My Anniversary, Rosy Thornton, and Love

So yesterday was my anniversary of being married to Amanda for 11 years, and for the 11th time, I woke up yesterday with a sudden humble realization of who it was that I had married.

There is a part of me that wanted to wait to write something about it, today. There are two kinds of people you remember in this world. I have a tendency towards the grand gesture, myself, and that puts me into one type. Living with me, on a day to day basis, is I'm sure immensely frustrating, because I'm really only good at these little stabs of kindness, flashes of very bright light as it were.

Over the last month, though, I've been reading a book Amanda recommended to me, a romance by Rosy Thornton called Crossed Wires. Usually romances depict the grand gesture, and so people confusedly think that the grand gesture is what healthy love is built on. Crossed Wires has in it no moment like this - in fact, the one moment that MIGHT have been a grand gesture ends up being a big mistake that muddles up the relationship for a while. Crossed Wires, instead, is the story of two people who fall in love over a stream of a thousand kindesses, a thousand tiny beauties that they notice in each other.

This is the kind of beloved Amanda is, which is why originally I wanted to wait until today to write about her - Amanda is not, to me, the wife of the anniversary or the birthday. When I think of Amanda, I do not think of bright moments punctuating the dark. Amanda instead is better, becasue hse burns steady and true all the time. Being married to Amanda is not like an Anniversary, where you are waiting for the moment when they do whatever it is they've planned, its comforting and continuous and immensely, immensely powerful, which is very different.

At the same time, now that I write my post up on the morning after my anniversary, I wish I had written it yesterday. I have a tendency to romanticize the unexpected - to, in fact, react to the steady, comforting stream of being loved by a saint by trying to make my little flashes brighter and brighter, so that hopefully they'll last a bit longer until the next time I remember to flash (and hopefully brighten up the muddle I make of loving someone day to day and being loved). The thing I've learned from being married to Amanda, though, is that love is about kindness, not about impressions. It's about comfort, not about roller-coasters. And the irony, of course, is that as much as I am confused, awed, sometimes even slightly frightened to realize how much my wife loves me, the more it makes me want to love better in return - Amanda makes me want to be unselfish and kind.

Yesterday, I ended up running errands for a big chunk of the day. One errand was getting my haircut. The hair stylist ws cutting my hair and asked me how I was, and my first instinct was to complain - it had been a long day, and one filled with lots of little worreis. IT's easy, and it's my tendency, to perceive life as a battle. But I realized that while I coudl recite lots of things that COULD be unpleasant things, that in fact, I flet very calm and quiet and happy - something that is admittedly not my most common impression. So I responded back, "Oh, I'm wonderful. Today is my anniversary." And I wished, very much that I was holding Amanda's hand. Here's to another year, and hopefully one where I can hold it more often, more steadily, more like Amanda holds mine.

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Fear and a Handful of Dust

I made a snide comment earlier today, about Victor Hugo, how certain elements exist in all his books - this was in mind, because I've just finished listening to my third of his novels: Toilers of the Sea, a very Hugo-ish novel about a man from one of the Channel Islands struggling against the elements. I loved the novel to death, another consistent element of Victor Hugo novels, that I neglected to mention this morning. It was wonderful, I listened to the end while grocery shopping, and knew just where it would end up pretty early on, but just about started crying walking the aisles of the grocery store.

So, if I enjoyed it so much, why did I feel the urge to make a snide comment?

In specific, here is what I said:

"How to recognize a Victor Hugo novel:
1) Accidental love triangle
2) Heroic Gesture
3) Suicide near the end
4) Tangents
5) French People"

I do not intend to make of this comment more than it was. I think it sounded not too mean-spirited, a sort of gentle ribbing between friends. So, this post will not be one of my confessionals, I promise. But the question itself is interesting to me - why, if I really enjoyed the novel, did I feel the need to be snarky about it? I didn't say anything nice about it, which is what one would expect in a perfect world where I loved the novel. Why?

Well, I will tell you, after much thinking - it's a kind of self-defense. I don't think this is particularly uncommon. To love a thing is to give power to it, and power to others who know of your love. Love is a distilled and keened kind of vulnerability. And we live in a world, honestly, where it's necessary to keep yourself safe. Say all you will about how it should be from a practical standpoing, but having had people laugh over things I thought were sacred and beautiful, and it's a painful thing. I've done the laughing too, I know how easy - and socially acceptable - it is to twist each other's knives. 

Fear of other people (or of myself in the midst of other people, more precisely), though, is a theme I probably talk abotu too much already. What's more interesting is that part of this fear, this vulnerability is a vulnerability to the book itself. 

People spend a great deal of time talking about how a book can change your life for the better, how books can salve wounds, or staunch sorrows, or teach lessons. But people seldom mention the ways a book can stab you, mock you, or break your heart. In order to let a book change you, you HAVE to unshield yourself. 

I have experienced this myself, in the best and worst of books. I read a book earlier this year that nudged me into a good few months of depression. I read a Jeffrey Archer book when I was about 12 that has a scene that has gnawed painfully at me ever since. Nor is it simply a matter of 'this book really made me sad'. In my more lucid moments, I can look at some of the books that I love, and see what they've made of me - and how it is sometimes a bad thing. Victor Hugo is a good example, one that probably goes back to why I avoided being honest with myself in my tweet.

I read Les Mis a long, long time ago, and loved it. Something in the way it echoed and spoke felt very familiar and honest to me. The problem is, of course, Hugo is a wild-eyed romantic idealist, and the echoes of his hopes for a lot of things - for love, for revolution, for the success of virtue over the world - do not necessarily reflect the world. One of the reasons I never dated in high school (one reason, of many), for instance, is because all of my favorite love stories (Valjean and Fantine, Quasimodo and Esmeralda, to an extent Romney Leigh and Aurora Leigh) were these wild, chaste, hopeless loves, loves that cannot be, and that are beautiful because they exist precisely BECAUSE they cannot be. Love, in real life, doesn't work that way. When I did finally get married, this desire for the ideal, for a love affair that told a story, instead of a love affair that was real and present, gnawed at me, made me feel as if I was failing to live up to my ideals, made me do wildly, stupidly foolish things as a result. I don't BLAME this on Victor Hugo (and his various friends). To write an ideal is beautiful and valuable, and I would be horrified if I could forget I'd ever read them. To an extent, this part of Hugo is so imbued into me, now, that I can't even realistically tell you 'this is where I stop and Hugo starts' - I am to an extent the man that Les Miserables made me (along with many other books). But, to be the man that Les Miserables made me is as dangerous (for me and others) as it is comforting. 

Yesterday, Ms Amy put up a quote about characters on Tumblr, and I think it gnaws, in a way, at the duality of this power. The thing that caught me up most in the quote was that the book tv show, in this case, tore her in two different directions: it made her wonder if she could keep watching, and knowing she won't ever not watch. There is something horrible about a well-written character, a great and terrible part to it, because if we allow ourselves to engage entirely with a book, then we can feel for these figments of someone else's imagination as powerfully as for a real person. This is a dangerous proposition, one that produces situations that are almost, ALMOST horrifying. When I look back on my childhood, and try to think of the people I felt closest to, I felt far closer to Anne Shirley, Ozma, Galadriel, than I did to any of my real life friends. There is a little part of me that thinks of Wuthering Heights as a companion from high school who has stayed closer to me than any of my other companions of that time. And my relationship with Emily Dickinson, now, bears a sort of emotional intimacy in my mind, a sort of seriousness and intensity, that makes me feel at times as if I am waiting for a friend to come home who never will. But, you don't talk about it this way in real life, in everyday. IF you do, it's a joke, it's playing. Celebrating Emily Dickinson's birthday is a silly thing. REmembering how I felt about Galadriel is sort aww-cute-adorable in the way that we react to any story about the innocence of childhood. I see other people say things about books, and sometimes, I think I sense that same hesitance, that same sort of terrified self-ignorance, and I wonder if this is something other people feel.

The other thing Ms Amy's quote did, the thing that finally made me change the original topic I was going to write about in reaction to Toilers of the Sea (the idea of 'struggling against nature' and 'subduing nature'). In the middle of the quote, as she talks about how a character exists in the nether regions of the emotions she inspires, she (mis)quotes T.S. Eliot's most famous quote: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." The full quote is longer:

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I will not begin to pretend that I knew what Eliot 'meant' in the Wasteland. I know people spend their lives trying to understand the poem. But for me, this gnawed at me, when I first read it, and again when I saw this in the midst of Amy's quote yesterday. To me, feeling about a person is like carrying a shadow - we can never carry a shadow on purpose, because it isn't really there, but we carry one continuously nevertheless, a shadow that can loom larger and larger as the sun gets cloer and farther from the horizon, until night when the shadow melt into the omni-shadow of lightlessness, and everyone's shadows sort of mingle until the sun returns to tease our bits apart into individual self. Emotions are only safe because, at some level, like a shadow they remain attached when the sun comes up. We each carry our own, and noone else's. To love a thing we have made up ourselves, or interpolated from a book, this is different. There is nothing casting the shadow, it's like a reverse kaleidoscope, little shafts of shadow ever whirling inwards and inwards on themselves, inescpable, and ever comingling, perhaps to form our own shadows. Imbued with meaning, but completely ineffable, inseperable (this happens, eventually with people too, we create our own internal shadows of them). But that is the handful of dust - the infinitely ineffable, gathered together to stare at, to see the two simultaneous horrors, that that which we thought was nothing, was escapable, is in fact a thing, a thing that comes about and can be held in the hand, and msut be reckoned, and at the same time, that all the significances of the world, all the things we feel matter, are just as much nothing as this nothing. Shadows falling, overlapping, combing and shifting, passing through each other, affecting and reflecting (or the reverse of reflecting), but still at some level, atomic, able to touch and combine only in the darkest, shortest moments. This simultaneous isolation into individuality, and knowledge that one's self is simply an absence, the reverse shadow of all the things that have made it, is the struggle that religions have been born over, that philosophers have tried to rationalize, that humans conquer nations and throw themselves off bridges for. And narrative is as close as we can get to it, which is it's combination, in a way of horror and power and beauty all at once. 

