Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Blanding of America

Dinner and a Show

Miss O' has a lot on her mind today, and it all got going as a result of a simple enough, leisurely activity. Last Thursday after work I walked up to TKTS, the half-price ticket booth in Times Square, and got myself a ticket to the revival of the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The show was, in a word, delightful. This musical, based on Charles Dickens's last novel, an unfinished mystery of the same title, hearkens back to the theater of yesteryear, English music hall style—the breaking of the “fourth wall,” total professionalism as the actors go in and out of “Drood-style” character and offer an exhibition of cracker jack comic timing, outrageous characterizations, and live sound effects: In other words, total, real theater. It’s not done much anymore. When it is, critics can be quick to call it “old-fashioned,” as they did with the marvelous American comedy, Is He Dead?, a rediscovered work by Mark Twain adapted by David Ives, causing that terrifically silly play to close far earlier than it should have. Other shows, such as The 39 Steps, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter by the Kneehigh Theater Company, or this past season’s Peter and the Starcatcher can get both critical acclaim and an audience for their theatrical daring, but I can’t help noticing that many of the sources of these acclaimed shows are, like Drood, British—is there a bias, I wonder? Two new American plays I saw on Broadway in the last year, Clybourne Park and Chinglish, were blandly directed and, however good the writing, really may as well have been made for television, as far as I was concerned. (Clybourne Park’s cast, at least, doubled in interesting ways—playing various characters in the past in Act 1, and new characters in the present in Act 2, but the conceit was not enough to hold my interest, its Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award notwithstanding. And I alone among my friends and the critics was emotionally unsatisfied, so take my notes for what they’re worth. I thought both plays...bland.)

The question you have to ask yourself when it comes to any art is, Why do this story in this medium? Why, for example, do this story as theater? Why do that story as an image in oils? Why do this experience as a symphony or as a three-minute radio pop song? In other words, what will this particular art form illuminate about this subject that no other art form can? For example, if a painting painted today is utterly photo-realistic, why not take a photo? If a play would play just as well on television, why do it as theater? This is a theme your Miss O’ has explored in blogs past, but today I want to talk about something I’m calling the “blanding” of America, and while this idea is not really new, philosophically speaking, it’s on my goddamned mind.

Now here’s a question: Why do something as a restaurant? I ask this because once I got my Drood ticket, I found it it was a quarter to 6 PM, which gave me two hours for a pleasant dinner. Since the show was at Studio 54 (on, you guessed it, 54th Street, b/w Broadway and 8th Avenue), I realized I could have a delightful split knish (with pastrami and swiss) and a beer at The Stage Deli, home of the finest cheesecake I have ever eaten. It’s at 54th and 7th Avenue. Or rather, it was. It’s CLOSED. For good. Dark, black, and gone. I stood there stunned. I looked up the street. I looked down. I peered and found the faint gold leaf lettering, and indeed, this had been the place. This NYC institution, 75 years old, has become the latest victim of spiraling rents—and these rents are jacked up on OWNED buildings, because a corporate chain or FOB (Friend of Bloomberg) in real estate development (a Mayor Bloomberg buddy got the site of the city-closed St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital for a SONG, so he can develop LUXURY CONDOS! We won’t talk about how many of the new high-rises remain virtually UNINHABITED—but the developers don’t worry because failure is a tax write-off—nor will we mention how there is now no nearby hospital for anyone living in the Village) can afford way-high rent (did you get that?). When this happens, what leaves the neighborhood, what leaves New York, is more than a place of business: What goes is authenticity. I wrote a blog about my Italian restaurant, which met the same fate last year. The simple question, Now where to eat?, becomes fraught with more than hunger pangs.

I’ve lost so many old standbys (or the terrific staff in old standbys—oh, why can we not celebrate the career wait-person and nourish this?) in my decade in this town. You’d think, “Hey, it’s New York, there are loads of places to eat,” but you would be wrong, unless you literally don’t care 1) what you eat or what it costs; 2) how clean it is; 3) how loud it is; 4) who frequents it; 5) what the service is like; 6) how loud, loud, loud it is (do I repeat myself?). First, I decided I’d walk, bitterly cold though it was, over to 9th Avenue and try for a table at Kashkaval, a Greek place whose food I love. There was only one place for a party of one (the pain of being one is that I am sometimes refused a table) at the bar. I began taking off my coat, when I realized that these three bar seats were free because you are sitting two feet away and directly across from the guy washing the dishes in an open sink. Wet, old food smell steaming into one’s face rather ruins an appetite, so I put my coat back on and begged off (the counter fellow nodded sagely). Back into the cold, I decided I would go no further down than 49th, and seeing nothing there that wasn’t too brightly lit, too crowded, not crowded enough (something wrong there), too trendy-expensive, or too loud, I headed back to 8th Avenue.

