Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Ascent of Man, Descending a Stair

 Generation Oh, Well

Google Images Find

In her last episode, not to get blogged down in the past, your Miss O’ mentioned her pet name for the people whose new mantra is, “Good enough”: Generation Oh, Well. I’d like to develop this a little more and talk about why it fucking pisses me off to have this generation in anything like power, which group I’d say straddles the 20s to the 50s in age range. It’s not about year of birth, I think, so much as culture of influence. To begin in my own post-teaching life: I have actually heard of corporate leaders in the United States of “Greatest Country in the World” America who say to their company of employees, “Will we be the best? Maybe not. Will we make the most money? It doesn’t matter. All we can do is try our best.” TRY our best? (Didn’t these guys and gals watch Star Wars? Sing it to me, Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.”) Lines like this put me in mind of the elementary school my two sweet older nephews attended, where every child got an A or a B, and they all got some kind of award on awards day. It puts me in mind of Reality TV, where untalented and heretofore unknown people who like to work out in gyms, get tans, and have sex in public become world magazine cover-worthy celebrities. I’m trying to imagine FDR and Churchill giving similar rousing speeches to their respective nations at the start of World War II: Are you afraid? Fear happens. Will we spill our blood? Maybe a little. Will we win the war? Maybe not. All we can do is try our best. “We’ll try” is the new corporate rallying cry. Their new strategy is “lead from the middle,” which is asinine, because you have to lead by LEADING (and so tell me why you are drawing a big salary again?)—as opposed to GROW from the middle, as President Obama would have the nation do, but his leadership is held in stranglehold by House Republicans. Who the fuck ARE we? 

What do I do for a living again? I'm no longer an "editor." Copy editing is gone as a profession, which is evident in every paper and magazine on online publication going. (I don't count this blog, because it's fucking free and done in my free time. My friend George always sends word of the most egregious typos, because he cares.) I do not think the demise of this profession is an accident, what with the rise of Generation Oh, Well not to lead the way.

Meanwhile in America: A man who raped his own children gets probation because he is rich and white, while a homeless mother goes to prison for leaving her kids in her car while she ran in for a job interview, because she is black and homeless.  Twenty children and six of their teachers were gunned down, and there’s a new book about how President Obama went to comfort the parents...huh. There’s a sale at Macy’s. The Supreme Court just gave away elections to the highest bidder. Scored big in Candy Crush Saga.

You’d be apathetic but that would take too much attention off your iPhone.

So it goes. Oh, well.

This Week in Law: Money = Free Speech

As Jon Stewart and the cast of The Daily Show stated so well this week in their rebuttal to the right-wing of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of unlimited individual spending on the elections in this country: They were not the FUNDing fathers. Nowhere in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does it say unlimited spending to buy elections. But don’t believe me:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The same Republican Party that celebrates the unlimited spending of personal money to fund public elections, does not believe in the spending of public money for public works. This same Republican Party that touts a “balanced budget” and spend as you go economics, happily goes into debt to send soldiers to war, but will not spend a dime to help the returning veterans, who mostly vote Republican, so they get what they deserve, I guess. I had a right-wing kid on Facebook say that all a government should do is never go into debt, which is like saying the only role of a parent is never to go into debt.  It’s a stupid notion of what authority should do in the public, or children’s, interest. Spend all the wages on Disney World with nothing left over for food and shelter? If there’s no debt, it’s fine by my Republican friends. I find this odd. I find it CREEPY.

Oh, well.

WTF, Humankind?

