Friday, January 4, 2019

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Bound for PV


We leave for Puerto Vallarta bright and early tomorrow.  You have to understand that I hate to travel.  The instant I get off the plane, I start counting down the days until I can get back home.  Jenny Lake Lodge in the Tetons is the only place I never want to leave, but I'm happy to report that PV is moving into that echelon.  Let's talk about the reasons I'm looking forward to this trip.

-Getting to DIA early and having breakfast at Elway's on concourse B before boarding.  Janet and Bud usually show up halfway through my breakfast burrito and we have bloody marys together.

-The flight to PV is relatively short and painless.  If we can manage to score a seat in the emergency exit aisle, it is even comfortable.

-It is quick and easy to get through the airport at PV and I like having a car waiting to take us to Villa del Palmar.

-Getting into our adjoining (usually) rooms and changing into shorts, teeshirts, and flip flops and meeting at El Patron, the mexican restaurant on property.  As of this moment, I am promising myself to drink only cokes on that first night.  I don't react as well to long trips as I used to.  I remember two years ago Bud and I were a little too celebratory and Bud somehow ended up fully dressed in his bathtub.  I still don't know how Janet extricated him.

-Going to bed early on that first night and not having to worry about being party  poopers.  The four of us allow each other a lot of elbow room.  I can't imagine better travel companions than Bud and Janet Simmons.

-Waking up early.  Getting to the gym by 7, out by 8:30, walking on the beach by 9, amazing breakfast buffet by 10 and spending the rest of the day reading by the pool.  I'm bringing Jill Lepore's new history of the United States.  Not exactly a poolside read, but I love Jill Lepore.

-Walking on the Malicon and checking out all the street entertainers.  I especially like the sand guys playing chess by the big Bustamante sculpture.

-Sitting on Bud and Janet's porch and bullshitting our way through an afternoon.

-Meeting Eric and Terry for dinner and talking and laughing for hours.  I want to go back to Daquiri Dick's this time.

-Speaking of.  Fish on a stick at Daquiri Dick's, the simplest and best snapper you will ever find.  In fact, everything at Daquiri Dick's.  It is a horrible name, but a great restaurant and on weekends they have really good jazz.

-As long as we're talking about food, the breakfasts at La Palapa.  I think it is the most perfect place for breakfast we know.  I think it is even better than the breakfasts at Meadowood in Napa.  We always go here on our last morning.

-Layla.  This is my favorite restaurant in town, run by this warm and wonderful lady who remembers us and always stands ready to give hugs.  Layla has the best oyster preparation I have ever had.

-Vallarta Eats.  The best food in town is on the street and Vallarta Eats is the best way to discover this.  It is impossible for me to recommend the food tours, especially the morning taco tour, highly enough.

-Rhythms of the Night.  We don't do this anymore, but when we did we loved it.  You take a great power boat ride with the stars flooding the sky and end up at an outdoor theater and buffet dinner.  The show celebrating the indian ancestry of the place and the sumptuous dinner that follows are surprisingly wonderful.

-Tino's at the lagoon.  Great fish place.  Janet absolutely loves the place.  So do we all.  If you manage to sit at a table overlooking the lagoon, you might luck out and see a crocodile or two slithering by.

-Catching a game at the sports bar on property.  We used to have to go all the way downtown, but now a playoff game is only a short walk on property away.  They have good burgers and fries.  There aren't a lot of places in PV you can say that about.

-Wednesday night art walks.  The art scene in PV is terrific and the art walk easily fills up an evening with a surprising variety of things.  Bring money.

-Detoxifying.  I don't smoke any dope down there, although I have been offered.  I also don't drink much unless we are at a restaurant.  On the other hand, I drink an alarming amount of water and eat all the fruit and fish I can get my hands on.  And since we manage to work out every morning, we come home healthier and (a little) thinner than when we left.

-Fasting from the news.  I don't read any papers.  I am never on Facebook unless I am posting photographs designed to provoke envy among my FB friends.  I try really hard not to engage in anything resembling a political conversation.  I recommend it.

