Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bang A Gong (Get It On)

I have been getting hit on a lot lately.

I say this not in a self-congratulatory way, but as a mere statement of a very strange fact.

I have come to realize that, in an economic downturn, a cheerful and (for now) financially solvent woman is truly a hot ticket--particularly to the young, the unemployed, the closeted and the thrice-divorced.

I certainly haven't been doing anything different from what I've been doing for the last 20 years.  During that time-frame, to the general despair of all of my friends, I have studiously cultivated the fine art of ignoring pretty much everyone.

The other day, I was sitting somewhere, waiting for something, and, like any normal person, I began picking lint pellets off of my coat.

Suddenly, I realized that, if I have never actually had this coat dry-cleaned and if the coat itself is actually more than ten years old, then there is a good chance that it hasn't been washed in over a decade.

As I was trying to recall whether I had ever attempted to stuff it in the washing machine, wondering whether this would explain why the sleeves seem to be so much shorter than I remember, and extending my arms in front of me to confirm whether or not the sleeves were in fact shorter, I heard a suave, "Hello..."

Another time, as I was reading Junot Diaz's short story collection, Drown and contemplating the cultural and political dimensions of the Dominican-American experience in northern New Jersey, I heard, "Oh, you like books.  I like to read too."

I always find these conversations slightly awkward, because I feel like I'm being asked to speak in a code that I was briefly introduced to in high school but never bothered to memorize because it always struck me as useless and a bit silly.

And yet, I do know enough to realize that when Book-Man tells me he "loved" the movie "Shutter Island," I am not supposed to say, "Yeah?  I didn't really care for it.  It was too long.  I mean, for me, it was like, 'Hey, wrap it up, Scorsese.'"

The look on his face confirms it.  I have committed a flirting faux-pas:  I have an opinion.

For me, the bar encounters are always a little more fun, because they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell and we all know it.  Because most of those who approach are already several sheets to the wind, I can be as random as I please.

(Provided, that is, that there isn't a band playing, because then I can only be as random as I am willing to repeatedly scream something witty into a skeevy-someone's ear.)

One time, a somewhat greasy-looking dude decided that he would attempt to dirty-dance with me.

Now, that's just rude.  I had in no way solicited this attention.  In fact, he would probably have had a better chance of dirty-dancing with Ginger Rogers than he would have had with me.

In my opinion, if you are not Patrick Swayze--and you never are--then this gesture, however well-intentioned, is extremely ill-considered.

Personally, I have a polite and tactful way of reminding people of the wise teachings of Shakira--that, in fact, "Hips Don't Lie."

I stop dead in my tracks, take a small but noticeable step backward, and then stare at Groove-Dude in complete bewilderment.

Ideally, at some point, other people around you begin to wonder why you are standing there motionless, since obviously no one has collapsed or vomited on the floor in front of you.  They then mimic and follow your gaze and sooner or later, everyone is staring at Groove-Dude in complete bewilderment.

And he will never do it again.

(I must admit, though, that quite often people have ended up staring at me in complete bewilderment instead, so you need to be ready to weather that particular storm.)

This particular Fake Fosse came up to me later and said, "Hey, you know, I was just trying to let you know that, if you wanted to dance with me, like hey, I would totally dance with you, if you know what I mean."

I think he actually winked at me after he said this.  Either that, or he had a facial tic.  (I'm still not sure which possibility bothers me more.)

I smiled politely and told him, "Well, I guess that's going to have to be my road not taken."

One of my literary friends later commented, "You're awesome.  You dissed a guy using Robert Frost.  Who does that?"

Alas, I fear, no one.  I took the title of this post from one of my favorite hitting-on-someone songs: T-Rex's "Bang A Gong (Get It On)."  My second-favorite hitting-on-someone song is David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel."

If hitting on people is absurd and random, why not be completely absurd and random and have a few laughs?

Let me make myself clear.  I would not be flattered to be told, "Well, you're slim and you're weak" or to have it announced publicly, "You've got your mother in a whirl, she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl."

And while the sheer dismay of being told "Your face is a mess" might be offset by the follow-up comment, "Hey babe, your hair's alright," in my opinion, calling someone "hot tramp" or "you tacky thing" is simply a sign of poor judgment and bad social skills.

However, if someone said, "Well, you're built like a car, you've got a hubcap diamond-star halo, you're built like a car, oh yeah," I would simply assume that he's high and although I wouldn't necessarily hold it against him, I would politely move away.

But if someone told me that I seem to have "the teeth of the hydra" upon me, I would wonder aloud whether or not hydra really do have teeth, per se.  This might lead to a conversation about hydrozoa or--more to my liking--Greek mythology and the Twelve Labors of Hercules.

