31 July 2011

Stay overs

A recent study reported in Jezebel (http://jezebel.com/5826180/these-kids-today-sure-do-love-their-stayover-relationships) defines a new type of relationship: the stay over. Couples in the stay-over relationships spend most night together but maintain separate residences. Tyler Jamison of the University of Missouri has been studying this trend, especially among people in their 20s.  “This seems to be a pretty stable and convenient middle ground between casual dating and more formal commitments like living together and getting married,” she says in an article in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Jamison suggests that this type of relationship postpones making a commitment to a more permanent relationship while each partner pursues other educational or occupational goals. This situation reminds me of the posited existence of what was referred to a number of years ago as the Peter Pan complex: a condition particular to males who refused to grow up and who therefore, would not commit themselves to a serious relationship. At the time this complex was ascribed mostly to men, but it seems to have now spread to females as well, albeit under a different name.
Of course, I am not certain that this type of relationship is at all new: I cannot help thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir whose long term relationship seemed to be of the stay over variety, though I think they might have defined their motives differently. I do not think theirs was an isolated case. But if I were a sociologist I would be interested in studying the connection between what is termed the greater occurrences of the stay-over relationship and the ubiquitous use of mobile devices and the social media device, Facebook. I believe that the definition of relationship is changed by the availability of these media.
It is a rare sight to see a person in their thirties or younger without a cell phone in hand; and it has become veritably impossible to find such a person failing to regularly check the device for incoming text messages. Having received such a message, the person responds to it immediately regardless of the activity in which s/he happens to me immediately engaged and despite the company with whom he/she might be with at the moment. People text constantly, and I think it is a means of remaining distracted and not having to engage in the immediate. All uncomfortable situations are alleviated by the availability of texting: one can easily disappear from the contemporaneous by texting the remote. I know: I have two daughters in their twenties and teens. Lately, they are never fully present, they are always talking to someone else. Texting, the gerund, is a ubiquitous practice: even movie theaters request that viewers refrain from texting during the movie!! The practice suggests that those engaged in it are never wholly present: they are always somewhere else and in the company of another who is not here. At best, engaged in texting they are distracted; it is not who they are with that is central but who else with they could be talking. Attention cannot be paid because they are always not wholly present to attend, and engaged in texting such individuals communicate to those immediately about them how only partially and temporarily available they presently are. Much conversation and potential intimacy may be avoided by such practices.
Now, over my years I have noticed that conversation amongst friends and acquaintances takes place in a certain pattern, or rhythm. Usually such exchanges begin with some small, casual talk and they move smoothly, almost organically into discussions of more serious and intimate matters. Talk about the especially uncomfortable weather turns to talk and analysis of the uncomfortable political situation that transforms into conversation about the difficulties and complexities of relationships and self. Intimacies deepen. The intensities of such conversation require some respite, and then, perhaps with a joke or casual remark of self-deprecation, the conversation floats with some relief back to the surface, , and the pattern begins again. But on Facebook individuals engage in all of the small talk that precedes and opens the way for more serious and intimate conversation, and therefore, when people meet, there is no news to tell you, Horatio, and conversation never quite begins. The ubiquity of Facebook, now also accessible on mobile devices, means that all small talk may take place without personal contact; there exists nothing to ease the way to more intimate conversation. Each individual texts someone else to fill the uncomfortable silence produced from having nothing to report. I mean, even therapy sessions begin “Well, what is going on?” But Facebook means that everyone always knows what is going on and there is nothing new to report. No place to begin.
The stay-over relationship appears part of this movement away from intimacy and presence. Such arrangement seems not about deciding where to be but about where else to be.

