Monday, December 31, 2007
2007 was an ass-grabber. I flinched. I shrieked. I writhed away -and it happened anyway. (Hopefully 2008 will mount a suaver campaign of seduction, but I sort of doubt it.) During 2007's assault, I let myself go. Not in a daytime-TV, tub of cookies-n-cream on the couch kind of way, but in the sense of losing my grip, of having who I thought I was and what I thought I wanted slip through my fingers and float away. 2007 was the year I realized I didn't have myself firmly in hand.
Humbling. Degrading. No doubt salutary. To 2007 and certain of its denizens I say: I hope I fucked you as thoroughly as you fucked me. And yes, it was kinda fun.
RESOLVED, December 31st, 2007:
1) Eat more cheese
Friday, December 28, 2007
My fifth-grade crush is on Facebook. Yesterday one of my friends became one of his friends, in that spider-silk social-networking way, and suddenly there it was in my news feed: the same string of seven letters I'd appended, experimentally, to my first name when I was ten and practicing signing my future married moniker seemed like the thing to do. On rediscovering my fifth-grade crush, I did what any reasonable, mature twenty-seven-year-old woman would do, which was to click rapidly through to his profile and spy.
There wasn't much to see. He'd attended Northwestern, which I'd learned years back through the parental grapevine. He had joined one group entitled "bring back the marshmallow." The single photograph showed him in a bar, all arms and shadow; I couldn't make out his face. A couple of months ago, coincidentally, his mother and I had crossed paths. She told me he was finishing law school. In return I told her where I am: those wooden stakes of education, marital status, and career people use to survey your life. The next time I saw her she told me her son had said "hi." I said "hi" back.
This is what passion boils down to, over time: a couple of second-hand greetings and an impulse, however misguided, to bring back the marshmallow. As a fifth-grader, my crush was leggy and awkward, with goofy glasses and a smile full of teeth. I liked him because he was smart. Not math-smart like Wilbur Chen, who wore Mickey Mouse undershirts and roasted ants with a magnifying glass. Not science-smart like Robert Holman, who liked to mix things together in his parents' basement, or music-smart like Kevin Haberman, who possessed not only swishy blond hair and a fine, strong treble voice, but the unstinting devotion of all the other fifth-grade girls. No, my crush was the kind of smart I understood: book-smart, test-smart, greedy for words.
Plus he told me he liked my skirt. In exchange I avoided him scrupulously, a strategy which succeeded in netting me, over the course of the next eight years or so, exactly zero dates with boys I actually liked.
And we're definitely talking boys. No one was mature, or wise, or anything but raw and alien and rank with the compound scent of closed-up rooms and sweat and dirtied sheets. Boys sat at the back of the bus. They swaggered through recess in packs. They pushed and shoved and rolled over each other like kittens and hadn't the slightest idea what to say to a girl, should one deign to speak to them.
They come to me in flashes, the boys I knew growing up. Not so much my fifth-grade crush or any of the other boys I snuck past in the hallways, but the everyday run-of-the-mill boys who tumbled through my days. What happened to that kid Mustapha, who was suspended for three days for bringing fake pot to school in a plastic baggie? I think about what he must have used -bay leaves? Some other kind of spice?- and how he must have packed it carefully, pressed the ziplock seal until the yellow and the blue transformed magically into green.
Or what about Sam Samini, who liked to put salt on the backs of slugs, or Joey Kurtzman, who moved from, and back to, West Virginia in the course of two short years, and who felt sorry for the white mice we had to feed to the classroom snake? Where is Robert Holman now? By the time we got to high school, Robert was rumored to be heavily into S&M. On the way out of the AP Calculus exam our Junior year, he asked me to eat lunch with him, which flummoxed me so thoroughly that I put the exam in my backpack, walked out the door with it, and got into the worst trouble of my academic career.
