Nov 19, 2016

I am a shitty feminist.

I realized the other day, to my horror, that I have subconsciously been giving in to gender roles and expectations in the way I tutor my students by giving my male and female students different books to read. 

At some point in our journey of knowledge, I have all of my students, boys and girls alike, read Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies. These books are brilliant and I love them unreservedly, but there is only one female character between the two of them, and she winds up dead. 

I make everyone read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because they are teenagers and need to read about what it feels like to be a loser in high school in order to either identify or empathize. (Also, there are some pretty great songs for us to look up together on youtube.) 

We always do Shakespeare because they study his plays in school, and, while he does have some sharp female characters, Will was writing in the Elizabethan era, so the ladies eventually succumb to the wishes and desires of the men. (Sure, girls could be queen, but they couldn't vote.)

In the dystopian fiction department, lately I've made a bunch of them read Oryx and Crake, and 1984 and Brave New World are always solid options if they need to write an Independent Study Project. The female characters in these novels are, respectively, a child sold into prostitution, a hypersexed rebel, and a vapid Barbie doll. 

When the boys need something to read, I suggest The Wars by Timothy Findley, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road or maybe The Mosquito Coast, highly male-centric all. When the girls need something to read, I suggest The Handmaid's Tale or The Joy Luck Club or Lives of Girls and Women or A Complicated Kindness, and I make all my female students read The House on Mango Street, a gorgeous bildungsroman about a Latin-American girl who dreams of having her own house someday. 

So this is the shitty thing that I have only just realized: I make the girls read books from the male perspective, but I rarely make the boys read books from the female perspective. Why do I do that? I think it's because I don't want the boys to be bored (it's tough enough getting half of them to sit still and read for half an hour already); the terrifying assumption beneath that decision is that reading about life from a girl's point of view is dull and uninteresting to boys. This obviously makes no sense, as I personally find reading about life from the male perspective just as valuable as reading novels about women. 

Ingrained in me still, despite my feminist ideals, is the idea that what boys have to say is universal, while what girls have to say is gendered and specific. I want my girls to read about characters like them, strong and ambitious, and maybe struggling. I want them to read about female sexuality and abuse so they are educated and armed. I want to give them female authors as role models and female characters they can identify with, because sometimes, still, it is hard being a girl. 

But what if I started exposing the boys to these female stories, too? Would that help create a generation of men who understand the terror of rape, or the horror and shame of getting your first period and thinking you might be dying, or the feeling of inferiority? I think it might. 

I am going to post this on facebook, so I want to ask any male friends out there if, as children, they ever read and loved Anne of Green GablesPippi LongstockingLittle Women, HeidiThe Secret Garden, or Nancy Drew as I read and loved Treasure IslandThe Hardy BoysThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. If you have children, do you give the boys "boy" books and the girls "girl" books? (Books with animals as main characters don't count.) 

Will books make the difference? Will children even bother reading anymore? I know that, starting Monday, I'm going to make a concerted effort to find out. 

As an aside, thanks for reading this, as it was really just a way for me to work out my thoughts and confess my sins. But also thanks for reading in general, because books can change your ideas, and ideas can change the world.   

Nov 11, 2016

Why am I always writing about death?

Mortality, right? It's such a huge goddamn drag.

Most of you are my peers, give or take ten years or so. Our idols are mostly 20+ years older than we are, and therefore at the age when health issues and the cost of celebrity are catching up to them. Sometimes our heroes die at 27, but mostly they live until at least 60, and then they have a heart attack or get cancer or overdose or just die in their sleep like we all hope to do.

2016 isn't trying to be a bigger jerk than most years. I imagine 2017 will be even worse, because time don't give a shit [sic]. If you are my age (how the hell did we get so old?), think about the remaining artists and actors and musicians who have shaped our generation. They are ALL going to die, hopefully before we do.

When I worked at the bookstore, the death of a writer meant a huge surge in sales of that writer's works, which used to piss me off. Why can't we appreciate people while they're here? I thought. Why does it take death for people to realize how much one person has brought to their lives?

It's because life goes on, man. We have laundry to do and dinner to make, doctor's appointments and plans on the weekend. We have music to listen to and books to read and movies to watch. We have to hit the gym and get the kids ready for school and remember to floss.

If there is a silver lining to death, it is that it brings us together. It makes us stop in the middle of all that living and remember how ephemeral life is. It makes us appreciate, even for a moment, how truly astonishing it is to be here. It reminds us that the people we love matter, matter so much it hurts, and it reminds us that we matter, too.    

I learned when I woke up this morning that Leonard Cohen had died. While he was never a big influence on me personally, I do respect his poetry and his intelligence. I know a lot of people who are pretty broken up about his death, and you have my sincerest condolences.

