Friday, June 30, 2006

Last Day of June

I've been banging my skull against so many brick walls this past week trying to come up with something worth saying here, and saying it in some worthwhile manner. Nothing comes. So I will simply wish everyone a happy holiday weekend (and hoping you somehow figured out how to get Monday off as well). We're off to Hot Springs Saturday morning and then on to Little Rock for a short get-away before I begin teaching again. Photos and "travel post" (at least) to follow. My offline writing is going really well; hopefully I'll be finished with this short book before the fall term starts, if I can maintain the momentum from the past couple of weeks.

Today is my niece Melissa's birthday. Happy 20th! I love you.

Peace and blueberry muffins to you all.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Ecce Homo

Malczewski's Christ Before Pilate

While living in L'viv, Ukraine, six years ago, I saw some amazing works by Polish artist Jacek Malczewski. His 1910 Christ Before Pilate (oil on board, 65 X 80.5 cm, 25.6" X 31.7") overwhelmed me with its cynical nonchalance and subtle homoeroticism. Malczewski, known for his self-portraits, had projected himself into this image as Christ himself, but instead of the typical bald head, he had long strands of ruddy hair. It reminded me of the henna color popular with all girls who grew up on that side of the world. He seems genuinely perplexed as to why Pilate, who is busy concentrating on filing his nails and looking much-too-much like a porn star from the 1970s, is utterly uninterested in him. I imagine Christ wanting to scream, “Pay attention to me. I’m the fucking son of God!” But shirtless Pilate with his full pink lips continues preening, waiting for the Roman guards to remove this self-important Jew from his bedroom.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Modes of Silence

  1. Nativity scene bought from the Christmas catalog, 1974. Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus—painted plastic figurines: deities from a catalog. Model number. Page number. Quantity: 1. Each sheet used as toilet paper at my grandparents’ outhouse. From desire to pure shit. I learned to desire from the underwear models—my early masturbatory mode. Desire is consumption. Desire consumed my life, mediated by a Sears & Roebuck catalog. The circuitry complete. I now return to the original site of all my childhood Christmases and birthdays. And pre-pubescent sexual fantasies.
  2. Soundscape for the Agricultural Age
  3. Speak. Say. Tell. Whisper. Talk. Converse. Chat. Discourse. Orate. Advocate. Verbalize. Articulate. Address. State. Utter. Declare. Pronounce. Shout. Reply. Exclaim. Cry. Answer. Voice. Express. Convey. Impart. Divulge. Disclose. Dialogue.
  4. Soundscape for the Industrial Age
  5. Within the dialogue, I recognize not only my subjectivity (as named subject) but also my objectivity (indirect object) as the one spoken to by the other as well as one who is spoken by the dialogue (direct object) itself. Within the dialogue, I recognize myself as Other. Within the dialogue, I find myself outside the exteriority of language. Within language, I find myself outside my own interior dialogue. Within the logo-centrism of Western language, I find that I myself do not exist, that dialogue is only possible with my erasure, that the presence of language fulfills my absence, that I exist only where language fails. [Based on various texts by Blanchot, Levinas, Gadamer, Derrida, Foucault, and Mallarmé.]
  6. Soundscape for the Digital Age

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lowering of Standard(ization)s

Get this straight: I abhor standardized exams, especially those given at the national or international level. The first person to have put the letters G, R, and E or S, A, and T together in that order is hopefully burning in intellectual hell (i.e., teaching at a community college as an adjunct professor) as I type. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity (and pay) to spend the past week in Fort Collins, Colorado, grading the exam that high school students take in order to get college credit or advanced placement. (I wonder if that is vague enough to avoid the use of copyrighted/trademarked material that those “acorn” bastards are so uptight about.)

Despite the seriously flawed rubric which listed the acceptable terms and discussion points, and the fact that I couldn’t sleep very well the first few evenings because my mind kept going over the questions and answers even while I slept—I was grading approximately 125-200 essay exams every day—my experience was, for the most part, positive.

Training lasted about a day-and-a-half; then we were pretty much left up to our own devices as we worked from 8:00am-4:30pm everyday making our way through packets of 25 exams each. For those who have never experienced this before, we were broken into four groups of about 140 high school/college teachers each and assigned one essay question to grade. There were about 6 or 7 readers per table, each with a table leader who was charged with checking our grades against the standard. Of course, the table leader is checked as well by the question leaders, and so on and so forth all the way back up the chain of command. The total number of exams was around 150,000 this year.

Statistics is a spooky thing (and another thing I abhor and find irksome). According to the Great Big Computer that does such things (presumably in New Jersey), the graders for my question were some of the most accurate in the history of this exam. This kind of instant feedback is troubling knowing what I know about the standards of grading we readers were charged with upholding: we were trained to “find the point,” awarding credit for answers that were completely incorrect except for the minutest statement or phrase. There were a couple of exams that passed before me that I had to award a perfect score to despite the fact that they did not have even one complete sentence. And these little bastards are getting college credit?!?! Now I have a greater desire to implement even stricter requirements for my essay exams when I begin teaching again in July.