-I am so happy that the four of us are not All-Inclusive Types.  The thought of going to a place as varied, vibrant, and wonderful as PV and never leaving the hotel is unbearably depressing.

-I also like getting back home and having one of my kids pick us up.

-I like opening our front door and finding that the floor hasn't been flooded, that the furnace has not exploded, the pipes haven't burst, the roof is intact, and the television turns on at a flick of a switch.

Life is good.




Thursday, January 3, 2019

#MeThree


I've had three encounters with youngish women in the past month that have made me worry a little about my white male privilege and how it plays in the world of #MeToo.  Let me be quick to add here that I don't think I deserve anyone's sympathy.  All I have to do is read my Facebook feed every day to realize how the world is overwhelmingly stacked in the favor of people like me.  Furthermore, I have learned to avoid any interaction with angry young women.  I'm on their side.  I really am, but for some reason I am not able to communicate that position convincingly.

Encounter #One

When I work out at the Y, more often than not I notice a woman in her late twenties, early thirties, who spends her entire time shooting baskets.  Of course, I've been going to the Y at a later time so as to avoid all the FoxNews Republicans there.  When I used to get to the Y by 5, there was always a full court basketball game going on.  That is presumably what athletic Republicans do in the mornings when they are not looking over their shoulders for Muslims and illegal immigrants.  The games are middle-aged and white with a few old fogies thrown in trying to relive their high school glory back in the days when America was great, men were men and women ate their young.  At that time in the morning there would be no place for the girl to shoot her hoops and I guarantee you she would not be welcome in the game.

The basketball lady is fairly tall, maybe 5'8", has a slim body with powerful legs, and long brown hair in a pony tail.  She looks like she played college basketball, high school basketball at the very least.  I say that because SHE NEVER MISSES!  She rotates around the three point arc and swishes one jumper after another.  I'm waiting to see her dunk.  I know why those morning cagers wouldn't invite her to play.  She would kick their collective asses.

I walked by her the other day on my way to the weight room.  She drained four three pointers in the time it took me to walk across the gym.  I caught her eye and said "You're amazing!  Don't you ever miss?"  She barely acknowledged my existence, turned back toward the basket and drained another three.  She reminded me of Jimmy, the hot shot in HOOSIERS who refused to answer anything Gene Hackman asked him.

I was immediately sorry I said anything.  She probably thought I was just mansplaining stuff to her and being a condescending asshole like all men.  I wish I had had the confidence to tell her that her sex had nothing to do with my admiration.  I would have told her the same thing if she had been a man.  The thing is I've never seen a man shoot like that in the flesh.

Encounter #Two

I'm pretty good friends, I'm a little sorry to say, with the folks at our local liquor store.  We always make lame jokes about the Broncos and Rockies, discuss new beers, single malt scotches, the usual.  There are two young guys, a good old boy, and one twenty something girl who manages to hold her own in this all male bastion.  I went in the other day to restock and the girl was alone behind the counter.  Where she usually looks happy and smiles when she keys in my club number, this day she looked sad.  Her eyes were a little moist and she didn't act like she knew me.

There was obviously something wrong, but I didn't say anything.  I didn't ask her if anything was wrong.  I didn't  tell her to smile.  I've learned my lesson about telling women to smile!  Never again! The thing is, I felt kind of bad about my reaction.  I felt like I let her down.  I'm happy to report that I was at the store just yesterday (stocking up again) and she seemed fine.

Encounter #Three

I went to ACE Hardware yesterday to have some keys made.  It was a devastating experience.

First of all, it was a bitterly cold morning and before I went to ACE, I had to take our tree to a park in Littleton to have it mulched.  Therefore, I was wearing an old pair of wool lined warm-up pants that were a little too short.  I had an old pair of hiking boots on that were a little too ratty and to top it off I was wearing a bumpy wool sweater and one of those hats you see Inuits wearing while driving sled dogs.  In short, I looked like an old person who can't cope with extremes in weather any more.