I suppose I could find out. I could look them all up on Facebook, or Google them (under their real names), or tap into the alarmingly extensive parental information network. But I don't want to. I know I won't find them, these boys, or that when I do, they'll be unrecognizable: bland-faced, deep-voiced, steadily smoothing themselves into men.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Oh, decisions. The bane of my sorry existence. I wriggle, I wail, I writhe -to no avail. Decisions keep popping up like whack-a-moles. And I'm really clumsy with the mallet.
At least my problem is, well, biblical. By which I mean that decisions are a long-lived, tried-and-true, since-time-immemorial type of pest. One of those good, old-fashioned plagues, like locusts. To listen to the serpent, or not? To build the ark, or not? To covet your neighbor's wife, she of the swishy hips and talent for calming sheep, or not? Ka-POW: a decision, and no amount of lamb's blood on your door is going to save you.
Because decisions don't pass anybody over. Michael Pollan, in his dreamy hunk of a book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, reminds us that we evolved one decision at a time:
To one degree or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you. This is the omnivore's dilemma.
So we're all out there trying to decide whether to eat anteater or squash. But why do some people plunge straight for the anteater, fork raised, while others stand back wringing their hands? I'm appalled to read, day in and day out, of yet another suicide bombing. Somewhere in me, though, lurks a shameful green glob of wonder: how can anyone make a decision with enough force to blow themselves up?
I am the decider! Ha. More like the agonizer, the freezer-upper, the drifter-alonger. Today I backed slowly, like a truck with an uncommonly wide load, into a decision on what to do with the next five months of my life. Backing in is among my preferred methods of making decisions, though there's also sidling-towards, tricking-someone-else-into-making-it-for-you, doing-nothing-until-the-universe-makes-it, and flipping-a-coin. All designed to prevent me from taking full responsibility for the shape of my life while I wait until I just know.
For this is the mirage in the desert of decision, the siren song: you will just know. I will just know when I meet the love of my life. Never mind that my first impressions of the various people I've fallen for, over the years, can be summed up as: "cute but old," "cute but gay," "a little much," and "smelly." I will just know when I find the right career. Never mind that the only career-based epiphany I've had to date is that I ought not, under any circumstances, to eat paperclips. I will just know where to go to dinner, when to have children, how to come home.
I'm still waiting like a fool for the fuse to run out, for the bomb to go off, for that soft explosion of certainty deep in my belly. Meanwhile, heads or tails?
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
I go for a walk. It's what I do instead of napping, instead of laying waste to the imaginary cheese log, instead of bickering over the remote control or the Fine Chocolate Assortment or the disposal of the wrapping paper. It is 4:00 PM and bitter cold. I don mittens, slip out the front door, and try to get lost even though I know this is no place for it, here in my native town in the empty streets.
Only they aren't empty, the streets. Familiar, yes. Frost-covered, quiet, possessed of that holiday slickness that reminds you of where (and who, and what, and how, and with whom) you should be that you're not. But empty? Nope. It's like lifting up a rock to discover the grubs teeming beneath. Here we all are: numb, dumb refugees from whatever numbing, dumbing celebration we've escaped. None of us makes eye contact. A woman with a dark braid digs her hands into her pockets. A teenager in a green army jacket marches toward the park. A middle-aged man in a Santa hat pauses at the corner of First and High for a full sixty seconds before turning on his heel and heading back the way he came. The wind picks up; the sun drops an inch; we waddle and stump and plod.
It's one of those moments. You knock on a wall of your world and discover it gives under your hands, that there's a secret passage, a false door. Here's another: the day before Christmas I have lunch with a friend on the second anniversary of her divorce. I tell her how brave she is, how much courage it must have taken to cut her losses, let her investment (all those years, days, hours!) go. She's quiet for a couple of beats. Then she tells me about the people who sought her out when she first got divorced, how they leaned in and lowered their voices and told her -men and women, strangers and friends- that they wished it were them. Her parents, her therapist, her cashier: they wished they had the guts.
