Archive | December, 2011

I keep my promises

27 Dec

…and I promised my readers some cats.

Well, here you go. CATS!

The black one is Gus. The gray stripey guy is Little Man, who was my ex’s cat and I still miss him. He was my buddy.

Idealism is a cruel mistress

21 Dec

…and I’ve been a mistress, so I know what I’m talking about.

Do you know why Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, and Vincent Van Gogh killed themselves?

They were professional dreamers. Idealists. People who just got to the point where they couldn’t take living at odds with a world that ate idealists alive.

Idealism. I feel like the older I get, the more naive I become. The more people hurt me, the more I wonder why. The more shitty life experiences I have, the more confused I get. Idealism won’t keep you alive very long; you have to adapt and wear the mantle of cynicism. You have to harden yourself against this stuff, or one day you just snap. Like those guys.

I often wonder if this idealism is going to be the death of me. If I will just keep trying to bottle up pain and resist hardening my heart until finally something just gives. I guess I feel like becoming a stone-cold cynic is a form of death in itself.

Is there anything noble about trying to remain hopeful that men won’t hurt you, that friends won’t die, that life will be about more than work eat work sleep work eat work repeat?

I just don’t have the same thought processes as the rest of you. I don’t. Consciously hurting another human being – wouldn’t hear of it. This is coming from someone who was MERCILESSLY teased growing up. It never even crossed my mind that I should take it out on other people, tease people below me to exact revenge.

Someone who used to mean a lot to me once told me that I possessed an abnormally high passion for justice for a woman – implying that women don’t often stand on the ramparts of causes and rally the troops over the top. He was trying to tell me that I am not like anyone else. That my identity is not concerned with things like gender or societal mores or social class or white privilege.

He was trying to tell me that he recognized that all that shit didn’t matter to me. He said he admired me because I was ceaselessly committed to always doing something because it was right, and fuck the world’s opinion of me.

What happens when trying to always do the right thing leaves you wondering why you bother?

I always try to do the right thing. To the point that I don’t always do the smart thing. And yes, I lifted that from a Battlestar Galactica episode. Because it’s true.

Idealism gets you killed. But if I’m gonna be a cynic, what the hell is the point of living like that?

My New Year’s resolution is for a less dichotomous life. I want to do the right thing and be happy. I want to keep my idealism intact without life shitting on my head. Has anyone ever made this work, or do we al eventually sell our souls to the high priest of cynicism?

Off to save the world, BRB

20 Dec

This post has been a long time coming. It’s pretty personal, but what the hell. That’s what the internet is for, right? Also, this post is rated R. If you don’t want to know about my love life, don’t read it.

This is intended to be a focused discussion of certain attributes of the opposite sex, but apologies up front if it devolves into something else. I swear I’m not bitter. Maybe just a little bit.

My relations with men have been sort of bizarre as long as I can remember. By that I mean, I have almost exclusively cultivated a friendship base of men and have gagged at the idea of having “girl’s night.” It’s a character flaw – I just don’t get along with a lot of women. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed to believe that most women are the caricatures depicted in romantic comedies (*cough* Sex And the City *cough*) and therefore the notion of having to pretend to be interested in designer shoes and coveting wedding dresses before you’re even in a relationship sort of makes me ill.

(My rant on marriage as an antiquated notion is more appropriate for another time; however, it is possible to take that sort of relationship nihilism to an extreme.)

This being the case, I’ve yet to enter a relationship with a man who wasn’t a really close buddy first. I mean like drinking beers and watching football kind of buddy, not some neutered watered-down “nice guy” friendship where the chick strings the guy along and acts completely equivocal, and he stays on a short leash because he thinks she might eventually view him in a sexual light. Don’t tell me you don’t know the type. This one’s not completely a cliche, I’m afraid.

What this brings to mind is yet another form of cultural conditioning where we sort of fall into these prefabricated marketing categories of male-female relationships.  I blame Meg Ryan. Who made that bitch the be-all end-all of female idealism? Alas, I digress. This isn’t about chick flicks; it’s about the damage they inflict. Even people that claim to be totally immune to these sort of mores often wind up floundering in them.

I went through a pretty brutal breakup about 7 months ago – one that terminated a 4-year relationship that had admittedly been struggling with the distance between us. Still, it was so out of left field that I got whiplash. I think my back is still tweaked from getting the rug yanked out like that. In the same week, I received my Master’s degree and arrived home to a man who had decided to cultivate his “side project.”