Today is, also, fittingly, Remembrance Day. Very few people die willingly, and those that do, I suspect, have been somehow duped. So to put on those boots and grab that gun knowing that you probably won't return is the bravest thing I can imagine. Mortality, man. Such a fucking drag.

So today I raise a glass to you, Madonna, and to you, Mr. Springsteen. We will collectively mourn when Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop die because, man, are they cool. One day even Keith Richards will inhale his last cigarette. (Who am I kidding? He'll outlive us all.)

Ah well, and riot on.

Nov 9, 2016

A Plea

The weather last night as I slept was stormy and wild. Pathetic fallacy, I thought: an environmental response to the emotional reaction of the world to more than half of the American people's decision to vote in an egomaniacal demagogue as their leader.

Political pundits, and the newly-elected president himself, are focusing on the necessity of "healing the divide." Now is the time, they claim, for the American people to come together despite their vast differences. This is how a democracy works; the people have spoken.

I would argue, however, that now is NOT the time for the American people to come together to support their chosen leader and heal the divide.

Now is the time for the American people to riot in the streets and on the internet and in their art, to rebel against bigotry and fear-mongering and hate. Now is the time for the responsible, educated masses to fight for the rights of those who are either unwilling or unable to fight for the virtues of equality and acceptance and compassion for the people on earth and for the earth itself.

There needs to be a response, not just in America, but throughout the world, to the poverty and ignorance and sense of helplessness that drive people to such acts of desperation.

We need to educate the ignorant and assist the poor and marginalized. We need to focus on truth and science and an honest examination of our fears and desires, rather than on greed, for fame, for wealth, for power. We need to listen and try to understand. Above all, we need to be kind to each other.

So riot on, I say. Let's not sit idly by and allow weakness to win. We have the power as individuals to engender great change, if we want it badly enough. Let's want it badly enough, starting right now. Deal?





















Oct 8, 2016

Happy Halloween! (Actually a post where I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation.)

I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea of cultural appropriation for a few Halloweens now (since that's when the controversy seems to come up the most often). I've read persuasive arguments on both sides, and I've tried to express my thoughts about it in the past, with little success. But here I am, undeterred, trying again. Happy Halloween!

Maybe it's because I don't have a particularly strong sense of my own cultural heritage (beyond really appreciating the German food my dead maternal grandmother used to make - throw a cinnamon stick into your chicken noodle soup the next time you make some), but I think that the idea of maintaining different cultures in our increasingly global society is inherently divisive and ultimately harmful, rather than accepting and inclusive. 

In my utopian vision, interracial relationships have created a world where it is impossible to ask anyone, "What are you?" Races, and therefore cultures, are so diluted that there is no single identifier of someone's background. I believe that when we can't immediately see an "other," we will be able to stop focusing on our differences and instead embrace the things we share as human beings.   

"Cultural appropriation of ceremonies and objects removes and distorts these traditions and things from their original contexts and into gross caricatures that are a slap in the face to the original practitioners of the ceremonies, with complete disregard for the history and present day reality of oppression" (https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation).

Again, maybe it's because I don't have any particular religious affiliation, but I don't see anything as sacred, especially not physical objects. A symbol or artifact may be sacred to you, but that doesn't mean it has to have the same meaning for me, and for you to insist that it does seems egotistical. I don't think my lack of recognition should have any impact at all on how you view that same thing (your headdress, for example, or your crucifix, or your tattoo). I can respect your beliefs and customs without having to believe in them myself. A belief, by definition, is something in which you have faith or trust - it is not an absolute truth or a tangible thing. I can't take a belief away from you. (I'm not going to piss on a statue in the Vatican, but I'm also not going to bow my head and thank Jesus for his sacrifice.)   

Appropriating something can certainly change its meaning (hello, swastika), but I don't think that change itself is intrinsically negative. I believe in learning from the past, but not in being stuck there. Progress or perish (writes the girl without a cell phone). And, yes, maybe that's easy for me to say because I have not personally experienced cultural discrimination. We can never truly know what it is like to live in another person's skin, but that's what literature is for. I've read too many books with Jewish or black or indigenous protagonists to be able to flippantly say, "Get over it already," but I do think it is important to deal with past trauma and try to move forward in a positive way.   

I can't think of a single example of appropriation where one culture took something from another culture that they didn't find value in, either aesthetically or emotionally or spiritually or practically. Yoga, rap, beaded jewelry, rock and roll, dreadlocks, denim, tea, tapas - none of these things were popularized because other people thought they weren't worthwhile. 

"Once diverse cultural identities are stripped away, the only culture left to identify with is capitalist culture" (https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation).

