The assorted musings of Hugo Schwyzer: a progressive Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat (but with a sense of humor), a community college history and gender studies professor, animal rights activist, ENFP Gemini, avid marathoner, aspiring ultra-runner, die-hard political junkie, and (still) the proud father of the most amazing chinchilla on God's green earth.
Today's the day, folks! I am now blogging at hugoschwyzer.net Please update your bookmarks, and come on over!
All the archives from this site have been moved to the new one, and we're even in the process of getting everything categorized. This Typepad site will remain available for the next ninety days, but will eventually go dark.
Folks, this blog will be dark until November 27. Check back on that day for a link to my new Word Press blog! Lauren of Faux Real Tho has helped create a new blog site for me, and she's busy transferring archives and other things over there. Itll be more user-friendly, and I promise that, for better or for worse, the primary focus will stay the same.
Though eventually all the archives (and comments) will move to the new site, I'll keep this location up and running through February.
I'm home from the gym and a quick nine-miler in the hills around the Rose Bowl. I'm happy to report my body has now adjusted to the vegan diet quite well; I'm grateful for all the wonderful recipes that a number of folks e-mailed me. Thank you!
I'm supplementing my diet with Vega, and it's really helping. I'm eating the bars and drinking the meal replacement stuff, and it gives me the energy I need. My weight has stabilized in the high 160s (I'm guessing, because I'm sticking to my commitment not to weigh myself). That's the lowest it's been in years, and fifteen pounds below where I was when my father died. I'm still taking in the occasional non-vegan thing or two; I had some ice cream the other day and I had a few bites of a veggie lasagna last night at youth group. I'm not interested in being fanatical about avoiding all animal products when I'm out; I'm "vegan in the house, vegetarian in public", and that works for now.
Boxing is good. We've been doing tons of plyometrics lately. Plyometrics build power and explosiveness, and I can certainly use both. It's a great supplement to my marathoning. All my long runs build lots of slow-twitch muscles; it's nice to work on building up some speed and power. And if I keep doing enough squats, I might rebuild my now nearly non-existent backside. Still, it's nice to have a much better body at 39 than I did at 19 or 29. How long I'll keep it, I have no idea.
One long-term goal of mine: I want to help develop low or no-cost work-out programs to offer to working adults, stressed college students, etcetera. Really long-term goal: open a summer camp for teens -- and adults. Teach fitness, teach basic life skills, spirituality, the whole thing. I'm just putting it out there... give me a few years, let me write a book or two, raise some chinchillas and human children, and raise the funds.
In recent years, as I continue to fiddle with my women's studies syllabus, I've moved away from emphasizing certain themes and towards others. One theme that has become more and more important to me: tracing the cultural history of women's shame in America, particularly in regards to sexual pleasure, food, and other "selfish" desires.
I've emphasized this many times before, but my students are, overwhelmingly, non-white. They are, overwhelmingly, first-generation college students. And in my women's studies class, overwhelmingly female. But whether they are black, Latina, Asian, Armenian, they've almost all been raised with one enormously important -- and colossally destructive -- discourse: pleasure comes with penalties.
I tend to focus on the close relationship between attitudes towards eating and attitudes towards sex, largely because they seem so often to be inextricably linked. The pleasure of food is our first pleasure; when we were tiny infants, it was what we screamed for and it was gave us comfort and delight. Long after many of our other appetites may have faded, we will still take pleasure in what we eat. (I've spent a lot of time with the elderly; my experience has been that in nursing homes, the subject of lunch tends to dominate conversations.) Throughout our lives, in groups or alone, eating has the potential to be one of our greatest physical delights.
And we do not live in a world where women are permitted to eat to satiety without a considerable degree of shaming. While their brothers are often encouraged to eat to excess, the majority of my female students grew up with a sense that they had to monitor what and how much they ate. Many were first introduced to the idea that "pleasure has penalties" by mothers who warned them, as they moved into puberty, "don't eat so much or you'll get fat." Others grew up with parents who were happy to have them eat all they liked, but as they transitioned into puberty, found themselves under the crushing influence of the broader culture, which idealizes a female body type at odds with healthy, indulgent eating.
