Sunday, December 1, 2013

Everybody Loves a Clown (So Why Don’t You?)

 Miss O’, Drama Queen

Happy Post-Black Friday, dear readers! Miss O’ returns after a sweet week of rest and replenishment by way of Thanksgiving in Columbus, Ohio, with her brother Pat and family, as well as the delightful Lefflers, and also assorted big holiday meal guests from my sister-in-law’s family. Surely I should start this letter with the weather report: To invoke Garrison Keillor, if I may, “It’s been cold this last week”: Lows in the teens and a high in the 20s on the big day, as well as a couple of inches of snow cover, made for little outdoor time. In addition, the cooking top of my brother’s stove broke on Wednesday (at least two items that should never have computer chips in order to remain mechanical: Automobiles and stoves), but at least the oven worked. So with two crockpots, an electric griddle, a microwave, and a toaster oven, we made magic. I say “we,” but all I ever do, being the eccentric aunt, is a little scullery, a little vacuuming, some joking with the kiddies, and little walkabouts from bedroom to kitchen to living room and back. And I drink, of course. It’s the secret to holiday magic. I even told the family of my great fear of becoming one of Dylan Thomas’s aunts, whom he described in his story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and though my size is different, the moment seems apt: “And some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.” Possibly my nephew Cullen will one day write of my Thanksgiving visits, “And one large aunt, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat in the very middle of each chair, vague and massive, inept at tasks, like a snoring bull among the china.” Except that usually I’m in the middle of all the places he is, doing accents, so that whatever comment I make, Cullen will say, “Aunt Lisa, say that like a New Yorker.” And Aunt Lisa does, then goes to pour another glass of Irish whiskey, and as in Dylan Thomas’s memoir, once again I play all the parts: “The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound backyard singing like a big-bosomed thrush.” Sexy holiday times!

Travel usually sparks strange dreams. At least twice this week that I can recall, I had elaborate and seemingly long, and certainly wildly detailed dreams about high school play rehearsals. Colors first: The first dream was in greens and blacks, the second dream in vomit pinks, ambers, browns, some black, some white. I don’t know if you are into color symbolism, but even if you aren’t: ICK. What both dreams had in common, aside from being set at high school play rehearsals, was the complete lack of control, or even role function, that Miss O’ experienced in both dreams. In Dream One, all I seemed to do was yell, at both students in the “classroom”—a kind of open place with students on “risers”—and on the stage, where I seemed to be in the wings when I wasn’t wandering the halls of “Luxe High,” skinny and confused, doing some kind of ROP, or “Retirement Option Program” of serving in the school for a compensatory fee. In Dream Two, I seemed to be in some kind of English village, and there was an old-looking, wood-decorated red-painted pub called Toby’s that I very much wanted to stop in, and yet the dreamscape seemed to compel me to look for something else, and I don’t know if I found it, because after a brief episode involving one of those disgusting, unusable toilets I seem to invent in dreams so that I don’t actually wet my bed in real life (my mom, Lynne, also does this—anyone else?), I was back in an auditorium, but outside, like at Nissan Pavilion, and yet not, and two former students of mine were singing from the back, standing by a now-retired teacher, Mr. Snyder, and no matter where I sat in the house—trying, I guess, to see so I could direct—the view would be obscured or disappear altogether.

My take-away—and I agree with poet Joy Harjo, whom Miss O’ has quoted before, that since we spend fully one third of our lives asleep (take that in), paying attention to dreams would seem to make sense; anthropologists theorize that the idea of the soul came at least partly from dreams: that place we go to when we are as close to being dead as we can be while alive and still functioning naturally—is that 1) Miss O’ is feeling unmoored in general; 2) Miss O’ is somehow still affected by her teaching life of yore and is feeling estranged from her formerly-practiced talents, perhaps; and 3) the ability to digest large, celebratory meals comfortably is a joy of bygone days.

One other source of Miss O’s holiday indigestion, and of her own making, is in the bringing up of subjects that cause upset. It is the inadvertent policy of your Miss O’ to discomfit someone at every gathering, at least once, if not several times, especially after consuming a few glasses of Chianti. This particular incident surprised me, though, because it wasn’t about politics. It was about the idea of opinions.

