Saturday, July 31, 2004
I don't know if I'm going to be able to post from Japan. I will if I can. Otherwise, I'll be on hiatus from August 3rd until August 26th or so.
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Among the books I've read in the past week is Ken Bruen's The Killing of the Tinkers, a hardboiled mystery set in Galway, Ireland. I really expected to like this book: I like mysteries, I'm a sad, sad Hibernophile, and it came highly recommended. And I've decided that I can't stand hardboiled mysteries. George Pelacanos annoys me in exactly the same way.
The protagonist of The Killing of the Tinkers is basically a loser. He's an alcoholic and coke addict in his late forties, he's lost his job, and his clothes all come from charity thrift shops. And yet he's endlessly, inexplicably attractive to nubile young women. Are there really a lot of nice, non-addicted, reasonably well-adjusted 28-year-olds who are desperate to drop everything so they can have loads of hot sex with coked-up creeps who are old enough to be their fathers? Pelacanos's detective Nick Stefanos, who has an awful lot in common with his creator, is another substance-abusing loser who happens to be a massive stud. He's such a manly man, in fact, that in one immensely goofy scene he converts a lesbian to temporary heterosexuality.
So here's the thing. What I like about hardboiled mysteries is that they don't glamorize violence. They force you to confront it in all its yuckiness and horror. But I think their creepy masculinity hangups undermine that. You can't help but draw the conclusion that what makes the detectives so studly and sexually alluring is their familiarity with violence. Violence is horrifying, but men who have confronted it are more masculine than those soft ninnies who haven't. And in a sense, that's glamorizing violence, too.
So anyway, I think I prefer my mysteries kind of medium-boiled.
Thursday, July 22, 2004
At any rate, we are not reading any documents from American history. He's currently reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X on his own, so if we need to address documents from American history, he can write about that.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
I am going to go work on being a better person now.
The job would involve tutoring a fourteen-year-old kid in writing. He is, according to my advisor, "brilliant," and there's nothing really wrong with his writing. But his parents, who are academics and friends of my advisor, want it to be perfect, and they don't feel that he's getting adequate instruction in writing at his $15,000-a-year private school. This is only part of the academic work the parents have lined up for the kid this summer. My advisor mentioned in passing that his parents required him to read The Origin of Species, so I know they're assigning their own homework. And they apparently want me to run a pretty un-fun writing class for him. Their idea is that I'll have him read documents from U.S. history and write essays on them. Then we'll go over his essays. I'm sort of tempted to tell him to watch T.V. or play soccer or something for a couple of hours and then write an essay on that. I have a feeling that's the only way he's going to have any fun for the rest of the summer.
My immediate reaction to this is to be horrified. I remember what I did the summer I was 14. I had a job babysitting a 3-year-old kid three days a week. I took a slightly strange, left-wing acting class which I think was probably based on the theories of Augusto Boal and the Theater of the Oppressed. Through the acting class, I heard about auditions for a local teen-affairs T.V. program, and I got a part playing a punk rocker whose best friend is shot by a drug dealer. (It was every bit as absurd as it sounds. And it was both my first and last acting gig.) I went to a bunch of punk shows in parks and church basements. I went to the library and checked out books about South Africa and American history. I made mix tapes for my friends. I listened to the mix tapes they made for me, and then I ventured to the three record stores in my area that sold music from independent labels and bought albums, all the time hoping that the clerks thought I was cool and not a poseur. I dyed my hair. I spent evenings sitting in a park drinking peach schnappes with my dead-beat friends until the cops came and chased us away. (And yes, I am aware that this is probably not the best use of one's time when one is 14. Actually, I wouldn't recommend that anyone, of any age, drink peach schnappes.)
My parents paid for the acting class, but otherwise they had pretty much nothing to do with any of this. I read a lot, but it was because I wanted to read. During the school year, I spent a lot of time doing what I was told. Summer was when I did what I wanted and when I figured out who I wanted to be. It looks like this kid's parents see summer as the time they can mold him into the little genius they think he should be. And I'm not sure that I want any part of it.
I should reserve judgement until I meet the kid, though. Maybe he's crazy about the idea of reading documents from U.S. history and writing essays about them.