So it was, with all this rattling around her head, that Miss O’ went on a quest via YouTube to seek out the origins of greed. I turned to Jacob Bronowski, mathematician, biologist, author, inventor, historian, and survivor of WWI, who moved to England from Poland in 1920. He was an astonishing thinker. He is also a fascinating guide in the history of mankind via his 1973 television series The Ascent of Man, this linked to Episode 2, “The Harvest of the Seasons.” (England loves to have brilliant, unusual humans to host mind-blowing television, people like Bronowski and Karen Armstrong; and America only did that once, with Carl Sagan. Were there others?) This episode did not disappoint, for here I learned that the cultivation of agriculture, aided by plants that more or less tricked us into propagating them, caused man to stop wandering and settle down. In turn, this cultivation created, for the first time, a surplus. Take that in: no more hand to mouth in the day to day. Herewith a quick chain of events:

·      Surplus created nomadic wars on agrarian societies.
·      Nomadic groups learning to ride horses thus organized these wars to steal surplus.
·      War is not human instinct, but is actually organized theft—“to take from the peasant that which agricultural surplus accumulates.”
·      Theft and war are not permanent states that can be sustained—Genghis Khan and the Mongols conquered much, and when the Mongols conquered the Muslims, they stopped and became Muslim.
·      The best contributions of the nomad are bringing together all the cultures of the earth, and sending them out again to fertilize the earth. (My love H remarked, “I know you aren’t supposed to, but I like gypsies.”)

Episode 3 is called “The Grain in the Stone”: All imagination begins by analyzing nature. (Michelangelo said that.) What Miss O’ took from that was that when we disconnect from that—when man presumes superiority to nature, imagining that nature must analyze him…well, you get Republicans. Bronowski goes on to say that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation—the hand is more important than the eye, which is a fascinating notion coming from a thinker such as himself. The hand drives the evolution of the brain—Man is the tool-making animal: “In the end, the march of man is the refinement of the hand in action.” The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is "the pleasure he takes in his own skill. He loves to do it, and he loves to do it better." YES. Ideally, this is man at his best. (Case in point: Very busy building super and boyfriend H showed up at my door on Friday night with a ceiling fan, a stepladder, a drill, a faucet (for a later project), and a big smile. It was raining out. Without blinking, I walked in my living room and moved the coffee table. Back in October, H, looking up at the ceiling, asked, “You like that?” He pointed at the ugly industrial ceiling fan and light horror show above. No, I said, it’s hideous. “I get you a new one.” Then winter came. And now it’s spring. Here’s what I got:

The New Fan.

The OLD Fan. Ow.

H joked and laughed the whole time he did the work, and laid out other plans for later projects. I manned the circuit breaker, and pulled out my tool box when he was one screw short. (Don't say it.) We had fun. He bounced. I feel this supports Bronowski to the core. And Miss O’ has long asserted that good, meaningful, loved work is more fun than what is called “fun.”)

So where does this leave me, your Miss O’, sitting here in the world of the right wing of fascist capitalists taking over the earth and everything that’s in it, including all the lady parts? Where is that in the "ascent of man"?

All the Little Fillies in the Pasture

Whatever the latest legislative loser-fest against the skirts in the Texas statehouse, the male-dominated Supreme Court, or the Republican-led House of Representatives in the good ole U.S.A., you just cannot keep the little fillies down. There are too many grand women who happily arise, go forth, and ram their four-inch heels into some angry boss man’s tight ass. One such feminist icon is the just-in-the-nick-of-time Gloria Steinem, who turned 80 years old recently. (I saw her once outside a theater here in New York a few years back, and she was surprisingly tall, also slender and gorgeous in a naturally aged way—and looked tough as nails. Really a thrill.) My childhood television news screens and Washington Post Style sections featured a lot of Ms. Magazine’s Ms. Steinem, and I realized this morning that I need to write to her while she is still alive and tell her how grateful I am for all she has done to advance the rights of women in the United States (and thus the world). It was a conversation the other night with my Montenegrin boyfriend, H (a former captain in the Yugoslavian military) that got me thinking about it. H asked me if I would help him write a thank-you note to Bill Clinton, his personal hero, for his intervention in Bosnia. “I always mean to write, to tell him. You write it with me?” he asked. Of course. (First H wants to track down some letterhead with the Albanian flag. “I know a guy in up in the Bronx there….”) And it got me thinking about all the people who do public service to whom I am grateful; and the people to whom I am most grateful are women who made my fabulous, liberated New York City life possible today in the year of our Lord, 2014 (if you believe in “years” created by the Earth’s revolution around the “Sun”).