I have read arguments like the one above that suggest that it is the commodification of these culturally specific things that is the problem, the idea that the dominant culture is taking these things from the oppressed peoples and trivializing them by making them something to be bought and sold. Unfortunately, that is the world we live in now; materialism is unavoidable. But that doesn't mean that the appropriated things themselves are trivial, it doesn't negate their original (and still culturally important) meaning, and it certainly doesn't negate their worth to either originator or appropriator, even if those values are different. 

I know that oppression still exists in the world, but I also think that there is currently an unfortunate trend to see oppression where it does not exist, to impose a perspective that creates oppression rather than frees us from it, and that this trend is actually preventing us from moving forward as a global community. 

I don't think cultural identities will be "stripped away." I think they will become more diffuse, maybe, integrated, but I don't think that's bad. I think it will help the world in the end. As a united group of Earthlings, I wish we could take the things that are positive and beautiful and beneficial and reject cultural aspects that are violent or oppressive or antiquated. There is no culture that does not have both. 

(Who will decide which is which? Whoever has the biggest guns, I guess.)

So, since my utopian vision is unlikely to be realized anytime soon, in the meantime we should all try to be a little nicer to each other, to respect our differences, to try not to get too worked up when someone doesn't know everything about everything (learning is a process - remember that once you thought it was totally cool to sit in your own feces), and to realize that we're all pretty much the same when you scrape off the skin. 

Ah well, and riot on.    
       

   


Sep 29, 2016

Today is my birthday (2)

Today is my 43rd birthday, and it seems just as impossible to be 43 as it felt to be 42. (One year ago today, I wrote this: http://ahwellandrioton.blogspot.ca/2015/09/today-is-my-birthday_28.html)

I am conscious of the curse of turning 43: shortly after their 43rd birthdays, two of my peers experienced broken bones and the sudden understanding of mortality. Or, if not mortality, then at least the fragility of the aging human body, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. (They were both playing baseball, though, so I figure I'm pretty safe as long as I avoid that particular sport, but you never know with curses.)

As an aside, sometimes while I'm riding my bicycle, helmetless, down the bike lane on a busy street, I imagine myself hitting a rock or a slippery patch of dirt and falling into traffic, my head popping like a grape under the tires of a passing transport truck. I'm not sure why I shared that with you; birthdays make me morbid, I guess.

A few months ago, I came across this quote from Freud, that pervy old rascal: "If youth knew; if age could." Wise words, Sigmund. What a shitty thing it is that we can never possess the wisdom and confidence of age and the indestructibility of youth at the same time. (If we could, I would probably learn to surf. I'm too goddamn old to do it now. I have recently taken up painting, which, as hobbies go, seems infinitely safer. I'm far more unlikely to pull an arm muscle splattering paint onto a canvas in my garage than I am trying to haul my body up onto a board in the ocean. Unless I really get into it. You never know with 43...)

Let's face it: getting older is a drag. Still, I wouldn't trade places with 25-year-old me for anything. I've had some pretty remarkable experiences and met some pretty remarkable people over the years. And I honestly like myself (you should probably like yourself by the time you hit 43). I have learned that comparing ourselves to others is senseless, be it physically, intellectually, financially, socially, or any of the myriad other ways we create meaningless hierarchies in the world. We can only ever be ourselves, and, so long as we don't intentionally harm others, that is a pretty okay way to be.

Nothing really changes with the passing of time. Or maybe everything changes, but so imperceptibly that one hardly notices until all those minor changes add up to one singular calamity: a broken hip or a heart attack, a divorce or a death, either real or symbolic.

Hell, life is a calamity. What a strange thing it is to exist both consciously and physically, to be capable of both uncontrollable emotions and rational thought (and to have to navigate the oft-incompatible waters of the two), to be both fundamentally solitary and yet unavoidably social beings.

I have written myself into a moment of existential angst, so I guess I will end these birthday musings with the philosophy that helps me deal with the paradox that is life (and that is, not coincidentally, the title of this blog). So happy birthday to me, and happy birthday to you, too, whenever it falls. It's astonishing that we're here together at all, so let's make the most of it. Ah well, and riot on. xo



 

Sep 6, 2016

Roadkill

I assumed it was dead, although the smell was still fresh. (One final fuck you to the world, that stink.) I didn't go over to investigate; I'm not a serial killer in the developmental stage. Plus, what would I have done if it hadn't been? Played the good samaritan and stepped on its head? Put my hands around its smelly throat and suffocated it, looked into its eyes as the breath left its lungs for the last time? Driven over it with my bicycle, its black and white body hemorrhaging beneath my freshly-pumped-up tires? If it wasn't dead already, it almost certainly would be soon without my helping it along, as naps in the middle of the road are not generally conducive to recovery. Not to mention that the blur of fur and flesh had that particularly savage appearance common to deaths from high speed collisions between automobile and beast that are unlikely to result in anything other than someone's phone call to the dead animal removal service.

