I guess he was right

Last night I attended Greek Week’s Recognition Night. The final portion of the evening was dedicated to seniors. First, they presented a slideshow with pictures of us as babies and as college almost-graduates. Second, they delivered letters from our parents. Although seeing the picture of myself was funny – I had never seen it before – I was particularly affected by the letter.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. I’m a little disappointed in myself in admitting that at first blush, I felt the letter was rather blase. I think I read over it and imagined that it was the same letter that every other senior would be receiving. Nevertheless, I called my mother and thanked her for the effort. She told me I was welcome, of course, but also told me that dad cried a little after he wrote it. We both chuckled at the cuteness of it: the tenderness most-times hidden beneath a tough, austere face.

When I called last night, I was out with friends, and so couldn’t talk for very long. I called her again this morning and after talking with her, spoke to my dad. He expressed that the letter was very hard to write. After my conversation with them, I picked up the letter again and read it. I think this is when the disappointment for how I originally viewed the letter sank in, but then was quickly washed away by what the letter actually said: “We couldn’t be more proud of you.”

Although I constantly think my parents are insane for being proud of me and I don’t understand where their perception of me comes from, I’m realizing that their pride means something very special to me – much more than I originally thought. I regularly get down on myself for not doing enough. I don’t study enough, I don’t work hard enough, I don’t mean enough to enough people, I don’t win enough awards, I don’t make enough money, I’m not being a good enough friend or lover, and so forth. This morning, I woke up mired in that familiar well of disappointment and regret. When I read the letter my father wrote and was confronted with how proud he and my mom really are of me, I started feeling that everything was okay. I started to realize that I usually subject myself to a pretty impossible rubric for what I should be as a human being. And although that will probably never change…and honestly, I don’t know that I ever would want it to change, I’m realizing now that the only rubric that should matter to me is the one my parents put forth. Honestly, who do I owe more for all that I have been able to experience and do? And who do I care more for? My love for them runs so deep that I can easily forget about it: it fades into the background of who I am, something as vital but discrete as blood or bone.

I may never think that I’ve done anything worth a damn, but I’ve got to say, so long as my parents think highly of me, I can feel proud of that. I hope that in the future, when I get down on myself, this is what I’ll return to.

My dad started off his letter by commenting on how wonderful spring is because of the sense of newness one gets from flowers and trees starting to bloom. As I was writing, I looked out my window and realized that the oaks outside were in full bloom for the first time this year. My father ended his letter by proclaiming how excited I must be at the newness that lays before me. I guess he was right.

Leadership Over Lunch

Over the last few weeks, I have been asked to participate in interview luncheons for candidates to the Assistant Professor in Leadership position open at the McDonough Center. Each candidate has been posed the question, “What is your definition of leadership?”

This question is interesting, and problematic to me for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is the underlying assumption that such a concept needs distilled down to basic, elemental parts; an assumption which seems to be relentlessly compulsory.

Although I seem to contradict myself, one definition attracted me more than any others. Dr. Bechtold, of the University of Hawaii (I believe), suggested that “Leadership is the process in which a leader creates a message which followers can endorse.”

Food for thought.

Wisdom in the unlikeliest of places

Just saw Evan Almighty. Not in much of a mood to comment on it, but I did want to commemorate here one really dazzling quotation by Morgan Freeman’s character (God):

“Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?” – Evan Almighty

It really made me think, I’m somewhat ashamed to say. C’est la comedy.

Bravissimo, Alex. (Cinderella Story, by Alex Abramovich)

A few weeks ago I was thumbing through a GQ and somehow or other got sucked into a narrative piece about a writer’s attempt to reconnect with a one-time primary school bully (“Running with the Bully.” GQ June 2007: 122-127, 164, 166-167). The piece was fairly well done, though at the time I wasn’t necessarily excited to be reading it (I think that after I read more than a quarter of something, I’m compelled to finish it so that I can convince myself it wasn’t a waste of time – probably not a good system). In any case, one thing that did push me to keep reading the essay was the surprisingly lyrical quality of the writer’s prose. Alex Abramovich managed to keep my attention throughout the entire essay, largely by virtue of perfectly crafted sentences, innovative syntax, and energetic insight dispersed throughout.

I like to visualize the people whose work I’m reading, so I hopped online and googled “Alex Abramovich.” I don’t recall ever having found a picture of him (if you find one, send me the link!), though I did find a book with his name on it: a compilation of his “best” essays, curiously titled Cinderella Story: Notes on Contemporary Culture. I was attracted to the name – somewhat prescient, I couldn’t help feeling – and started reading up on it. Eventually I had read so many reviews and summaries I figured I could have read the damn book already, so I ordered it on Amazon for the convenient, low, low price of $9.95.

As always, my hope was to be astounded by the brilliance of the author and enriched by his writing, while my expectation was to finish the book weeks after receiving it, grumbling darkly about having felt the need to read the entire book just in case the last few strides redeemed the load of shit that had preceded them.