Besides grading, I was able to utilize the resources at Colorado State University, working out at the gym, hiking in the mountains, taking a yoga class, and having access to an all-you-can-eat buffet/snack bar every two hours. They should’ve provided better coffee, however. My evenings were free, so in addition to visiting the national park and riding to the top of the Rockies (where I saw several elk and deer), I got to spend quality time alone (which was perfect considering most of the readers were only interested in talking about reading after reading all day!); Special K came up from Big D (Denver in this case) Thursday evening, and we had a lovely meal and conversation; and last night I went to see a local production of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Tonight there is a special dinner followed by a “talent show.” And I fly back home tomorrow morning.

Friday, June 9, 2006

A justice by any other name

... the quality of being just; fairness;
the principle of moral rightness; equity;
conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness;
the upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law;
law; the administration and procedure of law;
conformity to truth, fact, or sound reason.

Still trying to grasp how dropping two 500-pound bombs on a house is an act of justice. Maybe my dictionary is out of date. Or maybe justice is. Even Eichmann had a trial.

And if your first question was not "How many innocents were killed?" then you're missing more than half the war....

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Abstractions, or Let Me See Your ID

Every abstraction is rooted in material reality. Every thought in my head grows out of an organic, physical body. There would be no dream if there were not first a trunk and limbs encasing this vast network of blood and water. The mind, the brain, is only secondary, after the ball of food in my stomach, the tug of sperm in my testicles, the air in my intestines, the raised hairs on my back from a lover’s touch.

Not having the privilege of (racial) minority status, I lumber away, walking along my own tightrope of identity as a white man living in the United States, feeling more at home only in flight, particularly beyond the parameters of (my) Americaness. This “I”—Third World singular—raised on a farm by emotionally and physically abusive parents—from this family on our own tightrope called “the poverty line”—de-evolves quite nicely from white (Anglo-Saxon), well educated, urban-dwelling (Protestant-raised) male to pure Jew—the abstracted Wanderer, mestizo, Rom, Kurd, Afghan woman beneath the veil, African American woman, Native American; that is to say, queer. I become not only outcast from my own people(s), but I become also Outcast as type, as paradigm, as paragon, so much so that even other queers cannot recognize my own queerness.

I am not recognized not only for who I am, but I end up living up to the stereotype of the insider as well: xenophobic, homophobic, racist white (moneyed) male in a position of power even though I remain completely outside that reality even as such racist and homophobic epithets drip from my angry lips. They write me off as “insider,” prompting me to write them off as merely “other.”

Yet I remain haunted by my own knowledge that I am more Other than they (than Thou), and always I am lessened by this Otherness that does not bind me to Others but only forces me back into the role of insider to bash and erect barriers between me and those Others.

Because of the color or my skin (the color of my sin, the sins of my color, the sins of my skin), I am always in the process of various “coming outs.” I must always reveal, designate, explicate the several factors that set me apart in the first place. I am forced—as a white man—to come out as someone raised on a farm below the poverty line by uneducated parents who physically abused me and with whom I have not had contact for over fifteen years. I come out as an American who spends a huge chunk of time outside the Western Hemisphere and actually speaks (or at least has studied and actually attempts to speak) the languages of the countries where I have resided. (There's nothing ugly about this American!)

But I am not accepted for my differences. No one is. Especially here, in this country I call home.

There is a fine line between clichés & stereotypes and the reality on which those clichés and stereotypes are based.

Let me be your cliché. Can I borrow your credit card?

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Reading Lesson: Decoding the "I"

"The way he says I-what he means when he says I-decides where a man belongs and where he goes. The word "I" is the true shibboleth of humanity." -Buber
To write is to betray. There is not a single word written that is not somehow a betrayal-a betrayal of something said, a betrayal of a feeling, a betrayal of the reality one foolishly attempted to capture.

Writing is an act of violence against time and space. (And meaning.)

But reading is no less a betrayal. My mother taught me that lesson when I was sixteen and she wrote to me a note in which she confessed to reading every word of my journal that I had been keeping for more than three years. She read every word. And then my mother wrote to me a note she included with the stack of papers and spiral-bound notebooks she dropped off for me when I was sixteen and living in a foster home.

She did not write that she was sorry for having read my private journal during a tumultuous and painfully difficult time in my life. She did not apologize in her note for any such violation. Instead she wrote that every word I had written was wrong and a lie. She could and would never understand how I was able to describe my father as a "fucking bastard" practically on every page until I decided to abbreviate his presence in my notes and in my life to merely "FB."