This does not exasperate me. On the contrary, it’s kind of invigorating. If by 7 it’s a no-go, I can always pop in somewhere for a pepperoni slice. So I walk. Suddenly on 51st, I think it was, I saw it: McHale’s! All new and looking charming and clean! It’s back! In former times, I grieved the closing of McHale’s—a dark, dingy wooden booth of a burger place on 8th Avenue at 47th St. (I think) (comedians' hangout of the youthful Denis Leary and Jon Stewart and company), which was shut down to make way for a concrete structure that now houses a Duane Reade or something.  The lack of cozy as a design factor in restaurants any more is a shame, because now it’s all about LIGHT and NOISE, for that’s what the “passing of the old” makes way for anymore, she said crankily, and it is depressing. I miss booths (which have disappeared, you see, because a booth feels homey and permanent), wood (again, expensive and permanent-looking), low ceilings (which make a place stuffy, but also cheaper to heat and cozier!), cool jazz or old rock quietly insinuating itself into your drinks. That was McHale’s of old.

THIS McHale’s was brightly lit, high-ceilinged, two-leveled, and DEAFENING. I had to YELL to ask for a table, and when the hostess assured me it was quieter upstairs, she was kidding both of us. I sat for all of 20 seconds and shook my head. Down the stairs I went, explaining (mouthing) that it was TOO LOUD. “What?” The manager had a look on his face that said, “Crazy old woman,” but the hostess nodded sagely.


Miss O’ does not bend this way.

Then, back into the cold, almost despairing, there it was: Like a little miracle amidst the scaffolding, I found Cognac, a cozy, quiet French bistro not half a block from my theater destination. I settled in for a fine repast of French onion soup, fresh, warm bread and butter, and a glass of red wine. C’etait parfait.

So of course I worry: When will that nice place be got rid of? Maybe an Applebee’s will come in!

Why I’m Sick of Chains, Where You Know Exactly What You Will Get

Here’s a wild question that will seem like a digression, but it’s not: Why cast, of all people, Marlon Brando to play Stanley Kowalski? Because if you’ve read A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (and there is nothing weirder, perhaps, when traveling to New Orleans, than to pass an actual streetcar with the name “Desire” painted on it, and another with, say, “Cemeteries”), you know that Marlon Brando is the opposite of the Stanley Kowalski that Williams wrote: Kowalski is a New Orleans “Polack,” a large, loud, poker-playing working stiff who likes to drink and nail his wife—a meaner Archie Bunker, but sweaty-sexy, if not hot. Brando, by contrast, was from Omaha, a Native American, pretty, sensitive, effeminate, a quiet mumbler with an ambiguous sexuality. So why did director Elia Kazan, against Williams’s wishes and others’ judgments, insist on Brando? I think it was because an audience would truly never know, with Brando, what Kowalski was going to say, or what he was going to do. However faithfully Brando followed the script, every move, every decision, every line, would feel like a surprise. Whatever was predictable in the “type” that was Kowalski, Brando would make it fresh. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It seems to Miss O’ that America today not only fears the fresh and new, it is being made and taught to embrace what is known, unexciting, bland. However much lip service is paid to “diversity” and inclusion, or even to “controversy” (which on the news amounts to the Monty Python Argument Sketch, or Cheese Shop Sketch, or Parrot Sketch, sometimes all at once), one need only glance at the Barbie and Ken complex that is any cable news network anchor desk to understand what I mean. That said, I don’t despair, because for every ten or twenty Megyn Kellys there is, at least, one Rachel Maddow; for every ten or fifty David Gregorys there is a, well, a Stephen Colbert. But still, ten blands to one fabulous is a real shame in a nation this size.

