Sunday, March 29, 2009

Return to the Expanse

A Venezia, e due belli cappuccini.

I've been in a cabin for three days, writing, doing yoga, talking through some principles and emotions with Linz and Anth. The pictures above are from our Italia trip last year, and the thread that connects is Louis: he took the one in Venice, and the second cappucino is his. He was present by phone, and also in our consciousness and conversation all weekend. I chose these pictures to introduce what I'm thinking about because on the trip to Italy I had a profound, concrete experience of the abstract idea of the Return to the Expanse. It was echoed strongly this weekend and I'm reminded of it almost every time I leave my home for a few days and am engaged with a new space.

The first photo is an example of something I and most people I know love to do: take in a view. It's a vista, a moment of largeness and a representation of the sense of awe one feels at the sheer magnitude of beauty that is possible. People hike mountains and go to beaches for this, they eat at rooftop restaurants, they stare out the windows of planes, they build huge windows on the front of hillside properties and they make their ceilings higher and higher still. But it is a condition of wealth in our country to have access to The View--you can't travel, live on a hill, etc. without money. We associate the richness of beauty in The View directly with financial riches even though, of course, people can hike in parks for free or sit on their own roofs. But it's very stark when we're paying for our spaces: book a cabin on a cruise ship and the main thing you pay for is? The View. Book a beachfront hotel room? The View. Buy a house in the Hollywood Hils? The View. And I think the conflation of material magnificence (the aesthetic joy of encountering something so vast as an ocean, city skyline, etc. in the physical world) and materialist priorities (demonstration of wealth in the access to/ownership of the ocean, skyline, etc.) is deeply embedded in our culture. I think most Americans would have trouble separating the joy of seeing the ocean from the pleasure of being wealthy enough to make it to the ocean, even if they tried hard. Even tougher to separate the aesthetic and materialist pleasures when you OWN the View.

Of course the opposite to The View is something small, contained, and therefore undesireable. I'll call it The Basement. Small home to live in, small area of town in which you are safe, the cheap damp rented room, the shitbox car. The obvious lack of means demonstrated by The Basement sets up a false set of categories, however, and it should already feel strange to you.

If a View is defined by its physical size and scope and not its content, then we know that not all Views are beautiful (Ex: looking down from a helicoptor at Vietnamese villages getting napalmed) and we also know that not all small spaces are ugly (Ex: the table holding our cappuccini above), so why even discuss the categories this way?

The problem is that the unconscious association of real aesthetic beauty with materialist satisfaction, such as our fascination with The View, has manifestations that are still very pervasive and subtle despite our ability to come up with counter-examples.

One subtle consequence of materialism that I consider often is boredom. It is impossible, really, to be bored if you are attentive to the many minute opportunities for beauty, awe, and information in one room, in one body, in one piece of media. But we don't feel rich enough if we spend all day at home--and I'm referring to richness in both stimuli and money, since we conflate them. We might temporarily substitute internet or television for a physical View, because the preponderance of options inherent there imply the same sort of largeness of experience. But we can grow bored of anything (or anyone) if we succumb to the pressure to be constantly owning/having access to more.

And thus the great overwhelm of Italia: my impulse to seek out and get lost in The View paired with my impulse to attentively investigate the minutae both being constantly fed with the new, new, new. Add my gratitude for the opportunity to go, the imperative I felt to do something creative and useful with my experiences, and it's incredible that I didn't come back paralyzed.

It seems like the opposite would happen in weekend at a small cabin with no internet. Indeed, on the first day I walked through the space and thought, "Cute! Ok! Let's go see the town!" and thought nothing of that restlessness, because I feel it so often. We did go for a walk, saw some landscape and town, met a few goats, and bought some buffalo jerky from the man who raised the buffalo. But then we settled in. We entered an altered state to write, and be together, and the hours we spent talking, working, listening to music, cuddling, reading, etc. were full and long. The cabin, which had seemed so small, had many corners and crevices and mismatching dishes and inches of history to notice. My computer, which I look at everyday, had files and files of notes and stories I hadn't looked at for years. Our hearts, which we bare to each other more honestly than anyone else I know, still had vulnerabilities to offer up. Instead of seeking The View, which is measured in miles, we returned to an awareness of true expansiveness, which is not bounded by space. (And yes, I appreciate the irony that this kind of thinking was made possible because we are able to get to a cabin in the first place.)

