16 August 2009

compulsive documentation of the near past

Up late, and I ran out of lolcats to look at, so I ended up at a sister site, the Nostalgia Win site.
It's a site of objects, movies, food and commercials from the childhoods of its posters - so mainly the 80s and 90s. But the weird thing is the way the descriptive blurbs are written, as if they're documenting some long-lost, nearly forgotten phenomenon, instead of something that is simply no longer the most popular item on the shelf (candy necklaces are a good example; likewise, the monkey bars).
The tone of these blurbs is intensely, lamely nostalgic - mostly "remember this?" as if, say, the first Nintendo was an obscure, long-dead thing that no one really knew at the time, and which has no contemporary counterpart. I think most of the writers must be in their early 20s, because some of the nostalgia win posts are of things that simply are not nostalgic to me - ie, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, TOY STORY, cars without power windows [of which i currently have one]. I guess I'm too old for Nostalgia win, because for me, a lot of these things are just movies I saw in high school. I remember them clearly but with none of that tug of nostalgia.

What is most striking is the desire to document, at all, and the freakish telescoping of time. The writers here seem to think they're writing about ANCIENT HISTORY, and not just things that happened 10 or 15 years ago. There's virtually no historical perspective, which makes me wonder: what the HELL would they make of a similar site composed of items from, say, the 1950s? what term do you use for that?
I've noticed a growing trend to refer to everything as "back in the day," a term meaning everything from 3 years ago, to the sixteenth century. This blurring of all history as simply history - it's all old, it's all irrelevant, except as quirky, funny humor posts - is really troubling. The need to document everything without actually experiencing it - the desire to record - is also troubling. It's what I think when I see people whipping out cellphones to take pictures of fireworks, instead of watching them. Or to take pictures of anything, instead of participating in the event.

The most bizarre - to me - post of all has to do with pre 9/11 airport security. Here's the description, posted by someone who clearly fell off the turnip truck yesterday: "Remember when you didn’t have to take your shoes off, stand in long lines or have Swiss Army knives confiscated because they pose a threat? Remember when you could sneak a flask on the plane so you didn’t have to pay $8 a shot to get a little liquored-up? And all of your family members could meet you right as you de-boarded the plane? It was a glorious time that we all wish we could return to… And if you’re not familiar with this pre-9/11 airport security, go watch any movie from the ’80s or ’90s that features an airport scene and you’ll quickly realize that things were far different back then"

"It was a glorious time that we all wish we could return to… And if you’re not familiar with this pre-9/11 airport security, go watch any movie from the ’80s or ’90s that features an airport scene and you’ll quickly realize that things were far different back then"


Yeah, but shit changes. I mean, things are different now than they were a year ago. I don't need to watch archival footage of 2007 to see how different things were Back In The Day. The security screening crap changed 8 years ago - hardly a lifetime. Hardly even a significant passage of time.

I don't know - maybe one needs to live long enough to see things change more than once, over time, the way telephones and computers have changed in my life, to get perspective. Then it looks like progress, like a process, rather than just some kind of wacky quaint thing people did in the olden days.

13 August 2009

sex ed/AIDS

Having just read AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, I'm remembering and thinking about sex ed and AIDS education. I was a kid at just the right (or wrong?) time - when national discourse about AIDS was really in full swing, and no longer limited to just the "gay plague," being ignored by journalists and the federal government (and a whole host of other people). I was in sixth grade in 1989, right around the time the school started with basic sex ed.

I remember having the bejesus scared out of me throughout my junior high/high school years. we were taken to the AIDS quilt when it visited our area. We had guest speakers with AIDS. we were taught over and over about "the exchange of bodily fluids." I recently watched some, er, illicit copies of the MTV show THE STATE, episodes that aired in the mid-90s; there are a whole slew of commercial intermingled, put out my MTV and telling us to be informed, to use condoms, to be informed of the dangers of unprotected sex. I frankly don't remember ever learning about any other specific risks (other than pregnancy); just a sort of miscellaneous variety of STDs. I DO recall being taught the phrase "VD," and I DO have a very, very vague recollection of some kind of herpes education, but mostly, they scared us with AIDS.

Later, of course, I realized there are a gazillion of creepy things one can pick up, but none will kill you like AIDS will. When I was getting my sex ed, the treatments for AIDS/HIV were pretty shoddy; AZT was around, I think, and the "cocktail," but everyone knew those were pretty temporary and would just make dying a little easier.

We were scared into believing that unprotected sex could kill you, and kill you quickly.

I wonder if this is how HIV/AIDS/sex ed is taught now. I wonder if my students, 10 years or so younger than me, had the same kind of education. Do they know who Ryan White is, I wonder? Do they remember those ads and discussions, those serious, earnest MTV reporters telling us to KNOW, to be informed, to educate and protect ourselves, or die?

