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Defeated Despair

1 Mar

A few weeks ago Caravan published After the Last Sky, my first paid publication in almost three years. I wrote it for Caravan because I’m a completist, and I wanted to close a circle that opened three years ago with Darkness Visible.

After the Last Sky was written just as I was transitioning from one of the darkest periods of my life into the sort of smack-dab happiness that is impossible to channel into language. It’s odd how that happens, this chiaroscuro of emotion, but without that joy, or the pain that came before, this would have been a very different essay and perhaps a feebler one. This was an essay written, as John Berger once said in “Undefeated Despair” from a familiarity with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words. It is an essay about ruin.

Here is a simpler formulation: I wrote an essay about women who learned to live without love even as I was falling in love. If that makes me a hypocrite, all I can say is it makes an excellent change from an earnest despair. But there is despair in that essay, of course there is, it’s all over the place. Despair with prescriptive, idealized feminisms; despair with structures that exalt and oppress women; despair with explanations that remain trapped in clichés, despair with myself, with the smallness and uselessness of my words in the face of totalizing narratives. Perhaps, then, all that my tiny satisfaction offered me was a way out of defeat, and with that I must move on. And so I will.

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Relief

17 Jan

This fall I assigned myself a beat: folk music. It wasn’t an official requirement, but one of my professors suggested that I might find the discipline useful once he figured I haven’t a fucking clue where my life is headed. It was incredible: I’m no closer to a Plan, but I wanted a footloose semester and by the gods I got me one. My beat led me several interesting places and down a few dubious alleys, but I certainly felt  supremely professional. Even when I used it as an excuse to escape deadlines, or (arguably) stalk people. I went to some amazing gigs; from Keb Mo’ at BB King’s to Jalopy Wednesdays out in Red Hook to a Dominican dance-box up in Harlem.

I met some beautiful people, of whom the 198 String Band described below are indisputably the most respectable. I met them at the “Imagining America” conference; attending that was an official requirement. This was one of the longer pieces I wrote off my beat — most of my “reporting” consists of squiggles and squeees. I had fun writing this, tight word-count and all, and it is (you might notice) a new style for me. I call it my school voice, because bogey wouldn’t be caught corpsified assumin’ y’all need this much explainin’.

But that’s why bogey’s dead, see.

tea

We’d rather not be on the rolls of relief.

One friday in early fall, a small band of Occupy Wall Street protesters were busily organizing Columbus Day insurrections in Zuccotti Park. They were planning rallies and writing protest music, oblivious to the minor miracle underway in the Westinghouse Building a few steps across Broadway, where an equally tiny tribe of genteel New Yorkers were gathered for an evening sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities. There, in offices that shared space with bankers and accountants, the 198 String Band resurrected Woody Guthrie.

The 198 String Band began in tribute to the “other” Guthries, the forgotten minstrels of the Great Depression. “Unlike Guthrie and Steinbeck, these people didn’t choose to be in the Dustbowl” one member of the band said, “they just picked up the family banjo and played from the land”. Alongside each song, they curate photographs from the Library of Congress archive, choosing images that chronicle the lives of migrants during the depression. The inspiration behind the presentation is to provide audiences a textured history of the folks that the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm would have called “uncommon people”.

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Faint Praise.

25 Nov

I’m posting this as I leave for a wedding.

As I depart, bogey perversity insists I ask you, Who is Don Draper? 

This was the question that inspired me to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men. Don Draper, enigmatic and alone, is the postmodern man from your worst fantasy. Still predatory, no longer derogatory.

This was the man I went to find in Ms Ehrenreich’s book.

And failed. Long Live Dream Draper.

The Hearts of Men, a story of mounting perfidy, describes the genesis and evolution of the “male revolt”. In it, she draws a line from  the ‘grey flannel’ playboys to the punks of the early ‘80s.

In all of them, aspects of the Draper abide. Like the grey-flannels, he has an ideal housewife; like the Beats he’s a prole. Like the Hef, his appetite is legendary.

E pluribus, unum.

Hearts of Men

Chloé-Poizat; "mes yeux distendus"

Our telly likes its women fertile and undemanding. Across genre and trope and theme,  girls are penalised for challenging chromosomes. Women are killed cos they’re pregnant, cos they’re not, cos they’re pregnant with the wrong sort of baby.  There is even a soap imploring us to stay away from this cruel country.  Consider, for a sampling:

SAAS BINA SASURAL 

Hic sunt the Toasty, arriving in a household of seven men. A solid bahu, Toasty proceeds to live up to her lovely name. She quits her job, ingratiates her way into everyone’s confidence, discovers a Devastating Secret: an earlier bahu stormed out. Wretched predecessor now divorcing Family.

PAVITRA RISHTA. 

I fled through Pavitra Rishta in forty two minutes. Here is the Saas. There is the other saas rescuing her daughter from abuse.

Moral Turmoil.  Mortal Toil.  More Turmoil. Boy and Girl elope…. I give up.

