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Greta (1918-2015)

February 28, 2015

Greta, you nearly lived to be a hundred. I’m sure your 36,500th day on the planet would have been filled with grumbling. You were a first-rate grumbler. Those with the gift for a good grumbling can do it with charm and sophistication. But where is my head at? Why am I starting this way? I guess I’m not sure how to talk about you, and the impact that you had on my life. You were a remarkable, authentic person and a master bon vivant. Of course, I wouldn’t dare call you a bon vivant to your face because you would find in my French some nuance of mispronunciation. I guess I’m comfortable teasing you even in death because you were so dear to me.

Here is a journal entry from December 31st, 2010, the year that I met her: I arranged flowers tonight with Greta. Once a month, a man from the local grocery store comes by to donate the wilting or otherwise unsellable bouquets to the senior community where I work. I took her the best of the bunch: bright orange lilies, white roses and daisies in a white basket. She hated the basket so we broke up the arrangement and put the flowers into separate vases together. . 5308705163_d24bac7d90_b As we worked, she talked about her beautiful wild garden at her old house, and the jerk who bought the house and destroyed the garden because he thought it was a bother. She heckles me to bring her more of my poetry, probing especially hard for something about Greece after my recent trip. I brought her back a pillowcase with a hand-knit scene of the white rooftops of Santorini, which she has draped over her armchair in the living room. She accepted it guiltily and told me I should have given it to my mother. She has an appetite for mischief. She has decided that the violas that grow in front of the building are the best for her infamous hand-made cards. She dries and presses the petals in her dictionary. In the cover of night, armed with a pair of scissors, I have been sent many times into the gardens around the building to retrieve them for her. Tonight, she asked me if I read Dylan Thomas, that peerless Welshman, and she told me that she saw him read poetry in the 1940’s when he toured America. She recalled wonderful details, how his voice trembled, how he mopped his brow with a sweaty rag, that he clenched with white knuckles atop the podium. She marvels at my height, and insists that my legs are too long for my body, which is why I’m given the privilege of reaching her mailbox for her every evening at 5:45, right before supper. She is one of my favorite people, and a dear dear friend.

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“I thought you were my accomplice…”


I met Greta in 2010, at the retirement community where I’ve been employed in various capacities for nearly 6 years. She used a walker at first, and her legs were always wrapped in a fraying edema bandage from knee to ankle. She made very small, meticulous steps through the hallways and the dining room. She had probably the slowest pace of anyone in the building, and she would curse her feet and her legs with every step, as if they were uncooperative beasts of burden. I often joined her on the walk back to her apartment after dinner because her antics and her sauciness made me laugh. When we reached her apartment on the ground floor, sometimes she would give me some ginger snaps, or a New Yorker magazine that she had finished reading. She always had an opinion about the cover illustrations.
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Her apartment had a jumbled, creative vibe. There was her card-making workshop in the dining room. Everything was a valuable resource to Greta; magazines, construction paper, lace, flower petals, fabric. A crowd of potted plants, either flourishing or long dead, huddled together beneath the window. Impressionist prints and artwork from various friends and neighbors hung on the walls. She had a network of pen pals all over the world- Japan, Oaxaca, Paris- who sent her little presents: postcards, pictures, baubles. She was fond of each item and always found a place for them on shelves, or between the pages of books. She told me that for years she wrote long letters to her Parisian friends in an effort to teach herself French. Using only a translator’s dictionary and rudimentary grammar, her letters were always savored by their recipients for their malapropisms and unexpected turns of phrase. Her dearest French friend would celebrate them as “poetry,” while her friend’s husband thought them utter nonsense. Greta of course was always certain of their quality.

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Greta with my dog Otis in 2011

She finally got a power scooter a year or two after moving into the community, which was a godsend for her. Her legs soon went out completely and she could no longer stand for very long. I started doing her dishes when I came over, and I loved the completely randomness of the treasures in her cabinets. One might find a Victorian teacup with a gilded handle nested in a chipped coffee mug, a mason jar, a stack of various plates as cohesive as the cover of Let It Bleed. She just liked stuff, by God, all kinds of stuff, and she kept every bit of it without any regard for convention. I’m not one to be surprised by bohemian digs, but I can’t stress how uncommon this is where I work, a place where every “proper” woman has a complete set of china and all of her crystal birds and porcelain angels fussily arranged in a curio cabinet. Greta, on the other hand, was lovably eccentric. It set her apart.