When I walked into ACE, I got immediately confused.  They've changed the place since the last time I was there.  I mentioned that to the sweet teen-aged girl at the counter after I negotiated the maze of shelving units and candy displays leading to the register.

"It's been this way for three years, sir," the girl explained to me with an increasingly warm smile spreading across her face.

"Oh, don't mind me," I said.  "I guess I'm just getting delusional."  I noticed the girl nod at that information.

She made the keys and asked me if I needed them to be separated in plastic bags so I wouldn't get confused.

"No need.  I'll remember."  I carefully put the keys in separate pockets and patted the pockets several times to make sure they were still there.

She rang up the bill and I handed her my card.

"Sir," she gently explained, "just run it through the machine over there."  Her smile was growing warmer.

"Oh, I'm sorry.  I just didn't see it."  I ran my card and noticed the relieved look on the girl's face when I remembered my code.

I picked up my stuff and started back through the maze.

"Sir," her smile beaming now, "just use the door over there.  The one that says EXIT."

I wanted to tell her that ordinarily I am a really cool person.  She just caught me on a bad day.

It's the first time someone looked at me as if they were mentally going through the steps for CPR,  just in case.  I toddled home determined never to set foot in that store or talk to that smart ass little girl again.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Canon Fodder

I read a disturbing article by Casey Cep in The New Yorker a few days ago.  It examined some of the history behind Harper Lee's father, the autobiographical inspiration for Atticus Finch.  A lot of articles about To Kill a Mockingbird have been published lately in reaction to the opening of the play on Broadway with Jeff Daniels in the Gregory Peck role.  This article, however, did not come to praise Atticus, but to bury him.  Wait.  That's an exaggeration.  The article, "Power of Attorney," showed that Lee's portrayal of her father was, to put it mildly, idealized.  Lee's father may have started out as a liberal Democrat, but he ended up applauding the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys and even joining a thinly veiled chapter of the Klan as a reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education.

But that was not the most troubling part of the piece.  Cep suggested that Mockingbird "is now a kind of secular scripture, one of only a handful of texts most Americans have in common."  I find it incredibly depressing that Mockingbird would be the text most Americans have read.  I read it as a junior high kid and I taught it to freshmen.  It was readable, occasionally clever, filled with great speeches and as such, easy to teach.  But I didn't like the whole idea of a wise and wonderful white father figure helping a poor black guy.  My favorite line in Cep's article is when she suggests that the real tragedy for the white readers of the book isn't that a black man dies, but that a white man loses his case.

But that's enough about the book.  The other troubling thing is the whole idea of a literary Canon that Americans should share.  It used to be just accepted in department meetings and college classrooms that there are some books that simply should be read.  Of course, we couldn't agree on what those books might be, but it was fun to talk about.  Toward the end of my career, that changed.  I know I'm beginning to sound like an old curmudgeon, the kind of person I went into education to overthrow, but I noticed that in department meetings with baby teachers, the idea of a Canon was anathema.  Kids should be allowed to choose their books.  That's the only way to get them interested. Blah, blah, blah.

I argued for the value of reading assigned books as a class precisely because I believed in and continue to believe in the idea of a Canon.  Even if the idea is absurd, reading books in concert with others fosters critical thinking and that's what I was trying to teach.  As a literature teacher, I think a lot of the tribalization of our country is because we have lost sight of a Canon.  What follows is a list of books that are my nominees for inclusion in the Canon.

First, some rules.  I'm a literature teacher, so my choices will all be fiction.  Since this is a list of books we all should have under our belts, the reading level can never rise above the eighth grade (Most published books are at that level anyway.).  My choices may not have footnotes or bibliographies.  That pretty much eliminates David Foster Wallace and all works by Thomas Pynchon.  My choices will obviously be limited to American authors.  Most importantly, my choices are simply that.  My choices.  However, I think the world would be a better place if we all, like one giant book club, read them over coffee and cookies.