27 July 2011

On Beauty, A Preface

Images of beauty represent the time; beauty is not an absolute value but a relative judgment.  A cliché, I know. What counts as the beautiful in any age reflects the values of the culture in which that beauty materializes. Or at least, what is deemed beautiful reflects the values of those with the powers and means to enact their sense of the beautiful. Well, another cliché, I think. I don’t know what is beautiful but I do know what it is that I find beautiful, and I can define for myself and for others the criteria I use for that judgment. Too often, of course, I accede to the aesthetic values of the world of Hollywood and the media: I learn what is beautiful when they show it to me. I look at the catalogs and advertisements to discover what I must do and wear to appear well, beautiful. When I try to think outside the box I am not certain if it is me that is in the box out of which I am to look, in which case the world is seen from my position in the box, or if I am meant to consider a world that isn’t boxlike though it must clearly consist of the same lines that formed the box. It’s like Dylan sings, “When I was in Missouri/
They would not let me be
/I had to leave there in a hurry/
I only saw what they let me see.” I cannot imagine what I have never seen. 
One of the contemporary images of beauty these days appears as the scruffy facial hair on men. To my mind, mostly these men look like they are badly in need of a shave, but in fact, in frame after frame and scene after scene they show no evidence of having shaved, nor does it seem that their facial hair growth is intended to eventually grow into a full beard. Their unkempt look is decidedly a groomed one. For almost forty years I have worn a beard, and occasionally I trim it with a successive pair of beard scissors that are constantly disappearing. And when I have my hair styled (!) I have my beard trimmed as well. I have learned to look kempt. 
Screening Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a rather clichéd look at the anomie of the privileged, about whom I should not care and for whom I have much contempt (read jealousy) and offer no sympathy, I was struck by how unbeautiful I find this look. Steven Dorff, playing the superrich. privileged actor, Johnny Marco, wears this scruffy facial look. And I considered how much great care and attention had to be paid in order to maintain this appearance of messiness. I see that look everywhere in the media and now out in the streets, and it reminds me how the middle and upper classes appropriated dungarees from the working class, and how this appropriation transformed what were essentially work clothes into very expensive fashion that few of the working class could afford. So with the look of manicured grunge: it’s a fake. I think that most working men going out to their jobs find no need or time to daily shave and groom; neither need they attire themselves in expensive and fancy clothing. I think that the majority of workers mostly and tiredly pull themselves together, grab an instant breakfast, and then head out to a full day’s rigorous labor for which they are mostly not well compensated. Most live lives of quiet desperation. These workers wear jeans or inexpensive chinos to their jobs: if they engage in physical labor they probably wear t-shirts during the summer months and flannel during the winters, and if they are office workers they don mostly sport and polo shirts but rarely sport coats. Johnny Marco appropriates the beaten look of the worker to stand out in the world. The fabulously wealthy Marco wears stained and tattered t-shirts in all but one scene; there dressed in a tuxedo he accepts an award for some acting accomplishment that will not be known because the ceremony takes place in Italy and in Italian, a language that neither Marco nor most of the film’s audience understand. Grunge is his fashion statement, though his living arrangements speak the lie to his shabbiness. He appears a mess though he lives a life of remarkable, almost obscene luxury: he never once puts his hand into his pocket to pay for anything in his life of conspicuous consumption: everything seems to come to him gratis; and without ever having to soil his hands in effort and without ever having to touch filthy lucre in payment for anything as he marches shabbily through the world. He looks like a derelict, and he pays for nothing and lives like royalty. He is a fake. He is the opposite of beauty. 
So with the carefully manicured unshaven look on the faces of too many men. It is an attempt at beauty that in fact misrepresents reality and that denies the essential nature of beauty, the latter which will be a topic further considered on this blog.

26 July 2011

Too Early, Early in the Morning

I act from an interminable number of decisions I make each day, though often, I think, I am not consciously aware that I have actually made a decision. In circumstances I have not wholly constructed, I act, and though I have learned to assume responsibility, indeed, sometimes even take pride in that assumption, I also recognize that such pride results from a very limited perspective.  I acknowledge readily and regretfully—or is this admission just an excuse for the many errors I have made—that to ascribe complete knowledge is a fiction. Marx said that the traditions of all past dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain. Stephen Dedalus says that history is a nightmare from which he is attempting to awaken, and my dearest friend describes the present as a nightmare. What might be so frightening about nightmares is that in them I lack any semblance of control over my behavior; in my nightmares I am always threatened with dissolution. Perhaps nightmares derive from the fear of lack of control that the nightmares enact. Last night I dreamed that every time I stood up to assume my role there was already someone standing in my place. In my nightmare I was reduced to silence and helplessness. My nightmares arise out of my greatest fear: that I am out of control. But perhaps the whole belief that I am ever in control is the fiction. When Montaigne says that “I find myself more by chance encounter than by searching my judgment” I think I know what he means. I live a great deal in illusion. 
My current situation is the result of a history of which I am not fully aware, and over which certainly I have had only marginal control.  I go to therapy to narrate that history and ascribe to it causality. In my sessions I offer up my history by writing a past, inscribing my self in that history. It is a nice fiction. Though actively imagining a past, it is really the future with which I am concerned. I require a particular past so I can change direction from it. I need a past so that I can keep on keeping on. Perhaps it is all a fiction: even my changes are partly a result of conditions not of my choosing. If they change the rules, then I either follow the variation or suffer the consequences. There are almost always pieces of the puzzle missing, and I don’t even know what the picture is supposed to look like. When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what would I be, and she answered, what will be will be. Qué sera, sera. Perhaps the sublime is a respite from history though what brings me to the sublime moment is always history.

