Monday, December 27, 2010

The Balance of Power appears at SWI

I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday. Before we continue with this post, please enjoy Foster Brooks slowly drinking himself into a stupor with the gifts given to him by his "true love" over the
course of 12 days. What partridge? Why, it's always been a duck.

I have a new post at Speak Without Interruption (SWI). It is a work of fiction, titled "The Balance of Power," which I've posted at SWI--a venue that champions free speech. Truth be told, I've had a difficult time getting a journal to accept it. Here's an excerpt. You can decide its value or lack thereof for yourself now that it's out there for consumption. Perhaps they will add another few pages to my government dossier over it (Yes, I suspect I might actually have one somewhere, thanks to the popularity and subversive nature of this story, "December 15, 2012"). First, an excerpt from "The Balance of Power":

"Inside the hanger was a large cinder block partition, and around it were low-hanging lights that illuminated the hanger with bluish pools of fluorescence. These drop lights were covered by saucer-shaped shades that resembled tin pie pans. They reminded him of the poultry farm he had been to on the campaign trail. “You raising chickens in here?” He laughed, making a showy display of teeth and looking at the guard next to him. The guard did not respond, even, to the president’s surprise, out of deference. The guard’s face, which was blonde, freckled, and the color of boiled ham, remained rigid with purpose and pointed straight ahead. The president looked at the other guard and saw his reaction was equally stern. He then cleared his throat, smiled reflexively, and causally felt at the knot in his tie. Their lack of humor confirmed his sense that he was among zealots. A sudden sense of fear rose in him, making his neck tingle and goose flesh appear under his shirt, where it could not be seen. This should be shut down, he thought, instinctively. We don’t need this place. We’ll open up the flats to tourists."
Read the whole story here.

And while we're at it, check out Chris Hedges' fascinating relationship of both Huxley's and Orwell's visions of dystopia to contemporary culture posted at Truthdig. Check it out here: "A Brave New Dystopia". Excellent, interesting commentary.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Writing at Speak Without Interruption

I've begun writing for Speak Without Interruption, a blog site dedicated to free speech in a society that is growing increasingly intolerant of freely expressed political and religious ideas. While I haven't posted about politics or religion, I did post about the artist John Baldessari. This first post appeared today.

Read the whole post by clicking here.

In the meantime, here's an excerpt:
"The man has nose enough for both himself and the woman he is moving towards. In fact, this feature alone becomes an entity itself, snuffling towards the woman’s smiling features as if it were a hog seeking truffles. Meanwhile, on the right hand side, the gun– generally a menacing object, even in the symbolic sense when it has no power to wound–has no impact here. It even recedes into the background, playing second-fiddle to the yellow, eminently honk-able nose of the man holding it. A line travels from the giant nose on the left through the woman’s smile and into the arm holding the gun on the right hand side. So, we wonder, is Baldessari equating that giant nose on the left with the weapon on the right? And by that rationale, just how devastating would a sneeze from that nose be? In each of these images there is a reserved chuckle to be enjoyed, a whispered you must be joking."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unpacking a Tiffany Advertisement

First, new publication news: my review of Wood Street Galleries’ exhibition Audiospace appears this week in Pittsburgh City Paper.

Second: let’s talk about this Tiffany & Company advertisement, which appears on the back of last week’s New Yorker magazine. It apparently also runs as a double-spread in the December issue of Town & Country, which is where this image (sampled here from another blog devoted to an actor who plays the male role) comes from.

When I teach English, I like to look at the messages hidden in essays. For example, what are the underlying assumptions? What can we understand about the author or the author’s agenda through the language used to persuade the reader or to convey a call-to-action? In my literature classes, I usually bring in advertisements contemporary to the composition or publication date because this allows students to understand some of the prevailing attitudes, both projected and imposed. For example, when I teach the 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I bring in images of period women so that the students might understand how women figured in the popular imagination. What should a woman be? What is reflected back at ladies and what must they measure up to? These notions of the "ideal woman" drove the main character in "The Yellow Wallpaper" mad.

I also pass around images of corset ads, like the one pictured here. Why? Because corsets are a manifestation of the same psychological circumstances Jane, whose name is purposefully mentioned only once in Gilman’s story (think “Jane”, as in “Jane Doe,” the anonymous everywoman), finds herself in as a doctor’s wife and new mother suffering from post-partum depression during the late Victorian era. Corsets are as symbolic of uncomfortably repressed flesh as they are of repressed desires and aspirations. They are the reason for fainting couches and the cause of miscarriages. Check out the image (below) of what the corset does to a woman’s internal organs. Are these not somehow like the Chinese foot binding rituals that were intended to reveal fortitude and submission as much as it was to prevent the women from actually running off (or sneaking away under their own power) with other men? In China, a small foot was more valuable than a beautiful face because it revealed obedience to parental wishes, which in turn indicated a similar willingness to uncomplainingly obey a husband.