I might learn something new.  I always like that.

And if someone told me, "You're windy and wild, you've got the blues in your shoes and your stockings, You're windy and wild, oh yeah, " I do believe I would let that person buy me a drink, simply because I would want to hear more about his overall impression of my shoes and socks. 

Finally, I would feel quite pleased with myself if someone told me, "Well, you're an untamed youth, that's the truth, with your cloak full of eagles."

I would forget all about the fact that I'm a polite bookworm wearing a coat that is in desperate need of a dry-cleaning.  It's not even a coat now--it's a "cloak," and "full of eagles," no less.

Who cares if I don't even know what that means?  We like dancing and we look divine...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

As Promised... The Mittens!

Forget about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  I am The Girl With the Fiddlehead Mittens.  (That's the name of the pattern.)  (I didn't come up with it.)



I TOLD you they were amazing.  Here's another shot, so you can get the full effect and bask in unbridled mitten-envy:

Bet YOUR mittens are from L.L. Bean or Land's End.  Sucker.  Bet they're not even mittens, bet they're gloves.  Like that's going to work out well for you.

Oh, and by the way, my Fiddleheads are LINED.  So, if you have the misfortune to get into a snowball fight with me, you're toast.

Total toast.

Unless I happen to be distracted because I'm thinking about the book I'm reading.  Or I'm mentally coming up with an opening sentence for a paragraph.  Or if I slip and fall.  Or if you knock my contacts out.  Or if I wander inside because I smell coffee or hot chocolate brewing.

Otherwise, like I said, toast.

Actually, I have pretty terrible aim.  So you'd be fine, and if your hands got cold, I'm totally the type of person to lend you my mittens and then go drink cocoa and make you a pair so it won't happen again. 

Speaking of which, off to knit...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday

This week, when I haven't been shoveling (which has been pretty much all the time) or driving 2 mph on ice-covered roads (which has been more often than I would have liked), I've been thinking about this picture:


It's my friend's son, back in October, when he was in the hospital.

I think about his smile.

If I had a drainage tube in my head, a tumor on my brain, and an 8 hr. neurosurgery just around the corner, all of the drugs in the world probably still wouldn't get me to smile. 

Flip somebody off for taking my picture, yes, absolutely.  Smile?  Oh, I think not.

Kids are something.  I was a nanny for four years, and I have always thought that when I die, if I go to heaven, I'll be a nanny again to my little girls and to all of my friends' children. 

You get to see the world all over again when you see it through the eyes of a child.  Even the bad stuff looks different.  And the good stuff looks awesome.  Always.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Messed Up

I don't usually post pictures of myself (for lots of reasons), but I'm posting this one because it's of me and my friend's son, and he's on my mind and in my heart all the time now, along with his mom and dad and brother and sister.

Over New Year's, we spent a Sunday afternoon in a ginormous indoor playground at the mall (hence the lovely orange bracelet I'm sporting) and then we went out for ice cream and candy.  At this point, he was about a week into his radiation and chemo treatments.

(I had already finished my ice-cream, of course).

Don't be fooled by my smile: it's been a tough few months.  I always wish I could be with him and my friend and her family, but work and life call me away. 

It just doesn't seem like this is where I should be right now.  Some things in life are more important than others.   My experience has taught me that.  But right now, I'm hundred of miles away... For another month, at least.

I make a lot of emotional mistakes when I'm sad, I've found.  When I struggle, I turn to the wrong people, or I turn back to the wrong people.  Gotta cut that out. 

It's all about finding the right kind of support and not looking in the wrong places--places where you already know you won't find it. 

Easier said than done.

Having lost both of my parents and three of my friends in the last four years, I've found that I see everything through the lens of potential loss, and the news about my friend's son has only added to that tendency.

I find that in every situation now, I think, "What if this is it?  What if you never see this person again? How do you want to leave it?" and that affects my decisions.  And then I wake up the next day and realize that I've put myself back in a situation that did nothing but upset and undermine me. 

So I take myself out of it.  Again.  When it would have been easier to just stay out of it (again) in the first place.

They say that you should live every day as if it was your last, but really, no, you shouldn't. If you do, you'll 1) start to seem schizophrenic, and 2) torment yourself constantly and unnecessarily. 

Live each day for what it is.  If you screw it up, well, there's tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes, remember what today was--good and bad--and then try to make it better.

Personal resolve is the number one casualty of grief, I've found.  

I'm so grateful to have so many friends in so many places--my posse--who give me a good talking-to when I need it, but who always do it in a way that makes me feel stronger and smarter than I am. 