22 July 2011

On Happiness

One of the characters in Denys Arcand’s 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire suggests that one sign of the decline of an empire can be observed in the increasing focus on the pursuit of personal happiness evident in the general population. In the film, that happiness occurs for both the men in sexual activity, marital and extramarital, in partaking of fine foods and wine, and physical exercise and attention to body image. These are intellectuals bored by their students, fairly inactive in the production of new knowledge, and self-absorbed in their quest for a happiness that seems to equate to some sensual pleasure. They are never truly happy unless they are engaged in sensory and/or carnal activity.
It is a cliché that many of us want for our children to be happy even more than we desire happiness for ourselves, and I am fairly certain that I can define what it is I want for my children. When I say I want them to be happy, I refer to an attainment of some degree of personal happiness. And it is for this quest for happiness that I hope I have prepared them. But I wonder what I expect them to be like when they are happy! I think I believe that I am a member of that community of questers who cling irrationally to the reality of the golden ring despite actually having early learned along with Holden Caulfield, that you can’t prevent anyone from falling off the carousel horse when they reach for that ring. I think I teach this conflicted vision. If the meaning of that golden ring seems to be defined by a notion of material happiness—when you catch that prize-ring you receive some physical reward, then Holden acknowledges that you can’t stop anyone from reaching for that ring even at the risk of falling and getting hurt, sometimes seriously. Finally, Holden accepts that he can’t be the catcher in the rye preventing innocent children from falling off the cliff into adulthood, the latter characterized by phoniness, and ipso facto, unhappiness. His hope for Phoebe appears hopeless. Thoreau realized happiness despite what he termed the meanness of his life. I think he didn’t even believe in golden rings.
I think about happiness often myself, and I wonder of what it might consist. It cannot be a constant state or else it would be unrecognizable; I know happiness in part by its absence, and it strikes me that happiness is not a state in which I would permanently reside but rather one to which I aspire to realize. It is the process of my activity and not its product. Happiness is what I seek, but once attained it soon vanishes; the carousel continues on and I reach for the next brass ring. If I refrain from grasping, then I have to enjoy the ride itself. The rabbis say that I need not finish the task but I am not permitted to forgo it. And the question becomes: what is the task? What else might I do on the carousel but reach for the golden ring? If it were merely the attainment of the golden ring then the carousel ride ought to cease when I reach it, but the carousel continues on. If the ring is so easily acquired, then it lacks value. Clearly, the task ought to be interminable if the Rabbis agree I am not obligated to finish it. And if the achievement of the golden ring is the ultimate pursuit of happiness, then do I feel justified to do whatever is necessary to attain it?  Perhaps it is this privilege that suggests the decline of the empire. There is no question that for the past century and more America has aspired to empire. And reading the newspapers I can see that we are certainly in decline!
But finally, I think, to live by such a philosophy of pleasure seeking seems to stand in a contemporarily blind epicureanism. If the epicureans believed that the soul will be fulfilled by indulging the body, then today our pleasures are bodily sought in the absence of concern for our souls.
But if the task to which I aspire is something else, then I wonder what it might exactly be. Would it be the pursuit of the opposite of happiness, in which case we seek misery? But that would be too depressing to consider. What about a stoicism, a tolerant immunity to all emotions? Thus, I seek to avoid happiness and sadness, joy and grief. I would seek a certain balance, but I can’t imagine what that might feel like: not a numbness but a certain detachment that might appear to be a form of deadness. It seems to me that the energy required to maintain such emotional composure would entail an enormous output of energy better used for engaging in life. I personally prefer to leak.
If the pursuit of happiness is a sign of decline, then I suppose to attain it would be a form of defilement. Instead,  I prefer to consider that happiness occurs in the pursuit of something and not in its attainment, in which case I am happy when I am active even though not only do I never actually acquire the golden ring, but I often fall off the horse in my attempt to reach it. I hurt myself. Usually, I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. When I am lucky. Perhaps I realize happiness only in what I do and not what I attain. Happiness is the pursuit and not the accomplishment, the latter merely a by-product of the former and only ephemerally, briefly rewarding and disappointingly forever gone.
I am always suspicious of people who tell me ‘they are great,’ and ‘things couldn’t be better.’ This never accords with my understanding of the world. There is a certain blindness to which I ascribe this stance. Just reading the daily news ought to darken their spirits: things are certainly breaking up out there, and to assert such exuberance seems rather self-absorbedly blind. And I am also suspicious of those who have ceased to struggle and who pursue with quiet desperation their daily lives. The sequel to The Decline of the American Empire was the 2003 film, The Barbarian Invasions. This time the same group of friends gather to say good-bye to their dying friend. It is a touching farewell, not least because they each have come to understand the futility of their quest for happiness, and realize now how they lack the energy to redirect their lives. I think they live lives of quiet desperation.  The state of the world saddens me, but I am happy when I am engaged in its repair, though the work is difficult, never-ending, and even sometimes sordid. I need not complete the task, but neither am I permitted to forgo it. I am happy for that.