Bottom line: few students get to college without a considerable amount of shame surrounding their eating. Most, if not all, have incorporated specifically moral language to refer to their food habits. When I ask them "What does it mean when you hear a friend say 'I've been good today'", all of them know that that refers to a particularly successful period of restriction. When another friend says "I was so bad at lunch today", that never refers to skipping out on a restaurant bill; it's always a reference to prioritizing pleasure over self-denial. And as a feminist, few things make me sadder than to see so many of my students caught in that trap of oscillating between self-denial and indulgence, between bouts of puritanical pride in their own restriction and crushing guilt for giving into the basic desire to be sweetly, pleasurably, full.
I always connect this struggle around food to sexuality. Just as my students vary in their eating habits, they vary widely in their sexual mores. I've posted before about just how diverse they can be; I've had porn stars sitting alongside those who insist that kissing before marriage is a sin. But if I can make some generalizations, I can say with confidence that most have been raised to view women as "gatekeepers" who must carefully guard their bodies against lustful, predatory, men. Too many have grown up with a sense that lust is a one-way street in which women are objects but rarely subjects. Many were taught by their mothers how to be pleasing and desirable; they were taught how to attract men while at the same time keeping them at bay. For far too many, male sexual desire is a tool to be used with great care. But few were raised with any sense of their own sexual agency (at least in the service of their own pleasure.) During a discussion a few semesters ago about the "discovery of the clitoris" by the male-dominated medical profession, one bold young woman said frankly:
"I'd sooner admit to sleeping with dozens of guys than admit that I masturbate. Bringing pleasure to men is always easier to cop to than bringing pleasure to yourself. It's almost like masturbating for yourself makes you more of a slut -- it's like you can't control your own desires, and that's bad."
While some students vigorously disagreed, it was clear that that comment had struck a familiar chord with many of the young women in the room. (Nota bene: I do NOT ask students to disclose details of their private sexual lives to me or the class; I do, however, try and create a safe environment where those who wish to take such risks can do so.)
Many of my students seem to have a sense of their own sexuality that reminds me of many folks with eating disorders whom I have known. I've known quite a few women who regularly starved themselves. And yet, rather than avoid food altogether, they became marvelous cooks. I once dated a woman (briefly) who wanted to cook for me every weekend. She made full-course fattening meals; she spent hours in the kitchen. And she ate virtually nothing. It became incredibly uncomfortable for me to eat in front of her, as she watched me with tremendous interest, constantly asking if I wanted more. Obviously, she took some vicarious pleasure in watching someone else eat, but she clearly also had a perverse sense of personal agency. For this woman, pleasure consisted solely in the capacity to bring pleasure to another. She had no ability to enjoy food for herself; her delight was entirely contingent upon mine. It was absolutely awful.
I've told that anecdote to a few of my classes, and seen many nods of recognition. And it seems evident to me that for far too many young women, that attitude of "contingent pleasure" seems to carry over from the kitchen to the bedroom. Even in our hypersexualized culture, most of my female students are taught more about how to provide pleasure to another than to experience it for themselves. The agency that they are permitted is the agency that comes with mastering the male ego and the male body, learning how to flirt, learning how to seduce, learning how to bring delight and pleasure. They see porn everywhere, but rarely do they see a storyline written for them, one in which their own ecstasy is central rather than something feigned to soothe male anxiety.
I don't tell my students that they must masturbate without concomitant shame in order to be good feminists. I don't tell them they need to eat cheesecake without guilt in order to be liberated. It's not the place of a feminist professor (particularly a male one) to prescribe specific steps for transformation and growth in such profoundly personal arenas as sexuality and food. But at the same time, I am clear that there are few areas of life where it is more important to live out our egalitarian values than eating and sex. I am not advocating uncontrolled gluttony or destructive promiscuity. I am advocating an ethic that respects women's pleasure as an a priori good. I am not advocating selfishness. (Heck, I'm a monogamous vegetarian; I understand the importance of balancing one's own desires with one's commitments to others.) I am challenging my students to see physical joy as their human birthright.
Though not all of my students are yet sexually active, all of them are "food active." They've been eating for as long as they can remember, and will do so for the rest of their lives. Part of beginning a feminist journey is making a commitment not merely to self-indulgence, but to the principle that all human beings are entitled to seek out pleasure. It's one thing to say those words aloud, another to live them out. And since feminism is never merely about transforming the self for the self alone, it's vital that men and women commit themselves to being advocates for shame-free pleasure in the lives of their friends and family. Though our understanding of when and how we seek pleasure may be informed by our own spiritual beliefs, and though we ought never seek pleasure at the expense of another's happiness, we can still boldly, loudly, and continually proclaim the God-given right to delight in our bodies.
