Saturday, December 26, 2009

That Ol' Christmas Haul (Image Heavy)

So none of this for Xmas:

But I did get these:

Australia (DVD). Yes, I know it was panned, but I *loved* it. I'm a Kidman fanatic, admittedly, and a copious drooler over Jackman...but I genuinely enjoyed the film, too.

Kiki's Delivery Service (DVD). OMG I LOVE MIYAZAKI AND I'M A CHILD. Kiki is so great.

And also Milk, Changeling, and Elizbeth: The Golden Age on DVD. Which means I'll be running out tomorrow to pick up this one:

Brideshead Revisited. And possibly grabbing Atonement, The Fountain, or 2046.

Bat for Lashes, "Two Suns"

Oh hellz yeah, Lady Gaga, "The Fame Monster." Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah.

Need to grab Neko's new one, PJ Harvey's and John Parish's collab album, Gossip, Patrick Wolf, and Florence and the Machine when I get the chance. I download a lot of music, but I always buy the albums I really love, usually at the end of the year.

And then, the real gems:

After Atwood's "The Year of the Flood" (which I'm working through now--and it's wonderful), Byatt's "The Children's Book" was my most anticipated book of the year. I'll probably jump on this once I finish Atwood--I'm scared that otherwise, it'll get pushed off until after the spring semester. It's a pretty giant book, but it's gotten rave reviews--considered her best since Possession, apparently, so really excited for it.

Wallace, "Infinite Jest"--A hefty tome I won't get to this until the summer, but really excited to see what all the fuss (and by 'all the fuss,' I mean all of Conley's fussing over it) is about.

Brad Gooch's new Flannery O' Connor biography. Been looking forward to this all year.

All of Didion's nonfiction before "The Year of Magical Thinking," I think. Can't effing wait to read Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album--I've heard incredible things about those collections.

Tons of books were on my list to Santy Claus, so I'll probably treat myself to a few of those too (though probably copies that are beaten up and half the price on Hermione Lee's bio of Virginia Woolf, Alison Light's new book called "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants," Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," Timothy Findley's "Not Wanted on the Voyage," and Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red." Yummy.

Of course, most importantly, I was with my family for Christmas--and it's been wonderful, I truly truly missed them. And I haven't felt as relaxed and content as I have this past week here in some time...thank goodness I'll be staying here for at least another week, and probably two. I needed it. Happy Christmas, everyone. xo.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Reviews

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (5 stars)

I went to the liquor store a few weeks ago to buy smokes; the first pack I’d paid for in Boston, in fact, because my Virginia stash(es) had lasted the first four months of my living here. It was painful to hand over seven bucks; even more painful was the fact that the woman at the register looked at my ID for approximately seven minutes, as the line behind me accumulated, and even went so far as to pull out one of those little mini-microscope-things and peer at every centimeter of the license. She then looked me up and down, glaring into my face as though to see the inner corruption that would compel me to use a fake ID for my nicotine fix. Eventually, she handed the Camel Crushes over, I gave her the cash, and went on my merry way.

It was an oddly poignant moment to have, having just finished reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that morning. Yes, call me a bad English student; call me a bad queen; it was my first reading of the novel. It was also a surprisingly thrilling reading of a novel—I hadn’t been so emotionally caught up with anything I’d read throughout the semester, except perhaps Beloved. Of course we all know the story; Dorian is young and beautiful and sells his soul in order to stay so for all of eternity. His portrait takes on his sins instead (and at this moment I can only think of Anne Sexton’s ‘The Double Image’—“they had my portrait done instead” being the refrain marking her own corrupt relationship with her mother and with her daughter and her self; she even references Dorian at one point in the long poem, which is well worth checking out if you don’t know it). But I suppose I wasn’t anticipating the novel being able to sustain its excitement or beauty beyond the most basic components of this plotline. Wilde’s prose is stunning, and as much as we hear of him being a strict aestheticist, it’s a peculiarly affective, a really deeply felt, novel. I think Wilde wants his reader to believe he’s Lord Harry, but I get the sense that he is, in reality, the Basil figure. Intrigued by beauty, prone to idolatry, remorseful for all things lost—in particular youth and beauty. Basil was perhaps the only truly compelling character of the novel, at least on an emotional level. Lord Harry is absolutely wonderful to read—someone you’d want around you at every party (so long as you weren’t the target of his witticisms), and Dorian is the dumb pretty little creature you want to pat on the head but not keep around for extended periods of time…but Basil is the real Prince Charming of the novel. Everyone else in the novel, as Lord Harry would certainly agree, is mere backdrop—setpieces intended to provide color or contrast to this triumvirate.

If Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was the perfect novel for me to read last fall, Dorian Gray was ideal for this one. Mrs. Dalloway recalls with an astounding nostalgia the possibilities that one has foreclosed throughout life—the experiences that are shut out by choosing other experiences over them. Nonetheless, that novel brings loss in all of its breathtaking beauty back to the reader with a tangible quality; loss is a texture of the novel, nostalgia is the scent that permeates everything. As I embarked upon grad school applications, and a number of decisions that would effectively map the next decade of my life, Mrs. Dalloway helped me to—as Clarissa says at several moments—appreciate the present: “What she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” Dorian Gray, on the other hand, fears this possibility; the loss of youth and of beauty, and finally death—which ends absolutely—are harbingers of absolute terror, and thus are violently disavowed. I say that this was the right moment for me to read this, not because I’m increasingly fearful of aging or of death but because now I’ve made the leap into the next phase of my life and now these foreclosures of possibility are not merely tangible or recognizable but will forever evade my grasp—I’ve crossed that threshold moment that Mrs. Dalloway so preserves, and entered into the next stage. Hopefully, of course, I’ll handle this more in a Clarissa than a Dorian sort of way; perhaps I’ll throw a party and make sure not to murder any of the guests.

In any case, Dorian is an absolutely stunning novel. Forget the awful ‘Classic Lit-ruh-chah’ assignation of the novel (though I’m currently a lover and voracious reader of classics, I remember being likewise terrified of that designation). The setting may be over a century old now, but the thrills, the motives, the anxieties are all as modern as anything being published now. The writing is fluid and exciting, and this has some of the best one-liners you’ll ever read, among them: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable,” “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young,” “The things one feels absolutely certain about are never true,” “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self and one always ends by deceiving others.” Every line is essentially quotable, except for the strangely bland and undercooked dialogue with one of the old women towards the end of the novel. But this is a strikingly philosophical and contemplative book despite its glamour and its many ‘Wildeisms.’ I connect this to Mrs. Dalloway only because both have truly fascinating things to say on aging and conscience, the ability to be compassionate and to connect to others (in each, I think there’s more evidence against genuine connections or genuine sympathy than there is for them)—and it’s certainly a recommended read to anyone reading this blog who hasn’t enjoyed it already.

And here are a few capsule reviews of some other things I’ve been reading, x-posted from my goodreads:

Joan Didion, Vintage Didion (4 stars)

I'd only previously read "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Didion--and, considering my admittedly non-existent experience with having lost loved ones, didn't connect to it in the way so many seem to have (at least on an emotional level). Nonetheless, I found her prose style there to be breathtaking, and it's in full form in this short collection. Vintage Didion collects essays from several books--three from "After Henry," three from "Miami," two from "Salvador," one from "Political Fictions," and one based on a lecture concerning September 11th. Truly, every essay was spot-on, though Didion really confronts me with the fact that I'm pathetically unsavvy with politics. The essay on NY and the Central Park Jogger case was perhaps one of the best non-fiction essays I've ever read. Though it's clear she's done her research and doesn't mind showing as much, it comes across as astute rather than showy, fluid rather than stuffed full of other people's facts and writings. Her logic is fascinating to watch, in the sense that she moves from the most micro-level observations into smart arguments about much much larger questions. Thus, the Central Park Jogger case becomes an essay on ideologies of crime and class, specific to NYC over the past 150 years, but reaching outward, as well. And then she sweeps back into her initial arresting claims. The essay on good ol' Bill's sexual exposure in "Clinton Agonistes" was particularly provocative, as was the Sept. 11th essay, and the one on Patty Hearst. I think I was swimming too deep in the Salvador/Miami pieces, but they too are beautifully written and argued.

I'm really looking forward to moving through more of her work--and as a close friend tells me, I'm an awful idiot and a bad Lit PhD for not having read her novel "Play It As It Lays." Any case, this is probably a great introduction to Didion--at least to her more politically-minded work. I'm trying to think of lovely descriptors for her, but the one that sticks out most for me at the moment is 'shrewd'--she's got a hawk's eye to everything she mentions, and watching her follow through that sightline into an argument is inspiring. Read it, for sure.

Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites (3.5 stars)

After reading 'Atonement' over the summer, I really really wanted to love this collection. McEwan is clearly just gaining traction at this particular moment, though, and I felt that the stories--one after another, almost without fail--succeeded only on the strength of some gimmicky twist at the end. This isn't to say that they weren't unexpected turns, thrilling ones at times, but that without these turns, the stories would have been meandering and oftentimes mediocre. The first story is perverse, yes, but I feel like I've heard the same sort of sentiments about adolescent longing expressed before (though McEwan's wonderful dark humor remains intact here)--it's the twist that defines the story, and I feel as if that's perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses of any narrative--that if one thread is removed, the glamour unravels. Needless to say, that first story, "Last Day of Summer" and the final story, "Disguises," are the strongest of the group. The first one does indeed rest on its own twist, but I commend McEwan at least for daring to take the story to its most extreme conclusion--hard to read? Certainly, but I can't think of another author who would have handled incest in that way--shocking, sick, but also really bold. "Last Day of Summer" is the only one of the collection that, to my mind, has a genuine emotional investment in its characters--a convincing and compelling one. And the final story is just a damn good story, with both the perversion of the rest of the collection but the breathing room to develop and really flesh out its narrative world.

In short, it's a decent collection--a thrilling one to read, but clearly a bit of an exercise book.

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (4 stars)

[[Very very light spoilers, but nothing critical.]] You know those days where literally everything seems to go sour, as if you've been caught up in some sort of awful vortex where fortune cookies instantly stale and every endeavor is a failed one before it's even begun? That's sort of what Revolutionary Road feels like, except higher on the magnitude scale and a helluva lot more depressing. This is not to its detriment, of course; after all, it's a novel about suburban malaise, and the deflation of the American Dream (and the deflation of the dream of the counterattack on that American Dream). The characters are nearly universally insufferable, even the well-intentioned ones (like the Campbells), but these are characters that you've met time and again in your life. Their very terribleness is what convinced me of their genuine quality. So when Millie Campbell becomes this monstrous, nasty character at the end of the novel--and Shep appreciates her in spite of recognizing this--it all makes sense. There's not much of a redemptive urge in the novel; even Frank's 'change' at the end is not one envisioned as one for the better, but rather, one that's hollow-eyed and done out of desperation.

Yates' prose is tight and clean, the plot moves along at a fairly quick pace, and the dialogue is always always spot-on. It's not quite a 5-star novel for me, not because it's not well-constructed or compelling, but simply because it's slightly dated and somehow more cinematic (to my mind) than literary. Perhaps it's simply that I felt like more of a voyeur than a participant at times--which can be quite fun, but frequently discomforting as well. Looking forward to finally seeing the film.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brief jottings...

Confession: I should be writing my papers right now, but I’m tired and I’m officially finished with classes and I came home and had a cocktail too many. I wish I were blogging more; or rather, that I had had the time to do so over the course of the semester. I won’t lie and say that grad school isn’t rough—it’s a chaotic mess, frequently, scrambling to get through readings, trying to put together a coherent thought, a workable presentation, and now, a half-decent paper (or three, in the case of we first years). Class in and of itself tends to be exhausting; just getting through a discussion wears a body down. My brain is fried. My writing is muddled. My body is actually not too bad off; I walk probably three to four miles a day, just by way of commuting to school and back. But then, there are days when just putting a sandwich together for dinner is too exhausting, so you burrow in bed and read or pass out or do whatever it is you do in bed. There will be deeper, further reflections on this whole crazed semester once I’m actually through with it.

For now, I’m tipsy and a little sad. We had a departmental party tonight, full of naughty desserts, serious™ conversations, and more than a few awkward moments. But nonetheless, it was weird to say “see you next semester” to people you feel you’re only just getting to know. Anti-climactic, I guess. Maybe I’m just being mawkish; I still feel like a bit of a child in all of this. Most of the people I’ve gotten to know are real people, adults, who have lives on their own, incredibly separate from school. For the past three months, school has been my life, and my entire life in many ways. Perhaps the strangest thing to me has been that the most challenging experience grad school—thus far—is, in fact, what goes on outside of the classroom. Growing up; playing adult; trying to figure out what my place in this city is. Boston is a cold city in every sense of the term. And being locked away in my room, in a coffeeshop here, a coffeeshop there—I still feel somewhat alien here. I suppose, in short, it hasn’t been at all what I expected. In some ways, good, in others not so much—but I suppose that’s any experience, no?

Hopefully, I’ll keep up with this blog from here until at least the start of next semester, but I can’t promise anything until the eighteenth. I’ll be entirely hermited away until next Friday, churning out these papers, and then it’s off to Virginia to visit my loves for a week. I shan’t take the laptop, but will likely be tweeting from the phone. Until next time…

Also, here's what my bed looks like in paper-writing-time:

Also, here's my wild lion's mane--I haven't had a trim since I've moved here. Increasingly, I feel as if I should have been a Rossetti painting instead of a person.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The N-Spot: Beloved and Sula Reviewed

It always feels slightly blasphemous to review Toni Morrison’s work—even worse if you’re discussing her in an uppity, academic setting. There seems to be some disservice done if you aren’t simply basking in her glory. This is not to say that her work is untouchable (read Love and you’ll know what I mean), and I certainly don’t believe she thinks as much (though she wields a far heavier hand in critical reception to her work), but that any review I might eke out will inevitably fall short. Perhaps this is why I’ve felt so uncomfortable over the past several weeks; I re-read Beloved and Sula one after another (Beloved for my longest seminar paper; Sula for a presentation), and in a scholarly capacity. Not only did I feel slightly, as I said, presumptuous—but also inadequate, for how does one write about a novel as emotionally complex and ethically indeterminate as Beloved? How does one argue against Sula as a positive model for the ‘new black woman’ in a classroom—especially when you yourself love Sula, even despite your inclination to think of her as an awful person? At the end of the two weeks or so it took to get through both novels, I felt like a picked scab. I was emotionally tired out.

It seems strange that it had been so long since I’d read either novel—above three years for both of them—because so many moments from each have become imprinted on my psyche, it seems. Of course, one forgets much: the strange spectacle of Shadrack’s final National Suicide Day; Helene Wright turning to ‘custard’ on the train; the fact that Paul D made an impact on 124 Bluestone Road (or Paul D more generally; it seems I only remember the women of Beloved). But there is also much that feels inescapable: the ‘O-gape’ of despair in Nel’s final howl for Sula; the chokecherry tree that blossoms on Sethe’s dead-skinned back; that strange rose-shaped birthmark over Sula’s eye; Amy Denver’s yearning for velvet and for Boston, where she’ll find that velvet. In some ways, I can only describe the power these novels have had over me in Sethe’s terms—they follow me, my rememory, and I run into these images and moments at unexpected times, with unexpected reactions to them. I say rememory because for Sethe, rememory signals the tangible quality of the past—you encounter your own history as tactile, rather than ephemeral, and at times, this past is something you simply cannot get away from. Not that I want to escape Morrison’s work, but that her novels have that beautifully tangible quality for me; I don’t simply scan the pages, but enter into some other world, an elsewhere, where I confront my self even as I confront all that is narrated.

Re-reading Beloved this go-round was particularly difficult. It took me nearly two weeks to get through the novel—for no other reason than that there were many occasions where I simply had to put it down and step back for a spell. I won’t pretend that I feel the emotional resonances of black experience—but even as a white, gay, male reader, I can feel the resonances of the human experience, which is precisely what I think Morrison intends. The politics of slavery and the tensions of the post-Reconstruction era are of course central to the novel, but Beloved is never a polemical minstrel show—the powerful political work is done, it seems, simply by granting her characters an implicit and enduring humanity. One of the things I’ve always admired about Morrison’s work is her capacity to imagine the nuances of every person, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they might seem at surface. Thus, in the face of the awful atrocities Schoolteacher and his pupils commit against the Sweet Home slaves, there are whitepeople like Amy Denver, like the Garners and the Bodwins—and even in the case of Schoolteacher, who horrifyingly instructs his pupils to put Sethe’s ‘human’ qualities on one side of a list and her ‘animal’ on the other, there is an indication that he has some capacity for sympathetic feeling, if only in his treatment of his dying sister-in-law. Likewise, Sethe is the emotional core of the novel, but she has committed one of the only crimes that is literally unrepresentable—infanticide. Morrison neither condemns her, nor lets her entirely off the hook. Even in their most fraught and horrifying sins, these characters are for Morrison essentially human, and she treats each one on their own terms. A novel about slavery and infanticide—a ghost story, in some capacity, as well—never manages to become moralizing or alienating, because Morrison refuses to let either her narrative or her reader take any easy outs.