Where does the blandness come from? It’s from business culture, I think. Somewhere in 1960 too many people became enamored of 9 to 5, gray flannel-suited, workaday worlds and homes in the ‘burbs. My dad was blue collar, but we did the suburbs. My mom was a chain-smoking Cum Laude grad in English who recited Keats as she vacuumed the rugs and wore toreador pants, but she dreamed of being June Cleaver. (All Miss O’ can say is: Thank god for THAT failure.) Somehow, rugged, actual exploring was set aside in favor of watching TV, at least after my generation grew up running free in the streets. And this “American dream” of a few, dull, workaholics became the prototype for the American dream of the next five decades. Technological advances in communication (so-called) made staying bubble-wrapped and sleekly undefined easy for the average person; and consuming over creative expression and problem-solving seemed to be our corporate-assigned task on Earth. We gain weight; we join Weight Watchers. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Bricks in the Wall

So the cover of New York magazine this week (January 28, 2013) is a dark, mad, pencil-scribbled angry cyclone, black criss-crosses and circles on white, a scared, befuddled little sketch of a guy with glasses sitting on an unseen chair at the center of this maelstrom, with the headline: “High School Is a Sadistic Institution”. Miss O’s first thought, “Spare me,” led her to drop the magazine onto her kitchen sideboard and pull out the Tullamore Dew.

You know what’s a “sadistic institution”? The United Corporation of America. You know what the Corporation wants schools in the 21st Century to resemble? Corporations. You know what corporations are? Toxic. Fuck you, New York magazine, thought I, pouring a two-finger stiff one.

I read the article, called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School” by the ironically named Jennifer Senior. Whatevs, as the kids would say. The essayist says that “for years I never understood why high school values were so different from adult ones.” She lost me here. Having been a high school student, a high school teacher, and a corporate drone—existing in the suburbs, the country, and the city—I have to say that my values as an adult are the same as my values as a high school student: Love of family, a deep connection to creative friends, a love of place, and above all, working at my very best at all times. And as for the social stature things—who’s hot, who’s not, who’s in, who’s a geek—the awareness of “us” and “them"—the people I know who are most stuck in that cycle of thought as adults never left the eighth grade. I’d like to say arts education would change that, but one of the all-time snottiest and least mature co-workers I’ve ever had once danced with a ballet company. (Really, she was out of a sitcom. She once said something conspiratorial and mean about a new hire, and I said that I'd left eighth grade thirty years ago. She then told co-workers that she and I were, and I quote, "mortal enemies." "How OLD are you?" I asked.)

So what makes high school especially “toxic”? Even Kurt Vonnegut, whom the essayist quotes (and with every line inflects even more UP, or seems to, but maybe that’s just me), said that high school was the nearest thing to the core of American experience he could think of. And Vonnegut hit it: High school directly reflects the world as it is and is becoming. In 1987, for example, governors (influenced apparently by corporate interests) declared, “Schools are a business.” The point of American business, as it currently exists, is to make money and success for a few and destroy the rest, and this should not be the goal of our educational system (or any sentient creature, for that matter), in Miss O’s humble fucking opinion. The corporate school goal is achieved in two ways: 1) bullying and hatred of all unique persons in the name of Christ our Lord; and 2) the demand that teachers teach to a pre-determined, corporate testing service-created test, thus robbing teachers and their charges of the need for original thought. This isn’t conspiracy theory, because it’s actually happening. (Just listen to Glenn Beck to see the fruits of their labors.) When their rights to privacy are taken, their natural food seeds genetically modified and corporate-owned and held hostage, their fresh water compromised and thus in need of high-priced purification treatments by corporate-owned works—the people who graduate these corporate high school institutions will be too stupid to think creatively to get out of the hostage situation. And the corporations can take all their money, and end their lives.

These elaborate Dr. Evil schemes fail, usually, because people like Miss O’ (yes, I am THAT POWERFUL) and her many, many friends and colleagues and loads of artists and creative folks play the game but move the fuck ON. We keep thinking. We challenge. We don’t mind making dinner conversations uncomfortable events (for you should have been a fly on the ol’ wall as Miss O’ regaled a tableful of Conservative Christians at a holiday dinner in rural Virginia in 1997 with a story of the gay civil union of her friends Hugh and Bud! What larks!). Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are all that keep me going some days.

