Saturday, January 18, 2003

Hey, New Yorkers. It's not too late to get involved in the car alarm crusade. Here's an email with meeting minutes. If you want to help, email nogoodnik@earthlink.net.

Dear Silent Majority,

I'd like to thank everyone who came to the meeting last night, and
especially David Heeley, who let us use his beautiful apartment. By
the end of the meeting, everyone seemed to agree that:

1. The only way to reign in car alarms in New York City is to ban
their use outright.

2. Such a ban would be enforced by (a) empowering policemen and
meter-maids to ticket any cars with a blaring alarm, no further
questions asked, and by (b) requiring cars registered in NYC to pass
a "noise pollution" test on their annual inspection. This test would
require a demonstration that the owner could turn off his alarm,
either by switching it into "valet mode", or by disabling the alarm's
"passive activation".

3. The first law, 2(a), is a matter for the New York City Council.
They will soon be looking at a full revision of the New York City
Noise Code, and we will see that a strong provision about car alarms
is included. Then, we will have to work to make sure this noise code
revision passes.

4. The second law, 2(b), is a matter for the New York State Senate
and House. This law will also require that insurance companies stop
giving discounts in NYC to policyholders with car alarms. To pass
this law, we will need to find a Republican champion in the Senate,
and a Democrat in the House.

5. In order to lobby for these bills, it will help to join forces
with Transportation Alternatives, an existing group with good
connections among media and legislators (http://www.transalt.org/ ).
They have wanted to start a movement to ban car alarms, but have not
done much about it yet. I will meet in their office on Tuesday
afternoon and discuss how our campaigns might merge.

6. Another lobbying effort might include resolutions of support for
laws 2(a) and 2(b) from NYC's community boards. It might also help to
have various community, health, and environmental groups endorse this
campaign through a sign-on letter. Finally, when the time comes, a
letter-writing campaign would be very helpful.

In other news:

-- Fordham University has agreed to hold a symposium on March 13th
about car alarms. Speakers will include: Harold Takooshian, a
psychology professor at Fordham who studies the effects of car
alarms; Andrew Karmen, a sociology professor at John Jay College of
Criminal Justice, who claims that car manufacturers design their cars
to be easily stolen, encouraging new car sales; Arline Bronzaft, a
leading noise specialist and member of the New York City Council on
the Environment (among many other things); and a member of this car
alarm group (probably myself). Fordham will publicize this symposium,
and so should Transportation Alternatives. It might be an opportunity
to get press coverage, and perhaps we could have endorsements of this
proposed legislation from City Council members by that time.

-- Take a look at this article on false alarms in Los Angeles, from
the front page of today's New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/17/national/17ALAR.html. The City
Council meeting it describes turned into a sea of propaganda and
misinformation, led by a private lobbying firm hired by the alarm
companies. How can we prevent that from happening here, when our
legislation comes up for debate?

-- There are a number of questions we still need to resolve, such as
finding out the cost and effectiveness of car alarm alternatives, or
talking with insurance companies to see why and how they decide on
discounts for car alarms. If anyone wants to work on these issues,
please contact me.

Thanks for all of your efforts so far, and please be in touch.

Best regards,

Aaron Friedman

PS -- by next week, we may have an electronic forum or email list for
discussions. That way, more people will be able to participate, even
if you can't come to meetings. I'll send out an email when that
begins.

Friday, January 17, 2003

I want to write the following post to respond to Vaguely Right and CalPundit, who made basically the same point Vaguely Right did in an email to me, which was to bring up the number of black men in prison and to ask if their lives had not fairly been “destroyed.” (They were responding to this post of mine.)

I should say the following things before I begin: I think I have no substantive factual disagreement with either of them, essentially. All of the three of us probably think that the institution of slavery and other socio-historical elements of black life since the formal end of slavery have led to the creation of a disproportionately black underclass and to the disruption of some black families (see herewhere I remind myself and others that we libs. shouldn’t neglect the importance of family stability to social and economic success; sorry for its slight incoherence; I was really fucking tired); this is why some social problems disproportionately affect blacks: many of them have been consigned to an underclass that it is often very difficult to move out of. Members of the underclass are more likely to be violent criminals than people who make 200,000 dollars a year; blacks, who are disproportionately members of the underclass, will therefore also be more likely to commit crimes and go to prison. We probably also all agree that there is an element to which modern blacks are discriminated against beyond what would normally be expected due to their class background: so, for example, juries are more likely to seek the death penalty for a black person who killed a white person than for a white person who killed a black person; that is obviously just racism, and it does contribute to the “destruction of black lives,” although probably less than socioeconomic background does (though of course, their socioeconomic background is partially a function of their race).