Sula once tried to battle Beloved for my top-Morrison spot, but I think this re-reading has cemented the hierarchy for me. Nonetheless, they both remain among my favorite novels of all time (Beloved, in fact, has to be in the top five for me). Sula offers a wonderful exploration of female-female relationships (not necessarily erotic, though one can certainly read the Sula/Nel pairing as erotic in some capacity—I would argue more autoerotic than anything), and imagines a space in which women necessarily rely upon one another in a woman-centered community. My professor asked as we discussed the novel: ‘Do you think Morrison suggests that men have to leave in order for these characters to establish healthy and productive intimacies?’ And in fact, I tend to agree. We talked about the novel as contextualized alongside the Moynihan Report (a 1965 sociological ‘study’ that essentially claimed that female-headed black households kept ‘the race’ down, and generated figures like the Welfare Queen)—and so wondered together whether Morrison’s novel offers an alternative to these sorts of (white) hegemonic discourses on matrilineal systems in black communities. For Sula, this is the only available model; and in the case of Sula and Nel, female intersubjectivity is the most powerful and generative model of subject formation. Notice that the real troubles of the novel occur only after Nel and Sula’s strangely indistinguishable identities are fractured. Oh, look. There I went and did an academic discussion of the novel. But these issues weren’t what first drew me to the novel; rather, I think I was pulled in by the vulnerability of Nel, who ‘pulls her nose’ to make it seem more ‘white’ in the eyes of her mother. I was drawn to the way Morrison describes the ‘expanse of khaki’ that covers the men’s predatory/dormant dicks—and how Nel and Sula are unable to comprehend—but simultaneously able to intuit—what it means to be called ‘pig meat’ by these men. I was seduced by Sula, much the way she seduces everyone around her, and repulsed by her selfish actions—I was lured into imagining what it would be to function as the ‘dumping ground’ for a community’s frustrations, but being self-sufficient enough (as Sula is) to not give a damn. I felt my chest tighten when Nel lets out that final roar of utter grief (sidenote: Morrison has a real way of illustrating inarticulable emotions through guttural sounds). I considered my own conflicting desires to assimilate, as Nel does, and to deviate, as Sula does—the novel asks, in many ways, how we might discover a middle ground, and if such a thing can sustain itself. Sula doesn’t have the weight of Beloved, but it is in many ways so different from Beloved (even though many of the same issues arise—woman-centered communities, the mother-right, infanticide, & co.) that it carries the same sense of power.

As I mentioned at the top, Morrison has had her hits and her misses. Love is scatterbrained, meandering, and a bit of a hackneyed reworking/amalgam of her earlier novels. Song of Solomon may be a powerful novel, quite well written (with an absolutely amazing opening scene)—but for me, Morrison simply can’t write men in the same way she writes women, and the novel suffers for it. Her most recent, A Mercy, is positively stunning; The Bluest Eye was an eye-opening experience for silly-freshman-me, who had read perhaps one black author previously (Ellison’s Invisible Man). Jazz, Paradise, and Tar Baby all sit on my shelf, beckoning to me—but will likely have to wait until summer, as Atwood and Byatt’s new novels will dominate my winter break.

But Beloved and Sula are truly two works beyond comparison. As schmaltzy as it sounds, they changed my life. And it’s almost heartbreaking to see so many vicious reviews on goodreads, where people tear Beloved apart, call it the ‘worst novel’ they’ve ever read, decry Morrison’s illuminative faculties as a prose writer. I can only tell myself that art is subjective that these people are fucking idiots, like most people, and that I’ll keep-on-keepin’-on with my worship at the altar of Toni.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Georgia School Makes Clear that Different is "Not Okay'

Well, of course, Jezebel beat me to posting this, but here it is in any case.

Transphobia in Public Schools

A Georgia high school has “asked” a 16-year-old, male-bodied student to dress in a “more manly” fashion or consider homeschooling. Jonathan Escobar, the student, wears—according to this article (and as is evident in the video interview)—wigs, high heels, skinny jeans, women’s ‘vintage tops’ (whatever that means), and makeup to school. After being involved in a lunchtime fight in the cafeteria, Jonathan withdrew from school, and—as he remarks in the video—would be happy to return if he is allowed to express himself in the manner that makes him happy; i.e., while cross-dressing. There is some disputed evidence involved in the situation; Jonathan claims that he cleared his attire with the school before moving from Miami to Georgia; the school, it would seem, denies this. Administrators are defending themselves by reminding everyone that, although there is no official dress code, attire that might potentially ‘cause disruption’ is prohibited.

Jonathan comes across as an incredibly mature and well-adjusted teenager, especially considering he’s (and it’s unclear whether he prefers ‘she’ or not, since he’s being referred to as masculinely-gendered in all of the articles I found, not to mention he retains the name Jonathan) making one of the most difficult statements a high-schooler can make: as he remarks, “I want people to know that it’s okay to be different.” And, as I well remember from high school, when ‘different’ is specifically construed in the mode of crossing gender boundaries, there is little to no support from peer groups—or, for that matter, from authority figures in the school. As Jonathan’s school shows, administrators are more concerned with avoiding conflict than with creating—perhaps at some risk—an accepting and open environment. An assistant principal blamed Jonathan’s attire for the resulting cafeteria fight—though at what point this same principal made clear that students should never lay hands on one another in violence, I’m not sure.

Though I was tough-skinned enough by high school to handle myself against homophobic taunts, I distinctly remember teachers and staff in junior high, and even elementary school, turning a deaf ear to the kids who would scream “faggot” or “sissy” or “little girl” at me in the hallways. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single time when an authority figure made it clear that insults and threats of physical violence were not okay, even if the person being threatened were ‘different.’ Not to say that all teachers are scum, but to say that the public education system does not foster an environment where ‘difference’ is accepted into the fray. Again, the impetus is to avoid conflict rather than to cope with it—and perhaps this is because there’s so little protection for public school teachers in situations like this. People lose their jobs over giving a student a kind word, or for defending themselves against a student that physically threatens or lays hands on them. So I can see why, perhaps, authority figures in the public educational system prefer to keep their hands clear of anything like this.

Nonetheless, there should be some way to get the message across that, as Jonathan says, “it’s okay to be different.” There should be a support system in place, particularly seeing as so many kids who don’t fit in with the norm are not accepted in their home lives, either; ultimately, with no one at home, in their peer groups, or in positions of authority (teachers, administrators, employers) to create a support system, the so-termed ‘deviant’ is left entirely alone. One of the highest rates of attempted or successful suicide occurs in the transgender community. There is, it would seem, no place in which trans folks can feel safe—and this extends, more generally, to the GLBTQ community, particularly at that vulnerable moment we all find ourselves in in high school. Jonathan is fortunate in some sense, because it seems that he knows who he is, what will make him happy, and will stand up for his right to express himself freely. But he is a special case; most are not so fortunate.

Reading over the comments to this article, I’m positively struck by how many people are casting all blame on Jonathan. One commenter remarks that taxpayers’ dollars are putting him through school, and so he better wait until he can “exercize [sic] his adult right” to become “Boy George.” Commenter closes by implying that if he can’t accept the normative system, then he can “go join a circus or a drama school.” Many other comments reiterate the idea that Jonathan should be forced to follow the policy, because he is disrupting the classroom with his ‘inappropriate’ clothing. My younger sister is still in high school; I’ve seen the wide range of styles that, though purportedly violating the dress code (for example, no loose jeans, no girls in strapless or thin-strapped tops, no offensive remarks on shirts, etc.), kids get away with. I’m not going to play with the politics of what it means for a teenage girl to dress like a “slut”—because I recognize the kinds of demeaning attitudes in place to make sure girls cover up all their naughty bits in the right way—but the fact is that the girls get away with it. Ditto on the loose jeans, the ‘offensive’ shirts—I don’t want to say whether or not these are okay, because that’s a whole ‘nother ballpark with very different implications, but ultimately, the only reason Jonathan is being legitimately put into this position and harassed to such a great extent is because he has violated normalizing ideals of masculine gender performance.

The comments on the site repeat over and again that he can “do what he wants” when he’s out of school, but that children need rules and regulations. But these are 16-year-olds; they are not ‘children’ who need a bit of a refresher course vis-à-vis the paddle. Comments like this infantilize people like Jonathan, who are clearly at a point where they are self-aware enough to make the decision to dress themselves in the morning; does anyone comment on the fact that the nice little “children” that beat him up in the cafeteria need to be properly regulated? No. They do go on and on about the fact that school is not a “freak show” in which Jonathan can dress the way that makes him feel comfortable. Finally, one comment shrieks “SEND HIM TO IRAN.”

On that note, I’m too furious to continue.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

O NOES! The Miscarriage Tweeter!

Oh! Here’s something. So who heard the story of the woman—Penelope Trunk (works for, I believe, geared towards teaching people how to market and manage their careers)—who tweeted about her miscarriage in a board room meeting? The tweet, on her account which is, I guess, public and possibly also geared towards career-based networking, reads: “I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a fucked-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.” The media, of course, flew into a frenzy—how dare this woman be so blasé about the loss of a special-snowflake life! Is there nothing sacred in the cyber-verse? What compelled this idiot to tweet something so personal/devastating/graphic?

And yes, I am aware that most people would not wish to exhibit their miscarriage/abortion woes for the entire world. Yes, I realize the thin line between private and public in the Internet Age veers closer and closer to nonexistence—that really anything under the sun seems to be fair game for tweets and facebook status updates and myspace (do people still use that?) comments. Finally, no, I would not put this kind of information on my twitter account. (Well, I did post something on there about my glass-cutting nipples yesterday—but I think that remains fairly tame and mostly ironic.)

But then I saw this interview:

Rick Sanchez Interviews Penelope Trunk for CNN

…and several things came up for me, as well as things that I mulled over from some wonderful comments over on Jezebel (which I highly encourage you all to read, if you aren’t already! srsly one of the best blogs on the internetz!).

