Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dog Days of August

Back to School!

Miss O' in her Teaching Salad Days

Years and years and years ago, when Miss O’ was a teacher of adolescents, when the Earth was round and revolved around the Sun without argument, she used to teach her English and Drama students that the more you know, the funnier the world is. And they did the same for her.

Indeed, understanding satire is the payoff of a good education, and no one does satire like The Simpsons. The reason this show is great, though, is that the writing and characters are funny even if you don’t get all the references. The Simpsons was the show I used as an example to my students, hoping it might be a hook for, you know, learning stuff, and stuff.

Possibly my favorite episode of The Simpsons is “A Streetcar Named Marge,” where Marge gets the lead playing Blanche DuBois in Streetcar!, a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire. (Already this is funny, but only if you know the magnificent Tennessee Williams play on which the premise is based.) Because Marge has rehearsals, Maggie has to go to daycare, and the name of the school is a passing gag:

The first time I saw this moment on the show (with Hugh and friends in Vermont in 1993), I fell off the sofa and made Hugh hit pause. I could not stop laughing. Jon Lovitz voices the director of the show as well as the (female) director of the preschool. Her first act is to take away all the toddlers' pacifiers. If you don’t know why this is funny, all you have to do is read about Mitt Romney’s choice for his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan.

The Ayn Rand School for Tots

Paul Ryan has said that the novelist and Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand was his reason for going into public service—which is really ironic, as Ayn Rand didn’t believe in public service, but in power through individual achievement and success.

Yet the real irony about Wisconsin Congressman and would-be budget-eer Paul Ryan is that he’s making himself a leader of the biggest political Group Think in the history of this nation, a fellowship of lock-step conservatism, which by its very nature is the polar opposite of Ayn Rand’s individualist philosophy. The hypocrisy doesn’t end there, as we shall see. Paul Ryan is the greatest exemplar right now of why Ms. Rand’s philosophy is not only repellent but unworkable in anything like sound government. For, you know...for people with actual human blood coursing through their veins. (Hillary Clinton noted her own “Rand phase” in college; indeed, even Miss O’ read The Fountainhead in high school with real awe. And then we grew the hell up.)

Here’s a quick (and admittedly simplistic) breakdown of basic tenets of various government/economic philosophies, as Miss O’ understands them, for in comparing them one might get a clearer idea of the first, which is Ms. Rand’s. In parentheses is the money term:

·      Objectivism (Capitalism): What is best for the individual is what is best.
·      Communism (Collective Wealth): What is best for the group is what is best.
·      Liberal Socialism (Capitalism with Collective Bargaining): What is best for the individual and the group is what is best.
·      Democratic Republicanism (Constitutional Democracy with Representative Government/Capitalist Crapshoot): WTF is best?
·      The Rat Pack (Drunken Singing with Vegas Gambling): What is best for everyone, everywhere, is a song, a drink, and a little slots action.

Liberal Socialism, while the most beneficial to both groups and individuals (after the whole Rat Pack thing), is the hardest to achieve because people—be they nice independent thinkers or selfish greedy bastards, union assholes or well-meaning bargainers—have to TALK about "it" all the time. (You know what "it" is, don't you? No, not Lindsay Lohan's sheer swimwear. Hint: $tarts with $.) So much easier to dictate, which is the draw of Objectivism: “I run the world, and if I let you live, you can be here, too.” Communism, which by contrast touts collective rule, has never gotten past the dictator stage (supposedly the way it has to start, with power-sharing to move over to the collective, but c’mon, man, for real—try doing anything without a leader, and you are looking at the Democrats), and while there is important stuff worth thinking about in Marx’s and Engels’s works, at the end of the day, communism is a no-go.

What Olympics? All in the Timing

A Special Commentary before Miss O’ continues:

Leave it to a selfish capitalist like Mitt Romney and his team of selfish capitalists to time the announcement of his running mate to the day before the close of the Olympics. Just when London is getting ready to send off all those global star athletesthe best of our shared humanity—with a well-earned planet-sized party, Mitt steps on it, and the Media follows. (Of his wife’s entry of a horse in the dressage competition, Romney was quoted as saying he didn’t care. “That’s Ann’s thing,” he said. Quite the lone wolf, is her Mitt.)

Thrown Off Course

So here we are, Olympics year, Election year. Stuck with each other: Chinese and British, Conservatives and Liberals, Synchronized Swimming and Usain Bolt; blacks and whites, Jews and Muslims, Yankees and Red Sox, well, not the Red Sox. Now the fuck what?

Ab Fab, Darling, London 2012

A few weeks back, the lovely daughter of a dear cousin of mine called me. She’s a graduate student in education and a teacher in Iowa public schools. Her latest paper topic was perplexing to her, because her options were so limited: How to Address Diversity in Public Schools.

“In my school,” she explained, “we have 70% free and reduced lunch, but that’s about it. I knew you had taught in different areas, and I wondered if you could tell me about it.”

“Because you have only six black people in Iowa,” I said. And she laughed. “Well, let’s see," I ventured. "In my first high school in rural Virginia, pretty much everybody was Christian—Baptists or Methodists, and the high school was probably 40% black, 60 % white.”

“Uh huh.” I heard her typing.

“And at my second school, it was probably, I guess, 30% black, 50% white, 20% Hispanic, Asian, Arabic, Indian.”

“Uh huh.”

“And the whole thing was 60% military.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve never heard of that. Why all the military kids?”

“Well, the high school was situated between Quantico Marine Corps Base and Ft. Belvoir Army Base, and up the road was Ft. Myer and the Pentagon. By the time these kids got to high school, a lot of their dads were working there,” I explained.

“Okay.” I could hear her typing. “What else?”

“And of course I taught every denomination of Christianity you can imagine—I had a lot of Mormons. But I also had several Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists.”

