Thursday, August 05, 2010

Blargle Blargle

I am really sick of saying this, but apparently it needs to be said every time a judicial decision is reached/ every time Sonya Sotomayor is confirmed/ every 30 seconds:

The follow question to "Does it matter that Vaughn Walker is gay?"
is not:

"Does it matter that Thurgood Marshall was black?"

It's "Does it matter that Justice so-and-so is white/straight/male/etc?"

All gender is gender, all race is race, all sexuality is sexuality. They're not optional. No one is the control group.

All right, back to your regularly scheduled lives.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Hallelujah (or, one of these days I'm going to have to actually mail these)

Dear The New Yorker,

It is totally awesome that you had a profile of Brad Paisley in your most recent issue. I realize that for very good reasons, all of your letters this week will be about Atul Gawande because oh my God, but I have some thoughts about Mr. Paisley that I've been thinking for the better part of a year and this is as good a chance as any to express them. My thoughts in a nutshell: you blew it.

For the reader who lives without any knowledge of contemporary country music (which, to be fair, is probably the average New Yorker reader, fine), the article does a perfectly adequate job explaining who Brad Paisley is, why his songs are good, and why lots of people who don't subscribe to The New Yorker care. But, it skates only lightly and superficially over the gonzo, bonkers radicalism that Paisley espouses. Seriously, American Saturday Night is a nuts album. It is a stealth bomb thrown into the current heart of country music and a peppy refutation of an entire socio/cultural/political outlook. It is, I believe, the most important artifact of popular culture from the last twelve months (sorry, everyone who liked The Kids Are All Right). I cannot overstate how seriously you whiffed while writing about this shit, structuring the whole thing as a general "hey, there's this guy in middle America who writes a bunch of hit songs and this one time he decided to write about race" profile. Opportunity = lost.

To hear Kelefa Sanneh tell it, the shocking thing about Paisley's hit song "Welcome to the Future" is its final verse, in which the election of a black president is contrasted with the racism Paisley's friend experienced in high school. This third verse comes after a first verse described as "goofy nostalgia" and a second verse that goes entirely unmentioned.

No! No! No! No!

I am trying to be restrained here, but dude missed the entire point. Yes, race is a big deal in a country song, and yes, a pro-black-president message is fascinating and daring. But, it's not just writing about race (as Sanneh points out, Tim McGraw's "Southern Voice" contains a list of multi-racial shout-outs), it's how this song writes about race: it's about racial progress. Unlike 99.99% of the country music currently on the radio that grapples in any way with the past, "Welcome to the Future" is decidedly NOT nostalgic.

Verse 1: You used to have to go to the arcade to play video games -- now you don't! Because stuff got better!

Verse 2: The narrator's grandfather fought in WWII. The narrator has a video conference with Tokyo. Which is better -- killing people or trading with them? Trading with them!

The standard contemporary country orientation toward the past is one of rue, regret, or gentle headshaking at these crazy modern times (example: Bucky Covington's "A Different World" in which the reasonable universe of his childhood where you got "daddy's belt when you misbehaved" is contrasted with our current, coddled, every-kid-gets-a-trophy times). And why does Paisley's unique challenge to this nostalgia matter?

Because this is the backbone of the current Republican message: stuff was good once, now it's bad, make it like it used to be in the '40s or the '50s or the '60s, what do you mean it used to be bad, everything was easy and folks knew how to be and now it's all a mess.

And this attitude isn't just limited to Republicans; I can find you plenty of liberals who would agree with the sentence "everything was better in the '60s and kids today suck." It's an attitude that fears progress, fears change, makes a lot of sense right now, and I think is super-comforting and totally dangerous.

So what does crazy, radical, out-there Brad Paisley say to all of us in the midst of the mishegas of 2010, when we long to go back to those simpler days?

Things are different now. We can't put them back.

Besides, things used to be pretty bad.

Now, they're better.

And if The New Yorker doesn't notice what this is or what it means, honestly -- it's probably all for the best. Keep being crazy, Brad, I won't tell.



Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh, Rikki Lake, you were so good in Hairspray

Just finished watching The Business of Being Born because it streams on Netflix. First two thirds, I'm thinking "all right, a couple too many shots of ladies in inflatable tubs, but overall your analysis seems wise." That analysis: that birth in the US is weirdly both over-medicalized and under-effective in patient and baby mortality rates, that we're gaga for C-sections without understanding that it's major surgery, and that historically, OB's (mainly men) have tried to get women to follow the latest birthing trends by scaring the pants off of them about how terrible it will be for the baby if they don't.

With which I agree! We should (on this issue) be more like Europe. Absolutely. Yay vaginas. Yay being sensible, yay encouraging women to make informed decisions, yay not fear-mongering wildly -- oh wait. There's more.

That would be the movie's last third. Where two doctors (both male) and Louann Brizendrine (who would be my arch-nemesis if she knew who I was) talk about the real, as yet unproven, risks of Cesarians. Their speculation? By depriving women of the post-birth release of oxytocin, mothers who have C-sections are putting their children at risk for autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, impaired bonding, reduced affection, reduced maternal protectiveness, and more. In fact, as the French scientist expert dude put it (you have to do a French accent if you want the full effect): "When you give a monkey a C-section, and then show the monkey the baby, it does not love the baby. It will not care for the baby. And what are we creating now but a world without love?"