Or has that kind of intense, fear-based education backed off? (not that it necessarily should; people should have some fear around the kinds of diseases you can get from lack of protection). Do most people now think of AIDS as a "global" problem, something that happens mostly in Africa, or maybe southeast Asia?

I checked the numbers, earlier tonight. Last year, in 2008, the US "came in" 25th-highest deaths from AIDS/AIDS related illness. It was around 17,000 people, I think. There were over 75 countries on the list. The highest-risk populations here seem to have shifted from gay white men to poor black heteros (and drug users) - another population the country, as a whole, doesn't care a whole lot about.

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON wraps up in 1987. The epilogue discusses, briefly, efforts at vaccines, and treatments. That was 22 years ago.

There are no totally effective treatments that will cure you of AIDS. There is no vaccine. It is not the death sentence (and rapid, excruciating death) that it was in the 80s, but it is no walk in the park, either.

It's more chic now to support cancer research, I guess, especially if it means you can buy pink microwaves and talk about being a warrior who fought breast cancer, or if you can wear a rubber bracelet and LIVE STRONG and do athletics.

The AIDS quilt still exists. There are more than 91,000 names on the Quilt. according to their website, the names on The Quilt represent approximately 17.5% of all U.S. AIDS deaths.

There's a list of "names you might recognize." There were some on there, reading tonight, that I hadn't known about.
Sylvester, singer of "You make me feel mighty real," a song that is ALWAYS in my iPod. Eazy E (I had no idea he was an AIDS-related death). Richard Hunt, a Muppeteer (responsible for Scooter and Janice, among others). Arnold Lobel, the children's author/illustrator who brought us FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS.

In the current hubbub of anxiety and reassurance over swine flu, reading about ANY epidemic is pretty terrifying, and edifying. Diseases are scary. And in the case of AIDS, the way we, collectively, respond to diseases is even scarier.

a very worthy cause

If you have any spare dollars and would like to donate to a good, good cause (that I can actually vouch for!), please visit the CAMPaign site on chipIn

The man pictured on the site, and in whose name/honor the funds are being raised, is the (very beloved) dad of one of a friend of mine. He passed away very, very unexpectedly this spring (while she was en route back to the States from DRC; she was met with the news at the airport). Needless to say, she was devastated.

However: the issue at hand is that her dad was an anesthetist, and was continually acquiring supplies, equipment and other aid for organizations in DRC. Her family lived in DRC, where he worked in a rural medical center, until she was 13 or so; and they maintain very close ties to friends there.

This is a really good concrete way to help people who really need help. You don't have to look far or hard to find some pretty terrible stories about medical conditions in DRC.

I myself am rather frequently overwhelmed by Third World health crises (which include things like the absence of drugs and equipment we take entirely for granted here) but also never quite know how to help; the large international aid organizations seem so....large, and diffuse. This project, the CAMPaign, offers a very great way to make a real difference in a localized region. It's an extremely good cause, and because of the nature of the project, contributions will not go in large part to "administrative" costs.

I'll be making my donation after Friday's payday.
please think about making even a small contribution of $3 or $5.

11 August 2009

crush on Xenu

I have one celebrity crush of the utterly frivolous, 13-year-old girl kind. The kind of crush that mainly has to do with thinking the celebrity in question is SO CUTE!!! mixed with a bit of much older "man i'd like to get with THAT" crushiness. It's all predicated entirely on physical hotness.

The crush in question is giovanni ribisi, who most people don't know from adam. He plays scarlett johanssen's photographer husband in LOST IN TRANSLATION. I know him from Saving Private Ryan (he's Wade); when I saw SPR in the theatres back in 1998, I developed an instantaneous crush on him.

I had occasion recently to google him, or look him up on imdb. and I was informed that Giovanni Ribisi, my Celebrity Crush, is in fact a scientologist.
and i groaned, thinking: oh no! he's crazy!

and i thought briefly about how crazy these wacky scientologists are.

Last week, it dawned on me that - yes, scientologists are wacky, but no more wacky than any other group who believes in some sort of Higher Power. For scientologists, it's some kind of weird sci-fi fantasy scenario; for Christians, it's the Zombie son of god. I don't really know WHAT it is for Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus, or anyone else.

The point is: it's incredibly unfair of me - hypocritical even, maybe - to slam Scientologists more than any other group. I'm a nonbeliever down to my toes - and in my secret heart of hearts, I scoff at pretty much every group of religious on the earth. I'm just too skeptical and too rational to accept these pretty stories about Gods and angels and Xenu.

But the point is: mainstream religions have scoffed down Scientology in ways that parallel MY scoffing down of mainstream religions. And it is wrong of me to have a hierarchy in my scoffing. if it's nuts to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it's equally (no more, no less) nuts to believe in resurrected middle easterners, or dudes emerging the from the bellies of whales. Or that awful Abraham-and-Isaac story (what kind of sickos came up with THAT one? seriously).