By that I mean, it’s pretty shitty to cheat on your girlfriend while she’s living 2000 miles away and then wait until she moves back in with you to do the dumping so you can jump right in with the new flame. If karma is real, I have to hope that it acts quickly. But of course, it’s out of my hands. I have noticed, however, that actions like that have a way of coming back to haunt the actor.

It should not come as a surprise that I am a difficult human being to love. I am way too intellectual for my own good, often moody, incredibly passionate to a fault, and I’ve struggled with some health problems that have made me pretty unpredictable. It’s easy to lay excuses on the health issues, but the fact remains that I am now living a single life.

It kind of surprised me how much I enjoy the single thing. Women really get a shit deal when it comes to cultural conditioning regarding relationships. We’re nothing without a man to validate our existence, right? That’s really something of a non sequitur. This is why a lot of us turn into sluts. If we can’t get the emotional intimacy we’re supposed to desire, we may as well fuck our way to something resembling wholeness. Some of us don’t care how the hole gets filled, just that it does. (I’ll be here all week.)

After I came to embrace single life, I had an epiphany of sorts about this. I was in a committed relationship with a man who tenaciously encouraged me to sleep around. That was his kink. He didn’t get jealous – he got a kick out of the idea of me slutting it up.

Understandably (perhaps), this made me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m really wired for promiscuity. I like to have a good time as much as the next person, but I was having all of my physical and emotional needs met. Why was he so insistent that I sleep with other men? There is actually an entire subculture of men for whom this kink is a way of life. It got to the point where this encouragement had nothing to do with my personal satisfaction and had everything to do with me being his “property” that he was shopping around. He had always passed it off as the kink being about me, and about my personal pleasure. Nope.

When I had that lightbulb moment, it really made me think about how sadistic our society can be. Take porn and its addicts. Most mainstream porn isn’t about sex. It’s a graphic depiction of men wielding power over willing women in a pretty disturbing manner. There are some pretty shocking exposes of the porn industry that I’ve thumbed through in the past, and the stories those women tell will make your blood curdle. Because – at no time is there any meaningful physical intimacy taking place in porn. It’s psychological torture. It’s debased. It asks women how low they’re willing to stoop, and then demands that they go even lower. It reaches a point where it fails to be empowering to women, stops allowing women to take charge of their sexuality, and becomes instead patriarchy in sadistic action, forcing obedience and personal degradation from the women who participate.

Porn culture produces men who become enamored with the cult of the slut. It short-circuits the part of their brain that wants them to treat a woman as an equal (you know, as a human being and not an object) and instead turns her into a vector for his pleasure and dominance. It assigns value to sluts for their body parts and ability to shop said parts around.

I realize how man-hating this probably sounds. There’s probably not much I could do to convince the gentle reader that I am not, in fact, a man-hater. I would never generalize the entire species based on the actions of one. There is a bigger issue at work here. That issue is the reality that society itself has become completely devoid of compassion. You’d think this would be obvious the way American society has worked really hard to develop its “blame the victim” ethos, but a lot of people seem to think that this is a logical conclusion. Blame yourself for being poor! Clearly it’s something you did! Yep, because it’s my fault my $100,000 worth of degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

This attitude has really taken root, I believe, in part because of the sadism of porn culture. Shit, we can’t even have healthy sexual relationships because the prevailing imagery depicts women getting their asses ripped open by hordes of men. I’ve sort of begun to think there’s something a bit wrong with someone who gets a rise out of that stuff.

My point with all this is how impactful these images that hit the mainstream can be. I really used to think porn was harmless; I did. I’ve begun to rethink that position a bit. Not that I’m ardently against it, but then again, this goes back to my ability to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality, glossy porn shoots from the actual awkward sweatiness of sex. As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of people who lack the ability to discern what is fantasy from how they should behave. I can see the fun in some of it; I’m a highly visual person, so I get that. But I also recognize it’s not the norm. We’ve effectively brainwashed our culture into believing this is real life.

Porn has contributed to this patriarchal idealism in the sense that men begin to think this is okay. I mean, there is nothing healthy about only getting it up if your girlfriend is off sacrificing her dignity to random strangers. Obviously a distinctly modern problem – a product of the imagery that we are incessantly bombarded with in the name of getting a few rocks off. We’ve come full-circle as a culture: so sexually repressed that sexual deviance is out in the open.