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My hand-made cards from Greta

We wrote silly notes back and forth all the time. She made me cards for every holiday, every trip I took, sometimes for no reason at all. I brought her books to read, cooked for her okra and tomatoes with lots of garlic, and tried to connect her with other kindred spirits who lived at the nursing home. As the wife of a Professor of Aesthetic Philosophy, she traveled all over the world to attend seminars, gallery openings and exhibitions at international art museums. Her taste for beauty was untamed and broad; she was charmed by Cezanne’s apples, by fresh flowers, by patterned Mexican fabrics, by the novels of Flaubert. She once told me that as a young woman, she would prepare for herself the food, cocktails, or other indulgences consumed by the characters in the novels she was reading.
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Greta cursed like a day laborer. It was amazing. If I spent more than ten minutes in her apartment, she was guaranteed to reverse her power scooter swiftly into a piece of furniture, denting it horribly and groaning, “Godammit!” or worse. Never before had anybody earned my respect with their skill for composing profanity. I guess I had it pretty good, because the worst thing she ever called me was a “dumb-bell,” which happened pretty often. Aside from French, she spoke pretty good Swedish as far as I could tell. She taught me a Swedish nursery rhyme traditionally accompanied by some knee-bouncing of a little one: “Rida rida ranka, hesten heter Blanka.” Ride Ride horse, it’s name is Blanka. Works better in the Swedish.

She lived in Sweden until she was a young girl. She told me her father was a harmonica player and a wonderful singer. When he came home late, drunk as a skunk, it was his singing that woke up the whole house. She loved to sing as well. I remember her reciting long passages of Gilbert & Sullivan songs. She also would sing this Bobby Darin song quite a few times (it must have been a favorite of hers):

Ooh … the ER-I-EE was risin’
And the gin was gettin’ low
And I scarcely think
We’ll get a little drink ‘
til we get to Buffalo….

Hear the song .

She would sing as she scooted through the lobby, sing in the hallways, sometimes even burst into song as we were speaking. Her voice was unrefined and her singing had this defiance to it that I loved. It was for her pleasure alone and nobody else’s. As someone who loves to sing and has no real ability, I can relate to the joy of it. I recognized a compatriot when I saw one.

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I shared my poetry with her, at a time in my life when I did not share anything with anyone. She was encouraging, and I almost regretted it, as hard as she pressed me for more material throughout our friendship. As she taught me more and more French words, she began telling me I had an aptitude for language. It was her persuasion that caused me to take a French course at the community college.

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Greta had an amazing impact on my life. She listened to me. She encouraged me. She called me out when I was wrong. She was deliciously impolite. You never had to guess what she was thinking because she always spoke her mind. And she showed me a different mode of being alive, one that I’m so glad I found in her at that time in my life. She radiated positivity; and whether she knew it or not, she shared it. She was celebratory of the things that charmed her; she loved to gush. “I love, Love, LOVE your card. And your pictures! Exceptional!” She savored her life, and she lived it with an almost reckless joy. She wore freaking berets to dinner. Who does that?! She was an exceptional human being.

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I shared this poem with her in the last few months of her life. She loved it.
She made me a Valentine note as thanks that I’ll treasure forever.

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Her departure is a great loss to the world. There will never be another spirit like hers. If I could live as long as her, and know her joy, see the world like she saw it, I would be such a lucky soul.

Rest in peace, Greta.

A Host with the Most?

February 11, 2015

Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible podcast is the bright spot of my commute, an endless lurch through the orange and gray of ongoing highway construction. I’m completely taken with the refined and dizzyingly creative radio production of 99%, and I’m not alone! Mars has been recognized as one of the 100 most creative people on FastCompany.com. I’ve listened to most of the series, and now that I’m accustomed to the show’s thoughtful flow, it seems unthinkable to return to the chaos of evening news and TV journalism.

