Monday, April 28, 2008

IFF Boston Makes Me Good and Uncomfortable

I saw two documentaries at the International Film Festival this weekend. The first, The Linguists, is about guys who hunt down and document dying languages by interviewing their last remaining speakers. Although I had some difficulty with the organization--editing, I guess--the content was mesmerizing and I was thrown into that very delicate and wondrous field of questioning: what about our thinking can we learn from our words? What similarities are there, really, in human experience, if our languages are so different? Or are they not so different? Who decides the criteria for these questions?
At one point the linguists found out that a nearly extinct language they didn't know much about had a counting system of base 12...oh no, base 20...oh wait, BOTH base 12 and base 20. It was the most complicated counting system they'd encountered, and their visible glee was infectious. And also, I does this arise? Is it totally random, or does it have some origin in the natural world? What's the meaning of some groups using base 10 (that's us!), others using base 12? Or is there no meaning at all? I need to read more, obviously, since I imagine there are reams of pages already attacking these questions. It was exciting to be plunged for a few moments into the field. The Q&A included both the director and one of the linguists featured in the film, so we got some really interesting answers about the state of the research in addition to stories about the making of the film. I felt not quite smart enough to "get" what was happening, which is actually kind of a pleasurable experience for nerdy little me.
I also got very invested in a conversation I had with friends afterward, in which we struggled with the problem of white Euro/American scientists traveling to post-colonial communities to "preserve" culture. Despite the ostensible scientific intentions of the linguists themselves, the practice appears to skirt just on the edge of an "imperialist nostalgia" that very much disturbed my friend Katie. (Imperialist nostalgia, if I can butcher/borrow a definition, involves people mourning the passing or transformation of what they themselves have caused to be transformed. It's about the conquerors wishing they could still see the quaint little dance shows the natives used to do, before they all got killed, then rushing out to ask the native grandmas to please teach everyone those dances, the way they used to apologies to Maria Koundoura, in whose kick-ass class I learned the term.) So, how do we understand two American scientists hunting down languages that are going extinct due to colonialization, then simultaneously "giving" the recordings of the language back to the speakers (in forms they can technologically support) and also archiving the languages at major Western universities? It sounds totally awesome and heroic, and also, brings up these very sticky questions about how to non-destructively engage communities that have been involved in complex colonial relationships. None of that, really, was discussed in the film--that's why I like education and my friends!
The second film was called "Sex Positive," (don't try to get into the website, you'll be "Forbidden," which is a hilarious language coincidence). Sex Positive chronicled the sordid and very strange history of Richard Berkowitz, one of the pioneers of the safe sex movement. You can read more about the film and Berkowitz in an article by Jim Duncan here. What I'd like to address is actually a very strange moment that happened during the Q&A. As it turns out, the filmmakers are a ridiculously adorable, young heterosexual couple who got turned on to Berkowitz as a subject because the female partner has known him as a family friend her whole life. In fact, prior to the film the two of them knew little-to-nothing about the field of sex research, safe sex campaigns, the gay community circa 1979, and so on, and don't consider themselves AIDS or safe-sex activists. They originally wanted to make a film about Berkowitz being a former S&M hustler, like, uh, anybody would. They changed their tune a bit, and cranked out the movie in less than a year. There was a palpable tension to the questions, once viewers realized this. It seemed as though nearly all of us in the audience (and I include myself, as a sex educator and writer) had some background in the "field," and we expected poor Daryl Wein to be One Of Us. Maybe he is now, sort of, but it was clear by the total relief on his face when people started asking him about his next film (a narrative, and nothing whatsoever to do with sexual politics, safe sex, or AIDS) that he never intended to make his career be about this subject matter. I was reminded of how often people who engage in works that address these issues are turned into talking heads, mouthpieces, Sex Expert on what-have-you, even if their actual field of expertise is only overlapping, or neighboring. It's a very compelling reason for some, I expect, to steer clear of including explicit sex in their movies and books, to steer clear of having gay characters, to never once try and ask questions about gender. I admire people like Jeffrey Eugenides who can write Middlesex, and still, in general, be regarded as a great literary fiction writer, without getting pigeonholed into being Someone Who Writes About Sex and Gender. It's all so tricky, and makes me grateful that I get to write manuscripts, not marketing or promo material, where much of this categorization and labeling gets done.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Litter of Small Failures