The only thing that is going to solve this is if people can learn to discern reality from the barrage of garbage that saturates their days. But the longer I take in the zeitgeist, the more depressed I get about the situation. I wish that we were free to openly acknowledge one another’s humanness. I wish that healthy sexual relationships were normal. I wish this freaking dialectical nightmare of a country would just realize there’s always more to the story, and not to just swallow everything you see wholesale.

Anyway, this one was long and opinionated. Thoughts?

Lining up at the trough

17 Dec

A few weeks ago, I walked into my class engaged in conversation with a colleague. We were discussing potential doctoral schools for him; places he could go to study early music. The conversation naturally (in our field, at least) turned to the Ivy League as not only the pinnacle of academic achievement but also a terrific place for that specialty.

Our professor overheard the tail end of our conversation, right as I was saying, “I thought about going to Yale, but sold myself short and never applied. Not that I lack the intellect.” She looked at me and said, “Be grateful you didn’t wind up in the Ivy League. They tell you how to think.”

At the time that seemed like an unusual statement. I mean, it’s the Ivy League. Aren’t we all indoctrinated to believe that achieving Ivy League admission is the pinnacle of academic achievement? That’s what teachers ram down our throats from the time we’re 6 years old – you have to get good grades so you get into a “good” school. “Good” schools are always implied to be places that carry serious weight on the piece of paper – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.

I was toiling under the impression that these schools were some sort of intellectual haven where the big thinking happens. But, puzzled by my professor’s comment, I did some research. Turns out the Ivy League is a great place to be – if you’re already on the inside. There’s an academic caste system in play here, and if you’re born into the wrong caste, tough shit.

I’ve been reading a book lately by a guy named Chris Hedges called “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” This is the Amazon summary: We now live in two Americas. One—now the minority—functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other—the majority—is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority—which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected—presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this “other America,” serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society.

Hedges lays much of the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of the Ivy League machine, which produces elitists of mediocre academic caliber that work extremely hard to maintain the status quo. It is the illusion of an Ivy League education as accessible to anyone with the smarts that really incenses Hedges, and their ongoing effort to keep America complacent and stupid so they can keep walking all over the rest of us.

I mean, this seems somewhat shocking at first take. Really? The Ivy League schools stifle creativity and intellectual initiative? Yes, they do. They rig the system to box out common plebes, because they don’t want you and I knowing what goes on in their inner circles.

Because my professor was right: they tell you what to think, after they carefully cultivate their idea of who and who is not worthy of their prestige. It’s a self-sustaining system. They don’t want serious intellectual inquiry, because serious intellectual inquiry is usually subversive and tries to enlighten the populace about the shenanigans perpetrated by the upper classes. The Ivy League schools are almost entirely populated by people who are already members of these classes. So, shit, why think if you’re already on top?

These schools, writes Hedges, “do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers (89).”

Damn, true that. Harvard MBAs run straight to Wall Street and make up fancy words for ponzi schemes to steal people’s money and gamble with the national economy. Their education is carefully crafted to produce this outcome every time. These universities, according to Hedges, “organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers.” Wow, this sounds exactly like public school!

That’s because it is like public school. I’ve been there. You line up at the trough for your information, and when you’ve had your fill, you just cough it all back up and everyone’s happy. Don’t interpret it – for the love of god don’t do that! Just tell em what they want to hear. And if you can’t do that well, then perhaps you aren’t “college material.” I need several sets of hands to count how many times I was told that. I spent most of high school figuring I was too dumb for college. They’d indoctrinated me to develop a self-conception that was specifically designed to keep me from asking too many questions.

Keep the common rabble from asking questions by keeping them stupid; carefully parcel out the knowledge that they should have and control access to the rest. Teach them that asking questions is bad – just spit back the answer, damn it! Henry Giroux, a longtime critic of the American capitalist culture and the concurrent obliteration of public education, referred to the sad state of academic affairs after 9/11:

“Corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”

This is “moral nihilism,” in the words of Chris Hedges. It relegates voices of common sense and reason to the fringe, making extremism in the service of fat profit the norm. This extremism is the black-and-white version of events that is packaged and sold to the vast majority of Americans. Leave no gray area, no room for questions, and the stupid masses will never question the actions of the people at the top. The education system makes their trade in this approach, particularly in the wake of the disaster that is No Child Left Behind. To take government money, public schools have to tell their students what to think.