Although Roman Mars is the figurehead and voice of the show, to call him a host would be a narrowing oversight. He has all the hallmarks of hostship; he is graceful and charming; he keeps things moving, and maintains the interest of the audience. But his real contribution to podcasts, a media for which he is infectiously enthusiastic, is the way he arranges the content.  There are clear principles of clarity and organization at work behind the packaging of the show. 99% Invisible succeeds through a combination of Roman’s principles, his organic production, and his inclusive, humanistic on-air personality.

What are these principles?

Keep it short.
Keep it clear.
Keep it loose.
Keep it fun.
Imagine everyone is listening.

Roman keeps it short; he whittles away at interviews to keep things meaty and concise. He uses his own voice to summarize a story or lead-up, as opposed to allowing long-winded sources to wander all around the all-important point. In this way, he is like any decent journalist, except he has no obligation to fill the page. The episodes, rather than structured like a headline piece with details in descending order of importance, are artfully fluffless. The initial phase of the show featured episodes that rarely eclipsed five minutes. I tackled a house project one weekend with my headphones on, and found to my disappointment that I had blown through 10+ episodes when it was all said and done.

Roman keeps it clear; his voice is all over the thing. He interjects for the purposes of clarity, to elaborate on the credentials of an interviewee, or as a neutral arbiter purpose or history of an organization.

Roman keeps it loose; he does not scrub the script so much that it feels like recitation. It’s not so refined that it lacks a pulse. He’ll introduce a topic for the show and hand things over to one of his colleagues “in the field” who traveled or researched material for the episode. But he never disappears.

Roman keeps it fun; his voice comes in unexpectedly, in omnipotent parentheses, to add an editorial note, a self-deprecating joke, or just to prepare you with a word of caution before his source slanders a public figure or tells a dirty story. You can feel his presence in the production, in each musical backdrop or relevant sample of spoken word. It’s easy to overlook his seamless creativity.

Roman imagines everyone is listening; the inclusive tone of the show is so refreshing. There is no posturing, no hipster exclusion. No one is damned for their taste. Roman’s attitude towards his audience, his colleagues and his source material is always generous, transparent, and above all, grateful. Modern media really deserves more of his sort of kindness. It’s certainly a throwback to the warm fuzzies you get from old P.B.S. shorts that thank “viewers like you.” In later episodes, he uses his two boys to promote one of his sponsors: “my boy Maslow always has something to say, what do you have to say, Maslow?” And this precious voice will produce a charming non-sequitur or a bit of exceptionally profound kid wisdom.

The beauty of these principles becomes especially clear when you compare his program to a Fox News panel discussion, which is really one of the most horrifically uninformative and useless ways you can allocate your brain-stuffs. I’m talking about the standard nightly piece you might find if you turn on your TV after dinner: a host and 3 people at a table or on a split screen, discussing policy. A hypothetical evening news interview might feature somebody like Oyle Derrick, Head of the Council on Trans-Aquatic Petroleum Indulgence, who has “joined us to talk to us a little bit about why the taxpayer is better off without this expensive regulation.” Why Mr. Derrick? His credentials or professional experience is given a sheen of neutral nonsense. Once the dialogue begins, Mr. Derrick has the difficult task of legitimizing his presence on the show as he answers each question. There is always the tension of the tightrope act happening during live television, and the audience is always prepared to grow bored and throw popcorn. The audience demands not only entertainment, but secretly hopes for some disaster that they can “respond to” on Twitter. Tweeting cleanses us of the urge to participate before we can do anything substantial. On nightly news, even the most well-coached guests stammer and grope for a strong answer. Television news commentary does not feel credentialed and it’s not transparent, which is why the concept of trust is so often used in its branding. Trusted news network. Fair news network. It is an untrustworthy person who insists that they can be trusted. In the Information Age, unfiltered information, like unfiltered vodka, is the crudest on the market.

The beauty of these principles stands in defiance of social media content (although to be fair, there is no real oversight there). I have watched social media turn into a constant roar of negativity over the years, an endless mega-cycle of attack pieces, vitriol and self-congratulation. Even legitimate outrage, the kind that spawns twitter campaigns and targets outrageous celebrities, draconian policy, and injustice has come to feel exhausting. There is pressure to echo the outrage, to join in and participate in public anger, shaming, to generate and direct negative energy towards some person or thing. I have spent much of my time as a young man being outraged, and I don’t feel like it’s very good for my soul. Maybe I’m losing my edge. To F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out) has been added this new sin for a generation of millenials: F.O.U.S.: the fear of unfashionable silence.