Feeling sympathy for Scientologists was not where I ever intended to go (crush on dashing young Giovanni Ribisi notwithstanding), but I DO. Let's be equal-opportunity scoffers, if we're going to scoff. I can single out certain of scientology's beliefs that I find particularly harmful (ie, their hatred/disbelief in psychiatry and psychiatric medications), but they are no worse, no weirder, than certain beliefs I find particularly harmful in other religions (ie, Catholicism's anti-birth-control ideas, Christianity's anti-homosexual ideas).

So: a cautionary word to myself, and to other nonbelievers. Even smaller sects, like Scientology, should be afforded the same respectful contempt and skepticism conferred on larger, more established sects.

10 August 2009

teachers work hard for their money

Full disclosure: I am the child of two public schoolteachers, one of whom was very active in his district union (as well as serving on negotiating and grievance committees).

For the first time, this summer while I was teaching one of my last classes of the summer session, I realized how hard I'm working even while I'm sitting in class listening to my students discuss. I noticed one girl checking her text messages, and I realized the luxury students have, of letting their minds wander. Thinking about this later, after class, I thought about how I never even DOODLE on my notebook while teaching. Not even tracing the circle of the punched hole in notebook paper, which is just about the most mindless doodling there is.

I've worked other jobs, most notably a year as an administrative assistant at a national nonprofit in DC. I spent a lot of my time there doing nothing much, reading the internet, calling my mom (free, untracked longdistance - why not?), secretively reading novels. This was not from my lack of enthusiasm, or my willingness to slack off; it was just that my position did not require a full-time assistant. But there I was.

Studies have shown that US workers spend at least 35 minutes a day of their work hours (adding up to about 3 1/2-4 hours a week) doing non-work stuff, like scheduling doctor appointments, checking personal email, etc. I suspect, with the explosion of social networking sites like twitter and facebook, and with the abundance of handheld web-enabled devices, this 35 minutes will or has gone up.

This footling around is not an option, not really, when you're teaching. I've never taught a full school day, since I teach at a university; my longest classes have been 3 hours and 15 minutes (I give us all a 10-15 minute break about halfway through). But I do know that after my class - whether it's a 3 hour class or a 50 minute class, I'm wiped out. I'm almost always hungry, and usually want a nap. Some days, of course, I'm completely wired and motivated, and I zip over the library and gather books and read articles and feel very productive and brainy. But usually, I'm tired. And it's because for that length of class time, I am utterly, and entirely, focused on the task at hand.

I do not have this kind of concentration at home.

Now, a schoolteacher has breaks - lunch, and usually a free period for grading, planning, whatever the hell teachers do in their free period. But these are short bursts of time. And everyone gets a lunch, no matter where you work, if you work in this country. Which means that you are ON when you're teaching. You're working hard every second. Even a crappy teacher is working, because if you aren't, chaos happens fast, especially in elementary classrooms. Teaching is a LOT like being an actor, a performer; when the students are present, YOU are onstage. And the spotlight is never off you, even when students are writing in class, or discussing in small groups. There's no jotting down your grocery list, or checking your To-Do List for the rest of the day. there's no checking email, twitter, booking travel, scheduling appointments, doing your billpaying. you WORK while class is in.

It's an intellectual work, and that's hard for a lot of people in this country to quantify, mainly because there is no way, really, to quantify it. So they - recalling their experiences as students - think of teachers as people who sit around all day. Doodling, maybe, texting their friends, staring out the window in a trance. And that doesn't sound like a hard job at all, now, does it?

If that was what teaching consisted of, I wouldn't be tuckered out when I got done. I'd be antsy, like I was in high school, when boredom and bad teaching, and subpar classmates kept me in a stupor, staring at the bare branches of winter trees, all day long. If teaching was just footling around, I wouldn't want to DO it.

I wish there was a way to communicate to the people who spend 35+ minutes a day doing Other Tasks while on the clock, that teaching is demanding. That even that free period is spent doing work. That teachers carry cases and bags between home and school almost daily, with grading, planning, correcting -WORK - to do at home.

People bitch and moan about teacher salaries, but I don't see those people rushing out to get these cushy, high paid jobs. if teaching was so plush, there wouldn't be a lack of science & math teachers. There would be enormous competition, and only truly excellent, well-qualified people would get hired. there'd still be bad apples - there are people who are crappy at their jobs in every profession - but there'd be fewer. And they'd be deluxe bad apples.

The one real big perk of teaching in a public school is the holiday breaks and summers off. Holiday breaks do usually bring with them some level of take-home work, but it's still a vacation. And the summers a glorious break (unless you're teaching summer school). But there are no other perks. I'm fairly sure there isn't even free coffee in the break room. A coffee pool, maybe, where everyone chips in to pay for coffee and supplies, but it's not employer-provided. Even as a lowly AA, I had perks to my job that my folks, with their advanced degrees and 30+ years of experience never had.

