds of viewers. It's not even really about recreating characters' subjective experiences: do we ever, in real life, watch ourselves having sex from multiple camera angles? (Wait, don't answer that.) Are we ever primarily onlookers in our own sex acts?

No, movies (and books, and plays) are about forcing us into that strange, limninal space between subjectivity and objectivity. They deal in partials: partial empathy, partial experience, partial understanding. The real value of "real" sex on-screen is shock: it's new, it's different, it prods us to take one cautious step back. And artists -hard-core, soft-core, delicious tootsie roll center- have always loved to shock.