20 July 2011

Many moments in the sun

I’ve been reading the new John Sayles novel Moment in the Sun. It is a very big novel—a hefty 984 thick pages. With this book I sit up in bed else it crush my chest.

I have followed Sayles’ career since his film Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), and in the early 1980s I taught his novel Union Dues. An incident from that novel became a central event in his film Matewan, an account of the West Virginia coal mine union struggles during the 1920s. I understand a thematic strain in this book will be released as a film this August. I have screened Sayles’ other films regularly over the years, and have always taken great pleasure in them, and so when I passed Magers and Quinn, Booksellers, and saw a sign that said John Sayles had been there for a book reading, I marched in and asked for the new John Sayles novel. “Right behind you,” the clerk told me. I lifted the book, requiring two hands to accomplish the feat, and I experience a moment of great doubt, but I was too embarrassed to say “Oh, no, that’s too long,” and place it back on the shelf. I bought it, dear reader.

Moment in the Sun is an historical novel that explores events at the turn of the American 19th century, and especially the Spanish American War during which Cuba and the Philippines were liberated from the Spanish and when America’s quest for empire seems to have begun. I think the novel (I’m not done with it yet, of course) explores the state of the United States at the turn of the century, a moment when Sayles situates the issues that will identify the United States throughout the twentieth century and into the next through a wide cast of characters and locations. There are many issues depicted in this 984 page novel.

And I am thinking that reading such a novel requires a real sense commitment. Since I do not spend my entire day reading it, the novel has become a summer project: I carry it with me (heavily) everywhere I go—and though it is now almost the end of July and I am a month into the project, I am but half way through. By now, I would have read two or three novels, and yet I am not ready to even consider another read. I read other books—Montaigne, of course, and Lewis Mumford and a biography of Harold Rugg and the culture wars of the 1920s and 30s—but I refrain from picking up another novel. I do not want to engage in another world when there is so much in this one to experience. I still visit book stores and browse the shelves and see many books that interest me, but I pass them by. “I am reading Moment in the Sun,” I say to myself, mostly in delight and dedication but somewhat in resignation. And who knows what mood I may be in when I finish the novel and am ready to choose another.

The commitment? To live in the world of this novel over a very long period of time. To meet no new characters but those the author presents here. To devote myself to this singular vision for a very long time and to have it focus the world in which I live. Of course, I have before read long novels, Moby Dick and Ulysses most recently. But each of them was really only half the length of Moment in the Sun. If it were a movie it would require ten or fifteen hours to depict. Indeed, once I spent almost eight hours in a theater screening a film version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It began at 8:00pm and concluded at 4:00am with a champagne intermission at midnight. I admit to falling asleep during too much of the peace. Moment in the Sun is two-thirds as long.

It is not a difficult read, mostly plot driven, about a period of time with which I have limited familiarity. I am learning a great deal, but the characters are mostly flat; they are actors in their time, and they have their roles to play. Events control them. They lack complexity. Sometimes I grow quite bored with them. I can see the cinema in the novel, but alas, the popcorn would be just too much added weight.

17 July 2011

Bibbety, bobbety, and Boo!

At the stroke of midnight Cinderella’s fantasy ended: her dress turned back to rags, her carriage became pumpkin, and the team of white horses transformed back into rats. At least that is how Disney portrayed the fate of the young girl who didn’t make it home by her curfew. The non-Disney original story happens along similar plot lines, though the particulars might not include mice, pumpkins and bibbity-bobbety-boo.
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Gil Bender’s fantasy begins at the stroke of midnight and is accompanied not by a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand but by the music of Cole Porter. As Gil sits alone on a picturesque set of steps in Paris having refused to go dancing with his fiancé so that he can think about his novle-in-process by imbibing the romantic streets of Paris, the bells ring at midnight and a stylish roadster stops before him, invites him in, and escorts him to the night life of Paris during the 1920s. In the car are Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and the party to which he is driven is attended by Ernest Hemingway toting his favorite bull-fighter, Belmonte, and spouting aphoristic sentences regarding courage, manhood, grace under pressure and death. Playing the piano is Cole Porter. Gil has found the romantic Paris of his dreams.