They remind me of who I am and why I am the way I am, and they remind me that it matters enormously how we treat each other.  I have no idea how or why I got so lucky to find all of them.  Really.

Today, I'm thinking of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard:
"There are no events but thoughts and the heart's hard turning, the heart's slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times."
I'm lucky in that I've always known where to love and whom, and how to recognize someone who is, in the end, merely gossip and a tale for another time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alone Again, Naturally

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm currently reading Sherry Turkle's book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (2011).

It's an extremely interesting read.  Turkle has spent her career focusing on the impact of technology on the construction of human identity.

Alone Together looks at information that spans nearly thirty years of human interaction with artificial intelligence, robots, email, the Internet, cellular technology (I-Phones, I-Pads, texting) and social networking (Second Life, Facebook, My Space, Twitter).

Personally, my engagement with all of the above has been pretty limited: I use email and the Internet, but I don't usually text (I have the option, but I pay per message and my cell doesn't have a keyboard so I can't "thumb-type" at all).

I have never used Second Life, My Space or Twitter.  I'm not a gamer.  I don't have an I-Phone, BlackBerry or I-Pad.

I've been on Facebook for the past year and a half.  At first I thought it was fun, but I have to say, over time, I've come to not like it all that much. 

As I mentioned in a post last year (Getting By With A Little Help From Our Friends), I have issues with the way in which the idea of "Friends" seems to be defined by Facebook and its users.

I think it really should be "People That I Know.  Or Know Slightly.  Or Knew Years Ago, But Never See Anyway.  Or Wish I Knew.  Or That I Just Added.   Or That I Was Engaged To.  Or That I May or May Not Be Sleeping With Right Now."

Friendship isn't supposed to be so convoluted.

This is an issue Turkle examines in depth.  In particular, she argues that "Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control.  This can't happen when one is face-to-face with a person" (157).

So we resort to email, texting, IM and--if absolutely necessary--phone calls, in order to try to achieve the controlled connection we crave.

It has all back-fired terribly, of course.  Because we're "always on," Turkle notes, we are never far from all of the stresses of work and our other commitments, which ultimately affect both our private and our public selves.

As a result, we have come to define ourselves in terms of our ability to quickly and efficiently process the demands of love and friendship.
The self shaped in a world of rapid response measures success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to, contacts reached.  This self is calibrated on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy. ... As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don't allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems. (166)
The result is that "the connected life encourages us to treat those we meet online in something of the same way we treat objects--with dispatch. ... Similarly, when we Tweet or write to hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends as a group, we treat individuals as a unit" (168).

As a result, our intimate lives have become strangely scripted.  Many now prefer to conduct relationships over email, through texts and via Facebook because they allow time to shape a sense of "who you are" and thus eliminate the frightening sense of vulnerability that (necessarily) accompanies all sense of intimacy.

Meanwhile, as Turkle notes, young Facebook users are incredibly savvy about the strategies and implications of identity-construction in their profiles, and they're well aware of the risks that accompany trust.

In Alone Together, one teen describes finding out that his IM messages were "recorded" without his knowledge and forwarded, after some cutting and pasting.

Another describes breaking up with her boyfriend on IM--an act for which she still feels guilty, a year or two later, but which she felt she had to do: "I wasn't trying to chicken out, I just couldn't form the words, so I had to do it online, and I wish I hadn't.  He deserved to have me do it in person.... I'm very sorry for it" (197).

The fact is, all of us who came of age prior to the digital age know exactly the kind of teenage angst she's talking about.  The difference is, all of us had to face such crises in person--even if you gave someone the brush-off or avoided them until you were spotted with someone else and thus made it clear that it was "over," there were real-world consequences of such behavior.

Everyone saw what you had done, and what you were doing: it wasn't all on-screen and yet behind the scenes.

This invisibility fundamentally changes the role of meaning, words and emotion in human relationships.  Although they resort increasingly--if not exclusively--to online forms of communication and interaction, teens still recognize the value of face-to-face interaction, even if it does at times seem like a lost ideal.
"An online apology.  It's cheap.  It's easy.  All you have to do is type 'I'm sorry'.  You don't have to have any emotion, any believability in your voice or anything.  It takes a lot for someone to go up to a person and say, 'I'm sorry', and that's when you can really take it to heart.  If someone is going to take the easy way out and rely on text to portray all these forgiving emotions, it's not going to work." (196)
In the 1950s, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that it is only through the face-to-face encounter with the Other that we forge an ethical self.  We see in another's face someone who is both similar to and different from ourselves and this experience imposes a demand upon us that we must respond to.