06 August 2009

crime query

The guy who went into an LA Fitness club here in Pittsburgh and started shooting (killing three women before killing himself), and injuring at least 8 others, left a fair bit of electronic diary material behind, detailing his plans.

Evidently, George Sodoni was bitter and full of hate & rage at women. He wrote, on his website, "I actually look good. I dress good, am clean-shaven, bathe, touch of cologne yet 30 million women rejected me over an 18 or 25-year period. That is how I see it" (my emphasis)

I'm not at all clear on how this nutjob reached his number of 30 million women, but his attitude is pretty clear (and if you didn't pick up on the subtleties from reading his website, shooting up an exercise class full of women should fill you in).

Here's my query, though. He was specifically targeting women, for perceived wrongs he'd experienced over the years at the hands of women.

Does this make these murders and shootings hate crimes?

Pittsburgh is holding a vigil tonight for the victims of the shootings. Organized by the Women and Girls Foundation, the National Organization of Women, National Council of Jewish Women, and Pittsburghers Against Domestic Violence will also be participating.

03 August 2009


I attended a wedding last weekend, the wedding of a very, very good friend. [disclaimer: I have no objection at all to her getting married, and I am in no way criticizing her, or anyone else, for choosing to get married].

As I was driving to the reception (a 3-hour trip), I had a sudden flash of unease. In my rearview mirror, I can see (reflected properly, so it's perfectly legible and not mirror-writing) the sticker I got a few weeks ago from a gay-rights group. The sticker is a little lame - it says: I (heart) (heart) [images of hearts), and below, says: i support gay marriage. The I heart love sentiment is a little goopy for my personal tastes, but since I do indeed support gay marriage, i figure it's a sticker my car can wear with pride.

Anyway, I hadn't - until that moment in the car - made the connection between my friend's wedding, and the movement for gay marriage equality. For one very small second, I felt actually sick, thinking about how easy it is for my friend to get married, have this big party with dinner and dancing and cupcakes and a legal document from the state, and the blessing of her church, that officially seals the deal. I wonder - though I probably won't ask, and again, am not criticizing for it - I wonder if, as she made her reception plans, she ever thought about how many people are not allowed this "privilege."

I wonder how many brides or grooms think of this. Getting married and having a wedding/reception seems like the most obvious, natural thing to do, doesn't it? Like why should you stop and be thankful or grateful that you're allowed to do this thing that is simply plastered everywhere in our culture?

I've never been especially interested in a wedding for myself. I don't have big fantasy wedding plans in my head. once, someone asked me what kind of wedding i'd have, what kind and color dresses would the bridesmaids wear - and I was utterly stumped. I don't think I'd HAVE any bridesmaids. or a wedding at all. But hypothetically, if I was in a position where marriage was on the table - I wonder if I could do it, when I know that thousands of people aren't permitted to - are, in fact, explicitly prohibited from doing so? I had this funny/wry moment when I thought: "Oh my god! Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are right - I get why they won't get married!" (both have explained their refusal to get married as a kind of protest, a refusal to participate in a culture that denies marriage rights to everyone).

I do not think I have ever in my life understood how Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie might feel.

But then I wonder: is this like - oh, say, eating the big feasty dinner on thanksgiving? or eating, at all - food is a fundamental human right (not that the US has signed on, but the United Nations declaration of human rights tells us that food, and education, is a basic human right). But there are millions of people around the world who daily go hungry. Does this mean I should refrain from eating, or eating luxuriously (going out for dinner, eating elaborate or large meals, even ordering pizza or eating sweets, those empty calories)??

why not?
why/is marriage any different?

At one point, another friend mentioned his ability to tie a bow tie. I wondered when that skill could ever possibly come in handy in my own life; he (jokingly) replied: "If you're ever part of a lesbian wedding."

and it made me think, again: But lesbians can't get married. And I thought of my good friend, who is a lesbian, and how unlikely it is that I will attend a wedding for her that looks like the wedding for my friend who just got married. At least, not in the very near future.

I don't know. Maybe things are looking up. Facebook users, in a recent poll, overwhelmingly polled both that gay marriage should be legal, and that gay couples should be allowed to adopt children. But the Facebook users of the world are not, mainly, the people in power. And the people who are not gay activists, but who - like the Facebook crew - think gay marriage should be legal are not at all strident and vocal, as are the opponents of gay marriage.

I also thought, briefly, of Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." I've heard many people - family and friends included - say that the time isn't right just yet for gay marriage to be legalized. That it's coming, but "they" (meaning, I think, the very visible, vocal, very queer, gay marriage activists) need to just wait.

King writes, in his letter, that "For years now I have heard the word "Wait!"... This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." "

And I can't help but agree with him. It's very, very easy to say "wait" or "don't be so pushy about it," when you're wearing a white wedding dress, and the marriage license is signed and sealed.
But when that license is forbidden to you....how easy is "wait" then? how much like "never" does it sound?