Theodor Adorno, ardent cultural critic, wrote in 1967:

“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again. This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Adorno, the Prussian son of a Jew who converted to Protestantism, knew of what he spoke.

By Adorno’s reasoning, we are always one step away from another Auschwitz if we do not make the effort to allow everyone to have an understanding of the forces that move the world. Because institutions like the Ivy League are committed to locking out all but those individuals deemed worthy of being a part of the elite.

They really do teach you how to think and what to think. They really do run the world, from the “ivory tower” that only truly exists in their minds. True academic inquiry goes on at levels considered well “below” that of the vaunted Harvard and Yale addresses, but the dialectical nature of American culture has conditioned people to feel like failures if they wind up a state school. Make ’em feel worthless, knock their intellectual teeth out, and they’ll stay soft and complacent.

As a proud graduate of a low-tier state school, I’m going to try to preach Adorno’s truth to as many open minds as I can.

It must have skipped a generation or two…

14 Dec

In July, I went to upstate New York to visit my grandfather as he was undergoing surgery to have two tumors removed from his brain. The operation went well and he was doing much better almost immediately. He is still undergoing some radiation treatments and has his ups and downs, but the surgery seems to have been a major factor in his survival to this point.

While I was there, we stayed in the spare apartment attached to my grandfather’s house. In that apartment were boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, family photos and the like. My mother and I were determined to acquaint ourselves with the family heritage, so we dug through the boxes over the course of a day and found some fascinating stuff – we were able to trace one side of my grandfather’s family tree all the way back to 1780.

The coolest find, however, was made by yours truly. The high school yearbooks of my great-grandmother were in one of these boxes. Leafing through the yearbook from 1916, I came across an essay titled “Our National Music.” That, of course, piqued my interest. So imagine my surprise when I discovered who wrote it: my great-grandmother, Loleta Hoxter.

Yes, my great-grandmother was an amateur musicologist. My mind was understandably blown when I made this discovery, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it – not only was my ancestor a budding music historian, but she had chosen to write about American music, and music by American women. I am an American music scholar and study gender in music. It was just uncanny, and I spent the remainder of the trip gushing about the discovery to anyone who would listen.

I would like to reproduce her article here, for the rest of the world and for myself of course. I have both the yearbook and her type-written draft. The paper is yellowed, but it’s in remarkable shape for being close to 100 years old. So, enjoy an article written by my ancestor about American music.

*****

Our National Music

Music was introduced in America in New England during the seventeenth century. It was known as psalmody and originated with the Pilgrims. The puritans soon made an advance in music; and slowly psalmody grew into sacred songs, gathering strength with each onward step until it gradually entered upon new conditions which led to its present high plane of art endeavor and achievement, of universal cultivation and diffusion.

Many writers on American music have sneered at the emphasis placed upon early music but it is nothing to sneer at. The early writers had a very hard and difficult struggle, composing and publishing music. Now, it is for us to contrast the present and the past and to rejoice over the marvelous advancement, which such comparison illustrates. In the preface of George Hood’s “History of Music in New England,” he says, “All things must have their beginning and this, though small, is important.” He adds that at first our music was low and mean; but if we hope to have a history of the art worth preserving, we should not lose the past but carefully gather it up and place it with the future that the latter by contrast may appear the more bright and beautiful.

Of course it would not be just to pass over the composers of this most beautiful art; therefore I shall mention a few of the many writers. The first that comes to my mind and one that was among the earlier writers is Lowell Mason. To this man is due great gratitude for his efforts to found American music and to encourage its progress. He spent his time mostly on church music and did much to promote correct of established church hymns. He began the study of music when a boy; and because of diligent efforts, he was soon master of his great art and a teacher of music. Public concerts were given; and he with a few friends founded the Boston Academy of Music.

Another great composer of music was John Philip Sousa who is known throughout the world for his wonderful bands and band music. Many splendid bands were organized by this man and he also wrote many marches, which are based upon his own experience of the feelings of men who march together on the open field. While very young, Sousa was the conductor of an orchestra in a theatre. At twenty-six he became leader of the United States Marine Band; and this organization under his leadership developed into one of the best military bands in the world. Later, he took leadership of the band bearing his own name.

Another famous writer of music is John K. Paine. He is considered the most classic of our composers. He studied music under a local teacher and then went abroad for three years under Haupt and other great foreign musicians. Having returned home, he was appointed instructor of music at Harvard and shortly afterward was promoted to full professorship; he has held this position ever since with distinguished success.