It's like clicking on a hidden link. It's like splitting a cow's heart down the middle. It's like discovering that your world is made of paper, that all you need to do is pull on your mittens and push.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Cheese is most excellent (Zeeminder, Yaeger, & Xi, 2006; Abels & Boudreau, 1999). Yet, a dearth of rigorous, carefully-implemented studies of Internet users' cheese-friendliness posed a challenge. The goal of the present study was to elucidate the connection between cyberspace and dairy, with particular attention to the following questions: Do Internet users like cheese? To what degree? How passionately? In accordance with the model of disembodied cheese response outlined by Simchack (2003), the answers to these questions were hypothesized to be: yes, nth, bodice-rippingly.
A questionnaire consisting of a single (all-encompassing) cheese-related question (see fig. 1) was administered to a representative sample of the Internet-using population (n=8). Participants were randomly selected via a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game played by the primary investigator.
Do you like cheese?
Reliability was assessed via tacking the question to a dartboard and hurling spitballs at it. Construct and ecological validities were gauged via tying the question to a medium-sized rock and hurling it off the top of the a Ford F150. Reliability and validity were established to be .99 and .96 respectively (Cronbach's Omega).
Percentage of respondents indicating yes: 12.5%
Percentage of respondents indicating definitely: 0%
Percentage of respondents indicating no question: 37.5%
Percentage of respondents indicating ooo baby!: 50%
Pieces of hate mail received: 1
Imaginary llamas ridden: 6
Results, analyzed via modified chi-square, were portentously significant (p<273,936)
The results of this study clearly indicate that 100% of Internet users have a favorable attitude toward cheese. Furthermore, 50% of you are Sybarites, 37.5% of you are Contrarians, and 12.5% are me. Further research is needed to determine why no one will admit to "definitely" liking cheese, as well as to parse the differential effects of variables such as socio-economic status, lactose intolerance, and orneriness on individuals' responses to cheese.
Abels, C. & Boudreau, E. (1999). Pass the Havarti: self-monitoring and the cheese plate. Cow Now, 5(5), pp. 3-27.
Simchack, P. (2003). Click me, I'm cheddar: representations of cheese in cyberspace. Journal of Fromagerie, 3(27), pp. 34-37.
Zeeminder, X., Yaeger, Z., & Xi, Y. (2006). I see cheese: the effects of visual acuity on cheese-acquisition strategy selection. Cheese, 101(8), pp. 92-107.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
What everyone talks about is falling in love. The moment I saw him, they whisper. We were standing by the water cooler. It was when he took my daughter's hand in his. All evening we danced and then, at midnight, I knew.
Stories about falling in love tend to come at you suddenly and slaveringly, like attack dogs. They worry your ankles and bare their teeth; they have short, sleek coats of words under which their skeletons, the generic narratives of meeting and mating, are almost painfully visible. I haven't been much, lately, for stories of falling in love, although I appreciate the touches of individuality, the way people gussy up their tales like 1st-graders decorating the coffee-can pencil holders they made for Mom.
There are other ways, other places, and other reasons to fall. Falling is what humans do. We drop from one kind of existence to another, plopping downward like Adam and Eve from the Garden, Ceasar from power, skydivers straight into their fears. We fall hard and fast; we skin our knees; we arrive.
Though maybe "arrive" is the wrong word. "Arrive" implies conscientious, or at least conscious, travel. You "arrive" after a deliberate, linear displacement of yourself from point A to point B. Joan Didion wrote a breath-snatching essay I read recently entitled On Going Home, but I wonder if she got it quite right. It's too simple, the idea that you can "go" home, that it's nothing more than a destination. Home has a violence to it, a wrenching suddenness that ought to be reflected in your verb.
So I've fallen home. The sky clued me in. I'm promiscuous with sky; I like to look up. I've toyed, in my time, with grey, low, wide, high, blue, green, lovely. But the sky at home is the only sky that's always and exactly the right color. This particular scattering of light, this particular searing arrangement of clouds: my slot in the universe, the right place to drop me.
Home is not as sexy as love. Its stories are smaller: slow accretions of time and memory. My father started to fall home the day he drove into town and saw the hills and told himself it would be OK. It took my mother 20 years: she kept thinking of California, the way the breeze would blow in off the Pacific in the late afternoon. Some people never fall home because they have none, because they've traded home in for something shinier and possessed of more horsepower: career trajectory, freedom, no-strings-attached.