But back to high school. The gist of the New York magazine essay is that people spend a lot of time revisiting their high school years (reunions, movies about reunions, renewing acquaintances on Facebook), and the writer wonders why this is. Miss O’ wonders, Why only now are there research studies of high schools, in 2013, and why publish an essay about them (for these studies frankly illuminated not a fuck of a lot as far as Miss O’ is concerned)?

A little backstory: When Miss O’ was a young teacher-in-training, she was not so much astounded at as frustrated by the fact that all the research she was made to read concerned children aged zero to three. There was, also, a mandatory course in Early Childhood education, which is fine, but all the research of all children seemed to stop at age seven or so, the wisdom being that no one changes, brain-wise, after that age. Everyone is, where his or her ability to learn is concerned, so the wisdom went, fully formed. As I was to teach high school, I couldn’t believe that there were no course offerings on how to teach adolescents, and (as of this writing), I can find some books and educational papers on the subject, but I can’t find one course offering listed anywhere (according to today’s Google search) except at Fordham, “Adolescence Education,” which is not to say there aren’t any others, but still. It’s odd.

And according to the New York article, which concerned high school social "sadism" more than classroom experiences, I was not wrong to have noticed the gap. In fact, researchers DID believe just that, says Pat Levitt of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. She says that “for years, we had almost a religious belief that all systems developed in the same way, which meant that what happened from zero to 3 really mattered, but whatever happened thereafter was merely tweaking.” (NY Mag, 1/28/13, p. 20) So I was glad to know there is new research.

Then I got to page 21 of the article and read, “It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of self.” Any middle or high school teacher reading that will be nodding a brow-furrowed, “Duh.” Someone PAID for this research? (I'm only kidding a little. And there is more to the essay, so do read it.)

Big developmental research stopped or slowed for way too long, apparently, after the last one I studied, a man named Jean Piaget (1896-1980), who focused on the four stages of development, as he defined them. (You can check this out on the Wiki.) My take-away when I studied Piaget in college was that it was not until around the age of 15 that children became, for the first time, truly able to see the world from someone else’s point of view. This was invaluable information for me, because it served to explain the extraordinary maturation that took place in my English 10 students from the beginning of sophomore year to the end. (At the beginning of their junior years, these kids were often unrecognizable, behaviorally speaking, and I mean that in a good way.) Beyond that priceless tidbit, there was nothing much for the teacher of teens to hold onto.

I am glad that more research is being done now, but it distresses me that the researchers have grabbed onto the institution of high school as the toxic factor in teen life. The take away from this article, in bold font, is this: “‘These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,’ a situation likely to reward aggression.” (The line outside of the quotes is in bold RED in the magazine.)

Now, please know again that Miss O’ is thrilled to see that there is research on adolescents going on (!) and that real thinking is being done on this. And it’s also important to have historical perspective. For example, Ms. Senior points out that up until the Great Depression, kids were thrust into the world alongside adults—doing hard labor or going to school, and that they “were not sequestered as they matured. Now they live in a biosphere of their own.” Here is where I paused to reflect.

This idea of being “sequestered” is really not peculiar to American adolescence, I think, but symptomatic of the country as a whole. America sequesters nearly EVERYONE nowadays, by gender, class, age, and profession: the rich in gated communities, the poor in project housing; white collar CEOs rarely if ever darken the doors of the factories or companies they own (many of us can testify to that); the aged live in retirement communities or nursing homes, etc. People’s jobs in this country become so all-consuming that the people they see most during the course of a day are their co-workers. If you drive a car, the chances are that you mostly only see co-workers, most of whom do the exact same job as you, along with your own family on any given day. You may also see customers, and this is something, though the interaction is likely only to be a business transaction and therefore a limited exchange. If you ride public transportation, particularly in a city such as New York, the opportunities for varied human contact are far greater, but with iPods, so is the opportunity to tune out.

So I was thinking as I read this essay that the box is often of our own devising, in that kids who are “stuck” moving from classroom to classroom, unengaged, bullied, simultaneously dreading and living for lunchtime, are just like adult drones who hate their jobs. “What else is new?” one thinks. If it isn’t state law that ties you to a place, it’s the need for health insurance. If it isn't money holding you back, it's an addiction to checking your phone. The bigger question is why we Americans allow corporations—who really do whatever they do mostly for the benefit of a top few—to keep doing it. It’s not unlike going to a church and one day you can’t remember the last time you thought about god, or death, or your soul. Or like going to school and having no memory of learning anything. Or going out to eat, quite often, in fact, and yet not being able to recall a single meal that gave you an orgasm.