THE EGG AND I - Betty McDonald
-Both my mother and grandmother insisted I read this very funny little book.  I was only about nine or ten, so my memory is sketchy, but it is about the trials and tribulations a lady has running her chicken farm and her family.  It made me laugh and if I was being pompous I could say that it gave me a rudimentary understanding of life in rural America.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN - Betty Smith
-I read this about the same time I read McDonald's book and for the same reason:  Mother and grandmother twisting my arm.  To this day it is one of the funniest books I  have ever read.  It does for life in the big city what the first book does for the farm.

THE LORAX - Dr. Seuss
-This is just the most obvious choice to list, but I think all of Dr. Seuss should be included on the list. There is just no way that Donald Trump and the rest of the Republicans in Washington have read any of Dr. Seuss' work.  Instead of starting congressional sessions with the pledge, wouldn't we all be better off if they all did a choral reading of Green Eggs and Ham?  I would also include here the complete oeuvre of Pete the Cat.

THE SCARLET LETTER - Nathaniel Hawthorne
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN - Mark Twain
THE GREAT GATSBY - F. Scott Fitzgerald
-I list these together because they are the obvious choices on any Canon of American literature.  Furthermore, I don't need to say why.  I might want to include something by Sinclair Lewis here, or Hemingway.  The names are all familiar and, for canonical purposes, pretty much interchangeable.

MY LIFE AND HARD TIMES - James Thurber
-I think our drearily exceptional country is suffering from a lack of wit.  No one is better at wit than Thurber, plus his collection of pithy stories make great humor pieces to read if you ever find yourself in a forensics tournament.  As long as we are being witty, I would strongly suggest Phillip Roth.  I just didn't think it would be appropriate to put Portnoy's Complaint in a Canon.

THE BLUEST EYE - Toni Morrison
-Her most accessible and maybe most beautiful novel.  Morrison has to be on the list not only because she speaks so movingly and with such authority about race, but because she writes better sentences than anybody.

CIDERHOUSE RULES - John Irving
-Irving's best novel.  It, like everything he has written, is an epic that explores moral issues that need exploring.  We need to make our own rules rather than ignore the ones written by others.

CATCH-22 - Joseph Heller
-This is the most difficult book to read on my list.  It is also funny, violent, sexy, horrifying, and hopelessly confusing.  Just like life.

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY - John Steinbeck
-The quintessential book about America.  It is also a great book to read by the fire.  I would add here that this book violates my all fiction rule.  So sue me.

INVISIBLE MAN - Ralph Ellison
-A monumental piece of writing that also happens to chronicle racial tensions in the mid-twentieth century.

Okay.  There could be more women on this list.  More black authors.  I don't have a single hispanic author!  I could always go back and add some, but that would be cheating.  The south is under represented, but most southern novels I know are above the reading ability of lots of folks.  I don't think Faulkner would be a good choice here.  You will notice that To Kill a Mockingbird is nowhere on my list.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

This is Katherine so don't be confused.  Now and then I hijack Jim's place here and write something.  This is one of those days.

I've polished off another bunch of books and thought I'd do some quick reviews while I can still remember the books.  Nothing inspirational today.

1.  Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, Non-fiction. The first half of the book covers the psychology of System 1 (intuitive and speedy) and System 2 (analytical and lazy). The last part of the book connects to economics.  People prefer to avoid losses more than they seek gains.  Kahneman's work suggests people are reasonable, but not rational because their thinking lacks consistency (go figure). Libertarians vote based on the idea that we all will behave reasonably and that economic "nudges" in policy will drive rational thought. The book uses things like seat belt laws and social security as examples of policy increasing rational thought.  I learned some things, but the second half about economics was tedious for me. There's a lot of conservative rationalization in how the author argues for policy to limit safety nets for struggling folks. The writer is a prize-winning economist so I'm thinking if conservative economics are your thing, go for it.  It's several years old so I bet you can find it on sale. One more note, this book is in stark contrast to the psychology book I'm reading now (Why Buddhism is True) which says people are driven by evolutionary needs and we prefer pleasure because it is so fleeting.  Two Stars.