I, on the other hand, am strung up. It happened so softly I didn't hear, so slowly I didn't budge. Somewhere between seven and eight or ten and twelve; somewhere between the kidneys and the lungs and my poor, besotted heart. I've never felt this way before, the song proclaims. Only I have, of course, and it's where I live.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
I sat in on a speech therapy session the other day. The therapist was working on multi-syllabic words and prepositions with a 10-year-old girl with Down's syndrome. The therapist played flashlight games and discovery games, dice games and glue-the-good-witch-to-the-construction-paper games. She also dispensed the following life lessons:
1) "Don't spit. You're a girl. Girls don't spit."
2) "Life is about making good choices."
The therapist's goal was short-term: get the ten-year-old to sit down, stop spitting, and start talking about who's behind (or under, or on top of) whom. But her rhetoric was long-term. Present tense, declarative, continuous: girls don't spit. Life is about making good choices. Her words struck me, at first, as slightly odd, eliciting the same gently-tingling wrongness as banging your funny bone on the coffee table. But the longer I sat there listening to locater phrases, the stranger her words seemed. Never mind speech therapy: the therapist had just handed her client the keys to womanly existence.
I've been looking for the keys to womanly existence for a while now, so imagine how thrilled I was to have them handed to me, looped neatly on a keyring, in the course of a single one-hour therapy session! I am not to spit, because girls don't. Do boys? The implication would seem to be yes, although it's not spelled out. OK, so boys spit and girls don't. Do girls have other options, or must we differentially, when confronted with the need to let fly, hold it in? Does femaleness correspond to restraint?
And making good choices. I'd been wondering about that. I mean, I've wasted so many hours trying to decide if I should be making bad choices! Should I head down to the Indy East Motel ($29.50; nightly police runs) after polishing off my Monster Thickburger? Ought I to depants civil servants? Must I not devote my evenings -and mornings, and afternoons- to interactive World of Warcraft?
These are the questions that haunt me in the smallest hours of the morning when the moon is low and the wind is high and the trains are howling. This is why I can't sleep; this is what keeps me up and cold and scared; this is what quakes in the pit of my stomach.
The therapist was, I should tell you, an excellent therapist. She was kind, calm, and quick on her feet: almost certainly better than I'll ever be. But still, tomorrow, I'm going to spit. Because girls don't. And life is about making good choices.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
The pleasures of reading are various. There's the lying down. There's the gratuitous snacking. There's the cracking open of yourself, like a window, to let in strange, new air. You relinquish control when you're reading; you live colorfully and precisely; you let someone else breathe for you. And all that's well and good. But it pales in comparison to the satisfaction -discrete yet boundless- of reading exactly the right words.
What do I mean by this? Certain authors have a way of selecting words so perfect, so intuitively right, they plug a hole in your mind you didn't even know existed. The right words complete you, round you out, stop the water from pouring through the dike.
This is one reason I'm a fan of Michael Chabon. Never mind the staggering plot; never mind the limping, one-eyed backstory. Michael Chabon says:
p. 202: "Still Grossman lived on, in his heated cage, escaping regularly, by means of various herpetological strategems, to prey on Irene's ragged tribe of chickens."
p. 191: "One of the things I'd always admired about Deborah was the unself-conscious scabrousness of her dealings with men in general and myself in particular."
P. 173: "James Leer had the kind of pallid and formless good looks that to a woman of Irene's age might bespeak illness, onanism, defective upbringing, or mental infirmity."
p. 138: "Irv saw no point in the discussion of human feelings. He was sad at funerals, proud of Israel, disappointed in his children, happy on the Fourth of July. He had no idea how crazy I was about him."
p. 129: "For me the act of marriage has proven, like most of the other disastrous acts of my life, little more than a hedge against any future lack of good material."
p. 93: "That had always been Crabtree's chosen genre -thinking his way into attractive disaster and then attempting to talk himself out."