(I probably do have a substantive difference with CalPundit in our degree of enthusiasm for affirmative action; the post which better explains my mixed feelings is located here. I still haven’t been able to do all the research I wanted. This is partly why I feel uneasy writing about politics. I’m really young and only vaguely informed about lots of things. It took me hours and hours of reading before I felt I could discuss the situation in Iraq halfway intelligently, even then I still couldn’t come to any very firm conclusions, and they were hours I only had because I was bored at my job. Now I’m supposed to do it all over again for North Korea? I now feel guilty writing about politics on my blog because I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I feel guilty writing about my sex life because I feel like people might expect something political. Anyway, about affirmative action—basically, in sum, I really think it’s important to have minority representation in schools and in the professions, but first of all affirmative action seems to me like a band-aid that’s covering up the larger class wound while barely even beginning to address it, and second of all I have to admit a certain queasiness I feel over the ends-justify-the-means rationale for attaching a point value to someone’s skin color and booting them up a notch in admissions rankings, even though the ends are very important, and no I’m not positing any kind of “moral equivalence” between the brutal, systematic and institutionalized racism that minorities have suffered in this country and the U. of Michigan. I hope it goes without saying that I think Bush is a contemptible hypocrite and that legacy preferences are a MUCH greater evil. Actually, I was thinking about “race-neutral” policies to achieve diversity today while reading the government’s amicus brief (it got sent around at work) and also about how I had said, in all seriousness, that if one accepts as a premise that diversity of all kinds is a worthy goal in institutions of higher learning, than one might be led to wonder whether or not some colleges, like mine, should make efforts to ensure diversity of political opinion and religious faith. I was thinking that maybe one way for colleges might foster diversity without a strict numerical preference (and which would allow for them to solicit applicants that offered non-racial diversity) would be to have a series of essay questions: “What challenges have you faced in your educational career? Feel free to discuss social or economic challenges.” (I think UC did use some version of this in the post Regents ban, pre Proposition 209 days.) “How has some aspect of your identity shaped the way you see the world and your future work [if it were medical school, the practice of medicine]? Feel free to discuss your racial, sexual or socioeconomic identity.” “How do you think you will contribute to the diversity of identities and views on this campus?” I think this would have several advantages: it would avoid the numerical preference that makes people like me queasy; it would be non-superficial, that is, it would not just use race as a heuristic for identifying people of varying experience, but it would actually seek out those people who could intelligently express their experience; it would allow the colleges all the latitude they wanted in interpretation of the essays and in the kind of diversity they sought; and it would take a lot of the rhetorical ammunition away from AA’s detractors—Bush couldn’t argue that a race isn’t an experience because it would be the experience that was being sought, not the race. Anyway, it’s just a thought, not the main point of this post.)

I think my difference with these two is largely semantic, but since I think there are real philosophical differences that underlie my choice of words, it might be worth writing about. Or maybe it’s not, but I sort of feel obligated at this point. Feel free not to read this. I will stipulate that I think CalPundit’s post was a bad example of exaggeration to choose; it wasn’t the best example I could think of, which Vaguely Right rightly (and vaguely?) surmised, but one which came to mind. I don’t think it was a good example at all at this point, because I’ve realized from reading what they wrote that I just belong to a different “interpretive community” than they do, as Stanley Fish would say, and the way CalPundit uses words and ideas, it’s a perfectly legitimate statement; it’s just not the way I use them. In fact, it’s possible that I belong to a different interpretive community than most of the other people who share my values, so I should recognize that when I am reading their writing.

Why I thought CalPundit was exaggerating when, according to his use of the words, he wasn’t: First of all, I try to use the words racism and sexism pretty sparingly, actually. Hopefully upcoming on this blog will be my essay entitled “Why Italian Opera is Not Sexist, Despite What You May Have Heard, and Why the Nitwit Academics Who Go Around Spreading This Cant, Which Manages to Be at Once Facile and Wrong, Should Not Only Have Their Professorships Taken From Them, But They Should Be Flogged, in Public, Until They Recant, Unless Their Recantation is Not Sincere, in Which Case They Should Be Flogged Some More.” Okay, maybe that won’t really be what it’s called. I was comfortable calling Ben Shapiro a sexist because his contempt for women seemed clear to me and because, as I said in my open letter, he was generalizing from a single instance to insult a large group, which seemed to be prejudice in its essential and unmasked form. I think Trent Lott’s statements were clearly racist (unless he was just too stupid to understand what they implied, and I don’t think that was the case) because you cannot wax nostalgic about institutional racism without being yourself a racist. Non-racists don’t want the world to be racist. One way I might use the word “racism” differently from CalPundit is that I tend to only use it to describe causal circumstances that are directly and primarily racist. So while I will say that the greater severity of jurors towards black defendants with white victims than the inverse is racist, and to the extent that this phenomenon contributes to the great number of black men in jail, we can say that the great number of black men in jail is due to racism. But the racism of jurors is probably not the main reason why so many black men are in jail, and to the extent that so many black men are in jail as a result of their socioeconomic status, I wouldn’t say that racism is destroying their lives, even though I recognize that historical discrimination is the cause of the disproportionate representation of blacks in the underclass. I might call it “the legacy of racism.” CalPundit might actually make a little more sense in this department than I do, since there is certainly logic to using the word racism as an umbrella for racism past and racism present. This is a piddling semantic argument; I just felt the need to explain.