Creation, in all of its messiness, is a good thing.
This fine Kevin Hearle poem makes this sixth-generation Californio smile in recognition, and wince at our state's particular propensity for (literally and metaphorically) paving over the past.
The Politics of Memory
I was born in a state where everything had to be named twice to survive: where Hangtown became Placerville, where La Brea couldn’t hold its bones in Spanish, but had to be redundant and bi-lingual --- The La Brea Tar Pits, redundant, like the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in name only;
a state so arid in parts that what has been forgotten is blown to dust in the wind across the alkali flats; a state where you change the name and all is forgiven: where Gospel Swamp loses both its muck and its religion to emerge the model suburb
Fountain Valley forgives the swamp, but what of Manzanar? In a state where everything has to be named twice or be forgotten, who will remember Manzanar (a place in exile from the maps)? The detention camp is closed, but I was born in this state and, for now, I know the name.
A former student I like very much came to see me yesterday. She's a woman studies major at UCLA now, and she and I chatted about her work at length. She told me she had picked her major after taking my women's history course, and she said some very complimentary things about the impact of the course on her life.
And she also said this: "Dr. Schwyzer, you were one of the first people (and definitely the first man) I ever met to call himself a feminist. And now that I'm taking all of these other courses and applying for grad school as a feminist scholar, it's funny, but I realize how far outside of the feminist mainstream you are. I'm not sure I would call you a feminist now, but you're the reason I became one."
Talk about your back-handed compliments! She said this as she was leaving, and there was no chance to follow up, alas. I know that for a variety of reasons (my sex being the least of them), I'm not in the mainstream of contemporary feminist thought, but still...
Yesterday at lunch time, I trundled over to the KPCC radio studio here on campus to do an interview with NPR. They're doing a story on Ratemyprofessors, and they got my name from this InsideHigherEd article. The piece will eventually air on either Morning Edition or All Things Considered, but probably not for a week or two. If I get more details on when it'll be on, I'll post them. I really, really like radio. I make no secret of my own desire to have a part-time gig as a talk-show host.
Our six chinchillas are well and happy. I've opened up a new "Flickr" account, and now must simply edit and upload the many photos we've taken of Chihiro, Ninotchka, Gabriella, Joonko, Dudley, and Racheli. They have captured the hearts of the team of workmen who are redoing our air-conditioning system at home. Tony, the owner of the company installing the new ducts and compressor/condenser thing, said "I'm amazed that people are willing to spend so much for these little guys." He's considering a chinchilla for his kids; we figure that an AC repair guy is the right man to adopt one. He'll know how to keep these intensely heat-sensitive animals nice and cool.
And I have an odd confession to make: though it may seem strange for a liberal evangelical metrosexual college gender studies professor to say so, I am now and have been for decades a huge Bobby Knight fan. The former Indiana and current Texas Tech coach is in the news again; once again, he is accused of "crossing the line" with one of his players. (He apparently struck the boy gently under the chin to reprimand him.) For some thirty years, Knight has made himself famous for many things: his remarkable coaching and motivational skills, his famous flashes of anger, his willingness to cross verbal and physical boundaries with his players -- boundaries that no other modern coach would dare cross. He is feared and hated by many, loved by others. His epic tirades are balanced by a reputation for extraordinary, quiet kindnesses. Few other figures in sports have had as many passionate admirers and detractors debating his behavior, his meaning, his role, and his legacy for so long.
I can't say for sure, but I suspect that Knight wouldn't think much of the likes of me. Men who teach critical analyses of gender in contemporary American life probably don't rate high on his scale. And as someone who is committed to envisioning, embodying, and bringing about a gentler, kinder, more emotionally attuned masculine ideal, I ought to be repulsed by Bobby Knight. He ought to represent everything I dislike and struggle against. His overbearing swagger, his overgrown adolescent refusal to play by the rules, his penchant for abusive tirades (and the occasional slap or punch); this man is the very sort of rage-aholic we progressive feminists ought to find repulsive and horrifying. And yet Knight is one of a handful of coaches whom I, a devoted fan of almost every non-motorized sport, truly admire. (You haven't heard of most of the rest of them: Vivian Stringer, Anson Dorrance, Joe Ehrmann, John McDonnell, Sue Enquist.)