The dirty truth of the matter is that reading exactly the right words is like being touched in exactly the right way. I'm afraid to extrapolate what this means for writing.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
I am a librarian magnet! I consider this one of my principal assets as a human being, although it certainly wasn't what I set out to become. I had the usual pre-teen visions of boy magnet-hood, and thereafter periods of yearning towards cheese magnet-hood, millions-of-dollars magnet-hood, and even, during a particularly dark time, tormented-poet magnet-hood. But I'm finally of an age now to know that things are better off as they are. Boy magnet-hood and librarian magnet-hood may, in fact, be mutually exclusive, and cheese magnet-hood has its own drawbacks. So I've more than made my peace with the fact that an egregious proportion of the people I love, the people with whom I'd be thrilled to be locked in a closet, are (or will be, or secretly want to be) librarians.
Of course, I secretly want to be a librarian, too. Librarians are enthusiastic yet unflappable, competent yet kind, meticulous and generous and possessed of bar-code scanners. Not to mention the access they have -delectably untrammeled- to The Good Stuff.
OK, so it's a little seamy. Librarians admit this. Librarians, for my birthday, slip me tracts entitled Book Lust and Ruined by Reading and even Book Lust 2: Derrida Does Dallas. Well, maybe not that last one, but librarians would approve of the exaggeration. Librarians are objectively in favor of subjectivity, subjectively in favor of objectivity, and deliciously resigned to their status as drooling, gibbering acolytes of the book.
Given librarians, who wouldn't read? A mind-boggling number of folks, that's who, at least according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts (pdf). The NEA's data on literary reading suggest that only 57% of American adults read a book for pleasure in the last year. That's ONE BOOK. Not even a paltry two, or four, or seven. Not even (assuming a sedate pace of one book a month) 12! I understand that people have jobs and lives and families, but that's no excuse: more adults ages 25-44 (the employed, family-encumbered adults) manage to read than do their counterparts ages 18-24.
Even more alarming, the figure is only 67% (and declining) for college graduates. And we're still talking only one book here. That's one novel, one collection of poetry, one play. Couldn't you at least get through Waiting for Godot on your lunch hour?
The report goes on to detail national declines in reading and writing skills. Coincidence? The NEA thinks not. This is troubling, but I'm even more troubled by the declines the NEA doesn't track. Because I have a sneaking, snotty, librarian-magnet suspicion that as we read less we become less selfless, less empathetic, less imaginative, and just plain less interesting. There's an old '60s injunction not to trust anyone over 30, but I have trouble trusting anyone who doesn't need their toes to count up how many books they've read in the past year. Readers, I'm firmly convinced, are premium-quality people.
As such, it's our duty to promote books, to advocate for reading, to recruit as many chumps as possible into our zombie army. It's war out there. And I, for one, am reporting to the library.
Friday, December 14, 2007
My friend lives in Winnemucca, NV. There's beauty in the name alone, but there's even more in the wide, dark pocket it opens in the mind. Winnemucca! What I know about the town -gleaned from scraps of conversation with my friend, who likes to give her words room to breathe- totals this: desert, rocks, government land. In other words, I know just enough to leap off the plane into the blue with Winnemucca strapped to my back. In Winnemucca, there are flat, dusty streets, white DNR trucks, drunken geologists. The drunken geologists hole up every weekend in the town's single bar, a white shotgun affair named, with no irony, the Alamo, where they drink Long Island ice teas and swap pictures of the wives the've stashed in Provo, Reno, or Carson City. It's four hours to the airport. No one recycles. Summers make you sneeze. Every December, the piano teacher (blind now ten years: cataracts) recruits her strongest, if not her best, students to haul her Baldwin upright onto a parade float. It'll be five or five thirty, under an iron sky; her hands will ache for days.
Last night my friend calls me to tell me she's leaving Winnemucca. I tell her about the story I've finished, how the piano turned out fine. In exchange she tells me about yesterday's Christmas parade and, although maybe the coincidence should surprise me, it doesn't. What can you do with a town like Winnemucca but add a parade?
