Sunday, November 30, 2008

In Your Thoughts

It seems that a lot of my posts are about things both rather personal and bleak lately. I'm going to write a post about *that* soon, but first, a request.

J, the six-month-old baby of a family I know in Chicago, is seriously ill, ill to the point that he requires a liver transplant as soon as possible. If a donor liver does not become available in the next several days, J's father will be donating a piece of his own liver to his son, making two major surgeries in the family in one day, never mind the challenge this has already been for J's parents, J's three-year-old sister, and J himself.

Because I can't do anything concrete, and few of us can, I'm asking for everyone's positive thoughts.

If you pray, please do that for J and his family. If you happen to work at any kind of religious school where kids pray for other people, please ask them for that.

If you send positive thoughts and/or love into the world on a more abstract level, as I do, please do that.

If you know other people in a similar situation — comparable in any way — please give them all the support you can.

If you know the family I'm talking about personally, please hug them all for me.

I believe in all of this. I believe in the power of thought, and the power of belief— in anything—and the power of love. Each of those phrases is more sentimental than the last, but it's true. So: I'm asking everyone who's reading this to believe in it too. Or at least to suspend disbelief long enough to send positive thoughts for baby J.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Friday Poetry: Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash
The Poultry

Let's think of eggs.
They have no legs.
Chickens come from eggs,
But they have legs.
The plot thickens:
Eggs come from chickens
But have no legs under 'em.
What a conundurum!

Monday, November 24, 2008


I have always been a sucker for Thanksgiving. I recognize all the political problems associated with its history, but I cannot hate it, and I most certainly cannot celebrate "Day of Mourning." It is one of the things that's most American about me. The telling of the holiday's history has been corrupted and sanitized, but most history has, and unlike some other things whose history has been corrupted and sanitized, I value the present incarnation of Thanksgiving.

Personally, I have never a negative Thanksgiving experience; the worst I can ever recall was when I was seven years old, ate too much, and threw up on the way home. I always feel I belong to something, some kind of community, that matters on Thanksgiving: a family, an apartment, a collection of friends, past winners of the "Drunk Uncle" competition. Probably it is fairly common for people to spend Thanksgiving alone, but in my experience it's rare for someone to go without an invitation. It's a time when people decide to be with people, to celebrate those connections. And it's a time when people celebrate what they have.

You can politically deconstruct that all you want, but I don't feel like it.

I'm hitting the road with several members of my family tomorrow—sister, father, cousin—to join other members of our family in downstate Illinois. (First time I've hit the state since I moved away from it.) I may or may not be able to post, though I might schedule the posting of a Friday Poetry since I just figured out how to do that. In either case, I want to post a few things I'm thankful for. Ten, to be exact. Feel free to add.

1. I am thankful that I can rely on my family's love. It doesn't always come in the forms I want or expect, but, well, love doesn't. I am tremendously fortunate that it's always there.

2. I am thankful that Obama was elected, and almost equally thankful that he's already flip-flopping and doing things I find sketch and politically unpleasant. The next four years would be really boring otherwise.

3. I am thankful for vegetables. I am realizing ever more how amazing they are. I can't wait to eat even more of them than I usually do on Thursday.

4. I am thankful for the ways in which my new chronic disease can be managed; I am thankful that there's more than one way, and that I can and have learned a great deal about them already, and that not all of them are created by pharmaceutical conglomerates.

5. I am thankful for pie.

6. I am thankful for my friends and their amazing, amazing brains. I have complained about being lonely in New York, and I am, but such is my lot at the moment; it remains my good fortune to love so many people who challenge me so well and so deeply, and conversations with whom always change me.

7. I am particularly thankful for Tyromaven a week ago Friday.

8. I am thankful for the poetry of Stephen Dunn. It's a li'l redundant to say that on this blog, but it's one of the pillars of my scaffold.

