Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sunshine Go Away Today

Spectacular spring day today--85 in the shade, cloudless sky, brand new blossoms shimmering on the trees.

Trouble is, this is Western New York. Normally, it's about 45-50 out this early in the year., and blizzards are not unheard of. Normally when I mow the grass for the first time in the spring, (usually in mid-May) everything's faintly damp and green and a little muddy. Today, the mower was throwing up eddies of dust.

On the verge of summer after last year's hurricane season, when floods, melting glaciers, drowning island nations are reported daily now on even mainstream news, the beauty of the day made me intensely uneasy.

It's pretty, but it ain't right.

I knew for the first time, viscerally, what the Okie farmers felt like that spring in 1931, or the 18th century Irish sharecroppers when they turned over that first potato harvest.

Feh. It's like back in the early '80s, when none of us could look up into a clear blue sky and enjoy it for ever a few minutes before the sick fear of nukes would set in. The difference is, that never actually happened.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

On Professionalism

Last week, the reknowned feminist blogger and my good friend Bitch PhD came to speak at a conference where I work.

Besides the fact that it was sweet to see her again, the whole event got me re-engaged with some thinking about online interactions and academics who maintain an online presence under different personae then their professional ones.

Our campus, a good-hearted liberal arts institution in a small, leafy town, is culturally soft-spoken and slightly technophobic. The Media Relations Office here struggled mightily with their task of publicizing the name of the keynote speaker. "You want us to publicize her as 'Bitch?' Gracious! We're not sure we're allowed to publicize derogatory terms."

I'm not sure why the fuss. The fact that the students put on The Vagina Monologues every year means that everybody now goes around using the once-taboo word "vagina" at every possible conversational opportunity.

Her excellent talk can be found here. It went over well, but what was even more interesting is the discussion that ensued afterwards. She had asked me if somebody was going to call her on some points of gender theory. I figured probably not, as feminist discourse on our campus tends to have more to do with what fun it is to get to say "vagina" in public. What we didn't expect is some of the utterly non-theoretical questions faculty asked.

One sociology prof asked if net communities were intrinsically alienating. Another questioned whether self-representations could ever be taken at face-value in an anonymous environment, and if interaction could truly be honest if it was anonymous.

These questions led to some highly interesting discussion about textual communication. Although we're a low-tech campus philosophically, I am a bit surprised at the level of unfamiliarity evinced about internet communities, and the fact that they've been around for some twenty years now. And in most of those communities, people pretty much represent themselves as themselves. Only textier.

The history of textual communication goes back centuries, really. Epistolatory friendships, for instance, (the basic form of some of the first novels), or hell, the party lines many small American towns had well into the 1970s.

Then too, it's surprising that any professor, trained as rigorously as we are to maintain professional masks at all times, and to conscientiously excise all sign of the messily personal from the tidy demeanor we maintain, would wonder why we would wish to express ourselves anonymously to anonymous peers. As much as I love and admire my colleagues, I just can't get shitfaced in front of them or tell them all about my lurid past or inappropriate fantasies, the way I can tell old friends like Bitch, for instance.

Bitch's talk had a lot of other interesting ripple effects. It turned out that a faculty couple in the audience was experiencing exactly the kind of career dilemma she discussed in her talk.

The effect on me was a bit different. I've spent this entire week screening aspiring secondary-ed teachers into the class that trains them for their student teaching. The interview are tough, and we've been known to fail some kids--even smart kids with good grades--because they were unable or unwilling to maintain the necessary professionalism.

This can really suck for the kids. One girl who failed the screening shattered when we told her. She's first-generation into college, and her parents don't approve of education for girls in the first place. They told her if she didn't pass the interview, they'd yank her out of school. Game over.

The suck factor for us is that, as liberal arts professors, we're seriously dedicated to making kids better people and working against the fucked up world that slots them into increasingly narrow career tracks, that values nothing but marketability.
We want the kids to do well and to thrive, and it tears us up that our decisions can have a seriously adverse effect on their lives.

But we are professionally obligated to do so. And to demonstrate, always, no matter how stressed and crazy we are ourselves, kindness, compassion and availability to the students, our colleagues, and everyone around us.