Sadly, a dead skunk is not a particularly uncommon occurrence (although they're mostly right to trust in their invincibility: nobody wants that funk caught in their grill). What caught my eye was the hawk standing guard over the body. A few feet away in the middle of the road, majestic and lovely, there it stood. As I rode by, it opened its wings slightly as if to fly away, but it must have determined (correctly) that I wasn't a threat. Settling its feathers, it resumed its vigil.

Maybe it was going to go in for a little skunk meat after I had gone, vulture-style. Maybe it had put the word out in Hawksville that there was going to be a party and he was politely waiting for guests. (Why is it a he now? I sometimes realize the extent of my patriarchal indoctrination in these moments of automatic male gender assignment in the absence of any gender indicators. I am not an ornithologist; it could very well have been a she.)

So anyway, despite the probability of that poor dead (or dying) skunk being lunch, I like to think that they were pals and that the hawk was protecting her friend as his/her skunk-spirit left his/her skunk-body, that she was mourning another senseless death caused by the human infringement on the animal world. Hawks just seem to have that sort of philosophical nature.

And then I was past them. The hawk was still standing there as I looked back. For all I know, she's standing there still.

Moral #1: One day you'll be dead, and someone will be standing over you, either to eat you or mourn you. Remember that death is imminent, and live your life accordingly.

Moral #2: Look both ways before you cross the street.


Aug 31, 2016

From Silence to Death

When I was young, my mother gave my father a human skull as a gift. With a child's instinct, I knew this was something to fear. Not the thing itself, of course - trapped in its glass case, the skull represented no immediate threat - but there was an undeniable menace there, in the yellowed bone and the empty eye sockets, in the smallness and silence of it. This is what we become.  

I was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by it, as one is of snakes and spiders and maggots and things we know instinctively to be dangerous but wish to understand in spite of the danger. I would sometimes have my afternoon nap on the mattress in my parents' bedroom, the skull looking blindly down at me from its case on the dresser. 

This was a period of nightmares for me. At night, I kept my hands and feet tucked firmly under the covers, I dared not peek under the bed or in the closet, I whispered the prayer my father had taught me to keep the nightmares away (sometimes it worked): 

Four angels round my bed, 
Two at the foot and two at the head, 
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, 
Guard the bed that I lay on. 
Amen.

(But what about the middle of the bed?)

I had nightmares of fires and zombies and mad dogs and pursuit, and of skulls, naked and grinning and horribly alive. But with the nightmares came partial lucidity: my subconscious came up with a way of dealing with the terrors, and I invented a friendly flying skull that protected me from the monsters. 

Looking back, I realize the symbolic importance of that semi-conscious creation: I had made friends with death. 

And with this uneasy friendship came my interest in horror. Children's authors like John Bellairs and Roald Dahl at first, then the pulp horror of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, and F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, which all served as further nightmare fodder. (With age came unpleasant dreams about my teeth falling out, not being able to find the classroom or forgetting my locker combination, ghosts, vampires, rejection.) The classics followed: Stoker and Shelley and Stevenson and Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. My guides in facing the specter of death.

(There were movies as well, of course, too many to mention, but there is something inherently more terrifying in creating the images myself from the words on the page than in seeing someone else's nightmare vision come to life - the alien bursting from his chest and grandpa trying to git 'er being notable exceptions.) 

It's harder to scare me these days, and I can usually wake myself up from nightmares before things get too dire, which is a skill I am happy to possess. (The nightmares themselves tend to be more mundane and less fantastical, although no less terrifying.) I don't possess a human skull (other than my own), but I have ceramic skull bookends and art and a framed photograph of a skull illicitly snapped in the catacombs of Paris. I have seen three corpses in their coffins, and I have seen life vanish while looking into my cat's eyes.

When I sat down to write this, I was inspired by a line from a book I recently finished reading, called Outline, by Rachel Cusk: "She had sat there, she said, and thought about her own lifelong habit of explaining herself, and she thought about this power of silence, which put people out of one another's reach." I was thinking about silence, and from silence I went to skulls, and from skulls to death. Which is a natural progression, I guess. When we stop attempting to express ourselves, to communicate what is in our heads and in our hearts, when we close ourselves up and cut ourselves off, that's when we die. 

And as much as I want to face death, make friends with it, I don't want to die. I don't want anything to die. So I'm going to continue this lifelong habit of explaining myself, in the hope that you will explain yourself, too, and together we can share our terrors until all that's left is yellowed bone and silence.