We hear it all the time, since at least the Hollywood movies and radio shows of the '30s, New York types saying, in order to close out an argument (however ungrammatically), “Hey, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” They may bookend this phrase with “It’s a free country” and “That’s what I believe” for emphasis. This is America, isn’t it? And as Garrison Keillor said during a monologue one night on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion on NPR, “The most un-American thing you can say is, ‘You can’t say that.’” I agree: You can say anything you want. Speech is free.

But are you allowed to believe it? Miss O’ would say, “Not always.” That’s what I said. Miss O’ is taking on the adage, “Everyone’s entitled to his opinion.” I am not sure yet where I’m going, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be interesting.

So first off, apologies to my truly marvelous sister-in-law, Traci, who, during the course of a kitchen conversation over the aforementioned vino, said that she goes walking with a gal in her neighborhood who expresses extreme-Conservative views, but that she could still walk with her because, hey, “everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” And Miss O’, who has been known to share a few opinions in her time, said, “Sure. And they can still be WRONG.” Traci told me that that was not my call to make, and I assured her it was not only my call, but also my responsibility to point it out.

Before I flesh that story out, let me clarify something: Here is an example of a real “opinion,” by which I mean something that is a matter of taste, a matter of sensibility, a belief one holds because one simply cannot “go there,” wherever that is, and in the holding of this opinion, the holder hurts no one.


“That clown ottoman is just wrong.” ~ my sister-in-law, Traci, who is awesome

Clown Ottoman, ca. 1967, a Christmas present from Santa to Lisa O', aged 3,
and a presence in her bedroom all her life ever after.
The ottoman now resides, unhappily, in a cold garage in Ohio.
Alone. So terribly alone. 

What is there to say? Is she mistaken in her opinion? Probably, she is not. And yet I am of the opinion that in its garishness and Christmas-colored evil-grinned hideousness, that clown ottoman simply rocks. The reaction or response one has to this child’s bedroom accessory is, in the truest sense, a matter of opinion. There is no moral right or wrong attached to this, no indisputable scientific data to invoke, and no reason to argue one point or another. What it comes down to is that I thought Cullen might want to experience the grotesque as part of his toddler’s education, whereas his mother opted for items of actual beauty. I cede to her opinion, because she is Cullen’s mom.

My mom, by contrast, is Lynne. As readers know, Lynne of the poetry-reciting, Salem smoking, Spanish swearing, casual house-cleaning (unless it’s the one Saturday a month when it all gets scrubbed) school of mothering (“Go OUTSIDE. Until tomorrow…”) loved Day of the Dead types of things: Carnival, Halloween, Mardi Gras stuff, and hanging in my brothers’ room all through their growing up was this Diablo mask, which my brother Pat was just asked via email to dig out of the basement to photograph for his sister’s blog today.

[Actual photo TK, but it's of a carved coconut shell mask, huge in my memory, with round eyes, mouth with teeth, and three horns poking out from the top, the face painted red, black, and white, with some dots, if I remember correctly. Note: "TK" is publishing speak for “to come,” possible because “TC” might be mistaken for “TOC,” or “table of contents” –ed. In the meantime, here is an approximation from the Google, but replace the yellow with white, and throw some polka does around the skull top.]

 This antique from the Lynne Collection, too, was rejected by Cullen’s mom as a decorative item for her son’s bedroom on the grounds that it is “hideous” and “terrifying.” That is Traci’s opinion. (Pat said, “Lisa, I love my wife.”) And there the matter ends. It’s not that Traci is a girly-girl—she’s a big fan of all things frog-related, as a matter of fact, and loves a little scary—but we all have limits. (My limit has to do with “cute.” Once, on an old-people trip, my parents toured a Precious Moments factory. Lynne bought me a nail file, “because it was so awful, but it’s the easiest thing you could, you know, keep hidden,” I think she said. In our opinion, there is nothing more hideous, in a bad way, than Precious Moments.)