Anyway, back to the Tiffany advertisement. Let’s unpack it, shall we? First, there is the image of the nuclear family. The mother has provided two heirs, one a daughter and the other ostensibly also a daughter. Two and done, we can surmise. And although every suburban soccer mom can project herself into this woman, she is still a figure of fantasy. How so, you ask? Let’s look at the particulars: she is slender, chic, and trouser-wearing. She is still long haired, but women’s-movement-conventional in appearance, reminding me of those Enjoli commercials from the 80s, whose jingle began, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…” The woman is, from all appearances, a Manhattan mom, living in high fashion—but of course with traditional tastes—in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Other women may begin to think beyond the boundaries of this ad. Here's the internal monologue I imagine: I bet she has a reliable baby sitter or some kind of daycare. I bet she goes to parties with her husband. And there is probably champagne there. Oh, the dresses. I wonder if she owns one with sequins. I bet there’s in-home daycare. A nanny. I mean, her husband buys her Tiffany jewelry—there’s got to be a nanny. Sure, I could handle that life.

In the ad, the woman is receiving a kiss from her husband (or partner, but most likely a husband). He is carrying the famous turquoise-colored bag. The kiss and the bag say: “darling, you have done well. Here is your reward.” Because she is holding the baby and he, the bag, a sense of control still seems to exist in the fibers of this metaphorcial fabric: I will give you the reward when I am ready (perhaps on Christmas Eve, but who knows). I will not allow you to wear it out of the store like a pair of new sneakers. You must be patient, darling, and wait until gifts are granted.

But then again, maybe the contents of the turquoise bag are for his own mother. And wouldn’t that be a kick in those dark trousers? Indeed it would.
What's my point? Well, isn't the underlying message here something about the ideal and its physical manifestation--this is, to some degree, what the ideal is supposed to look like. But exactly whose ideal is it? Perhaps it is that of an anonymous and long-suffering soccer mom, eternally strapped behind the wheel of minivan (as noted above). But the ad agency has upcycled old social archetypes (think a post-modern June Cleaver and her white picket fence having gone a penthouse on Park Avenue). And by doing this the agency has attempted to implicate Tiffany as part of this ideal (an old-garde ideal). Here, they are not so subtly indicating that if you have the "perfect wife", she deserves something amazing (and overpriced) in a small turquoise box. And if you don't do at least that for her, you don't measure up, you cannot be considered a "perfect husband." (Even though being a perfect husband involves so many things that do not come in a turquoise-colored box, really that aren't even tangible).
Yet, do we even consciously realize all the messages that are sent to us, and that we readily accept as truth, as fact? No wonder antidepressants are, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the most perscribed drug in the US. (Which is, by the way, what my story "American Soma" is all about.) Who can live up to the expectations people have, which are fuelled in part by products we do not need? Ay!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Henry Miller and onto Brassai

While I’ve been working on my book review column, covering a multitude of reference guides that I brought with me in a giant file box, I haven’t brought with me (to Pittsburgh) my regular 'fun' reading material. However, the shelves in the Pittsburgh apartment are always full, so I picked up a book I read long ago in graduate school, when I still had the yen to run away to Paris. It was Henry Miller: The Paris Years, written by the photographer Brassai and excerpted largely from Miller’s letters.

I won’t deny that I’ve been a fan of Miller’s, although I sometimes find his writing crass and misogynistic (I know, I know. This word may make people roll their eyes because it is so closely intertwined with a rabid kind of feminism, but it's a word that fits--there is a kind of cruelty in his treatment of females. Sometimes it is sexual.)

Brassai explains that Miller’s friend Alfred Perles, whose dour little appartment Miller often crashed in before he met Anais Nin--who set him up with an apartment (and, presumably, an allowance) when they began their relationship--often shared everything, including their women. This, Brassai said, was essential to Miller and Perles' friendship: the belief that everything should be shared. I suppose the women went into this arrangement willingly, and we have to know that these were somewhat conventional, if casual relationships--not sexual transactions, since Brassai indicates that both men were so destitute they often waited hours at cafes and bars hoping someone would come by who could pick up their tabs. (Moreover, it was indicated that Perles owned but three things of value: a English-made tweed suit, a straight razor for shaving, and a solid gold pen and pencil set. Miller, by comparison, arrived in Paris with $10 in his pocket and little else. June, his legal but feckless wife, was often the breadwinner by means Miller could hardly stomach imagining, since he was hopelessly captivated by her—although my theory runs that he was captivated by her only because he could never fully own her. Near the end of her life, beautiful taxi-dancer June slipped over the edge into insanity.)

