23 February 2010

I Went Shopping, or Cheap Crap from China

After the long weeks of being snowbound and avoiding any driving not strictly and absolutely necessary, I made a semi-frivolous shopping excursion this past Sunday. I needed to get a few things from Home Depot, and wanted to start my seed buying; I also needed to stop by Target for a few household essentials.

Home Depot is always an absurd experience. I'm mesmerized by the enormous number of items stocked there that I absolutely cannot identify. I have NO idea what most of that stuff is for. I often suspect that, even if its use was revealed to me, I'd still be in the dark about how it fits into the larger picture of any particular system (ie, plumbing, electrical, etc). 

I looked at lighting for my bathroom, which has old, mismatched wall sconces. I like wall sconces, so I looked at the meager selection. And in looking, realized - every Home Depot in America probably has exactly the same stock. All across the country, people are choosing from the same six styles. There are almost certainly literally millions of bathrooms with the same sconces that I liked.

This is depressing.

Wikipedia informs me that Home Depot operates over 2,000 stores across North America, and - terrifyingly - China.

I got my seeds and my molding trim and the few other items I needed, and zipped off to Target.

And got depressed again.

This has been happening more and more often lately; I go to stores (and they're all inevitably big-box-style stores; what other choices do I have?), and all I can see is the excessive stock of cheap crap made in China.
I look at the plastic dishes, the notebooks, the knickknacks, the patterned socks, the printed t-shirts, the tea-towels, the candles, the toys - and I almost literally don't see them; I see factories, industrial wastelands in China staffed by poor women and children and men who feel confused, scornful or envious of the products they're manufacturing. And who, more than likely, couldn't afford to buy the $1 picture frame they're making.

Everything is made in China now. It's a challenge to find things that aren't, and when I do, they seem to be made in India, Indonesia, maybe Thailand or Vietnam or Bangladesh, or sketchily administered colonial outpost islands in the Pacific. I may just be cynical, but I have very, very little faith in the quality of working conditions and wages in these places.

And it's because we're cheap. We are one stingy country. We want everything for the lowest price possible, except when it's Coach handbags or Louboutin shoes. but all that avalanche of cheaply-produced, cheaply-sold, cheapery - we love it.

I realized this winter how hard it is to find anything that's made out of a sturdy, lasting, quality material. I've taken up embroidery as a sort of pastime, and when I go to buy my embroidery floss, it's all synthetic. Polyester, or poly blends. But the embroidery I have that my grandmother did (or purchased) was done with silk floss. I can tell - it's obviously a finer material than the thread I'm buying. But there's no other choice at Michael's or Joann's - there may be a few skeins of silk or silk-blend specialty threads, but in the main, if I want a basic rainbow palette, I'm buying synthetic. Clothes are the same; I'm not at all affluent, scrimping on my student budget, so I can't afford to shop in any nice stores. But even when I do go in, the dress trousers are almost always blends. Wool blend if you're lucky; all-synthetic most of the time.  In the nineteenth-century novels I read, women are always rustling around in silk or taffeta dresses, or wearing satin - I have no idea what these materials felt like. The satins and silks I've come across are all - yep - poly blends. I think I've encountered a few 100% silk ties, but never a full dress.

My house is outfitted with a lot of IKEA furniture, especially in the genre of bookcases. I have nine bookcases currently in use, and six of those are from IKEA. They're all made of composite woods with real-wood "veneers." They're made of fakery.

There didn't use to be a choice like this. Everything was real. Many people couldn't afford the finer real things, but even the poor had real wood and real cotton and real wool and real metals in their hovels. There was variation. One single catalogue - just one! - for a furniture manufacturer in Victorian London listed over 7,000 - that's seven thousand - different bedsteads on offer. All different. IKEA has - what? - a dozen? Maybe 20, at the very most? And those 7,000 bedsteads were being produced in the industrial age - there was mechanization, there was mass production, there was piecework. It wasn't just one skilled carpenter handcrafting an entire bedstead.

Now, if you want to find real, nonsynthetics, you have to hunt and you have to pay a LOT. I'll be using IKEA veneer furniture for many years to come, unless someone leaves me a substantial legacy or I manage to marry money (what a quaint Victorian idea!). Or, I suppose, unless I learn to build things for myself, out of real woods. But who knows how to do that kind of work anymore? There are hobbyist woodworkers in the dozens, but I don't think any of them are really up to the task of replicating Victorian desks or bedsteads.

It all comes down to quantity and quality - we have floods, absolute floods - of cheap and cheaply made stuff out there, ready for our impulsive debit cards to buy. I'm not quite the minimalist I'd like to be; I'm not Thoreau, exhorting us all to "Simplify!" I like things, I love stuff.  But I'm coming to know, more and more, that the things I like and love are the things that are well-made. The things that are sturdy, that are made of natural materials and not synthetic substitutes. The things that are not the same across thousands and thousands of houses. The things that were made by skilled workers who received some kind of living wage for their work.

This spring, I will try my best to dispose of my disposable income in a more responsible way. Instead of squandering my hard-earned minimum wage on cheap crap from China, I will try to save my pennies and buy plants instead, perennials that I covet like foxglove and delphinium and oriental poppies. I'll try to find silk thread and clothing made at least of 100% cotton, if not of satin or silk or wool. I will try - and more than likely fail - to purchase items made in the US, or in countries that I know maintain some kind of decent standard for working conditions, wages, and environmental impact. I will pay a little bit more, but I will do it happily. And I will try to save more of those hard-earned pennies so that I can buy antiques - not because they're Valuable Old Antiquities, but because they're real.