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
To find anyone who'll talk about it, you have to turn to novelists. Martha Stewart never mentions it, Oprah's mum, and you'll never hear a peep from Dr. Phil. You can't find it in some sidebar in Glamour or Cosmopolitan, and even your friends aren't supposed to admit to it. Life in America is about moving up, on, and forward, and God help you if your preposition is facing the wrong way.
I'm talking, of course, about down and out, back and away. I'm talking about the part of you that rolls down the window in the middle of the snowstorm, the part of you that doesn't floss and goes out anyway and leaves the door one careful fingersbreadth ajar. I'm talking about self-destruction.
So is Michael Chabon:
Over the course of his life as a writer, he...had become his own doppelganger, a malignant shadow who lived in the mirrors and under the floorboards and behind the drapes of his own existence, haunting all of Q.'s personal relationships and all of his commerce with the world; a being unmoved by tragedy, unconcerned with the feelings of others, disinclined to any human business but surveillance and recollection. Only every once and a while...did his secret sharer act -overpowering his unwilling captor, so to speak, assuming his double's place long enough to say or do something unwise or reprehensible, and thus to ensure that human misfortune, the constant object of the Other Q.'s surveillance and the theme of all his recollections, continued unabated in Q.'s life. Otherwise, of course, there would be nothing to write about.
None of us wants to lay waste to ourselves, but still there's that urge -more of a throb, really- to set one toe to the ramshackle structures of who we are and...push. Many of us fail to recognize the urge for what it is, calling it sloth or mischief, lust or drunkenness or rage. Many of us go weeks, or even months, without feeling that particular pressure behind the eyes, the itch at the back of the neck.
But then it's back, pink and virulent and raw. In high school, in college, -even in graduate school- I would deliberately delay studying for exams until the last possible moment, until it was unavoidable that I would be underprepared. Then, after an excellent night's sleep, I'd shuffle into the exam room, head bowed, eyes lowered, thrilled to the quick.
There are the job interviews I've faked, the concerts I've given on two rehearsals or less, the pleasure I've taken -compact, visceral- in saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. I like to look cursorily at maps. I like to lose directions. I like, when I know the way, to wander off onto a side street and think: I bet I can get there from here.
Is any of this good for me? Probably not. But it's kinda fun. And I'll let you come with me if you want.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Writing in a vacuum...sucks. In an attempt to avoid vacuumousness (vacuity?) I'm sporadically posting in-process poetry and fiction on a shadow, password-protected blog (see sidebar). If you're willing to tender the occasional constructive criticism (e.g., I don't understand this; strengthen here; what the fuck was that), send me your email and I'll consent you. If not, ignore it. And if you want anything comparable in return, I love to edit.
Monday, December 10, 2007
So Alex Ross, music critic and blogger, recently posted an obit on Stockhausen passed on to him by a young composer whom I'm fairly certain is the first college boyfriend of my best friend from high school There's something very hyper-textual about this. It makes me feel a bit like my life is nothing more than a concatenation of links, something to be navigated through. It also makes me wonder about the Internet, and what's it's doing to, among other things, our sense of self.
Doesn't everything seems to be loosening? In literature we're slinking away from concrete, forward-driving narratives toward conglomerations of elements; away from straightforward representational relationships toward relations of resonance and proximity. Meanwhile Cognitive Psychology is presiding over the waning of the theory of Information Processing (the mind as series of connected operations, kind of like a digestive system, through which information passes) and the waxing of Connectionism (the mind as a series of dynamically weighted connections). Even popular movies are becoming nexuses of external reference: I don't think it's an accident that the latest Disney film is, essentially, a pastiche of that company's previous work.
My semi-senior year in college, I convinced a hapless music theory professor to let me do a private reading on cross-modal translation. Cross-modal translation was this crackpot idea I had about translating works of art into different modalities: paintings into music, for example, or music into writing. I had in mind works like Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, and I was after more than "inspiration." If you wanted to translate art cross-modally, how would you do it? What kind of correspondences could you achieve, and were there underlying cognitive structures you could hold constant across modes?