People always quote Nietzsche when he said that if you stare at the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back. Then why do men stare at the abyss so long? Maybe it's that the abyss is the only thing that can truly stare back.

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Thoughts on Heroism From the Odyssey

With Ms Trish's recently completed readalong (which I did a horrible job of contributing to, sorry Trish), I have read the Odyssey three times now. I've read three different translations (my favorite, though I know this is geeky, is the old, inaccurate poetic one by Alexander Pope). I've been told the story in a number of forms outside of this, I've even read Ulysses.

And every time I read this story, my main impression of it is strengthened: that Odysseus and Telemachus are big jerks.

Let me apologize, this is in some ways my failing. I am aware of why I don't like him - it's the classic issue of a 21st century reader trying to sympathize from someone from a very different time and place. Intellectually I can understand this, but it doesn't change the fact that I really loathe the guy. He's just not very nice. At all. Ever.

Looking at WHY I dislike him so much, however, was kind of illuminating to me, so since I want to at least show that I MEANT to be a good participant in the readlong, I will try to put a few of these thoughts down.

Of course, at one level, it's very simple to explain why I dislike Odysseus. He's a misogynistic, violent, seemingly unloving man, dishonest on a whim, unabashed about taking advantage of others, and cruel to even the slightest failing of others (killing the maids of the house because they had sex with teh suitors puts the final nail in for me). But then, of course, I'm left to step back, and ask myself: why was a man like this considered heroic? And why do I hate him so much, when I can like other heroes from later in history that are obnoxious in their own ways? Why, in short, does Odysseus, whether I like him or not, not feel like a hero, when clearly he is meant to?

The trick, for me, in looking closely is that Odysseus's heroism is almost entirely selfish. Throughout the book, his entire purpose is for himself - he wants to get home, and get his life back. HE wants to be back with his wife, but only after he's tested her loyalty. He wants to meet his son, but only if he's worthy of him. He wants to reward those loyal to him, and punish those who were not. In Odysseus's character there is not. one. single. shred. of altruism. No ideals, no grand purpose, or meaningful direction. He just wants to get home, get his stuff back (his wife being more or less just slightly noisier stuff from his point of view, by the way), and get back to being the king.

At some level, this is honest. After all, at some level someone like, say, Joan of Arc to take a somewhat more contemporary mythic hero, is much more selfish. Sure, she goes out with a purpose - to save France and glorify God - but it's not really out of the goodness of her heart. The religious martyr can never do anything truly selfless, because every good thing becomes an investment in some future heaven. Joan's suffering, in some sense, doesn't matter to her, because she knows that when she dies, if she remains faithful, god will pluck her up and reward her for her goodness.

In some sense, then, the closest character to this modern martyr-hero model in the Odyssey would be, say, Eumaeus, the faithful swineherd who is a slave to Odysseus, and who could have made his life easier by being craven with the suitors, but who is loyal to his 'god', believing that when his master returns (or when he dies and the Gods see what kind of slave he was), he will be rewarded.

Not all modern heroes are martyrs, of course. Not all are even saints, to be honest - one of the more popular heroes of the last few years would be Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. And he's the latest in a long series of rogue heroes - Han Solo is another great example. This woudl seem to be much closer to the old Odysseus model. Sparrow is not a paragon of virtue - on the contrary, his entire motivation is simply to get his ship back, to be captain again, etc. But here too there are differences, two of them really - one the writer juxtaposes the rogue character against someone truly wicked (Captain Barbossa, say, or the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader), making the rogue the lesser of two evils. Who is the greater evil in the Odyssey? The suitors? There's some argument to be made for this, but not to the same extent, particularly because of the second reason: rogue heroes are always underdogs. If they aren't, they cease to be heroes. Third, the sins of an underdog must be presented as, more or less, venial. Sparrow was a pirate, yes, but notice you never see him kill anyone except for Barbossa, you never see him rob anyone who can't manifestly afford it, etc. Of course, a moment's thought will tell us - thi sis a pirate. Of course in the normal everyday line of his business, he's going to rob a ship, which will require the use of martial force, and the indiscriminate robbery of the cargo no matter who it belongs to. But if he did these things on screen, his desire for a ship would cease to be easy to empathize with. Finally, rogues are pretty much universally comic characters, usually even a bit clumsy and clownish. In a serious picture, we'd engage the thinking part of our brain, the part that makes judgements.

Then of course there is the unbelievably competent hero - the action hero for instance. Take, Gibbs, from Amanda's favorite show, NCIS. Taciturn, endlessly loyal, impossibly talented, always wins. This is more the fantasy type - the man designed to be somenoe we yearn for, yearn to be or yearn to be with (Lara Croft, for instance, might be a female example). At surface level, I would say these are unlike Odysseus as well - again, they are always devoted to something - they are patriots, or protectors, or altruists, etc.

But in a sense, this is the closest equivalent we have to Odysseus, the man who is washed ashore after a shipwreck, and nonetheless can outplay the best people in the land at any sport, who can slip in and kill all the suitors almost singlehandedly, who could outwit the entire city of Troy. And this sort of points out the most interesting fact to me - that the main difference is simply one of cultural values. We, as a culture, value patriotism, and protecting the honor of or our country. The Greeks, at least in the evidence of the Odyssey AND the Iliad, fought more for the honor of the individual. There's some overlap in tribe and family loyalties, but even there, these things are mostly shown as simply extensions of the individual - Odysseus protects Penelope because her honor is his honor. When a friend dies in the Odyssey, it is sad because Odysseus has lost something useful or pleasing to him. To an extent, when a friend dies in NCIS, it is Gibbs' duty to pay back the affront, rather than something he does to protect his honor.

This points not to some civilizing effect of progress, I think, but rather simply shows that there are certain things in our current heroes that are equally ephemeral - heroes from a hundred years ago, for instance, often feel dated to us now, so will ours in a hundred years or so. So the hero who is a model of a 'perfect man' will appear less than perfect with time. And I would venture to say, that's a good thing. Gibbs, at a base moral level, isn't a morally superior hero really, and patriotism isn't really more productive, in the long term (or less selfish) than selfish defense of personal honor - after all, we could not fight wars without patriots, on BOTH sides of the conflict.

But then, of course patriotism has it's purposes, and is not an unalloyed evil. Patriotism and Nationalism, in many ways, were the birthing mothers of republicanism and democracy in the western world - they give a natural scope to a people's ambitions. Patriotism, additionally, does sometimes impel people to truly selfless acts in the defense and for the greater good of a group. The problem in the heroic formula of patriotism (or any other unshakeable loyalty) is in it's absolutism. A Gibbs would never, no matter what, betray his country. Just as an Abraham would never, no matter what, betray his god. In both cases, this produces an impetus in the unhealthy mind, towards extremism, in ways that it isn't difficult to find tragic examples of.

The personal honor of Odysseus, then, is very similar after all. Personal honor is not an unabashedly bad thing. A healthy respect for one's own individual welfare and reputation is, after all, at some level the basis of lawful civil society - there is never sufficient punishment available to deter crime, crime must be deterred because committing it has a social cost that is higher than it's physical benefits. Enlightened self-interest is a building block of civilization. Taken too far, though, it becomes the selfishness and mean-spirited hate of Odysseus.

The question, to me, then becomes what is the value of heroes? IS there forms of heroism that are valuable throughout generations? Or is heroism simply a structure we design to impel people to act in socially useful ways? What do you guys think? And with the age of nationalism and patriotism slowly in the decline, I think (a debatable point, I understand), what will be the next definition of hero, and will it be any better?

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The Products of Writing While Angry

I've just finished reading 'Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman', an unfinished novel by Mary Wollstencraft, and there is something that has been gnawing at me, an idea that Virginia Woolf presented in 'A Room of One's Own.'