As it turns out, my expectation was far exceeded and my hope very nearly realized. The collection starts off with Abramovich’s strongest, most poignant piece by far (after which the collection is titled), though it readily, and startlingly, displays his well-practiced fluency with the critical analysis of cultural texts. Readers are not confronted with a neophyte, here, but a full-fledged initiate; someone skilled in the tools of his trade. Very quickly he lives up to the praise that Sam Lipsyte, his one-time editor, lays at his feet in the Preface: “Abramovich is that rare kind of critic who can set himself aside enough to see what he is seeing. Rare too is the grace and energy of his prose and the startling power of his imagery” (Abramovich 9).

This first piece, “Cinderella Story,” runs just 10 pages, but in that incredibly short stretch of paper Abramovich accomplishes so much. He begins simply, holistically reviewing the convention of the romantic comedy as it has emerged and progressed in American cinema. Through his recap he notes that the quality of romantic comedy scripts has steadily declined, that they once “were pure in a way that nothing seems pure anymore.” He wisely judges that the major accomplishment of good romantic comedies was that they allowed audience members to lose themselves in the film, and that current products issued under this genre have largely failed to achieve this distinction with any consistency. Abramovich focuses on intimacy as the major culprit of the romantic comedy’s fall-from-grace, stating that it is “no longer viable as either a cultural or commercial commodity.”

Underlining that sentence, I wondered, and proceeded, becoming more and more convinced that Abramovich’s perspective is clear and well-honed. Intimacy has somehow become less possible in our own culture: “intimacy – the space two people create to ward off the trespasses of the world at large – now runs counter to the interests of the people who shape the tone and tenor of our lives” — media moguls, as I understood it (Abramovich 12). While his vision of the retreat of intimacy is valid and suggestive of some of the greatest issues society faces today and young generations will face with greater urgency in the near future, Abramovich would benefit from considering the many shades of intimacy on a spectrum ranging from “casual,” perhaps, to “authentic.” I wonder if it isn’t that intimacy has lost its importance, but that we have gradually abandoned the best ways of achieving it, and have steadily become less aware of what really satisfies that innate, human need of ours to be intimate with others.

Had he considered the difference between authentic intimacy and other types, he may have been better prepared to slice through the rest of his essay. Still, though, his does admirable work. Using Julia Roberts as his main cultural text and her various romantic comedies as examples (especially Erin Brockovich), Abramovich confidently traipses through the process of building an impressive argument. Essentially, while romantic comedies may no longer offer us the chance to escape within them as a way to sate our need for intimacy, a nascent form of film, the deposition movie, is taking the reigns in that regard. We haven’t stopped looking to film to satisfy our needs: we have just altered what cross-section of celluloid we turn to. Through the deposition film, Abramovich sees us relating to people who suffer (such as those affected by pollution in Erin Brockovich) and coming to depend on their defenders (e.g. Erin Brockovich/Julia Roberts) to deliver us to a catharsis when the wounds we have adopted are addressed (I can’t wait to see if he ever attacks Law and Order). Appropriately, Abramovich proceeds to remark on the place of celebrity in all of this mess: the ways in which people grow to depend on celebrity figures like Julia Roberts to act as our personal saviors. Abramovich warns us away from this approach, and wisely so, finishing his essay with one of the most powerful observations I have ever read:

“How do any of us [sleep at night]? More and more, it seems, we sleep alone, or not at all. As the common ground of geography, community, and family disappears, we’re forced more and more to connect through contexts that are pre-established for us, and find ourselves with less and less to talk about. We spin in a cultural centrifuge, the earth drops from beneath our feet, and all that’s left to look at is the blur of faces spinning next to our own. Ultimately, we all begin to look the same, and to check the same boxes on movie-screening questionnaires. Meanwhile, art – the most direct, intense means we have of connecting to what’s inside another individual’s head, and a last refuge from cultural vertigo – no longer seems to be made by individuals, or for them. Certainly, it isn’t being made about them” (Abramovich 10).

When I came across this passage, a chill ran through my body. I stopped reading, set the book down in my lap, and thought long and hard on the state of the world, as well as on my own place and practices in it. Anyone interested in popular culture, critical theory, film, the ways in which we connect with each other, or just a damn good read will benefit from reading – no, not reading: absorbing – this book. Readers beware, however: Abramovich will likely challenge you to reevaluate assumptions about the world and your place in it. Although powerful, his observations can also be unsettling.

Bravissimo, Alex. I, at the least, am grateful for your work and will be thinking on your words for a long, long time.
———————————————————————————–
Abramovich, Alex. Cinderella Story: Notes on Contemporary Culture. Cybereditions, 2002.

Buy on Amazon.
Buy as eBook.

Bombasting, bomblasting

My level of satisfaction with Daily Kos fluctuates with frequency. On many days I find the postings a little distasteful simply because of an unmitigated puerile rage that lines the very characters on screen. Occasionally though, they post a gem. This was one of those days.