We cannot bypass that interaction and still hope to behave ethically.  We cannot electronically avoid other people and still hope to function as empathetic, moral beings.

It is hard to imagine Levinas being comfortable in a world in which the face-to-face encounter is now a Facebook profile.  It's hard to imagine a world in which apologies are delivered electronically and break-ups are the stuff of instant messages, but that is the world we currently have. 

Having experienced this myself, I can say that my immediate reaction echoes the innocent irony of Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest: "Oh, brave new world, That has such people in't."

For now, though, most of my friends live their lives off-screen, and our friendships--with all of their various ups and downs--take place in the real world, in real-time.

And I still always have hope that one day the ease of the online world will come to seem incredibly hollow and that, when it does, the others out there will stop in and say "hello."

Then we can look each other in the eye and talk again, like humans are meant to do.  Because at the end of the day, that's the only way to show that someone really matters to you.
Life is very short, and there's no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend.
I have always thought that it's a crime,
So I will ask you once again...

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Good Day to Be Human

Today was the kind of day I love. 

I shoveled snow this morning and chatted with my slightly kooky neighbors.  All of my neighbors are slightly kooky, which is good because 1) they're all kooky in different ways, so it never gets dull, and 2) I fit right in.

I'm reading Sherry Turkle's new book, Alone Together and the poetry of Rumi. 

More on both of these later, but suffice to say, both of them are making me very glad of my latest New Year's resolutions: to go on Facebook no more than once a week, and to check email no more than once a day. 

(In case you're wondering, I like to make multiple resolutions over the course of January, so I have options.) 

I spent the afternoon finding and buying an awesome pattern for a crazy-amazing pair of mittens, so I am now chasing the knitter's high, so to speak. 

The mittens are seriously cool.  When I get further along, I'll take a picture of them so that everyone can see what I mean.

I talked to my best friend, who is doing well, but is always very sad because of her son.  So now I'm pretty sure that I'm going to give her this awesome pair of mittens when I'm finished knitting them. 

I know she's in South Carolina, but they've been sending us all of the snow and ice lately, and I really think that when life sucks out loud, there's something to be said for at least having a very cool pair of mittens that your friend made for you because she loves you so much and really wishes life weren't so terribly sad for you right now.

Meanwhile, I'm drinking a really nice glass of cabernet sauvignon (like the guy in the movie Sideways, I won't drink merlot), and making a glorious chicken bouillabaisse. 

If you walked into my house right now, you'd think you'd died and gone to heaven--even if you were vegetarian.  It smells that good.

Next on the cooking agenda are apple and dried cherry turnovers and Italian wedding soup. 

If it's going to be -2 degrees outside at night, I'm going to fight back, dammit.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why-Guys

I love teaching Dante's Inferno.  It's an amazing canvas of literary talent, faith, Italian politics, love and spirituality, woven together by a brilliantly innovative rhyme scheme and beautiful, evocative language.

Students encountering Dante for the first time are often struck by his geography of hell.  In particular, they're surprised to find that the deeper you descend, the colder it gets, and that the things we usually think of as serious sins (lust, murder, etc.) aren't as far down as you might expect.

The ninth circle of hell punishes fraud.  To many, this seems odd: the guy (or gal) who commits fraud is punished more severely than the guy (or gal) who commits murder?  How can that be?

In Dante's world, it be for several reasons: sins of the body are lesser offenses.  Harming your own body or someone else's isn't a good thing, obviously, but harming another person's soul and integrity is much worse, because when you do that, you put the other person's salvation at risk. 

Fraudulent people change other people.  They cause all kinds of harm, some big, some small.  More importantly, they cause other people to do things they might not and to become something other than who they might be, if they knew the truth.

In any horror movie, as a woman is being hunted to her eventual, gruesome demise, she invariably screams, "Why are you doing this to me??!!"

It's an existential cry, really, and as such, it has applications outside of the genre of the horror film.

In real-life, it can be applied to situations in which a person isn't being literally murdered, but simply rendered extremely and inexplicably unhappy (on a more or less constant basis) by someone else.

Hence, my term: Why-Guy.  The question "Why?" follows a Why-Guy everywhere.  Sometimes it appears in "What the f**k?" form, but really, that's just an emotionally tweaked "Why?" question. 

You'll not only find yourself wondering, "Why?" all the time when you deal with a Why-Guy, but you'll also begin to realize that it has infected your other friends as well.  When you tell them what the Why-Guy did, more often than not, they'll say, "But why in the hell would he (fill in the blank)?" or, most often, "Oh, why are you still dealing with that loser?"