Let me preface by saying that I'm glad I read this book, although it was VERY unfinished. But, the thing that gnawed at me was that the plot, while marvelously creative, is sometimes hijacked by the writing, and that this particularly gives one the feeling that, sometimes, the players in the book are there, sometimes, simply because there is another wrong Ms W wanted to display. There is no median life, there is no examination of an issue, simply a recitation of the author's opinion. And if the book was completed in the vein it was going (understanding of course that it WAS unfinished, and so this is only the bones of the work), I'm not really sure it would have been as powerful as she wanted - at least in the way she wanted. Reading it, I didn't feel a lot of emotion for the characters in the book, simply emotion for the woman who must have lived a life to inspire her to write the characters in the book (so, her anger on the pages DOESN'T come across as distant or sanctimonious the way that, say, Dickens does to me sometimes). At some level, the book is simply a melodrama, and a didactic melodrama at that. And this isn't in spite of, but rather BECAUSE you can feel how much the writer WANTS you to understand what it is she's trying to say.

So this returned me to Woolf, who in A Room of One's Own, at one point basically goes to explain why the writing of women over the last several hundred years was inferior to that of men (leaving aside, for a moment, whether this supposition is even true). One of the explanations she came up with was that a writer like, say, Charlotte Bronte had so much a sense of injuistice and anger that it imbued into her work and left it imperfect. Her basic point (and I'm wildly parpahrasing, and not a scholar to start with, so please correct me) was that someone like Shakespeare could only write what he wrote because he was comfortable enough and lived a just enough life that he need not feel anything that got in the way of his execution. (the idea of this is particularly fascintaing to me reading Woolf's own work)

This was a troubling idea to me when I first read it, and it's only become more troubled over the years. Something like, say, the poetry of Shelley is powerfully imbued with his own emotions, and this is part of why it's so powerful. It's difficult for me to imagine, say, Ozymandias being written without the fire of revolutionary fervor that sustained Shelley's life. This fire isn't subdued to keep it from tainting his work, it's instead the flames of it that burn bright enough for him to write by, in a way. This is true of any of the romantics to my mind, or as another example, to the Beat writers of the 50's.

But at the same time, one is left with the nagging question - why is it that feeling somethign powerfully can get in the way of expressing it? At some level, one CAN imagine it being easier for, say, Wollstencraft's romantic partner, one level removed from the problem of woman but still interested in the question, to write a powerful novel decrying it than she did (I speak this with some ignorance, I haven't read his novels that deal with anarchism and other ideas, yet, but the point I hope stands). I've done this myself - writing poems about things immediate and pressing can sometimes trick me into just shouting, instead of taking the time to consider and think. The more feeling, the more the lips are shut, in a sense.

But then, on the other hand, how are the problems in Maria more immediate to Wollstencraft than, say, the problems in 'Daddy' or 'Lady Lazarus' are to Sylvia Plath? And with Ms Sylvia, it's the immediacy and inevitably that reality imbued in her that MAKE those poems powerful, I think. If she had been writing about someone else's problems, as it were, she wouldn't have written as well.

Sometimes, I think, this is simply a matter of temperament. There are those tho feel things in such a way that the very feeling of them clarifies them, and then there are those who must muddle through a feeling, and look at it in hindsight before they can describe. The one can write something more fiery and scorching (say, Lady Lazarus), the other perhaps something with the power of nostalgia and hindsight, slower and more balanced (a good example might be A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or even in a different way, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), and still others may be better of writing about the problems of others, playing advocates better than confessionals (maybe Les Miserables).

Another  idea, maybe, is simply that we've learned to write the fiery present better over time. The confessional poets are, after all, in many ways a break from the past, as were the Romantics. But this is always a troubling idea - expressing what you feel is, after all, one of the oldest human urges, and it isn't too hard, no matter how far back one goes, to imagine that there are contradictions to a line of 'when people figured it out'. There is, perhaps, something to be said for the older literary bias against emotional writing (which does, after all still exist - how many scholars out there still think Plath is only beloved because she killed herself, and is in fact only a minor poet?). But it's difficult to make this a blanket reason.

Perhaps a better explanation is in the idea of literary crticism itself. I have over the past year read some Plato, and his quotation of Socrates, and one of the things that continously gnaws at and bothers me is this emphasis on 'perfection' and the ideal. Read, for instance, Socrates almost gleefully discarding 95% of the mythological, musical, and literary traditions as one of the precursors to describing the perfect state in 'The Republic', and if you love diversity of voices like me, you'll shudder a bit. So much of the ancient philosophy centers on teh ideal, the perfect. There isn't any such thing, and NOT for the reasons I was taught as a child I think, not because we're not CAPABLE of perfection the way Christianity has taught through the years. One of the reasons, at some level that it's difficult for me to imagine a fair version of Christ or Heaven is that is impossible for one person or place to be just what every human being would want it to be - one cannot hold that many contradictions in one object. Christianity classically took this issue and flipped it upside down, just as Plato does, and says that htis is simply because most people have not discovered, or fully understood, what it is that is ideal for them. IF we all knew everything, and understood fully the plans of God, we would all want the same thing - to sublimate our individuality, and become a piece of god, having sacrificed everything, including our selfdom. I can see the nobility in this idea, but I can also the vice in it - it is painful for me to read the Odyssey right now, and see how, for instance, the swineherd is praised for essentially becoming no more than an extension of his master.

It is my supposition that perfection cannot exist, becuase there IS no ideal, no one perfect state. Happiness is intrinsically contraidctory when described as a universal state, and there is no recipe for it, or even any universal test to see if it has been attained. This is, after all, the root of what makes human existence so isolating - each of us is prisoner of our own head, unable to open the door sufficiently to crawl out, or let anyone else crawl in. All we can do is hold things up to the bars so that the prisoners nearby can see them, perhaps occasionally reach something through so that someone else can touch them. For us, then, to assume we know the outlines of happiness, then, is to assume that each mind is essentially identical - it is to assume that difference is intrinsically wrongness, imperfection. The closest, after all, that the greeks seemed to come to appreciating difference, was in describing friendship or the idea of a soul mate - which is not so much saying difference is good, as that difference is something that can only be overcome by borrowing things from each other - that the differentness of the two individuals is a wrongness, but a remediable one, if only they can find each other.

But, this wrongness-feeling is deeply embedded in our culture, perhaps one might suppose looking at the behavior of animals sometimes towards their own outliers and freaks, genetic. And when it is inculcated day to day, it's very difficult to overcome. Looking at Maria through that lens, you can see Wollstencraft (or Dickens in some of his work, or Shelly in Prometheus Unbound, or Browning in her social justice poetry, or a thousand other examples) running against the edge of a cliff that she has been taught never to look past, for to look is to desire something wrong, it is to step over that cliff, and surely die. So, they stand at the edge of the cliff and wail that they cannot step off it, struggle to understand how to consign their 'imperfections' to a world that demands a standard they (or others whom they defend or love) are ill-suited to. So, to read the book with no appreciation of it's context, is to read dull, noisy circles, whirlpooling around a vortex that we want to understand, but never allowing itself to be sucked in. But, to read Maria, understanding how it must have felt to want to write it, but to be unable, to wish to be and not be all at once the thing that you are, that's a very different experience, and one I'm glad I had. After all, it's not so different from what some of us do now

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Lovebirds Challenge

First of all, I'm sorry I haven't been very talkative for a very long time. It's been a wild year, but I won't do a long, tiresome 'guess what I did last indefinite-time-period' post for you, I promise. 

Instead, I wanted to let you know, Amanda and I are doing a little challenge together. Of course, I imagine you all already know that, since you posted it on her blog already, here. But I'm telling you again. So there. 

Amanda and I have WILDLY different tastes, at times, so picking lists for her was somethign of a challenge, my sense of defeatism tells me she'll probably hate the two books I shouldn't have put on there... :D. But, I am excited about the ones she chose for me! I am so horrible about reading anything contemporary, it's fun to have someone push me into it in spite of myself. So I will be reading:

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi - I've heard from everyone and their dog that this book is wonderful, so I'm looking forward to it. I really don't know that much about Iranian history, either, so it will be good to brush up.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn - I honestly, intended to read this anyway. Word play, parable, semi-dystopia, epistolary, messages about what language means, cleverly funny title...
Plain Kate by Erin Bow - It's a fairy tale retelling, with a talking animal, that Amanda liked. Honestly, this is a confluence of factors so rare as to make the book valuable with no further explanation.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta - I don't know a lot about this book, but I do know it has a pedophile that is apparently an actual human being instead of a soulless monster, and it has Kate Winslet on the cover... I like Kate Winslet. She just seems like such a wonderful person.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - The only one of Mr. Neil's books I've ever read is Blueberry Girl, and one book of Sandman comics. Mr Pratchett, I only know that Ms Nymeth loves him to death. And this book plays unshrinkingly with Christian Eschatology, which is awesome.

So, we'll see. I'm MORE worried Amanda will be coming to me in March, going 'Oh God, Jason, do I HAVE to finish this challenge?" ;P

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God Desires, but Cannot Yearn

Each single soul for a thousand thousand years
Has longed for something.
Six billion tiny vials of desire
That yearn and grasp
At something, something, something.