So: Miss O’s back in that holiday kitchen and has just upset an apple pie of chat. Remember? Now it was here that Traci and our friend Cheryl (whose family joins us all in Columbus for Thanksgiving week) told me in no uncertain terms that I was wrong to hold the opinion that some people’s opinions are simply wrong. (The irony of this is not lost on Miss O’, but it’s not the point right now.) So strong was this feeling, that Traci, who is the possibly the easiest person on earth to get along with, felt compelled to leave the kitchen, saying, “We are not having this conversation.” (Miss O’ had fruitlessly used the example, “I put my kids in the closet for days as punishment because in my opinion that’s the best way to discipline them.” Granted it was extreme.) (One would think I’d let it drop! Ha, ha. And yet I cried out, “What about my being a judgmental asshole suddenly became so unattractive???” No, I didn’t.) So one lets it drop, and one should (though only after making an attempt to make one's point). It’s Thanksgiving! So here, instead, in my own blogorama, I present five “opinions” that Miss O’ knows to be, actually, wrong (morally and empirically), however tightly they are, or were, held:

·      All women should stay home, have no vote, and cede control of their reproductive rights to the federal government.
·      Blacks have intelligence inferior to that of whites.
·      Jews are the cause of all the world’s ills and should therefore be exterminated.
·      The Irish are so much manure and should be starved to death.
·      Earth runs by God’s magic, and so it will serve our human needs no matter how much carbon waste we put into the atmosphere or how much we pollute all the drinking water.

People who hold these, or even one of the above, “opinions” are, in point of fact, stupid. That’s not merely Miss O’s “opinion.” Whatever you want to label such people who espouse these “beliefs”—willfully ignorant, bigoted, or cave dwellers—what it comes down to is stupidity. And as Miss O’ has said a thousand times, it wouldn’t matter at all, except that such people also vote and also can own guns.

The Negative Power of “Positive Thinking”

Here’s a sixth “opinion” for which Miss O’ has no patience: Being gay is a choice. There really is no way to argue with a human who states this and then says, “That is my opinion,” except to say, “No, that is your ignorance.” Miss O’ does not believe anyone is entitled to ignorance, but neither does she believe that every display of such ignorance must needs be a “teaching moment.” To assume that ignorant humans need my vast knowledge thrust upon them is an obnoxious trait (and if there is a word that sounds more obnoxious than obnoxious, I don’t know what it is; seriously—that is one ugly-sounding word). And yet, here I am, pronouncing away! But here at any time, you know, you can close the site, move to the kitchen, make a nice cocktail, and head to the living room to watch the game. Who would blame you?

If you are still with me, let’s consider this opinion: that homosexual humans can and should “pray away the gay,” and that they should seek organizations to help them. A while back, for example, the founders of one such group, Exodus International, called a big press conference to state that they would no longer be offering pray-away-the-gay counseling; they wanted to “apologize” for the error of their ways, saying they realized that gays are gays. Or did they? A Christian blogger named John Shore realized that their “apology,” upon more careful consideration, was more probably an attempt to promote their original cause, or at least promote themselves.

So, as I say, I’m just a tad confused. Not once in your speech—which I’ll be the first to say was veritably jammed with talk about God and forgiveness and healing and welcoming and redemption and reconciliation and peace and love and joy and salvation—did I hear you express regret for you and Exodus having spent over three decades helping to destroy the lives of gay people and their families through your peddling and capitalizing upon the message that God’s greatest desire for every gay person is that they cease to be gay.

 You can read more here:

Exodus International victimized gay Christians, preyed upon them as they prayed over them, in order to make a lot of money. (Why does this ever not occur to such Christian believers?) And yet too often in this country, people express the “opinion” that there are no victims; that each and every one of us, individually, can create the lives we want through positive thinking, through wishing, through believing. And while Miss O’ is the first to honor a prayerful life, she has no truck with Wishing Will Make It So, as any good fairy tale shows you, and usually worse: “Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it.” Or in the words of Saint Theresa, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Too often, people use “I pray” as an excuse not to participate in the world, not to work to solve problems, not to try to make bad situations better. Such people are of the opinion that prayer = meaningful action. This is not to say that prayer does not nourish us; I find myself in a state of constant prayer, for as they used to say in time of war, “No atheists live in foxholes,” and as we say in America, “No atheists last on FOX News,” so sometimes the best that I can do is pray…that I don’t run out into the street, screaming.