Let’s meet Great-great grandma! Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), a mother of five children, teamed up with single woman Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) in 1851, three years after the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights in 1848. (Also speaking there was Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883), when she gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.) The two women first joined the Temperance Movement, but, fortunately for women, soon realized that women’s rights were a hell of a lot more important than stopping men from going on a drunk. Neither activist lived to see women get the vote, in 1920, but there is much to be learned from their stories. Miss O’ encourages you to read all about the Suffragettes.

Why? Because I am getting OLD. Yes, I am. Next month, Miss O’ turns 50. Half a century on Earth. Quite a thing. The year I was born, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act gave all adult citizens the right to vote for the first time in the United States. In 1973, when I was 9 years old, the Supreme Court, in its decision, Roe v. Wade, gave women the right to their own bodies, legally, for the first time in history. (Abortion, in fact, was not even an issue in this country, really, until around 1880, something that grew during the years after women began to fight for the right to vote in the United States. Prior to that, abortion was a “private matter,” and even the Victorians didn’t pry into it. The year of women beginning to work for the vote, and the beginnings of elected men meddling in abortion, is not, I think, merely a curious coincidence.) And it’s been moving backwards ever since. I think, Vietnam notwithstanding, we’ll look back, heralded by The Ascent of Man, on 1973 as the year that the world’s human civilization peaked. Exploration was still possible. Animals roamed. Global warming could have been reversed. I shouldn’t regret. Oh, well. Right?

I hear too many disturbing things from humans who really ought to know better: vigilante, I guess, “justice” with guns on guns, white hats over black hats—money is “that’s the way the world works”—Climate Deniers and God Believers who contend that humans have no agency in how anything turns out…unless through a SCOTUS decision in favor of big money, or Obamacare is repealed. Some days I want to say, "Oh, well. You win." I cannot seem to manage it. "Oh, well" sticks in my craw. Hard.

What I’m getting at is the difference between the causes of Human Tragedy v. the events of a Horror Movie: In a blog last summer, I briefly discussed the Sophocles tragedy, Antigone, with this question: Is Antigone the victim or the agent of her own tragedy? And before you run over to the bookshelf to reference your handy volume of Anouilh or the original Greek plays (don't we all do that?), let me tell you, it's both. And let’s be clear: If you are only a victim of circumstance (that saw murderer, say), you are not in a tragedy, but a horror story. If you have agency, and you have the will to make choices (and make lousy choices), you have the potential to be in a tragedy. Even if you make great choices, you could still see everything collapse around you, because of the choices of people close to you—people you chose to be close to. Sometimes. It’s both, you see.

Women who do not fight for their rights are agents as well as victims of their lives. Oh, well?

I contrast this idea of free will—real choice, true agency— with the lure of insidious pyramid schemes like The Secret (the book sold in the millions), Landmark Forum (formerly EST), Amway, Herbalife, and all forms of American Corporate Capitalism: “You create everything in your life”?—like rain, sinkholes, hurricanes, a tractor trailer crashing into your car on I-95? You created your lung cancer even if you never smoked a day in your life, have a vegan diet, and exercise like a motherfucker?

And yet… “Earth will take care of itself.” So which is it? Oh, well? What these schemes do is BLAME THE VICTIM. They make you into the agent of circumstances beyond your control. And those schemers are happy to tell you that for $500 per session, and make you believe it so hard that you come back and pay $1,000 more to learn how to change it. The funny thing is, they never tell you that part, the how to change it part. Because you can't. Right? Oh, well.

Those schemers have way too much power and influence right now—over women, over courts, over big money, over voting rights, over media—so I listen to John Prine at lot: That’s the way that the world goes ’round… and I'm trying not to drink. A lot.