1. Would we all tweet this experience? No. But ultimately, she’s achieved exactly what, it seems, she was going for. People are talking about women’s bodily experiences—about the nitty-gritty of miscarrying a child (which, I’ll confess, I had no idea lasted over the course of weeks!), about the obstacles to having an abortion in this country, and about the fact that we HAVE NOT been talking about these issues in an open manner. As someone on Jezebel remarked, even the most ardently pro-choice advocates don’t discuss abortion in such a frank and unapologetic way. Trunk does not spare (that bastard interviewer) Rick Sanchez, and she most certainly doesn’t uphold the conventional image of the (post-abortion) martyred and grief-stricken fallen woman. She comments on the difficulty of having the procedure done in a timely and convenient manner without infusing her discussion with hot-button moralizing phraseology; she makes very clear how both miscarriages and abortions are facts-of-life for many women, and that having careers—and being stuck in a board meeting—does not mean that women aren’t going through these experiences. It’s just that no one is talking about it.

2. Sanchez attempts to put this awful fallen woman in her place at several occasions, to hilariously futile effect. He opens the interview with “Now I’m going to ask you a tough question, young lady” despite the fact that he’s speaking with a grown fucking woman (!)—not some Hot-Topic-styled tweenager cowering in his presence (and I wouldn’t condone his stance if it were). Sanchez infantilizes her, perhaps in the effort to undermine her capacity for decision making, perhaps to question her moral sanity, perhaps simply to impel his own masculine authority over her. His paternalistic demeanor throughout the interview is almost laughable, but the unfortunate and underlying fact of the matter here is that, in fact, much of the media was reacting in this very way to her—they just weren’t as visibly douchey about it. In the interview, he makes it crystal clear that he has no desire to listen to what she has to say or to think about it, perhaps, from her vantage point. As Trunk holds her own in the interview, going into great detail of the ways in which miscarriages occur, and bringing up a rather surprising factoid—that 75% of women have miscarried while at work (which, as Trunk points out, is not unusual, because miscarriages occur over the span of weeks, and aren’t vastly dissimilar to the experience of the menstrual cycle)—Sanchez increasingly appears confused and frustrated.

3. Once Trunk makes it clear that she was planning to abort the pregnancy, and was not going to beg for forgiveness for such a ‘heinous’ action—Sanchez attempts, once more, to undercut her decision. By reminding all of America that Trunk is already a mother, that she has children and cherishes them, or whatever the fuck Sanchez was trying to communicate, he reifies the notion that women are essentially reduced to their reproductive value. An abortion, as he attempts to paint it, is okay only if a woman wants to—does—fulfill her ‘proper’ role as wife and mother. But what Sanchez cannot seamlessly cover over in the process of the interview is Trunk’s insistence on the inadequacy of the legal and health systems of this country to provide optimal service for women that choose to end a pregnancy. Her repeated and merciless attention to the pragmatic workings of her experience—and the experience, as she remarks, of many many women who don’t or can’t talk about it—shines through the interview.

4. And ultimately, the very media that decries Trunk for her so-called TMI moment is the same media that’s not only awarding her the spotlight they seem to think she should be denied—but that believes the Kardashians and the Hiltons are newsworthy, that the ‘reality’ stars of a show like The Hills are worthy of having every moment of their lives publicized. The difference, I suppose, is that Trunk is controlling her own spotlight here, and she’s got something to say. But the hypocritical positioning of the talking heads since this burst out has been simply ludicrous.

5. And quote of the year? She reminds us all in the face of Sanchez’s ignorance that “Whether or not you believe women should have the right to abortion, they do in this country.”

So great. Seriously, watch it. Absolutely refreshing to see someone speaking so frankly and powerfully on the subject of abortion. Whatever you think of her decision to tweet the info, it’s panned out to get an honest dialogue going—and for that, I have nothing but respect for her.

Oh! Also, here are two badly-done phone camera photos!

Aw, the English grad lounge (also Classics, but who cares for them?). Couches, and the fridge where I store my little brown-bag-lunch. And a water machine (what the hell are those called?) that even has hot water for my tea! I spend 90% of my time on campus here.

See, see! There I am! Reading! And the book isn't upside down. But it is Judith Butler, so it may as well be.

More soon.

Rainy days and creepy ways...

A rainy day in Beantown; the sort of day you stay curled up under covers with a book (or laptop) on your lap and a cup of coffee at your side. Which is exactly what I’m nursing right now. Surprised to say I’m not hungover this morning, despite drinking liquor, wine, beer, and champagne all in the course of four-or-so hours and getting to bed at 4:30AM, then waking up at 10. Perhaps my tolerance is upping the ante again? I realized, with much terror, that I was becoming an ancient, haggard old queen last week—I had hangover throw-ups! Who does that? Vomming the night of is respectable, especially if you nobly force yourself to do so in order to preemptively strike back at the impending hangover. But hangover vomming is for long-term alcoholics, people who can’t hold their booze, and grandparents. I’m old! Old, I say! I do feel like a total creeper on campus—there are all these hot athletic (and probably rich and over privileged) boys at school, and so I—naturally—cruise, and then I remember that there’s like, some sort of divide between me and them. I may be but a year or two older, but they’re babies now to me! I’m wilting before I’ve even had the chance to properly blossom. On the gay market, I’m spoiled meat; I’m slowly morphing into the Yoda of the bottom brigade of Boston. Ugh. Take me behind the barn; I’m like the horse with a gimp foot.

In other news, we’re in full swing now. Presentations loom, assignments pop up out of nowhere, professors throw an extra two-hundred pages of reading onto our plate with only a week’s warning. The party-hards are dying out, and now people beg off of sexytimes with the excuse that they have “papers to write.” Oh, those? Piff, posh! I’ve somehow managed to stay on top of everything thus far, but next weekend will, I’m certain, throw me under the wheel. Three of my queens are visiting, and for four days, I’m letting loose—with or against my consent, I can rest assured. Attempting to get ahead on everything this weekend/upcoming week, but with so much to do, there’s rarely if ever time to do anything but stay with the flow of the current. Whatever. I’m just happy to say that even if my ‘element’ isn’t with me in Boston, I can bring it to me from the days of yore—in the form of my beautiful, crazy friends (and the cheap cigs they’re bringing me!).

Beyond that, nothing much of interest in my life. I’ll be seeing Margaret Atwood on her book tour stop in Cambridge in a few weeks, and I’m submitting an abstract to a conference—to potentially present a paper on abject bodies in Anne Sexton’s poetry. I’m actually pretty thrilled about that little fact. I’m reading everything under the sun, and even forcing myself to keep my old habit of reading-one-book-for-pleasure at all times (it keeps me grounded, reminds me why I’m doing this)—even if it means just catching a few pages here and there on the subway, or while waiting for the train to campus. Wilde’s Dorian Gray is my current one; had never read him before, and he’s just delicious and hilarious. I don’t imagine most people think of late-19th century novels as particularly humorous, but I’ve been cracking up constantly since starting it.

Enough boring details on me; yet again, I’ll say that I’ll update more frequently. And hopefully! I can get back into what the original purpose of this blog was (not merely listing my activities or blogging my oh-so-potent emotions), and start bringing in some more frequent cultural critique-type-shite and book reviews and such. Until then…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Generic Update

Well, the results are in, and my second full week of graduate school is complete. I’m drained, though fortunately, mostly in the physical sense now. The emotional drip of the first week or two alone in Boston has nearly dried up, and I’m becoming accustomed to, well, this new life o’ mine. I had a brief relapse the other day, walking home from the T, though. I passed a woman walking a long-haired dachshund, and I wanted nothing more than to walk in the door of my apartment and find Cookie and Sula yapping at my ankles and furiously wagging their bushy tails. [Note: if/when I move out of this apartment, I’m finding a dog-friendly place, and I will be getting a puppy. Or will be bringing Cookie with me. Or both.] I’ve decided with confidence that I am not a cat person. Yes, the cats here are (mostly) sweet and certainly cute, but the almost sinister self-possession of cats unnerves me. Yes, animal rights folks, feel free to call me out on my longing for pet-dependence. What can I say? Dogs give affection without condition, and I like having someone around who will be invariably happy to see me. That sort of genuineness and love are rarely, if ever, found in people. Which is why when I inevitably become a batty spinster living atop a mountain of books, I’ll make sure to be the ridiculous dog lady of the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll throw in a century-old wedding cake and call myself Miss Havisham, while I’m at it.

Off that tangent, now. Classes are running smoothly and I’m surprised to find myself so excited to be back in that element. With only a three month break between the toughest semester of my undergrad and the rockiest change (thus far) in my life, I figured burnout was a given. But I can’t begin to describe how different graduate classes are from undergrad ones; everyone is engaged and excited; we go into the classroom from mutual positions, hoping to interact and learn from one another. Well, I can only speak for myself, but I’m so fascinated to hear what people have to say, and it makes me step up my game—I want to offer something constructive to the dialogue, too. Most of us are coming from different backgrounds; we cover a large span of literary periods and have wildly varying perspectives—but that’s precisely what makes the discussions so electric. I’m thrilled with it, even if the workload is insane and the commute is often brutal.