So thank you Roman Mars for your contribution to media, for the bravery you showed when you created this little show about toothbrushes and state flags, the skyscraper, the fire escape, the elevator, the buildings of New York blog, the asterisk, the quatrefoil, the cul de sac, the pneumatic tube, and all of the other curious contributions of humankind. You’re more N.P.R. than activist, and I guess a lot of old fogies like me happen to be into that stuff.  Godspeed, man!

Mary

January 10, 2015

My grandmother Mary Cady Priddy was a saint. She passed away on December 22, 2014, two days before what would have been her 90th birthday. Although quiet and humble, she was a fiercely intelligent, compassionate woman who lived a full and interesting life.

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She spent her childhood climbing trees, playing with the cows, and stomping in the creek behind this dairy farm in Richburg, NY. I went there once as a young man of maybe 13 or 14, to visit the family and friends that still lived there. Richburg’s people are the salt of the earth. They work hard, smile wide, and look out for each other. Hardships are endured through faith in God, and their emphasis on education and connection to the natural world is a source of true wisdom. Life feels very different there, elemental: wood, metal, glass, and snow everywhere, always with the snow, blowing around and stinging you. It feels like a step into the world of John Steinbeck and Robert Frost, that defining epoch of American history, one that I think with some sadness that we have moved too far beyond. Mary grew up in a time when virtue, faith, and community were real words that had sanctity.

She attended business school in Ohio. Her own writing from her early life indicates that she was incredibly bright, adventurous, and self-aware. She knew what she liked- traveling, reading, helping other people- and she built a life of her interests. To her, being alive was as plain as that.

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This is a photo of her in New York City, with her cousin Betty. The giddy expression on her face which I so love is a little uncharacteristic.

When she was 24 years old, she left America to pursue missionary work in Lahore, Pakistan. Lahore is the capital city of the Punjab region of northeastern Pakistan, and had a population of around 800,000 in the late 1940’s when she moved there. Although my brother, many of my cousins, and I have moved to bigger cities for work or education, in Mary’s case, there’s the unthinkable degree of complexity that comes with a non-Western culture and language. Although she benefited from the resources of the Christian Mission, I am eternally awed and impressed by her willingness to take on this challenge as an unmarried woman of the WWII era. It was there that Mary met Clyde Orville Priddy, a fellow Christian thought leader, and they were wed in Lahore before meeting each others’ families.

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This is one of my favorite photos of her, looking svelte, defiant, and fascinated with the world, walking through a market.

This was probably taken by my grandfather. I feel very fortunate that he was a talented photographer, and that he kept for so long the boxes and boxes of slide images from their time in Pakistan. Aside from Mary and his children, he took pictures of the local people, the mosques, and the markets. Their passion for the world is what I most admire about them both. I see it in all of his photographs, and read it in her letters.

During their time in Pakistan, Clyde and Mary were well known for providing messages of faith in English and Urdu. Clyde’s most famous work was the translation of the story of David and Goliath to the native language. They were blessed with three children in Pakistan, Philip, Isabelle, and Grace.

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I remember some of her stories. I wish I knew more. She once told me about a local cafe, where the patrons refilled their cups by dipping them over and over into a common vat of tea. She used it as tool to teach the people about disease prevention. My grandfather wrote of a night when he saw, to his excitement, the Telstar communications satellite passing overhead in the darkness. Airstrikes during the a regional conflict in the late 1960’s forced them back to the States after 14 years away. I sometimes wonder if they would have lived there forever.