What I like about Knight is not his inchoate rage. What I like about him is something I don't know that everyone else sees. When I watch him on the court (and I always try and watch when his teams are playing), I see what I aspire to be: a master teacher. For me, Knight's greatness lies in his absolute, unswerving, nearly mad commitment to the personal, intellectual, and physical growth of his student-athletes. When I watch him coach, I see a man for whom winning isn't nearly as important as transformation; his great obsession is to be the catalyst for his players to grow. His famous temper seems primarily directed less towards those who challenge him and more towards those who show some reluctance to grow, change, relentlessly push themselves to become better and better still.
I'm regularly accused on this blog of setting too high a standard, particularly for men. Whether the issue is pornography, or relationships with younger women, or making and keeping commitments, or accepting responsibility for developing an emotional vocabulary, I push men hard. I push them harder than I push women not because I think women are weak, but because I am a man who knows first-hand that transformation is possible. There are plenty of folks out there pushing women to change themselves (not always in healthy ways); there are fewer voices pushing men as hard. I don't rage like Knight does, and of course, I would never, ever, ever put anything other than an affectionate hand on a student or youth group kid. But Coach Knight inspires me more than do any of his peers because I sense in him a kindred spirit; I see in him a man committed to never surrendering to the notion that we cannot become all that our truest selves long to be.
Even now, in the twilight of his career, he is barking and raging against laziness, against incompetence, and above all, against the notion that we cannot radically transform ourselves. Coach wants to build great teams of unselfish, committed young men. In a very different and significant way, that's what I want to do too.
A colleague of mine (a poli sci prof) and I were chatting in the hallway yesterday, talking about last week's election. She and I are both solid liberals, and we expressed our satisfaction and relief at the national and local results. And then she said something interesting: "You know, as much as it pains me to admit it, some of my best and brightest students are the most politically conservative. They often seem more articulate and passionate than the others." I agreed that all things considered, my experience in recent years had been the same.
No, I'm not going to make the argument that the most intelligent and insightful of students are natural conservatives. Rather, I'm convinced that most young people are, at heart, naturally rebellious against authority. Though Pasadena was once a reliably Republican town, it is so no longer. And I know full well that with a few exceptions, my colleagues on this campus are reliably and nearly uniformly left-wing. Oh, there's the odd Libertarian or two, and I have one colleague who still hasn't outgrown his fascination with Ayn Rand. (This is a sign, mind you, of developmental disability. When you're 19, you are permitted to find the Fountainhead inspiring and brilliant. If you still find it so when you're 39, instead of seeing it correctly as turgid, overwrought garbage, then you are experiencing some form of mild intellectual retardation.) Many of my senior colleagues are veterans of the civil rights or "brown power" movements. We sit around sometimes and swap stories of various protests we've been involved in over the years. I know of only one tenured member of my department who voted for Bush in '04; he was not only outnumbered by the Kerry voters but by the Nader voters as well.
Bottom line: it's tough to rebel on this campus by moving to the left. On the other hand, "coming out" as a young conservative allows you the wonderful thrill of tweaking the noses of your elders, a temptation that many of the young find difficult to exist. In my childhood, lefties drove around with bumper stickers that said "Question Authority." Well, their children and grandchildren are doing just that -- except that in order to do so in a truly satisfying way, they've got to challenge their mostly left-wing teachers and professors. Not for one second will I concede the intellectual superiority of conservative ideas or values; I merely acknowledge that on campuses like my own, it's "more fun" to be a young Republican thanks to the cachet of counter-cultural rebelliousness that it carries. Trust me, I'm not going to spoil the fun for these lil' right-wing whipper-snappers; if they like, I'll happily play the liberal foil for them.