[update, Saturday morning]

Hungover. Strangely enough, it’s now that I most miss my queens/friends. Don’t get me wrong—the folks in my cohort are fucking great, brilliant and a blast to get bombed with—but it remains strange to wake up feeling like you’ve got cotton wool wrapped around your brain and not be able to walk down the hall and grab the people you were partying with the night before for a morning, messy, unnecessary ciggy. It’s hard to keep myself from falling back into fag slang and to repeat the dangerous and exhilarating party habits that will, of course, leave me forever imprinted on William & Mary’s mythology (har har)—especially when often I’m putting myself in a much more compromised position, seeing as public transportation closes at 1:00 AM and I have a long, lonely hike from any well-populated areas to my apartment. I need to take better care about that sort of thing, because I keep finding myself stomping down the dark roads to my apartment at 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning, by myself and drunk and without cab cash. And just as a sidenote: riding the T while drunk is NOT FUN. But I keep forgetting that I’m in a big city, that I’m more or less on my own, that the same sluts who went with me to the vomit-bush aren’t able to stomp me home. That’s where the homesickness clutches you in its vile grasp; in the little things that crop up out of nowhere—little itty bitty voids in your daily ritual, where you go to turn and say something to your coffee shop buddy or your smoke buddy and realize that you look like an idiot, because no one’s there.

But as I said, things are beginning to seem normal. When I get back to the city from campus, I think of my apartment as ‘home’; I’m getting into a daily schedule that, sure, is different, but keeps me busy and content. I have two coffee shops and innumerable used book stores. There’s a lounge in the English department for grad students and faculty, and it makes me feel super important sitting in there and half-doing work. I even get to pack a lunch and leave it in the lounge fridge. I’m behind in nearly every class, but not unmanageably so, and I’m enjoying the work and the fact that I’m being compelled to parse ideas out on a much more complex level. I’m reading Faulkner’s Light in August and had forgotten what a joy Faulkner really is. I’m getting my feet rooted in queer/race theory, rather than playing salad-bar with a bunch of theorists, and I’ve got a group of people to bounce ideas off of and likewise sponge up their brilliance. I don’t know how I become so long-winded on this thing every time, but there you have it. Will try to update more regularly, so that it’s not information-dump every few weeks.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Some notes and details on things in my life right now:

-I eat some sort of variation on a deli-meat-sandwich about every day; a potato, cooked in different fashions, typically constitutes the ‘vegetable’ of my dinner. I must be braver at the grocery store, and soon.
-One of my roommate’s cats has taken a particular liking to me; the downside is that she frequently howls outside of my bedroom door for well near an hour as I try to fall asleep. She wakes me up sometimes, too. Though, admittedly, this worked to my advantage over the weekend, because she woke me up from my drunken stupor in time to warn me to run for a plastic bag to vomit into. Nonetheless, I need my fucking beauty rest. This needs to stop.
-Classes are fabulous, but reading a book of theory a week in addition to, like, a million other things, will take some getting used to. I spent about six hours today wading through Foucault.
-On that note, I’m reading Foucault for all three of my classes. And from what I hear from some English grad compatriots in other programs, this is a fairly universal experience. Is he really that great?
-I’m making friends, and am finally at the point where I can sort of count on having weekend plans. Yay! The bloody edge to this sword is that I spent a lot of this weekend hungover and incapable of being productive. And I spent far more money on booze than I should have.
-Though Boston, and my neighborhood in particular, seems to have a pretty substantial—and visible—gay population, I’m apparently still the resident freak. Honestly, no one bats an eye at all the fucking hipsters wearing girl jeans; I wear a pair out—me in girl pants, me, someone who actually sleeps with men—and I’m given glares like a fucking leper? Sheesh, give me a goddamn break, you hypocritical yuppies.
-I still want to properly review Inglourious Basterds, and am hoping to do some capsule reviews for a few others things I’ve read/seen lately—Halloween II, Angela Carter’s Wise Children, and Alice Munro’s Open Secrets.
-There will be more substantial updates soon. And pictures, potentially, though from my shitty phone. Things are generally smooth; I’m still a bit lonely and disoriented; we could hit grad-school-panic-mode soon; I think I’ll survive. Until next time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lonely Bitch in the Big City

Everything will hit full stride bright and early tomorrow; general GSAS orientation begins at a mind-numbing 8:45, so that they can pull me from my bed and into an hour-long public commute before I've wiped the sleep from my lashes. To tell me about silly things like finding housing (check), learning your way around campus, ways to save money, and blahblahblah. And it's mandatory. Also, why did I think it would be really fun and health/energy conscious to walk a mile to the T, and then have to take that to the commuter rail, and then take that into campus? This is going to throw an extra forty-five minutes (each way) onto my daily routine. Ah well. I should only be going to campus thrice a week, so perhaps it will work out alright. My only hope about the big orientation in the morning is that I'll be able to cruise for cuties outside my program (cuz, well, that's a bit incestuous, dontcha think?). Of course, I'll be looking icky--sweaty, and still vaguely wet from showering. But what can you do?

My first waves of loneliness crashed today. I saw "Inglourious Basterds" alone (I'll review it tomorrow, because it is SO badass), and coffee-ed and read, and came home to my, as usual, empty apartment, had a smoke, crashed in front of the computer, and roused up some energy to cook dinner. Had a glass of red wine and another smoke, and then a very minor panic attack as I realized that this could very well be my life for however long it takes to make friends (that is, assuming anyone in Boston will put up with me at all). After all, that's been the routine every day since I moved in, with an occasional roommate-chat and a few drink-dates over the weekend with current grad students. I went to a little shindig on Saturday night, which was fun, but the fact of the matter is, I've moved into a pretty bustling city by myself and know no one on any satisfyingly complex or intimate level.

One of the grads I met up with is from Alabama, and she told me that she and her husband play a game...something you might call "Frighten a Bostonian," because they'll smile and wave, or say 'hi' to people they pass on the street, and count up how many people even acknowledge their existence. I played the game myself today, on the way back from the movie-ing, and got a single half-hearted smile in return. Everyone else looked away in fear, or returned with a vaguely challenging look of their own--like, 'who the hell are you to smile?' I love the city so far, I really do, but I think today was the first day where I really sensed the disconnect between me and, well, everyone else here. And I understand why you'd avoid strangers in a big city, but it was a bit of a 'culture' (?) shock, I suppose. A homeless man selling newspapers thanked me and told me to have a good day, just because I had said "no, thank you" to his offer of a paper--he thanked me for "acknowledging" him. And to some extent, it's a bit terrifying to think of going day in and day out without feeling like anyone will look you in the eye or try to connect with you.

I get on facebook, and see my friends posting about doing the fabulous, naughty things I used to do with them--nothing against them, I wasn't expecting them to don black veils for the next thirty years or anything like that (doooon't I?)--and nostalgia hits like a fucking deer against the car hood. I miss my dogs, I miss my sister, I almost crave an argument with my mom, and I want to get blackout with all my queens. It's natural to feel this way, I know this, and it will--I'm certain--pass over time, but nonetheless, I don't want to spend the next five years cooking for and by myself. I don't want to have to say "thank you" to someone for simply making eye contact with me. I don't want to not know who to turn to when I'm feeling down. I don't know why I'm sharing this on a public blog-perhaps just to air out my system? There's a certain level of self-pitying narcissism to any post like this, but I figure if I'm going to keep a blog purportedly aimed at updating people about my life in Boston, the good and the bad will each have their turn being exhibited for consumption.

In short, I'm tired. I don't want to get up before 7AM. And to the rest of ya'll who have recently abandoned the carrion of undergraduate existence, I'm with you on it all (because I've seen your blogs too).

Oh, and if anyone's into Fleetwood Mac, the song "That's Alright" is a nice cure for this sort of feeling. Well, not a cure--so much as a commiserating sort of song.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Is Beantown ready for this jelly?

I’m writing this while lying on my bed in my apartment in Boston—well, Somerville, to be exact. It’s bizarre to say/write that; the notion of having a space or place of my own, twelve or so hours from where I’ve spent my entire life settles uneasily with me. Not a bad unease, though, it’s just that I feel as if I’ve gone through the looking glass, as it were, and emerged in a world much like my old one, but with everything shifted slightly left-of-center. I’ve been here since Sunday, officially, as it was the first night I actually slept in the apartment. Move-in was, as most move-ins are, awful. Seemingly in my honor, Boston decided to cook up a heat wave for my first week here, and having no AC at my disposal, I’ve been cocooned in a fetid shell of sweat since unloading that first UHAUL box. You know when you get out of the shower, and you want to savor that freshly-scrubbed, baby’s-ass-sheen of cleanliness? Well, I’ve been denied that pleasure every day this week, and believe you me, walking from my un-air-conditioned apartment to the square where I’ve been doing my coffeeshop-ing and actual shopping (twenty minutes away) is positively miserable. On top of it all, it rained for about five minutes yesterday, turning the area into a massive vagina (or anus, whichever offends you less) of humidity.