When I spent time at her house as a boy, she was always playing games with me. Scrabble, Dominoes, Chinese Checkers, and Parcheesi were a few of her favorites. We also built cabins and towns with Lincoln Logs, or made crafts out of beads. She taught me songs on the piano, and evaluated my playing. She was tough on mechanics; even if my fingers found the notes, she’d scold me when my thumb failed to roll beneath the other fingers toward the next octave. Sometimes her and I would join Clyde in the living room to work a crossword puzzle together. I remember that the linoleum tiles in front of Clyde’s favorite spot on the sofa had worn out completely, like wooden steps in an ancient church. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for hours, and he’d enter the house in a sweat from a long walk, with a new fossil or piece of petrified wood in hand. It animated him for a time, these discoveries. As a boy from the suburbs in an era of stranger danger, I remember being amazed and more than a little nervous at the idea of walking through town for hours alone. I wish I could have joined him on one of these walks. I understand now the joy of solitary walks, and like him I’ve put footprints all over the neighborhoods and surrounding natural areas where I’ve lived.

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Clyde in 2010

Mary’s time in Pakistan was evident in her cooking. She used to fix me white rice with Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup as a snack. I imagine these items were readily available to an American living in Pakistan, and I realize now that I was probably eating a staple dish from her time there. Sometimes she fixed popcorn in a popcorn making machine. She would send me to the microwave with a knob of butter to melt for flavoring. She always seasoned her chicken and other dishes with cumin, a spice that is seldom in the front of an American spice cabinet for easy reach. Aside from cumin, I remember that specific rich smell of tomato plants, and birdseed scattered everywhere in the backyard. Although I can also remember the smell of her old Honda with its cloth seats, I can’t recall the two of us going out into town together. It seems that if she left the house, it was for church on Sunday, or a major event like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Her only indulgences were from the bowl of orange candies in the kitchen, and she was the farthest thing from a consumerist. It wasn’t like her to prize a pair of shoes or a piece of jewelry. I didn’t think anything of it as a child, but I admire it so much now.

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Mary, with all of her grandchildren (2007).

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With me (2010).

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This is her typewriter. My mother brought it to Austin once during a visit, and I took it to a local shop to learn more about it. It needed a little oil, and the man who worked there really admired the model. Although her mind at that point was badly damaged by dementia, and she was hundreds of miles away, I experienced a surreal moment of connection as he demonstrated its features. I felt as if she sent a message to me from his fingers. I raced home and wrote this small tribute.

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Later, I used the old Royal Manual to expand upon these lines an entire collection of haiku. I loved the physicality of the process. Typewriters require creative decisions to be made BEFORE they are typed, whereas a word processor allows for the editing and writing to happen simultaneously. It feels flimsier somehow. Typing a page is a gesture of commitment; it takes moxie to use a typewriter, moxie or ounces of white-out and the patience of Job. When I pressed the keys, it felt like I channeled her strength, the strength that sent her halfway around the world and sustained her through New York winters, civil unrest and violence in Pakistan, four rounds of childbirth, and a life of duty to God and husband. My poems never really made it into the world, but they were given to a few people in books that I stitch-bound. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, now I feel sure the entire project, even the binding, was inspired by her typewriter and the dexterity of her hands.

Mary was the kindest person I’ve ever known. Never once did she gossip or say unpleasant things about other people. She loved every one, especially children, and did not expect anything in return. She knew no grudges. As an adult, I realize how hard it is to dissolve negative thoughts and to respect and honor all people, despite the way that they treat you. She is one of the few people I’ve ever met who clearly and truly had faith in God and practiced the teachings of Christ. If kindness is a quality I have, I know that it was gifted to me from her. In a capitalist society where kindness is met with suspicion, even decried as a weakness, I am proud that my grandmother was such a purposefully kind woman. I see her kindness and her love for the world as a legacy. She will be dearly missed by everyone who knew her. I wish she could have seen me grow out of the shifting and often silly phases of my youth, and talk to me today as a man. I would love so much to be inspired by her one last time. Rest in peace, Mary.