A thousand thousand years ago,
When first a creature
Something like a man,
Stood up and stared across a lake, alone.
We yearn to remember what he had,
To reclaim the secret germ
Of what-we-cannot-name.
The fruit of a tree in a garden
We wish we could vomit back up --
The burning flame of sword set
Tight in an angel's fist --
The flutter of a fig-leave
Across a lover's thighs --


"A thousand thousand years ago," we cry,
"You, man who stood and looked across a lake, alone.
Who first could hear the echo in himself
When a gull cried out,
What did you know that we forgot?""

He does not answer.

But, I will tell you.
I will tell you what his secret was --
For I dreamed him up,
I wrapped my legs around him as I slept,
And murmured in his ear.

He murmured back, the primeval rolling gurgle
Of a voice choked in the dust his cattle stamped into the air,
A voice soaked deep with the sweat of his brow,
Soaked in the blood of the sacrifice,
Soaked in the moans of a woman giving birth.

And I will tell you what he said.


He woke the first time, long ago,
Before the serpent or the fruit,
Before the lake or gull or cooking fire.

He woke in a garden laid rich with all
The things God left nameless.
God asked him to go out and name these things --
But he would name nothing, but the little stream.
He looked at it, and ached,
And named it "I-have-longed."

It was then god thought to lay him to sleep,
To shiver out his rib,
To draw it long and flesh and bone.
And then to slip away while still his little playthings slept.

He woke, he told me, and saw her,
Sitting close,
A moan trapped in her throat,
Her eyes trained on the stream.

She turned and looked into his eyes,
And murmured soft as the young and tender sun,
"Come brother, come.
Come yearn with me -- I do not know what for."

And they sat together by the banks of "I-have-longed",
And yearned for something,
Something they could not name,
From a thousand thousand years before they came.

(Image by Madamepsychosis)

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...and I stick my shest, and I'm off to the races again!

So, Ms Trish recently posted something about 'Newsies!', kind 'cause I told her she should. So, I kinda feel bad now, beause, kinda I told her I was posting something about it. I've had these funny thoughts rolling around in my head around it for a few weeks. If you don't like musicals, or long drawn out overthought analyses of what amounts to a silly cabaret number, you may want to skip this post.

Because I not only will talk about Newsies, I will be talking about what is possibly the most underloved part of the film: the song 'High Times, Hard Times'.

For those of you who may be in the dark, Newsies was a movie-musical made back in the 90's, telling (loosely, mind you) the story of the Newsboys Strike in New York City around the turn of the century, when the newsboys of New York stood up  to a pay cut from the likes of Pulitzer and Hearst. If you've never seen it, go now. Educate yourself. You can even watch the whole thing for free, on Youtube: starts here.

I LOVED this musical. It's corny, yes, it's unrealistic, the New York and the inhabitants of it look kind of like the idea you'd get of people-a-long-time-ago from reading Oliver Twist mixed with O Henry stories. They are the sort of adorable, good-hearted gamins that only exist in novels - and they dance, excellently, which just adds to the sense of realism, of course. But it's also wonderful, and full of songs that are great to sing along with, slightly unbelievable New York accents included (I am too timid to try the dancing, admittedly). And, what's more... alright, now here's where you'll chuckle and turn away from me... whether it's on purpose or not, it's also a wonderfully meaningful movie.

Possibly, as I said, the most reviled part of the movie by it's critics is the cabaret number. The Newsies decide to have a rally to build up support and excitement, and of course the lead character happens to be friends with a burlesque lady. And she's played by Ann  Margaret. Yes, that Ann Margaret, the one in all the old Elvis movies (and in my wife's personal favorite, 'The Villain'). So, they do some untrained speechifying, and then, as the cops slip in to bust up the rally, the 'Swedish Songbird' performs a little musical number, entitled 'High Times, Hard Times.'  So, here you go, the scene in question:


Mostly just the first 2-3 minutes. And since I know you'll want to sing ALONG, here's the singalong version:


So, now.

Now you're REALLY thinking I'm crazy, right?

But wait a minute. There's two sides of why I like this song (well, three, the third being that it's really fun to sing at the top of your lungs). On one side, look at Ann Margaret herself. Ann Margaret... ok, I'm just going to assume she's not reading my blog. She's kind of scary. No, I mean it. Ann Margaret - particularly in the garish stage makeup she wears in the scene - looks kind of phantasmagoric, kind of livid and desperate. Look how thrilled she is at the end of the song, and reflect, she performing for a bunch of teenage or younger kids, for free. In a movie where EVERYONE is spry and choreographed, Medda moves around the stage with an aching, tottering sort of leftover grace. She really FEELS like a cabaret girl spinning out the ends of a career beyond the realm of believability. Think, for a moment, most low class women in New York wouldn't even LIVE as long Ann Margaret, back then. She sings this terrifically banal little ditty, with it's implied dirty jokes, and forced rhymes, in this awful imitation of a Swedish accent.

But you know what, I think it's SUPPOSED to feel awful. Watch her as she's dragged off stage by the police, crying out to them to stop, that they're only children, and you see a real person, and you realize, the woman who they are wolf-whistling is less like a stripper and more like a mother for them (the chemistry is priceless earlier in the film with her, as well, and I recommend watching the whole thing). So, there comes the question - why put this scene in? Why take this nice 'hooker with a heart of gold' character and make her sing a cabaret piece? Roger Ebert, for his part, thinks it was just an excuse to stick an Ann Margaret number in the middle of the film. I don't.

Look now for a minute at the boys. Like I said, they crowd around the stage, wolf-whistling and cat calling, and shouting out that they're in love. The kids, here, already know how you are to behave, here - and it's easier to read this as a simple 'gosh, men were kind of trashy back then'. And there is that, too - if you want to see the genesis of a culture where women were objects, and men could do whatever they wanted with them, here it is, children being taught that this slowly dissolving woman is a piece of meat to be thrown on the skillet and eaten up.

But, there is more than that. These kids are miserable, poor little castoffs, the refuse of a city where most of the citizens were considered expendable anyway. And aside from the young hormones, there's somethign else to - a moment of communion and joy. And that's the real pain of this scene, to me. Nobody in this scene wants to be a monster, they all want to just be human, to have real relationships and joy, just simple joy. And this is the only place in their life that, for a moment, they're allowed to let their guards down, just a bit, and be, in a weird sort of way, actually children again. Taken to the cabaret, they are allowed to play. And, then, again, this is such a painful moment, this forced, cancerous sort of exuberance, both because you can see it training them to STOP being humans, to be animals, servants of the moment, instead of masters of their destinies (and to do this to others). Both sides of the exchange are broken, deeply broken. This mother gathers up the lost children of the city, only instead of a hen gathering her chicks beneath her wings, it's a 'floozy' gathering her children up in the folds of her poorly-cut dress. This is all they have, and even it is just a tool of a culture that wants to grind them into trained animals, and even this, is taken away.

And then, at the SAME time, as they're busted up, you see the mother, for a moment, shorn off from the ugliness of it all, by the very ugliness she's being attacked with, and for a moment, she's simply a woman who wants, so terribly much, to be kind, to take care of these children, there's simple human kindness, unmixed with any society's structures.

That's the mixture of things there, for me, and there's no pretty solution, just what happens at the end - a bunch of kids, still half-blinded by the very giants they're trying to overthrow, pushing back against the bulwarks of a society that wants them to learn to be dogs instead of men. And you turn the film off, and it's kind of pitiful, you realize, it isn't really like that, as Jack puts it at one point, they really were 'beat when they was born.' None of these kids are really any better off for all the courage, they're earning an extra halfpenny per paper, and on the road to being the dogs that the world is still teaching them to be. Jsut dogs with one fun little story to tell their puppies. That's it, nothing more.

And yet, 100 years later, the world, truly, has changed. And that's the juxtaposition that's so exciting, and confusing, and terrifying, and beautiful. Somehow, failure after failure after failure, in the end, the world changes

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To Think in Curves

Parabolic vectors float 
across a sea of simple blank.
The soul transfixed with formulas
Dependence, duodecima,
I saw it start just as it sank -
Unknowing, keep its path by rote.

The flexibility of curves:
An algebraic miracle
Tweak variables, or invert sets -
The formula just smiles and lets
The little mathematician pull
The thought into a gentle swerve.


My thoughts have bottoms, tops and sides.
My thought have limits, edges, lives
Of digits, integers. I hide
Behind constriction.


Could I but calculate this 'me'
Into a logarithm rise,
A swooping sort of curve, to glide
Out lightly to the sea!

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For the Girl With a Scar on her Left Wrist

Pretty, pretty eyes,
They told me.
Pretty, pretty eyes,
As clear and green as a go-light.

Nobody ever hit me,
Ever did me ill enough -
the real hard grain of it
is deeper, too deep.

The real grain of it sits just just just
Behind my left eye,
A little crevice,
Just between skull and orb.
I can feel it when I turn my eyes.

I try to ignore it,
but it does grind,
the little grain,
it cannot help itself.
It is immobile,
drawing jagged images
an inch behind my sight.

Don't cry little thing,
Don't cry, don't cry,
Such pretty, pretty eyes.
Pretty pretty eyes,
 Kept still,
Locked up,
Behind glass, to be viewed.

My head is a display case,
and if only held them still
my eyes would never grind,
never grind, but my eyes still have to turn sometimes, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.