It's an expensive ethic. After a week of 12-16 hour days of doing nothing but being completely available to over a hundred people, I went home and picked a fight with my SO.

And posted some lurid stuff on my anonymous blog. VAGINA!!! PENIS!!!!! EGGBEATER!!

I feel better.

Spring Break

Several of my friends have written movingly in their blogs about what it was like to visit the gulf coast post-Hurricane. Recently, my normally ironic friend who keeps the Superannuated blog reported, with the analytical passion she normally reserves for bad dates and the semiotics of trivial annoyances, on the condition of New Orleans--a fucking mess, as one might expect.

Which leaves it to me to pick up the irony slack I guess. I'm here on the hurricane-shredded Gulf Coast, and I'm on vacation.

And tomorrow, my mother and her friend, who have been vacationing here all winter, are going to take me to gawp at Dauphin Island which, like many of the overdeveloped beach towns here, was pretty well flattened by Katrina. Devestation as tourist attraction, whee!

A moment of rationalization. I didn't come here _just_ to gawp. The pretty white and breezy barrier beaches of coastal Alabama have been, up until recently, the well-kept secret of middle-class southern summer vacationers and budget-minded northern snowbirds for the past several decades. My mom (northerner) came down here to join some friends who have vacationed here for the last decade, and come here every summer, even though Hurricane Ivan of two years ago tore up half the condos. So they were coming here anyway--the gawp potential was just an extra added tourist activity that doesn't stretch the budget. (Will the fact that I refused to let them take me to gawp at Biloxi earn me five fewer minutes in the place in hell reserved for those damned because they participated in even a moment of Schadenfreude Tourism?)

It's freaky down here anyway. The whole tropical vacation vibe seems forced at the outset here in the redneckiest end of Alabama. You have to drive through miles and miles and miles of too-fast highway, stripmall, blighted small town, gunshops, rebel flags and dreary gas stations to get here. When you do, the effect is as if a company of alien developers accidentally dropped a Generic North American Vacation Spot at random on a happenstance plot of empty beach and live oak brush. While southerners have their own party style, it's not remotely tropical--there's something all wrong about a Southern Baptist on a surfboard.

Even though the cause-effect relationship between overdeveloped barrier beaches and unprecedented hurricane destruction is empirically obvious here, equally unprecedented is the wholesale (or retail) escalation of highrise building right on the lakeshore. The funky little family summer homes on stilts, the modest stilty condos, the boxy littlle vintage motels, the goofy souvenir shops and the smattering of grander mcmansions that Hurricane Ivan tore up in 2004 and Katrina finished off are being left to rot themselves into official condemnation so the developers can tear them down and build 20+ story condos even closer to the water. Which they are doing even as I type. When the next wind hits, those things are going to go down like dominos from here to Pensecola. Nobody cares. They'll just collect the insurance money, which the big developers will get, even though none of the local homeowners and small businesses will ever see a dime. And it's all about deals and favors and influence anyway. The woman whose job it is to hand out building permits happens to be the police chief's daughter. Several federal indictments have already been handed out to condo developers in the next town for even less ethical practices. A litlte payoff here, a little political sponsorship there--it's all part of doing business down here.

Apparently, this place was also once a big spring break destination for the college kids, but hardly any of them showed this year. It harshes their mellow, the prospect of partying in devestation they didn't gleefully cause themselves.

There's also stuff I like here. There's a club called Florabama on the Florida/Alabama border. The whole thing--two stories of it, is built all out of scrap plywood and plastic walls, PVC pipe and plastic tarp for the roof, some galvanized metal pipe for rails and some creaky wooden stairs. There's mardi gras beads and women's lingerie dangling from the ceiling, and all the bathrooms are porta potties. The whole effect reminded me of Burning Man, only this place is permanent. I like the fine white sand and the bluegreen water and the warm chilly breeze. The place where my mom is staying is incredibly cush for a middle-class budget, with views of the much more tranquil and less fucked up lagoon. Also, the seafood is awesome. I've been gorging on gulf shrimp, hushpuppies and frivolous cocktails.