19 February 2010

i read the news today oh boy

This has been a harrowing week in the news world, which means - in the world at all. More specifically, in the local world; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has just been cranking out the stories about horrible things happening to people around town and around the world.

The confluence of so many horrifying things is disconcerting but can, probably, be attributed somehow to the fact that we are deep in the winter doldrums. So far, the Pittsburgh region has gotten 40 inches of snow in February alone - and there are still ten days to go before this shortest, most brutal, month comes to a close.

A friend of mine speculated, several weeks ago, that there's a kind of global malaise; she was referring to the fact that nearly all of her own friends and acquaintances were experiencing depression of varying degrees, and that a series of very unfortunate events seemed to be underway for just about everyone. Interestingly, she suggested that an underlying trigger or exacerbating factor was the earthquake in Haiti, and the horror and helplessness most of us in the western world were feeling as a result of the earthquake's consequences.

It's an interesting idea, though I don't know how much credence I give it. But in a weirdly Dickensian way, I like to see patterns and interconnectedness everywhere; of course, in a Pynchonesque way, I also like to point out the absolutely illusory nature of those patterns and interconnections (for a more recent and perhaps obvious literary example of this, see Frank Portman's King Dork).

It does sometimes feel like the external world is mirroring the internal, or - and this is more likely - acting as a catalyst for the internal.

Some of the horror stories from the news this week, just to recap:
Six people near Pittsburgh are arrested for torturing and murdering a young woman with a mental/developmental disability. Torture included painting the woman's face with nail polish, making her consume spices and urine, and beating her with various household items.
A few days later, I read that these six people have their initial hearing delayed because they are all quarantined at the jail with lice.

A man in New Jersey broke into his ex's house and stole their 7-month-old baby from its grandmother. The ex was at that moment at court getting a restraining order. The man then threw the baby off a bridge into the river.

A middle-aged couple in Penn Hills was found dead, evidently of a murder-suicide. They have a 17-year-old kid.

A cop in Pittsburgh fatally shot a robbery suspect
Some more cops in Pittsburgh beat a teenager who was carrying a "suspicious item" (it was a violin, I think).

A man in Pittsburgh died last week because of the gross incompetence of the emergency services during the snow; he and his girlfriend made at least 10 calls to 911, but the ambulances failed to reach him because of snow. At one point, they were a few blocks away but unable to drive closer; though he was unable to walk, the man was told by the EMTs that if he wanted the ambulance ride, he'd have to walk the few blocks to the intersection.

There were several shootings in North Braddock in the last 24 hours.

A nutjob flew his small plane into an IRS building in Texas, causing fire, havoc and injury but - as far as I can tell now - no deaths except his own.

A  driver near Pittsburgh hit and injured a man and killed a dog (a foster/rescue dog), and kept on driving.

There are more, I'm sure, once you look beyond the local and occasional national stories - there are consistently shudderingly awful stories from Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Iraq. And then there are all the places we rarely hear much about: Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Congo.

It's been a brutal week, though, around Pittsburgh. And the fact that, when I try to look out into the rest of the country and the world for more news, I only find more dismal, horrific stories, is enough to make me want to retreat into a cave in the woods for eternity.

I wonder how most people cope with the news? A crowd of people turned away, but I just have to look.  But what happens to the crowd that turns away? Do they register the news stories? Are they desensitized, beyond the routine cluckings of "how awful" or "I don't know what the world is coming to?"

But all the negative emotional energy these stories must generate has to go someplace. Doesn't it?

15 February 2010

this old house

I've been painting my bathroom, a task that SHOULD have been a snap but turned into an ordeal. If I knew how to drywall, OR knew someone who would put up drywall for me for cheap, I could have solved a lot of my problems.

However: that is not to be.

My house is 100 years old this year. The property info I have lists it as being built in 1910 - thus, the centennial celebration of my little old house.

My dad recently came across some historical information about drywall and its precursors (don't even ask. we're a family of nerds). And, after doing a bit more research, he informs me that what I have in my house is almost certainly a pre-drywall called Sackettboard, which became gypsum board, then became drywall.

Sackett board is an alternative to the lathe-and-plaster mode of wall construction, which was costly and time-consuming. It's made of layers of plaster and a kind of felty cardboard, and is installed much like drywall. It has unfinished edges and is quite, quite heavy, which made it hard to work with (thus the refinements of gypsum board and drywall).

Sackettboard was only around and in use for maybe 10-15 years, before the other, better kinds of boards were devised. My house falls smack in the tail end of that period, but almost certainly before gypsum board made its appearance. And my walls - the ones I've exposed, anyway - are a weird kind of felty cardboard . With plastery stuff underneath. Sackettboard didn't take paint or wallpaper very well, evidently, but the fellow who built my house (referred to in the property listing simply as Dad, and called Dad by me and my family) slapped up wallpaper, and then - when things needed refreshing - he just painted over the paper.

Which meant that, to repaint the bathroom, I had to peel off the paper (the paint was chipping, the paper was bubbling). Down to the felty cardboard.

So my walls are lumpy and bumpy and funny looking.