Sunday, July 18, 2004
I'm still spending my days thinking about treason and espionage. And people think academia is boring!
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
I wonder if maybe there's something particularly creepy about autoimmune disorders. It would be one thing if I'd had a virus or infection, if some outside entity had attacked my body. But my body attacked itself. I'm finding myself abstracting myself from my body, being angry at something that I should think of as part of me. It's sort of disconcerting to think that I am comprised of systems that I can't control, that I need to survive, and that at any moment might turn on me for no reason. It freaks me out that the thing that I fear most right now is not terrorism, not crime, not pollution or pesticides, not Bush and his minions, but my own body.
So anyway, I'm hoping that I'll get over this. It seems excessive, considering that I was never actually that sick and may never hear from the Very Rare Condition again. It would stink if I let this pretty minor episode turn me into a self-indulgent hypochondriac.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
It seems to me that there are two different ways of getting people to obey you. The first is power: you threaten them with some sort of harm if they don't do what you say. And the second is authority: you earn their respect, and therefore they trust you and think it's in their best interest to do what you want them to do. When push comes to shove, the nation-state rests on power. I'm a member of all sorts of solidarities: I'm Jewish, I'm a feminist, I'm a student at a particular university, I'm a member of my family, I'm a friend. But only one of those entities can imprison or execute me. If one of my friends behaved one tenth as badly as my country has in the past year, she probably wouldn't be my friend any more. My friends don't issue passports or decide who's allowed to work or throw people in jail, though.
Patriotism, I think, is the way the nation-state disguises the power on which it rests and dresses that power up as authority. It's probably not always that: sometimes the nation-state gets citizens to obey through both power and authority. But my country hasn't earned my allegiance recently. It would be dishonest for me to celebrate the 4th of July in my current mood. It would be pretending that my relationship with my country is based on bonds of affection. And at the moment it's really all about power.
Monday, July 12, 2004
I'm just not feeling very smart right now. I think maybe I'm expending all of my intellectual energy on my work, which is probably a good thing. I'm knee deep in a treason and sedition trial from 1918, and it's simultaneously depressing and a little heartening. Depressing because the defendant was, as far as I can tell, guilty of nothing other than publishing unpopular opinions in an unapologetic and bombastic fashion. He was eventually acquitted of all charges, but not until he'd spent nearly a year in jail, been financially ruined, and had his name become synonymous with disloyalty. The government systematically and effectively destroyed his life, essentially for being the Michael Moore of his day. And as depressing at it is, it's heartening to know that the country got through 1918. Since A. Mitchell Palmer was like John Ashcroft on steroids, I think we'll probably get through this, too.
Friday, July 09, 2004
This got me to thinking that I had some pretty wacked out assignments in elementary school social studies. I remember doing the following projects:
- I constructed a pyramid out of sugar cubes
- I made a fireplace, which was supposed to resemble the fireplaces in early American kitchens. I'm pretty sure my fireplace was made out of a big cardboard box and contact paper.
- my mother helped me sew a doll. Think of a stuffed animal, except instead of an animal, she was a person. I don't remember who my doll was supposed to be or what the point of the exercise was, but everyone else made dolls, too, and they were hung up on a big mesh frame that was suspended from the ceiling of our classroom.
- I made a sheet cake, on which I drew pictures in icing depicting scenes from the French Revolution. And no, I am not making that up.
- I made a lot of shoe-box dioramas.
A lot of this stuff was fun. I like arts and crafts projects as much as the next person. But I honestly don't think it taught me the first thing about history, geography, civics, or current events.
I'm wondering what the point of all of those projects was. It's possible, I suppose, that elementary-school-aged kids just aren't ready, developmentally speaking, to learn about social studies in any real way. But I read historical fiction compulsively at that age: even if I wasn't ready to grapple with the big questions about what drives historical change, I was certainly interested in what life was like for people in the past. And I'm not sure that making a fireplace out of cardboard really answered those questions for me.
In 7th grade, my social studies teacher assigned us to read the front page of the newspaper every day. Each Friday, there was a quiz. Honestly, that's the first social studies assignment I can remember that actually made any sense.