Friday, May 26, 2006

Friday Poetry: Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens
The Pleasures of Merely Circulating

The garden flew round with the angel,
The angel flew round with the cloud.
And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round
And the clouds flew round with the clouds.

Is there any secret in skulls,
The cattle skulls in the woods?
Do the drummers in black hoods
Rumble anything out of their drums?

Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby
Might well have been German or Spanish.
Yet that things go round and again go round
Has rather a classical sound.

Friday, May 19, 2006


After working on a kids' show last week, R was giving P and myself a ride to the train. We had taught a workshop together in the winter, whence the show we'd just performed had sprung. P and I are experienced teachers; this was the first time R had really worked with kids. R and I are white women; P is a Mexican man. The residency we'd taught was at an entirely African-American elementary school. After a while of casual conversation, we got back to the kids we'd taught back in the winter. P reminisced about particular children who'd been happy with our performance. R said, "I need to do work with kids again. I need to do something altruistic."

I said, "I wouldn't call working with kids altruistic."

She: "Then what is the word I'm looking for?"

I: "What?"

She: "What's the word I'm looking for? You know, like for working with underprivileged kids . . ."

I: "Oh, no, I think you meant what you said. I just don't agree with you."

Silence ensued until P managed to change the subject and mitigate the tension.

I could probably have handled that better.

But it just ticks me off so goddamn much. "Banking education," Freire calls it--the notion that educators are making deposits of valuable knowledge into students, otherwise known as empty vaults. As if you're so superior that you're the only one in the exchange who has anything to offer. Anyone who has simultaneously taught and cared about teaching knows the concept is ridiculous. I'm not a full-time teacher, I'm not as good a teacher as I would like to be or as I plan to be, but even I know that. Working with kids--not bouncing in as an effort to make them happy for a day, but really working with them--will tear down your defenses and your fronts faster than anything else you do. It can be incredibly gratifying, can make you incredibly happy, but can also take you down from that happiness equally fast. You can't depend on it to do anything except be unpredictable and change you, and you can hope it will give you many horrible moments and many equally amazing ones. You certainly can't expect it to be emotionally steady; humans aren't, and kids haven't learned to pretend they are. And I don't know the half of it anyway.

Even banking education, when you extend its logic, implies the selfishness inherent to altruism. I mean, what's a vault going to do with the valuables stored in it? Who could you possibly be doing that for except yourself, so that you can take out the knowledge at the appropriate moments and like yourself better?

The idea of altruism in general is frankly ludicrous. To call your actions altruistic is to assume you are intimate enough with the thoughts and emotions of those ostensibly benefitting from your actions to know exactly what they get, which is egotistical and colonialist, whatever the racial combinations involved (in an urban setting, "underprivileged" is usually synonymous with "low-income African-American or Latino," though not always, which makes R's statement even more problematic than it already was; however, there are many teachers who work with children of their own race and still spout the same bullshit R did). To say that you need to feel altruistic is a paradox, though the bottom line is it's much more honest than most other things you could say about altruism.

Like all bad art, altruism is based on assuming it knows its recipients'/audience's reactions. To know that what you're doing is altruistic requires knowing how the kids take it, knowing that they will benefit from it, knowing how they will benefit from it, and knowing that the most important things they'll get will come directly from you and be about you. And no matter how empathetic or educated or intelligent you are, you cannot know a goddamn thing about that without experience--both of teaching in general and of the individuals involved in each setting. Work with a group of kids steadily for a few weeks, or a few months, or a few years, and then you can make a good guess at how they'll react to what you do. But until then, don't even assume it's good for them. 'Cause if that's what you're thinking about, how good you are for them, I can guarantee that you are not.

The idea of altruism, therefore, is self-defeating; in other words, it doesn't really exist.

Which implies we've gotta admit to our selfish motivations before we get started? Maybe. Different forms of selfishness make different people happy, because we as individuals are gratified by different things. Is the goal for us to be happy? Can our happiness lead to the complete destruction of our environment? I'm going to stop this post here.