I can often access a Return to the Expanse when I'm doing yoga, dancing, making love, or getting a massage, because it is through the body that I am concretely reminded of how vast the landscape of a person, and by extension, everything, is. I am aware of "my back" when I'm sitting in a chair, but my awareness of it becomes more complex when I'm making tiny adjustments to my posture in yoga, or having a particular muscle worked on in massage, or feeling the electrifying touch of a lover. Suddenly my back, and then my whole body, feels infinitely realized: every inch a new world. When I slow down to attend to a lover's body this way the possibilities for our intimacy multiply exponentially.

This clearly can extend to all of the corporeal world: every space and object offers us information that is more complex than we think. But it is not enough to think of this as some phenomenon divorced from the political/economic reality in which those objects/people/rooms exist. It's not easy to peel back the layers of obstruction our culture has stuffed between our senses and our understanding--but it's possible, I think, to be ever more aware of them.

I had a great writing teacher at Emerson who asked us to go home and write a two-page discussion of an object in our home. Most people found it difficult to get beyond basic description of their object: it's a mug, it's got a teddy bear on it, a chip on the handle. But when we started reading these aloud, a visible discomfort emerged in the students as they realized that the object they chose was suddenly functioning as a symbolic representation of their self, and even more uncomfortable (because it was somewhat less irrational), their class; and so the fact that one student described a piece of very expensive diamond jewelry while another described a broken coffee cup from the Goodwill forced us into more awareness of how much a part of our perception of self and identity class really was. Remember, again, these were all people who were able to gain access to graduate school.

It becomes problematic then, to say things like "I love the tropics" (The View) as if it is a personality signifier wholly separate from the assertion "I love not being poor." Maybe I love the tropics more than I love diamonds, for reasons I can articulate beautifully, but the fact that all my preferences are directly related to what I have access to can't ever be ignored. And so it becomes an important political act to attend to The Basement in such a way that it can be aesthetically informative and even pleasing. This is not an exoticizing or displacing of the problems of poverty. This is a refusal to be dictated by the capitalist aesthetic so pervasively understood to be "obvious" in our country.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Cult of Genre

I write from a soft beige chair, afternoon light coming through slightly dirty Riverside windows. I'm impatient with Italian adjective exercises, restless from staying home all day, perpetually hungry for chocolate, trying to work, getting distracted by the sweet air outside, thinking about Jon Stewart.

Last week I watched almost a half-hour of Stewart's interview with Jim Cramer. (link is to Pt. 1, don't forget to watch 2 and 3 as well.) I've never seen Mad Money, and so I had to do some research to understand what was going on, at least insofar as I could understand the criticisms Jon was leveling at the quasi-contrite Cramer. I did do some research, and I think it's clear that Jon is heroically representing us all in his anger over the secrecy, elitism, and exploitation embedded in our financial crisis.

What I knew beforehand, even before I was totally clear on the content, was that Stewart had decided not to be funny for the entirety of the interview. Who knows what Cramer thought would happen--but likely not the investigative journalism he suddenly had to face. Brava, Stewart, for that crassly irreverent move.

I call it such because of how much I see the Cult of Genre running the opinion machine. Comments on the clips generally run from--and these are paraphrase-- "you're so AWESOME" (which is useless as it contains no analysis) to "you aren't a real journalist, you're a comedian, shut up." This is the notion that is most problematic to me.

If Jon Stewart is smart enough to get an investigative staff together (let's assume he's not the one doing ALL the homework), smart enough to conduct this interview, and smart enough to articulate himself as well as he does night after night, it's ridiculous to say he's "just" a comedian. He's brilliant--and I do offer credit to all the people who make it possible for him to do what he does. It's nearsighted to wish he'd stick to one genre when it's clear that he's better, his art is better, his word is better, and therefore we're all better, when he doesn't. Yet the "stick to your field" argument follows even him.

The cultish attachment to keeping works and people within genre extends to music, literature, academia, anything. I'm not defending people who cross genres poorly--I don't like dillettantes, anti-education arguments, or people who get public attention for crappy "side projects" just because they're already famous. What I'm defending is the creative act of operating actually outside the system of genre. What WAS that episode of the Daily Show? It wasn't exactly news, wasn't exactly comedy. But it was great--and whether or not something is great is much more important that whether it can or should be categorized.