2.  The Monk of Mokah, Dave Eggers, Non-fiction.  Jim read this one after I did, but got a review up first.  His is more thorough.  I loved this book about an American son of Yemeni immigrants who returns to his country to try and create a great coffee from his homeland. He wants to restore Yemeni coffee to its glory days. Moktar (our hero) goes from being a San Francisco doorman to a successful brewer of specialty coffee. I learned about Yemen (war torn, but lovely in the mountains), coffee (how to grow and sort and roast and taste it), and the determination of this child of immigrants. Loved the book.  Four Stars.

3.  The Possessed, Elif Shafik, Non-fiction (I think). This seems to be a non-fiction book about a graduate student studying Russian Literature. She explores the lives and books of the Russian greats while mastering the language. Like me, she believes in the power of literature to heal and to pull you into so much more than a story.  Her life moves between books, boyfriends, campuses, and Russian landscapes. Her insights into Russian Lit are intriguing and make the tragic nature of it all more real and understandable.  I learned stuff and she writes good sentences. Not sure this is for everyone and I only picked it up because I read Anna Karenina not too long ago. I was sad this book never really discussed Tolstoy. Three Stars.

4. Birding Without Borders, Noah Strycker, Non-Fiction. I bought this book more to review the geography of the world rather than to learn about birds.  I learned so much about both, but the true lessons were about how wonderful people are all over the world and how much they will try to help you.  It made me feel sad about all the travel fears our country promotes and our fears of being any place without the comforts of home.  Str├Ącker moves through the world at a breathtaking pace notching off bird sightings (always confirmed by another viewer for verification's sake).  In each flight from one dinky spot to the next, local guides showed up when and where Strycker needed them and created miniature friendships. The geography and birds were both wondrous and Strycker limits what he shares perfectly. I really liked this book.  Four Stars.

5.  Many Lives, Many Masters, Brian Weiss, Non-fiction. Another psychology book. Our lives have messages and we just might not really know or understand what those messages are.  Weiss, a psychiatrist, leads a troubled patient, Catherine, through about 12 of her 86 previous lives.  He learns our lives have lessons and debts and we return to other lives for learning and repaying debts. Paying a debt can take many forms--living the type of life you imposed on another, dying the way you killed someone, or helping to guide another through a life from a different dimension as some sort of guardian angel. Most lessons are about overcoming greed, lust, and violence and evolving to unselfishness, love, charity and hope.  There is nothing religious in the book, but it feels very Buddhist to me. I read it on the advice of Terry Connell, a friend and acupuncturist,  I'd felt a real presence in the room when he treated me once and he told me about the book.  There is more about that, but not now:)  Four Stars.

6. The Fortunate Ones, Ellen Unmansky. Fiction.  This one reminded me a bit of The Goldfinch because it explores the power of art and how owning a great piece of art can change you. In fact the book talks about how art and history (both personal and of the world) change you.  The story covers how two women of two different generations each owned a famous painting (a fictional painting credited to Chaim Soutine). Rose's mother owned and loved the painting and it was lost to the Nazi's along with most of her family in Vienna. Lizzie, a hip California lawyer, threw a teenage party in the 60's the night the same painting was stolen from her father's house. When the two women meet and discover their connection, a lovely friendship blooms.  A good book.  Three Stars.

7. Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew, Non-Fiction.   This is a powerful account of the growth of the while supremacy movement from the Viet Nam War until the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh. The data is overwhelming.  The book documents the outrage of some Viet Nam vets and the growth of single-cell organization that made all the violence seem to be lone wolf behavior. Anti-abortion is the preservation of the white race and many defense positions were based on "protecting white women" who were complicit in the violence.  The theft from military bases (weapons), the use of the internet, the ability to recruit evangelicals and skinheads, and the fury over Ruby Ridge and Waco drive the movement.  Now we have Donald Trump.  A powerful and important book.  Not happy. Also Kathleen was a former student. We both are so incredibly proud. Four Stars.