Naive Love

December 14, 2014

Love is a topic that David Byrne avoided so consistently in the music of the Talking Heads that it feels like a gesture of opposition toward the music industry. In 1978, when the BeeGees were still yodeling and strutting in sequins, Talking Heads put out their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978). The title suggests a glorification of the mundane. I can imagine a record executive scoffing at the idea of getting radio play for a bunch of songs about concrete, glass, spinach and pasta. Of course the album is not quite so ridiculous, and the songs are killer. The pioneering spirit of the Talking Heads, and one of their contributions that I find so interesting is how much they say. At a time when the horizons for pop music seemed pretty narrow, they proved that there was so much to explore. And if the lesson of Buildings & Food was lost on the industry, I like to think of the songs on their next record Fear of Music- Paper, Cities, Air, Animals, Drugs, to name a few- as further creative calisthenics from Byrne; he’s literally throwing anything against the wall (even the literal gibberish of “I Zimbra”) to see what works. The dude’s a friggin capital-A artist on a mission to prove that love is not the only profitable language of pop.

So Byrne and the Heads eventually get around to the subject of love, but in their own subversive style. Their one romantic hit, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” has a self-awareness that’s clear just by looking at the title, and was pushed to the end of the record’s B-side. The lyrics are mostly nonsense, and the music is saccharine: soft chords, high-pitched fiddly organ bits and the occasional cornball shimmer of chimes. As the lyrics gets sappy (Love me til my heart stops, love me til I’m dead) and the music swells at the song’s conclusion, he ends with a plea to be put out of his misery that makes me smile: “oh, hit me on the head.” I ain’t hating on this song, seriously. It’s such a good tune, and one that I come back to again and again.

In Stop Making Sense, David Byrne dances with a floor lamp during the song’s musical interlude. Like all of Byrne’s dancing, it straddles this line between hokey and care-free, and is super fun to watch. I would even go so far as to say that this affection between man and light fixture is strangely touching.

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Just as Talking Heads music challenged the standards of the music industry, Stop Making Sense challenged the norm of musical performance. The band members are introduced one at a time throughout the first half; workers are plainly seen moving set pieces around, and no effort is made to conceal the cameras. Amp stacks, scaffolding, floor tape and other “unsightly” features of the stage are plainly visible.

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Only at its conclusion does Stop Making Sense reach any conventionality, with theatrical lighting and a full band performing in an arena setting. Byrne focuses on the visual aspect of performance, and (quite brilliantly) takes the audience along on a dynamic, artful journey from start to finish. Like the rest of Stop Making Sense, a good deal of thought went into the visual impact of the segment with the floor lamp. It compliments the tone of the song so well. It’s not lusty or passionate but a naive joy- the way that Thumper closes his eyes as he smells a patch of flowers in Bambi. And of course, Byrne’s dance with the lamp is a bit of a parody of love, just as “This Must Be The Place” is a bit of a parody of a love song.

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Bravo, David. You’re a visionary, and I’m always having fun whenever I listen to your music.

Shitting on the Classics: Stale Champagne

May 21, 2013

This is a recurring segment, where I deride the work of much more talented and successful human beings out of personal bitterness. If you’re a hateful sort, I’m inviting you along with a gentle pat on the sofa cushion beside me. Join me, dear friend.
I recently re-read The Great Gatsby, for the first time since it was assigned in high school. I remember Eckleberg’s eyes over the Valley of Ash, and the ceiling being described as a frosted wedding cake. I remember the teacher discussing the literary devices in the description of the house with the French doors. I didn’t know what French doors were of course, so it damaged the visual impact (I just thought they were doors from France, doors that cost a pretty penny to ship overseas). I remember my literature teacher’s visible excitement. But I don’t think I really read the book. And it’s strange, because as much as I thought this second reading would flesh out the novel for me, it did not. It’s a novel with few footholds, and little meat on the bone. Despite all the high school discussion fodder I remember, now the novel seems resilient to examination.

There seem to be two novels present in The Great Gatsby: the novel Fitzgerald has given us, and the novel he thinks he has given us. Needless to say, Fitzgerald thinks he’s written a shining star to put on our town Christmas tree. But when the dialogue and the scenes start, they’re full of gossip, boredom, and self-indulgence. Or if there’s a party scene, there is gossip, drinking and dancing. The disconnect happens when majestic paragraphs unfold between these trivial scenes: Nick gets carried away with thematic words that clash like big brass cymbals! Love! Obsession! Idealism! It’s like you’re getting the novel and the literary criticism at the same time.