Of course, there's another kind of student whom I often see drawn to conservatism. Often, these are kids who come from turbulent and impoverished backgrounds. Stereotypically, they "ought" to be reliable Democrats (if they have any politics at all.) But many of these kids become infatuated with the Republican gospel of stern self-reliance and the "up by your bootstraps" mentality. They see family members and friends who seem stuck in poverty, and they have come to believe that that poverty is less a result of racism or social structures and more a consequence of poor personal choices. Filled with ambition and eager to transcend their class, these boys and girls see themselves as "exceptions to the rule." Many of them, frankly, are also filled with a strange mix of hunger and anger: the hunger is to succeed, the anger is at those around them who have not taken advantage of what these kids believe are myriad opportunities for self-improvement.
These young conservatives aren't just rebelling. Rather, what appeals to them about conservatism is the notion that people ought not to be insulated from the consequences of poor behavior. (Pace, my fellow liberals, we all know damn well organized Republicanism inoculates the wealthy from that very thing.) While conventional liberal ideas encourage them to see culture through the lens of race and class, conservative thinking encourages them to see themselves as bold individuals bravely pursuing their private destinies. Thus, in an odd way, conservatism can become an expression of hostility towards their own race and class. Sometimes, I'm convinced these young folks are saying to their families:
We're not poor because we're black/Latino/what-have-you, we're poor because you (mom, dad, etc.) made bad decisions. Well, I'm going to show you! I'm going to make something of myself, not merely to make you proud but also to show you that I am different from you and not defined by the same things that you allowed yourself to be defined by!
Seeing poverty and despair as the result of individual decisions rather than as the result of massive social forces allows the young conservative from a poor background to create an immensely flattering personal narrative: in his or her own mind, he or she becomes the "special one", clever and brave and ambitious enough to transcend the self-created, self-reinforced adversity that grips everyone else in the family and culture. While there may be some small grains of truth in this worldview, the insistence that most suffering is self-imposed and the consequence of bad decision-making is a convenient excuse to avoid the obligation to be profoundly compassionate.
Do I think we pick our politics primarily for psychological reasons? For the most part, yes, though I'm not enough of a reductionist to insist that's the only reason. My liberalism comes partly from my mother, partly from my own life experience. On one level, it comes from a reflexive desire not to have my private behavior scrutinized and judged. On another level, it may indeed be rooted in a sense of "white guilt". Those who have ought to share with those who don't, and I still believe that government is best prepared to serve as the primary instrument through which that sharing takes place. And of course, I'm desperately eager to protect the environment and to protect animal life, but those are not high priorities in either of the major parties.
Bottom line: I love me my young conservatives. One of my best students this semester wore a "Tommy Girl" t-shirt to class on election day; she loves ultra-right-wing politician Tom McClintock, who narrowly lost the Lt. Governor's battle last week. For her, conservatism is about creating the ideal mix of freedom and responsibility; she sees it as the best vehicle for achieving her dreams. And she loves tweaking her fellow students (generally either apathetic or left-wing) and her liberal professors. She comes to argue with me a lot. I'm an indulgent old guy; rather than quarrel or allow myself to be provoked, I listen to her seriously, challenge her from time to time, but in the end, I always finish with a warm "Bless your heart. You're right where you oughta be." And that's what I generally say to my earnest, passionate, young right-wingers.
Yesterday afternoon (after the long run, before going off to Borat), I spent a few hours with our 2006-2007 Seekers Confirmation Class at All Saints Pasadena. We've got about 19 kids this year, and it looks like another wonderful group. The dear Susan Russell came to talk to us, and she was, as always, a hit with her candor, her humor, and her knack for turning the perfect phrase to appeal to adults and youth alike.
In our discussion, one topic came up that always comes up, and one that I haven't blogged on before: the common experience All Saints youth have of being told "you're not a real Christian." Especially in recent years, as All Saints Pasadena has gained national prominence for its fight with the IRS and our bold stance in favor of gay marriage, I've heard from many, many of the teens I work with that they have been subjected to some fairly hurtful remarks from school friends and classmates.
"You're not a real Christian"; "That's not a real church"; "You're the gay church"; "You don't follow the Bible"; "People at All Saints are going to hell" --every one of those comments was uttered to one or another of the kids in my confirmation class in recent months after telling people they attend All Saints Pasadena. Some of our teens met the scorn and derision with pride and defiance; others responded with a shrug; others were genuinely hurt; still others were frankly bewildered.