In actuality, Gil is a rather successful Hollywood screen play writer who idolizes the Paris of the 1920s when the city was populated by the international expatriate community (Joyce and T.E. Eliot from England and Picasso from Spain and the usual list of suspects from the United States.) Paris in the 1920s—midnight in Paris—was the authentic environment in which artists flourished. It is this Paris for which Gil longs. And every night at midnight in Paris Gil returns to the stgeps and at the stroke of the bells the car picks Gil up and transports him into the night life of artisitic and bohemian Paris. One night Gil accompanies Hemingway to 23 Rue de Fleuris, the home of Gertrude Stein, who agrees to read and critique the novel Gil has been writing. Gil means to be more than what he refers to as a Hollywood hack. He would join the pantheon of his heroes. And fantastically, Stein offers some suggestions and even gives the novel to Hemingway who also will make cogent and helpful comments.
At Stein’s Gil meets Picasso and his most recent lover, Adriana, whom Picasso is soon to abandon. Gil and she fall in love, even though in the present Gil is engaged to a rather uninteresting but fabulously wealthy woman whose father is a Tea Party Republican who considers Gil a communist. The course of their relationship has a somewhat greater complexity but never rises too far above the mundane and hackneyed. For Adriana, however, the magical Paris occurred in the 1890s when Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and Degas lived and worked., and on one of their walks through Paris at midnight she takes him into Maxim’s where these great artists are meeting, and she invites Gil to stay with her there and then; but for Gil his Paris occurs later.

Yes, the film is meant to be a fantasy, but it is not a very good one after all. Actually, I found it annoying at best. Finally, its rather clichéd insight—that we hold in our imaginations a fantasy of a Golden Age when we might have better flourished—in this case Paris of the 1920s or the 1890s—is contradicted by the very end of the film when Gil achieves his fantasy of Paris in the 1920s in the present twenty first century. At film’s end, having broken his engagement to Inez and made the decision to stay in Paris and work on his novel, Gil wanders the Paris streets again at night. On a bridge crossing the Seine, a beautiful young woman (who to my mind looked very much like a young Mia Farrow) calls to him familiarly: they had earlier met at a French street market where amongst other pieces of nostalgia, Cole Porter vinyl records were for sale. They turn about to walk together and rain begins to fall, but both agree that walking in Paris at night in the rain is their favorite time to be out in the City. The present transforms into Gil’s nostalgic fantasy.

Gil’s novel actually concerns a man who owns a nostalgia shop: in the film Hemingway will offer his low opinion of nostalgia, and I have often enough described nostalgia a longing for a feeling or emotion that never occurred. Midnight in Paris is, however, awash in nostalgia, but never does the film reveal the falseness of it. If the great insight of this film is that the present is all we’ve got and everything else is mere fantasy and romantic nonsense, then this film doesn’t distance itself from the idealized portrait of Paris of either the 1920s or the 1890s. One instance of this blindness occurs when Gertrude Stein offers to buy a painting—I think it was one by Matisse—for 500 francs. Gil acknowledges that this is a great bargain, given what he knows of the value of such work in 2011. In fact, those artists were not successful in the 1920s, and often suffered poverty and hunger. Stein bought their paintings before they were recognized as ‘ great artists,’ and it was often her monies that kept them alive. For the film these were wonderful times peopled by artists who have since become cliché , but the film portrays them romantically behaving exactly as the legends of Paris in the 1920 suggests: staying up all night drinking, talking of art, partying. There is no irony in the film, and in the end, we expect that Gil will settle in Paris with his new bohemian girl friend, and based on the critiques of Stein and Hemingway, will finally finish his novel, publish it and become the artist he idealizes. This Cinderella will never leave the ball.

The struggle and pain of artistic production is better served in Vicky, Victoria and Barcelona. Midnight in Paris is a lot of bibbety and bobbety and a lot of boo!

15 July 2011


Another one of our cats died last evening. Tiger was seventeen years old, a rather advanced age for a feline. And he had during his entire life been not well. He had found his way to our home when he was approximately one year old; he appeared on our front doorstep and cried out of hunger and fear, I think. Something about him didn’t look right: his legs were incredibly short and we couldn’t see his eyes set back in their sockets. And they were crusted over with pus; he smelled badly. But we gave him milk and a little food, vowing not to allow him into the house. Our resolve lasted about three days, and then we opened the front door for the stray who became Tiger.

We took him to the veterinarian who volunteered to attempt some repair on his eyes gratis, and we assured her that regardless of her success we would care for Tiger. In the end she was only marginally successful and for his entire life Tiger saw the world only through the thick, crusty screen that covered his eyes. Daily we would attempt to wipe the film clear, but soon his eyes would become caked again. I am certain that Tiger never got to see the world clearly; the condition of his eyes and abnormally shortened legs kept him close to home. In the warmer weather he might sit in the sun on the porch, but he did never venture too far into the yard, and he chased no birds, mice or moles.

Tiger was always a bit ornery: he did not get along well with the other cats and they tended to keep their distance. Keeping pretty much to himself, he was content enough given his disabilities. He was fed regularly, had a warm bed, and sometimes—though rarely—a lap on which to rest. He would sit at the base of the chair and squint up to identify who sat in the chair, and then with some effort he would jump up on my lap and ask to be petted by rubbing his jowls under my chin. The crust about his eyes smelled foully, but for a while I would accommodate him. He grew very heavy.
But when our daughter acquired kittens, and they longed for family, Tiger assumed that responsibility. He would clean the two of them, and they would occasionally groom him as well. The three of them occupied my favorite chair; I sought other rest. Tiger had purpose.