9. I am thankful for my father's car. Flying on Thanksgiving is purgatorial.

10. I am thankful that, even sometimes, I have gotten to do work I love.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Poetry: A.E. Housman

For some stupid kneejerk liberal reason, I always feel self-conscious posting "classic" poetry—not classical, but the sort you spent time with in school. Not that the vast majority of poems I've posted here, "classic" or otherwise, were not poems or poets I encountered before college, but I'm self-conscious nonetheless. So I want to tell a story about this particular poem.

I'm currently working as a substitute teacher at my alma mater, the school I attended from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I had many wonderful teachers there, one of whom, Mr. M, I had for sixth-grade Ancient History and twelfth-grade American Constitutional Law. He has an amazing, amazing mind, was a very shy man outside of the classroom and a very bold, fast, sharp speaker in it. He had a stroke recently, and I just saw him for the first time since. He's still teaching, apparently as well as he used to, but he can barely talk anymore. His distinctive speech patterns were a huge part of my memory of him, so the encounter was hard for me, though I'm happy he's still around and still working. One of my sharpest memories is of him reading this poem when I was in sixth grade—beginning to read with barely an introduction, as was his wont. The memory is of him looking sharply up at all of us when he read the words "Smart lad," waiting for our surprise.

So, I love this poem.

A.E. Housman
To an Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race,
We chaired you through the market-place.
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home
And set you at the threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows,
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran,
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on that sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

Monday, November 17, 2008

It's All a Conspiracy

I'm thinking about all the things about which I was so concerned before the election, regarding NSPD-51 and the still-current administration's erasure of democratic process and the like.

Obviously, Obama has not yet been inaugurated and the whole thing is, technically, still possible. But it seems a lot less possible than it did before the election. Mainly because it has become abundantly clear how fucking tired George Bush is of being president. He cannot wait to get out of there. It's been obvious since his congratulatory speech on the morning of November 5, and possibly, had I been paying attention, even earlier.

Yes, if you wanna get technical it's still possible that the Conspiratorial Forces That Be could assassinate *him* instead, leaving us, as I suggested before, with a military-industrial dictatorship under the auspices of Cheney and Chertoff. But I don't think that's going to happen. For one thing, Bush's assassination would not inspire serious passion or fear; for another, the outcry honestly would be too great for Cheney and Chertoff to swing it by means of anything but the greatest oppression, repression and serious violence, far beyond what I would have thought it would take even eight months ago. And for another, I just don't think they have the clout anymore.

I don't mean in any way to belittle the racist threats against Barack Obama, nor to underestimate the general schism of values still central to the United States. It is, however, clear that Naomi Wolf and many others, including myself, saw a greater danger than is likely to come to pass.

Is this because we were paranoid?

I really don't think so. I think there was a force in the Bush administration working towards military-industrial dictatorship, as evidenced by the outrageousness of much of its regulation and legislation. I think that force has lost clout.

There was probably some behind-the-scenes compromise about which you and I will never know; the Obama administration will probably make far more compromises, even with regards to civil liberties, than I or any progressive will be comfortable with. But the bottom line, I think, is that the New American Century folks behind Bush were not subtle; they picked a front man not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of challenges; they have lost.

I'm relieved that they've lost, that the coup I hypothesized and feared no longer seems an immediate danger. But I remain cautious. Obama is a rational, considered intellectual and an excellent leader, capable of amassing an equally rational executive branch. But he's coming into a position that the Cheney camp filled with ludicrous, overweening, tempting power. Here's to his being strong enough to resist that allure.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Poetry: Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath
Mad Girl's Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade,
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grew old and I forgot your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

In Memory

My friend Lawrence's mother passed away quite suddenly this week. I knew her, though not well, for most of my life, and I had the privilege of singing with them and for her the other day.

Never know what to say in these posts, and always feel I would be remiss if I didn't post them. I am and will be thinking of Lawrence and his brother.

Where the Truth Lies

Hey, guys, this post isn't about the election!

Once again, in thinking about Dexter (yes, I already said I was obsessed), I am falling into the murder-as-metaphor trap. I have said it before and I'll say it again: murder, like rape, cannot exist solely as a metaphor.