When the characters get together in one room, like a gossip magazine come to life, they bicker about who’s sleeping with who, or how in the world they’re going to get more cigarettes, or did you hear the new rumor about Gatsby? Occasionally Tom prattles on about some racist book he just read. to my mind, these scenes are not written very well. Or they are written well, and they’re just well-written scenes about uninteresting people. if this was a stage play, it would fall apart. there’s nothing… exciting that happens in these stretches of dialogue. And for a story full of infidelity, there’s really no suspense.

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Daisy and Gatsby’s intimate reunion is immediately out in the open as soon as it happens, and the tense showdown in New York City between Daisy’s husband and her lover is silly. This scene is positioned as if it were the centerpiece of the story. But it left my very cold. As violent as Tom proves himself to be in earlier chapters, i was very surprised he didn’t take a swing at Gatsby. Instead, the two men sit in a room in front of everyone, discussing whom Daisy loves more. This continues for what feels like hours. More surprising still than Tom’s lack of violence, is that at the height of his rage, he just lets Daisy leave the city in a car with Gatsby. None of this behavior struck me as human.

Daisy’s lack of agency in this scene is painful to read, as Gatsby and Tom try to use Jedi mind control on her. They pretend to know all of the inner workings of her emotional mind, which they have no knowledge of, and instruct her what to do as if she’s clueless (“She’s leaving you.” “No she is not.”). I know this sort of thing may have been typical of the time period, but it’s silly and disgusting to read. It doesn’t lend any credit to Gatsby either, who’s supposed to be a gentleman.

From the argument in chapter 7:
Gatsby: “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!”
“Even that’s a lie,” said Tom savagely. “She didn’t know you were alive.
Gatsby: “You don’t understand. You’re not going to take care of her any more.”
Tom: “She’s not leaving me!”

Charming.

Kathryn Shulz makes a great point about Fitzgerald’s untimely misogynism in her write-up on Gatsby, which appeared recently in New York Magazine. She claims Fitzgerald has an “unthinking commitment to a gender order so archaic as to be Premodern: corrupt woman occasioning the fall of man. There is, relatedly, the travesty of his female characters—single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin. (Don’t talk to me about the standards of his time; the man hell-bent on being the voice of his generation was a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, not to mention the great groundswell of activists who achieved the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet here he is in A Short Autobiography: “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.”)” BOOOO…

So of course there are powerful, creative women doing important things during Fitzgerald’s era, just none to be found in his novel… It’s convenient that Schulz brought up Virginina Woolf also, because the prose styling that is so admired in Gatsby really plays second fiddle to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Also, Nick’s narration is suspect. His sentimental intrusions into the story feel like cheating by the author. They are little course corrections made by Fitzgerald, to remind the reader how (s)he is supposed to feel about the events and the characters. I haven’t read a novel with a bona fide narrator in so long that I’m unsure about what their purpose is, but Nick didn’t seem to help the story. Seeing the events through his eyes felt like looking at the entire story through a dirty window. Aside from being voyeuristic, Nick is supposedly an honest everyman, a faithful messenger for the audience. But his fanboy attitude towards Gatsby is distracting, and when he eulogizes him for the last few pages, I simply could not muster any sadness. Gatsby is a shallow obsessive, a profiteer, and most damning of all: he shows no compassion for the victim of a murder which he is an accessory to.

Lastly, this is a very bourgeois story. Rich people doing rich people stuff throughout. This is all well and good, but it represents a very very small percentage of American life for a novel that is hailed as the great American novel bar none. I don’t think Fitzgerald knew how to write a working class character. George Wilson is sort of close, but his shop is in the middle of a valley of ash. The suburbs, the farmlands, a blank expanse where nothing happens except the migration of dust clouds, it’s all the same to ol’ F. Scott, it seems. There’s old money, there’s new money, there’s the city where the two go to mingle, and everything else is ash. if this is supposed to be an ironic anti-capitalist message, as in… the rest of the country has been destroyed by industrialization and brute capitalism, for the benefit of the wealthy and indulgent, it’s genius. but i don’t think that’s Fitzgerald’s perspective. I don’t even think this is meant to be a cautionary tale about greed, because Gatsby is revered by Nick, and he seems just as bad as the other rich people that Fitzgerald dismisses as “careless” people who “makes messes.” As much as he seems to speak out against the ills of the Jazz Age, refined F. Scotty put on his suit and drank champagne with all of ‘em. If he is a satirist, he is also, as they say, a poser, dude.