That's right, mamas. Your birth? Responsible for World War Three. Now try to relax, remember stress is bad for the baby.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


This is terrible timing. My body thinks it's 1 o'clock in the morning in Tennessee. I am totally exhausted. But, I also have too much to say and the person I usually say it to is making avant-garde music in Germany right now, and I have decided not to declaim to the dog. Partly because my theory is chock full o' spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Yesterday I finished reading Infinite Jest. Everybody is right. It is brilliant, it is frustrating. It is long. The footnotes really could be endnotes except for the multi-page ones. You'll be glad if you have, at some point, taken calculus. It will break your ever-loving heart. Etc.

But I also was pretty stunned by the depiction of the women in the book and figured there was some important essay by Jessa Crispin or Katie Rophie or someone about it. And all I could find was this fine but small post pointing out the passivity of the moms in the book. What's up with that? Where are all the feminists? In comas? The author of the post is totally right -- passive, denial-riddled mothers are a major theme, and they tolerate, for unexplained reasons, some truly noxious father behavior.

And but so there's more. In addition to the laid-back-to-catatonic mothers there are two main female characters: Avril Incandenza and Joelle Van Dyne, or, in archetype, the monster and the saint.

Avril Incandenza is, I have to admit it, a fantastic creation -- someone paid a lot of attention to women who want to project that their children are free to make up their own minds and express themselves, while simultaneously broadcasting desires of an almost crippling ferocity into the crania of such kids. She's a great, soft-spoken, eternally patient, totally hobbling demon woman. But, unlike every other major (and perhaps a plurality of minor) characters, we never for a moment get inside her head. Her flaws -- sexual, parental, incestuous -- are legion and yet, barring a brief allusion to an alcoholic dad and dead mom (which for this book are the most petite des pommes de terre) they are maddeningly unexplained. She's an ice queen, a giant slut, a borderline pedophile, and a potential terrorist and we have no idea why. (more on this later)

Joelle there's less to say about -- she's fantastically beautiful and then she isn't. Really, she isn't. Reading up on the speculations, there's an almost desperate quality to the desire some fans have for her still to be bang-up hot from head-to-toe. It's chin-to-toe, folks, though her hair seems fine. Joelle is given some smarty-pants traits (an interest in cinema, a super-cult radio show), but she's mostly there to be the Prettiest Girl (and then not) of All Time. She (unlike Avril) gets to be sweet and caring, but remains a pretty uncomplicated Object of Male Attention. Dudes' (her father, Orin, most of the planet) looking at her fucked her up one way; their looking's cessation fucked her up in a different way; and, hopefully, because I really do want her and Don to ride off into the holocaust-flecked sunset together, a dude loving her will be her salvation. Which is fine, as far as it goes -- but this is as far as it goes. These are your ladies.

Yes, there are other women in the book (Kate Gompert, Pat Montesian, Wardine, Clenette) but the pages spent on their internal lives dwarfs those given to J. O. Incandenza, J. O.'s dad, Pemulis(es), Lenz, Mario, Bruce Green, Tiny Ewell, Poor Tony, Maranthe, Steepley, et al -- not to mention the main (Hal) and secondary (Don) protagonists. It's like not even close.

So, what does this all mean? Does it mean anything? The novel's a Hamlet story from the title on down and maybe Gertrude's frosty exterior and red-hot sexual voracity will always be opaque to her son. So what if the book isn't about women's lives in the same way it's about men's? Maybe it's just a book about dudes. Adolescent dudes and older dudes and how their fathers destroy them and how their mothers let it happen and sometimes they meet vulnerable women with gorgeous faces and fantastic bodies who happen to be cheerleaders and so what?

Well, because the book's not only about masculinity (although I do think it's a major concern). It's about (yes, I know, in addition to entertainment and the environment and competition and addiction and depression, jeez) the fundamental existential difficulty of empathy. The fish in the water joke is told here for the first time, and it permeates the whole book. Can you truly understand what someone else is going through? Can you Identify? And can you capture, if only for a moment, if only one Day At a Time, the grace that comes when you do?

And I'd say the answer is for the reader is: you can when the author can. I had no doubt as I was reading that I knew exactly what it's like to be a physically gifted, grammatically obsessed tennis prodigy with a bum ankle and some major socio-cultural (not to mention economic) privilege. I could tell you honestly that I spent several years of my life as a blue-collar prescription drug fiend who burgled to finance his habit after destroying a promising football career. I can smell the stink of cigarettes from Boston AA meetings and the horror of realizing that the ritual of drug paraphernalia is the only thing I have to look forward to in a given day. I could make you believe I played Eschaton.

But I don't have a clue what makes Avril Incandenza or Joelle Van Dyne tick, and so here is where the empathy runs out. The lack of a female character with a tenth of the heart and complication and fleshed-out backstory and in-the-present pain that the men have is a big brick wall that the central project of the novel runs face-first into. It's a giant novel with a shit-ton of inertia, so it doesn't go splat when it hits that wall, but it darn sure wobbles on its way through.

The novel begins and ends with its two protagonists in a shared (though spatially and temporally separate) kind of particularly awful pain. Their internal thoughts are clear, but they have no way to communicate such thoughts to the outside world. They are rich with life but to the outside world can present only the crudest grimaces and gasps. This condition, it is clear, is a kind of hell, for in Hal's words: "I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I'm complex."

What he said.