And the crystal grinds,
behind my stoic eye,
never drip,
never weep, but the crystal still grinds,
the sand still scrapes it's images,
just an inch behind my sight.

And so I put my eyes into my left arm,
and massage them open,
and let them weep.

(I would love to attribute this beautiful picture, but I don't know where I found it. If it's yours, please, please let me know)

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A Love Poem to my Wife

I love, because the world is oh so large:

The world, it's like a sea without a shore,
Just islands rising from the ocean floor,
And th'other sea above, of moons and stars.
An island is too fickle. Though the sand
Can welcome little boats, and let them rest,
It takes a single wave's incautious crest
To pestle ship against the mortar-land.
So I? I choose to love a sacred star.
Perhaps I'll never reach her, but I'll try.
Perhaps a ship can't sail into the sky,
But I'll always know which way to tip my spars.

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An Afternoon Drive Through Austin, Texas

I love Austin, it's a beautiful city. It has some disadvantages mind you - it's in Texas, which is a strong mark against it for me. But it really is a great town.

The fascinating thing about Austin, in terms of it being an American city, is an accident of geography. Texas is NOT a state well known for it's urban planning, and most of the major cities I've visited exhibit not so much urban sprawl, as a sort of urban ooze. San Antonio is a perfect example - it's like, at some point someone dropped a bomb in the San Antonio river, only instead of a ring of dust flying out from it, there is a slow moving wave of human habitation. So there is a certain tourist life to the very center of the city, then there is this ring of emptying, or decaying subdivisions, largely built out of ramshackle and chicken wire, to last for a few years before it begins to fall apart. Houses, in San Antonio, are like cars - sure, some people keep them for decades, but oy vey, they put a lot of work into them after the first 3 or 4. Outside the ring of desertion, then, is this ring of trendy neighborhoods, always at the far reaches of the city, always clawing onto barely tamed land - one such neighborhood physically collapsed, last year, when a retaining wall collapsed, and the neighborhood backyards began pouring out like water through a burst dam. These houses, built in shifting backfill walled in by a pile of concrete blocks, were behemoth McMansions, more expensive than two of my house (I'm on the far edges of the ring of the deserted, just behind the blast cloud).

Austin is different. Sometimes, maybe once every 3 months, I have to work in Austin for my present job (the job I am currently thinking of changing, mind you, a fact which may later be cogent to the story).  The office for Pearson in Austin is on the northern edge of the city, by Pflugerville, and I, coming from San Antonio, drive into the southern end of the city. Austin is, as this implies, a city that has ends, instead of a circle. Originally built to be a nice, modest town, as it began to burgeon, it became apparent that it was easier to go North and South than East and West (Hills, mostly the other directions), and so the city has slowly puffed into a long cylinder, like foaming pipe snake. In the center is the university, and the capitol, and at both ends is a burgeoning wall of houses, falling on top of each other, clinging as closely as possible to the one artery of the city: Interstate 35.

This is what makes Austin, when experienced as a driver, fascinating (I imagine those who must drive it regularly use other words) - That there is only one way in, and only one way out. IH-35 is not some beltway, routing around the city to dump you on the other side, it is the aorta of the city, pumping cars straight into the heart. To escape San Antonio if one is on the edge, one may simply circle round the outer-most ring, until they reach the 'Abandon all hope' gates at I 10, I 37, or I 35. To escape Austin? One most follow Dante through the great rings, closer and  closer to the frozen (or in this case, boiling) heart of the inferno, and crawl down the devil's tail, only then to struggle through purgatory before reaching the paradise of a highway with sensible traffic patterns.

Like I said, I work on the Northern edge, just where Beatrice waits for Virgil to pass Dante on (only the road leads on towards Waco, which makes a pretty poor paradise), and I live in San Antonio, which is somethign like Limbo, I suppose, only without the Greek Philosophers, so this journey in and out of the Devil's Maw is a familiar one. It's usually not so bad. I get along with sinners, really. If one leaves at the right time, it can be quite pleasant, to tell the truth (one can overlook the seedy triple X shops that slaver over the highway like hungry gargoyles, after all, with a bit of practice). The drive in, this Monday, was really quite pleasant. There was a moment halfway where I frowned, to realize that my air conditioning was not blowing cold air anymore, but I have a '93 Chevy Corsica, one learns to live in the moment and accept life's blows. So I opened the window, which is kind of nice when you're driving fast.

The journey home, however, was an epic. A tale to tell my grandchildren. If I were a John Steinbeck, it is the sort of story I could use as a metaphor for the very soul of what Texas, no, America, no, not even that, what humanity ITSELF is.

You see, what happened was, I called Amanda, to see how she was towards the end of the day, and she had gone out to visit her family with the boys, during the day, and she said they were staying late - then that they were staying for dinner. Being a practical man (well, not really, but go with me on this one), and knowing that we're trying to build up a nice cushion in case we should have to move, I made a suggestion at this point - why don't I just stay a bit late? There's a lot of work to do in Austin, and I could get a bit of overtime, which never hurts anyone. What this meant was, I left around 4:00. It had been a long day, and I am such a clever fellow, that I thought ahead.

"Hrm..." I said to myself, "I am leaving at four, which is rather close to rush hour, isn't it? And my air conditioning, as I recall, is not working terribly well. And I'm a bit thirsty anyway. You know what? I have earned fruit smoothie. I shall get one, and drink it on the way home, it'll last a good 40 minutes, if I space it out, after all, and by then I should be through the city, and onto the highway, and the hottest part of the trip will be over!"

What a lovely idea! Oh, though, my friends, woe be unto thee, thou arrogant children, woe, if thou wouldst say to thyself, "My God is a patient god, he is a forgiving god. I shall sin a little, I shall sip smoothies, and sing Bob Dylan loudly, and walk very swiftly through hell, and God shall beat me with a few stripes, but he shall say, then, 'come now, thou little one, into my presence'." Oh, ye fools! Ye fair, foolish virgins! Would that I could teach you to keep close to the ways of the Lord, to walk in the paths of avoiding-rush-hour righteousness! Thy god is a just god, but he is a fearful god to those who disregard his warnings!

I learned these things, because I saw a vision, as I pulled my A/C-less '94 Chevy Corsica onto the IH-35 access road. In my vision there were three forms, two were quiet black men, one sweating profusely, the other in a broad straw hat, both in brightly coloured vests like construction workers wear. Were they doing construction? No! No, do you think I would ramble on this long, if that's the only story I could tell you? No, they were nice fellows, doing what is done in Texas intersections everywhere: collecting money for a church ministry. I don't generally give to these ministries. It's nothing personal - I disagree with their underlying reasoning, but we more or less agree in the long term outcomes: drug addicts hsould be helped, the homeless sheltered, the sick taken care of, etc, etc. I don't give, because I never have cash, and because it's difficult to check the veracity of the claims of a man holding a ten gallon jug full of quarters towards your window. It's nothing personal.

"But," sayeth the observant reader, "But, Jason, you said there were three actors in our passion play! Who is this third?"

This third, my friends, is the hero of our drama, a man on a desperate mission to save the world from... something, unclear. I first noticed this man from a distance - he had just arrived I later surmised, but traffic was backed up a bit already, so I was some ways from him. I could only see him gesticulating, leaning in and dancing around wildly while he shouted at the ministry workers. He seemed animated, deeply concerned. HE would shout, and dance, and shake his fists for a few minutes, then stop, turn to the cars, and bow, deeply, profoundly, powerfully, his hands first clutched to his chest, then thrown before him, in a theatrical gesture that suggested either great sorrow, or an operatic tenor accepting the adulations of a standing crowd. One could almost imagine him picking up the scattered roses on the stage of the Access Road Playhouse, and drawing them in to his breast, to call out 'Oh, my adoring ones, you are too kind! I am but a humble musician!'

The other gentleman looked merely confused. Perhaps slightly incredulous. And then the light turned green. The third man turned, and began again to shout, to gesticulate wildly at his two companions, who by this point were sitting on the guardrail, dumbfounded. Only, now, the man in his turning had stuck a foot directly into an active lane of traffic. The cars took a moment to process that. There was a moment of stillness, a dramatic pause. One could imagine the drivers of the Ford Expedition blocked by the man's wayward foot, speaking in hushed whispers,.

"Oh, Carlotta, can he have? He has broken the fourth wall! The arrogance! His performance... it will all be for naught!"

"Marius! How can you speak that way, about the great Pavaligni? He is the greatest tenor in Austin! If he has broken the fourth wall, it's.... there is some genius that we, mere audience members, cannot yet understand! Is it possible, is it CONCEIVABLE, my beloved Marius, that we, we humble drivers of a Ford Expedition, have been invited to participate in the performance? That we, with our humble skills, are asked to play a role?"

"It is... it is inconceivable! Carlotta, I... oh Carlotta, you know the dreams of my youth, in the mountains of San Marino, when I believed one day, that I would be a professional Car Horn Symphony performer, but... oh, Carlotta, God cannot be so kind..."

"Marius... when fate calls... you do not lay off of the horn. This, my beloved, this is your moment!"