Here’s where I think the more important philosophical difference may lie, and the real source of the thing in me that “rebelled” the first time I read CalPundit’s statement. Vaguely Right and CalPundit seemed to think I was objecting to the strength of “destroyed.” In fact, what I was really rejecting was the way his sentence implied that racism, in and of itself, was doing the destroying. My original post tried to emphasize the sometime complicity of the people who get destroyed. This is what’s really going to make me sound like a Republican. Even if we can identify racism as a causal factor in the circumstances that lead to black poverty that leads to black crime that leads to disproportionate numbers of blacks in jails, I don’t think it’s fair to say that their lives were “destroyed by racism,” because in most cases there’s an element of choice to becoming a criminal. Not to get all Third Way about it, but I believe in root causes AND personal resposibility, and that’s what I was trying to get at way back when I started this whole conversation. If you’re thinking, “What is this white girl who knows absolutely nothing about what it is to walk on to the street and be black or to grow up in communities where you’ve got terrible schools and you here gunshots outside your window at night doing talking about choice?” I will totally concede that I am a priveleged, sheltered person, that I don’t know anything about what that’s like, nor do I know anything about what it’s like to be black in America, and the fact that I mostly walk around not thinking about my race while I’m forced nearly constantly to think about my gender is an indication that I’m a member of the priveleged race but not the priveleged gender. So I’ll take my point out of the realm of race and back into the realm of gender, which I do know about. I think that the expectations for women’s bodies and women’s sexualities in this society are sexist, because they are different from the expectations of men’s bodies and sexualities in harmful and unfair ways. However, if I decide to adopt a weight loss regimen of a half a cup of grape nuts and two graham crackers a day and I start fainting a lot, as I’ve done, did sexism make me do that? If I do it until I killed myself, which thank god I didn’t, did sexism destroy my life? I would say no. I destroyed my life. Maybe it’s because I’m more interested in being a psychologist than a sociologist and I want to understand why individuals make the decisions they do (within their social environments) that this distinction is important to me, but it is. I understand that CalPundit wasn’t speaking in precisely these terms and it was unfair for me to hold his blogpost to these complicated linguistic standards, but the distinction is still important to me. I just don’t like talking about human lives as if they are chemical reagents and oppression+life=destruction. Obviously if you’re murdered or wrongfully convicted of a crime or something like that, those things are beyond your control. But I also think that a lot of people make the choice to become criminals. When my aunt attended the trial of the murder of her (and to a lesser extent, my) friend (and I’m NOT picking this example because black men murdered a white woman, but just as an example of a crime I was close to and had a lot of occasion to examine and think about), a crime that was known in New York as “the Carnegie Deli massacre,” she observed the two men in the courtroom and occasionally heard them speak. One of them, Sean Salley, she said just “seemed like a criminal,” she said. He was stupid and inarticulate when he spoke, he seemed really cold and without feeling for the other people in the courtroom, and even something about his eyes seemed to indicate lack of respect for human life. The other one, Andre Smith, was very different; he was bright and well spoken, physically very attractive, and after he was sentenced he apologized with apparently sincere contrition to all of the victims’ families and friends, while Salley said nothing. So you’re left to think about Andre Smith: You idiot! Why did you go rob this woman’s house with some psycho who had a loaded fucking gun? Look at you! You could have done other things with your life; your capacity to do so is written all over your face and your bearing so why the fuck didn’t you? Now you’re serving three consecutive terms and three people have died for $300 worth of pot. If this were CA, you’d be on death row. I don’t know what the fuck happened to either of them during their life, although each of them did have families that didn’t seem horrible within the bounds of how you can expect families to behave when your relative has killed three people execution style. It’s very possible that they experienced hardships much greater than I’ve ever faced, but their lives weren’t destroyed by anything other than their own choice to destroy them. Even in the case not of criminality, but of “untarnished” victimhood, I just don’t think that in a lot of cases you have to let your life be destroyed. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be working on fixing the things about our society that encourage the destruction along its path. I just don’t want to rhetorically lose site of the individual’s capacity to do what he will despite his circumstances. But I realize CalPundit probably wasn’t even totally losing sight of it, I’m just reading a lot into a couple of words. Anyway, that’s what I was thinking, in case you wanted to know.
Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan both like "The Snowman". Mr. Sullivan reprints it in full. Andrew Sullivan's appreciation for this poem is really quite risible if you ask me; the poem is all about emptying yourself of ego so you can perceive and receive the world openly, something which he, among bloggers, is singularly bad at. I'd love to blog about literature all day long; I'm still meaning to get back to Matthew Yglesias's comments about The Brothers Karamazov, but I have no time for any of it, as I opened my big mouth and got myself a whole bunch of real work at my job (it's a long story, something in and of itself worthy of a blog post, but I might wind up getting to contract with my org. to provide web content when I'm in Eastern Europe. Making American Dollars and living in Eastern Europe would rock). In the meantime, since it's Wallace Stevens week in blogville, here's a paper I wrote on "The Idea of Order at Key West" when I was a sophomore. (During the 2000 election, I had an idea for a parody poem called "The Idea of Order at Palm Beach," but then I figured that it would be funny to such a small segment of the human population for such a short period of time that it wasn't even worth writing.) Hey, if Matthew Yglesias and Eve Tushnet post their college papers, I can too. I don't care how silly it is.

Read the poem, then read the paper. Unless you don't want to.

The Human Potential in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”

Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” is in many ways a rarity in modern poetry. Defining itself in opposition to poems about human weakness, for example, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is a celebration of human potential and capability. Rather than lament the detrimental effect of an unnourishing environment on the human spirit, it argues that humans have the capacity to change their environment, to reimagine it through art, and more generally, through “the idea of order.” It is a hopeful voice that at least for a moment envisions an infinite human potential in our ability to make art, to speculate on our own origins, and to find order in a chaotic world.
The poem begins by underscoring the difference between the song and the sea, between art and what the art aspires to represent: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” The sea may be the source of the singer’s inspiration, “it may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind,” but her song has a very separate existence from the sea. This separation comes from the singer’s very effort to represent the sea in words; the act of translating the sea into a human representation, her song, inevitably removes it from the sound that inspired it, and creates a distinct voice: “The song and water were not medleyed sound/Even if what she sang was what she heard,/Since what she sang was uttered word for word.” Here the poem captures the classic frustration of the artist: the gap between conception and realization.
The narrator poses the question “Whose spirit is this?” as he senses in the song a source of inspiration, the spirit that he seeks. To whom, he asks does the song truly belong, to the sea that inspires it, or to the singer who sings it? But he has already answered his own question, even in the first sentence of the poem, which implies that the singer has surpassed any inherent “genius” in the sea. The voice of the sea is not a song, it is “heaving” and “gasping,” a “constant cry.” These are words associated with an energetic, but uncontrollable force. They are words of power, but not necessarily order or beauty.
The poem describes the process by which the singer forms her song. Her raw material is the sea. Unshaped by the singer, it is representative of an initial chaos that is powerful, and has great potentiality, but is in itself devoid of order or meaning. The sea has a sound but not a mind, it has only physical existence: “it is a body wholly body.” The first stanza uses repetition to describe the sea, both alliterative repetition and repetition of words: “and yet its mimic motion/Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry.” This repetition describes the motion of the waves but more importantly, describes a general lack of differentiation. This idea is picked up again in the second stanza, when the song of the sea, bereft of the singer’s voice, is “a summer sound/repeated in a summer without end/And sound alone.” Phrases like “mountainous atmospheres” and “coral water-walled” suggest a primordial environment in which there is no clear demarcation between air and earth or earth and sea. Words like “heaving,” “gasping,” and “grinding” perhaps even have sexual connotations, suggesting that the sea is an original source of life and fertility, as indeed in evolutionary history it was.
The first task of the singer, the creator, is one of differentiation: “It was her voice that made/The sky acutest at it’s vanishing.” Where the sky vanishes is the horizon line, where sea and water separate. She defines the boundaries between objects; she demarcates and orders her world. While the first sentence in the third stanza describes a physical separation, the second describes a separation and distinction of time: “She measured to the hour its solitude.” Explicitly the poem attributes the solitude to the hour. In the most literal reading of that sentence, the singer has partitioned off the hour from all other hours. These two sentences are following the course of a kind of creation myth, with specific echoes of Genesis. First she separates the heavens and the sea, then, as when God made the Day and the Night, she portions out time, separates it into distinct entities so that one can perceive its passage. In the less literal but perhaps more customary reading of “She measured to the hour its solitude,” the solitude could refer not to the hour itself, but the way the walkers on the beach feel at the hour. In other words, the solitude is theirs, with her song she has made them lonely, and given them awareness of themselves as distinct from other human beings, consciousness of their own individuality. In this way the singer completes the creation cycle, for she creates Man.
The next sentences make the singer’s godlike role overt: “She was the single artificer of the world in which she sang.” Although her act of creation, of ordering, is one of separation and distinction, in this stanza the poem also shows how creation can be a process of rejoining with the natural world, even as the song distinguishes her from it: “And when she sang, the sea,/Whatever self it had, became the self/That was her song, for she was the maker.” These lines seemingly contradict the previous lines, in the first stanza, that asserted the separate existence of the sea and the song: “The song and water were not medleyed sound,” but in fact they constitute a solution to this problem of separation. Singing in response to the voice of the sea, and separating herself from it, she rewrites the reality of the sea, so that any separate existence the sea had is now altered and accommodated to her ordered view. Now the sea is her song. She has bridged the gap between conception and realization by turning the conception into the realization. No longer must she be separated from the chaotic and wordless realm that was her raw material and her inspiration; she finds communion with her origins by remaking the reality she came from with her tools of consciousness and art, and now her origins match her new reality.
The two people walking on the beach, the narrator and Ramon Fernandez, hear the singers song, and from having shared her vision of an ordered world, the vision endures beyond the moment of the song, and extends beyond the realm of art.

The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

The lights of the harbor are not conscious works of art like the singer’s song, but they are another human effort to illuminate and to order the universe. In a description of a night sky, the stars are saliently absent; the praise is bestowed upon the artificial lights. There is something surprising, and almost comical, about the phrases “emblazoned zones” and “fiery poles,” because they pair words from mathematics or cartography, domains that are conventionally regarded as staid and dry, with images of fire, of fierce power and beauty. “The Idea of Order” argues precisely that such attempts to understand, to systematize, and to order are not staid or dry at all; they are the source of meaning and beauty in the universe, much more than the chaos out of which we are born. While stars are merely scattered across the night sky, the city lights are “arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” The Latin root of “-chant,” cantare, means “to sing.” Just as the singer lent a song to the sea, the lights lend a song to the night.
Songs do not simply arise out of the sea; the process of creating them is not easy: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea.” There is constantly a struggle, as makers gaze through the “fragrant portals,” windows onto the sea and to their origins, both to separate themselves from those origins and to understand them, to trace their own journey from sea to singer, from chaos to order, in their constant effort to improve that order, to improve their art, and express themselves “in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”
It is hard not to hear in a modern poem about a women singing by the ocean a certain echo of the end of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

. . .

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us and we drown.

In “Prufrock” the singers are in the ocean, fundamentally separate from the audience on the beach, the narrator of the poem. They are accessible only in a dream, and when human voices awaken the narrator to a reality fundamentally contrary to that dream, the contrast is unbearable, and the dream overwhelming. “The Idea of Order at Key West” contests the sense of powerlessness and disconnection Eliot’s poem describes. It is a vindication of human beings’ divine power to imagine, to order and to create their universe. To Stevens, humanity cannot be disconnected from an original source of beauty and inspiration; it is the source of that inspiration. His singer and his audience walk along the same beach. It is not clear even that the singer by the sea has a separate identity from the two walkers on the beach, the narrator and Ramon Fernandez, for as we have seen, the human capacity to perceive and to contemplate the environment is also a capacity to remake that environment into the human idea. The sea was the singer’s inspiration, and she remade the sea into the image of her song. The song is the poet’s inspiration, and he can as well remake the song into the image of the poem. Thus all the creative, even godlike, power of the singer becomes the poet’s as well, and the world is his to imagine and mold. In “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a human voice is not an unwelcome disruption from a pleasant dream. Humans have the power to create a song that can transform their own dreams into waking truth.



Thursday, January 16, 2003

and since this is sort of a gender blog, I'll inform you all now that thespark.com just told me I was definitely a man, with 80% acccuracy. take the test yourself.

I'll be fucking with your results by telling you this, but apparently some of what made me mannish was my preference of being completely lonely for the rest of my life over bleeding to death (I was going to click bleeding to death, but then I thought that as someone who doesn't believe in an afterlife, it seems consciousness is worth preserving at whatever price. I can still think about the world if I'm lonely. I can still contribute to it. I can still imagine what love would be like. Yeah, it would be painful, but I'd have an eternity to be relieved of the pain...)
On to the other traditionally male-dominated realm I penetrated this weekend: fantasy role-playing games.

The game was Rifts. A rift is the nexus between the electromagnetic lines of energy that have ringed the earth ever since the nuclear war. I don’t know what happens in a Rift. We didn’t get that far in the game. Time travel? Anyway, much of the world is currently governed by the fascist Coalition States, but various rebels have formed competing governments in outlying autonomous territories, and they work to combat the Coalition States’ governing ethos of absolute obedience and illiteracy for the people. In order to start playing this game, I had to flip through a huge book with pages and pages of occupations/identities I could choose from. I settled on Rogue Scholar, though I was intrigued for a while by the one of the healer identities. Adam told me he’d predicted my choice. Rogue Scholars are basically teachers, but teaching is outlawed in the Coalition States. Then I had to come up with a back story for my character.