So, weather aside, I’m settling in well. I’m hoping the rain today holds off, because I’ve got—for the first time so far in Boston—plans! Well, actually, I tagged along with my roommate and her friends to a drinking/trivia event at a straight bar last night. I wasn’t harassed, which is a nice change from any predominantly straight drinking-locale in Virginia, and had a lot of fun, even if I got a bit too drunk in front of my roomie and complete strangers. The wine was cheap, and the glasses were huge! so what can I say? As many of you know, white wine + Jamie = sexy times. And by sexy times, I mean times when this fag becomes overheated, obnoxious and more incomprehensible by the minute. Two meetings today with current grad students for, I hope, booze, but potentially just coffee—friends! Unless I make an ass of myself, which is the most likely outcome.

My room here is pretty spacious—I finally finished unpacking the other day, and it looks really nice. I even have a little porch/sunroom area, where I’m keeping a reading desk and my keyboard and other musical paraphernalia. This week has been one of learning adulty things, like grocery shopping and getting the internet and cable set up. I think I was a bit too jubilant over my success in setting up curtains. Such are the woes of post-undergrad daily rituals. I’ve discovered, as I said, a nice coffeeshop in town, not entirely unlike the Daily Grind—people set up shop there for the day, there are a plethora of lesbians, and it has the sort of relaxed ambience I like to lounge around in. Potentially a good cruise spot too—lots of cuties, if mostly hipsters. But I’m trying to fit in; I even cut up a pair of jeans yesterday, though I hasten to note that I avoided the v-neck/flat combo that most of the ‘real’ indie boys parade about in here. Stomping it out through Boston streets is a new joy, even if I’m probably the most tranny-ish gay boy I’ve seen so far. I was carrying my Andy Warhol-Marilyn Monroe canvas bag with my face-eating Gaga glasses on the other day, and noticed a few stop-and-start glances in my direction. Well, the stares you get used to—a fashion strut never dies.

As I said, I’ve been experiencing quite a bit of vertigo since arriving. It seems that everything crops up to remind me of my ‘old life.’ I ran into someone from the Daily Grind at my new coffee-hotspot, though we pretended not to recognize one another. Daily, friends post facebook memes dedicated to the fun times of yore, and last night was oddly reminiscent of a Mug Night at the Greenleafe. But I’ll become accustomed to the little jolts as time passes; nostalgia is nice to indulge in once in a while, but I’ve got to ensure I don’t get caught up in it. Much future-thinking going on now; orientation begins Monday, classes start on Thursday. I’m registered! for a Literary Methods course, another called ‘The Body as Text,’ and a third, ‘Race, Desire, and the Literary Imagination.’ I’ll be on campus three days a week, and have a pleasant three-day-weekend, along with a midweek break on Wednesday. Incidentally, I have to deal with the bullshit of public transportation now; as a doe-eyed visitor in April and again in July, I thought it would be the most fabulous way to travel. Now that I’m living a twenty minute walk from the nearest T station, and have to fork out a huge chunk of cash monthly for the commuter rail, the idea seems less inviting. But the silver lining is that I’m not driving my clunker, and that the money won’t be going to gas. If I was a huge activist against carbon footprints, I could also boast my newly environmentally friendly method of getting from A to B. And if I need to impress one of the coffee-hipsters, perhaps I will!

Other than this, I have little to share. It’s been a lazy week—primarily because exerting any effort at all breaks a sweat, and secondly, because I know little to nothing about the city, and know only my roommates. By next week, though, I should be able to offer up something more exciting. Until then, I send out my virtual hugs to all. Scratch that; I’m sweaty.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who the Fuck Says "Gay is the new black!"?

Thanks to a couple of diligent and brilliant LGBTQ leaders from the W&M student body, I stumbled across this article on facebook—a brief, and in my opinion, precariously surface-level analysis of the intersection of race and sexuality under President Obama. Because I, let’s say, stumbled over several of Mr. Granderson’s statements, I thought I’d parse them out a bit—and would love to hear what the rest of you think.

Before I say anything else, I should acknowledge that discussions of race, particularly when race intersects with another marginalized culture or group, tend to be eggshell-tiptoeing sorts of debates. I don’t go out of my way to step on toes, but Mr. Granderson’s article felt a bit like a stiletto stabbing into my own, so I’d like to at least stir up his shallow thought-pool a bit. And of course, any such discussion is invariably dependent on personal experience—just as it is with sexuality, one person’s capacity to understand or empathize with a greater ‘group’ sort of experience or consciousness is limited to what they’ve come to understand on an individual level. It seems self-evident that my experience as a gay male is vastly different from the next queen’s, or that my consciousness as a white male will, again, not mirror that of a black (gay) male (or female, or trans, for that matter).

But here’s where my first hitch hits. Perhaps employed as the backbone of his argument, Mr. Granderson contends that “Despite the catchiness of the slogan, gay is not the new black.” I begin with this because I’ve heard the retort used increasingly frequently against the allegedly white GLBTQ majority. And I don’t mean to say that the movement isn’t—at least in the public eye—dominated by whites, but that his claims are directed, perhaps unfairly, against a stereotypical understanding of the movement, and against whites as a homogenous group—something I think he’d be reluctant to accept from the reverse. My issue, however, stems from the fact that I’ve never heard someone make such an outlandish claim, or for that matter, even subtly presuppose that the gay movement is comparable to the civil rights movement for/by African-Americans.

He goes on to remark, in a rather flip manner, that “Not to split hairs, but for most blacks, the n-word trumps the f-word.” Here we come upon another of my stumbling blocks. Mr. Granderson pretty much makes my argument for me—by claiming that one word ‘trumps’ another on the oppression hierarchy. My question is this: why must there be some violently delineated totem pole of marginalization? It all becomes a petty, stick-your-tongue-out sort of game of “my identity is more subjugated than yours!” Let’s leave such antics to the playground, because in the broader scope of civil rights—for everyone, not simply for some—this tactic is more of a speedbump than anything else. Neither word—nigger or faggot, for let’s not be politically correct here without reason—is a pleasant one to hear when inappropriately wielded. I call myself a faggot frequently, but this doesn’t mean I want to hear some belligerent and probably closeted frat boy hurl it at me, just before he hurls all over his too-expensive shoes (and believe me, that’s not metaphor—that’s plenty of experience speaking). Words—even those we think of as ‘hate speech’—have only as much power as their context creates for them. In any case, there’s little gain in clarifying that one hateful and bigoted insult is ‘better’ than the other.

My problem with each of these remarks comes to the same head; that Mr. Granderson implies that racialized issues are intrinsically more substantive than sexualized issues. For starters, I’d be hard-pressed to agree that this is the case, even if the two ‘topics’ could be entirely and objectively kept separate. But more importantly (and one would assume, even more personally significant to a gay black male writer like Mr. Granderson), race and sexuality cannot be divided. Most of us will recall the catchphrase of Intro to Women’s Studies: “Gender, race, and class are intersecting categories of identity” (or something to that effect). Sexuality isn’t always included in this grocery list, but should be. I don’t live my life in compartmentalized experiences—one day, for example, I don’t decide I’ll live ‘whitely’—and then the next, perhaps, I’ll be one-hundred percent gay, or the following one, I’ll view myself, and be viewed by others, only as a member of the lower-class. So when Mr. Granderson attempts to discuss gayness and blackness as invariably separate spheres of experience, he makes the most fatal of mistakes—oppression simply does not function that way. And thus, his unspoken attempt to glorify black oppression over GLBTQ oppression (isn’t it silly—to glorify oppression?) becomes a moot point. That hierarchy blurs and bleeds until we can no longer focus on one segment without seeing traces of the others. Because this is getting long, I’ll move on—for now.

“While those who were at Stonewall talk about the fear of being arrested by police 40 years ago, blacks talked about the fear of dying at the hands of police and not having their bodies found or murder investigated.”

Ah, that trump card again? We fall back to his original claim—that (all) white members of the GLBTQ are wielding the Paris/Perez Hilton-style slogan that ‘gay is the new black!’ Insert neon-orange Mystic Tan and gum-popping here. Where is it that Mr. Granderson keeps hearing white gays equate GLBTQ oppression with centuries of black enslavement, lynching, the civil rights movement of the past century, and so forth? I think any queen who tried to say as much would be laughed right off the stage, or out of a job (especially considering one of the media personalities he targets is hot-topic/high profile lesbian Rachel Maddow). These experiences are not comparable, because no one in their right mind would see anything but the most basic of similarities between racial and sexual oppressions (again assuming we can think of them in even the most hazily separate way)—similarities in the sense that the movement for equality for all individuals is an ongoing one, and that violence, subjugation, and the systematic denial of rights has been dandily extended to both racial and sexual minorities in their historical struggle against oppression. But they are not the same—again, this seems a bit self-evident, at least to me.

And again, he comes off as dangerously insensitive by suggesting that members of the GLBTQ community do not fear for their bodily health or even for their lives on a daily basis—even in a country as supposedly progressive as the United States. Lest we forget, beyond our Uncle-Sam-centric vantage point, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in eight nations. This is not to mention the innumerable crimes perpetrated against LGBTQ Americans—most famously and violently, of course, against people like Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, and Gwen Araujo, but just take a look at the Wikipedia article on ‘violence against LGBT people’ and you’ll see there’s no dearth of fear to be had in our beloved country. Is forty years of the gay movement comparable to the four hundred years of black oppression he cites in his article? No. But it’s not as though sexual ‘deviance’ erupted with free love and Stonewall—GLBTQ oppression (though not, perhaps, termed or identified in that way) didn’t just fall off the turnip truck! And considering how many cases of homophobic violence are directed against racial minorities—our aforementioned Gwen Araujo among them—such violence is not to be taken lightly, or to be dismissed as ‘less significant’ in the wider view. Any instance of violence committed against someone for their identificatory leanings—chosen or not, visible or unseen—should be decried.

