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January 2011

Sticks and Stones

Depressed Moi Sticks and stones/may break your bones/but [words] will never hurt you.

The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.

Palin Graffito The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.

Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.

But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?

It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.

But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks  like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.

Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.

In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.

We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Street art by Eddie Colla. HT to Towleroad and Dennis Kleinsmith on Facebook.

Stupid Rules of Which I'd Like to Rid Myself

Badgirl MoiI don't like making New Year's resolutions, but I usually take on a project of changing something about myself, big or small, each year. Sometimes they're on-going, life-long projects, like getting a grip on my temper (notice I didn't say anger; there's a real difference. I've come to realize that anger is just fine; it's what you do with it that can be a problem.) Sometimes they're just small things, like getting some clothes that don't make me look like I'm wearing a sack. A lot of them are anxiety-producing rules for good behavior from the 1950's middle class upbringing I had, the one that was always at war with my dad's blue collar "lack of manners." I've made peace with my affection for using four-letter words, which, like smoking on the street, I was taught ladies never did. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not ever going to be a lady. I can simulate one, and I clean up well, so that's okay. Some of them are social control rules I learned growing up in a small town or as a pre-feminist, and were part of the reason I embraced feminism and fled to New York. And it's funny how many of these rules come to me in my mother's voice, too. She was great at communicating her anxiety about other people's opinions of her to me. Some of these, though, are self-imposed and come out of my own social anxiety about being "correct" and accepted. I suppose some of that is only-child anxiety, but they're not relevant now. I have a huge, accepting, beautifully varied family of choice now.

I still have these rules in my head, 50 years later and that's boggling in and of itself. It's time to let go of some of them. Here's a few of them. Don't laugh. I said they were stupid.

  1. Not ending sentences with a preposition. Fuck that.
  2. Certain foods can only be eaten at particular times of day (breakfast food must be eaten at breakfast; dinner leftovers aren't breakfast food; etc.). 
  3. All barns look good painted red.
  4. The bed must be made every day.
  5. Act your age.

That's probably enough for the moment. And not all of these are completely bad, like making the bed every day. I like getting into a neat bed at night. But some days, that three minutes it takes to make it is just more than I have. So what? I will stop feeling bad about it.

I should explain that #3 is a saying of my mother's meaning that wearing red, especially if you're fat, invites unfortunate comparisons. I've had a life-long aversion to the color because of that, even though I look good in it. How stupid is that?

Number 5 needs some explaining too. I've always had this distinction in my head between being an adult and being a grown-up. Grown-ups are boring and all about responsibility and maturity; adults are mature and responsible, but still know how to have fun. Now that I'm 50, I feel a totally unreasonable internal pressure to be a grown-up. There's a lot wound up in this: looking younger than I am, being a very responsible and precocious child, discussions about dressing age appropriately, a society that wants older women to fade into the woodwork. I've been dressing more conservatively as I got older, thanks in part to corporate jobs, and I kinda miss my loud colors and wild earrings and socks and shoes. Living in New York also did some of that, where black is just easier to take care of, but this is a fashion capital too, and I'm an artist, so I'd like to get some of my funk back:  cobalt hair, a visible tattoo. I'm tired of the camouflage, because it's becoming counterproductive. I'm short, round, older and rapidly becoming invisible. Nice in that I don't get harassed as much, but annoying as hell when I'm trying to get waited on.

And what is age-appropriate? I don't necessarily think the schoolgirl look is a good one for 30-year old women, but I don't think forcing older women into widows weeds is a good idea either. So what's age appropriate? And who gets to define that? Same with behavior. Tantrums aren't pretty on anyone, but I'm appalled by my growing anxiety to be home before midnight, as though I were Cinderella. WTF is up with that?

I'll let you know how it goes.

Publisher Tinkers With Twain - NYTimes.com


Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave,” a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.

via www.nytimes.com

Can I just say that this is more a failure of the instructor than anything else, though I fault the publisher for going along with this bowdlerization. When you teach historical literature, you have to teach the historical period, as well. Teaching Huck Finn gives an instructor the perfect opportunity to talk about cultural influences, i.e., endemic racism, as well as the power of words. If you are too embarrassed to do so, as a grown up with a Ph.D., get outta the classroom. You've failed in your calling.

I'm often surprised by the number of my colleagues who have difficulty teaching anything but contemporary literature because they can't set a book in its historical context. The themes of literature are universal, but the way they discuss them is not. Folks in the past were both like us and unlike us, and that needs to be addressed when teaching literature written in the past. Language changes, attitudes change, politics change, world-views change, but our basic humanity doesn't. That's the beauty of teaching historical lit.

New Year's Meme

PeaceGirl 1. a) What did you do in 2010 that you'd never done before?:

Went to Colorado. I love going to new places, and this was pretty spectacular, as places go. With some good company, too

1. b) What did you do that you hadn't done in a long time?
Worked really seriously on my poetry.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I try not to make resolutions. They're an exercise in futility. I set goals and plan projects instead. A lot of those didn't get done.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Nope. Gettin' kinda old for that now. Most of friends are about my age, though some are younger, and I don't have kids myself.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Yes, sadly. My friend Jean Courtney took her life.

5. What countries did you visit?

No countries this year, but two states.