There is a large number of other male composers; but I shall now turn to the feminine sex. There are famous women composers and writers of music. For instance, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, writer of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, formerly  Miss Cheney, who is a great concert pianist as well as a composer of music in the largest forms. Not many living men can point to a composition of more maturity and more dignity than Mrs. Beach’s “Jubilate,” for the dedication of the Women’s Building at the Columbus Exposition. Besides there is Margaret Lang, who has written large works. Miss Lang has a harmonic individuality, too, and finds out new effects that are strange without strain.

Such being our achievements, I do not hesitate to match the high-hearted, electric-minded free people of our hills and prairies with the rest of the world, and to prophesy that in the coming century the musical supremacy and inspiration of the world will rest here overseas, in America.

– Loleta B. Hoxter, 1916

About my “night” job…

7 Dec

As you may know, being a graduate assistant places you in an unusual position within the framework of academia. You’re a student, but also a colleague. You work 80 hours a week on various duties, but you only get paid for 20 of those hours, which means you are more or less paid below minimum wage. I haven’t done the math, but let’s just say my stipend is barely enough to keep the lights on.

So, I have a second job. I’m an usher at my university’s sporting events. This is actually a pretty cool gig, because people here are NUTS for basketball. The traditions are ridiculous. People pack the 17,000 seat arena to watch their team beat up on some division 2 school that desperately needs the paycheck to take a flogging. When we play our huge rival, look out. Drunk rednecks make my job difficult. There’s singing, chanting, and generally a great atmosphere. And no, I don’t go to Duke.

It seems that this company will hire just about anyone with a pulse to be an usher. There is definitely a wide range of intellects and social functioning among the employees. For example, at the end of a shift, everyone queues up to sign their name to a sheet of paper indicating the beginning and end times of their shift. This, as you might expect, is not the best system to use when there are literally 200 people trying to go home at the same time. However, the process is complicated by the fact that many of the employees do not know how to spell their own names.

So, if you display any intelligence or social skills in the course of doing your job, you get assigned to duties that are a bit more plum than showing people the way to Section 6.

I have been fortunate enough to excel at this job, to the point that I am often asked to be door “security” for high-profile, high-traffic areas. And by that I mean “where all the donors hang out.” An essay on athletics boosting is meant for another time, but you’d be shocked at what money can buy you in the world of college sports.

It’s an interesting social experiment for me. Recently I was posted to work at the entrance to the donor-only area. A donation of $10,000 or more gets you access to all the free food and booze you want to ingest before sloshing to your seats in the arena. As serious as people are about basketball around here, boosters will drop that kind of money without batting an eye.

So what do I do at the entrance? I make eye contact, greet the donors, and hold the door open for them. That’s it. I made a few mental notes last night.

I was about 50/50 on eye contact – about half of the people I tried to engage actually looked at me. At least half paid no attention to the fact that there was a human being physically holding a door open for them. I guess they thought it had automatically swung open when it sensed that their pockets were lined with eagle feathers and hundred-dollar-bills. Of this half, none could even be bothered to look at the peon working the door, let alone thank me for holding the door for them. But of course, some people were extremely gracious and took the time to thank me for being so attentive and helpful. That makes it all good.

This is not an indictment of the wealthy, as I’m sure you’d get the same proportion of people thanking or ignoring the door-holder on the way into Walgreen’s. Some people are polite and gracious, many are not.

However, I did feel a little bit like a bellhop. And I did get some looks of contempt. It was interesting. I tried not to profile, but damn, the offenders were always middle-aged, heavily-bleached, orange-tanned, trendy-clothes-that-a-woman-over-19-has-no-business-wearing clad white women. EVERY. TIME. And their male counterparts gave me the same treatment, so I suspect whatever mentality drives these women to dress and act this way also attracts their men, like some sort of bottle-blonde mating display.

I’m definitely not complaining about my job by any means! I actually really enjoy it. I get to smile and be friendly and  I get paid for it. And since I won’t do anything unless I do it REALLY WELL, I am good at my job.

It’s just amusing how often people will rage that there’s no customer service anymore, that people are no longer polite, things were so much better when whitey ran the show, blah blah blah, that they don’t notice genuine, sincere service when they see it. Your $10,000 donation doesn’t make you better than the waitresses bringing you cheap wine: it makes you wealthier, perhaps, but certainly not better. Be nice to the people who serve you. Because for every nice person, there are about a half dozen assholes.