And with the care and emotion of a raw performer, the horns began, first simply as a gentle hooting, like the twittering of some great, half-ton mechanical bird, but soon rising, rising in a Wagnerian wave. The man leaned back, and laughed, and shouted louder now, his foot staying immobile. Very slowly, cars tried to edge past him. He stepped back into the shoulder, and a few cars past, and the light turned. He turned, with the profoundness of his sorrow in his eyes, and bowed, bowed, bowed again. The ministry collectors now stood, to try to play there part, walking from stopped window to stopped window, the man followed, calling out his hollow chorus in their wake, leaning in to the windows with them, raising his fists like a great, piping Mephistopheles. Laying a foot into the street, again. And the light turned. The chorus repeated, over, and over, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, but each time calling him back, calling 'Encore!'. Encore! cried the car horns, 'Encore! Cried people shouting at him out their windows (Well, they didn't say encore PER SE, but I think it was the gist of what they meant.

I finally drew close enough to hear the lyrics - as with most operas, they were in a lanaguage I could not understand, a language which involved long strings of invective, particularly the invective beginning with an f, frequently paired with a reference to matriarchy, often in close proximity to that racial epithet one hears in Huckleberry Finn, but seldom 'in the wild' anymore. IT was difficult to follow the plot, but it had something to do with him informing the two ministry collectors/Greek chorus members that noone was going to give them any **** money because they were too ******* smart to give any ******* money to ******* who ****** around on ******* street corners. The irony of this statement - he carried a sign which simply read '25 sents' - I am sure struck him sometime in Act three. The two ministry fellows leaned in exhaustedly at my window, at one point even, and mumbled a broken, tired chorus, about how they were just trying to help jesus, and could I give something, even a few pennies. Their companion leaned of course, to tell them I wouldn't ******* give them a ******* penny, which made me feel terribly lame to tell them I actually didn't have any cash. The man cackled a wild cackling that reverberated around the windows of my '94 Chevy Corsica, and informed them I probably had a ******* hundred dollar bill, but I wouldn't give it to no ******* ****** because I knew ******* didn't need to something, something something shouted loud enough it was difficult to decipher, which made me burn with an unaccountable shame. I offered them my smoothie, but they just went on glassy-eyed, almost weeping out their 'god bless, man', as they passed on. The next man gave them a twenty. IT struck me that while it was probably terribly disheartening, having a mad man was actually quite possibly good for the collections business. I finally passed onto the highway. It had been 30 minutes.

The road moved - slow but moved - for a bit, but as I approached the split, where the road goes into two different levels in the College district, it began to sputter into a slow crawl. I looked down worriedly - my smoothie by now had gotten a bit lower than I expected. And as I rose over the hill, I saw that the crawl lasted farther than i could see.

Oh, my friends! If you have been in this place, where you feel the force of god's sandal on your neck, do you do the same as me? Do you look wildly around, desperate to see why? Why, god, why are the cars sitting still? Is there a tipped tanker truck? A sinkhole in the middle of the highway? Did the Tenor of Access Road theatre take helicopter downtown for a late afternoon showing? Is there flashing lights? The green cartoon glow of a radioactive waste spill? There must be a reason!

It was when I got into the heart of CollegeTown, then, that I saw them, protesters on the bridge that passed over the highway, holding great vinyl signs, reading 'Legalize Pot', and 'Tax Pot, stop the Drug War'.

Now, my friends, I cannot fault these gentlemen. I cannot entirely embrace their cause - I am that rare breed known as the libertine Mormon, so on the one hand, I have a great understanding for those who, like me, have their vices, and wish to be left alone with them, but on the other, I have bben raised to fear anything that I wouldn't see Brigham Young advertising for as a terrifying demon, a harbinger of the end, the first step into a downward spiral that will leave the imbiber scrabbling through dumpsters desperate to find some scrap they can busk a sale for on the street, to scrape together just enough to have one more rendezvous with demon dope, when at the bottom they find a half worm-eaten Gideon's Bible, which they somehow end up reading, only to pray fervently and beg god to forgive them for not listening to their parents. These fellows didn't look as if they'd gone quite so far down the road of sin, they were dancing a bit, and one had a rather ridiculous, and borderline offensive set of fake dreadlocks sewn into a stocking cap, but I felt that the misery of wearing a stocking cap in the 98 degree heat was punishment enough for what was probably a youthful indiscretion.

What truly perturbed me was that people were slowing to 5 or 10 miles per hour under the bridge, to honk wildly, and lean out their windows, hooting incomprehensible calls of support.

'Honk if you agree' said the sign. "It's a straw poll, my friends", I called out to these drivers, "They, I am sure have a tallier on the bridge, you need only toot gently and be on your way. Why! Why, my friends! Can you not see? Look! My smoothie is almost gone! Please, please move along!"

IT wasn't every car - it does not take every car, just enough of them. The traffic would jerk on a few cars, then a slow wave of brake lights would flutter down the highway, as a girl leaned out the window to squeeze her breasts together with her handsand call out her agreement, the gesture I can only assume suggesting that her breasts also supported the legalization of marijuana. I crawled along moaning softly, Bob Dylan now shut off as it no longer sufficiently reflected my mood. My windows were down, of course, to try to let the breeze in. I sat parked on IH 35, next to a 80's model Ford Pickup, driven by a very angry looking elderly gentleman in a white cowboy hat, the image of his head framed by stickers that expressed his righteous outrage at the actions of the Obama administration, and his unguarded support for government action in formalizing English as the official language of the United States, while diplomatically suggesting that those who were not familiar with English's intricacies perhaps ought to instruct themselves in said intricacies, so they could join the national discourse. Well, perhaps not diplomatically.

He too had his window down, and his radio moaned out an incomprehnsibly warbly lyric over the artistic styling of a steel guitar. This was the soundtrack to my incomprehension. We finally reached the overpass - I did not honk, my companion in the pickup did not honk either, but did spit through his window, which perhaps expressed his impressions of the Marijuana Legalization Movement. We moved then at a more acceptable pace. For a bout a mile.

Oh, my friends! Now the true torture, NOW the devil's tail. All that I had was taken from me, I drew deep sucks through the straw of my smoothie - it was empty, but the air was still cooler in it, with a vague taste of fruit. When this began to fail, I came to a realization - that smoothies taste nice, they cool one off, but they do not hydrate you. IT could beargued, in fact, that they do the opposite.

Oh! I cried to myself. Oh, why did I drink a smoothie! Why, why was I seduced by it's wiles, by the plumpness of it's iciness, and the firm, healthy curve of it's pomegranete juice and mashed bananas! Did I not know, that all sins, all self indulgence leads inevitably to sorrow? The forces of heaven bore down on me now, in a heavy parched torpor. Amanda called, I whimpered something weakly back. I don't remember clearly even what I said. I dropped the phone, and it fell in a hot shaft of sunlight, so I fumbled weakly to move it so it wouldn't overheat. I took off my suspenders. My tie. My shirt. I considered taking off my pants - I did undo them.

It was not, however, any of these actions which lead me to rear-ending the nervous, kindly city employee in her late-model Mercedes.

My friends, you must understand, I was in the boiler of hell. 98 degrees, you may say, I have been in that! But, I was in a deep canyone of cement and blacktop, still with my companion's Ford, but now alternating also between a semi truck carrying Subaru parts and one carrying Tyson chicken and pork products, each throwing of a wall of  engine heat and exhaust fumes. In Texas, on a 98 degree day, a parking lot will get up to 105 or 106. And I, I was leaning my head out the window, because in comparison to the inside of my '94 Chevy Corsica, the impromptu parking lot - only one with great walls of glittering concrete - felt cool and refreshing - except for the smell of course. The whining sonorousness of the Ford trucks country music began to trace secret messages into my brain wrinkles 'My lover left me in Little Rock, Murder the president, Join PETA, I gotta keep on drivin' this 18 wheeler, till the sun rises over Atlanta.'

But even this, even this did not cause me to rearend the Mercedes. No, I rearended the Mercedes because, I swear, I reached up to wipe my eyes, which were burning with the salt of my own sweat.

It wasn't MUCH of an accident - I mean, for God's sake, I hadn't travelled faster than 5 mph in more than hour. But we pulled into the shoulder, I stumbled towards her car with her insurance information, apologized quietly. Attempted not to vomit, from dehydration, because I didn't think that would make a good impression. Pulled back into the jealous bumper-to-bumper traffic of IH 35.

The traffic did not clear until about 30 miles out of Austin. This is the sign, this is a sure sign of the apocalypse. When I WANT a bottle of Gatorade, then the next thing you'll see is the Pale White Horse, whose name is Death. It  is a sign of the beginning of the battle in the valley of Har Meggido, when the Mountain shall be split, nad the temple restored to it's former glory. On this day, when the traffic finally allowed me, I bought a bottle of gatorade and drank it in 30 seconds. I then drove home.

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The Problem With Sex Scenes

CONTENT WARNING: Discusses sex and the erotic, and mentions rape, peripherally.