Pavitra Rishta frames the dominant fantasy of popular soaps. Women exist to ‘knit Families together’.  All their dreams and marginal rebellions are doomed to the devil’s treadmill. Keep your head down, it counsels, as you negotiate imposed boundaries.  Obey, don’t reason. Don’t think, smile!

Her family, pure-bahu concludes after each righteous day, is the sole reason for her sustenance. To separate any woman from her (wedded) Family is a theft of her soul, her identity, her reflection in the mirror. Without her husband, the fabric of her existence would melt away — she would be worse than worthless, she would be wasted.

Why I Sing My Blues. 

Faint Praise.

Size isn’t everything. It’s what you do

That matters, darling, and you do it quite well

In some respects. Credit where credit’s due –

You work, you’re literate, you rarely smell.

Small men can be aggressive, people say,

But you are often genial and kind,

As long as you can have things all your way

And I comply, and do not speak my mind.

You look all right. I’ve never been disgusted

By paunchiness. Who wants some skinny youth?

My friends have warned me that you can’t be trusted

But I protest I’ve heard you tell the truth.

Nobody’s perfect. Now and then, my pet,

You’re almost human. You could make it yet.

*

Semper Fidelis. 

Playing Cassandra.

28 Dec

A Year in Reverse, Part II.

(Part I was Deluded Democracy, about elections around the world.)

The first of these.. snippets is a dismembered essay I wrote for popmatters back in February. That essay makes less sense every time I read it, and I’m hoping the remnants of it will fare better. Another essay that would’ve made it into this series is Of Nativity, where my allegiance to Frantz Fanon was recorded for posterity to note. It has already found its way onto this blog, however, and that’s that as far as introduction goes.

Playing Cassandra.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman of demonstrably diverse talents. If she should want to find conventional employment, one would assume it would be a fairly easy process. Bait and Switch is a detailed exposition into why one would be wrong. In it, she goes undercover again, as she did in Nickel and Dimed, this time in the very white collar world of PR and marketing. Excluding the publishing world, she starts the book applying and searching for marketing/PR positions promiscuously, sans moral qualm and geography. Her single string is income level, yet she spends the rest of the book upgrading herself in vain. 

I read this book amazed at the ‘transition’ industry unemployment in America has spawned, converting desperation into dollars. By synthesizing selfishness with self-help, Corporate America seems to have learnt how to systemically shed people while simultaneously convincing them it’s their own fault they’re out of a job.

Ehrenreich describes her steady line of career coaches offering contradictory advice on the basis of loopy personality tests, one of whom hilariously advises her to work on her writing skills. She negotiates the catch-22 of “appropriate” attire for corporate women (simultaneously professional and feminine, without being either threatening or provocative), encounters the evangelical Right, and discovers the new workforce makes the people it retains as miserable as the ones it fires. Several of the people she networks with are employed, but desperate to find alternate employment: either because they are underemployed and dissatisfied, or because they are stretched far too thin compensating for fired colleagues. Apart from time and energy, she ultimately spends $6,000 on her job search: money spent on coaches, resume-checkers, job sites, networking “clubs” and “events”, bootcamp (essentially group therapy), a wardrobe consultant, a “professional development seminar” until, finally (and fittingly), she is offered the chance to pay someone to employ her.

Mervyn Peake, Mad Hatters.

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Deluded Democracy

23 Dec

A Year in Reverse, Part One.

Over the next week, I shall be putting up collections of things I wrote this year that haven’t made it to this blog yet. Pre-bogey readers, all ten of you, will remember I blogged for Himal SouthAsian earlier in 2010, and these were mostly written to that end. They are ‘political’ reportage, if you will be generous with your definition. Mostly, I talk about news I find interesting. This year that happened more often than is usual, as Chaosbogey’s Politics will tell you. Here is me covering other elections from the year.

The second part of the reversal was Playing Cassandra.

Antique Wine in an Antique Bottle.

June, 2010

The recent demolition of the West Bengal CPI (M) in Calcutta municipality elections brokered many fates. In a country where some form of election is a daily occurrence, municipal elections inevitably get the short shrift. Not so here.  Newspapers and pundits portend that it marks a turned tide, that 2011 assembly elections shall see the party in the bay rather than in Bengal. Writers’ Building (in Calcutta, even administration must have a booksy air) might finally see new occupation: Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress.

Writers Building

The party in present form is evidently just the Lady, a few trusted deputies, and her unwavering agenda of uprooting the CPI (M). One wonders how this party will cope with the delegation of government. To the facile observer, Banerjee’s Didi might echo that other formidable and self-reliant Lady CM: Mayawati’s Behenji (even their honorifics collide). An important difference remains. Mayawati has had spells of power to considerably enrich herself, while Mamata is that rare mystery: an impecunious politico. She is currently Union Railway Minister, an easy route to padded bank accounts. Perhaps her restraint was just prudence: what is a ministry compared to the treasury of an entire state? Will she stay uncorrupted by power once her crusade is accomplished? It is a wager Bengal appears willing to take.

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