This issue came up recently after a crew of Sacred Dicers all went together to see The Watchmen. Most of us had read it, a few hadn't, and suddenly at the end of the film I had to face my own attachment: the moviemakers changed the ending. I had to let go my love of the graphic novel's ending in order to see clearly that the movie ending actually worked better. That's right, I said better--and Linz had to say it aloud before I could even think it. What's admirable about the graphic novel is still admirable. What's pertinent and brilliant about the movie simply outshines it. The novel's ending is absurd; horror and comedy, which have been paired throughout the book, are juxtaposed most extremely in the last pages as a sentient squid-beast explodes over New York and kills thousands. You are made to feel part of one very large, very sick joke. The movie ending retains some of this absurdity, but follows through also on other themes: Jon as a Christ figure, framed for the fatal explosions in many of the worlds' cities and ready to martyr himself for world peace, Laurie and Dan's addiction to being masked adventurers, the fact that warring nations would likely need to suffer similar casualties in order to work together so quickly.

But if I had stayed in the Cult of Genre I wouldn't have seen that. (And if any of you are still members of the Cult of Plot, and annoyed with me for "spoiling" we can discuss that later). As a Cult of Genre member I would have been so blinded by the lack of squid, which I'd loved, that the movie ending would have seemed like a cop-out. No absurd squid? Who do these guys think they are!? This is isn't THE WATCHMEN!!

No jokes? Who does this Stewart guy think he is!? This isn't COMEDY!!

No stories about ex-boyfriends? Who does this Vanessa think she is!? This isn't a BLOG!!

And so on. I read many academic papers in grad school that spent paragraph after paragraph attempting to define a genre or category in order to defend a particular piece of work's position in or out of it. This seems a limiting pursuit, and possibly evidence of the arts/humanities insecurity about big brother Science. See, Science? We have structures of classifaction too!

So maybe I'll take the line out of my query letter that calls my novel "literary fiction." The line actually reads "this is literary fiction with the colors too bright and the sound too loud." Remember back in January of 2008 when I saw Susie Bright and decided I wanted to start a genre called "Philosmut"? Walter Mosely published a book he called "Sexistentialist" and I'd like to keep that project going, except instead of only inventing new categories, I'd like to try changing the systems of categorization to being more like webs. So each text would have a number of tags, just like they do online. I think it's possible, and I think it's already happening, and everyone had better start thinking this way or they'll just walk around in a constant state of outrage that their world isn't conforming to their assumptions.

It's all true, and it's all fiction. There. Now we can keep working.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

We Got on Our Boots

My senior thesis, written in the psychology department at Reed College for my B.A., was titled "Know Me and I'll Love You Back: Investigating the Marriage Shift in Same Sex Couples." It was an empirical study of nearly 200 gay and lesbian partners in the Portland area who described themselves as either "dating" or in a "lifetime commitment." Previously, a psychologist named Bill Swann had done a study with straight couples that had a curious statistical pattern only predicted by whether a couple was married or not--not how long they'd been together, gender, etc. He made some broad claims about the effect of marriage on romantic relationships that simply couldn't be extrapolated to same sex couples, as there were no states with legalized gay marriage at the time. I thought this was both morally and scientifically erroneous, and my thesis was an attempt to bring some equity to the issue.

What I found was that legal marriage wasn't required for this statistical pattern to show up--only a stated "lifetime commitment" shared by both partners. In the gay community in Portland these commitments had taken many forms: ceremonies, buying houses, adopting children, etc. The only piece of real continuity was the couples' certainty that they'd agreed to be together for life. So to me, and those reading my findings, it seemed the fight against marriage rights was, in addition to being morally wrong, woefully uninformed: psychologically/emotionally, gay couples are already getting married.

Roughly eight years later, which was this week, I walked through downtown Riverside with a small cadre of demonstrators carrying signs and yelling anti-Proposition 8 slogans. That Proposition 8 (which effectively took back the right to same sex marriage California had so recently granted) passed in my home state made me ill even on the night of Obama's election. In addition to it being important for the cause to be another body at the demonstration, I thought it would give me some hope and solidarity with others who are trying not to become exhausted by the difficulty of this struggle.