Most importantly, if you tell your friends you spoke to a Why-Guy again (or--worse yet--saw him), they'll immediately shriek, "OH MY GOD.  WHY???!!" 

If this happens, face it: you've got yourself a bona fide Why-Guy, and you need to simply listen to your friends from this point on and do whatever they tell you. 

I thought about what circle of Dante's hell a Why-Guy would belong in, because that's what literature buffs do as a form of emotional closure and therapy. 

The Ninth Circle with the Frauds is the obvious choice, because it's the worst possible place to be and everyone always wants to put someone who really hurt them in the worst possible place in Dante's Hell.

But then I thought that, although it would be emotionally gratifying, it wasn't really accurate. 

In Inferno, Dante includes a hallway leading into hell.

This vestibule contains all of the people who weren't evil, but they weren't good either.  They stayed middle-of-the-road: they didn't do anything really bad, ever, but they never actively tried to be a good person. 

They didn't choose their friends; their friends chose them.  They didn't do things; things just happened.  They were never sorry for what they'd done; they were just sorry it had all (somehow) turned out the way it had. 

They committed to nothing.  When difficult choices had to be made, they simply waited for the situation to work itself out through the actions of others, so that they couldn't be held to anything.

Ironically, they did this to be safe.  They didn't want to do anything really wrong, so they never did.  But then, they never stepped up and did anything good either.  They accepted no responsibility for anyone or anything, good or bad. 

They thought that being a good person could simply boil down to not being a bad one.

When they died, however, they were in for a surprise.

Dante's God has no use for people who always made sure that things could go either way and that no matter what, they could always insist that technically, they aren't accountable.

Basically, Dante's God doesn't give a crap about technicalities: they're Satan's prerogative.

At the same time, Hell won't take these people either.  Satan wants nothing to do with milquetoasts who don't have the courage of their own damned convictions.

Throughout Inferno, Dante stops to speak with the inhabitants of Hell.  When it comes to Hell's hallway, however, his guide, Virgil, tells him,
Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa.  (Canto III, l. 51ff.)
Loosely translated, it means: "The world won't hear them spoken of/ justice and mercy disdain them/ don't speak of them, just look and move on."

Because they chose nothing and committed to nothing, good or bad, they end up with nothing.  Instead, stripped naked, they endlessly chase a fleeing banner while being stung by flies and wasps until they cry and bleed.  Disgusting worms devour their blood and tears.  

Unlike everyone else in Dante's Divine Comedy, they are the only ones who will receive no comment.  No names are mentioned and no time is spent hearing about who they once were, since in the larger scheme of things, they chose to be no one. 

They ultimately rendered their own lives meaningless.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Perfect Weekend

Read, write, laugh, love, cook.

Repeat as needed and vary the sequence, when necessary.

Oh, and if you can, go swimming too.  In the ocean, if possible, a pool, if not.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Humanity's Hidden Depths: A Hodge-Podge of Thoughts

In "Words that Shimmer," a recent interview broadcast on Krista Tippett's "Being," poet Elizabeth Alexander asked "Are we not of interest to each other?"

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby describes the letters he receives from colleagues and co-workers after his stroke:
I carefully read each letter myself.  Some of them are serious in tone, discussing the meaning of life, invoking the supremacy of the soul, the mystery of every existence.  And by a curious reversal, the people who focus most closely on these fundamental questions tend to be people I had known only superficially.  Their small talk had masked hidden depths.  Had I been blind and deaf, or does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person's true nature? (83)
In "A Tale of Two Moralities," economics professor and op-ed columnist Paul  Krugman argues that "the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in [the] very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice."

In "The Tree of Failure," columnist David Brooks argues that civility stems from "a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need ... conversation."

According to Brooks, in American culture, "The roots of modesty have been carved away."

If we merge the respective insights of Brooks and Krugman, it would seem that we have a tendency to allow our moral imaginations to ratify our own points of view as fact while simultaneously losing a sense of the inherent limitations of our own individual perspectives.

We think we don't need civil conversation, because we think we already know what we think and what we know.

We refuse to interest others or to be interested ourselves in what we've already decided simply doesn't interest us.

Acquiring knowledge is always about excavating and exploring hidden depths and unknown avenues.  It's about uncovering and articulating new insights and evaluating the new paths that we take to reach them.

Knowledge is not simply the act of reiterating accepted polemics and positions.

Thought tunnels and meanders and carves its way through our lives; it is permeable and protean.

It doesn't stand still and shout.  It moves and grooves.  Sometimes simple, often complex, it executes coy maneuvers and dazzles us most when its sheer obviousness is on display.