Few things make me angrier than to have the youth I call "my kids" told that they aren't real Christians. Kids may not be particularly interested in theology, but they are intensely sensitive to judgment -- and to be on the receiving end of so many unkind, cruel remarks is hard for many of them. The church in which they've been baptized, the church in which they are preparing to be confirmed, is under attack -- and for most of them, that means that their parents and many of the grown-ups they know and trust are also under attack. As a thirty-nine year-old, I'm quite happy to cross swords with a fellow believer who questions my salvation or my theology because I endorse same-sex unions; I'm less happy when my fourteen year-olds are told they are going to hell because they worship where they do.
Still, like most of my fellow adult youth leaders, I have no intention of instilling a "martyr complex" in our teens. I'm not going to give them the pathetic "the world hates us for our commitment to Christ" song and dance. One of the least attractive strategies employed by Christian conservatives is to insist to their youth that by adhering to antiquated social mores they are somehow being boldly counter-cultural; I'll be darned if I'm going to foist the left-wing version of that nonsense on to my teens. In a world where real suffering is omnipresent, being told "you're not a Christian" because you worship at an inclusive church is hardly a major form of oppression.
On the other hand, we don't simply encourage a "stiff upper lip". We reminded our kids yesterday that no one issues "Christian credentials." There is no agreed-upon litmus test. While some evangelicals insist that Catholics aren't Christians, and others refuse to acknowledge Mormons as our brothers and sisters in Christ, most sensible believers choose to see all who follow Jesus as authentic Christians. While part of being Christian is certainly holding the person of Jesus Christ as central in one's faith, it is absurd to suggest that only those who believe in biblical inerrancy, for example, are actual Christians. "Being a Christian is about being willing to be on a journey with Jesus", I said, "even if you aren't quite sure who exactly Jesus is and even if you are very unsure of where it is you are going."
Mind you, I think there are limits to who gets to call themselves a "Christian." My mother regularly told my grandmother she wasn't a Christian. My grandmother had been an atheist since she was a student at Berkeley in the 1920s; she read Lucretius (De Rerum Natura), and that did it for her. She rejected the whole idea of a loving God who took an interest in human affairs. Yet she insisted on calling herself a Christian because in her childhood, to be "Christian" was simply to be kind and good. It wasn't a theological statement to her -- it was a statement about how one behaved towards one's fellow citizens. "Doing the Christian thing" referred to taking an active interest in the well-being of others, and had damn all to do with a belief in Jesus. To the end of her life, she was both "atheist and Christian".
While I adored my grandmother, I think she was outside the realm of what a Christian is. A specific belief about the inerrancy of Scripture or sexual morality is not a prerequisite for calling oneself a Christian, a recognition that the person of Jesus of Nazareth is central to one's faith does seem to be essential to using the term accurately. As a youth leader and confirmation teacher, I want to bring my kids closer to Jesus. I want them to love Him not merely as a great role model for righteous praxis but as the greatest of friends, the best of brothers, the most intimate of lovers. That is how I know Him, and that sweet, intimate, spiritually erotic relationship is the most exciting and enriching of my life.
But whatever relationship this year's confirmation crop chooses to develop with Christ, I want them to know that their right to call themselves Christians, their "claiming of the name", is not contingent on any one particular worldview; any one particular political allegiance; any one understanding of how, when, where, and with whom it is good and right to be sexual. And this year, our confirmands will learn that no narrow-minded classmate or friend can rob them of the right to embrace the Holy Name.
We are having a complete HVAC redo at our townhouse. We're getting a newer, larger condenser/compressor whateverthehellyoucallit, getting the vents and coils and wiring redone, the whole works. It's gonna take all week, but this way we can guarantee that no matter what the weather, our chinchillas will live in marvelous, reliable, cool comfort.
We did one of my favorite runs yesterday, from Hahamongna Park out to the Switzer camp ground in the Angeles Forest; I broke it off a bit short but it was still a solid 17 miler. The leaves were glorious. Next to my wife's voice and a chinchilla's loving click of pleasure, my favorite sound in the world is the sound of autumn leaves beneath my feet as I race along a single-track trail beneath a canopy of trees.