So while I wag my finger this week at our complacence in corporate culture, really I’m getting at something deeper: Buildings, businesses, courses, clothing, voting: We are blanding. It’s an insidious process. If we don’t become aware of it, we fall into a zone of stupid. When President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address expressed a hopeful message of inclusion to benefit the many, I was astounded at how many on the Right took issue with it. Huh? (Obama is as centered, intelligent, and even-tempered as any leader I've ever seen, and he's called out as a Lefty. It's hilarious.) They felt left out. Huh? What is it about “We, the People” or “All of us, together” that does not speak to the Right? Because the Right is Corporate with a capital C, it's the story of Us and Them. If you talk about “Us,” you really mean “Not You.” Okay then. Way to project your own misanthropy onto the masses. And the complainers I watched were some of the blandest, white bread humans I’ve ever seen, Michelle Malkin’s Asian past notwithstanding.

It’s time to break this stupid, stupid corporate, lockstep, mindset. It’s time to break through the reliance on BLAND. We are becoming entranced and captured by blandness.

Can you imagine a world where you skip to work, and a 15-year-old is elated to go to school? (Did you just roll your eyes? Why do we roll our eyes?) Today my friend Hugh posted an article from a fact-checking website, and I commented that if high school kids could do research projects that involved fact-checking network pundits and politicians, they’d have a blast. Not only would the research be fun, the consequences would be REAL. What if you worked in a situation where you felt really valued, where you had enough people to do the work, where the workers had a sense of humor, a sense of fun in the everyday work, and where every single second of every day wasn’t lived on a relentless, crushing commute to a crushing deadline? What if teachers didn’t have too many kids to teach, and rather than teach to a test, they could teach to the needs of their kids in the world?

How will We, the People, break this cycle of blanding? That blandness can be crushing must sound odd, but if you’ve ever been depressed, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Kids, it’s time to throw over the American Corporation party line—the dictates of Fox News and its affiliates, the irony of which is that they tout “individual” achievement, of doing it alone, even as the Corporation of America expects all “individuals” to behave in exactly the same ways. That expectation is what makes a toxic high school, a toxic world. The most successful societies prove that when we bring all of our INDIVIDUAL talents TOGETHER to create something, magic happens: A symphony is only as marvelous as the individual musicians, and the conductor bringing them together, playing it. A Broadway show is only as good as the writers and the individual training of each and every performer, technician, and designer, and how well the director brings all of it together. If American Corporations could learn to value the ethos of “all of us together,” and combined all their workers’ individual talents and energies with their own business acumen—to tackle real problems using real science and actual facts—there’s nothing this country couldn’t do, and beautifully.

I try to break the blanding every day in any number of ways, and the glory of my hope that we can do it is in seeing that I am not alone. Subversion is my strong suit (a wonderful Bread Loaf professor of mine, Jackie Royster, said, “All good teaching is subversive”), and it is apparently present in lots of us: For example, each day I talk to strangers. Many talk back, and it's not always swearing. I make observations aloud. Ahem. I wear fabulous hats. I post politically provocative shit on Facebook. I wear my friend George’s Murray Beads. I enjoy the hell out of my brilliant co-workers, and we send each other cartoons and riff on bad writing via e-mail. I go to little bodegas, Mom and Pop hardware stores, unique diners, and local pubs. I see a show, sometimes just on the subway. So that’s something. It’s my individual contribution to all of us. What are you DOING to subvert your life’s blandness? I think we have to surprise ourselves AT LEAST ONCE A DAY or why the fuck live at all? That’s what Miss O’ thinks. High school classroom or office cubicle, checkout line or machine shop, big CEO desk or taxi cab, you owe it to the future of the world to surprise the shit of people in delightful ways—only guns seem to the be the mode de surprise, these days.

We all really have to do this—for our kids, our environment, our quality of life, our creative capacities, our sense of connection to place, for our survival as a species. And this time, it’s gotta be kind, and loving, and deeply personal, and relentless. Maybe we can get the people in charge of corporations to see that when they harness our individual talents and interests, when they really listen to what we think and see what we do, companies—like ideal high schools—can flourish, all of us, together. And we could make it fun.