And sometimes, we need to scrutinize even the obvious from a new perspective.  At an art opening I attended years ago, a professor brought his five-year-old daughter.

As they were touring the gallery, the little girl suddenly lay down on the floor and looked up at the different installations, turning her head sideways and then rolling over on her back.

With each change in position, she crowed, "Daddy, here, come here!  You need to look at it THIS way.  That's the way you should look."

And he did.  He lay on the floor, rolled on his back, turned his head sideways, and looked.

What didn't you see today?  Who didn't interest you enough?

What are your imaginings and where are the limits of your modesty?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Life's Fragility

Sometimes, People can seem to be a very discouraging proposition.

Maybe it's because someone truly sad and disturbed went more or less unnoticed and unaided until he did something truly horrific.

Or because so many people have no problem treating each other so rudely and unkindly on a daily basis--and each always blames the other for it. 

Or maybe it's just because someone keeps saying it isn't really his fault if he behaved like a complete scumbag, since he didn't realize there are these things called "morals" and that they're actually important.

Apparently, the argument is that it isn't really fair to hold a person accountable for their words and actions, if their only mistake was not realizing that someone else is actually an ethical person.

Anyway, when I find myself "growing grim about the mouth" (as one of Melville's famous protagonists put it) or "laughing through clenched teeth" (as one of Dostoevsky's famous protagonists put it), I have a few solutions.

One is to put Elvis Presley's "Burnin' Love" on high volume and continuous play and see if a few repetitions of that helps me out of my funk.  (It usually does the trick.)

But when that doesn't work, I reread The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

In December of 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a rare and devastating stroke that affected his brain stem. 

It left him a victim of "locked-in syndrome"--he was completely paralyzed, yet mentally unaffected.  As a result, he could communicate only by blinking his left eyelid.

Bauby's speech therapist subsequently designed a "code" or revised alphabet for him, based on the frequency of each letter's use in French.

With the aid of this alphabet and an assistant to transcribe his words, Bauby mentally composed and then painstakingly blinked a memoir of his thoughts and condition, both past and present.

Yes, that's right.  He blinked it.  One letter at a time.

In part, he wanted to prove to the world that he was not, as rumor had it, a "complete vegetable."

It is a beautiful and incredible book.  To some, it will no doubt seem unbelievably depressing that a witty and accomplished man in his mid-forties is forced to live out what might very well be everyone's worst nightmare, a "life in death," as Bauby himself phrases it.

It is a measure of the poise and poignancy of Bauby's prose that he is continually able to balance the cruel irony of his condition alongside of a compelling (and in some cases, profound) appreciation of the inherent beauty of life.

Out of something so terrible, under circumstances so improbable, Bauby crafts a narrative that reconstructs his identity and constantly reminds those of us reading it of the incredible fragility of so many of the things we take for granted.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died in 1996, two days after the publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Close Encounters with the Small Screen

Apparently, it was driving my cat-sitter nuts that I had no TV or Internet access at my condo, because when I returned from South Carolina, she had willed me a digital converter box and an antenna.

(Yes, I have a non-digital TV.  It cost $99. in 2004, I'll have you know.)

So now I get CBS and NBC.

After months away from the small screen, here are my immediate reactions:

I have nothing but kontempt for Kourtney, Khloe, and Kim Kardashian.  (At least there was only one of Paris Hilton.)

When they said "Ted Williams," I thought they meant the baseball player.  So when I saw Ted Williams, I thought, "Who the hell is that?"

I still think everyone looked better before their (totally obvious) plastic surgeries.

Jared Lee Loughner isn't Tea-Party-Crazy.  He's Just-Plain-Crazy.

Purchasing your own Glock means I will now have to watch out for you AND the Crazy Guy.

Sarah Palin is Really-Not-Very-Bright and either 1) somewhat proud of that fact, or 2) blissfully unaware of it. 

Even if you pumped me full of Xanax and Klonopin, I still wouldn't be able to make it through an episode of "The Bachelor" or "The Bachelorette" without asking, "Isn't there anything else on?"

If we fined the news media $1000. every time they used the word "bipartisan," we'd no longer be in a recession.

After this sentence, I will never again use the word "bipartisan."

As a courtesy to the rest of us, women who truly admire Patti Stanger should wear T-shirts that say "Desperate, Greedy Parasite" on the front and "Shamelessly Superficial" on the back.

In America, a "second chance" and a "fresh start" mean a free trip to Hollywood and a chance to do the talk-show circuit.

I have never liked "How I Met Your Mother" and that will never change.

"60 Minutes" has totally sold out.

Snookie and I might as well be members of two totally different species.