I've recently read several books with very vivid sex scenes: Summit Avenue, which is by the way, a BEAUTIFUL book, and Memoirs of a Beatnik, which quite possibly is the most sex-soaked book I've ever read in my life (No, I've never read the Marquis de Sade, and Sacher-Masoch did a lot more TALKING about sex then actually having it, in what little I read). This has me thinking about the sex scene as an art form - I don't read a lot of modern lit, so this is probably simply because my normal books don't HAVE a lot of explicit sex in them (though I have often thought it'd be really interesting to see how, say, Charlotte Bronte or Elizabeth Barrett Browning would write a sex scene). As such, the things I say here are probably kind of naive and obvious. I apologize.

To summarize my feelings, it is interesting to me that, when one hears the words 'good sex scene', one assumes that this means the scene referenced must be erotic. I don't know, I guess that sounds silly. But let me say it a different way: If I say the words 'good wedding scene', that could be something solemn, something funny, something sad even. We accept that 'wedding' is a very complex topic, that it is a canvas to express something larger, rather than simply to express the idea of the ideal wedding. The title 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' is intriguing, quite simply, because one expects that if there are four of them, that each will be wildly different in emotional tenor. 'Four Sex Scenes and a Funeral' has a different effect (and what a movie that would be...).

I think this, in part, has to do with the relative youngness of the respectable literary sex scene. I know that is an arguable statement, but I would submit that while sex has been written about explicitly likely since the dawn of writing, it has not been always, particularly in the western world, accepted as a part of the palette of the general audience storyteller. If Wuthering Heights were written now, it would be more explicit, I would venture to say, and if most books today were written a hundred years ago, they would be less. Sex Scenes written before the modern era, in fact, seem to revel in their prurience. Even in 1969 when Memoirs of a Beatnik was written, the very explicit sex scenes feel defiant, and rebellious, the author thumbs her nose at the literary establishment every time she says describes a man's penis. Of course, at times now, this can seem a little tiresome, a little bit like the author is being self-indulgent even, but this is the lens of time in large part: a woman writing an explicit description of losing her virginity or having sex with other girls at college in 1969 was a truly rebellious act. And so di Prima quite frankly tries to make the scenes as erotic as possible, to grab the reader and say 'yes, sex is, in fact awesome, and it's awesome whether or not you are a nice nuclear family doing it quietly in your two twin beds pushed together, it's awesome in a hovel of a garrett in New York, or in a field in Connecticut, it's awesome when it's happy and it's awesome when it's sad.' The statement 'sex is kinda awesome' is no longer an entirely controversial one (though there is conversation to be had there) - one can imagine it on a t-shirt, in fact. Sex feels nice, we have, as a culture, come to terms and accepted that.

But, then, I think to an extent, this is still what we've been trained to expect of a sex scene. I speak only anecdotally, here, and I do not know if this is universally applicable, but I would suggest that most children's first emotional exposure to sex (a clinical, academic exposure perhaps preceding it, if they are taught the birds and bees lesson), is usually a prurient one: it's sneaking a book off your parent's shelf, or making out with your significant other and having it go too far, or hearing a dirty joke, or seeing a pornographic movie or picture. Sex is something that we have taught our children must be ignored or sniggered over. So, when those children grow up and become the target market for a movie, a novel, whatever, when they see a sex scene coming, they expect it to titillate and excite. And so, to a certain extent, I think this is how sex scenes end up being written. There is a tendency to describe bodies, instead of minds, sensations instead of emotions, there is a tendency to fantasize (in one direction or another, not always positive), a tendency to glamourize.

And this is not to say that a truly erotic sex scene is not a powerful and worthy thing. Sexual longing and release are very powerful, real parts of the human experience, and at least somewhat close to universal ones. But, at the same time, I think that we discourage the exploration of other parts of what sex is to us, more specifically even, what consensual sex is. A teenager masturbating can be sexually powerful for them, or it can be sort of embarrasingly funny, and these two ideas are expressed pretty widely in films, for instance, but it can also be a lot of other things, solemn and self-searching, angry, self-absorbed, deluded. Masturbation can be very poignantly lonely, or it can be very poignantly comforting. A sex scene between two consenting adults can be very sexy or very awkward, it can also be very upsetting without ever being a rape or a power game, or it can be very exhausting, or very chummy and friendly, or it can be very horrifying, or introspective, or distracted, or sad, or triumphant, or disappointing, or any number of other things. I have had more scenes in my life that fit the outliers (positive and negative), personally, than fit the standard story of no-strings erotic or hilarious. Sex's resonance is not simply that it gives you something snigger over, and it's not just that it feels nice.

I understand that there are authors, directors, screenwriters, actors, etc that go to express this (the song 'First Orgasm' by Amanda Palmer is an interesting example), and I also don't want to suggest that the world just needs more sex scenes - I don't mean to suggest that sex is the ONLY reservoir of emotional resonance. Thank god, it isn't, or we couldn't ever be friends without nudity ensuing. And I think we are much better at, for instance, exploring the intricacies of the buildup to sex, the long courting period (I know Amanda hated it, but I found Fingersmith to be an excellent example of this, or the above-mentioned Summit Avenue, for a wonderfully sentimentalist take on it). I think the responsibility lies on us, as readers, honestly, to make a dialogue about sex scenes that goes past joking or discussing the erotic (both of these being fine in their place, but we need to do MORE than that, you know?). I've had haunting, powerful conversations with people about other scenes in books, but sex scenes, we shy away from - or we say, simply, there was a 'really great sex scene', which the reader, generally, interprets to mean 'it was very erotic.' Of course, this is difficult, because I know that there are people who, with very good reason DON'T feel comfortable discussing a sex scene. But, we overcome that in other places - warnings about spoilers come to mind, or warning at the beginning of the review that we're discussing rape, so that we don't traumatize someone who has been a victim in the past. But, you know, I think it would be possible to have a really fascinating, enlightening conversation about, again, say, the sex scene in Fingersmith, or those in the film Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, or the sexual scenes in Tender Morsels (and not just the rape ones, either).

Anyway, just a thought. Perhaps I'm just naive.

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The Pros of Millenialism

As someone who probably talks too often of having wrestled with God (unlike Jacob, God did not grab the small of my thigh, and I didn't take him down), there is an (admittedly somewhat natural) assumption when people speak with me that there are things that I will not like to hear about. And honestly, this is very, very sad for me (if nothing else, it makes me a little sorry that I must throw off an air of snubbiness, or a lack of understanding, or aggression, or something).

When I started school, a very long time ago, I originally went in order to study religion, mythology, folklore, because the WAY people grapple with the ineffables of the universe is beautiful to me - in all the many incarnations of it. I am aware the reticence on the part of the speaker is my fault:

  1. I have my biases, and I can be very rude and snarky. 
  2. I have a tendency to feel uncomfortable in a situation where people don't think well of me, so I'll say some very stupid things to get approval of the people around me. 
  3. I have a problem with latching onto the idea of a story in a situation, and not being able to accept things that contradict it. 

I know these things, and I promise, I'm suitably ashamed of them. I do my best to fight them, but I know they make me less than a trustworthy person to talk about the affairs of heart and soul. I get that.

But like I said, I think a lot of things that I may not believe can be beautiful, I think the way someone else may believe these things is intricate and beautiful.

I grew up in a faith with a strong millenialist piece - I was a Mormon as a child, and the very name of the church reflects it's sense of history: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Growing up, the idea that history was reaching it's pinnacle, that we lived in the fulness of times, was ingrained in every lesson we were taught. Each week, we would sing hymns, some the same old songs most Protestant faiths have sung (Rock of Ages, for instance), intermixed with Mormon hymns, which seemed to all speak to the coming day of glory when Christ Jesus would return to the earth:

How Blessed the day when the lamb and the lion,
Shall lie down together without any ire,
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in heaven,
And Jesus descend in his chariot of fire

These lessons, growing up, were not impersonal theology, they weren't the sort of things one learned if one was interested. They were the bread and butter of everyday activity. Mormon boys should be missionaries when they are 19, because the end of the world is at hand, and God calls forth these boys as an army to spread his gospel to as much of the world as possible before his second coming, for instance. We needed to live exemplary lives, because the world was drawing to it's close, when god is sending his greatest souls, and Satan is setting his worst traps. We sang, forever, of being part of the Army of God: "Onward Christian soldiers," "We are as the Army of Helaman," "Holding aloft, our colors, we march to the glorious dawn."

And there was something glorious, and stirring and powerful in all this, - Religion is not just a search for understanding, it's also a search for relevance. There is something in life, at least for me, that strikes one with a feeling of extraordinary smallness, something that makes you realize how insignificant your actions are in one sense. Millenialism reminds you, that what you do is urgent, by placing a timeline on it. There is no someone else who will come later and do what you leave undone, because there is no time for someone else to come. Christ has saved you, one of his chosen souls, for these last days, because he can depend on you. And that's something you can hear, that can make you feel valuable in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I remember, very strongly in my life really WANTING to believe this.

There is something in that urgency, that compression of time, that can give a clarity and direction to life. The reason, at least to me, that many people could believe in the Mormon church that there was a prophet, and believe that the laws he gave were from God, and worth following, was because the compression of history into it's final moments gives a feeling of perspective. To many of the Mormons I knew who were most faithful, it was easy for them to empathize with history, to feel for Moses, or Daniel, or Jesus, or Martin Luther, or the Founding Fathers more directly than many of us can feel for someone that far from us. Millenialism, because it forces the viewer to broader and broader spectrums, CAN make someone very sympathetic, very compassionate.