Yet it's also true that if something isn't also a metaphor, or at least symbolic, why make art about it? Writing down every single thing that happens to you every single day is not good art. Reaching out using things that happen to you every day, making connections between things, *is* one version of art. Murder does happen every day; it may even be true that murders committed by serial killers happen every day (though I'm not sure about that one). As long as you also take in the emotional reality of murder—which Dexter mostly does, particularly with the character of Miguel Prado this season—murder is kind of required to also be a metaphor, or symbolic, to be part of good art.

And an interesting twist with Dexter is that, while murder is in some ways the center of its reality, and it definitely makes murder something real—our protagonist is a serial killer, the bulk of the show takes place at the Homicide division of the Miami Metro Police Department, where most of our other favorite characters work—it's not precisely a show about murder. For the most part, it's about the conflict between Dexter, for whom not just the existence of murder but the act of committing murder is a constant reality, and the other people in his world, Deb and Rita and Angel and Masuka, for whom it is not. It is about the tension of trying to be something you aren't, and how that effort may actually be able to make you what you thought you weren't, and how people can have genuine, moving, life-altering interactions with something that isn't real.

Dexter is about fiction.

The episode All in the Family began to explore this concept, but for me it didn't get at all aspects. It got at it for Dexter, the character, as an actor (not Michael C. Hall, but Dexter himself acting)—the notion that he tries so hard to feel, pretends so skilfully to feel, that for all intents and purposes it happens. Silvana once cited to me an interview with a leading actor in August: Osage County, who explained that doing such a play was exhausting because "your body doesn't know you're lying." On the show, Dexter is reaching that point. He doesn't know what's true about his relationship with Rita and her children; he doesn't know if what he's doing with Angel and Masuka has, in fact, been friendship. He knows they believe it to be, and as a (somewhat unconventional) sociopath he'd prefer on some level to think he's smarter than they, but nevertheless they continue to have a relationship, an engagement with one another; Dexter has to put on the performance so constantly that the performance is an integral component of who he is.

(Which is another point where murder is not simply a metaphor. We are taught as a society that to take another person's life effectively ends yours, prevents you from being defined as a human being. Procedural dramas like Law and Order examine motivations at a mechanical level, but have neither the time nor the real inclination to delve into the fact that murderers have lives, before and often after they kill people; because the procedural show is simply about courts and justice, murderers are ultimately defined by being murderers alone. While certainly one cannot make the argument that Dexter is not A TV Show About a Serial Killer—particularly in light of Showtime's fucking heinous advertising campaign—you can't show weeks and weeks of murders, murders, nothing but murders. You need a life. You need context. Dexter figures that out for himself as much as the audience does.)

Dexter goes beyond even that, though, in the depth at which it develops its other characters. At the beginning of Season 2 Dexter's sister Deb, recovering from a relationship with a man very similar to Dexter (though she doesn't know about Dexter), says to Rita, formerly a victim of abuse, that "what he [the boyfriend or Rita's husband] had to offer wasn't real. But the way he made you feel about yourself? That was real." (I'm quoting that from memory; might not be exact.) I'm in love with Deb, but even if I weren't this would apply to the whole show.

Rita is honestly in love with Dexter; Deb honestly loves and counts on her brother for support, life-saving, all that good stuff. For both of them, that is the truth of their world. Because my take on the show tends to be very Deb-centric, I can think about how deeply destroyed Deb would be (wow, that sounds Dextertastic) if she found out the truth about her brother, and she would be, which is one of the stunning dramatic tensions of the show. But it's also not the only truth. That relationship is there. There's a lot Deb doesn't know about Dexter and as such she doesn't have the exclusive right to define what the relationship is, but nor does Dexter. Dexter is a sociopath and a serial killer with or without her, but who he is with her, whatever is hidden, is something too. And it doesn't matter whether he is fictional—whether he is a fictional character on a TV show, or whether the Dexter that Deb knows is "real" or not.