Part of me wishes I had the financial wherewithal to have nice, new, smooth drywall installed. The room would be polished and tidy and clean - all white, with a black-and-white floor, with a nice vintage feel. But another part of me thinks it's amazing - amazing! -  that the walls in my bathroom are the originals from 100 years ago. The chips and scores and bumps are the history of the walls, the history of the house. Same with the wood trim around the doors and windows - there are bumps and bruises where Dad clearly missed the head of the nail and just knocked a circle into the wood.

There's a weird, scratched-together feel about my house, which sometimes makes me feel awkward. But I love the quirkiness of it, and the age. I live in a house from 1910 - 1910!!!!!  with original walls and woodwork. chipped and scarred, yes, but one hundred years old and still standing and quite, quite functional.

I LIKE old cracked and chipped peeling paint. I LIKE outmoded countertops and tiling and no granite anything, anywhere. I like the weird faux-wood graining on the wood trim. I like how my house sometimes feels like the cabin of a ship, and sometimes feels like the weirdest little dollhouse cottage in the world. Sometimes, in summer, it feels like a treehouse.

so my bumpy, funny-looking walls don't bother me that much. They need another coat of paint, probably, to be finished, but they'll still show their age.

And for a 100-year-old house, I'd say this one's doing all right.

14 February 2010

keeping us safe...

This appalling story today, on good old Valentine's Day: "Twelve Afghans died Sunday when two rockets fired at insurgents missed their target and struck a house."

Great work with the precision rocketry and whatnot.

General McChrystal said: "It's regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost."

Regrettable. Gosh. Maybe General McChrystal could find a thesaurus and choose a slightly more...empathic word. "Regrettable."

Regrettable is when the snow plow buries your car, or knocks off your sideview mirrors. Regrettable is a billing error on your gas bill.

People only get one life - you only get one, just this one - and those twelve people had their lives taken from them by this stupidity in Afghanistan. Does anyone even know why we're there? Other than that we're trying - in some crappy, ineffective way - to clean up the mess we made?

And spare me the REMEMBER 9/11 NEVER AGAIN jingoistic propaganda.
Those attacks were terrible, horrible, criminal, tragic and terrifying - but it didn't then, and doesn't now, justify launching a war at this sad, scrubby barren country and its sad, poor inhabitants.  Most online sources, some more reputable than others (reputable ones including the UN and Human Rights Watch) indicate that several thousand Afghan civilians have been killed as direct result of military action.

How is this okay?
Why do we allow this to happen?
It's running in the background, all the time, like some kind of white noise you don't hear any longer.

the financial cost is obscene - costofwar.com keeps a running counter, searchable by state, city/county, and individual - the numbers are astronomical.

and what are we getting for our billions and billions of dollars? the satisfying feeling of a job well done, when we kill entire families, little kids, old people, in a "regrettable" accident?

11 February 2010

Short Stories, or I Have Found My Medium

I'm a terrible writer of fiction. I used to play at it a lot in high school and early college, but then I got a life and didn't need to live inside my fiction. I did a creative writing class in high school, which was quite a good experience, and made me feel very professional - revising, editing, workshopping, drafting, plotting. It was in that class that I discovered ee cummings, so it was definitely worthwhile, even though my writing remained (remains) pretty dreadful.

I have an amazing storehouse of words on hand, and have read a lot from a lot of the best writers in English (or translated in English - my dream is to learn enough Russian to read Dostoevsky in the original), so I can patch together sentences and paragraphs relatively well - and my academic writing is really not bad at all. I'm no Lee Edelman (oh, how I wish I could write theory like Lee Edelman!!), but I'm not too shabby.

But lately, fiction has been beckoning to me from a sneaky, unexpected quarter: short stories.

I have never been a fan of short fiction, especially. I read - and quite liked - Stephen King's collections of novellas and short stories (Nightmares and Dreamscapes in particular is one of my favorite collections), and of course I've read and loved Diana Wynne Jones's shorter fiction. But I've been largely unmoved by short stories for most of my life.

But early on in January, I picked up Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes, which is five novellas loosely linked by a common theme of music and/or performance. Ishiguro has become, in a few short weeks, one of my favorite contemporary writers; he's brilliant. Utterly, beautifully brilliant.

When I finished Nocturnes, I felt a little dazed and dazzled, and very much wished I'd written it myself. The daze and dazzle - the real surprise - was in the discovery that one could write those kinds of stories, the kinds of stories I'd always wanted to write. Quiet, dreamy, contained. Reflecting moments rather than plotting stories - but of course every moment is a story, or is part of one. It's rather silly of me - a person with rather extensive experience in literature - to not have realized that such writing was possible. I simply assumed there was no place for it, no outlet, no desire. Or that it somehow couldn't exist.

Ishiguro proved me wrong.
Reading a book I wish I'd written is a vexing experience. It hasn't happened to me in a very, very long time.

Ishiguro prompted me to think again about short stories - about reading them, certainly, but about how they work, what they can do, whether I could write them. I doubt I can - as I say, I'm a pretty awful fictioneer. It all comes out as memoir or autobiography or worse, some kind of diaristic blithering.

So last week, before the snow, I came across (and grabbed) a copy of the collected short stories of Katherine Mansfield, who I have never read, but who crops up from time to time in critical essays - especially, if I am remembering correctly, in some of the narrative theory I used to read. She's wonderful, absolutely wonderful, in a way not terribly unlike Ishiguro - the dreamy moment.  And she writes some shockingly gruesome things about children, which delights me to no end. I do not think Katherine Mansfield loved children.