07 July 2009

michael jackson memorial

Like everyone else on earth, I watched the memorial service for Michael Jackson today. And like everyone else, I have a few thoughts on the service. I have more thoughts about what Michael Jackson means, thoughts that to me are more important and more weighty, but I'm still trying to sort those through intelligently.

I was appalled at the network commentators' comments. NBC began by talking about the "trouble" in Jackson's life, and how conflicted we all are - great entertainer, sketchy man. I felt like it was simply inappropriate to make that move while announcing the goddam memorial service for the man. show some respect, for once. The most appalling move was ABC's decision to include Martin Bashir as a commentator; Bashir's documentary Living with Michael Jackson was a disaster for Jackson. It was a low piece of trickery, in my opinion, an opinion I have held since I viewed the documentary and addressed it in my masters thesis in 2003. Bashir was not a friend to Jackson, and granting him the space to speak about Jackson - again, at his memorial service - was a very, very poor decision from ABC.

A gold casket is not a very good idea, even for the King of Pop. The blanket of red roses covering it was beautiful. I am mixed about the presence of the casket at the memorial; somehow, it felt a little creepy or voyeuristic, but at the same time, it felt appropriate. a sort of State viewing, I suppose, though thankfully someone had the good sense to keep the casket closed.

Kenny Ortega has worked with Michael for over 20 years. This surprised me; I had NO idea. I know Ortega primarily as the director/choreographer of the High School Musical franchise. My estimation of those films has just ratcheted up a notch, now that I know of Ortega's association with Jackson.

Berry Gordy clearly missed the memo that this was a memorial for Michael Jackson, not a tribute to Berry Gordy. Similarly, I suspect the Jackson family (a group of leeches if I ever saw one) insisted that everyone pay tribute to the wonderfulness of the Jackson 5 and the family. I got very tired of hearing the accolades for Michael consistently appended with some remark about his family. Michael had a very vexed relationship with most of his family, in particular his father and several of the brothers.

As I have felt all along, where are his friends? I mean the people he was truly, truly close to. The people who loved him unequivocally, consistently. Of all the coverage of Jackson's death, there have been far too few expressions of genuine sorrow, love and loss for the man. Lots of lamenting the loss of the superstar. It makes me feel lonely for Jackson. Brooke Shields was genuinely upset. Miko Brando, in his interviews, has been visibly upset. That poor little girl, Michael's daughter Paris, was visibly upset. Most of the others....felt a little put-on. Too focused on THE MAN THE LEGEND THE STAR!!!!

I wish there had been a children's choir performing. I think Michael would have loved that. It sounds like the punchline to a sick joke, but I really do wish there had been a children's choir. Let THEM sing "we are the world."

I know Mariah Carey covered "I'll be there" back in the day, but jesus - did we really need her again? What was she to Michael, or he to her, that she should weep (or sing) for him?

That congresswoman was incoherent to the point of offensiveness; she got Jackson's kids' names wrong. what the hell.

I had a moment when I wished that Boyz II Men would appear, singing "It's so hard to say goodbye." I think, of all the sad pop songs I know, that that one is the saddest, and most funerary. I also wondered why we had no clips of Michael singing "Never can say goodbye."

I was surprised at how sad *I* felt. I have felt sad since I learned of his death (on my birthday, of all days). I can't pretend to be some huge MJ fan (though like every kid who grew up in the 80s, I had Thriller and Bad, and I was quite a fan when I was a very little girl).
In 2003-2004, I wrote my masters thesis, which had a chapter on Michael Jackson. I spent more than a year (closer to two) immersed in Michael Jackson, JM Barrie and Peter Pan. I watched video clips and documentaries. I read book after book, article after article. I listened to the music for the first time in years; I downloaded tons of Jackson 5 and Michael songs, and listened to them frequently (as I have done ever since). I defended my decision to write sympathetically about Michael Jackson over and over. Spending that much time "with" him clearly sunk into me more deeply than I realized. All this week, I've been recalling snippets of information, trivia and anecdotes, about him that I didn't even know I knew. Jackson's life - and the way he is discussed - touches squarely on a number of issues that matter a LOT to me, personally and intellectually, and all of those issues have been stirred up and are swirling around in my brain. Then too is the simple sadness of an early death; a sadness for his children, for his fans.

The moment at the memorial that most got me - aside from that poor baby Paris speaking about her daddy - was John Mayer and his dumb guitar.

John Mayer is mostly just a tabloid name to me; I don't know his music, nor do I really want to. And when he started playing, I thought: "How cheesy is this! hardly one of our great guitarists..." But then what he was playing began to sound familiar. It was a little like falling down the rabbit hole of memory - there seemed no reason why I should ever stop falling. The more the song went on, the more I felt at sea; I could hear this song in my mind, but I couldn't place it. And then the announcers said it was "Human Nature," from THRILLER, and suddenly I realized I knew that song from when I was a very little girl. I know that song from when my age was in the single digits. It was a song that - without me knowing why, or even, really, that it was happening - always made me feel a little sad, a little longing. It makes me think of green clear summers, sitting in the coolness of my family's livingroom, on that ugly red semi-shag carpet, listening to that song on the record player. It was instant nostalgia for moments I had forgotten all about.

