25 October 2010

why do i care about their oblivion?

today i went - as i often do - to get my bagel from the bagel shop, and my diet coke from the 7-eleven near campus. It was raining and i had my rubber ducks umbrella in use. Umbrellas necessitate some actual concentration when deployed in any kind of public space; on sidewalks crowded with students and hospital employees, the umbrella dangers are innumerable.
So I got my diet coke (read: lifeblood) and was coming out of the 7-eleven, carefully opening my rubber-ducks umbrella (which is delightfully transparent except where printed with rubber duckies), when a girl deep in text, carrying an enormous umbrella, nearly collided with me. She barely looked up as I dodged to avoid umbrella spokes in my eyes.
Keep in mind that I am very mindful of my own umbrella maneuverings. I saw the girl, head down , intent on her little texty gadget, oblivious to the perils of her enormous umbrella and everyone around her, while she was still quite a few steps away. I stepped over to the right-hand side of the pavement, because in the United States, traffic stays to the right. But lost in a cloud of oblivion, Umbrella/Text Girl ended up weaving around on the sidewalk, which is how I nearly collided with her.

Of course, collision averted, no harm done. Right? I went off with my toasty warm bagel and sopping wet trouser hems to lunch and read and grade papers in peace. Except that, before I got back to the Cathedral, I was enraged. The near-collision, the oblivious texter, wound me right up into a serious red rage of frustration, anger and exasperation.
But then, as I waited for the elevator, it occurred to me - for the first time, I'm sad to say - why should  I care about her oblivion?

My objection to texts and cellphones and ipods and technogadgetry is that it takes people out of their immediate surroundings. They are the tools that create the precise opposite of "living in the moment" or "being present" or simply "observation and reflection." And this maddens me, because one of the things I like best about being a live human is the observation and reflection of being present.

But today I wondered why it matters to me if other people are oblivious. I don't text, I don't walk around with my iPod on at all times, I am not incessantly on my phone. In fact, I am rarely doing any of these things, even in the privacy of my own home. When I'm out and about, I'm paying attention: I'm in the moment, I'm eavesdropping and spying and prying and observing and thinking and wondering and watching the weirdly orange squirrels and contemplating the pointlessness of leaf-blowers and smiling when someone awkwardly skateboards along the sidewalk. So MY attention isn't compromised by someone else's oblivion.

Why, then, does it make me feel such angry frustration?

Is it that these oblivious people are causing inconvenience and, more than occasionally, potential danger, for me and/or them? (i cannot begin to count the number of undergrads who have wandered out across a street, without looking, while busily texting, despite the fact that I am driving down that same street. and I know that if I somehow hit a person with my car, i will never, ever be able to live with myself, and so I am angry that they are not more careful. And I drive like a slowpoke nervous-nelly on streets with high populations of clueless undergrads).

Is it that I want them to pay attention, because there are so many more interesting things in this world than some little LCD screen with badly misspelled and hideously-abbreviated characters on it?

Is it that, in this inattentiveness, this oblivion, this text-centered life, people are contributing to the creation of an intensely boring, unobservant, profoundly incurious culture?

Or am I just a jerk?

I would not be surprised if it turned out that I am somehow just a jerk, being snobby and overly critical. Would I object as much if everyone was going around with their nose stuck in a Dickens novel (one of the really good ones, say Bleak House, or The Old Curiosity Shop)??

It's hard to know. Sometimes I feel badly that I even care about this, because it's such a First World Problem. Except - except - somehow, it also isn't. Because inattentiveness and incuriousness help cause and perpetuate non-first-world problems.

Over the years, at least since I became a Single Person again, I have had to think about what qualities I most value in other people. And more and more and more, with every week, really, the two qualities that keep becoming more and more essential are empathy and curiosity. Unfortunate that they are both in extremely short supply, at least in my small pocket of the world...

Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Horror, The Horror!

So, because I am some kind of totally backwards person when it comes to pop culture, I had never seen all of Rocky Horror Picture Show before this weekend. I don't know how this happened. I have seen many a scene and clip and segment at various times on tv over the years, but never have I watched it front-to-back.
Finally, on Saturday, I did.
I'm ashamed to admit that this was in advance preparation for Glee's Rocky Horror Glee Show episode.