Friday Poetry: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable--
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay ona hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Room Full of Beautiful Women

Last night the set designer of the show I'm working on came to rehearsal. Present at the rehearsal were three female actors, the director (female) and myself; the set designer is male. A long discussion ensued about the rearrangement of our set, changes that are being made to the design, how they'd be executed and how they will effect the actors. I've come onto this show pretty recently, and had met the designer the night before. He's amiable, professional, personable, and practical, and I was a fan of how he handled the meeting.

After rehearsal I met with my director, and we discussed some notes for the set designer. I sent them to him last night, first thanking him for his attendance and work at our rehearsal. This morning I received a reply that began, "first of all, you're very welcome. any excuse I can get to sit in a room full of beautiful women..." After which he went on to address the notes I'd given him.

Frustrated, I mentioned this to two co-workers, both female, one a couple of years older than I and one more than ten years older. The younger one sympathized with my frustration, while the older one, whose opinions I've generally respected very much, claimed that when I get a little older, I'll be able to take that more lightly and be grateful for the compliment.

I can't say that doesn't bother me. I like being told I'm beautiful as much as the next person, and think most people (though not all) who say they don't are lying. But as far as I'm concerned, there is a time and a place, and this would not be it. First of all, I've just met this man. I've worked with men from whom I'd take teasing about my physical attractiveness, and I have taken it. But you need to establish your professional relationship to me first, and allow us to become friends as a result of that, at which point you can tease me. I'll know you and know what you mean; I don't know what he means, and there are possible meanings that I don't appreciate. Such as this second one: it seems to me to be pissing in a circle, marking his territory. As a designer, he's been really professional and accomodating, as a designer particularly on a smaller show needs to be, but he's a man on a show where many of the power figures (the director, the stage manager, the artistic director of the company) are women, and that we need to be simply a room full of beautiful women before any professional questions are addressed feels a bit off-key, like he has to establish his maleness and masculinity of perspective before we actually do what we're there to do.

There's also the problem of Email, of course. I can't guarantee that I would have taken this in person, but there are ways to say it that might have been okay. However, when you've just met someone two days ago as part of a very established structure of power and protocol, a structure any theater professional knows and knows to adhere to, you shouldn't fuck around with tone in Email. You know it can't read, or could be read the wrong way.

So what is the wrong way? I mean, why can't he just say we're beautiful, if he thinks so? It's a compliment I've accepted with ease before, when it's been delivered in a straightforward manner, and I imagine most of the other women who were in the room have done similarly. I've accepted it even from strangers. Can I fairly say that my physical appearance is irrelevant to this context? No, but I can say that it should be treated as if it is. My physical appearance needs to alter neither my performance nor yours, and we don't know each other well enough to talk anything but business. So he's bringing in something irrelevant to what we're talking about, and it's something that objectifies me, and objectification obviously limits your assessment of how well I can do my job, if it does not limit my job performance itself. (I'm focusing on me because, of the women in the room, I'm the only person who saw or will see this Email.)

I honestly don't think the different perceptions of his comment among my co-workers is a generation gap, though I wouldn't mind readers not of my generation weighing in. It may, indeed, be harder for co-workers at this particular office, which like much of the educational publishing industry is dominated by white women, to consider such power structures. Straight theater men in particular, seeing themselves as unique in the industry and as mavericks in the first place, may feel more comfortable making such comments--since they feel women don't perceive them as "normal" men, or at least conventional men, they might feel freer to behave like conventional men.