This morning, watching local tv news, I developed a theory about the inexplicable religious fanaticism of the deep south. On local tv news were three consecutive items: 1. Two men who had been arrested for dragging a donkey behind a truck for several miles 2. The arrest of the minister's wife the next town over for having shot and killed her husband (infidelity was not her motive! says the tv) 3. a political ad for the Lt. Gov of Alabama that touted the following qualifications: he was a Conservative Christian; he led Bible study groups; he had no prior political experience.

People pray so much down here because they're already neck-deep in this funhouse Hell, and whatever they imagine The Bad Place to be makes this all look normal.
Mon, March 27, 2006 - 10:55 PM — permalink - 0 comments - add a comment

Automatic Writing

All because of my friend TheChisa and his elegant fetish, I am now fixated on mannequin porn. Well not the porn part nor even strictly only mannequins so much as the erotics of semblance.

I don't want to do a plastic (it’s fantastic!) girl or watch anybody do . Real Dolls, for instance, creep me out. It's too literal, the artificial gapage. I just want to stare at them, mesmerized and uncomfortable and mesmerized by my discomfort.

Like this Japanese doll dancer from
She’s pretty and she’s also kind of annoying, the way the whole automata thing is. My first response is feminist annoyance at yet another objectified women. But that’s too obvious to be interesting, and the appropriate political reaction masks the peculiar, disturbing buzzing of my senses. I’m all turned on and off. She arrests my attention, because her beauty is all about arrested motion. She arrests me.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s altar-ego Stephen Dedalus goes on and on about "aesthetic arrest" after the sight of a young girl in the water gave him an involuntary epiphany and he was too damn Catholic to just go and get a hard-on like everybody else. When Roland Barthes similarly talks about arrest in The Pleasure of the Text though, he means exactly an aesthetic hard-on so intense you get erotic brain-lock. The French word is jouissance, the point where erotic pleasure/pain intensifies so much that your brain thinks you're dying. It’s the place in a really good story where your mind stops for a minute. Thoughts stop. Maybe you get an amazing mental picture, maybe you just really like the sound of the words and don’t care about the sense of them. Words stop. Barthes calls it a break or a seam or a rupture.

It's the same with the automaton girl. She's human then she stops. She's human then she stops. Or with a naked mannequin. She's human--ish, but she has those maddening obviously visible joints. The mind wants to do--human woman, mmm. Pretty object, mmmm, and my perception sort of snaps between the two—erotic dislocation, instant fetish.

Or, as Matt says: “It's not the motions but the segmentation between the motions….It's a sort of reality loophole. You get to tread a fence between what a thing is and what you need it to be.I'm a big fan of loopholes. In fact, one could argue that I collect them"

Or else, he causes them, crossing the lines, of erotic imagination but also with representation, as with this photo of a robot/girl. Something happens when my eyes go back and forth between the inhuman cooling vent between her fake/real breasts and the too-human dappled sunlit stubble on her thigh and those delicate cuffs and nodes on the fragile hollows of her elbows and points of her wristbones. I want and I am appalled by what it is I want.

Another friend says. "the little tiny hairs on her thighs reflecting the sunlight…emphasizes how, if she were actually constructed, the artificial looking pieces (numeric display, tits, etc) were completely intentional, as her builders were clearly capable of something as organic as convincing looking hairs on her thighs. But her feet are like, a size one thousand to support her impressive cooling system or something."

“Yes,” says Matt. “Aesthetics.”

Second Line: Love Letter to a Drowned City

First published elseblog, September 9, 1995

Cities are entities. Individuals have relationships with cities, just as they do with other people. I am with cities the way I am with children, dogs and other people. Most leave me cold--too noisy, smelly, exhausting in their demands for my attention. Paris and I, for instance, never had anything to say to each other. With some, like Los Angeles, I have brief flirtations that cheer me up, and then I move on without another thought. I feel about LA the way I do about a fuckbuddy--always there when I need a grin but otherwise not much on my mind. New York always has a couch or a meal or a bed for me, whatever, and I can show up when I please.