That’s all I got today. Now where's my whet stone?
Until next time,
Love from
Miss O’

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Body of Work

I drink to separate my body from my soul.
—Oscar Wilde

My Body, Myself

That Miss O' possessed a body as well as a mind was something that her students were surely loathe to admit. Once at the Giant supermarket in Dale City, Miss O' ran into one of her English students. He gaped and said, "Oh my God. You eat." He was truly thrown off balance by this revelation. I raised my eyebrows slightly and said, sweetly, "And I pee, too," and waved farewell as I headed off into the produce section.

As Miss O’s readers know, this blogger woman lives primarily in her politically obsessed head, and what fills her head then pours out onto an electronic page and is published when she hits “publish,” and if her body is involved at all, it’s more or less limited to her fingers and wrists and eyes. Oh, and the mouth/esophagus/stomach apparatus for tea drinking; and I guess the heart and lungs for the air business; and the ol’ tushie and legs, to say nothing of the inconvenience of popsicle toes because god forbid she get up and get some socks to put on. And the bladder. Jesus the bladder. But what I mean is, it’s about her thoughts rather than her sensations, the stuff of her blog. Nothing physically occurs to you, either, probably, when you read these posts, once you get over the first wave of nausea, anyway.

This week, though, your Miss O’ is thinking seriously about the body. Mine, sure, but yours, too, and those over there. These are not impure thoughts I’m having, but neither are they free of filth. I have to preface this post by saying that I kind of don’t really have a connection to my body as a thing. My body is here, I mean, but I don’t really live in it. Oh, sure, I learned to walk and run, I can pee and shit, and I got a period when I was in sixth grade (boy, was my mom, Lynne, caught by surprise!); I get headaches and colds and respiratory infections and suffer from IBS and broke my ankle in college. The body has known the good and the bad: On the one hand, it’s experienced arousal by human touch (do NOT tell my parents); on the other hand, its pancreas doesn’t work as well as one would hope. But my body has never mattered to me. For example, I generally go months on end without being physically held. (And lest you think I am suffering, I can say honestly that if I am never touched again, I don’t think I’ll notice.) Even as a teenager, when all the other girls were worrying about their body images, their weight, the size of their breasts, I really did try to pretend I cared about my body, but I’d get bored. “Yeah,” I’d say, by way of commiseration. And then I’d go outside and roller skate smoothly up the sidewalk.

But even the act of roller skating (or playing tennis or kickball or tag) didn’t give me a sense of having a body (until I’d fall on my ass or scrape my knees, or run too hard and too far and get that stitch in my side). I do remember the sensation of vibrations that rose up from the bottoms of my feet up to my head because of the friction of rolling metal wheels on the concrete sidewalk, but I think I recall this only because I associate it with the sounds I had to endure in order to roll—and yet ears are part of the body, too. I must have liked roller skating outside, because I did it well into high school, well past the age when all my other friends were learning about fucking making love by the light of a streetlamp in the backseats of cars, and learning about how an altered state of mind induced by pot and booze could affect their feelings as well as their fleshly organs.

I was kind of a backward kid, developmentally, in case I need to spell this out, and I trace it now to my lack of connection to my body. I tended to live in my imagination. It was something I could take for granted, the having of a body, as we do, until we can’t. Bruises, bumps, viruses, diseases—the discomforts and illnesses that can befall a body remind us that we are only temporarily healthy. The death of a body reminds us that we, too, are only temporarily here. However invincible one may feel, however powerful, we need only experience the nonstop running of mucus from our own noses to remind us how little power we really have on this earth.

Virginia Woolf, my favorite writer, lived very much in her body, terrified though she was of sex, which most adults seem to believe is the primary reason to have a body (despite the examples of Jesus and Jane Austen…and Miss O’). Woolf experienced her body primarily through illness. One of her oddest and most satisfying essays is entitled, “On Being Ill,” which takes as its subject the body. (A few years ago this essay was published as a book unto itself, a very fancy volume indeed. That’s an expensive way to read it, so if you can, buy it as part of a collection of essays, because it will cost the same amount AND you will get all those other marvelous essays to read.)