Goes without saying: Rocky Horror is AMAZING. I don't know where I've been all my life, especially in my more recent years as a queer-theorist/pop culture semi-academic, that I managed to not see this, but - better late than never.
Tim Curry - divine. Richard O'Brien - just as divine. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

But!! My friendlies, with whom I watched Rocky Horror, are Gleeks of the first water, and both have iTuned and previewed and trailered and researched the Glee episode to bits, so they know essentially everything that will be in the Glee episode.

And the two pieces of information that most upset me are the ones that - I think - are upsetting most RHPS devotees: Mercedes is given the Frank N. Furter role, not in any kind of drag, and "Sweet Transvestite" has been totally eviscerated, lyrically.

WHY in gods name Glee couldn't "get away" with having one of the guys on the show play Frank N Furter is beyond me. evidently, John Stamos was game for it, and was denied; but anyone (except the appallingly un-vocally-talented Cory Monteith) could have made a lovely Frank. My friendly friend put forth the combustible idea that Puck would have killed as Frank - at least in the garters and stockings and corset - which fanned the flames of my imagination. However, Mark Salling is off promoting his album and absent from the travesty.
So: the heart, the core, of the film is taken away. The campiness, the silly decadence, the transness, the queerness, is revoked by making Mercedes play the Sweet Transvestite. She isn't a trans-anything, in this role; she's Mercedes in some tight leather singing a song with the teeth pulled from it.

And how have the joyous chaps over at Glee altered the lyrics of one of THE iconic songs in the film? Why, by making Frank N Furter into a sweet transvestite from sensational transylvania.

{insert long scream of rage here}

Okay. So. I cannot, and evidently the internet cannot, figure out WHY this change was made. "Transsexual" is hardly a vulgar or raunchy term; it's not necessarily the preferred nomenclature, but "trans" is definitely still in circulation in queer circles, and - regardless - "transsexual" is the word in the song. It's offensiveness levels to transpersons is not as strong as many other terms, and - I suspect - it's not nearly as offensive as being erased altogether in favor of "sensational."
From a purely aesthetic perspective - and I feel very comfortable claiming expertise in this one, because words are my job - "Sweet transvestite from transsexual transylvania" is a glorious piece of alliterative consonance. Alliteration exists and works and functions for a variety of poetic reasons, and stripping the phrase of this is like taking all the trimmings off a christmas tree and claiming it's the same bare as it is fully decorated. This new version "sweet transvestite from sensational transylvania" clunks on the ear painfully; it's like reading a particularly glorious passage in Shakespeare, then reading its "translation" in a "No Fear Shakespeare."

But it's the UNQUEERING that I object to most. The queerness of RHPS is its greatness. Brad & Janet are funny, in large part, because they're terribly, horribly, boringly straight. They're caricatures, parodies, send-ups, of a straight couple. And this works because they're plunked into the most antic queer milieu ever. Stripping the queerness and turning it into pink wigs and silly costumes converts the whole of RHPS into a goofy straight halloween party.

And I think that, yet again, the mainstream world sends the Wrong Message. You'd think, after the heightened "awareness" of antiqueer bullying of recent weeks, people would be a little more sensitive to "having to tone down" queerness. And by "tone down" I mean "remove altogether" because - why? It might "offend" someone? Way to reinforce people's negative self-images, and teenagers' self-loathing: you're so wrong and weird and strange that you'll offend viewers! we need to erase your existence altogether!

So the celebration of trans/sexuality of RHPS is sublimated to a straight kids' halloween party. great.
and the Token Gay Boy (because yeah right, a Glee Club would only have one gay boy in it) is assigned the role of Riff Raff (and looks amazing in character, and sings "Time Warp" like a deranged angel - Chris Colfer's talents are just dazzlingly wonderful). It would be, maybe, a cliche to stick Kurt into Frank N Furter's fabulous heels and stockings. But - Mike Chang? Puck? John Stamos? Matthew Morrison, for godsake, who can certainly pull off the song?

I'm disgusted by these decisions. Yeah, it's cool that the Glee kids will be doing the Time Warp. Yeah, it's cool that a bunch of people who never bothered with the original RHPS (me, for example) will check it out. But it's appalling that "transsexual" is pulled from the song; it's even more appalling - it's offensive - that the queerness that makes Rocky Horror great has been taken away.