Unfortunately for cross-modal translation, I was a) busy b) lazy and c) insane, so I didn't get very far. I did, though, manage to read Lakoff and Johnson's classic book on symbolism, Metaphors we Live by. Lakoff, a linguist, and Johnson, a philosopher, argue that metaphor arises experientially, shaped as we move through the physical world and shaping, in turn, our interpretation of non-physical events (you should really read them, not me).
I think Lakoff and Johnson could benefit from a bracing dip in the pool of empiricism, but the non-revolutionary underpinning here is the assertion that experience shapes cognition, and I'll buy that any day. Given, then, that so much of my (of our) experience is now Internet-based, I have to wonder what it's doing to my (our) mind(s). Someone's probably out there doing research, and I can't wait to see it.
In the meantime, though, clicking through:
The composer ex-boyfriend of my best friend from high school was a conflicted Catholic who liked to interrupt episodes of making out to perch on the edge of the bed and plumb his guilt. He had a pianist friend with very blue eyes who had another pianist friend who once stepped on my foot in fifth grade, fracturing the fifth metacarpal of my left hand. I once tried to write a note to someone with the left, or sinister, hand, only to discover that communication depended not only on the mind, but on the right half of the body. My friend broke up with the composer but not, at least for a year or two, with the Catholic church. Every Sunday she'd drive one-and-a-half hours north to a church that said Latin mass. I stayed behind, depressing key after key in search of the bluest, the leftmost, most sinister noise.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
There's something singularly pleasurable about getting smacked upside the head with a new idea. When I started reading A Death in the Family (NYT, 12/2), an article about a former governor of Washington campaigning for the right to die, I thought I had an excellent grasp of the issue. I've long been gung-ho about the right to die: as articulated by Booth Gardner, the former governor diagnosed with Parkinson's, "my life, my death, my control." The idea of someone else laying claim to control of my body -or any woman's body- be it via anti-abortion legislation, opposition to assisted suicide, or domestic abuse, made (and still makes) me apoplectic.
(Think back to when you were three. How frustrating was it that adults, if they so desired, could pick you up and bodily remove you from the merry-go-round or the cookie jar or wherever else it was you wanted to be? How agonizing was it that all or your routines -eating, napping, pretending to be a three-legged woodchuck- were predicated on someone else's schedule? An ex-boyfriend once told me a story about how, in Kindergarten, he stood up on top of his desk and exhorted his classmates to mutiny. "There's nineteen of us and only one of her!" he declared before the Kindergarten teacher hauled him from the room. Apparently he hadn't accounted for the fact that, even though there was only one of her, she was a whole lot bigger.)
But then there's Susan Wolf. As reported in A Death in the Family, Susan Wolf, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Minnesota, argues that legalizing assisted suicide is inherently problematic for women and minorities. Women and minorities, according to Wolf, receive subtle social signals about their value that render them vulnerable to unconscious pressure on the part of their -frequently male- doctors.
If women are expected, above all, to care for others, for children, parents, husbands, she asked, aren’t they particularly likely to view their own lives as without value when they become so sick or disabled that they are the ones who must be cared for? Might they be especially likely, at that point, to see themselves as burdens and, if assisted suicide were legal, to request that their deaths come right away?
Wolf marshals some moderately dubious statistics and then breaks out her big gun: human irrationality.
Even while we debate physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia rationally, we may be animated by unacknowledged images that give the practices a certain gendered logic.
We human beings, according to Wolf, are not, and will never be, our own masters, and to pretend otherwise is to invite repercussions. Moreover, the degree to which we lack autonomy varies from person to person and from group to group, thereby opening the door to overt and covert discrimination.
(I'm not sure I buy this argument, but DAMN it feels good to get blindsided every now and then. If you know everything there is to know about life, why bother living?)
Coincidentally, I've been reading Joan Didion's 1972 essay on the Women's Movement. Didion rails bitterly against the movement's construction of a passive, put-upon everywoman, "everyone's victim but her own:"
She was persecuted by her gynecologist, who made her beg in vain for contraceptives. She particularly needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date, raped by her husband, and raped finally on the abortionist's table...she was so intimidated by cosmetics advertising that she would sleep "huge portions" of her day in order to forestall wrinkling, and when awake she was enslaved by detergent commercials on television...To ask the obvious -why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set...was to join this argument at its own spooky level...nobody forces women to buy the package.