Fiction changes people's lives. To use a meta-example, I as a human being have a relationship with Dexter, the show, at the moment. It has an effect on what I think, how I feel. The show is a work of fiction. That relationship is not any less substantive because the show is fiction; it is in fact one of the more substantive relationships in my New York life at the moment. I consent that at one level that's pathetic; however, it's only pathetic viewed from the outside. Something real is changing in me because of the way I think about and react to this show. Something real changes in Deb because of who Dexter is in her life.

Dexter is about why we have good novels, good movies, good plays, good TV shows. Dexter is about acting, writing fiction, directing to create imaginary worlds. It goes back to the quote from Russell Banks I cited a long time ago: "Knowledge of the facts of [the character]'s life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lives—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself." The book can change the world, whether or not it matters to the book.

And Dexter can change the world, whether or not it matters to Dexter. He is even more ambiguous, being, although sociopathic, human, and as such with the possibility of things effecting and changing him, too. I've never heard that sociopaths were stagnant, just that they have no conscience (though all psychiatric experts are free to correct me if I'm wrong). Either way, Dexter's not a traditional sociopath. He's doing what I've always claimed is essential in actors and writers: committing to know, one way and another, what he doesn't know. Sometimes it works.

So to me, Dexter is not only about murder and social ethics (I'm not one who by nature condones or wishes for vigilantism, though time spent on Television Without Pity shows me that many are the Dexter viewers who do), it is about exactly why and how fiction is true. To reference and argue with Atwood's Oryx and Crake again, not real cannot only tell us about real, it can become real. It can be real. Dexter is my favorite show currently on television because it addresses, really addresses, the nuances of that possibility.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Friday Poetry: Stephen Dunn

I love him a lot. And Tyromaven and I were discussing this poem last night.

Stephen Dunn
Because We Are Not Taken Seriously

Some nights I wish they'd come
to my door, the government men,
looking for the poem of simple truths
recited and whispered among the people.
And when all I give them is silence
and my children are exiled
to the mountains, my wife forced
to renounce me in public,
I'll be the American poet
whose loneliness, finally, is relevant,
whose slightest movement
ripples cross-country.

And when the revolution frees me,
its leaders wanting me to become
"Poet of the Revolution," I'll refuse
and keep a list of their terrible reprisals
and all the dark things I love
which they will abolish.
With the ghost of Mandelstam
on one shoulder, Lorca on the other,
I'll write the next poem, the one
that will ask only to be believed
once it's in the air, singing.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

My Guy

I remain bone-weary from five days of nine-hour walks around a southern New Mexico town. While I was there I was not supposed to blog about it, not that I would have had time anyway, and it may be that some restrictions still apply. I am not going to say much about the management of the campaign, except to say that its firm but generous structure impressed me and honestly reminded me of nothing so much as the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

But I did have personal experiences, personal stories, in canvassing, and those I am allowed to tell. So I will tell one in particular, the story of "my guy." By the end of our canvassing experience, my friend M and I had each found "our guy," the one experience and story that, to us, made the five days worth it, made us absolutely confident we had done something real, even when we didn't know the outcome. So I will tell mine.

I was looking for a woman on my canvassing list, Josefina (name has been changed). Upon reaching the house, I found a gentleman in the garage, probably in his late forties or early fifties, Latino, shirt off, doing something with tools I couldn't quite see. Decked out in all my Obama finery (wearing pins, carrying lawn signs), I asked if Josefina was home. The man said he would go get her. I stared at the McCain sign on the lawn next door; it was not uncommon, I had discovered, for next-door neighbors to have opposing political views.

The man returned. "She doesn't want to come out," he said.

"Okay," I said, in my ineffably perky canvassing persona. "Would you mind giving her these?" I handed him several brochures regarding Obama's positions on economic security, health care, and John McCain.

"Sure." He took them. "She's kind of in between right now. I'm not voting," he added.

"I'm sorry to hear that. May I ask why not?"

He explained that he liked Obama, but he had two hesitations about him. The first involved his Reverend. I braced myself for another stupid rant about how Obama could trust someone like that, but this man said almost the opposite: how could Obama so easily break off a relationship with his pastor of twenty years, saying "You mean nothing to me?" His second concern was "the pro-life issue." But McCain was just going to be more Bush, he said, which he wasn't wild about either. He admitted that he had voted for Bush in 2000, but had since realized his mistake.