But as I read, I keep thinking "I could do this!" Not as well as she does, not well at all, but I could actually do it. I could accomplish the writing of a short story.
Of course, I shouldn't be attempting any more projects, especially not any new oddball ones like short story writing. I should, if I write at all, be writing my dissertation.

It is comforting and intriguing and a tiny bit exciting, though, to think that I have figured out something as unexpected as this. To daydream a little bit of writing stories, of sitting in a window while the sun shines in, rattling away on my little computer, spinning little webs of words that actually do something.

I have found my medium.
Somehow, that's almost as good as actually creating something in it.

10 February 2010

State-Condoned Murder, or The Death Penalty is Another Reason I Should Have Gone to Law School

NPR's really hammering at legal injustices these days - clearly, someone at NPR wants me to feel guilty about my non-legal career decision(s).

The latest - and not as poignant or potent for me as the series on bail - is a Fresh Air interview with David Dow, who has the thankless, hideous job of defending Death Row inmates in Texas.

Texas puts more people to death than any other state, though Virginia and Florida come close (and Florida's death chambers are at the prison in - where else? - Stark, Florida. No symbolism there).  Amnesty International keeps a very good site with loads of death penalty statistics, both national and international. One of my favorites is that in 2008, 93% of all known executions took place in five countries - China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA.

It's odd that one of the main legal arguments against the death penalty is that it is used so (relatively) sparingly.   There are lots of other arguments, including ones organized around race, quality of defense counsel (who are often public defenders - in other words, overworked and underpaid), cost of maintaining Death Row prisoners (largely in legal costs - the appeals process goes on and on and on and on....), the question of deterrence, and so on - all that before you ever reach the moral grounds for opposing the death penalty.

But the infrequency with which the death penalty is applied and carried out makes it - by definition - unusual. And the Eighth Amendment has that nifty prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

It's also rather appalling that the Supreme Court briefly held the death penalty unconstitutional (Furman v. Georgia, 1972), based, essentially, on the Eighth Amendment argument about unusual punishment.  It was reinstated in 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia. Those were the last days of high quality jurisprudence from the Supreme Court, in my not-all-that-expert opinion. Some of those old Supreme were masters of legal thought and argument as well as being highly ethical and/or moral - it comes through loud and clear in their opinions.

If I had ever gone into law, I wouldn't have gone this route - I would not be able to cope with the emotional trauma of having to represent and fight for men (and they're almost always men) who were about to be killed with the state's consent. I get queasy, literally, when the news organizations post their "deathwatch" stories on the days of executions. I cannot read about last meals, last meetings with families, last words, prayers, etc without feeling nauseous. The fact that these executions give anyone a sense of pleasure, of satisfaction (however grim it may be) is even more nauseating.

The death penalty's persistence in the US shows how strongly we have shifted away from the idea of rehabilitation to the idea of vengeance or retribution. If a person is so unbalanced, so broken, that he cannot be rehabilitated, then  - to my mind - this demonstrates that he is seriously mentally ill, and as such, should be committed to a secure mental institution, not killed. But many, many people who commit murders do so without "malice aforethought," - during robberies or other lesser felonies, out of fear, nerves, or while on drugs - and are not murderers at heart. Rehabilitation should be the goal for every single person convicted of a crime, whether it means physical rehab of the getting-off-drugs variety, or whether it means psychological rehab. The Quakers, with their penitent-iaries had the right idea. How we wandered so far away from that is a very unpleasant mystery to me, and says some very ugly things about the collective makeup of the American population.

08 February 2010

Mad Axe Man, or Reading Crime & Punishment Is Not My Best Idea

Snowbound still, all alone in my weirdly isolated little house in the city. Yesterday, for reasons which I cannot identify, I started re-reading Crime and Punishment. I haven't read it since college (when I read it twice), and I remember loving it, so I thought I'd give it a re-read.

And it is great, excellent actually, Dostoevsky is brilliant - it's even better than I remember. I do miss the profoundly insightful commentary of my Russian literature professor from college, one of the best professors and nicest men I have ever known - but I remember enough of his ideas to keep me going.

Unfortunately, Crime and Punishment is a book of feverish inaction and claustrophobia. After that initial burst of axe-murdering, Raskolnikov sinks into delirium, sickness, mental anguish, paranoia, unhappiness, rage - all kinds of entrapping emotions. It's an incredibly closed-in book; Raskolnikov's garret, scarcely larger than a closet, is the perfect metaphor or symbol for the kind of unhealthy containment the book deals with.

Stuck in my house, without the ability to get my car unearthed, with more snow on the way, having spoken to no one but my mother (via telephone) since Friday, I am feeling full of feverish inaction and claustrophobia. Except for brief excursions to the kitchen and the study, I've been mostly parked on my bed (the most comfortable bed in the world, incidentally), as the warmest place in the house. A Raskolnikovian/Oblomovian lethargy has overtaken me, coupled with some pretty serious pain in my back and my messed-up shoulders from all the shoveling. Lying in my bed, trapped in my house, reading about old Raskolnikov - this really is not the best reading idea of my life. But I'm sucked in to the book, and don't want to put it down. It's probably amplifying my own sense of cabin fever (and slight insanity), but I want to keep going. Better that than the heartbreak-amplifying Swann's Way.