It was a lousy weekend in sports. My beloved Golden Bears were, alas, upset by Arizona. My Carmel High Padres lost their annual rivalry game to Pacific Grove -- again. Two local high school rivalries I follow (Pasadena vs. John Muir and Hoover vs. Glendale) were both played, and neither went my way. Last week's election wins softened the blow somewhat, but I'm greedy enough to long for undefeated Novembers at both the ballot box and the gridiron.
Christmas is coming. I know this because this weekend, I saw the first bleachers for the January 1 Rose Parade erected; this is always the local indicator that the season is at last upon us. As for so many of us, it is my happiest time of year.
Last night, my wife and I took her younger brother and niece to see "Borat." The buzz has been tremendous, and though I had some reservations based on what I had heard, the kids were eager to watch the film and we were, well, willing.
I can think of only two other films that I found so viscerally upsetting: "Natural Born Killers" and "Pulp Fiction." I saw them both in the theater, and left both literally shaking with rage at the filmmakers. "Borat" joins these other two in a small category I have for Films I Did Not Merely Dislike But Actively Loathed. I'm quite confident I'm in a distinct minority among my friends and readers, but so be it; you can share your impressions in the comments.
I include Borat along with the above-mentioned Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino films for a simple reason: all three pictures were, from a creative standpoint, magnificent. I left the theater last night convinced of Sacha Baron Cohen's subversive talent; what I question is his apparent radical lack of sympathy for his fellow human beings. Look, I get the point he was trying to make; Cohen was eager to expose what he sees as the dark, bigoted, hypocritical underbelly of Red State America. (And man, was he selective in the targets of his satire -- he's every bit as much a propagandist as Michael Moore.) But while I can appreciate satire, I dislike it when it comes tinged with active cruelty. What I don't like about Sacha Cohen's hit picture is the same thing I don't like about Tarantino's films: while they are exceptionally watchable movies, they are shot through with a nastiness, a puerile sadism, that reminds me of little boys plucking insects' wings.
Did I laugh at Borat? Of course. But laughter is not an endorsement of the concept. If you made me sit through a ninety-minute porn flick, I'd probably get turned on -- and that physiological response would hardly be an endorsement of the film. I could watch a bad horror flick and "jump" at the scary bits, but my momentary fear wouldn't prove the quality of the movie. Laughing at some of the scenes in Borat was similar for me; it felt more like an uncontrollable reflex than an actual appreciation for the work itself.
What made me angriest, in the end, was Cohen's extraordinary arrogance. Like many immensely talented artists, he seems to view ordinary human beings as props rather than as his brothers and sisters. Deception, manipulation, public humiliation are all acceptable as long as the end product serves to make his rather obvious and banal point: human beings are awkward, judgmental, hypocritical, and flawed. I may be the only person who watched this film whose heart went out to the crowd at the rodeo, to the Chi Psi brothers in the RV, to the Southern dinner party, to -- particularly -- the Pentecostals. As nasty as some of the remarks were from the fraternity lads, for example, I found myself far more sympathetic to the objects of Cohen's derision than to the filmmaker himself. In the end, all of his subjects, for all their unpleasantness, displayed the gentle naivete and gullibility so characteristic of Americans. Cohen, for all of his impressive skill and his willingness to take risks, displayed something even uglier: a genuine hostility towards humanity.
To be sure, many great satirists have been misanthropes. Perhaps it's why I loathed Mencken and Karl Kraus when I read them in college. (For me, sincerity is the most underrated of modern virtues and ironic detachment a particularly tiresome vice.) Perhaps Cohen now has joined the ranks of the great misanthropic satirists. His talent is immense, his work undeniably provocative and funny. But I absolutely cannot get past the sadism and the heartlessness that seems shot through the fabric of his work, and I am still angry at him and his picture this morning.
Lauren has come up with a terrific idea: Project Help Us Help Ourselves (working title), a collaborative blogosphere effort to provide a clearing house for information about how to cope with money, scarce resources, and bureaucracy. Lauren will be hosting blog carnivals to gather together various tips and suggestions.
I read Lauren's proposal, and felt, well, stuck. Though I could certainly use more money, I've been blessed with a certain degree of comfort and security. I haven't had to cope without health insurance, I haven't fought an expensive custody battle, I haven't had to worry about the same sort of things my peers have had to worry about. I thought about just linking to Lauren's post and urging more experienced readers to send in detailed, clear tips on how to negotiate this complex and difficult world. And then I started to rack my brain for what practical things I "know."