With some, such as San Franscisco say, we start out intensely in love, and over time things change and we grow cold until we can barely stand each other and wonder what we ever saw in each other. My time in Seattle was like a typical bad marriage--we stayed together for years because the low-level misery was more comfortable than the effort to change, until the misery finally outweighed the comfort and then I left.

My relationship with Black Rock City was like one of those passionate attractions where you call each other three times a day, can't keep your hands off each other for a minute, have meltdown, white-behind-the-eyes sex, but when you try and actually have a relationship it keeps on going terribly wrong. You break up, several times, but you keep running to each other all over town, and you end up in bed several more times before the whole thing dies of attrition. You should be together, but you can't be.

I should have loved Burning Man. I believe, fundamentally, in the holiness of hedonism, and I think that one of the worst of our cultural failings is that we have so few experiences that allow for ecstasy. I think that the people who criticized burners for continuing to party while New Orleans drowned were being pissy, puritanical and wrongheaded. On the other hand, many people I love or respect still go there and still love it, and although I might trash the general hypocricy of some of Burner Evangelists, I can't bring myself to diss my friends. But I can't be in the space they're in right now--not when what has happened in New Orleans has happened. And well, Burning Man never quite did it for me.

At first, I was charmed, mesmerized, slightly high, amused and delighted. I loved the heat. It overwhelmed me, took me over, changed me from the inside. The art was at least interesting and the random rituals at least charming. But then, somehow, the place turned on me: the noise, bad, loud music going on all night long, the screaming. It seemed to me that the marvelous array of drugs, sex, nudity that lowered inhibitions made the crowd ultimately more greedy for sensation, more oblivious to each other and ultimately more cruel. The slowly accumulating aura of incipient violence outright scared me. I think that, for the most part, white people aren't very nice at all when they lower their inhibitions. So I left--sweet, sweet escape into the silent, white desert.

The playa dust everybody seems to be celebrating this week--I shook that off my motorcycle boots years ago, and never went back. But I still miss what could have been, the way I stiill miss some of those lovers who were really bad for me.

But oh my love, my sweet, sticky, decadent New Orleans and all its nasty gorgeousness. Early morning still life on the cobblestone streets of the quarter: spilled beer, vomit, broken strand of bright beads, broken feathers from a boa. Bourbon Street was at least as loud and much more stupid than Burning Man, but it was also easily enough avoided. The houses were haunted, the air was thick with ghosts and the sweet, nasty historical memories they carried with them. I always wanted to take a shower whenever I walked the streets of New Orleans because I felt so coated with sweet nastiness. Whenever I turned on the tap to take one though, I always expected champagne or gin or blood to come gouting out instead--and I wanted it.

I always thought I'd go back there. I meant to. Once two years ago I semi-planned to but ended up in east Texas instead--which turned out to be the right thing to do. And this year, over spring break, I was invited but I wasn't in the mood.

I always thought I'd go back there one more time, that it would be there for me, waiting.

And now, whenever I look at the traces of New Orleans in my house: the feather mask that hangs above my bed, the mardi gras beads all over the house, the gumbo file, red beans and Cafe du Monde chicory coffee in the cupboard, it's all I can do not to cry. And sometimes I do anyway, the way you do for a lover who is dead, who you will never get to see again that one last time, after all.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Heart Sutra

I used to hate the Heart Sutra. All that creepy nothingness. Who could give up all the delights of the senses, or want to?

But my senses have taken leave of me--two of them anyway. Some vicious respiratory cootie that some student dragged in actually injected its pernicious DNA into my delicate olfactory nerves, sucking the life out of them, until they're just....gone. It's been this way since last October. From that time until maybe two weeks ago, I could not smell much of anything. Not gasoline, not kitty litter, not basil or spearmint or halitosis or baking cookies. I could smell coffee, except it wasn't a nice smell anymore, but biting and bitter. Could taste a little bit. I got to like the new, bitter taste of coffee, because it was at least something. I could taste good red wine, and chocolate, a little bit. Scrambled eggs tasted ok, fried eggs taste vile. Who knew eggs were bitter? Often, the inside of my mouth tasted like burnt metal meat. Then every food would taste like burnt metal meat too. I had nurtured a crop of heirloom tomatoes all through the hot and tricky summer: vermilion/green tigerella and some purple-black kind I don't remember the name of. They were beautiful and I had basketsful and I tasted not a one. The pesto I had made a few weeks before from my fresh basil and had intended to eat with the tomatoes is still in my freezer--waiting....