Rich Lives, with Voices

But what more is there to life? There is much, much more. It's so fortunate to be reminded. Last Saturday, for instance, I spent a lovely afternoon at a NYC bar with one of my wonderful Virginia Tech acting professors, Deborah Kinghorn (she would go on to teach Jim Parsons, btw, which I find so fun to be able to tell you), who directed me in a show called Rich Lives: The Voices of American Homemakers. She took a “play” which had been adapted from a book that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Extension Service for farm women in this country, and made it into a lovely show. (Miss O' played Woman from New Hampshire.) The stories we told, the songs we sang, told of the raw lives, grit, innovations, humorous episodes, and unspeakable tragedies of actual women who were interviewed for the book. My favorite line—the line that cracked all of us up in the chronology of innovations that revolutionized lives in farm communities, was this one: “Then came home tin can sealers.” It changed canning forever, sure, but say it out loud. Every time Maureen, the narrator, spoke it, we snorted. We couldn’t help it. Finally, Deby had had it. “Cut the line,” she demanded. “This is ridiculous. Now keep going.” So when we did the filmed dress rehearsal for archival purposes, Mo dutifully cut the line, and the performance was perfect. But if you were in the house with the 3,000 women from all over the country at Burrus Hall at Virginia Tech that August night to celebrate the Extension Service’s 50th Anniversary and their rich lives, you would have heard from the front row the gasp of an addled director/script doctor when her cast smiled broadly—too broadly—at the promise of canning and sealing in tin at home.

I can still hear us singing…

Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
Do you, or I, or anyone know
How oats peas, beans, and barley grow?

I am always astounded to discover that there are actually people who don’t know what barley is. Oh, well. No—fuck that. Learn about BARLEY. That miracle grain could save your starving family someday. (By the way, you can find Rich Lives on VHS in a library near you! I literally mean EVERY LIBRARY in America. In the tape, though, which was filmed prior to the performance, you won’t get to hear Maureen’s famous reading of that aforementioned line. We saved that for the live performance.)

New York Morning

I try to hold onto my rich life. I do have one. Your Miss O’ tries so very hard not to bury the joys of her own New York life under the piles of Republican bullshit and American ignorance.

My friend Hugh sent me this song for Saturday, and bless him, worried as he was over all my Facebook worrying about the world. And because he knows how much I love New York. (H loves New York as much as I do, and that seems to be in the song, too.) Listen to it, won’t you? Let it play out the blog in my brain, and yours. Everybody owns the great ideas.

“New York Morning” by Elbow, from The Takeoff and Landing of Everything, 2014

The first to pour a simple truth in words
Binds the world in a feeling all familiar
'Cause everybody owns the great ideas
And it feels like there's a big one round the corner

A tenner, up and out into New York
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers
And oh, my giddy aunt, New York can talk
It's the modern road where folk are nice to Yoko

Every bone of rivet steel, each corner stone an anchor
Jenga jutts and rusty water tower, pillar-posted sign
Every painted lining battered, like a building in this town
Sings a life of proud endeavor and the best that man can be

Me, I see a city and I hear a million voices
Planning, drilling, welding, carrying their fingers to the nub
Reaching down into the ground, stretching up into the sky
Why? Because they can, they did and do so you and I could live together

Oh my God, New York can talk
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers
Everybody owns the great ideas
And it feels like there's a big one round the corner

Oh my God, New York can talk
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers
Everybody owns the great ideas
And it feels like there's a big one round the corner

Oh my God, New York can talk
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers
Everybody owns the great ideas
And it feels like there's a big one round the corner

The desire to part sure symphony
The desire like a distant storm
For love, be good for me
And it feels like there's a big one round the corner

Oh my God, New York, you talk
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers
Everybody owns the greats ideas
And it feels like there's a big one round the corner

The way the day begins
Decides the shade of everything
But the way it ends depends on if you're home
For every soul, a pillow at a window, please
In a modern room, where folk are nice to Yoko

Fuck "oh, well." Here's to the big one around the corner. 
Yours for love and Yoko,
Miss O’

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