It doesn't, always, of course. As with any powerful idea, it can be turned to good or evil, and Millenialism is very easy to twist into cruel, hateful dogmatism - after all, it is just easy to compress history into a story of a hateful god as a loving one, I'm afraid, and I have found, souls tend to live the way they imagine their gods (whether this be cause or effect being a discussion I'm not smart enough to have).

And here's the part where you'll laugh at me, I had this idea finally congeal into something recognizable, a few weeks ago while listening to Queen and David Bowie singing 'Under Pressure' (Hey! You can't judge me!). And the reason is this: because the idea of millenialism, the song reminded me, is not something that is limited to the religious. Secularly, Millenialism is a huge part of our culture, and has been for years. The lyrics of Under Pressure are not particularly unique:

'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure

"Edge of the night", "Our last dance", and even the title itself, stirs up in my mind the same feelings I got when I imagined history when I was trying to be a Mormon, this sort of defiant teetering along the edge of the chasm of the end of history. Mankind, particularly I think since the World Wars and even more so since the Atomic Age, has this terrifying, invigorating sense that, actually and truthfully, we really have arrived at the end of history, in some sense. Our history has reached a point of extinction, of course for the gloomy reasons (nuclear weapons, global warming, engineered diseases, etc). But, also, in the same way that the Apocalypse promises the Millenium, there is the vague sense (and a powerful and meaningful one, I think), that there really is the hope of a future grandeur. Really, think of it! We live on the edge of the future! We can grow (mechanical) wings and fly, we can literally move mountains, we live in a greater perpetual level of cooperation and interconnection, in spite of everything else, than the world has ever seen! Think of it, for just a moment, 50 years ago, when my mother was alive, blacks rode on the back of the bus. Heck, 10 years ago, a man could be ARRESTED in Texas for having sex with his boyfriend. 20 years ago, I would never know any of you, and 10 years, I PROBABLY would never have known you. The world is bubbling into the grand struggle for the greatest dreams humanity has ever had, a struggle that really IS very much one between, if not the load words 'good' and 'evil', with their feeling of exclusion, at least between progress and destruction, between the eyes that look forward and the annhihalation of the void.

And of course, this is all nonsense in another sense. In another sense, we all ALWAYS think of ourselves as being that moment. In the year 1000, people believed the millenium was coming, too. In the 50's, people thought they'd be flying rocket cars by the time they died. The world is forever coming to it's end, and forever being born. But, that's not just part of the human mental disease. It's not a weakness - that sense of urgency is, in one way, a gift, it's the root of the urge to go forward, to leap forever into the void. Yes, when we leap into the dark, the lights turn on and we find the new road is the same as the old. But without that millenial urge, that sense of the finality of life, we'd never be able to leap into it, it would be too terrifying and hopeless. Without the sense of future, the world is just what the news always say: an endless progression of crime reports, wicked leaders, greedy corporations, murder, mayhem, the threat of destruction of ourselves, of the very world itself. The sense of apocalypse is unavoidable - the sense of a millenium, that is a choice.

About a year ago, we had some friends over, and we were talking about Mormonism, and I told them, I still have an affection for it in part of me, and when they asked me why, I said, Mormonism tells you there is something worth dying for, and there is nothing worth living for that isn't worth dying for. I wonder, still, if that's true. Of course, the problem is that if something is worth dying for, to some it is worth killing for, or hating for, or mocking for, or, if there is such a thing, sinning for. And that's the great balancing act of life, I guess - do we risk greatness, or settle for fineness? Do we fight for what we think is justice, knowing our own minds to be imperfect, unjust? That's the call of the Millenialist streak in us, whether we believe in God, or not, it's that streak that whispers to us that this day, this hour, this moment, is the very last of it's kind, this instant is the last chance to do what we might do this instant, and that this isn't a curse, it's a blessing.

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The Sound of Drowning

I read a fascinating article, today, on drowning. I highly recommend it both for the fascination of it, and for the fact that, if you are ever near the water, it is decidedly useful information to know (which, in a story about bad things that can happen to your kids, is a rarity, being far more often drowned out by 'you should be frightened' and 'we are heroic for telling you so'. Sorry, don't mean to snark my bias).

But what was interesting to me was the concept (which I had learned before, but never so vividly) - that drowning, a kind of death that (at least for many people) is inescapably connected with panic, is, more or less, silent. The silence is, in fact, one of the best signs that something is wrong. Which of course, made me consider, the deeper implications of that, the metaphorical parallels. People who are going to commit suicide withdraw sometimes, people who are being abused can become uncommunicative, people who have been traumatised can do the same (this is not a professional statement, I know that people react in very different ways, and may do just the opposite, so forgive me the generalization). But silence, generally, is a sign that something is wrong.

That's interesting to me, because what we, as humans, do (or at least *I* as a human do) is to begin to be afraid of that silence. In a joking way you hear this from parents all the time - 'Those kids are too quiet, they must be up to something.' But in a more serious way, someone who is silent makes other people uncomfortable, makes them want to fix things, to make them not silent. This is good, on the one hand, of course, because it's an instinct that, when our children suddenly stop talking, makes us probe to see what's wrong, to try to offer help. On the other hand, we sometimes confuse things, and become afraid of the silence, in and of itself, instead of the lurking horror of the silence.

The drowning article illustrates this, to me, perfectly: the silence is a sign of distress, but it is also a natural reaction, and one that developed because it is the best way for an individual to try not to drown - they stick the arms out and push themselves up, instead of flailing wildly, they take deep gulping breaths instead of wasting their oxygen screaming, etc. The silence is a coping mechanism, a response where the body takes over because it knows the brain has gone (quite literally in this case) beyond it's depth.

Silence, in a psychological situation, then seems to serve the same purpose, for me. If I am miserable, I grow more and more silent. I've seen this same silence in others, and I know it can be unnerving, threatening even. It makes you uncomfortable. It leaves you in a difficult place. But the problem, for those of us who are the 'lifeguards' (because we all need to be each others lifeguards), is to know how draw the person into shore, without panicking them, or having them pull us down with them - by the time silence comes, reason has been compromised, after all. It has to be, because the silence is a deeper, more bodily response than the very human, reasonable search for daily validation and help that accompanies frustration and problems, normally. Silence comes, instead, when we approach a profundity so deep that we know that to move, to twitch, even to speak is to risk teetering into it. There is a slow work of moving the self, quietly, quietly, back toward a firmer ground, to seek a better crossing than the one that's almost swallowed us. And sometimes, that moving is beyond us, sometimes we are truly drowning, we are, in fact, beyond our depth and struggling to bob up just long enough for a lifeguard to snatch us from the water.

But, in that case, there is two things to remember. First of all, the silence itself is not the true source of our horror. The silence is the sign of a human response, of a living self trying to cling on until reason can be refound. Treating the silence, itself, gets the sort of strained, vague responses that probably everyone has gotten from someone when they know something is wrong: "Oh no, I'm fine, just tired," "Don't worry about it, just a headache," "I'm sure it'll pass." This isn't evasiveness on the part of the drowning person, it's the confused, teetering effort to do nothing too drastic or severe, for fear of losing balance. After all, they don't know if you are looking to find the source of the silence, or looking to just end the silence.

The second thing to remember is that the profundity is real, even if invisible, and terribly, terribly deep, and that with two people, one of them drowning, there is only one person who has the chance of a full access to their faculties. Just as a drowning victim can pull a lifeguard down with them in their panic, and kill them both, a silence disturbed can hurt both parties. On the one hand, this is why it's good to pull in professional lifeguards sometimes (psychologists, psychiatrists, a suicide help line, a teacher at school, a social worker, etc). On the other, it is also a little reminder of the awesome, humbling power that some of us DO have, to draw people up from the depths. The ability to draw someone in from that brink, or at least to give them a life ring long enough to find a lifeguard is an awesome one, one that we forget.

Finally, and perhaps a bit more troublingly, the thing this story made me realize was the great, and terrible beauty of nature itself - not just the sea, though the crushing, silent force of the sea is certainly great and terrilby, but of us, of our human frames, so great, silent, and terrible, able to save us in ways we cannot expect, and destroy us with the same innate force. When Emily Dickinson said her life was like a loaded gun, this is what it means to me - we are each of us a coiled spring of great, terrible force, force that can save and destroy, ourselves or others. A force like that should be nurtured, trained, applauded, kept sacred - and treated with a healthy dose of sober respect.

As a final note, please do not think I mean this as a subtle commentary on anyone who has dropped me a line or said hello over the last little while when I haven't been very talky. Rest assured, I'm not feeling totally silent, just kind of agoraphobic, and the big, big room of the internet is just a bit intimidating right now. Thank you very much for everyone who DID drop me a line. If I were Emily Dickinson, I would have sent you each a cake or a flower, and a poem. I can't bake very well, and I have a black thumb, and my poems are grouchy and far between, so I virtual hug will have to do.

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