Monday, May 24, 2010

Suck The Purell Generation's Toes

Lionel Popkin's 50-minute piece "There is An Elephant in This Dance" blew my mind on Sunday. Check out this LA times review by Victoria Looseleaf. (That's her real name? Wow.)

I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that There is A Snake in this Photo. We'll return to that. During Popkin's "Elephant," one dance refrain, repeated to the point of comedy, was the placing of a finger in the mouth. Specifically, a woman placing her finger in Popkin's mouth, and him accepting it, then trying to push it away, then accepting it, then pushing it away. When he tried to put his finger in her mouth, he was rebuffed effectively. I could write many paragraphs about how this triggered some rumination on gender-power-dynamics.

What I'd rather focus on, though, is how odd it was to see someone putting their hand in someone else's mouth, in public. At another point in the piece, one of Popkin's other dancers licked his own hand, sniffed it, then licked it again. I was delighted. I was reminded of The Toledo Show, with which I performed for three years. The frontman, Toledo, often used to hook his thumb in a dancer's mouth and pull her up from the floor in an incredibly sour-tasting, sexy display of force. We'd come backstage ecstatic, and spitting.

I remember being a pre-teen, watching some rated-R movie with my dad, and feeling utterly confused by a scene involving a woman licking a man's fingers.

"What's she doing that for?" I asked Dad.
"It's sort of a way to say, 'I think you're sexy,'" he answered.
I thought this was preposterous.

The Purell Generation would agree--albeit for different reasons. Pre-adolescence, I was unaware of the nuances of sexual communication. The Purell Generation simply thinks bodies, but hands especially, are dirty. I suppose it's true, in a throw-everything-under-the-UV-light way. But I realized watching Popkin's piece that one of the great attractions to dance, for me, is not only the fundamental sense of powerful embodiment dancers develop, but their lack of squeamishness about things such as dirty hands, farts, blisters, bad breath, etc. This is why I love reading Henry Miller. This is why I like self-proclaimed "Butt Men" over "Boob Men," if a man must fetishize female parts. This is why working with young kids is a joy.

I recently met The Nightwatchman--aka Tom Morello, a powerhouse songwriting guitarist who spends a good deal of his time being a political radical. He's fighting the good fight HARD. He's also stunningly gracious to his fans--most of whom are men, he says--in the way of handshakes, back thumps, and photos. He carries a small bottle of Purell in his pocket.

"Are you serious?" I asked him, about the Purell.
"Hell yeah!" he said. "Do you know how many hot, wet man-hands are on me every night?"
"It sounds like working at a strip club," I said.
"Possibly," he said.

And so I return to the issue of "gross" as I have many times returned to the issue of "fun." I think "gross" is a lie. This is not to say that some evolutionary biologist couldn't describe for me how, when someone near me vomits, I also feel the urge to vomit because in prehistory we all were eating the same poison berries together.
(Morello's Purell is mostly comedy, to me, as I imagine someone like Mick Jagger developing a hand-washing compulsion in the 1970s.)

Freud already did so much of the work for us here: everything human that is "gross" in visible culture has a special area of porn devoted to it--fat, puke, feet, shit, and so on. What I'm talking about is something much more subtle--a cultural delineation of objects of disgust that are arbitrary and sometimes deeply irrational. Most people have no idea what is actually "dirty" in their lives. They touch money, which is much nastier under a UV-light than most human hands, with impunity. They think restaurant food is "clean." They have mass aversion to certain textures, too, which is one of the weirder manifestations of this cultural phenomenon of "gross." Take snakes, for instance. I like touching them! I used to hate touching rat tails. Now I like them too!

What if Lionel Popkin wanted to make the "Elephant" dance but couldn't, because he didn't like feet?

I have an embarrassing, insane, patently prudish disgust-response to the sound of chewing. I really believe that once I figure out why I want to punch people when they eat too loud, I'll be cured of "gross" forever!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies, Part 2

I'd like to begin by stating in my defense that the title "Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies" is a near-direct quote from my grandma herself. When I told her I wanted to meet her and her sister Betty Ann (Aunt Betty Ann, also ABA, to me) in Champaign, IL, she said:
"Why would you want to do that? It's just going to be old ladies visiting old ladies."