Well, I thought, if my written words were wrong, then so were hers. And I proceeded to destroy every single word that I had written in the previous three years. I shredded all the lies, all the wrong impressions, and all the mistakes in interpretation on my part. And I tore her note to shreds as well, vowing not to ever start another journal.

Her violation of my mind and personal property were just as violently invasive as my father's physical abuse. Not only was my own skin being used against me, my own words-words never meant to be read by anyone other than myself-were arrows that instead of being left alone in the quiver were shot point-blank into the core of my being.

It took years of fighting this urge to write, to put down on paper, to document the experience and relations of life before I was able to begin another journal. And I eventually came to conclude that the only way to prevent my words from being used against me was to make the entire story public. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then I began an online journal. And then I began writing books to be published and consumed and written about and analyzed and discussed in open forums of talk shows and college classrooms and reading clubs. Not bad for someone who at times becomes horribly shy and withdrawn, seeking solace in anonymity and private solitude.

I taunt my friends and lovers when I tell them I write about them. After I am threatened with perjury, I exclaim, "You wouldn't recognize yourself anyway." Of course, each person will recognize his or her own name as well as several of the personal details. But that alone is not sufficient cause for alarm to me. I remain convinced that people are ultimately unknowable, including one's own self.

Just as I am at times incredulous when a photograph appears to include someone that looks like me but just cannot be me even though that stranger is surrounded by the people who surrounded me when we posed for the camera, I know that mere words alone can never reconstitute the reality of a life, not even my own. I am not quite sure that this first-person pronoun "I" could even ever stand for the reality that is this person writing, or the reality I seek in my life and in the documentation of that life. So you would certainly never recognize yourself. My own mother could not even recognize herself or the man she was married to in the words written by her only son.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Take the Boot

There’s something I need to tell you about your mother: she ain’t so innocent after all. I heard what she said. I saw what she did. And when she thought you weren’t looking, she slipped me a note: I won’t stand for what you’re doing.

She knows what I’m about. But she has her own agenda as well. I know she’s good at calling your bluff, but will she stand up to me calling hers? My agenda isn’t harming anybody. I know what she’s all about. And if she thinks I’m going to stand around and watch her get her way, she’s got another think coming. I won’t let her hurt you again.

Sure, she gave you life. But since then she’s been sucking the life out of you. You can barely think for yourself. You have no self-respect. No dignity. You cower around her like a beat dog, barely lifting your head when she’s around. You’ve been trained to take the boot, trained not to talk back. But I’m here for you now. You don’t have to take it anymore.

Even if this arrangement doesn’t work out in the long run, at least you’re away from her. Here you can be yourself with nobody telling you what to do. Because I love you and wish you were my own. Not hers. And here you’re safe with me.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Day is done, gone the sun

Small blotches on the skin. Infected. Red. No matter how I force myself not to scratch, not to notice, I always catch sight of them. And always scratch. Too late to notice the skin is broken and bleeding.

I seem to have picked up a few chiggers last Friday during my grandfather’s funeral. I didn’t intend to write about that, but that is what my mind keeps going back to these days. Not his funeral so much—even though military ceremonies always choke me up and make me moody. I guess a lifetime under the cloud of my martyr uncle who died in Vietnam is what did it. It was one of the few times that I did get choked up. Especially when the army officer addressed my grandmother, reciting my grandfather’s rank before handing her the flag tightly bound into a triangle. And then there was “Taps”—not so much played on a bugle as broadcast from within a bugle:
A funeral honors detail shall, at a minimum, perform at the funeral a ceremony that includes the folding of a United States flag and presentation of the flag to the veteran’s family and the playing of Taps. Unless a bugler is a member of the detail, the funeral honors detail shall play a recorded version of Taps using audio equipment which the detail shall provide if adequate audio equipment is not otherwise available for use at the funeral.
But like I said: it’s not so much the funeral that’s been occupying my mind. Rather, it’s his death a week-and-a-half ago. I’m still worn out from his process of dying. And I was only there for little more than 10 hours of it spread out over two days. I can’t imagine how my sister and nieces made it through this past week: they were there much longer. Or my grandmother and uncle who spent days at the hospital watching and waiting.... Making sure he wasn’t in pain. Making sure he knew that they were there. That he was loved.

In so many ways, this experience was one of the most real experiences of my life. Genuine. Buber wrote, “Man becomes an I through a You.” I feel like I’ve become more human by that experience with not only his death but with my family there crowded around a deathbed. This is what it means to be family. This is what it means to live.

When my other grandparents died, I was far removed from the experience. There were hospital visits, yes, but there was no relation between their lives and the corpse in the casket. I was not witness to the final breath. But this grandfather’s death has changed me. And marked me much deeper and more significantly than the chigger bites I got at his funeral.

Rest in peace, Grandpa.