8.  The Disappeared. C. J. Box. Fiction.  Joe Pickett books (he's a Wyoming game ranger) are my guilty pleasures. There's one a year. They aren't great, but he's covered all of Wyoming and I love learning the nooks and crannies of that state.  This one sends Joe to Saratoga to look for a missing British lady who vanished after a stay at a guest ranch.  Nate Romanowski and his falcons come into play in the story and I always enjoy that. He' a vicious good guy:) I like this one until the end.  There was no end. Now I wait until May for the next book.  C. J. Box just lost a star for that.  Two Stars.

9.  Less, Andrew Sean Greer, Fiction. Cindy Fite recommended this one.  I liked it.  The book follows Arthur Less around the world as he nears his 50th birthday.  Less is feeling low and lost.  He lover (Freddy and the ultimate narrator) has left him and Less is traveling the world to heal his wounds. Less thinks about loss, writing, grief, love, and age. He learns everybody does really like him.  It's a nice book.  Three Stars.

10.  An Odyssey, Daniel Mendelsohn, Non-Fiction.  A classics professor invites his father to audit his seminar reading The Odyssey. The book combines thoughtful literary criticism of Homer's work.  I thought about the meaning of words, the nature of heroes, the importance of recognition, and marriage. There were lots of times the book made me think about Jim and I as we age. The later part of the book, Mendelsohn takes his father on a cruise that supposedly retraces the Odyssey and ends all too naturally with the father's death.  I loved this book.  I even briefly thought about re-reading the Odyssey.  Four Stars.

11.  The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer, Fiction.  I don't know why I bought the book.  Then I read the whole book.  I know I read a review that indicated it was about the history of the artists who work for the army and draw battle scenes and that intrigued me.  A character does that, but this is a pulp fiction, government conspiracy, silly short chapter book that I'm ashamed I read even though it was a big best seller.  Sometimes I wish I knew how to just quit reading a book.  I just can't do it though.  One Star.

That's it.  I managed 21 books last year.  I count:)





Sunday, November 18, 2018

Aesthetic Distance


This country has a problem with maintaining aesthetic distance.  Let me explain.  I'm a literaturist.  That is another way of saying I am a retired English teacher.  As an English teacher, I tried to teach my students that in order to evaluate and write about literature (Art) they must first manage to distance themselves from the work.  They must allow themselves to be arrested by the work.  That's what Beauty does; that's what Truth does.  They make the viewers of Art step back and look at the work as it is frozen in time and space.

One must shed all preconceptions, all history, all expectations in order to fully appreciate the work in question.  Without the aesthetic distance, the meaning of the work is informed by the viewer instead of the work itself.  You see examples of this all the time.  There was a woman at Jenny Lake once who was appalled to find me reading Cormac McCarthy's THE CROSSING because it was cruel to wolves and she happened to love wolves.  I've had a few female students and female friends who could not deal with CATCH-22 because Yossarian treated women like objects.  Some folks complain about HUCK FINN because it peppers its pages with the N word.

I can't abide the reader who has to stop half way through a book because it makes him uncomfortable.  You know, the attitude that says "I can't read OLD YELLER because I once had a dog who died."  "I can't watch SCHINDLER'S LIST because I lost my grandmother in The Holocaust."  "I can't watch MY COUSIN VINNIE because my cousin used to drive a Cadillac just like that before he got hit by a train."  "I can't watch SISTER ACT because the nuns at my  Catholic school were mean to me."

Sometimes we should look at moments of Beauty, Truth, and Clarity as exactly what they are: isolated moments that make us sit up and take notice, that make us say "Wow!  I wish I had created that."

Look at MADAME BOVARY for example.  There is that horrible scene where Emma's bumbling husband Charles is talked into making Homais' club foot all better.  The snapping of Homais' Achilles  Tendon is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever read.  I cringe.  I get angry.  I feel sorry for Homais.  I feel sorry for Charles.  I know this is not going to end well.  I feel all those things because that is exactly what Flaubert wants me to feel.  But mostly I feel elation.  Elation that a member of my species could create something that moving.  That is what I mean by aesthetic distance.  It was the way I felt when I saw my first opera (MIDSUMMER NIGHT DREAM - Benjamin Britton).  I didn't get offended because I used to dream about strange stuff.  I just got transfixed, arrested.