Clyde

March 14, 2013

Mary! Who is that boy?”
“It’s your grandson, Clyde, Grace’s eldest.”
“Did he come to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”

My grandmother waves me into the sitting room,
where the Scrabble board is set upon a sewing table
the wax plants make do with
windowlight through a membrane of dust.

She wins the draw for first play,
picks one by one the tiles off the rack,
emptying it upon the board.

“Hairpin.”

Her 82 points are begrudgingly scrawled-
a good hostess never wins.

Stranded with vowels
I counter with “pi.”

I see her rely on tally marks for my score.

Family pictures on a lace runner atop the piano,
and books. eagle-clawed feet of the playing stool.

As a pupil, they were a refuge for shame-heavy eyes,
after my fingers failed to navigate
a scattergraph of troublesome notes
above the treble C.

“Do you want to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
My grandfather, irritable, sends this request from another room.
She leaves and I hear her gently scold.
It won’t be the last time today.

The specter of lunch hangs in the air,
pan-fried cumin chicken,
Served with skim milk, an awkward blue in her favorite glasses,
with etchings of northern birds.

A painting of a Kansas farmhouse hangs in the hallway
with portentous crows rushing from the dust devils,
next to a colorless photograph of her, unmistakably a mother.
Resolute in a plaid dress and head scarf,
clutching the armpits of a naked baby above
the soapy well of the kitchen sink.

Grandfather laughs at the sight of me
and retrieves his cane from atop the
stacks of newspapers and magazines
congealed upon the coffee table.
His reading habits seem to sprout legs at the corners.

The backyard is thick with birdseed,
and an earthenware dish full of water
sits at the base of an old pine,
the center pip of his planting pattern,
inspired by a five point domino.

Like a “C” struggling to close,
his eyelid stretches across the empty socket.
He no longer wears his false eye.
My grandmother’s reminders of convention
are met with grumbling words of “why”
All together we trust the intangible order,
society is polite flesh upon animal frame.

His gaze ascends the trunk of his tallest tree…

I don’t see what he sees, this man,
who is either sick or enlightened.
I don’t know if his tree ends in breezy sky,
or if it’s peak skewers the clouds,
miles above the lead feet of my youthful vision.

grandpa

Repair: A Story with a Moral

March 9, 2013

grado

My morning job is tediously physical. Music saves me from noisy thoughts that are invoked by the monotony. But lately, my headphones have made matters worse. One channel is dropping out because of a wire short, and I only hear half of the song. Maybe just the vocals and the drum beat, or a keyboard and guitar. I found a way to sort of wrap a portion of the cord around my phone and put it in my pocket, and it would stop the problem for a while. Over time, even this make-shift solution quit on me. If I get some good luck and things are working properly, I walk robotically around, fearing that a bend in the leg or a stretch might upset this delicate cord situation.

There’s a reason why this problem has persisted. Get new headphones, right? But I’m a stubbornly frugal person. At the grocery store, it’s exciting when my items total up to less than I thought at the register, and I get a little turned on by all that value. Food for weeks! I also don’t like making the same expense twice. I struggled with an 8 year old laptop for years, replacing parts and purchasing new charger cables. I feel there’s a morality somewhere in this. Like God is an accountant who will reward me for minimizing expenses. This is all very exciting to women, by the way, when I talk about it at parties.

On Tuesday, I decided that I simply could not live with the irritation of a crackling stereo channel. I’m a human being, god dammit! networkI went to radio shack, and for $4.79, I purchased a replacement 1/8″ plug. On tuesday night, I repaired the very headphones which were generating so much negative energy in my day. It took me weeks to actualize the fact that items are often repairable. A couple of snips and a small struggle with a soldering iron, and it worked! Huzzah!

This brings me to the word “repair,” a word which was sadly neglected by the EPA when they created the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign. Repair is efficient. Repair is economical. Repair is anti-waste. Repair is empowering. So let us celebrate the sewing needle, the soldering iron and the screwdriver.

Everybody: repair your stuff!

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