No matter how patrician they try to sound, Oprah is from Mississippi and Madonna is from Michigan, and everyone knows it.

Everyone's boobs are showing and none of them are real.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Flights of Fancy

The other day, my best friend and I somehow began talking about airlines and flights (I think because her brother was trapped with us for four extra days in South Carolina).

I was once on a flight from California to Philly, and I was seated in a row with two parents, two small children, and a very unhappy baby.  When they realized that the baby and the car seat would be seated next to an emergency exit, the family had to be moved to the row behind us.

Because the couple already sitting in the row behind us couldn't bear the thought of not sitting next to each other for an entire five hours, I had move with my in-flight family.

It was fun.  I got to color in some coloring books and eat gummies for five hours.  The couple who couldn't bear to be apart each dozed off separately.  So much for love.

This experience in turn led me to wonder who it was that came up with the policy of automatically enlisting whoever is seated next to an emergency exit to help out in the event that the plane crashes.  And what exactly would happen to the person if they didn't ultimately help out as promised.

Is there some fine print somewhere that grants the rest of the passengers the right to take legal action against emergency row occupants who fail to fulfill their assigned duties?  Somehow, I suspect not.

And who's to say that the person is even qualified or capable of performing such services?  The policy rules out children and the disabled, but I'm not so sure that those of us who are allegedly able-bodied are all that capable either.

So the whole thing is a ruse, really.

Therefore, when I fly, I try to size up whoever is seated next to the emergency exit and calculate the odds that they'll remain calm under pressure and be able to assist the flight attendant in getting everyone--by which I mean me in particular--out of the plane.

If it could also just happen to be a really hot guy my age who loves books and has a thing for saving English professors, that would be perfect.

Needless to say, though, the reality isn't usually very comforting.

On a flight back from Paris, I was actually seated in the emergency exit row for the first time ever and I had an epiphany: there is a LOT more leg-room in that row.  And because there is actually room to stretch out, the row is usually filled with men the size of line-backers.

So I decided then and there that, from now on, when I fly, this is my row.  I figure that, in the event of a crash, I'm no more likely to panic and collapse under pressure than anyone else and, given the size of all of the men sitting next to me, there's a good chance I'll be let off the hook when it comes to helping out in an evacuation attempt.

Anyway, I can be in charge of morale.  As people approach the emergency slide or the life-rafts, they might need a little ego-boost or an inspirational literary quote or some witty banter to lift their spirits, and that's where I can come in.

The wisdom of my decision was driven home to me on a flight back from Lisbon when I chose a plain window-seat that was not located in an emergency exit row.  A young boyfriend and girlfriend were seated next to me.

As everyone knows, airline seats are designed by turtles and bike seats are designed by people who hate people and want to render them unable to reproduce.  That's why the bottom of an airline seat always drops your butt diagonally downward while the upper back and headrest push your head, neck and shoulders ever so slightly forward.

This is also why no one ever wants to put their seat back in the upright position until the last possible second, and then only when the attendant insists.  (Confession: when I see someone who hasn't complied, I'm always tempted to rat them out, but I usually settle for simply muttering "look at that dirty reclining bastard" to whoever will listen.)

No one is usually listening.

In the case of my flight from Portugal, the movie screen was in my row, but off to my upper left.  So I watched "Juno" by glancing surreptitiously up over my tray table.

The problem of my row turned out to be two-fold, though.  For some reason, neither the boyfriend nor the girlfriend wanted to get out of their seats when I needed to go to the little bathroom-closet.

I'm not large, but the boyfriend wasn't small.  The girlfriend was more modestly sized, though, so I knew I could edge past her with no problem.  No one in the row in front of us had their seats in the upright position.

So I said "excuse me," and waited tactfully.  I passed the time eyeing the three inches of space between the boyfriend's knees and the seat in front of him and mentally gauging the size of my own ass. 

I said, "Excuse me," again--this time in Portuguese, actually--and glanced significantly at the boyfriend, then at the girlfriend, and then at the space between his knees and the seat-back in front of him.  They both smiled and nodded encouragingly.

This struck me as odd.  I could see how the boyfriend might be either oblivious or--worse yet--well aware of the fact that, in order to get out of the row, I was going to have to straddle him.  The only question now was, face-to-face or reverse position?

Personally, if I had been his girlfriend, I would have told him in no uncertain terms to get up.  And if he had seemed to me to be a little too slow about doing it, I probably would have broken up with him before we landed. 

I chose to go out frontwards.  In retrospect, I think the people in the row behind us enjoyed the show.  I suspect the expression on my face was particularly interesting.