Maintaining aesthetic distance is also important in negotiating daily life, especially given the tribalism that characterizes so much of what we do lately.  For instance, we all learned the other day that Trump didn't go to Arlington on Memorial Day.  The reactions on social media and main stream media were immediate and completely informed by partisan rancor, revenge, vindication, and the entire history of presidential behavior.  "Obama went every year!"  "So what if it was raining, here is a picture of Kennedy standing in the rain."  "Our soldiers don't get to stay home if it is raining."  "Just another example of Trump thinking only of himself."  Etc.

Wouldn't it be better if we just treated that action, or inaction, like what it was, an isolated moment that really doesn't mean much?  Maybe he had a good reason.  Why should we care?

And the real problem with this dearth of aesthetic distancing is that humor depends on it.  If I watch a Three Stooges movie and end up worrying through the whole thing that Moe is being unfair to Curly, that Curly must really feel pain when Moe keeps slapping him, that one of them could get seriously hurt and put an eye out, I'm probably going to miss the humor of the whole thing.  It follows that if I look at the world through the filter of my causes, my certainties, my outrages, my VICTIMHOOD, I'm going to miss a nuance or two.

Remember the NEW YORKER cover when Obama first won the presidency?  Barack and Michelle, dressed in Muslim garb, are laughing and fist bumping each other.  I was up at Jenny when the magazine first came out and Michael, the assistant manager, came breathlessly up to me to show me the outrageous image.  My daughter, Obama's trip director, was similarly outraged.  But that's because they were not able to maintain an aesthetic distance from the issue.  I had not made the same investment into Obama that my daughter had and I was able to see it for the rather brilliant piece of satire it was.

I'm afraid that seeing things for the brilliant satire they present is no longer a wise move in today's America.  As a recipient of White Male Privilege, my opinions about a wealth of things no longer matter.  I can weigh in on #MeToo only at great risk.  Since I am not a woman, since I haven't been systematically put down and made to feel inferior, I have no right to an opinion.  It is just like the white artist who created a powerful image of Emmit Till until the museum was forced to take it down.  White artists have no right to comment on the travails of black people.

I truly believe it is possible to "walk a mile in another person's moccasins" through the pages of a book, through a lifetime of learning to be empathetic.  I almost think it is more possible.  Sometimes baggage just gets in the way.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Hey, Why The Long Face


I got into one of those dumb Facebook wars yesterday.  Katherine keeps telling me not to engage, but I am just too immature to resist.  The situation in a nutshell:  Katie Hoffman, one of my all time favorite people, posted that some strange man had told her to smile and it pissed her off.  I understand her reaction completely.  I hate to smile, always have.  I'm 70 years old and the years of smoking, drinking coffee and red wine, plus deteriorating 70 year old enamel, have made me ashamed of my smile.  Don't worry.  I'll cope.  Anyway, the strange man was being rather presumptuous to tell some stranger to smile.  Katie should have told  him to fuck off and gone about her business.

Katie's post gave me no problems, but the stream of reactions struck me as being all out of proportion to the actual event Katie described.  It was typical of a culture that systematically hurts women, a bunch of folks said.  It was just another indication that women have to make themselves look pretty for men.  It was a sexual assault.  The anger, outrage, and fury were evident throughout and I thought it was a little silly, so I made a typical, for me, smart ass comment.  I mentioned that strange women and men have asked me to smile from time to time during my seventy years and I never felt condescension; I just assumed they were coming on to me.  I also suggested that a possible solution to the problem would be to look happy while walking down the street.  Finally, I mentioned that Katherine and I used to give bonus F's to kids who didn't smile and look happy in class.