In the past two weeks I have had a continual bout of failing: failing to blog at my promised once-a-week pace, failing to stay healthy, failing to work on my novel for the promised number of hours, failing to call people back, write people back, finish projects, take care of business, clean up, work out, and so on.
Today I gave my students a hand out, of which I had made over 100 copies, that has an incredibly conspicuous and confusing word out of place--nothing Freudian or funny, just "Fair" and "Good" switched on a grading continuum.
I'm doing my darndest to maintain that aplomb I see in people I admire, that grace in the midst of what is actually floundering. But I think, frankly, that it's harder for me to accept a string of small failures than some large, grand one. I like things to be large and grand.
Anyway, one small failure in particular I'd like to discuss is my recent bout of hating to play the game Scrabble. Keep in mind: I am of a certain language-loving ilk, and many of my kind also are avid crossword players, Scrabble afficionados, Word-of-The-Day enthusiasts. Somehow, I hate these things. I love language, yes. I hate crosswords. I hate Scrabble. I hate word-games that force me to divorce meaning from the words I love so much. With the exception of Tony, who has recently admitted to also hating Scrabble, but not crosswords, particularly, I am quite alone in this general disgruntlement, among my writer-friends, as far as I know.
So. In an effort to try and re-enter this land of word-play (Maybe I'm missing something of deep intellectual importance! Maybe it will improve my memory! Maybe I can expand my vocabulary! Maybe I don't like words enough after all!) I agreed to play a game of scrabble with four friends on a recent Friday evening.
I made them agree, however, to play a new version, which I coined "Sharing Scrabble." In this version of the game, every word that you put on the board you must then incorporate into a story about yourself. If you have no personal connection to the word, you make one up. For the most part, this aspect of the game was a pleasure for me--there's nothing like eliciting confessions from people I care about.
But I still hate the rest! It takes so long! I don't understand the gleeful triumph of winning! I don't like points, especially when I don't really know how to get them! I don't know enough Greek letters or archaic adjectives to even compete with the weird Scrabble-vocabulary of my friends! And I would rather just listen to them talk about their lives, or books they've read, then find out they were hiding "Qi" somewhere in their little wooden hands.
I will say that I had a small personal triumph, in the face of my crushing loss (at the game, and at liking the game) in the moment that I laid the word "pudenda" on the board.
If I don't like Sharing Scrabble, I don't think there's any hope I'll be converted to the plain-old version, even the speed version. I'm ready to claim that there's no enlightening or constructive value to the game for me. I'm almost ready to say there's no enlightening or constructive value to the game at all, just to elicit some outcry and justification.
Why is this game so beloved? Is it like Coca-Cola (Beloved even though it is morally and nutritionally bereft)? Or is it like soccer (Beloved for reasons I feel compelled to understand, even if I never feel an affinity for the game itself)? In other words, is this my failure to appreciate something that deserves my attention, or does the culpability lie with the Scrabble-players, who could and should use their word-power to more creative ends?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Love to SARK and an Ode to Mentoring

It's a matter of public record that my godmother, who happens to also be a bestselling author-artist named SARK, is totally awesome. You can go to Planet Sark to figure out why, if you're not already sure.

But I'm not writing today about her career, which is impressive and exciting and inspiring. I'm thinking about the incredible value of having her around to mentor me through life changes, like the one I'm careening towards right now. I'm thinking about how sad it is that our culture seems suspicious of mentors, if they exist outside of academia or professional spheres.

I spent my young childhood in Berkeley, California, surrounded by both single adults and families. I wasn't deeply invested in the nuclear family as a goal to shoot for in my own life, because I had divorced parents who had mastered the art of creating separate and equally loving homes. I bounced around. At Mom's house, we lived with the same two other roommates for nine years. Sandy and Kaki (yes, me and big sis made up the second nickname) were single female friends in their thirties who had moved in together to save money. They worked in interesting fields, played generously with Erica and I, had "family dinners" with us at night, and never, in my memory, presented with anxieties about being single. We had various other people live with us, and we moved a few times, but even when we moved away from Sandy and Kaki because of my mother's remarriage, I considered them part of a certain stable family unit. I still see them, and will always love them. In a very concrete way, living with them taught me that mentoring friendships, relationships between adults and younger people outside their family, matter.