I found it's very hard to look neutral, dignified and slightly contemptuous when you're straddling someone.  And it's flat-out impossible to tell yourself you aren't actually straddling a total stranger when, in fact, you are, even though, really, you never meant to.

As it turned out, the girlfriend had set her backpack on the floor in front of her, so when I stretched my leg over her boyfriend's lap, I stepped on it.  In a desperate effort to keep from falling onto her boyfriend, I ended up falling sideways into her. 

My valiant efforts at in-flight chastity were rewarded with a scornful glance from the girlfriend as she opened her backpack and quickly checked to make sure I hadn't broken her I-Pod.

It took three Pilates sessions to get me straightened out.  From now on, it's the emergency exit row for me.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Just Stuff

I spent the last week of 2010 visiting my best friend.  Her 10-year-old son began radiation treatments and chemotherapy the day I arrived.

Picture a child, his thick black hair slowly growing back in over the scar left by a line of stitches stretching from the top of his head to the nape of his neck.  It's slowly growing out of the reverse-mohawk he's had since the 8-hour neurosurgery he underwent in October.

He's not so self-conscious about it anymore; he doesn't feel like he has to wear a hat all the time when he goes out now.

He nonchalantly lies down in a clean white pod and adjusts his head to try to fit comfortably in the bowl-shaped indentation.  It still bothers him to lie flat; the scar tissue on the back of his head makes lying on his back uncomfortable.

It's worse when he can't have a pillow.

One by one, red laser beams train a series of intersecting lines that eventually merge in a cross hair on his forehead.

I'm standing in a dimly-lit chamber that looks like it was designed for the Empire's Death Star.  I can't think of a single thing to say to anyone.

We have to leave before they start the radiation itself, of course.  A small device will arc back and forth over his head, making several sweeping passes in concert with the trajectory of the laser beams.

I keep thinking that it's not fair.  I should be able to say, "No.  It's okay.  I'll stay instead.  He can go.  I'll do it, not him."  But I can't say that.

It wouldn't work.

He wears a mesh mask that has been custom-fitted to his face; his nose is always red when he leaves.


We can watch it all on the monitor outside.  I can't help but think that I'm watching my little friend on a hellish little security-cam in a place where neither of us should be.  He looks very small, lying on the table in the enormous room full of serious machines.

That's all I can think, that he looks so small.

I remember the day my friend picked me up at the bus station in Santa Rosa and I hopped into the van and smiled at her new little baby boy, only a few months old.  She had unbuckled him from his car-seat and held him up so that I could see him right away.  He was wearing a little sweater I had made for him.



The radio starts playing Jim Brickman's "It's a Beautiful World (We're All Here)."  One of my favorite songs from last year.
You fell asleep under the starlit sea
It's time to wake up
The moon is high above you
We're all here 'cause we love you

And when you finally open your eyes and ears
You'll see and you'll hear us singing
La, la, la, la, la, la,
It's a beautiful world and we're all here...

When he's finished, the nurses tell him to put a sticker on the calendar they've made especially for him, so that he can mark off the days of his radiation treatments.  He chooses Snoopy and Woodstock and puts them up hurriedly and without enthusiasm.

He's humoring the nurses.

It looks like a terrible advent calendar of dancing Snoopys and fluttering Woodstocks.  35 treatments total, 5 days a week.  He'll be finished in early February.   

He's annoyed because he doesn't like the pants his mom made him wear: they hold the static and--he tells us repeatedly--they itch too much.  He pronounces the cocoa in the waiting room vending machine, "the best he's ever had," and looks forward to having it again the next day.

Until the IV antibiotics he's administered once a month make him barf it all up on the car-ride home one day, that is.  He's mostly annoyed at the indignity of having to barf in the little potty that his mom keeps in the car for his 5-year-old sister--she's "his worst enemy," he insists.

He's taking daily doses of Temodar, an oral chemotherapy for brain tumors, accompanied by Zofran, an anti-nausea medication commonly used in chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

He's developed a strange familiarity with medical events.  Shots aren't fun, but they're worse if the nurse hits a nerve.  IV's are terrible, particularly if you have to have one in your neck.  The numbing cream doesn't work all that well when they have to put a stitch in your head after they take out a drainage tube.  Ports embedded under the skin look strange; a teenage boy at the oncology clinic showed him his.

He has been inundated with Christmas gifts from friends, family, neighbors, community outreach groups, church groups, schoolmates.  Chocolate Santas, Legos, Nintendo DS game cartridges, Scrabble.

One day, when he's sad, his mom tries to cheer him up by pointing to all the gifts he's gotten.  

"It's just stuff," he tells her.