But over the past few months I noticed that he had slowed down dramatically, and yesterday I realized that I had not seen him in the public space for awhile; I went searching for him last evening at dinnertime, and I found him crawled into the too-small pet-carry case. I reached in and scratched his head, and he looked blindly up and cried three times; I think I understood. During the night he died where I had left him.

Dying is such a lonely affair.

13 July 2011

More of the Ludicrous

I read in the 11 July 2011 afternoon on-line edition of the Washington Post that a Post journalist who was on the scene (!) confirmed that the first lady, whose concerns with childhood obesity and nutrition has remained front page news and has had significant, positive effect on the content of school lunch programs, “ordered a ShackBurger, fries, chocolate shake and a Diet Coke.” The journalist noted that “according to nutritional information on Shake Shack’s Web site, the meal amounted to 1,556 calories.” There was no mention in the article if the journalist had anything to eat. Or exactly why the journalist was “on the scene.” Are journalists now a new legitimized version of the paparazzi, deemed respectable if they are attached to mainstream journalistic outlets? Where are the standards for reporters and their stories? Apparently said journalist also had the bylineNatalie Jennings. If this is what editors fill their columns with these days, then really of what value are the newspapers? Is this really what journalism has become in our twenty-first century? This is investigative reporting? This is research?

Thoreau was not an admirer of the newspaper. He writes: “I repeat the testimony of many an intelligent foreigner, as well as my own convictions, when I say that probably no country was ever ruled by so mean a class of tyrants as, with a few noble exceptions, are the editors of the periodical press in this country. And as they live and rule only by their servility, and appealing to the worst, and not the better nature of man, the people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit.” The number of exceptions today has shrunk dishearteningly low.
I do not need to defend Michelle Obama. I would hate to think of her as flawless, and I have no doubt she acts no more nor less contradictory than the rest of us. I am sure despite her singular dietary lapse she has much of which to be proud, and the children of the nation are certainly better for her advocacy of them. So what if she indulged herself and exceeded her daily regimen of caloric intake? This is news? This warrants space in a newspaper? How? Why? Who makes this ludicrous decision? That someone needs to spend his/her time following Michelle Obama about and researching the calorie content of her meal speaks of (and to) a society astonishingly shallow and remarkably mindless.

More signs of the times: The Wisconsin primary election today in my district has been complicated by the addition to the Democratic ballot of Isaac Weix, a self-professed Conservative Republican. His presence on the ballot in an open primary is intended to draw votes away from the legitimate Democratic candidate, Shelley Moore, in her contest to unseat the Republican State Senator Sheila Harsdorf whose vote for the Budget Repair Bill here in Wisconsin reversed decades of the rights of labor to negotiate their salaries and working conditions. The budget passed by the Republican legislature has hurt everyone in the state of Wisconsin except the wealthy and privileged. And the Republicans campaign on the premise that only they can save the democratic system. Ha! Their tactics make a mockery of the democratic ideal.

These are the same Republicans who this morning announced through John Boehner that they would never support an economic plan that would place higher taxes on the people creating jobs. In fact, no body is creating jobs these days, and I haven’t read anywhere that the CEOs of any company has taken a pay cut that at all disturbs her/his privileged lifestyle, though I am aware that the monies that saved their companies from collapse have now made possible record profits and huge bonuses. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to know that taxing the people who have the money that they acquired through the labors of others seems a more equitable means than taxing the people who don’t have the money at all and have no means to acquire any since the people that have the money aren’t hiring those who don’t because the former want to protect the margin of profit that affords them their sense of privilege. Of course, if one were a rocket scientist, s/he might no longer be employed because the space program has been to some extent privatized. I think that is a Republican strategy. It is how they also plan to eliminate public education.