I think, when I finish Crime and Punishment (which should be soonish - I'm not doing anything else except sleeping, shoveling and moping around the internet), I'll move on to The Grapes of Wrath, which I really never have read in its entirety at one go. That's at least a little more....outdoorsy, more open, than Dostoevsky.

not the best of days

My car is still immovable, and evidently, 6-10 inches of snow are on their way here. tonight or tomorrow.

a kindly neighbor helped me schlep snow away from my car. It is a sad but true fact of life that sometimes little kindnesses are the things that get to you the most.

so I'm housebound, with not quite as much food as I'd like to have - I won't go hungry, just a little crazy from eating rice and pasta endlessly - and I'm in pain - both shoulders, my right arm is sort of cramping and twitching, and my back is aching.

and a few others things are getting me down.

I'd love something good to happen. something small to cheer me up.

07 February 2010

Sarah's Mad Tea Party, or A law professor is exactly what we need

Horrible Sarah Palin spoke to the Tea Party nutjobs this past weekend, in her classic nutjob style. I suppose the basis of the Tea Party movement is ignorance - oddly, it seems ruled by emotions not rational thought or anything approaching rational thought. (Which, to be very backwards and antifeminist, makes it the ideal site for a woman leader; and the genteel name Tea Party adds even more nineteenth-century femininity to the whole mess).

Palin, who may well be a nice enough person, is not anyone's idea of the sharpest knife in the drawer. She simply doesn't know enough to be out there doing what she's doing. Being the mayor of some pukey town in Alaska is one thing; even governor of Alaska is manageable - though of course, she quit that a few yards from the finish line.

This is the problem with this hyper-emotional reactionary conservatism - it's incredibly ill-informed, and incredibly ahistorical (except when it comes to quoting that old phony Ronald Reagan). I can cope with - even respect and be calm about - conservatives or anyone else with an ideology very different to my own when I can see that they have thought about it, know the facts and historical context, have though about both long and short-term consequences of their belief systems.

But these Tea Party yokels haven't done this, and neither has old Sarah Palin.

She said - this is the quote that irked me into blithering here:
They know we're at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief and not a professor of law standing at the lectern.
And this is where she exposes her incredible lack of historicity. It is precisely when we are at war that we need professors of law at the lectern, or even at the helm of the ship of state (a fabulously hokey metaphor, that one). When things go to crisis situations, when there's war or civil unrest or natural disaster or any other kind of chaos, that is exactly the time when laws matter most. I'm not sure I mean the incredibly petty rules - for example, everyone gets a pass on taking food from shops to feed themselves during natural disasters, when food is otherwise unavailable. Jean Valjean can have his loaf of bread.

But big things, like how to prosecute alleged criminals, whether or not to torture detained suspects, what powers the police have, all those great Geneva Conventiony things - those need to stay in place. You simply cannot change up all the rules in times of war. There is something to be said for continuity and stability, and that is what a regular legal system provides.

Way back in my constitutional thought class days, we addressed Lincoln's decision to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War (cf., Ex-parte Merryman, Ex-parte Milligan). After spending weeks reading Supreme Court cases about civil rights and civil liberties, I was appalled at Lincoln. I still am appalled at Lincoln. It's because of this suspension of habeas corpus, and Lincoln's decision to impose martial law all over the place, that I cannot get on board with the reverence normally accorded to Lincoln. I felt then, and feel now, really, really uncomfortable with those decisions.

There's case law, there are Supreme Court decisions, there are historians arguing in the background, all saying it's not a good idea to play fast and loose with the Constitution during wartimes. And yes, there's the argument that "foreign combatants" aren't citizens, and thus do not have any of the rights the Constitution secures. But isn't there - shouldn't there be - a moral argument that we ought to treat even our prisoners and enemies as best we can? Or at least abide by the Geneva Conventions?

But no. No, not for the Tea Partiers, not for Palin, not for any of the loud-mouthed morons shouting from the radio and FoxNews.

Every single one of them should be forced to take extensive classes in American history and constitutional law. And then they should all be required to pass a rigorous exam on the material. Only then should any of them be allowed in positions of any kind of power.


And as a corrective to the angst and dismay Sarah Palin evokes in me, here is one of the more fabulous bits of advertising for the best television show ever: RuPaul's Drag Race, now at the start of its second season.

06 February 2010

i can't get out!

Those are the stairs I need to go down to the alley I have to walk through to get to my car. I - wisely, maybe? - parked on the street below my house, rather than be truly stranded forever by parking in my garage (my hilly dirt road is not plowed regularly, and can be treacherous even when plowed if still icy/snowy).

The snow is drifted and piled up to at least my knee.

I cannot even see the street - Venture Street - on which I am parked. I can't tell if it's been cleared. I don't know how I'd get to my car.

I am not eager to risk my life on those stairs. I've fallen down them twice - I have this sort of...habit... of falling down stairs, it seems, and it's always incredibly painful.

The snow is piled to the sashes of my diningroom windows.  This looks a little more dramatic than it really is, since my dining room is technically below ground, built into the hillside itself. The windows are therefor at sloping ground level. But it's still cavelike and snowy in my small igloo-cottage.       
I'm not minding being snowbound. It's a little bit dreamy, kind of peaceful and pleasant. It's a bit lonely, for sure - there are no sounds AT ALL from the surrounding neighborhoods (not that I can usually hear much, but there's always a distant low rumble from the highway, the occasional car door, shouting neighbor, shrieking child). The incredible stillness of a world covered in snow is both glorious and eerie. A little bit like landing on another planet. 