I overreact, or at the very least I overanalyze, but let's put those together, let the analysis be part of the reaction, the intellectual being part of the personal. It is not a big deal; my work with him won't really change because of it, and it's not so severe a transgression that I'd bother calling him on it. He has slightly overstepped his boundary, but I'm certainly capable of pushing him back to the proper side of it without any kind of anger or aggression. (Our room full of beautiful women *could* take him.) But it still seems to me that I'm not so hard up for compliments that I should be desperately scrounging for them wherever I find them, and that a useless compliment such as this could land me in a position that I'd rather not be--making me think, or at least making me think he thinks, that my appearance is more important than my job performance. He is free to notice in his head that he thinks us beautiful; aesthetics and horomones will be aesthetics and horomones. But not knowing me, not having any professional reason to compliment anything that has nothing to do with my profession, he's separating me as an attractive woman from the job I'm doing. And I'm not a fan.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday Poetry: Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Strange to know nothing: never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real
But forced to qualify or so I feel
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, their punctual spread of seed
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

Even to wear such knowledge--for our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions--
And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,
That when we start to die
Have no idea why.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Blogthropology, May 2006: Blac(k)ademic

This month, I did over at Nubian's blog, Blac(k)ademic: black lesbians say what? The title of the blog summarizes pretty well how Nubian's culture differs from mine. She's an African-American lesbian PhD. student and documentary filmmaker, currently studying and residing in the Midwest. Hers is an impressive blog; I've linked to it and I recommend it to everybody. Nubian's work is critical, intense, intelligent, and always thorough. Her focus is mainly on issues of race, gender and queerness, which reach every corner of the news, politics or consumerism.

Nubian has made a true online community and debate forum; the diversity of people who comment on her blog is really stunning to me. She's made a safe space (or so I perceive it) for people of color by the manner in which she asserts her own identity and accepts it/integrates it into all her work and her thoughts, but links to and reads blogs that might disagree with her and leaves room for colorless people (that's my current problem with the term, is that it seems in some ways to encourage the view of whiteness as neutral, but I'm interested in what people who do actually see themselves as people of color think of that) to comment, albeit at the risk of having any wisp of white privilege shot down. On Nubian's blog, the personal is political in a way that goes beyond consciousness-raising or what-have-you; it also demonstrates in a very specific and impressive fashion how the political is personal. Her post for Blog Against Disablism day was particularly moving on that front.

That said, I made a number of egregious mistakes in my blogthropology, and I've realized that while I will continue to read and hopefully engage in discussions there as at other blogs of people I've never met, I'm not well-suited to navigating the blogosphere and committing to it as Nubian and many of her readers do. In a tradition of anthropology grander than most anthropologists would care to admit, and in a grand blog tradition, this post is in large part about me and the journey I'm going on partially as a result of blogthroplogy. I've no other honest way to write it. However, let me say again that I hope *everybody* reading this reads Nubian's blog and reaches their own conclusions. The only conclusion I've really reached about Nubian's blog is that I really admire it, and I've reached no real conclusions about myself, though I may by the time I've finished writing.

I found the link to Blac(k)ademic through Arbusto de Mendacity, and when I posted my first thorough, debate-oriented comment about a month later, I immediately got into an altercation with a few other commenters on the subject of transracial adoption (or, as some people who commented there would have it, transracial abduction). I understand a number of arguments against it, including those made by the people I was speaking with, but personally (from my white and other things perspective) favor considering it part of contemporary society and holding it to rigorous standards rather than eliminating it. Several people posting in the comments section didn't agree with me, and interpreted things I said in a manner different from the way I intended; I tried to clarify, and it took a while before I got any points across, and though we still disagree I thought the altercation ended pretty respectfully. However, I was shaken, feeling shot down in an almost literal sense. I was also held completely in thrall to the blogopshere for a couple of days--when I was at work I checked every hour at least to see what people had said to me or about me, when I was away the discussion took up so much of me that I was unable to work effectively. While I eventually calmed down and was able to see some justice in the accusations, particularly the one where one person (I'm not using names without permission) accused me of entering into debate combatively before asking questions about perspectives I might not undersand, it wasn't a useful way for me to think or live, and I had a difficult time becoming productive again, either in those discussions or in my life.