There was a pause. “Oh my God. Religion. I never thought about religion.”

“Well, sure. It’s huge in the D.C. area, of course, with all the diplomats. A lot of people immigrate there, too.”

“Religion….” Her voice trailed off. There was amazement in it.

In her world, everyone is white. Everyone is Christian. It just had not occurred to her that there was more than one religion in America. Keep in mind that this is a bright, smart, liberal-minded Midwestern gal, young enough to have access to all the channels, all the Apps, all the sites: and to her, religion is a Christian object. What else is there? (Well, her mom's cousin is a pagan, for another thing.)

I could tell she wasn’t interested in racial diversity, which is beyond her day-to-day experience, but also because of movies and music, for example, she is aware of it. But religious diversity was all new. She wasn’t appalled. But she was at sea, and knew it. It’s the best way to start a journey.

Not long after she called, I ran across this poem on The Writer’s Almanac, and it seems to me worth reading on a fairly regular basis:

The Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

"The Real Work" by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. © 1983,
Used by permission of Counterpoint.

So: We learn things. Our world gets upended. Now we can move.

With a Boulder on My Shoulder, Feelin’ Kinda Older

So sometime on Friday, between work and the subway ride home, I tore the rotator cuff in my left shoulder.  As to how, I haven’t the vaguest. I sat in this apartment all day yesterday in utter agony, which neither ibuprofen nor aspirin nor rest nor bourbon could alleviate; finally found one position flat on my back to find sleep, and this morning it’s not as agonizing, though my pinky is a little numb. (I’m a little better overall this morning, thanks.)

So all day yesterday, being in untold agony, as I say, and as no physical position could give me any relief, I meditated on the meaning of chronic pain: What if I will always feel this way? Suppose it’s MS? How do people with such pain cope day in and day out? “Should I commit suicide?” seems like a reasonable question. My mom said, “Well you would consider surgery first, wouldn’t you?” And I said no, I can’t even think about surgery: I live alone. Those of us who live alone know what the rest of you don’t: We have no one to “do for” us, as we put it in the South. We are alone for a reason, and it’s good, until you tear your goddamned rotator cuff and cannot lift a coffee mug or even wash the dishes without howling pain, to say nothing of the stunning amount of time involved just pulling down your underwear to pee. And back up. And as for washing your hair, forget it. Surgical recovery can’t even be on the list.

It’s at moments like this that the whole “do it all on your own” thing really can unsettle a gal, when she realizes that independence is just another word for fucking alone. (To say nothing of fucking alone, and we will say NOTHING of that.) When I am faced with the inevitable, as in dying, and if I am not to commit suicide (by far the most practical thing), I will have to ask someone for help, knowing full well that there is absolutely no reason for anyone to help me except this: Love. And that’s quite a long shot for a loner like Miss O’.

So our country, recognizing how many people love independence (not only for themselves, but also from the necessity of caring for others), developed a back-up plan: Law, in the form of Medicare and Social Security, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that law that says you can get unpaid medical leave meaning you can't get fired from your job and lose your insurance while you recover...but you get the idea. That whole Common Good principle the Founding Fathers were so into. 

None of this means a tinker's damn to Paul Rand, er, Ryan, and Mitt Romney, of course. As my dad, Bernie, would say, "They got theirs." Ayn Rand would be proud.

Ayn Rand: A Coda

In the words of Blanche DuBois at the close of A Streetcar Named Desire, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Which is really stupid, except that, often, this is exactly what we have to do. Blanche, of course, ends up going to an insane asylum. (In The Simpsons parody, the chorus sings, "A stranger's just a friend you haven't met! Streetcar!") It seems life works better when we know, love, and trust one another; and taking the time to understand each other is part of that. Ayn Rand, in the end, depended on the kindness of that most strangest stranger of all, the United States Government.

When I went to, here’s the opening quote I found:

The Dog-Eat-Dog Welfare State Is Lose-Lose []Thursday, July 12, 2012 
By: Don Watkins and Yaron Brook
"In place of capitalism's philosophy of win-win, the welfare state puts everyone's wealth up for grabs, ensuring that one person's gain comes at his neighbor's expense."

There is a really sad and telling irony to this: When Ayn Rand died, she was on welfare.

“An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand's law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand's behalf she secured Rand's Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O'Connor (husband Frank O'Connor).
As Pryor said, "Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out" without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn "despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently... She didn't feel that an individual should take help."

It’s a really adolescent viewpoint, is Ms. Rand’s: “I wanna do it myself.” That small children feel that way is awesome, really astonishing, and far scarier to the adult in charge than it is to those daring kids. I also felt that need to "do it myself" all through my teens and into my twentiesand it's a good idea to work hard to stand on your own two feet, while you have them to stand on. And then one day life gets in the way of your ideals. You need help. No shame in it. You just do. (And if you are honest, you've had a lot of help all along.) Now are you wo/man enough to accept it? And greater still: Can you return the favor with a full heart?

Onward Shall We Now?

So much for Selfishness. So much for Collectivism. Not a word more of this “I got mine, you get yours” bullshit. It’s ALL of US; and it could also be any ONE of us, at any time; and we’re IN IT together. What are we afraid of? Let’s enjoy the party.

And what are we teaching our children, for the love of all that's dear to us, if not to help our fellow man? Let us close with Walt Whitman, the supreme Individualist and the ultimate Socialist, the free-thinker, free-lover, nature-walker, wordsmith, Civil War nurse, worshiper of Abraham Lincoln, and man-about-nation.

This is what you shall do

by Walt Whitman

"This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

"This is what you shall do..." by Walt Whitman, from the preface of Leaves of Grass. Public domain.

And let us not forget:

"A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." -Jedediah Springfield

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