As someone who has spent his entire life in academia (every fall since 1970, when I started nursery school at the "Humpty-Dumpty House" in Santa Barbara, age three, I have been either a student or a teacher in some sort of educational institution), I've never held a full-time job other than college instructor. I know how to prepare a good lecture. I know how to evaluate written work quickly. I know how to pretend to pay attention in department meetings.
What else do I know that's useful? I know how to train for and run marathons. I know how to start a weight-lifting program. I could probably teach an introductory Pilates mat class, or a spinning class. I know how to pick the right pair of running shoes. Important skills for survival? Uh, no.
What can I do that's truly useful? I can't change my own oil. I hate doing any kind of carpentry or assembling. The old WASP joke:
How many WASPs does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two. One to mix martinis and the other to call the electrician.
Yeah, that's close to home. I can do the light bulb, actually, but I've been calling repair people and handy people for virtually everything most of my life. My body may be lean and toned, but the few muscles I have, sadly, rarely get put to practical use.
So now a post designed to link to another post about economic survival has turned into a musing on my own profound incompetence -- an incompetence rooted in privilege. (And should I even mention I didn't know how to pump my own gas until I was... oh, forget it.). I'm risking infuriating my few remaining readers.
But in addition to knowing how to give a lecture, and knowing how to finish a hard marathon, I know something else far more useful: I know how to start over. Three times I've been divorced. Three times, I've moved out of a home I shared with a spouse and into a tiny, cramped apartment. Three times, I've bought (or rented) furniture. Three times, I've raced to Crate and Barrel or Target to buy another set of dishes, another set of pots and pans, another set of sheets. (In general, my exes all kept the housewares.) Three times, I've loaded all of my possessions into a car or a truck and driven away to begin again.
Three times, I've left a marriage with major credit card debt. Three times, I paid it back down. Obviously, the debts got exponentially bigger each time.
The amount of stuff that I left with after my third divorce in 2002 was considerably more than after my first one a decade earlier. By the third divorce, I could actually pay movers to come and take my things away, something that had not been possible the first two times. Three times, I've said goodbye to beloved pets (I had dogs with all of my ex-wives, and they always kept 'em), and tearfully driven away to start a new life. Trust me, it got harder each time.
I learned that a microwave, a coffee maker, and a fridge are really all you need. (I've bought three post-divorce microwaves and two nice Kenmore refrigerators). On my own post-divorce, months would pass and I would never touch a stove. Lean Cuisines can be bought in bulk at Costco -- word to the wise. After my second divorce, I lived on Rosarita refried beans, Uncle Ben's rice, Pace Picante sauce, Knudsen sour cream, and corn tortillas. (What one friend called "the vile concoction.") I figure each divorce was good for some significant weight loss.
But the real lesson, of course, was that I could survive. If there's any virtue at all in telling this story, it's that I have learned that you can begin again -- and again -- and again. My cousin calls me the "king of starting over", and after so many years of new beginnings, upheaval, heartache, and separations, I know with every fiber of my being that it is possible to love again, trust again, begin again. It is possible to both learn from previous mistakes and learn to take healthy risks one more time. It is possible to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars; lose out on a vision of a happy future; kiss the Labrador goodbye for the last time as she licks away your tears; spend those first few awful nights in a dingy little over-priced studio; and, after all of that agony, be willing to try again.
Lord willing, I will never, ever, ever get divorced from she who is my wife today. I know so much more about how to be a good and present husband than I did in my first three marriages, and I have married a woman with whom I am spiritually and emotionally and physically profoundly compatible. That's an unmerited blessing on one level, of course, but it's also something I earned as a consequence of being willing to learn from my mistakes, being willing to start over, being willing to trust again. Too many folks I know get burned (or burn themselves) a time or three and they give up. Call it stupidity or call it faith or a mixture of the two, but I have a relentless optimism born less of my nature than of my experience. I know that broken hearts heal and that new dishes can be bought over and over again. I know that dollar for dollar, it's hard to beat Sears brand appliances. I know that having a coffee maker, even a cheap one, is vital for the first morning after you move into your new bachelor quarters. And I know that no matter what, the hurt and pain of any given moment will pass more quickly than I dare hope, and that love and joy and promise can come again and again and again.