Meteor Blades supplied a quick post as commentary on the Fourth of July. He started by declaiming the word hero, noting its egregious and “promiscuous” usage. I’ll admit that it is a word we are often quick to reach for, but promiscuous? I was about to wander on when I saw Frederick Douglass mentioned on the next line. Curious, I read on, and became even more skeptical. Meteor Blades lauds Frederick Douglass as his one archetype of heroism. I’m not sure that I buy that completely; I’ve never really cared for him or his work (his narrative was boring, I’m sorry). However, the piece Meteor Blades selected as evidence was convincing. Apparently Frederick Douglass had once delivered a speech on a Fourth of July (you can almost hear the deep ‘U’ that your imagination demands Douglass must have spoken with, despite being born in Maryland). The speech is good. Very good. I won’t reproduce it here, though those curious should certainly click on the link above to view the speech as Meteor Blades provided it. I will simply offer one observation, a quotation that caught my attention, and be on my merry way.

My observation: I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July. I never have, really. I don’t care for fire works. I never have, really. (You’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them all, y’know? Unless you find someone who can work Gandalf’s particular brand…) I stopped going as soon as I could manage to excuse myself from family affairs, and since that time have spent every Fourth of July contemplating why I detest the way we celebrate this holiday.

I think, just maybe, I’m a little angry that we’re celebrating. I am grateful for this nation, yes, yes, yes. But most days I see too much deviation from the vision we’re supposed to be sharing in, accomplishing, spreading, to feel comfortable sitting back and celebrating what our forbearers had achieved. Celebrating such a holiday seems to suggest that those bacchanalians carousing beneath scintillating, fulsome light displays are complicit in the assertion that all is well; that the Mission has been accomplished.

Maybe I’m a little too harsh here, but when I see that the wrong words in the Declaration of Independence are still adhered to literally in some situations — that every man is created equal — while in others they are casually ignored to permit the discrimination of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, I get angry. (Have you ever noticed how the Declaration begins, “When in the course of human events” and then flutters into “man” this and “man” that? That’s substantial enough for me to believe those myths that Jefferson drafted one version with just the word human and then was pressured into changing it. But hey, call me Mr. CSI).

I spend my Fourth of Julys remembering what we fought and died for. I spend them in mild solemnity, not just remembering the path we have taken and missteps we have made, but also reminding myself of the journey we have yet to complete and the long road ahead.

Perhaps I have underestimated Frederick Douglass. His words certainly have a timeless quality about them:

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms- of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.” — Frederick Douglass, 1852.

just text

An hour and nineteen minutes into a day stretching ignorantly into an obliviously lengthy future, I’m waiting on a program to
run – just, run, damn you! – and let my head sink into its ‘relaxed’ pose: cocked slightly to the right, angled towards my left. In direct line of sight is a whiteboard I’ve mounted, but never used. A smattering of reference papers (“Return Reason
Codes…) and self-important notes begging for attention (“Call Amy! 000-000-0000”), but above and beyond them, an understated expanse of white which begins to call to me. Perhaps its just the ridiculously upbeat overtones of Belle and
Sebastian’s’For the Price of a Cup of Tea'(“If you want to know the truth / Her friend the stars dripping from the jewelled sky…She can finally be the person she wanted to be”), or maybe its a lack of sleep, coffee deprivation, or something similarly mundane, but I find my mind heeding the whiteboard’s furtive whispers, and all of a sudden, everything looms large.

My gray threaded cubicle office widens beyond the normal sight I’m possessed of and gives way to white, all white, as my body- and something deeper, depper – falls (simply falls!) into the small two-foot by two-foot whiteboard which I know just shouldn’t be able to contain me, but there I go! It is, in this moment, the window I had never too-seriously hoped for. Standing atop a cliffface, I’m overlooking the endless sea of land dotted with budding forests, rising and falling breaths of hills, and creeks running in the direction I’m facing – which the rising sun on my right tells me must be North – as though racing each other to see who can get farthest away from the cliff first. Wind whips around my face and seems to challenge my right to stand here, right here, and brings to bear a cloying scent reminiscent of Rome and its proud, old trees. Sia’s voice howls around me, “Just breathe,” and then holds. The world becomes silent and I close my eyes. Without fear or the hesitation which common reason screams would be wise, I close my eyes and spread my arms. I’m suddenly aware of the world slowing down around me in its silence, my heart beats, and the pulse sallies forth through my veins and I feel it like I would a
shockwave, flowing down through my body to, yes to my heel. As though it were a powder keg and that wave of sanguine energy the match, my foot explodes into a minute expression of inertia, released. My toes gain strength and inch upwards, my foot pushes against the ground it was, seemingly for eternity, married to. I’m cognizant of a sweet sense of freedom, of flying, of becoming.

“Just breathe.”