In Didion's view, women are trading autonomy for victimhood, refusing to acknowledge what control they do have over themselves and their lives. One gets the sense that Didion wants women to stop whining, suck it up, and take charge; that for women to lay the blame for the shape of there lives at the feet of anyone but themselves is in itself an act of disempowerment. The Women's Movement, by this logic, insofar as it encourages anyone to believe she is not her own mistress, is carrying women backward.
So which is it? Are we, or are we not, in charge of ourselves? It's scary to believe we aren't, but it's in many ways scarier to believe we are. Either way I need a cookie.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, the genesis for the carol "Bethlehem Down," composed by Bruce Blunt and Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock), was "somewhat undignified." Blunt describes the collaboration:
In December 1927 we were both extremely hard up, and in the hopes of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol which should be published in a daily paper. So, walking on a moonlit night between The Plough at Bishop's Sutton and The Anchor at Ropley, I thought of the words of "Bethlehem Down." I sent them off to Philip in London, the carol was completed in a few days and was published (words and music) in the Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves "Carols Consolidated."
I suppose I ought to discourse intelligently about this quote, but really I just like it. There are worse things in life than lack of dignity and an immortal carouse.
Monday, December 3, 2007
Ever since the Baroque era, when words donned black leather and started smacking music around, text has been an important, if problematic, element of composition. Smart composers attach themselves, lamprey-like, to good poets. Stupid composers find bad poets. And stupider composers make up the words themselves.
The twenty-first century being the age of individualism, it's this latter category that's exploding. You're not just supposed to compose anymore; you're supposed to create. And as a creator, by golly, your text damn well ought to be an expression of your soul. Hence zombie armies of pop songs with catchy tunes and lyrics reminiscent of the poetry I wrote when I was thirteen. Hence the I-can't-even-tell-you-how-many student compositions I've listened to -some quite aurally interesting- with titles like "I Will Always Love You," "Black Darkness," or my personal favorite, "Tears of Blood."
"Tears of Blood" was an orchestral triptych written by a wiry, shaggy-haired undergraduate composition major whose notebook I once accidentally stole. He served as a keyboard monitor for lower-division theory classes and had a way of staring fixedly out the window as you slogged your way through some swamp of a progression toward the Neapolitan six. Seven or eight years later I don't remember his name, yet I'm still haunted by the urge to take him aside, grab his shoulders, and hiss that he needs to outsource. Outsource, please, for the love of God!
Then I catch myself. What if everyone did outsource? What would be the result if composers only composed, if poets only wrote poetry, if everyone was afraid to budge an inch beyond their training? Why, perhaps the kind of stultified, stratified approach to art that characterizes too much of academia today. If we are only specialists, if we never explore, if we lack the freedom to write truly horrendous poetry, then we've dammed creativity. Sure, we can canoe and fish and launch paper boats on our handy man-made lake, but we've lost the capacity to be overrun, to be flooded, to capsize ourselves and come up swimming.
For a brief period, in college, I accidentally became a member of a collective of creative types who would get together every Sunday for the purpose of "inviting" art. I'd been asked to join by a friend of a friend; there were two composers, one cellist, a painter, a belly dancer, a poet, and me. In practice, "inviting" art mostly consisted of sitting around the group leader's house munching vegan goodies, but every now and then someone would suggest that we all hop on one foot for fifteen minutes, or close our eyes and hum.
Eventually I decided the group would be better off without me: I had trouble keeping a straight face through any given session and I lusted for cheese. Pleading factitious overcommitment, I bowed out. Yet, bemused as I'd been, there was something in that group I'd responded to. Some idea that art is everywhere, like air, that it ravages limits and overgrows disciplinary boundaries. That all you have to do is hop on one foot and art will happen to you.
Bring on the bloody tears.