Indeed. Just that. We stayed with ABA and Grandma's friend Frances, who has a house on the north side of Champaign. We visited with her. We visited also with ABA's friend Cindy, who doesn't quite qualify as "old" in the sense my Gma used it, I think, since she's under 75. We visited some old lady friends at the Methodist Church. We visited a cousin who has a houseful of genealogy records and photos of old ladies, old men, and people who are young in the photos but are now old, or, dead. We visited another niece, who had a shell collection. We went to the cemetery and visited Gma's and ABA's parents.

That was on Mother's Day. I stood at my great-grandmother's grave, with my grandmother and her only sister, and called my mother, and for a brief moment there were four matrilineal generations converging in time-space, under the Illinois sun.

My grandma is one of the most endearingly sweet people I have ever met or heard of. My chronicling of the trip took a decisive turn on the first day when I realized that I was not on the path to some grand Revelation of Dirty Laundry or Great Suppressed Story from the matriarch. There are many suppressed stories in my family: alcoholism, suicide, a gay great uncle, a failed minister, an under-age love stuck across the Atlantic, and probably more. But mine is not the grandma intent on airing such dusty buried treasure. Mine is the grandma who wants to see if the old candy shop is still on the corner. Who remembers that her parents dug out their own basement, shovelful by shovelful. Who grew up during the Depression and WWII and was forever imprinted with the unmistakable need to conserve. She is annoyed by litter and excess, and little else. In fact her cheerfulness seems intrinsic, part of her fabric.

So the nearly four hours of videotape I collected is, in some way, a parade of banality. It is a collection of the precious mundane: Grandma drinking white Carlo Rossi from a champagne glass with Frances. Grandma standing in front of her old sorority house. Grandma getting interested in a flower, a bird, an old sign. Grandma and Aunt Betty Ann arguing, briefly, about when or how something in their childhood happened. Grandma summing up her niece: "She's a character." Aunt Betty Ann reading a book about Frances's home island of Bermuda. Grandma trying on a pair of gold shoes at a thrift store at my urging, then putting them immediately back on the shelf.

So I didn't get "the dirt," in the sense that there will be no dramatic unveiling of the Secret Life of Grandma Laura Gordon. But I didn't expect that, exactly. I did expect to discover some way to think or talk about the content of the chatting the women were doing. I wrote to my little sister Kelsey: They chat all day long. It's an all-day Chat-a-thon. She wrote back: What do they chat about? And I could barely answer. I think the chatting falls into three basic categories.

1) What is in front of us now. Comments made on new drapes, what someone is wearing, how cold it is, and so on. After church, we got to chat about the music, which was beautiful.
2) How things used to be compared to how they are now. I think this portion of the chatting was exaggerated by the fact that I was asking questions about the past. However, wherever there was a material change: a building torn down and a new one in its place, for instance, it got chatted about.
3) What people are up to. The old ladies keep large mental inventories of everyone's children and grandchildren, and ask about them. They remember who went on vacation where, and they ask about it. They have projects they are working on, and they chat about those, and they ask about the projects other people are working on. I heard this question: "And your son So-and So? What's he up to these days? Did he graduate/get married/move/finish his project yet?" and its variants many times.

What was most notable to me was the incredible weight of the euphemisms and subtext used in this chatting. There is actually an entirely different symbolic system being used between women who say "he's not doing well" to each other and somehow understand "he's got chronic pain and depression, and hasn't left the house for two months because he doesn't know how to function in the world." There were many times I pressed a phrase like "she's a character" or "it was a sad story" to get at the actual content, which I could not infer. Sometimes the story would come. Sometimes not. I was in way over my head.