12 July 2011

On Cats and Squirrels and Red Wheelbarrows

Montaigne wonders: when I am playing with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me? I admire that question not only for what it says about Montaigne but also for what it implies about the world.  Animals are not dumb, insentient beings inferior in quality to human kind; nor are animals domesticated creatures whose purpose is to serve the will of human beings. Montaigne suggests that in their relations with humans animals act not only on motives of their own, but on conscious motives other than that of blind response or even fawning good-will. Over the years I have learned never to doubt the presence of consciousness evident on the faces of our cats, and have at times sought to discover their wishes and if possible even to satisfy one or two of them. Sometimes I have scratched them just where they itched, and sometimes I have sat myself down to read in just the chair they would have me occupy so that they could jump up on my lap and fall asleep with my text as their shield. Animals possess insight and ability that have some relationship to that of humans though I am certain that the nature of this relationship will remain forever somewhat opaque. I am perfectly comfortable with this state. Montaigne suggests that the world is pervaded by consciousness (my beloved transcendentalists will develop this idea) but he implies that we humans have limited capacities to understand much beyond our own minds, and even that with incredible difficulty and resistance.
I have avoided eating meat for almost thirty years now.  In Genesis God accedes to meat-eating with reluctance. We are, after all, all God’s creatures created equally. But there was no single motive for my vegetarianism, but rather a constantly evolving sense that I did not want to eat anything that could look back at me, and that raising animals merely to be eaten was somehow wrong. Once a year and always on Thanksgiving, I succumbed to turkey dinner. This began as a politically correct move to accommodate family matters, and the habit has continued for reasons too complex to consider here at present. I suppose for this discussion the couch would be a more appropriate venue, but I haven’t found the right one for years. 
And I have learned that so much really does depend on a red wheelbarrow. In this case, I think a clue might have been the squirrels. 
It was a lovely backyard, in fact. For city property, it appeared normal in size. Most city residential lots consist of about ¼ acre, and the footprint of this house (I love that term) occupied a considerable portion of this area. In the rear of the structure, resting between the garage and the house-proper was a piece of land approximately thirty by forty feet, in the middle of which towered a beautiful, very large, old tree of unknown type (unknown to me, at least: I subscribe to Fran Leibowitz’s sentiment that the great outdoors is lovely . . . so they tell me). 
And from this relatively unformed space, she began to plan a landscape. I didn’t really think much of the project—that is, I didn’t give it much thought. As John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night . . .” But then there began to appear cages spaced throughout the yard, and when I inquired as to their purpose, she informed me they were meant to catch squirrels. These outdoor bushy-tailed rodents were disturbing her ordered plan for the site. But these were not cages; they were, in fact, traps. A dollop of peanut butter would be placed in each trap and the unsuspecting squirrel would stop in for a snack; a mechanism would trip and the door would close on the squirrel. The animal, now panicked, would begin to shriek and squeal and flail desperately but despairingly about the tiny cage searching for some hope of egress. But none appeared. 
And when she became aware that her traps were sprung, she would lift them one by one and immerse each into a garbage can filled with water and drown the imprisoned animal. 
Howor whycould one sit in peace in a yard, no matter how beautiful, littered as this one was with the remains of drowned squirrels?

10 July 2011

Storms, Part IV

Finally, there is the storm Walter Benjamin describes in his “Theses on History.” He says, “A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” But it is not advance at all.
This storm is what we call progress, but it is a delusion.  The face of Benjamin’s Angel is turned toward the past. The angel, looking back, sees not a series of events, but one huge catastrophe that keeps piling “wreckage upon wreckage” at his feet. To the angel, history is not some forward progress, effected in fits and starts and in botched beginnings and failed means; rather, history is one huge disastrous and calamitous blunder piled atop another. The angel would love to stay and to make whole what has been broken, but “a storm blows from Paradise,” and that storm irresistibly propels the angel, head turned toward the past, into a future the angel cannot see. This storm, says Benjamin, is called progress, but it is some sightless, violent and uncontrollable force blowing us blindly into an unseen future, even while we stare uncomprehendingly at the shards of a broken past that we would but cannot repair. We are blown forward by the storm blindly into a future we cannot know or even control, as we are compelled (is it by the storm, I wonder?) to look back on a past we cannot understand. Our blind and will-less entry into that future blown by the storm called progress is hardly a sign of advance, however, though our movement appears to us as forward. This storm, unlike that which blows Dorothy out of Kansas and into the parallel Oz, blows us willy-nilly into the future that we cannot see; rather it is the past on which our eyes are fixed, though it remains incomprehensible to us. Benjamin’s angel can neither repair the past nor control the future. Home is the catastrophe to which return offers illusory hope of repair, though the storm of progress prevents that return. This storm of progress that cannot be controlled nor paused blows the angel—and us— forward into some unknown future though our eyes remain fixed on the catastrophe that is the past. Here, the home to which we go is forever unseen, but the home from which we go is forever in view as disaster.