But it didn't. In fact, the whole tone of the vigil seemed surprisingly off to me. There wasn't enough acknowledgment of the anger we felt. There weren't any people in downtown Riverside to witness our gathering. We were alone, and we felt it. The organizers were not nearly as powerful in presence or conviction as a demonstration really needs. Although it was heartening to see many of Riverside's younger GLBT community present, overall I felt sadder about the issue of civil rights in our country at the end. The lack of real effect, the sense of beaurocratic totality--we were reminded many times to stay on the sidewalks--hurt.

Then today, I listened again to U2's new album No Line on the Horizon. In "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" Bono sings: It's not a hill, it's a mountain/As you start out the climb/Listen for me, I'll be shouting/We're gonna make it all the way to the light/But you know I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight

They played this song on Letterman last night, and got a tragically hip New York audience out of their seats, waving hands in the air. Letterman walked out at the end and said "Now that is what I'm talking about!" Earlier he'd described U2 as a band that "makes everyone better." And I remember the Black Panthers again, saying "you don't need everyone to show up, you just need a few people who are ready to make a real commitment."

What is brilliant about U2 and is expertly demonstrated in No Line on the Horizon is a process my professor at Emerson Maria Koundoura used to call the "women's work of making change." It's not the moment of the coup, it's the months of meetings to plan it. It's using every conversation as an opportunity for discovery and exchange. It's having such utter commitment to principles that they are undeniable to your family, friends, bosses, children, because you embody them every day. The trick is acknowledging your "private" life as inherently political--because you are living out an ideology whether you are aware of it at this moment or not. The reason why Koundoura called it "women's work" is because it is constantly undone, like a bed. You must always be revisiting and reengaging the things that matter. I think the main reason why the Prop 8 march saddened me is that I think of that kind of activity as a more dramatically proactive one compared to writing my senior thesis, talking with my classes, my parents, or whomever about how marriage equality is an issue of civil rights--and the march was neither dramatic nor effective. (Although it did have a few wonderful moments, like when Max and I shortened the chant "Gay, Straight, Black or White, we deserve our civil rights" to just a repetitive demand of "Rights! Rights! Rights!" because we and our new comerades thought the first line was too limiting.)

But if I can recast it: just like having many conversations in a day where important ideas come up, or voting, or writing my thesis, the demonstration became part of this continual process of every day moving closer to the goals, what U2 has called "one step closer to knowing." Our showing up and being bodies with voices, our conversations with new people during the march, our thinking of ourselves as people who do these kinds of things because it is right--all this is valuable. And we're living in a new age, anyway, where my many signatures on online petitions might be having a more dramatic effect on the politicians than a march could. We just have to keep doing it all. I feel a disgust towards the opposition and impatience about this issue, in particular, that has to be channeled creatively if I'm to live through it. If I can do what U2 does with their impatience, which is write a song like "Love and Peace," I think I can consider myself a real artist.

I could write for days about how fanatically I love No Line on the Horizon, and how it has already helped me stay motivated to write more experimentally, incited me to more courage in my relationships, and offered me a kind of restorative pummeling of the soul. It's like a deep tissue massage: it is intensely pleasurable and it hurts horribly because you must get into those tightened layers in order to be limber enough to dance. I think people who write nasty reviews of it are desperately compensating for the fact that they are too cynical to feel moved. Don't be afraid to face your moment of surrender. And don't think the world will stop once you do face it--you will still need to get up the next day and climb the mountain!

In "Breathe" Bono sings: Every day I have to find the courage/To walk out into the street/ With arms out/ Got a love you can't defeat/ Neither down or out/There's nothing you have that I need/ I can breathe

And I'm emboldened by this, more than I was by a hundred people on a vigil. It's offering an acknowledgment of the fact that one doesn't just enter a state of sublime power and acceptance as an artist or citizen. One has to continually restore one's courage, continually raise one's arms, continually return to the street. The process of "remaking the bed," of demonstrating again and again what matters, is a lifetime project. We're lucky we have heralds of greatness like U2 to set the bar, and we're lucky that they can talk to us about these issues in such brilliant flashes of light and sound like No Line on the Horizon. They're right--we have to get on our boots (soldier's boots, work boots, sexy boots) to feel truly beautiful, once we've made the commitment to living in a state of excited incitement. Incite! Catalyze! Shake it up! And hold hands while you go!