6. What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010?

An updated computer system and faster connection.

7. What dates from 2010 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

I'm terrible at dates, but the day I found out that Jean had killed herself is pretty stark, and the week I spent in Colorado was, on the opposite end of the scale, fantastic.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

I finished an arc of my fan fiction saga, and with Helen's help, put together not one but four poetry collections out of the mass of material I've got.

9. What was your biggest failure?

I didn't revise my novel.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, knock wood. My back's been kinda messed up for a while though, making me numb in odd spots.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

It's a three-way tie: The new hand-marbled scarf I bought myself at the Center for Book Arts Holiday Fair, my Nook, and the little hadnmade ceramic soap dish I bought in Maine.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

My hardest-working students. They know who they are.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Far too many of the Tea Partiers.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Rent. Same as it ever was.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Gwen's amazing house in Colorado. Not that I want one that big, but I want one that arty.

16. What song will always remind you of 2010?

"Empire State of Mind." I played that over and over coming back on the SI ferry at night. God I love it here!

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder? Still happy.
b) thinner or fatter? think I put on some weight over the holidays.
c) richer or poorer? Materially, 'bout the same. In friends, much richer.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?

Art and writing.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?

Fucking Facebook. What a time suck.

20. How will you be spending New Year's?

Cooking for friends.

22. Did you fall in love in 2010?

No more than usual.

23. How many one-night stands?


24. What was your favorite tv program?

Sherlock, though my CSI infatuation continues apace.

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?

Try not to do hate any more, though I can say I'm completely disgusted by the stupidity of so many of the Tea Partiers.

26. What was the best book you read?

The same one everyone else was reading: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?

School of the Seven Bells

28. What did you want and get?

A new teaching gig.

29. What did you want and not get?

A slightly bigger place to live and a Powerball win.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?

"Iron Man 2." Wish I could say it was "The Tempest," but not.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was 50, and I went for cupcakes with the Birthday Club.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Cooler weather this summer and more time.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2010?

Fashion concept? Er . . . .

34. What kept you sane?

Books and friends. And beer.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Oh, all the old favorites, though I was mildly fascinated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?

The oil spill, and the stupidity of people protesting the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero.

37. Whom did you miss?

Jennifer. One of us, obviously, is going to have to move.

38. Who was the best new person you met?

Gwen, though it was not so much met as rekindled a 30-years-dormant friendship. Why did I never keep in touch with her when she moved?

39. Was 2010 a good year for you?

Not fantastic, but certainly not a bad one. It feels a bit wasted, especially for a milestone year like 50.

40. What was your favorite moment of the year?
Swimming in the hot springs in Colorado with the Nympho Lesbo Killer Whores +2.

41. What was your least favorite moment of the year?

Anything that involved DeeDee the Destroyer's presence.

42. What was your favorite month of 2010?

August, a week of which was spent in the Rockies.

43. How many different states did you travel to in 2010?

Colorado, Wisconsin (inadvertently), and Maine.

44. How many concerts did you see in 2010?

None. Too damn busy this year, and teaching nights.

45. Did you do anything you are ashamed of this year?

Not that I recall, which is good however you look at it.

46. What was the worst lie someone told you in 2010?

"Sure, you'll make your connection in Madison!"

47. Did you treat somebody badly in 2010?

Gosh, I hope not. I haven't paid enough attention to Jean's parents though.

48. Did somebody treat you badly in 2010?

Not that I remember, and that's all that counts.

49. If you could go back in time to any moment of 2010 and change something, what would it be?

I'd try to talk Jean out of taking her life. I don't know if I really have that right, but I'll always wonder if someone had been with her if she would have kept plugging. But then, maybe it was just too hard for her, and I'm merely being selfish.

50. What are your plans for 2011?

See my previous post.

51. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010:

Sometimes life is harder for other people than you can possibly know. And you can't fix it for them. All you can do is love them.


DreamingBooks So, no big retrospective this year. It's been kind of a blah year, without any real earth-shaking changes and a lot of work. I did reconnect with some folks, which was excellent, and got to see some new places I hadn't seen before, which is always good, but didn't get any of my projects done that I'd wanted to. Well, not entirely true: I'm almost done with one poetry collection and have been writing more poems, some successful, some not, and I owe Helen and Gwen a huge debt for flogging me through that. I blogged hardly at all, as you may (or may not) have noticed, nor did I get my novel revised, hence the following:

I don't usually do this because everybody knows that resolutions are just made to be broken, but these seem like a realistic ones, I hope:

  1. Write more
  2. Make books
  3. Submit to publications and shows
  4. Look into writing grants
  5. Apply to more teaching jobs

I want to start taking the science blogging more seriously, and I want to start taking this blog and my book arts blog more seriously too. I'm starting to get a good little collection of Cocktail Party Physics columns, but I need a lot more, and a lot more practice before I've got anything that might be worth editing into a collection. I'd also like to rethink my focus in that area, and find a niche to settle into. I don't think I'll ever be anything but a dilettante in the science writing arena, but it's something to add to the pub list. And who knows?

Ultimately, what I'd like this next year to be about is writing and making art. That means seeing less of my friends, but I feel like my writing and art are friends that I've neglected and who need some attention. Wish it were easier to find that balance. But that's life, isn't it?