The weather doesn't seem likely to warm up enough to melt any of this snow anytime soon, which leaves me perplexed about my situation. I have a bad shoulder, which makes sustained amounts of shoveling - not impossible, but extraordinarily difficult and pain-inducing.  if I had a little sled, the little plastic sleds of my childhood, i could coast down the hillside to my car - but getting back UP the hill to the house would be a nightmare.

I think I will just have to wait this one out, for awhile, and see what happens.

the snowy day


it's absolutely beautiful and absolutely mind-blowing. It's been years since I've seen this much snow.
I'm lucky - all my utilities are working just fine. 

I will not be leaving my house today, and possibly tomorrow.  the whole world seems quiet and white and closed.

Dylan Thomas has some beautiful words on the subject of snow:
Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees

04 February 2010

Prisoners and Captives, or I Wish I Had Gone to Law School

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a lawyer. I recently re-remembered that in high school, my AP American history teacher (who also taught the AP Government & Politics class I was in my senior year) said he imagined that one day I'd be a crusading lawyer with the ACLU or some such. At the time I was still semi-delusional about being a writer, but the idea of lawyering was planted in my brain. I was pretty politically conscious for a suburban high-school girl, and my senior year especially, did a bit of actual crusading (a very long story that still makes my blood boil, even now).
In college, I took a two-semester political science course called Constitutional Thought. It was essentially one year of reading Supreme Court decisions and talking about them; the second semester was a seminar of five students. We dug into constitutional law quite seriously.
By the time my last year of college rolled around, I didn't know what I wanted to do - I wanted to go out and Change The World. I took a practice LSAT (absolutely cold - had NO idea what I was getting into), and did mildly well.
Because I was dumb enough - or optimistic enough - at that point to think that all options were open to me and the world was my oyster, I didn't commit too seriously to any one path. I studied fairly lackadaisically for the real LSAT; my score improved by a grand total of one point (I placed in something like the 82 percentile. Not awful, but nothing to be very proud of, either). I decided my score wasn't high enough to qualify me for a good law school, and that was that. I ended up going down the literary primrose path, and here I sit, ABD, holding an MA from another institution, full of booklearning.

All well and good. I've never really regretted the decision to not pursue law school.

Until now.
And I am seriously, intensely, regretting that decision.

It's because of NPR - because of this series they did about the bail bond system in the US. I listened to it a week or two ago, shortly after the last segment aired. And it was one segment in particular - the first - that made me feel absolutely cold with regret and - some other, similar emotion that I really cannot place. A feeling of not doing enough, somehow.

The story within the story that got me: Leslie Chew, an ill-educated  - actually illiterate - man from Texas. Lived in his car, did odd jobs, handyman type stuff, for a meager living. One night, living in his car, it got very cold. He had no money, and stole four $30 blankets from a store. He was caught, arrested, taken to jail. And sucked into the bail-bond system.  [A friend, when I recounted this to her, exclaimed: "My god, it's just like Les Miserables!"]
This man had NO money. That's why he stole blankets worth a total of $120. He didn't have the money to post bail. His bail was set at $3500. Remember the crime: theft of four cheap blankets, to keep himself warm.
When the reporter meets him, Leslie Chew has been in jail for over six months.  He eventually left the jail after eight months - prosecutors gave him time served when he pled guilty. But the catch, the condition, the thing that made me feel like I have done a very bad thing by not going to law school - the catch was that Leslie Chew had to plead guilty to a felony.

a FELONY offence.
for stealing $120 worth of blankets to keep himself warm, because he lived in his car.
four crappy cheap blankets.
eight months in jail - his car was repossessed, all his former customers had moved on.
and a felony conviction on his record for the rest of his life.
You can read a nice summary here of what that means. Some highlights of felony conviction? You may not qualify for public assistance, including welfare, food stamps and federal student loans. You cannot own a firearm. Your ability to travel to other countries (like Canada, for instance) will be affected. You will have a very hard time finding work, because most employers do not want to hire convicted felons, even ones who were convicted for nonviolent offenses like stealing blankets because they were cold.  You lose the right to vote in most states.

Yeah - this man stole some cheap blankets, and lost the right to vote.

How? HOW did this happen? How is this possible?
What am I doing to help?

The answer to that last is: Not a blessed thing.
I could be a lawyer, right now, if I'd stuck with the track. If I'd studied harder, actually worked at those damn logic games, I could be a lawyer right this second. Helping people like this man.

Instead, what do I do?
well. that doesn't bear close examination.
My part-time work as a corporate wage-slave has become almost completely, literally unbearable.

My full-time work as an "intellectual" is - well. My job is to perpetuate privilege.

The NPR story concludes by telling us that Leslie Chew, the blanket-stealing felon, was unable to find work after leaving jail. He even went back to the jail to see if he could have his old job back, mopping floors in the jail. He was turned away; you have to be an inmate for that glamorous work.

The final sentence of the story: "Nobody has seen Leslie Chew since."

I feel incredibly guilty.
I wish I had gone to law school.