And it occurs to me that Michael Jackson was an important part of my childhood. Thriller was probably the first "real" record I ever owned. I remember getting BAD after I broke my toe and had to take a couple of months off of gymnastics. I was eight years old. My parents bought me a chin-up bar, and installed it in the doorframe of my bedroom; i used it more like a practice single bar than for strength training. I listened to my cassette of BAD and swung like a monkey on that bar. I have very, very vivid memories of dancing around the livingroom to Billie Jean. I remember how transfixed we all were by MTV, and how much a part of that Michael Jackson was. Those light-up pavement stones in the Billie Jean video have been a part of my brain for nearly my entire life. I had a purple vinyl purse that said I heart Michael Jackson. I had a microphone with an antenna to play through the stereo speakers, with a picture of Michael on it. I remember when MTV would do a WORLD PREMIERE VIDEO! for Michael's new videos - the one for "black & white" caused such a stir.

I feel badly now, that I denied Jackson. I listened to Jackson songs secretly during and after my thesis, when Jackson was nothing but the punchline of jokes. I've had "smooth criminal" and "billie jean" in my iPod for years, sheepishly. I always, ALWAYS liked "Man in the Mirror" (I loved it, would listen to it while playing on my chinning bar back in 1987). I heard "Man in the Mirror" playing in a Kmart in late May or early June, and was surprised. But I liked hearing it, though I reported hearing it as a horror, as another shocking sign that the 80s are Back. To console myself, I think of the thesis I wrote, which was a pretty decent piece of cultural criticism. I've been thinking, since early June, that an excerpt of that thesis needs to be polished up and sent out for potential publishing. I feel that even more strongly now.

what I feel most now, though, is very deep, sincere sadness. I'm sad that Jackson died before he got to show off his new tour. I'm very sad that he doesn't get to see this unbelievable outpouring of affection and admiration. I'm sad, and afraid, for his children, who he worked very, very hard to protect and keep hidden from public view, so that they could have something like a normal life (or a more normal childhood than his own). I'm worried that they - and everything else Michael - will be exploited by that bastard of a father, Joe Jackson, and the rest of the family. They used and exploited Michael since he was five years old; it's time to give that a rest.

there is more to say about Jackson; there always will be. but for now: "human nature."

22 June 2009

get on your bike & ride

An acquaintance recently posted a link, with comments, to facebook, about mag-lev transit. I'm pretty excited by the possibilities of maglev, and mass transit becoming easier, quicker, more extensive and less environmentally hazardous. Maglev evidently is taking off around the world (obviously, in places that are NOT the US), and I feel mildly hopeful. [I also feel a little wistfully pleased - the PeopleMover and monorails at Disneyland were meant to be prototypes for this kind of mass transit...and i guess maybe they are, just 40 years ahead of the rest of us].

Maglev is not the issue here, however.

The acquaintance follows up her maglev ideas with her ideal vision: "Bicycles the rage."

I have nothing against bicycles. In fact, I quite like them. The problem is: I can't ride a bike.
I know HOW, of course. I learned as a little kid, like most american middle-class children, and I have the scars on my knees to prove it. The problem is that both of my knees, but especially my left one, are seriously battered. The orthopaedist I saw two years ago told me I had the knees of a 70-year-old woman. At age 27. I have arthritis, and tendonitis, and no lining in my left knee; the kneecaps don't track properly, either. The motions of going upstairs and riding a bike are probably the most painful things I can do.

Thus: I cannot ride a bike. It's not the kind of thing where I can just play through the pain; the bikeriding produces daylong (or daySlong) pain and discomfort.

This made me think about disability studies. Another acquaintance maintains a children's lit blog; her specialties are Fat Acceptance and Disability Studies. Recently, she wrote about how the able-bodied world doesn't think about all the myriad challenges and obstacles the disabled face on a daily basis. The trend toward bike-riding is one of these.

I don't look particularly gimpy, although I am clearly out of shape. But many times, people have asked me why don't I ride a bike? I am totally committed to clean energy and similar causes, and so I end up around people who think likewise. Many of them ride their bikes every blessed place they can, and some places they can't. I always feel uncomfortable, trying to explain about my knees; I feel like I am offering some kind of weak excuse. I am not visibly prohibited from biking, and the lack of visible incapacitation makes others assume total health and physical well-being.