“This lack of perspective is only going to alienate a black community that is still very proud of Obama and is hypersensitive about any criticism of him, especially given he's been in office barely six months. If blacks are less accepting of gays than other racial groups -- and that is certainly debatable -- then the parade of gay people calling Obama a "disappointment" on television is counterproductive in gaining acceptance, to say the least. And the fact that the loudest critics are mostly white doesn't help matters either.”

Here’s Mr. Granderson’s other crooked crutch. His anger against the ‘gay white media’ seemingly erupts from his discomfort with the fact that they’re criticizing President Obama’s handling of LGBTQ issues. This anger has two major foundational fault lines: first, Mr. Granderson once again holds up a sort of white ‘straw man’ intended to functionally represent all white members of the GLBTQ community/movement. In launching his attack, he selects a small minority of Obama’s critics and extends his frustration with them to a much wider group. If I said the same thing—if perhaps, I said that the black community was less amenable to non-heterosexual identities (which he makes a comment about in the above quote, in a sort of knee-jerk way)—my use of a black ‘straw-man’ would be unthinkable. I don’t find his similar tactic at all helpful, and certainly not any more appropriate, just because of his justifiable discomfort with a history of scapegoating.

Secondly, and centrally, his entire article rests on the assumption that the gay ‘white’ media is targeting Obama’s handling of GLBTQ issues (here, he cites the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and a recent reception for GLBTQ leaders at the White House) because of his blackness. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but President Obama was elected to represent all citizens of this country, and thus stands in for all of us. If someone criticizes his policies, they’re criticizing his decision-making as our president—this should not, though it does not necessarily play out this way, have anything to do with his race. Obviously, I don’t mean to imply that his race is a non-issue; I, along with so many others, was profoundly proud to see our nation (one I had been increasingly disillusioned with, after four years under Pubic W. Bush) elect its first black president. And I sincerely hope that his time in office will bring about positive changes in the racial climate of this country (and not just between blacks and whites, but between everyone—obviously, immigration is also a huge issue right now). But this does not prohibit his citizens—I should say, as per Mr. Granderson’s line of though—his white citizens—from taking issues with his actions as president. He isn’t given a get-out-of-jail-free card simply because his election was historic; he doesn’t solely represent African-Americans, and thus, they are not the only citizens legitimately able to praise or jeer what he does as president. What Mr. Granderson seems to suggest is that we all keep our mouths shut until the celebration is over; that until the black community is finished being ‘hypersensitive’ to criticism of Obama (and I doubt that the entire black community of this country is wholly satisfied with him as president—that’s naively idealistic), people just shouldn’t criticize him. I find that to be a preposterous argument, that only holds up under the most shallowly-defined and hyper-politically correct lenses. Just as I would with any other president, I’ll say if I’m unhappy with President Obama’s choices—so far, I think he’s doing a pretty bang up job (though of course I have my issues, too). But I will not keep silent just to ensure that he has his honeymoon period in the White House—that’s not what he was elected for, and I doubt Obama himself would want that sort of preferential treatment.

Mr. Granderson ends with this statement: “Hearing that race matters in the gay community may not be comforting to hear, but that doesn't make it any less true.”
I can agree with him on this much; race does matter—despite the faddish yearning to claim we’re in some sort of utopian/dystopian post-race, post-gender, post-sexuality world, it just isn’t true. Race does matter, and yes, I’m sure it does make some whites cringe at the thought that they may have to look race in the face—cringe to think of their white privilege bubbling down the drain. But we have to consider these issues on a more complex level; race matters in the gay community, but likewise, sexuality matters in the black community, the white community, the latino community, etc. As do gender, class, able-bodiedness, and a plethora of other identity categories—all of these overlap, and Mr. Granderson’s simplistic attempt to level the playing field does nothing but create further gaps of understanding. He erases, as it were, the rough edges of incredibly intricate webs of political and ideological powerplay and experience. I don’t mean my response to sound bitterly retaliatory, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by these lame arguments that dumb down tough topics in order to sound more ‘innovative’ or forceful, or simply latch on to the nearest political hot button. I should also say that this dinky blog post by no means expressed everything as eloquently as I’d like to, but I figured I would get it out before I lost it. Stretch the thinking chops a bit. So what are your thoughts?

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Seven Day Itch

I move in seven days. I move out of my home—of eleven years—and my home state—of twenty-one of my twenty-two living years—in seven days. Let me reiterate. I leave everything I’ve known behind in a single, scary, hectic week. I feel as if Samara from The Ring should be hitting up my cell phone right about now. I spent today packing; we cleared our giant shed, we threw old furniture on the lawn, I calmed my anxiety-stricken dog. Now, I sit on my couch and I have a moment to catch my breath and my thoughts and I realize I’ve never been more terrified.

I suppose it’s a difficult process for anyone having to scrape off the patina of youth; I’m at the very threshold of ‘real’ adulthood now, moving into circumstances beyond the safety net of my family, beyond the insular security of a typical undergraduate education. Given, this whole frightening endeavor is in order to shift me from undergrad to graduate school—and I’ll remain eternally in the bubble of academia, considering my long term goals. Nonetheless, I suppose I didn’t prepare myself for the sorts of daily terrors adults face—rent and security deposits, moving vans, grocery lists, monthly income that is sucked dry before you have a chance to deposit it. Perhaps if my summer hadn’t been such a humdrum affair of restaurant drudgery I’d feel more emotionally stable right now; as it is, I feel like I’ve been robbed of something—my naivete, maybe? The transition period? That devotion to my last-real-summer-ever-so-I’m-going-to-live-it-up? All viable options, but the peripheral unease I’ve kept at bay all summer seems somehow indescribable to me, as I attempt to articulate it here. I’ll try.

Worries: What if the money I’ve hoarded all summer doesn’t last until my stipend begins coming in (a full month after I move to Boston)? What if the red tape I’ve been dealing with at my new school hasn’t been successfully rigged, and I’m somehow barred from beginning my classes, from receiving my financial aid? What if the pressure of these mundane worries overtakes my capacity to cope with my entrance into a rigorous graduate program? What if I simply don’t fit—in the program, in the city, in my new home? I’m not diving in, sight unseen, but I suddenly question my motives, and my decisions—what do I really know about anything I’m getting myself into? I’ve already started to think of myself as the ‘baby’ of this whole thing—so many of the others I’ve spoken to who are entering the program seem secure, stable, settled. Married or with S.O.s, many of them. Almost all have dealt with landlords and rents and mortgages before—why, oh why, didn’t I think to try living off campus last year—to better lubricate (hehe) the transition? What if—the underlying ‘what if’ of this whole rant—I simply can’t manage the balancing act that seems so precarious to me now? Everything is already in flux; this potentiality would throw it all into total chaos.

Of course, somewhere in the back of my mind, I doubt my imagined worst-case-scenarios. I’ve coped with worse, though those were the sorts of struggles that sit on a different register. What I hate is feeling as though I’m obligated to pull out the trump card; that I’ve got to attempt a last-ditch effort in order to keep from going under. Ultimately, I think, I just want to be there. I want to escape the feeling of limbo that has been the defining sensation of this summer. And to some extent, I want to know—for sure—that I can handle the transition, and can handle myself out in the real world, on my own, entirely at my own devices. But I just can’t help wishing I had an extra week or three, a little longer, with a little more guidance along the way. Ah well. I’ve got to charge through this.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The N-Spot: Review of A.S. Byatt's 'Possession'

For a year and some change, A.S. Byatt’s Possession beckoned to me from the rocky crags of my various bookshelves; first, from the ten-foot-high, cheaply-minimalist shelf of my high-ceilinged dorm room (the bookshelf my friends were convinced would crush me one day, toppling over from the sheer weight of my book collection). But no, I would say, I want to save the book for a time when I can immerse myself entirely in it; not while I’m reading five others for classes. And then this summer, the siren’s call echoed throughout my shoebox of a bedroom. This time, however, I kept putting it back on the shelf for no other reason than that when I ordered it online over a year ago, I received the unfortunate film-tie-in edition—yes, those dreaded reprints of novels that infect serious scholars of lit-ruh-chah with embarrassment, for we would never wish to seem as though we were reading a book because of its film adaptation! Instead of the arresting Burne-Jones’ painting, “The Beguiling of Merlin,” that was the original cover of the novel, I was subjected to Gwyneth Paltrow’s bland half-smirk and a strangely dizzying—not to mention unfitting—neon landscape of London.