I alternate between mild despair and a kind of fascination with the condition. The olfactory nerves, of which there are hundreds, are a kind of sensory pallette. I have some very few nerves left, so I can sometimes faintly smell random things: coffee, soap, gasoline occasionally. And what I taste now when I taste is flavor reduced to essence: salt, bitter, sour or sweet (though some neurologists argue that there's a fifth flavor, exemplified by MSG).

An entire sensory world no longer exists. I remember, vaguely, with the same intellectual detachment with which I remember the names and functions of various Sumerian deities, how full of scent the world once was: whiff of armpit, asparagus pee, spearmint, other people's nerves, the pheromone tide of arousal as I kiss my lover, and our mingled afterscent of leavening and ocean. All gone. It's rather relaxing, really. Less distracting somehow.

I snort steroids; they seem to help. Slowly, very slowly, some of the nerves seem to be regenerating. It's odd, the things that come back online. Apparently, the kitty litter receptor nerve is regaining its composure. Yesterday, in the supermarket, I smelled the sweet pungency of fresh cilantro for the first time in half a year. And oh, garbage!! And citrus dish soap! And junior mints! And who knew that red wine had such depth of flavor? It's as if I'm coming back from some form of sensory amnesia.

Still no bread, sweat, rubber, blood, rose, cinnamon, pepper, fear or love or queasiness. I'm still waiting for all of that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Incipient Stains

I used to resent it when friends had babies. Over and over again, I saw witty, intelligent, amusing people reduced to distracted morons, able only to converse about the contents of their infants' diapers.

But I ran into a colleague of mine yesterday, three weeks after the birth of her baby boy. Although she was trying her best to make intelligent conversation with me, it was clear she was deep into that state of post-partum distraction. Her normally smooth hair hung in damp strings, her normally chic clothes had been replaced by baggy knits, and she was going on about how odd it was to risk appearing in a classroom full of students when involuntary milk stains were a real danger.

There was something damp and beautiful and primal about her standing there in the mailroom, somnambulent and primordially female, attempting ironic chatter about professionalism, that made me rethink my whole disdain thing.

I don't think I'll ever find infant effluvia a worthwhile conversational topic and I still don't understand that particular phenomenon. One of the most horrific things I've seen in recent memory was a small sheep struggling to birth a lamb for several hours, bawling in pain as her baby hung, trapped and suspended, half in the world and half inside her. For some reason, I'm just not wild about birth, or infants, or people who find them irresistable. But I think I understand now how sublime it must be to have just had a baby, how it must be like walking between worlds. Sort of like tripping on hormones.

The closest I'ver ever come to that state that wasn't chemically induced or one of those random visionary states I used to get when I was young, was when my father died. And the best thing about that time was, unlike when I'm tripping or being visited by perceptual non-sequiturs, my entire family was right there with me, walking in the same deeply peaceful, hyperaware daze.

It changed me, watching my father die, my brother and I meeting each other's eyes across the last animal thrashings of his body when his heart and lungs finally refused to sustain him, our focus going, automatically, to the crossing-over place to guide our father there because he was getting lost and didn't know the way. My brother, still without saying a word, went to the kitchen, got a bottle of Jamesons and a shot glass, toasted him, kissed him goodbye, and passed the bottle to me and then to each of our cousins, all standing there.

After that time, my habitual urban alienation, the professional irony that had become an emotional habit, just seemed--extraneous. I wanted community, I wanted connections I didn't have to work at or think about. Since then, I've been back to my hometown every few months and go to every family occasion that I can. I moved to a small town, acquired a partner, made friends.

Perhaps, strangely, quietly and without fuss, the sight of Christina in the mailroom: damp, distracted, filmed with late-summer sweat and incipient milk stains, is a similar epiphany.