I thought that might make me a shitty blogthropologist; what it means is that I made a couple of egregious mistakes in blogthropology, and the next questions, and what will determine my relative shittiness, are how I react to the situation and change in it. I'm still processing those things, and while I'll continue to read and discuss and debate, I'm going to suspend my official involvement in Blogthropology next month ('tleast). For myself as an individual--a white individual, yes, but the particular qualities that determine this in me are not, in my view, terribly racially based--my most productive, most soul-searching and, more importantly, soul-altering dialogues are not going to be had on the blogosphere. I get defensive when I'm attacked, and while it's useful to see my defenses in the open, attacks in the blogosphere are made with a virulence that few would have face-to-face. I wanted to write "few would dare to have," but I don't think that's what I mean. It could be that I'm just reluctant to become vulnerable to such accusations--I'll admit that I am terrified (in an oddly physical manner) of posting this and revealing anything else about myself or my thoughts in this context--but I think, as long as I limit that reluctance to the blogosphere, I may be okay with that. Whatever my faults, and they are myriad, I'm honest in assessing myself and endeavoring to change what I dislike about myself; it's difficult to do that when I have no useful way to consider the source. There were things in the life of the blog that led to others reacting to me as they did--the post prior to the one upon which I commented discussed the Duke rape scandal, and several difficult and often very nasty commenters had gotten involved--and things in my life that led to my reacting as I did--in an artisticopersonal interaction with a close friend, I'd done some reprehensible things, and was stressed about disliking myself and generally defensive as a result--but I don't know enough about the individuals who attacked my poorly-thought-out words to know exactly how to work their opinions of me into what I think of myself. In a face-to-face interaction, there's more room to ask questions of others and figuring out more about who they are, more to what's going on, always, than the particular words on the particular topic. So I don't mind that on the blogosphere, most of my readers are and will remain people I know, and that I've a reluctance to make myself anonymously vulnerable. If vulnerable, which I must be to change, I want to be known.

Though I certainly cannot say it wasn't beneficial, as a white relatively priveleged woman (I'm a Jew, but thus far have kept myself out of circles in which that's a liability, and it's possible for me to do that), to be in a space where I and my voice felt isolated, ridiculed, unsupported. As perverse as it may sound, for that alone I am grateful for blogthropology. It's easy for a white person who works with and respects and loves many people of many different races, like myself, to forget the racist bottom line of American society and that I'm connected to it and part of it, and to take that refresher course so viscerally hurt a lot but was useful.

I've been thinking about racism and how to assess it, and I think it does have to be in the eye of the beholder. As a speaker, one can't know how things are received without receiving them; if you don't set out to be racist, you still have to trust someone else to a certain degree. Which I recognize contradicts some of what I said above. I think it's my job to reconcile those two.

My sister and I recently had a conversation in which she said that, though she would never become un- or anti-intellectual, she's becoming less intellectual in certain ways, more something else. When I asked what else, she said, "More personal." That's a distinction I've rejected in the past, believing myself to be beyond it; several experiences in the past month, including that of blogthropology, have allowed me to see that I'm not. It remains, in my view, both a worthwhile distinction and a worthwhile combination, and I'll strive to have both in my life as a reader, a blogger, a friend and a human being.

Friday, May 05, 2006

My Absence, and Friday Poetry

I've reneged on my own commitment to my blog, posting less than four times last month, for a number of reasons that (for me) are explanations and not excuses. I'm back on the wagon now. And this is not going to be one of the usual essays, but it is going to be a post, and a new pattern. I've decided that every Friday I will post a poem that I love. Poetry has been a little too far from my daily life lately to suit me (even though I work on literature textbooks ferfuckssake), and it's time for that to be remedied. So every Friday. Including this one.

I present (written in 1958 I should add):

Howard Nemerov

Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP).-President Eisenhower's pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of "unprecedented religious activity" caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.
"These fruits of material progress," said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, "have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached."

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it's just one
religious activity after another; the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling stations
are full, God's great ocean if full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human and spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
when Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week's vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop'n'shop
'n'pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name's Sake, Amen.