I met SARK when I was 11. This story is also a matter of public record, since I must have told it at least 75 times. We met at the San Francisco Book Festival. She called me an "angel," and told me to write to her. I didn't. I was too intimidated. At the same Festival the following year, she remembered me, and asked why I hadn't written. I lied, and claimed my letter "must have been lost in the mail." (Ten years later, when I finally admitted this, to shocked laughter, she held a glass of water over my head for a second, so, so tempted to tip it...) I was buying the same posters I'd bought from her the year before, because my belongings had been destroyed in a house fire. She clucked, "Well, I'm going to give you some presents," and loaded me up with books, posters, SARK stationary, and asked me again to write.

This time I did. She invited me to visit her at her Magic Cottage in San Francisco, and the story keeps going from there. In a nutshell: we became friends, in a beautifully unique way, which had some precedent in my life, but none in my culture at large, that I know of.

When I was 23, and had planned my trip to Thailand, SARK (now Susan) and I were out to dinner in Santa Barbara. She expressed some sadness that she had not been included in my emails to family about the trip. "I'd like some more rights," she said, smiling. "I want to be one of the people who hears things right away." She suggested that I become a godchild. We'd been in a deeply intimate mentoring friendship for ten years, and it finally had a name that made sense to the rest of the world. It also makes very good sense to us--there's nothing Catholic about the designation. Susan was already bound to me by spiritual contract, and now we've got some external agreements, too.

Last week I called her and requested a half-hour of her time to help me with some life-decisions. I didn't expect her to be "objective," but to be able to ask me questions that would elicit more of my own desires and fears about moving back to California, or staying in Boston another year. There are many factors to consider here: job offer, relationship, where to live, financial issues, writing my novel, and so on. We talked for 40 minutes. I came away with valuable clarity. I also came away with the deeply grounding feeling of her love for me, her unflappable belief in my right to a creative life, and her utter calm in the face of issues that had been causing me some real anxiety.
I wonder if one of the reasons our bond grew so strong is that we chose each other. This is the main difference between us and other godparent relationships: my parents had very little to do with it. They didn't choose Susan for me. They weren't friends with her first. They supported my growing friendship with Susan, helped me visit her, asked friendly, interested questions about her, and developed their own connections with her. When I was fourteen they helped me travel to the Bahamas, on my own, to celebrate Susan's 40th birthday with a group of people all older than me. I never felt my parents were attempting to intrude or regulate what happened when Susan and I were together. They trusted me, consciously or not, to pursue that friendship out of a desire for growth, not out of an insecurity about my own family. They never insulated me from other adults, for which I will always be slightly amazed and totally reverent.

I worry about the American suspicion of adults who care for children. It seems that adults who enjoy children, or who have particular children with whom they bond, are only the subject of scandal. Unless you are already a parent, or a teacher, somehow you are supposed to stay respectfully clear of the developing young minds around you. Without parental control, or the credentials of an official mentoring program, you have no right to have your own friendship with a young person. I feel especially sad for young men, who can't even babysit without suspicion. American movies that involve some kind of non-academic mentoring from an unafilliated adult rarely depict something healthy. I'd be so grateful if you came up with rebuttals here. I'm also looking for films or texts from other cultures that include mentoring, of any kind. I know that the trope of the sexual mentor has been played out many times--and I'll check those out too, but I'm looking more for friendships between older and younger people that are depicted as loving, fruitful, having some longevity, and existing outside a familial, professional, or sexual structure. I'd love to hear personal stories, if you've got them.

My friendship with Susan changes as we age. There are new arenas of exciting collaboration opening up now, and shifts in our roles in each others' lives. The layers of intimacy keep peeling back and folding in, and I'm so, so grateful, and so glad.