One of my favorite moments in the many minutes of my poorly-filmed family history project was, unsurprisingly, a piece of serendipity. I was filming the inside of a theater where my grandpa used to work. A family was walking out, and one of their small daughters was having trouble getting her coat on. My grandma, who had been telling me about Grandpa, got distracted by the girl and helped her into her coat. The girl responded as if my grandma was hers--no flinching or hesitation. The parents called a thank-you on their way. There's something perfectly safe about my Grandma, I concluded. I have very complicated feelings about that fact. But that moment on camera is adorable, pure and simple, and I'm grateful we all will have it.

I cried on the bus when I left them: Grandma, Aunt Betty Ann, and Frances, all waving to me from the sidewalk in their little sweaters. I filmed them waving, and I filmed my tears, on an impulse to have for at least that moment a coexistence of their unflappable appropriateness and my genuine, extreme, emotional response. I don't know what to make of it all, just yet. But I'll make something. I will make something. Grandma and I agree on this: you use your material, and you use it as well as you can.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies, Part 1

This is a particularly unflattering picture of both me and my Grandma, Laura Gordon. However, it does show off two important facts about her: she knitted that hat for me a few years ago, and her favorite color is orange. She knits, she sews, she bowls (lifetime high was in the 260s? I'll have to ask again), she goes for long walks every day, she lives in Arleta but still calls it Pacoima. She drinks only white wine, thank you, and tap danced on television as a girl. She does not like loud movies and had only one love, my Grandpa George, who died when I was seven.

My grandma Laura turns 85 this year. She and her sister Betty Ann (who lives in Florida) are, right now, on a road trip together to visit old lady friends and family. They met in St. Louis. They're driving up to Illinois, then all the way down to Florida. Tomorrow I'm boarding a plane to Chicago, where they'll pick me up, and then I'm spending 3 days with them, in their hometown of Champaign, IL. With my video camera.

It's a family history project. It's a personal history project. I'm a California city girl, and yet only one generation removed from Real Midwestern. I'm going to ask questions that will seem silly to Grandma, about canning and corn and square dancing and salads one can make with mayonnaise. I'm also going to ask questions she may not think are appropriate, about the Civil Rights movement in Champaign, about the four years she spent waiting for Grandpa to return from war, about her decision after graduating from college to be a full-time mother instead of pursuing a career.

I'm the only person in my family who thought to catch part of this trip on camera. I'm the only one with a flexible schedule. I'm the only one who deals in stories for a living. I'm the only one who seems to suspect my Grandma of having thoughts and feelings she hasn't expressed over the years.

A few weeks ago, in preparation for this trip/video project, I interviewed my mother, aunt, and uncle about their childhood road trips from Los Angeles to Champaign. I wanted to know what they remembered from the town. They talked incessantly for an hour, regaling me with stories of scary relatives' basements, sleeping porches, games they'd play in a creek they called The Boney. They remembered what their father was doing during these trips--cracking jokes, disciplining them, letting them choose the next campsite.

"What was Grandma doing during the day on these vacations?" I asked.
They looked at each other.
"Making lunch?" my aunt said.
"Chatting," my mom said. "She and her family in Champaign did a lot of chatting."
I asked what they chatted about.
Nobody knew.

What did women in the 1960s who didn't have jobs chat about all day during a midwestern summer? I wonder if Grandma will remember. I wonder if all the feminist theorists I've been reading would feel the pain I feel at those lost hours, those lost words, those lost moments of intimacy between women who are now mostly dead.

What do women in 2010 chat about all day? What is everyone chatting about on Twitter and Facebook and what are we writing about in our blogs? Will we remember? Does our constant vigilance about updating and documenting actually mean we will know ourselves better when we are 85?

There's some stories underneath the nearly impeccable mantle of normalcy my Grandmother has carried all these years. There are stories of love and sadness and death and courage and loneliness and hope--all words I don't think I've ever heard her say. Because her memory isn't what it used to be, every time I have mentioned my intention to videotape the trip, my Grandma has seemed surprised and a little horrified.

"I'd like to get you to tell some stories about where you grew up," I've said.
She has maintained, every time, that she doesn't have any "good" ones.

But everybody has at least one good one.

Don't they?