I am not the only person on this earth for whom biking is simply not feasible. How can we rethink green transportation to include and account for those of us who would like to, but are unable to bike? What are the options, besides diesel buses and gas-powered cars? Maglev is a possibility, but there has to be something that could be as obtainable as a bike [ie, not a Segway, which solves this problem on one level, but is quite costly - several thousands of dollars, it seems, unlike bikes, which can be purchased for $100 or less], and function as a bike, but still be usable by those of us who can't physically command a bicycle.

This post, about maglev and bikes, reminded me quite sharply of the able-bodied prejudice we have in this culture. It's a worthwhile reminder, troubling though it is; we/I need these kinds of issues held up in front of our faces routinely, until we develop the ability to see them on our own.

21 June 2009

Saving Private Ryan, once more into the breach

I've watched this crummy movie three times now this week. THREE TIMES, in about five days. I suspect I have developed an unhealthy obsession, but why not? My brain needs a break from...er...what I usually think about (whatever that is).

Tonight's screening - after I purchased the dvd, for crying out loud, used and cheap, but still paid for with my own money - tonight's screening gave me a rather sharp turn at the end. I watched some of the "special features" at the beginning, old Mr Spielberg being self-important, Stephen Ambrose being likewise self-important. Tom Hanks being NOT self-important [side note: what's WITH him? why is Tom Hanks so...unpretentious, even after all these years?]

We get the usual dribble about Honoring Our Veterans; "this movie is for them," we are told. Salute, salute, cue the fluttering american flag. The old platitude about Everyday Men, The Common Man, stepping up and paying the ultimate sacrifice so We Can Be Free. TWICE, the old (yet true) chestnut, "Freedom is not free" is trotted out.

JC, my historian acquaintance of old, has offered some illumination on some of this re-visioning of WWII. I need more historian acquaintances, I suspect, as well as some film scholars, before I can get my brain around this movie.

I watch the movie, with subtitles on for most of it. That opening sequence on D-Day still works like a doozy. I keep flashing back to The Thin Red Line (also a War Is Hell WWII movie, but one I've seen a couple of times, once for a grad film class). Why anyone on this earth would get on one of those damn amphibious landing crafts is beyond me.

Spielberg seems to want us to read his movie as part homage, part memoriam, part reminder, part lesson. We are supposed, I think, to come away from the movie thinking: Gosh, war is awful! The ultimate sacrifice was paid [passive voice required] so I could enjoy the freedoms I have today! We should learn so we never repeat this kind of terrible thing.

Which sounds great, except clearly no one took away that last message from the film (witness American politics, post 1998; we've got TWO WARS! going on!]

Tonight, it occurs to me, at the (weak) end of the movie, with stupid Matt Damon in his old-man makeup, weeping unconvincingly at Tom Hanks' character's grace - perhaps Private Ryan is US? Perhaps Pvt Ryan is the "reader in the text," the analog for us, the viewers. Instead of understanding him - and the mission undertaken in the film to "save" him - literally, as a pretty darn FUBAR exercise - why not read him metaphorically? Make that leap across time, and say: instead of Pvt Ryan having to justify his existence, why not make it be you and me and everyone else having to justify our existence? Tom Hanks and Giovanni Ribisi DIED so we could Be Free. But more seriously, thousands of poor kids and jerky dudes and completely inoffensive, benign people, died - evidently willingly - in WWII. And we need to earn it. We need to replace Private Ryan with our own image, and say: "Earn this. Earn it," every damn day of our lives.

except this formula, this reading of the film, suddenly makes me feel perilously close to some kind of christ-like pattern of dying for others' sins.

But then what do we do with that hideous, ratty Judas, dumb weak old Upham? Normally, I am a sucker for the meek among us, but Upham is beyond the pale. I want to shoot him in the face at the end of the movie. or sooner, really. I am unclear why HE isn't the one who gets killed, instead of Giovanni Ribisi (whose character is a medic. and medics, I learn by googling, were not combatants. they had a gun or knife for immediate self-defence, but did not carry weapons for warfare. And intentionally firing on a medic was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. I got interested in this medic business not because of my inexplicable lust for Giovanni Ribisi, but because my own grandfather was, in fact, a medic in the Pacific, on Guam. Google tells me that medics were frequently conscientious objectors. The scenes of Wade (Ribisi's character) walking with his hands folded together, unarmed, while everyone else has guns out at the ready, are kind of striking once you notice them).

And the Jesus-analogy doesn't work anyway, because - well, I refuse UTTERLY to read Tom Hanks as a christ figure, ever. And war is NOT an act of God.

But the result is the same. They died so we can live. Earn it.

I feel EVEN MORE confused about this movie than I did yesterday.

Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written: 16 June 2009)]
Now: I've seen Saving Private Ryan before, I think maybe even in the theatre when it was a new film (1998). And in my memory, it was a good movie, brutal and horrifying, but still ultimately consolatory.

Now, after 7 years of graduate study, I have a very different response (though I still have a wild, fierce crush on Giovanni Ribisi in the movie - I swooned for him then, I swoon for him now).