I was mostly trying to reduce the arguments on the stream to the absurdities they were, but all hell broke loose.  A few of the ladies on the stream were more than a little outraged that I gave F's to kids who didn't smile.  Let me explain.  Sophomore Language Arts offered speech and drama credit, so a big part of our curriculum was designed to meet speech objectives set by the county and the state.  It became a discussion class with an equal stress on  participation and active listening.  We would have one forced contribution discussion a week and the kids were given grades both as a group and as individuals.  If everyone in the group participated, added comments, encouraged others, and basically acted like adults having a discussion, everyone in the group got an A.  If even one person did not participate, did not encourage others, did not listen and have the kind of body language that proclaimed his/her eager cooperation, everyone in the group got an F.  We were labeled communists, terrorists, etc., but by the end of the first quarter a visitor could walk into any of our classrooms and see 25 kids sitting in a circle, maintaining eye contact, nodding, smiling, doing all those kinds of things.  Mostly, you could see 25 kids engaged and having fun.  Katherine and I were pragmatic teachers and we did whatever it took.  So sue me.

Of course, most of the outrage was directed at the fact that I was making fun of women for freaking out when someone asked them to smile.  I guess as a man, I'm not entitled to participate in a discussion centering on sexual predation.  I even had the temerity to suggest that some of the participants in the stream did not have a sense of humor.  I learned immediately that telling a woman she doesn't have a sense of  humor is the biggest sexual assault trope of all.

And then it was suggested that I did not have a sense of humor.  No sense of humor?  Moi?  Please!  So I ended my participation in the stream by offering my favorite joke as proof of my highly developed sense of humor.  You  will find it quite germane to the whole discussion:  A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, "Hey, why the long face?"  You can easily see why my classroom was such a hotbed of jocularity.

My final reaction to all this is a question and I really wish someone would answer it without resorting to calling me names or telling me how disappointed they are in me.  One person on the stream, a former student, even said she was sad to see how sexist I had become.  Don't be sad, Bucko.  The Dems took the House.

My question:  If a man asking a woman he doesn't know to smile is sexual assault, what isn't?  In Willa's first year of preschool, I went to her school to watch her participate in a fun run.  I was standing by the course with my daughter Franny and another mother of one of Willa's classmates.  The mother was furious because on the playground the previous day some of the boys were trying to put rocks in the girls' mouths.  I suppose they were trying to get them to eat dirt.  The mother was planning to complain to the principal that Ms. Barb did not properly discipline the boys.  "It's just another example of rape culture at work," said the mother.  I'm sorry, but I think that reaction is absurd.

Okay, putting rocks in four year old mouths is tantamount to rape.  What else?  I am actually quite polite and always hold the door open for people of both genders.  When I hold the door open for a woman, is that just a way to show male condescension?  If I tell some lady, even some lady I have never seen before, that I love her hair, am I traumatizing her.  People of both genders tell Kathie they love her hair all the time.  Should she be offended by that?  Kathie was having a hard time putting our Kitchen Aid mixer together two days ago and I stepped in and did it for her without even asking.  Is that a particularly egregious example of Mansplaining?  I went with C. Fite to see Kathleen Belew's book talk at the Tattered Cover.  We had drinks and snacks in the little bar next door and I think I might have picked up the tab.  Isn't that the height of male dominance on display?

I suppose there are right ways to tell some stranger to smile.

"It's a beautiful day out there isn't it?  Doesn't it make you want to smile?"

"Smile!  It's another glorious day in Colorado!"

"Hi there.  It's a great day to be alive isn't it?  You just can't keep from smiling."

And there are wrong ways.

"Smile, goddammit.  You're depressing the hell out of everyone on the street."

"Stop being such a grouch and smile why don't you?"

"Hello!  Do you think you could smile a little instead of being such a sourpuss?"

And there are appropriate ways to respond.

"Why it is a beautiful day isn't it?"

"Thank you and let a smile be your umbrella."  (gag)

"Hey, let me show you where you can put your smile."

"Fuck you, asshole."

I'm truly sorry if I offended or disappointed anyone in that Facebook stream yesterday, but I just don't see how it is possible to conflate asking someone to smile with sexual assault.  Maybe the strange man who pissed Katie off was feeling like Dick Van Dyke and was encouraging everyone he met to "Put On A Happy Face."