Anyhow, I have read several of Miller’s books, and I’m not talking just the Tropics or Black Spring here. I’m talking Crazycock and The Rosy Crucifixion, which both feature June and her particular brand of sadism, often involving disappearances, excursions to far-flung destinations with lovers of both sexes, and her sudden return with gifts and cash to sustain the Miller household. And then, there are Miller’s pornographic writings, usually done for money. One I’ve got in mind right now is Under the Roofs of Paris, which was so bad that I put it down and didn’t pick it up again, although it's still somewhere among my books. Granted, the stories in Roofs were pornography written for money, so by necessity (or definition) there is rampant congress (some of it involving truly disgusting stuff--think: hairbrushes and animals) on most of the pages I read. Yes, I know: who wants plot when they're reading pornography? Pornography is action, not human drama. Or if it is human drama, it's drama of a different kind.
Still, because of that book, I didn’t want much to do with Henry for awhile. You see, I began to recognize in the Tropics too much of the disgusting transactions that occurred in Roofs. The book gave me too a keen a view into the state of the furniture in Miller’s mind, and I found there was mildew on every cushion, a kind of greenish-gray decay I couldn’t stand the odor of. There was no longer just an expression of fury and disgust with humanity, a constructive nihilism (an oxymoron, I know, but not when you're writing), a shouting against all the vile things in the world. Instead he was, in part, a source of some of that vileness. He was not denouncing it, he was producing it. So I left Henry's furniture, and I didn’t sit on it again for a long time.

But, but, but….there is Brassai. He, the “Eye of Paris” as Miller dubbed him in a laudatory essay. There is Brassai, yes.

Brassai captures the down-and-out figures in the Parisian cafes of the 1930s, where--despite financial ruin--men’s hair is still pomaded to a fine gleam; women’s nails are filed and painted red with white half moons and pointy tips. Their hair is plastered to the side of foreheads in spit curls and stiff permanent waves. There are sometimes beauty marks, which aren’t yet in the vogue they will be by the time Norma Jean becomes Marilyn Monroe. And everywhere in these cafes are mirrors, which expand the smallest bistro spaces to broad ballrooms of opportunity. Oh, glamour! Here the subjects are revealed from multiple angles, no part of their face is hidden from us—grimaces and furtive uncertainties are laid bare. And even while they are exposed, they carry a kind of regality that we contemporaries don’t have—these people are real and flawed, but they don’t apologize for it. They live fully in their bodies and take up space proudly rather than abashedly.
So, understanding that there is a different ethos in Europe—I know this well—how is it that we are so bereft, so lost in our imperfections that we can’t simply be as the people in these photos seem to do so well, even in one of the worst economic circumstances of the last century? Where has our regality gone or am I just seeing this through the golden glasses of retrospection?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Olga Choubaroff and Other New and Exciting Things

So! It was a good weekend, with a kind of goodness that is spilling over into the week.

Who's that lady? Well, read on, read on, dear Kinder and you will learn that it is a Russian Princess. Isn't her expression just precious? Dig the uncomfortable hand positioning. Who posed this poor darling anyway?

Now, about that lady: Michael and I went to Three Rivers Auction in Washington, PA, where they were selling off the estate of a one-time Russian Princess, Olga Choubaroff Clark, who was the wife of (well, she was wife to five men) the admiral of the Yorktowne, "Jocko" Clark. We happily carted home two oil paintings, a water color, a pink alabaster bas relief of one of Olga's great, great grandfathers, who fought in The Caucasus. He is now above my head as I type, looking as robust and resolute as a Ceasar.

Michael also got a hand-carved skull pipe, a kind of Hamlet-ian momento mori. And now on our book shelf is the Thai lightning goddess...we're thinking she's very likely Mekkala, although we are not certain of this. We were also very lucky to get a sculpture of one of the seven lucky Taoist gods, although it took some reasearching on Michael's part for us to learn who the little bearded fellow with the staff was (he came with no description at all). Michael believes he is either JurĊjin or Fukurokuju, two figures who are easily confused because they sometimes inhabit the same body, according to Taoist belief.

On Monday, I went into Pittsburgh to take my first sewing machine class at Cut & Sew Studio, which--I have to say--is just awesome. While I have my own sewing machine, in the past, I've had a terrible time figuring out how to get it working properly. Never mind the fact that my father could sit down to it and make an absolutely beautiful row of stitches. I, on the other hand, previously pulled up my chair, gently pressed the pedal, and made a rather impressive knot. Now, understand that my father had no prior experience with sewing machines, except maybe watching my grandmother when he was young. He undid the knot, rethreaded the machine and began sewing another lovely seam. I was stunned. My dear father was wearing bib overalls. How can you sew a perfect seam in bib overalls? Doesn't the machine know that pink pajamas are the thing to wear when sewing and long strands of sewn cloth should just ripple out of the machine with as much ease as teletype paper from Jack Kerouac's typewriter?
Well, come on now. Really.

Now, though, after yesterday's class, I finished a pillow I had started by hand-sewing the seams a few weeks ago. And this morning, I began stuffing it with polyfil. Woo, indeed! In between grading final papers this morning, I've also been sewing together vintage napkins to make a table cloth (because why let those old lovely napkins go to waste?). I'm on my way to making some lovely patchwork skirts, like this fantastic Etsy seller, JaneElizabeth's, where I've gotten beautiful things.
Have I mentioned that I have an Etsy addiction? It's true. Too true. And I am not ashamed of this fact. Crafting is the new cottage industry.

So, there is a whole lot of awesomeness going on in the Guz 'holler'. And, there will be a more substantial and maybe even scholarly posting tomorrow.