07 July 2011

Of Distraction

In my contemporary world so much exists that distracts me from attending to more immediate matters. Immediate matters? I guess I might define these ‘immediate, or insistent matters’ as the physical and emotional attachments that bond me to the things of this world. For me, these “immediate or insistent matters” are those things in the world for which I accept responsibility. (I thought to say “that these immediate or insistent matters represent those things in the world,” but in fact, these immediate or insistent matters represent nothingthey are the things in this world). Immediate or insistent matters are those events (or even, potential events) that obligate me to the world. Thus, to be distracted is to actively avoid those connections. 
Distraction is not boredom, nor even the result of boredom. Indeed, distraction functions to avoid boredom because boredom presents a threat to the one who would be distracted. In boredom the world is much with me late and soon and invites my active presence, but when I enter distraction, it is the world I mean to escape. I distract myself to escape engaging with the world that boredom presents. Distraction removes me from the immediacy of events to which I should attend; in distraction I move away from that which draws me. When I experience boredom, I am totally free and await that to which my desire moves me. In distraction, I am enchained because in distraction I am compelled at not insignificant cost to avoid my pressing matters. When I am distracted I simply and yet with some energy search out activity that takes me away from the complexities of those immediate or insistent matters. When distracted I engage in choice but only under some compulsion: the Lady or the Tiger. If boredom is a holding environment in which I calmly await the igniting of desire, then distraction frantically avoids being held at all. Boredom awaits complexity; distraction avoids it.  Distractions are exhausting and deplete all of my energy, and I think that boredom conserves. Within boredom, one need not make a decision to act until desire motivates some action, but in distraction one avoids desire by engaging in random activity; boredom invites and distraction vetoes. Boredom maintains desire even when the subject doesn’t know that she desires, and distraction smothers it. That is, desire is the pilot light; when I am ready to cook something I use it to light the burner.  Boredom ensures that the pilot light remains lit. But distraction sends me out to the fast-food restaurant or to the bags of junk food in my kitchen cabinets so I can remain disengaged. 
Unlike boredom that is a waiting, distraction is an act of avoidance. When I distract myself I engage in an activity that takes me away from those things that fulfill me. Distraction is an anxiety that cloaks my emotional self. When I distract myself I attend to an activity that enables a forgetting of that which troubles me. Distraction removes me even from the emotions of others. Distraction leads to obsession and then I am lost. 
In “Of Idleness,” Montaigne writes that he discovered that in idleness he lacked structure, and that in this statein idlenesshis thoughts produced so many chimeras and fantastic monsters “that in order to contemplate [the] ineptitude and strangeness (of his thoughts) I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” That is, Montaigne meant to write himself to serenity. Now, I think that the idleness referred to by Montaigne is akin to my idea of boredom; when one is idle one is quiet and at some kind of rest. One waits expectantly. And so I would consider that Montaigne’s writing would be not a distraction from life but the activity in life to which his desire led.  In fact, the writing that arose out of the state of his idleness returned him to that which most concerned him: his immediate or insistent matters. Montaigne’s essays concern his many attachments to the things of this world. Many of us distract ourselves to avoid the chimeras and fantastic monsters, but Montaigne used his writing to engage with and to domesticate them. 
I wonder if this motivation was one of Freud’s purposes in elaborating his dreams on paper. Aside from his not inconsiderable pseudo-scientific purpose, the writing tamed his wild, unmanageable and seemingly pointless dreams. 
I think now that my dear friend Gary is one of the least distracted people I have even known.

04 July 2011

Storms, Part III

Sometimes we are already outside when the storm arrives, and though we seek shelter from it, we are not able to avoid its assault. But though this particular storm threatens, there is more sturm than drang in its rage. It leaves us soaked but fundamentally unchallenged. This is the storm that blows Dorothy right out of Kansas and into Oz. “It’s a twister, it’s a twister,” the farm hand calls, and on the horizon the dark swirling funnel cloud reaches from earth to heaven blowing away everything in its path and sending it hurtling uncontrollably through the air. The tornado passes dangerously close to Dorothy Gale as she seeks shelter from the storm, and the wind’s force violently blows the windows out where she stands calling out for Auntie Em and Uncle Henry who already cower in the shelter under the home. One of those window frames knocks Dorothy unconscious and sends her dreaming. In that dream she and her house land somewhere over the rainbow in the Technicolor Oz. “I have a feeling,” Dorothy says, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” For Dorothy, this storm has blown her far from home.
But in fact, I think that despite the storm, Dorothy remains stolidly in black and white Kansas. Everyone from home still exists in Oz, albeit in slightly altered form, and though to the viewer each is recognizable, apparently they are not at first familiar to Dorothy. She must learn that home is the ultimate goal.  Later, it will seem that she had, indeed, recognized everyone in Oz as someone she knew at home: though seemingly blown away by the storm, Dorothy learns that her dream of a better life over the rainbow, a childish dream heard once in a lullaby, is an illusion. The delight for which she wished for over the rainbow she learns can really only be realized here at home. Perfection exists only here, at home: indeed, it is only the nasty Miss Gulch, the prototype for the wicked witch, who is missing at the film’s end. She had melted. Dorothy’s storm has simply blown all of the evils of her home (illusorily) away, and left everything else exactly as it was before the tornado struck.  Despite the wizard’s warning, Dorothy accepts unqualifiedly the illusion of home offered by the man behind the curtain and by Glinda, the Witch of the East: “There’s no place like home,” Dorothy continues to intone. I am not certain what she means by that, but I suspect that it is a greater illusion she now holds than that from which the storm blew her originally.