I addressed "the pro-life issue" first, since I had actually prepared for the prospect of hearing that one. "I don't think anyone's really 'anti-life,'" I said, and explained the ways in which Obama would work to prevent unwanted pregnancies: by increasing education, by increasing insurance coverage for women (I hinted only vaguely at contraception at first, but the man soon responded that in spite of his Catholic upbringing he considered that "a private issue," and so I addressed it more directly). The man seemed very receptive, saying "that's true," and I felt hopeful. However, he was sure Obama was going to win anyway, so his vote didn't really matter.

"Oh no," I said. "I'm from New York, and I've been living in Illinois, so *my* vote doesn't matter. But in the last election, John Kerry lost New Mexico by 314 votes. In the entire state. You are definitely one of those 314. Your vote matters."

He took that in.

"But I just can't understand with the pastor. After twenty years, how could he say 'I want nothing to do with you'?"

First of all, I said, I think he kind of backed Obama into a corner. My guy agreed with me, but remained uncertain, reminiscing on the influence of ministers in his youth, how he could remember and name each. I told him I didn't personally have much religion in my life, and conflated a few stories involving people leaving their church (my father's girlfriend and many members of his community) with much regret and the presence of female pastors (my friend's mother in high school). (Who says I can't improvise?) I felt I was flailing, but we then moved into a discussion about privacy, about the fact that you really couldn't know what Reverend Wright and Obama, who did indeed have this relationship of twenty years, had discussed before Obama made this announcement.

"Still," said the guy, "after twenty years, how can he just say, 'I want nothing to do with you, you mean nothing to me'?"

"I don't think he said that," I said quickly. "I mean, I've broken up with people, and it didn't mean you mean nothing to me, it meant I couldn't be with you anymore."

He stopped and stared at me. "That's a really good way to put it," he said. "I wish Obama had said that."

"Thank you," I said, startled. "I don't know if you can have that kind of subtlety in public presidential campaigns. But again, we don't know what went on when they spoke to each other." I looked at him; the conversation seemed to be ending. "Sir, you seem like a really thoughtful, informed, interesting person, so can I just ask you to—reconsider your decision?"

"Well," he said, "I have three more days to figure it out, right? And I will read these." He shook the brochures I'd given him for his wife. "Thank you."

"Thank you," I said. We shook hands, although mine was covered in blue ink from the freshly printed lawn signs, and I went on my way.

And, Pointless Milestone the Ninth

This blog is now officially four years old. :>D

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I've just returned from five days knocking on doors in New Mexico. Which was apparently very successful. As I haven't seen the county-by-county breakdown of New Mexico yet, I have no idea if my work actually made a difference in seeing the man get elected. It doesn't matter. I have never screamed like that in my life, and I have done some serious screaming. That was amazing. That was a mandate. That was a stunning, stunning night.

I will write some stories, some thoughts, and some notes for the future in the coming days. But for now brief notes. I know everyone has been saying they're "proud to be an American for the first time in eight years." That's not quite true of me. It's come to me in flashes even in the face of the bleak political landscape—my Constitutional Law and American History teachers in high school were just too damn good. But this is the first time in at least four years, and possibly even seven or eight, that I have *faith* in America. It is the first time I feel like my adulthood could take place in an America, a contemporary version of America, that I could truly love.

HOPE is not a campaign slogan. Last night I was ebullient with it; today and tonight, travelling back from the beloved swing state, wearing my "Moose for Obama" T-shirt for the second day in a row, I feel simply suffused with it. Yes, Silvana, there's work to be done, but now it's work people actually want to do. It's work defined in the positive. Not just because Obama is a Democrat do I feel this way; I would not have been happy had John Kerry won four years ago, for instance. I would have been relieved, but not happy. I am happy because we have a man of integrity.

And because the Obama girls are getting a puppy. I wonder what the criteria are to become the White House nanny.