I am Elektra.

I was born to two brilliant members of the Coalition State government, Grand Inquisitor types both who believed that enslavement was the key to happiness. My mother died in childbirth and my father never forgave me for it. [Adam chuckles a little. “Don’t laugh at me!” protests Katie. “I get to work out my issues with my Rifts character. What’s the point otherwise?”] Both because he wants to punish me and because he is frightened that I might grow to remind him too much of his dead wife, even though I am a member of the ruling class my father insists that I remain illiterate, to be ensconced somewhere as a chambermaid when I am sixteen. But when I am eleven I am playing in a park one day and I meet Janus, a dashing young cellist, in the park. He is seventeen. We talk and my story is revealed. When he hears I cannot read or play an instrument he cannot decide which is the greater crime against my expressive, inquisitive nature, and he resolves to teach me both, in secret. I meet him in dusky abandoned libraries and cold, dank music schools. One day an old bearded man approaches us in the library and I impulsively tell him my story. Janus is angry that I am so open: “What’s the matter with you, kid? You gotta be more streetwise.” But it turns out to be alright; the man is a rogue scholar, and he convinces both me and Janus to run away with him to a rebel state. The man tells me that it’s important to make it appear as if I were kidnapped and killed, but at the last moment I can’t bear to lie, so I write him a note and explain that I’m running away, which of course sets the Coalition State police directly on our tale. The old man, Janus, and I have a long and treacherous journey to the autonomous territories, but eventually we arrive, and Janus and I set up housekeeping in a little seminary school. When I learn to read as well as Janus does, I join him in teaching the children. Of course Janus and I are in love, but because of the age difference we agree to keep our relationship chaste until my sixteenth birthday. We play cello duets and read love poetry together. On the night I turn sixteen, we consummate the relationship; the next day, Janus is killed in a battle with Coalition State forces. After this, I begin to deny possessing any sexuality or even personal desire whatsoever, and I do my best to subsume myself into the larger goal of teaching the children. I have fierce ethical conflicts with some of the other rebels who endorse kidnapping Coalition State children to educate them here. And I have a huge dog, a Newfoundland, named Pynchon.

That was my back story.

I had to roll the dice for 14 of my innate qualities. I made my highest roll go to my IQ, my second highest to my physical beauty. (I had already picked a body for myself anyway, John’s sister Allie, who is a bit skinnier and gawkier and more elfin than I.)

Adam and John had already worked out some kind of scheme for the game before I got involved. John’s character, Patton (who worked in a cybernetic organ clinic), was having mysterious Ideas (which sometimes manifested themselves in bleeding tattoos that would suddenly appear on his body), and even though he didn’t understand the origin or purpose of the visions, to the extent that they gave him instructions he had to follow as an article of faith. I was a friend of Patton’s. The way Adam had structured the game (he was game master which meant that he got to set scenes and any events that weren’t directly in the control of our characters, and even many of the events that were), there was nothing for my character to do but accompany Patton in HIS quest, and mine was not to reason why. In the initial scene (and all through the game), I never got through rebelling against this role. In a way I wound up replaying some of the conflicts Adam and I had in our relationship, with John playing Adam. Adam would argue for the existence of knowledge that was neither rational nor empirical, and I would disagree and resent the implication that there was some aspect of human experience that I was missing out on (which Adam definitely implied; my inability to see what he saw often centered around my failure to appreciate his mom's musicals (she composes)). In recent years, I’ve started to wonder if there is some aspect of human experience I’m missing out on, but I never took that tack with Adam, because I didn’t want to surrender to his view of the world. In this seen with John (Patton), he told me that if I wanted to accompany him, I had to trust him and the truth of his Ideas; I couldn’t argue or the quest would fail. I told Patton that I wanted to go with him, both to protect him and to be a witness if anything important should happen, but that I couldn’t suspend my rational faculty or promise not to argue if anything we were to do ran contrary to my judgment or my sense of right and wrong. Patton only accepted this grudgingly.

On our quest I would occasionally try to exercise some control over the story. For example, once Adam, Game Master, had me wake up to see that the tattoos Patton received were self inflicted; Patton mutilated himself while he was asleep. I started to freak out about how I thought I was following some visionary, and maybe he was really a lunatic, and how would I ever know, etc. etc. Adam then scolded me that John was cutting himself, and would I really realistically be sitting there pondering? I retorted that I could have all these thoughts in an instant, which they accepted. But then I narrated that I was going over to Patton to wrest the knife from his hand, and then I wanted the knife to accidentally start cutting something into me, but Adam wouldn’t let that happen. I swear, they were like the priests guarding the sacred texts from the masses--only for the (male) annointed ones; I couldn’t participate in the revelation. I wound up making my character into a parody of herself; she would just get very huffy any time anyone suggested anything improper about her relationship to her cello or her dog, but I wonder now if my inability to inhabit the character as a whole person had partly to do with the frustration she experienced, her inability to exercise control over her destiny—she decided not to invest herself in her life because to be fully invested would be to be disappointed. I understand the importance of having a person be the element of fate in the game, but when fate is a human being you can put a face on, it gets easy to start resenting it. Maybe the real fate is too frustrating and dominating already for me to want to subject myself to that kind of arbitrary rulership; it’s more fun to play computer games that make you feel like you have total control and there’s a perfect correlation between action and outcome, or to make up grandiose alteregos for myself like Goblin Queen and Archbishop Katerina (that comes from my Civilization playing days). Or maybe the most fun thing is just to make up your own stories, irrespective of the rules of any game. Of course, to make up good stories you have to submit to certain rules, rules of aesthetics and the rules of truthfully depicting human thought and interaction. But maybe those rules feel less onerous because they are less arbitrary.