03 February 2010

awful advertising, or Valentine's Day brings out the worst

the subject line of an email I received from a clothing company:
"The dress to win his heart... or make him jealous."

Admirable sentiments, yes??

It boggles my mind that there are women in this world who might actually consciously set out to pick out a dress to win a man's heart (as if a dress alone could do it!) or, worse, consciously choose a dress to make a man jealous.

I admit - and confess - that one may pick a dress or other garment with a view toward the reaction of guys in general or a certain gentleman in particular. I myself may - MAY - even have done this. However, I have never intentionally gone looking for a garment specifically to fulfill the purpose of pleasing a guy. Not even "foundation garments" (a phrase which, in my mind, is always uttered by the very prim Tim Gunn).

If only it was as easy as buying the right dress to win someone's heart!
but what kind of heart do you end up with, I wonder, if it can be won by a dress?

02 February 2010

Valentine's Day Conspiracy, or Cupid Can Kiss My Shamrocks

Yesterday, Monday, 1 February 2010 I encountered the following:

  • an email from a charitable nonprofit with a Valentine's special - make a donation in your sweetie's name!
  • a postcard notifying me about a Valentine's weekend special performance at the Pittsburgh Symphony
  • on the homepage of I can has cheezburger, an ad for a Valentine's special run of the "Otters Holding Hands" t-shirt
  • The February issue of Better Homes & Gardens in my mailbox, featuring Valentine's ideas and heart-shaped cookies on the cover
  • a soap-of-the-month titled "Love Me"
  • a Valentine's special flyer and coupons at the salon where I got my hair cut
And this all before 5:00pm, and not including the billboards, bus ads and other advertising I saw around town.

I HATE Valentine's Day. There are so many good reasons to hate it that it's hard to know where to begin.

The first job I ever had (after babysitting) was at a Hallmark shop at the mall. I honed my hatred of V-Day there, but it had been bubbling under the surface for years.
The biggest, most obvious reason: Valentine's Day makes single people feel like absolute and total crap. Whether you're a lifelong spinster or recently dumped, the run-up to the day - and then, the day itself - is organized to make you feel as bad as possible for not having "that special someone" to lavish things upon (or to lavish things on you). Images of happy hetero couples abound. Sly adverts alluding to romance and sex pollute the air. There is no escaping it. All of it carries the message that life is grand when you've got that special someone, and by implication, life sucks and is empty and void of all meaning when you DON'T.

I was interested to discover that it's not just single-girl bitterness underneath my loathing of Valentine's Day. When 14 February rolls around and I find myself in a relationship, I'm just as uncomfortable and angst-ridden as when I'm single (though for some different reasons). 
I hate that there is a designated day to demonstrate your feelings for someone. It makes those feelings, and the demonstration thereof, obligatory. Mandatory. Inauthentic, forced, insincere. If you genuinely care about someone, you shouldn't really need a day to prompt you to show your love. You should do it daily, weekly, monthly.
I hate the materialist component. I think I hate this the most - that things become the way to show your love. That the thing proves, or equals, or in some way measures, your feelings. A cheap gift means you don't care enough. A single carnation isn't enough; it has to be two dozen red roses or nothing. The jewelry better be real diamonds.

I think Valentine's Day is terribly unfair to straight men, actually cruel and punitive. The demands and expectations women have of their partners strike me as appalling and almost unmeetable. Worse, the demands and expectations are often not clearly enunciated in the relationship, so the woman has one set of standards, and the man doesn't know what they are. How can anyone be satisfied this way? The griping and bitching and complaining women do pre-and-post-Valentine's Day makes me feel physically ill. The remarks of "if he knows what's good for him" or "if he expects to get any of this unless" or - oh gods! - "it's a test" - they make me feel awful. What a way to think of, or treat, another person! Your relationship shouldn't be a quid pro quo. If it is, you've got some problems to resolve.
The worst, I think, is the post-Valentine's bitching. The "he only got me this" or "he didn't even take me someplace expensive" or whatever sounds selfish, nasty and ungrateful. Disappointment is one thing, and this i can understand.  I am the girl, after all, whose then-boyfriend spent Valentine's Day on an overnight ski trip with his best female friend. Who had not been skiing since she was a child, but conceived of a sudden, inescapable urge to visit him in the north to go skiing. And could only come on the weekend of 14 February.

But to have done something, to have received flowers and gifts and been taken out to dinner and to STILL be dissatisfied - it's horrifying.

The pressure this puts on men is brutal.
There's also pressure on women, though, of course. Because to make "your man" happy, you probably need some slinky lingerie and a size-2 body with huge boobs. You need to come up with creatively coy and sexy behaviors and activities. And you need an expensive gift of some sort, to prove that you actually care about him.

It's hideous.

There's also the politics of it - this is a pretty resolutely hetero "holiday." It's also an artificial holiday, amplified by the greeting card industry (and probably the chocolatiers of America) to generate profit.

If you're in the very early stages of a relationship, or are about to begin one, then Valentine's Day can be giddy and fun and cute and happy (since, at that stage of a relationship, everything is giddy and fun and cute and happy). You can wear Smittens, and get extravagant flowers because you're moved to give them. You can be cutesy and cuddly and it's okay. Even I feel a bit of a longing for that - V-Day can be really useful in the early stages of a relationship. It can be a way to move into a relationship - the day offers a great excuse/opportunity to go from acquaintances to passionately in love (or whatever passes for that). Awkward about expressing your feelings? V-Day does it for you. and that's nice, or can be. for some people.