And so Byatt just had to wait; yet, as the summer wore on and I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with my reading list thus far, I figured, what the hell? I gathered my courage, I steeled my easily-flushed cheeks, and I dove into the novel—each time convincing myself that when I closed its pages, ol’ Gwyn wouldn’t be staring back at me. The novel overcame my initial reservations, and broke the procession of good-but-not-great-novels I’ve been reading of late. You see, it was on the shining recommendation of a favorite professor, and a favorite fellow student in said professor’s course, that I picked up Possession. We were reading, I think it was, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (blech) and talking about woman-monster figures; and what comes up, but the myth of Melusina! Instantly, aforementioned professor and fellow student begin gushing over Possession, by some woman—A.S. Byatt?—with enough brilliance, evidently, for ten master novelists. Who was this Byatt woman? And why hadn’t I—a serious lover of contemporary women writers—heard of her?! Of course, I rationalized this for myself; they must be speaking of some Victorian novelist, right? Professor is a Victorianist, and student is a Medievalist who dabbles in Victoriana. So that would explain it—a Victorian woman writer, fallen into obscurity and possibly poverty because of the vicious patriarchs that dominated her era.

Oh, how wrong was I. I added Possession to my account, noting sourly that the novel was published in 1990. I would have been three years old; my Victorian fantasy instantly deflated. Imagine my surprise, however, that my limp fantasy was, indeed, a central conflict of the novel! (I’ll derail again here momentarily to say that once I swallowed my pride and ordered Possession, I also threw her short fiction collection Elementals into my shopping cart. That one I did manage to read in the whirlwind of last semester—and my god, it was a whirlwind in and of itself! If you are at all in doubt that short stories can be moving, powerful, life-changing, or simply beautiful, read Elementals. A longer story within, “Cold,” is quite possibly one of the most incendiary and breathtaking stories I’ve ever had the fortune of devouring. And that’s just one masterpiece among five others!

Okay, that said. I should preface this, too, by saying that there were two things working against Possession as I embarked upon the journey: 1) I had hyped it up over the year-and-change so much that it would be next to impossible for it to live up to or exceed my expectations and 2) I discovered very soon after beginning the novel that this is undoubtedly a ‘winter experience’ sort of novel. It’s intended for frigid nights and five-P.M. moonrises and reading tucked away in your favorite blanket in your favorite chair. It is by no means a summer novel, a beach read, or something to be engrossed in while you swat mosquitoes from your thigh. For this very reason, I’m looking forward to a delicious re-read over Winter break.

Possession, then, is a sort of patchwork quilt. There are two central narrative threads—the clandestine affair between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, and the research-based affair-of-sorts with Roland Michell and Maud Bailey—but that is only just the beginning. For we have, too, the narratives invoked through Ash and Lamotte’s poetry; we have the sordid history and expedition of Mortimer Cropper; we have Ellen Ash—that original Hillary Clinton—and her correspondences; we have Leonora Stern and Beatrice Nest and James Blackadder (three very distinct academics, each with their own motives and passions); and interwoven myths and fairytales and legends and more. With such a hodge-podge of characters and events, each offered up in what one might term a post-modern relativist sort of way (the author’s slant is ever-ambiguous, so to speak), the reader—here, Me—may find him or herself liking bits and being bored to tears by others. At times, it felt like a salad-bar sort of novel; for example, no matter how I tried, I found Ash’s poetry—which often ended up being ten or fifteen page stretches of awful(ly) Victorian prose-poems—an insufferable chore. I tried reading aloud to grab the cadence, with no such luck. Lamotte, on the other hand, works with a lucid, precise, melodic poetic voice—and her subject matter, the fairy Melusina and the City of Is, grabbed me by the gut. Likewise, the detours into fairy tales—again, like the one we are given to ‘by’ Lamotte—are engaging and stunningly written. Byatt has a knack for fairy stories, and the several featured throughout Possession could be published on their own (in fact, I think two of them are featured in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye).

But ultimately, love or hate ‘em, you have to appreciate Byatt’s depth of investment into the various threads of the novel. She clearly had a grasp on Victorian poetry and the contemporaneous interest in evolutionary principles (remember that Darwin’s Origin of Species was 1859), and the strangely conflicting obsession with supernatural haunting (which Byatt also ties in in a very well-researched and historical manner)—all this to generate a convincing poetic style and voice for Ash. Without a doubt, she knows her fables and myths to such an extent that they seem almost to infect the novel. You begin to recognize the motifs of the overt myths in the shadowy undercurrents of the entire novel, in places you simply hadn’t noticed them before. Take, for example, the Melusina myth; at first you think, okay, okay, I get it. A woman-monster is feared for her power; likewise, Christabel Lamotte’s poetic voice is silenced because she’s employing poetry—a male-dominated world—as an outlet for her particular identity (feminine, sexual, and authoritative). Lamotte writes a poem about Melusina—all right, I get it. Then out of nowhere, you realize that Maud Bailey, over a century later, is not only doing that same sort of ‘frightening’ female self-authorship, but has become a forbidden spectacle for Roland, and suddenly, you can trace the images and the hints all the way back to the beginning of the novel. I realize this sleuthing sounds geeky, but think about who’s writing this for a moment. I am an unabashed book nerd/slut/obsessive.

Likewise, the theme of the ‘academic mystery’ probably appealed to me because it felt like gazing into a crystal ball; everything’s still a little murky, but ‘signs point to yes’ that the novel was reflecting (at least in some distorted way) my future back at me. It won’t be for everyone, I know. It’s thrilling for me to watch at Roland and Maud seek out hidden letters and discover secret hair-locks behind doll collections, and so forth, all in the name of scholarship!—because that’s kind of/sort of what I want to do for the rest of my life. But that, and Byatt’s ever-present and self-conscious erudition are potentially grating for the reader with little patience for vulgar displays of the Ivory Tower. The primary setting is academe, the novel is peopled with scholars—the only escape you’ll find from that is within the magic-and-mystery-laced flashes into Lamotte and Ash’s ‘lifetime.’ And then, if you’re not big on Victoriana or Celtic myth and superstition, you’ll be trapped once again. I guess what I mean to say is that I’m a bit shocked to hear so many people gush over the novel (and not just the two from that class I mentioned), because it seems the kind of book directed at a very, very particular audience—and the kind of book that can easily break a reader’s last nerve.

I suppose the ‘affair of sorts’ I mentioned between Roland and Maud, too, drew my interest in. Evoked in contrast to the almost burning passion of Christabel Lamotte and R.H. Ash, Maud and Roland’s attraction to one another was all the more fascinating—because, through them, Byatt captures the truly icy quality that seems so peculiar to modern romance. Their intellectual barricades against one another, and their desire sublimated through a chaste yearning for solitude and quiet seem somehow to reflect a more pervasive question in the so-termed post-modern era: are we too self-aware for romantic love? When Roland wonders whether he can verify any of his thoughts or feelings—because he has taken up the pomo flag for the idea of an incoherent Self—I think about my own alliance with post-modernism and my inextricable connection to the Age of the Internet. I’m blogging a review of a book that was tactile, that had a texture in my hands—in the process of writing this, I still feel the keys beneath my fingers, but the words are no longer anything but creations on a detached screen. I don’t mean to get wildly philosophical, because these are old and frequently cliché questions, but nonetheless, Byatt captures one of the greatest predicaments of the modern age—what does it mean to assert an identity in an age where identity is almost wholly unstable? And how can we justify thinking or feeling anything if we can’t subscribe to some sort of stable order of understanding? Interesting that the book even preceded the sort of spiral into the internet, because it seems the questions have become more pertinent in the last decade than when the book was originally published. There’s a nostalgia in Roland and Maud’s mutual attraction for, I guess we would say, a ‘simpler’ age—a time in which they could put faith into their emotions and their ‘love.’ Likewise, the book’s evocation of fables and superstitions and Wuthering Heights-esque moorlands and cliffs gives the nostalgia that seeps through a more definable quality.

I’m getting off track, and this has become college-paper length. As I said, there are bits of the novel that felt like chores—Ash’s poetry, Cropper’s narrative—not to mention the fact that I was two-hundred pages into the novel before it became a ‘can’t-put-down’ kind of read. At first I was disappointed with the conclusion’s tidy precision, but as I think more about it now, I realize it actually wasn’t as neat as I originally thought. It was no Austenian dash to knot up the frayed ends, that’s for damn sure. No, as I think about it, the tidiness of wrapping up the plot points seems almost to play into the construction of the Victorian novel, where that sort of reassurance was expected, indeed almost required, of the novel; Byatt’s wrapping-up is a sort of defiance of ‘factual’ ambiguity, again bringing up the nostalgia for the past that we’ve spoken of already. But the ideas of the novel remain in limbo—again, questions of the unstable identity arise, as do fears about the state of modern romance; perhaps most importantly (and one of the more obvious inquiries of the novel), what is the meaning of possession? How does one possess another person, or an idea, a text—or even oneself? Byatt gives us no assurance on that point, and of course (I won’t spoil here), the very last three pages throw us for a bend as to even our understanding of those aforementioned and ‘resolved’ plot points. A hundred new questions materialize, and poof! Thar’ goes the last page; we’re left to ask ourselves about the possibilities involved in…well, again, I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, if you had the patience for this review, you’ll likely have a much more tolerant patience for Possession. It’s a dense read; it’s metafictional to an almost tiresome degree; Byatt teases, but never satisfies—but it’s well worth your parched tongue by the end.