First things first: Saving Pvt Ryan is a very, very well-made movie. Great acting, good casting. Intriguing characters (Jackson, the god-made, Scripture-quoting "instrument of warfare" sniper may be my favorite character). A reasonable premise - the 8-man squad sent out into german-infested, snarled France in search of Pvt Ryan, the youngest of four brothers, the other three of whom have been killed in action within a week of each other. Mission: Get Pvt Ryan home, alive, to his bereft mother.

Tom Hanks is fantastic, as he always is, and darling Giovanni Ribisi is also good. The whole crew of supporting soldiers are great.
Steven Spielberg knows how to make a movie - he knows how to set a shot and create tension and all that. There are some glorious visual moments in that film, including the horrific, nauseating first 24 minutes of Omaha Beach action, filmed primarily with a handheld, and correspondingly choppy, disorienting, terrifying. It creates, visually, a snippet of a sense of what that nightmare must have been like.

However. For all its good points, this is still a movie about War Is Hell. this is okay, because War IS, in fact, Hell. But at the end, we're left bereft, grieving and puzzled. Tom Hanks has died, holding the bridge...which is rescued by air power just when all hope is lost (the Americans have retreated to their "alamo," 5 of the 8 of our squad are dead, one of the eight has pissed his pants and sobbed in a paralysis of fear that causes one of his mates to be killed, Tom Hanks is on his way out). The deux ex machina of the planes comes a little too late for OUR heroes - Hanks & Co. Private Ryan (the perennially annoying matt damon) is saved, clutching at Hanks as he expires, his last words to Ryan: "Earn this. Earn this."

Six men die to save one man's life.

The movie narrativizes the question of what is one life worth, but I think it fucks up the answer. the final scene, of an old Ryan at the D-Day cemetery, at Hanks' grave, betrays the entire movie. He asks his wife to tell him he's been a good man, that he's led a good life. She says: "You are," puzzled, and walks away.

Surrounded by those endless lines of white, white crosses and markers topped by stars of david, old Pvt Ryan has lived while the rest have died, some FOR AND BECAUSE OF HIM. And the best he can come up with is; "tell me i'm a good man"?
and his wife can't even convincingly tell him that he is?

Edward Burns, looking dapper and dashing as a smartass from Brooklyn (no stereotypes here, no way!), is the wet blanket of the squad. From the get-go, he questions the mission. He asks someone to clarify the math - 8 men, risking their lives, for 1 guy? There's a serious moment when Hanks explains how he views losing men in his command: for every guy who dies, 2 or 3 or 10 or 100 are saved.

But the math for Private Ryan does NOT operate like that. Six men die. One is saved. The weakling translator, the one who pisses himself with fear and huddles on a staircase, draped in ammo (desperately needed by his squadmates) and holding a loaded rifle, while six steps above him one of his mates is fighting, then losing, his life - this translator, Upham, does not redeem himself much. Or really, at all. His paralyzing fear is believable, may be even authentic, but the man is a gross liability, and indirectly causes the death of at least one of his friends. There's nothing in the movie to tell us what we should do with Upham.

so what's the message here? War Is Hell, and no amount of tricksy mathematical rationalizing can conceal that? Except then how do you couple that with the late-90s huzzah for the Greatest Generation, for Spielberg's own interest in the Holocaust (which, ostensibly, this hellish war was ending)? As I watched, I thought: Thank god for the holocaust.
Not that I am glad it happened, at ALL. but because without that massively important moral and ethical underpinning, WWII is just another bloody fuck-up, like WWI. But that moral and ethical underpinning wasn't really the issue at the time, and the extent, the degree, of the Holocaust wasn't widely known. So what in the bloody hell were those poor, poor young men fighting for?

Saving Pvt Ryan wants us to feel like there is something noble we can take away from war and death and horror. But it fails, utterly, to provide this in anything more than a fakey, superficial way. Every act of kindness or mercy comes back to haunt and kill the men who commit them. the math is ultimately minus 6, plus 1 - this is fuzzy math of the worst kind.

And that opening scene, of the amphibious vehicles dropping their ramps on the beach - those poor, poor young men shot flat dead before they even take a step forward. This should teach us something, and the something isn't some vague lesson about Heroism and Bravery. Or even that War Is Hell but Sometimes Brings Out The Best in Us.

what i wonder, after watching this movie, is how anyone who believes in ANY kind of god or higher power, can believe that we are put on this earth to rain sharps of metal into each other's bodies; how can we believe that we are here to butcher and rip and shred and kill each other?

I wrote, in my conference paper, about the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episodes in 1967-68 that deal with war in the neighborhood of make-believe. And Mr Rogers says, after that war is over, "Isn't Peace wonderful?" and it is. Peace is wonderful. and war is not noble, it is not great, it does not make men out of boys. what it does is make corpses out of boys.