But the vast, vast majority of people are not in this situation. And they're being suckered by a massive consumerist culture, and adhering to some very ugly and outmoded gender expectations. People like me, who hate the holiday in any circumstances, are ruthlessly exposed to cliched advertising at every turn.

This year, as in many past years, I'm a singleton. So I get the added fun of having my nose rubbed in the fact that I am excluded from this fundamental joy of life. Our culture is - along with being ridiculously hetero - ridiculously interested in compulsory coupling. If you're not part of a pair, you're seriously left out. For women in particular, this exclusion is emphasized and brought home in any number of not-so-subtle ways. Women have their ways of responding, or coping; the joyous disregard, the going-out-with-the-girlfriends to drink cosmos and gossip. There's sinking into a morass of bitterness. There are odd, sad concepts, like the right-hand diamond ring.

And then there's my model: gritting my teeth and waiting for it to end, like a visit to the dentist. Like a very long - weeks-long - visit to the dentist.

01 February 2010

Living in the Past, or Proust's literary ambitions

So I set aside Swann's Way temporarily; I'm beginning the *Swann in Love* section, and what with the confluence of this, the impending Valentine's Day of Doom, the nonstop bombardment of Love Related shite and my own grim dislike of Valentine's Day, I think I need to take a break. Also, the relentless rememorying that Proust is invoking is starting to wear grooves in my brain.

Not having read the remaining five volumes of A la recherche... I cannot say what its contents are like. I CAN say, however, after reading about 300 pages of Swann's Way, that I am amazed - absolutely flabbergasted - that Proust was "allowed" to write such a book. Minute, detailed, dreamy recollections of childhood - a nonstop memory stream, thus far only marginally enclosed within a plot (the plot, thus far, of course is: memory invoked by tea and madeleines). Synopsis: "I remember." for the Francophones and Quebecois, Je me souviens.

How does one get to write a novel - "novel," pah! - that is essentially a series of one's memories, not focused around any particular event or identifiable linear plot? Just - I remember?

Most memoirs that I've read (not, admittedly, all that many) do have some kind of master narrative, some kind of plot or story they're trying to tell, with carefully selected anecdotes that shed light somehow on the master plot.  No wandering off into hawthorn hedges, unless your next husband, or the director who discovered you, is on the other side of those hawthorns.

But Proust wanders off the path, very diligently, in a dreamy way. I've no idea how he plotted this book; I've no idea how anyone can conceive of a multi-volume work in the first place, but one that meanders through so much memory? And descriptive memory, not so much episodic, plot-driven memory. It's place-driven, actually, oddly enough, which does make sense given the book's title (Du Côté de Chez Swann) - which translates into, more or less, Swann's Way but not exactly. it's more place-ish. chez Swann, Swann's home/place/maison.

It's strange, as well, to read such detailed recollections of childhood. Or perhaps it is all fiction (no. I cannot believe this)? but childhood memories, on and on and on, down this everlasting path of hawthorns and creeks and peculiar characters and churches and Churches.

It's quite how *I* would go about writing my own memoirs, if I had memoirs to write. The one truly interesting thing I've ever done was spend a semester backpacking around western europe by myself; it's the only thing that's really worth the telling. But it would be - forgive the heinous pretentiousness - Proustian in the retelling. That is - we'd spend a LOT of time lounging about trains and gazing at hawthorns and dreaming of church windows. There'd be no travelling from point a to point b, narrative-wise.

I've no talent for plot in writing, this I know. I'm struggling to plot my dissertation, even, though I've had outlines forced upon me. But fiction - I always wanted to write, of course I did; but what do I have to say or tell? All I've ever been good at is very descriptive writing (and then the academic, critical sort that no one wants to read). Very descriptive writing that moves nowhere in particular. In other words: I'm a baby Proust, (without the brilliance, obviously).

The funny thing, the - not really ironic, but odd, queer in the old-fashioned sense of the word, peculiar - thing is that there's nothing else to write about, ever, except the past. Some writers do an all right job of writing in the present tense, of course, but they are fairly rare. Most books are past-tense, whether their narrators acknowledge the post-ness of their tales or not. It makes me wish I'd paid a bit better attention in History of Criticism (which was not, in any way, actually the, or even an, history of anything) when the professor held forth about belatedness.

All storytelling is belated.

the only place we can live is in the present or the past. The future is speculation, fantasy - there may BE no future. any one of us could die in a plane crash tomorrow, and then - bang - story over. We can scrawl a lovely big FIN at the end of that particular story, and leave its ambiguous ending for the critics.

So the only stories we can tell are the ones that have already happened.

Peter Brooks, in an essay I haven't read in years, writes about Freud and the drive to death that drives all of us as readers. The end of the novel is death, and we as readers hasten toward it. With the end of a novel is the end of a world, of a story. It's why serials are so compelling to so many readers; I think it's also why things like fandoms occur (fan fic, the crafting of a world external to, but consisting of, the books, all that sort of thing). But if every book ends with a death (the death of the plot? not the death of the author; we all know the author is dead before we even begin), then - what is the telling but a recap?

if i keep up this strain of thought I'll end up erasing all meaning from both reading and writing, and that's NOT what I'm thinking or meaning.

Just that - to live in one's memory may be inevitable, in some ways.