I wonder what determines when I’m interested in submitting and when I’m not. You know, I think I’m never really interested in submitting; I’m only interested in encountering something else stronger that makes me submit. If faith requires some sort of self-annihilation, at least as an initial step, as I posited and Stentor seemed to support, I think I’ll never get it because I bristle too much at being instructed and controlled.

The game didn’t really end, since we only had about an hour to play and these things apparently usually take months. I don’t know that they have to be mostly male, really. Maybe if they marketed them without all the huge breastes women in metal corsets they’d do better than women. But I think this women likes drawing her own pictures better than coloring in between the lines.

(This post may be edited later as I think more about it...)
Jim Capozzola is a much better gay man than I am a straight woman.

He mourns his hairdresser.

It was important enough to him that the world read his eulogy that he solicited a link. I want to oblige both because I find touching bloggers' various efforts to honor their dead by encouraging more people to read about their lives, and because the well-coiffed Mr. Capozzola has been very kind to me in the course of my nascent efforts at blogging. I think of him as my blog godfather.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

another google search that brought some lost soul to my blog.
Some blogs added to the blogroll:

Vaguely Right (one of my earliest readers!)
Hullabaloo (when I add quotes from more famous bloggers, I'm definitely going to include "sublime")
Long Story, Short Pier (not being a techie, I don't usually get excited about bells and whistles, but the way you roll your mouse over links and you get bonus witty comments is just so cool)
Electrolite (yes, even though he has a goatee. I'm only a little bit of a fascist. I think he'd look great with a beard, though. Maybe I should take it up with Theresa.)

My blogroll is not done. But I don't even have enough time to read all these blogs, much less add them to my blogroll. One note about blogrolling: I don't know anything about conventions, but I got an email from one blogger offering to "exchange links." This annoyed me. I don't think it should be a quid pro quo; I certainly don't expect all the people I've blogrolled to blogroll me; in many cases it wouldn't even be appropriate. I blogroll a blog because I think it's worth reading. If you think I'm worth reading, blogroll me. Maybe I'll go look at your blog and I'll like it and add it to my blogroll, but it won't be because you added me to yours. And speaking of email, I haven't been very good yet about responding, but that's just because I get overwhelmed when I have to wash the dishes and make a doctor's appointment in the same day. I am listening and I'll try to get to responding soon...

Oh, and one more housekeeping item: my template. Still workin' on it. Rea remarked that it's pink. Well, technically cranberry, but I guess I'm reclaiming the color. I sorta miss my much maligned old template. The dark blue and black were like the goblins' lair, you see, and the pale writing was the glimmer of the jewel-encrusted walls. The reversal of the traditional light background, dark text signified subverting binary oppositions. But of course, for the binary to be truly subverted I would have needed something like gray on gray, which would have been even more difficult to read. Sometimes form just needs to take a back seat to function, I guess.

And thanks, Stentor, for the advice.
Well, that was an emotional weekend. [that is, my weekend at my ex-boyfriend’s. I started this post two days ago]

I have so much to blog about. Blogging is kind of exhausting, really, especially when you’ve initiated about eight separate threads of discussion and all sorts of people have challenged things you’ve said in important ways and you want to think about everything they said and respond to all of them, and meanwhile your blog is supposed to be personal as well as political so you want to write about your relationship with lots of people in your life, and it’s all a little bit much for your little brain to absorb and regurgitate onto a computer screen at once.

I think I know one reason why my blog has been more political than personal. It’s because, quite sadly, my personal life has been pretty stagnant (and stagnation often feels like emptiness in relationships) for the past several months. That’s largely my fault; I just got so frustrated with both trying to find a romantic partner and trying to maintain some of my friendships that I started to feel like the dubious payoff of meeting someone I really liked wasn’t worth the hell of dating, and there was no point in trying to make new friends in adverse circumstances (living in New York), when even some of the friendships I made under propitious circumstances (living at Swarthmore) appeared to be less meaningful than I thought they were, so I holed myself up in my apartment and practiced my cello and read the news on the internet.

Anyway, this weekend reminded me of what it felt like to be in a really warm and evolving relationship with someone, so now I feel like blogging about that.

But I think I want to divide this blog post up a bit, because I have a lot to say. Since this has become something of a gender blog somewhat in spite of my conscious intentions, I want to write about adventurous forays I made into two male-dominated worlds this weekend: fantasy role-playing games and Hooters. This blog post will deal with Hooters, a later blog post with fantasy role-playing games, and perhaps a later one will deal with Adams and my relationship…

Hooters was on Friday night, when I took the bus up to Albany. Bus rides north make me feel romantic (bus rides south, heartbroken and tragic), because I’ve always taken them to meet some boy or another, but my rational mind knew that despite the associations that arose, it just wasn’t that romantic, and that was made even more salient when Adam was an hour and a half late on Friday to pick me up at the bus station, which was a little nervewracking since the Albany bus terminal is pretty scuzzy and I was there with my laptop and my cello, but strangely, there were three other instances of people or groups of people being stranded there that night. I asked two girls if it was normal for so many people to be trapped in a bus station at once, and they said, “This bus station more so than others. Are you waiting for a friend?” “Well, he was my friend. He’s less and less my friend with each passing minute. By the time he gets here he’ll be my sworn enemy. Unless he’s lying in a ditch. In fact, he’d better be, or I’ll put him there.” They had been ditched by their dad, which totally trumps being ditched by your ex in stranded-at-the-Greyhound-terminal misery poker. There’s a certain pathos about upstate New York (at least the parts of it I’ve seen); I don’t know how to describe it, but the fact that people are often stranded in the Albany bus station fits into the puzzle. They then asked if I went to their high school, and you know by the time you’re suspecting that someone went to your high school, they’re you’re kind of people, so we all got to enjoy some of the camaraderie of youth on the road.