So what can we do about this dilemma? First, we need to understand that this tendency to “smile, though your heart is aching,” is not generally a useful strategy to change a bad life situation (though certainly it makes for more comfortable dinner parties—but life really isn’t a goddamned dinner party, is it). This morning I stumbled across this wonderful RCS animation of a speech given by Barbara Ehernreich (author of the book Nickel and Dimed) on the site Upworthy, in which she expounds on the insidious evil of telling people they need to “think positive thoughts” to make their lives better. This is particularly true in American corporate life: Just laid off? Smile, smile, smile! What a great opportunity! What Ehrenreich argues is that that belief is beating us down, is what it's doing. That smile? Tears of a clown, my friend. You can listen to the speech at the link below, which is accompanied by very cool animation. It won’t take 10 minutes, which is all the commercials at half-time, ammirite?

What she explains, and in a funny, insightful way, is frightening—how this sort of corporate cheerleading is exactly the kind of propaganda once used in the Soviet Union at the height of its terrorism and beyond, and which Miss O’ and other readers will recognize in George Orwell, who satirized this very stuff in his novel 1984. (Another recent example: McDonald's just told its poverty-stricken employees that to make themselves feel less hungry, just break up the little food they do have into smaller bites! Smiley face!) Or, as my friend Chuck whispered to me during a workshop where a poet talked about how wonderful the book The Secret was, “Blame the victim.” You got that right.

But that’s just our opinion. Right?

Are You Really Entitled to My Opinion?

All humans deserve the same basic human rights and (at the adult level, surely) the same level of autonomy. And no matter what your age, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin, for example: Gay is gay; straight is straight. This is not open for argument, this stuff can no longer be considered “a matter of opinion.” If so, where is the bottom? (Wait, sorry, that was a poor choice of phrase. Or was it?) Where the hairs start to split, as it were—transgendered, for example—is very often easily answered with, “It’s really none of your business.” Sex obsession—our prurient interest in how other people have it, and what it results in—is a national disease: One man’s thing on the side is another man’s you are so going to hell breaking of a Commandment; or one woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy is another woman’s “I’d never do that,” and in these cases we are talking about autonomous choice, the rightness of which is not a matter of personal opinion, but is, in fact and more to the point, a personal decision.

What Miss O’ has begun to sense must be reiterated: Having opinions should not be conflated with making decisions. If someone says, “I hate blacks,” and you hear this opinion, all you need do is shake your head and say (and certainly you should say), “Well, that’s your opinion.” However, if someone says, “I’d like to lynch blacks,” and your response is only, “Well, that’s your opinion,” you are failing in your responsibility as a human being. Perhaps you think this is merely Miss O’s opinion, her Judgy McJudger persona flying high in its egotism. But a line was crossed back there. Did you see it? Does it make you uncomfortable, this idea of taking action? Let's not spoil a perfectly pleasant meal. Maybe this will comfort you.

Decoration is a matter of opinion, a matter of taste. Your choice of wall hanging takes away none of my basic human rights. Opinions fall like water off a duck’s oily back. But a pronouncement of possible action, such as the carrying out of a threat to any human right, cannot stand in silence. The very real clown ottoman in any political living room is inaction in the face of threats to human dignity and safety, and to our existence as a species. The true Diablo mask is the mask of silence, and when you do not challenge a threat, the mask is your own. You are wearing that mask, is what I’m saying, and it’s the worst possible disguise: “I am only trying to be polite.” Polite? You are wearing a fucking DIABLO MASK.

 Silence = Death. And that will never be up for opinion. So pronounceth I.

For the Record: I know that my sister-in-law and our friend said a very reasonable thing: "Everyone is entitled to their opinion." And typically, Miss O' blows up a simple, reasonable comment and heads off into rough terrain, and I can only hope I have made some kind of sense. Also, I have taken the tiniest moment in the whole week and turned out 8 single-spaced pages on Word. Not bad. Imagine now what I DIDN’T write about! Lest you think I thought very much of that moment before now, readers, let Miss O’ assure you she did not, and that it was a wonderful holiday. Cullen made really cool bracelets on a loom using tiny colored rubber bands, with the YouTube guidance of a video and the help of his wonderful mom (see photo). We watched horrible (hey, I know, that's one family's opinion) Hallmark Channel Christmas movies with Pat O’, who basks in their badness, downed shots of Jager, cooked and ate, enjoyed the falling snow. The only downside of holiday dinners at other people’s homes is the empty fridge I return to here in Queens, so let me rectify this by going to the store, shall I? I shall.

Happy Thanksgiving,
In love,
Miss O’