15 October 2010

fruits of experience vs. experience

 There's this commercial out right now, for some technogadget - a smartphone, maybe - that I absolutely hate. [UPDATE: it's for Verizon; analysis/discussion can be found here]
It shows people in a variety of interesting/important moments, reaching for their phones: a woman in a meeting sees a huge pig balloon; a guy on the beach films bubbles; a pregnant woman has gone into labor and gets her guy.
The catch, or hook, is that while all these things are happening, the people are reaching for their phones to document the moment. The pig balloon and the bubbles aren't really a problem, though frankly, I imagine that anyone taking photos of stuff like that during what looks like a high-powered corporate meeting would probably not be received too positively.
It's the "going into labor" scene that kills me.
The woman walks into a doorway, holding what looks like an overnight bag, and making the universally recognized gestures and expressions for "woman having a baby." The guy, presumably the woman's husband/partner/babydaddy, is sitting on a couch holding his phone. He looks up, sees the Universal Symbols for "I'm In Labor"....and looks back to his phone to text a status update. The commercial voiceover says "own the status update," or something to that effect.

If I was somehow that woman, and I was just announcing to my partner that it was Time to Head to the Hospital, and he responded by sending a text message first, before anything else, that phone would be jammed up his nose so fast his head would spin.

This commercial is a classic example of the thing I have come to hate the most about all this technology we have: that it takes people out of the moment, out of the experience of life, and into some false sense of documentation and sharing.

I see this all the time: kids wandering the city with earbuds in, blasting away, missing out on the cacophony of life happening around them, missing out on the weird overheard bus conversations, the snippets of arguments, of laughter, of weirdness and normalcy and humor that go one constantly.
People at fireworks displays, watching every single burst of color and light through the tiny screen of their cellphone camera. You'll have a great set of pictures of something you never really saw.
True life example: couple with small child at disney world. on the eternal classic/irritant attraction "it's a small world" (and yes, it belongs in quotes). Child is toddler-aged, looking around, ooooh the colors and motion and shiny and so much happening! Mom is reading her emails on her blackberry.
through the entire ride.
at the disembarkation point, as disney workers try to streamline the boarding/exiting process, suddenly, Mom and Dad need a photo of Child Experiencing Ride. Never mind that they couldn't be bothered to pay attention while the ride was happening; never mind that they didn't experience it.

At a lecture recently, the speaker quoted Walter Pater, who (despite my stubborn insistence that I am  a Victorianist, I really am) I have never really read. But this Pater quote just leaped out at me. It's from Pater's book The Renaissance, from the conclusion, where he writes "it is not the fruits of experience, but experience itself" that should be valued, that truly matters.
It isn't the digital photos of the fireworks, it's seeing the fireworks.
It isn't photographing your child at a ride, it's seeing and hearing and discussing the ride with your child.

Life is made up of life, not of a bunch of photos and texts about life.
Fruit goes bad, after all, and in 50 or 75 years those digital photos will be ignored and unremembered and mysterious to everyone who sees them. But the experiences, the life you live, will be with you until you die.
It's almost Platonic, really; do you want the picture of fireworks, or do you want the Real fireworks?
More and more, we seem to be choosing the picture. And this makes me sad. Sending a photo of fireworks to a friend doesn't mean that either of you have experienced anything except the transference of some pixels. There is no there there.

Walter Benjamin, in "The Storyteller," writes that society is replacing experience and story with information. Benjamin wrote that in the late 1930s, not too terribly long before he committed suicide rather than face deportation - and almost certainly, death - at the hands of the Vichy French and Nazis.
Either nothing ever changes, or Benjamin was a prescient, almost psychic, man (I suspect this latter - Benjamin's brilliance makes prescience and psychic ability seem utterly reasonable).
Information, data, pixels, bytes.
fireworks, conversations, toddlers giggling over colorful mechanized animals.

Laughing and gulping and hugging your partner as she goes into labor, not posting an update to Facebook, to people you call "friends" but probably wouldn't recognize if you passed them on the street.

I know which world I want to live in - the one of life, of experience, of doing and being and engaging with people and things and ideas and sights and smells and tastes and sounds and all the fireworks of everyday existence. I want tiny horses, not just pictures of tiny horses.

I don't want to reject wholly the things that technology can bring us. But I want to make sure that the fruits of experience don't overwhelm the experiences themselves. I don't want the picture to become more important than the person.

I want the tiny horses to be gazed at, looked at, admired, considered, contemplated, even if there is no camera in the room, and no one to share the story with.