Adam finally showed up (he hit a snow bank; he and car were fine; not his fault), and we wound up giving those two girls a ride to their destination. It turned out they had just met Sara Lee (the one whom nobody doesn’t like) at the New York Museum of Science; they said she was very, very old, but oddly ageless since she’d had so much plastic surgery. I thought that was fitting since Sara Lee products probably have a lot of preservatives. One of them lives in the city and she gave me her cell phone number.

Anyway, Hooters. After we dropped them off, we went to go out to eat, and Adam asked me where I wanted to go: Ruby Tuesdays, John Harvard’s, or Hooters, which he added mostly as a joke. But I said, “Let’s go to Hooters; I’ll write about it on my blog.” (Now I feel like I’m some sort of anthropologist.) I then told him this fabulous story: I remember when I was twelve or thirteen reading an article in Seventeen about a school where a lot of the guys had taken to wearing Hooters t-shirts (the owls’ big mammary eyes stare out of the two O’s in “Hooters;” the slogan is “more than a mouthful…") at school, so some enterprising girls decided to talk back a little, and they silkscreened their own shirts: “Cocks [the rooster’s eye was the O; the C was the beak, curving downward suggestively]: less than a mouthful.” They wore them to school and the school responded by banning the girls’ shirts, but not the boys’. There was a huge uproar, so the school eventually banned both shirts, but that hadn’t really been what the girls wanted either; they didn’t want some authority clamping down, fighting their battles for them, and ultimately preventing any interesting dialogue or interchange. Years later, I was in college with my friend Susan, who was from Iowa, and she started telling this story about how she and her friends had made these “cocks” t-shirts in response to Hooters shirts. “Were you profiled in Seventeen?” I asked. She said yes, and I jumped up and started shrieking, “I read about you in Seventeen! I read about you in Seventeen!” It was an exciting moment.

I told Adam this story as we were walking into Hooters, and when he heard the “less than a mouthful” line, he said, “Now that’s just mean.”

I said, “Adam, how is that in effect any more mean than the ‘more than a mouthful’ line? That makes women who don’t have big breasts feel inadequate.”

“But you gotta understand,” he says that a lot—you gotta understand—“a man’s penis is central to the way he thinks about himself.”

“And women’s breasts aren’t important to how they think about themselves?”

“Well, that’s true,” he said. He also says “that’s true” a lot.

This is going to lead me to an observation about some men, not the exruciatingly genderconscious men of say, my college, but other men. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed. They make whatever jokes or comments they want and expect the women around them to take it with good humor, but when the women take it with good humor and dish a little “humor” back they complain loudly about how the women are hurting their feelings. On Saturday night we watched this movie Crossroads, not the Britney Spears movie, but a flick from the eighties with Ralph Maccio that combined the “road trip” and “wizened and wise older black person teaches young, wealthy, wet-behind-the-ears white kid the ways of the world” genres. We played a drinking game devised by Adam and John (Adam’s best friend)—every time Willie Brown (wizened and wise black man, blues harmonica player) says something “cool” you drink (an example of the kind of cool thing you drink to: “Back where I come from, you don’t play no harp, you don’t get no puss-eeeeh.” Katie voices no objection to finding this cool, since a) they gave her her own flask of straight rum and she’s enjoying it a little too much not to drink at every opportunity, and b) she has a sense of humor even when she’s not drunk). Anyway, as you can imagine, when I’m drunk I get pretty raunchy, even more raunchy than I am when I’m not drunk. I also have a thing for little dark-haired femme boys, so I was finding Ralph Maccio pretty cute in those shiny eighties sport coats with the rolled up sleeves. When you added the fact that in the movie he played a classical guitarist, well, I was pretty far gone (I dated a classical guitarist, in fact, although he would never play his guitar for me, even though I begged him, so I was basically left with dating someone who had very long fingernails on his dominant hand. I can’t think of another example of something which is so sexy in life, but such a disadvantage in bed). I started enthusiastically voicing my appreciation for his string plucking abilities, and Adam and John started complaining that I was making them feel inadequate. They were sort of joking, too, but still. I then said that they had said the same things about women. “Not in your presence!” they protested. I then proceeded to rattle off some examples of things they had said about women in my presence. Then later Jamie Gertz shows up to be Ralph Maccio’s love interest, and John and Adam started proclaiming that they would do her. Demonstrating that I could give and take in equal measure, I informed them that I would do them both, at once, right there in that hayloft. That ended the conversation. I will say, in defense of men who do not have consciousnesses as excruciatingly raised as your typical liberal arts student, I’ve observed among several Troy (that's Troy, NY) men that they seem much more naturally open-minded about what women are attractive and what constitutes a sexy body than a lot of the uberfeminist guys from my college.

Anyway, Hooters. It was kind of fun. Our waitress was extraordinarily busty and was wearing a very low cut t-shirt and one of those bras that hikes your breasts up to your collar bone, in the process creating a sort of shelf of the lowest part of your breasts that the rest of your breasts spill out of. It would just look ugly if you were wearing a whole shirt; it’s sole purpose is to expose as much of your breasts as possible without actually showing your nipples. There’s some variety in the way they wear their shirts, but none of the waitresses wear pants. I mean, technically they might call those things they’re wearing shorts, but they’re underwear. They might be wearing another pair of underwear underneath, but that doesn’t change the fact that their shorts are underwear. I had to admit that our waitress was quite sexy. Not all of the waitresses looked like our waitress, though. Most of them seemed pretty thin (not supermodel thin, but average thin), but some of them had smaller breasts. Not our waitress, though, and I could barely restrain myself from giggling at the exuberantly fleshy display that bobbled in our faces whenever she stopped by to see if we needed anything. After she walked away I repeated to myself, “Look at the face. Look at the face. Look at the face.” Adam said, “I’m trying!” I told him, “I’m talking to myself!”