Here is the opening sentence:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
—from “On Being Ill” by Virginia Woolf, 1925, from The Moment and Other Essays, page 9

Woolf goes on to talk about the absence of the body in literature up to that time, noting that for writers, “the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.” She asserts that in life, of course, the opposite it true: “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane…” (page 10). 

I reread this essay on Monday when I was home from work with a cold. It got me thinking, Do writers today write about the body? And after a while I thought, Do writers today write about anything else? And by extension: Do readers read about anything else? In fiction today, the big sellers—the Twilight vampire saga and the Fifty Shades of Grey pornography series are surely body-centric. In nonfiction (which is not to say “fact-based” writing), Bill O’Reilly, who appears as “author” on two bestselling books, Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln, is obsessed with the bodily assassination of two presidents. While readers are buying these books and possibly even reading them, the trouble is that, I suspect (based on my knowledge of the business of publishing), none of these books are technically “authored,” which is to say the chances are good that trained and dedicated writers did not, in fact, write them. There are names on the covers, sure, but it’s not the same as being a writer, or even the writer of that book.

In other words, bestselling writers today would seem to be disembodied, even as their subjects are bodies. I find this creepy. A very-much bodied writer once inscribed the following to me in his book when I asked him to sign it: “I welcome you into the body of these poems.” I have no doubt. And that was creepy, too. For me as a reader and lover of words, I’m not asking for a denial of the body or a return to prudery, but rather I suppose I am questioning the state of our spiritual lives as humans in light of all this body focus. We sort of display the opposite of what Woolf was exploring. Mass killings of children’s bodies, women’s vaginal ownership, and the fatherhood rights of rapists fill the news. And between all the Facebook posts about weight loss, lattes, gym experiences, and illnesses, to say nothing of the photos of dinners, one may start to wonder if there is anything beyond the body human in our thoughts. I have started to notice that our national and media obsessions with the body and its appearance, the body and its longevity, the body and its reaction to pharmaceuticals, the body and its artificial performance enhancements, and the body and how many extremes it can endure are, well, they’re kinda, uh, boring. I am bored.

In sum: We have bodies. They do shit. They can experience shit. They shit. And I would add that what is done unto the body heightens our awareness of having a body. (I read somewhere—attributed as an African proverb—that if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed tent with a mosquito. I could imagine saying this proverb using another, less political turn of phrase, maybe as a meme using that Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka photo: Tell me more about your omnipotence, from the inside of a closed tent shared with one mosquito.) But is the cash-bought improvement of the body, via gyms or nutrition or drugs; or the cash-bought gratification of the body, via drugs or porn or blood-sucking—is that really all we have to offer to the literature of mankind right now?  Is that really all that readers want from literature? From life? Maybe we have lost a sense of ourselves in our bodies, is what I’m saying.

Till Death Do Us Part

The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life’s tragedy.
—Oscar Wilde

My editorial colleague, Dan Shapiro, lost his father, Harvey, two weeks ago. The New York Times obituary alluded to the books and reviews and other work he had done in his lifetime. These included editing the New York Times Book Review, writing collections of poetry, as well has having the distinction of being the one to ask Martin Luther King, Jr., to write what would become, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Not bad. Back at the job on Tuesday, Dan remarked, “When I was at his house, I looked at the shelf of books my father had done, and I thought, ‘It’s nice having a body of work to show for a life. That’s nice.’ It’s what I’d like to have.”

A body of work to show for a life: I mean, for all you are doing to keep your body working, to keep it handsome, healthy, strong—if you are not keeping up your body in order to create work that is of your heart and mind, and nourishing to your spirit—if you are not doing that, I realized, you will have no legacy. Whatever you do for the body now, that body will be so much dust in the end. And it got me thinking.

A body of work may or may not be something that sits on a shelf.