And this reminds me of an area in which I really have sympathy for straight men and think they get a bum rap. When a woman is wearing something very low cut, I, a straight woman, have a lot of trouble not staring at her breasts. Imagine how I would feel if breasts were this hugely fetishized irresistible sex object. While it is an extremely classy straight man who can avoid looking at a woman’s breasts when she’s doing everything possible to draw attention to them, it’s a human one who can’t avoid looking. Come on, ladies, if you dress like that you’re trying to sexualize yourself, and you can’t really complain (as some women do) if someone treats you the way you advertise that you want to be treated. I mean, you can complain if men yell lewd comments at you on the street, but looking? I myself tend to dress pretty modestly unless I’m heading out to some party and I feel like sexing it up, or my mood that day is one in which I want to draw a lot of attention to my body. Then, when I get that attention, I’m happy about it. Maybe it’s because I’m a B-cup, but I feel a little surge of triumph every time I get the cleavage glance. (Note: this is not an apology for staring at women’s breasts when they’re just wearing normal shirts that cover a reasonable amount of skin. Men who do this are yahoos.)

Oh yeah, Hooters. Adam told me that sometimes the waitresses pull up a chair and talk to you. I was like, great, like geishas. But our waitress didn’t chat with us (maybe because I was there). At one point another waitress walked by our table to drop off our roll of paper towels (i.e., our napkins--Hooters is a very classy joint), wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and a winter hat. “You’re so clothed!” I told her. She flashed me a big smile and said, “I’m going home!”

So having ventured into the belly of the beast, I’m not sure what my opinion is. In some ways it seemed like an essentially good-natured celebration of women’s bodies. There did not appear to be any strict women-should-look-exactly-this-way standard in force. Based on what I saw, I think I probably could have walked in and gotten a job. As a feminist who likes to think a lot about the ideal way to view ourselves and people of all genders, I have to grapple with what parts of our gender roles are both fucked up and discardable (discardable because they are entirely socially constructed) and what parts are forgivable and probably not discardable. The extent to which beauty is described so rigidly in our society is fucked up and discardable. The straight male desire to see women in their skivvies even if they’re not sleeping with them--and their ability to pay for the pleasure--is probably forgivable and almost certainly not discardable (hey, I’ve been known to enter ewan+mcgregor+naked into google. It used to get me stills of him with a hard on (from The Pillow Book). Now it gets me nothing. I should have saved them to my hard drive). To me, that means we should focus on defining beauty a little more generously, rather than saying we should never objectify women. (I made that point here (the original post was a picture of a pouty blond holding the American flag), although I was lying a little, because I actually do get sick of seeing those images in my face all the time, and to the extent that Oliver Willis contributes to it, it annoys me and will probably keep him off my blogroll. If he had pictures of other kinds of women, that would be different. That was an example of my desire to be good-humored making me tolerate a little more boys-will-be-boys than I truly wanted to in my heart of hearts. I also thought markg was such a fucking asshole the most important thing was crushing him down.) And while the women in Hooters were objectified, they weren’t objectified in a way that totally denied them an opportunity to express their own humanity. The waitress could still smile at me and say, “I’m going home!”

On the other hand, I have no reason to assume that every patron is as polite and respectful to them as Adam and I were. I also have no reason to assume that just because they have big smiles on their faces, it means that working at Hooters is what they really want to be doing. There is not a lot of economic opportunity right now in upstate New York, so in fact they might not have a lot of choice, or they might be willing to suffer a little indignity for the marginally higher salary (assuming the salaries are higher; I don’t know whether they are or not). I’d have to talk to them out of uniform to hear about all of that. But to the extent that they have to work at Hooters because there aren’t enough other good jobs, that’s the real travesty. At the very least, we should be working on arranging society so that the women who do prance around in their skivvies can demand respect in the workplace and are only doing it because they’re very, very well-paid.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

I got like, eight kajillion complaints about my template, so I changed it. Obviously I haven't worked out all the bugs yet. Um, does anyone know offhand the html tag that creates a hard return so I can have a space in between my blogroll and my archives and so my comments will actually appear to go with the post they belong to?
Tomorrow a case called Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs is being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. This is the most significant Supreme Court case of this or any other term. It is the most significant case for one reason: I did some of the research for one of the amicus briefs! Basically Nevada thinks it doesn't have to obey the FMLA because it's a state government, and sadly, given this Court's federalism jurisprudence, Nevada is probably right, and our side's about to get our asses handed to us on a platter. But hey, maybe Rehnquist will be reading over his materials and think to himself, "Man, I don't know about the rest of these arguments, but this information on the historical discrepency between male and female state government employees' leave, both in policy and in practice, is like, totally compelling. The FMLA has to apply to state governments, or our society will descend into a black pit of gender apartheid. Antonin, you know you're my bitch; write my opinion." Could happen.

Down with federalism (at the very least, the fake-ass version of it that decides to preempt state law when states want to, say, forbid tobacco advertising within 1000 feet of schools)! Up with the FMLA!

Yeah, you know you come to this site for sophisticated political analysis.

If you want something a little bit more shallow, read Linda Greenhouse.
Sorry for the light blogging. Just when you complain about not having enough work to do, God gives you a 4,000 piece development mailing to help with. My job is putting stamps on the envelopes. But I have lots to write about, and I will return soon.

(I did convince them to turn the TV to channel 7 yesterday so I could catch up on All My Children. I swear, between All My Children and General Hospital about 8 characters have sprouted half siblings since I was last watching regularly. Several have returned from the dead as well, but that's to be expected. I couldn't believe it, but one person actually walked into the room and thought I was watching One Life to Live. I adopted my best Whitney Houston hauteur and told her, in no uncertain terms, "One Life to Live is whack. I watch All My Children and General Hospital." Actually, I have to admit that Allmych is not one of the high end soaps, but I've been watching since I was two; to the extent that I'm loyal to any soap, I'm loyal to it.)