I remember when all of my dad’s brothers and sisters were still alive, all ten kids, and I was thinking the other day of how only six are left now—that it’s happened, all this loss, over a period of a few short years. The decline of their bodies (and the disappearance of their place in the world) was hard for me to take in, partly because I knew these uncles and aunts as raucous, earthy creatures, so present were they for so long; but also, at the last reunion, I couldn’t quite believe that they weren’t the adult powerhouses who were overseeing the kids and the proceedings. My cousin, John, said to me, pointing to his children and their many young cousins, “You know, these kids are looking at us the way we used to look at them,” and he gestured to a picnic table peopled with decrepit, thick-waisted, nameless folks, vaguely known to be related somehow to all of us, but now no longer capable of remembering stories of the world as they once had known it—of remembering yesterday, for that matter—so focused had they become on their infirmities. “We are becoming the old guard,” John said, and I said, “But we don’t know anything.” And we laughed. “I guess they didn’t, either.” (I look to my contemporaries, though, and feel a little better: I was born in 1964, the same year as First Lady Michelle Obama, and my personal First Comedian, Stephen Colbert. My generation could do worse.) I remember looking around then, and then talking to John’s mom about it later. I wrote this about it:

The morning after the big family reunion, Aunt Mary stares at me
across the kitchen table as Uncle Terry cooks breakfast.
“What’s the point?” she asks. “I mean, you get up in the morning,
have some coffee, go to work, come home, nothin’ on TV that night
so you make a kid. I looked around at all those people and I realized,
half of this is my fault.” She pauses as if to puff on the cigarette
she no longer smokes. “Let’s have some bacon.”

For the old guard at any reunion: We are their body of work. Us, and bacon.

Every Body Loves Some Body

This week I got my friend Quinn to go to Film Forum with me to see the French film, Amour. I’d seen the previews and was entranced by what I saw and also scared to see the whole thing. I was not wrong: It’s not a film for the faint of heart where ageing is concerned—not even sure anyone should see it, and yet it’s a brilliant movie, astonishing for the way filmmaker Michael Haneke holds a viewer in rapt attention for two hours of almost nothing happening, except the ending of a life. Afterward, devastated and drained, I reflected on what I’d experienced; I realized that the title, “Love,” is a spiritual idea, really—tied to emotions and philosophy—but the movie’s subject is entirely corporal. This is a film that is dedicated to the body: the body that eats, the body that washes dishes, the body that plays piano, the body that listens to the music, the body that reads, the body that travels to a concert, the body that vacuums the rug, the body that has a stroke, the body that others must lift, bed, feed, wash, and dress even as it declines. Love as a condition of the body is the theme of this movie. Whatever the songs say or the poems declare about love being heaven sent to the heart, love belongs to bodies. My response to the movie was a physical response: I had to walk for a while afterward. I found myself crying in the street. Once home in bed, I woke up three times in the night and paced my apartment. Emotions drive such reactions, yes, but it is the body that responds to the emotion, that feels the power of it.

Last night I had dinner for the first time at the home of my friends Anthony and DaRon. DaRon and I met when our friend, Ryan (who also came to dinner), put us in a show together with a dozen other actors, a dreadful teen tragedy from the 1980s called Alky about teen alcoholism, which we performed at the People’s Improvisational Theater, the way sincere but badly-directed teen actors might perform it, and so it was cruelly hilarious. DaRon and Anthony, who got married last year, gave me a ride home one night when we realized we live in the same area of Queens. DaRon is a singer and actor, and this requires him to be in peak condition in both voice and body; Anthony is a visiting nurse who deals with myriad patients (and their bodies) every day. I learned that Anthony’s first serious boyfriend died of complications from AIDS, and Anthony has just finished a draft of a book about it, 17 years after the fact.  Among other things, we all talked about grief, what happens to us in that process. We had all known grief in recent years, over many things, not only deaths, and then this led to us talking about what we were creating out of the grief—a book, a show, a marriage, volunteer work—so many things were possible through the use of our bodies as we have them now. And then we poured out brandy and watched hilarious videos and cuddled with dogs. It did this body good.

So what will be my body of work? What will be yours? And how to cope with the finish of the body we currently possess? These are important questions, dammit, and I am asking them. Did I answer anything? No idea. I will doubtless return to these questions after I've heated up my homemade minestrone soup and had a little drop of the Tullamore Dew. You know—after I've nourished my body I often forget I have.

Surely there's a poem for this. (Whenever she was ill, Virginia Woolf craved poetry.) Possibly the best poem I know that ties together the physical body and one’s body of work is Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be of Use.” (You can find it on The Writer’s Almanac online.) I’ve included it before, but here it is again, because (sick or well) one really can’t read this poem too often. 

Love, love. 

Miss O’

To be of use

by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

"To be of use" by Marge Piercy from Circles on the Water. © Alfred A. Knopf.