Saturday, November 27, 2010

John Foxx at the Troxy

Raise your hand if you read the title of this post and thought that somehow this gig was rescheduled earlier and you missed it. Good. Now put your hands down. I can't see them anyway.

You didn't miss anything. The gig has indeed been postponed until April. Another dark spot in an already dark year. So what of my title? This isn't a review of a show, it's more of a review of the postponement. Or, at least my thoughts since hearing the gig was postponed.

On the Metamatic forum, there is a lot of discussion about a re-release of John Foxx and Louis Gordon's "Sideways" and "Crash and Burn" albums. I am frequently amused at how such forum threads take on a theological air. The devout raging against the heretics. We are not here to question the good things John Foxx has wrought. Others argue it is not wrong to question--how do you come into relationship with John Foxx if the conversation only has one side?

Of course, I'm speaking figuratively about John Foxx here. John Foxx the electronica god, in his black shirt, trousers, and jacket with his silver hair and piercing blue eyes. Always smiling and magnanimous towards his faithful brethren. And amidst the flurry of autograph seekers, photo takers, and fans looking to shake his hand and testify to his genius, the question always arises from the chaos: Why are you here? John has asked me that question many times before, though it's less of a question, more of a statement. "Brigid, I can't believe you've traveled so far for this." Or, "I hope this has been worth your trip."

Last year around this time, John did a gig in Bath. At the pub afterwards, he was making his rounds and sat across from me, arms folded, looking at me with an interrogative look in his eyes, as though he was going to penetrate my thoughts, dammit. He was going to figure out the mystery of why I come so far. (And he wanted to know something else too, but that's another story). My response to both types of insinuation was to smile politely, shrug and say nothing. I could tell from the exasperated eye-roll that I got from him that this was not the response he was looking for. But it couldn't be helped. There are no short answers, and the pub at midnight in the middle of a pre-Christmas party was hardly the place for discussion.

All that is last year's news, but it does bring me back to the question. I asked myself that question when I made my travel arrangements in September, in spite of my precarious financial position. Why are you going, Brigid? People have defended my going with lots of answers, all of them good points, but none of them the real answer.

In interviews, John will make the distinction between John Foxx and Dennis Leigh, as though they are two separate people. John Foxx is his public persona. The electronica god mentioned above--calm, cool, self-assured, and handsome. To hear him tell it, Dennis Leigh is apparently some teeming flaw colony, or at least terribly uninteresting, and he doesn't want people to see that. I find the split fascinating, because he often thinks his "John" disguise is impenetrable. As a matter of fact, it isn't--I've seen a lot of Dennis Leigh. And that's why I go to England so often.

Now, if John reads this, he will no doubt protest this point. He will swear that I don't know him that well, and that I certainly don't know "Dennis Leigh". And on this point, he would be wrong. No, that's too judgmental--he would be mistaken.

I read a book in one of my undergraduate Shakespeare courses called "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey (pen name for Elizabeth Mackintosh). It's a mystery story--the basic plot involves a Scotland Yard detective that knows all the history of Richard III, but when he looks at Richard's portrait, he knows that he could not have committed the atrocities attributed to him, and then he attempts to solve the mystery of who really was to blame. Mackintosh was like me--a bit of an amateur psychologist, and fascinated with portraits, facial expressions, movement of the eyes, and body language. In short, a person can say nothing and tell you everything; or, if not everything, at least a sufficient amount.

John Foxx is like a cloudy day to me. The clouds may be beautifully and astonishingly arranged, but I'm delighted when the sun peeks from behind the clouds--even if it's just for a second. The man who comes in breathless from the train station, hair askew from the wind, dressed in his corduroy trousers, a large glob of earwax visible in his ear. The man who drops a cup of coffee with shaky hands. The man who is taken by surprise and makes a comment, a facial expression, a gesture that is out of line with the neatly presented image. The man who, in his surprise at seeing me, says things that I wouldn't expect him to say. While John Foxx's impeccable appearance and beautiful live performances are wonderful, I am more taken in by the beauty of the unscripted, unprompted, and off-guard man. I care for the real man more than the external packaging. The plain old Dennis Leigh, art college graduate and son of a coal miner, without all the special effects. And--I should add--the "old" man. While he was a beautiful young man, I have no yearning for him to return to his youth. He's beautiful as he is now.

You may read all this and have a protest of your own. Yes, but WHY? Why would you fly 3,700 miles, spend hundreds of dollars, stand on your feet for 40 hours, just to talk to John for a few minutes here and there? Because honestly, I could watch a DVD or listen to a CD if it was just about the music (or the art), and save my money. To answer that, I'm going to quote the wisdom of the Rolling Stones: You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.

Clear as mud, right? I will say this--I have never gone to see John expecting anything, and always end up with way more than I expect. In fact--if I review the last 2+ years I've been going to see him, I'm quite amazed at how things have developed. If you'd told me about all the events that would transpire between then and now at that time, I would have said you were crazy. Which proves my point that sometimes it's good to be crazy. Life is not logical.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


People in our culture have a fascination with the unseen. I have one too, but it occurs to me that we take the "seen" for granted. Or rather--how the seen reflects the unseen.

When I was in school, I was taught in language arts from the first grade onward that a noun was a "person, place, or a thing". When I got to high school, the definition was modified; a noun was now a "person, place, thing, or idea". The abstract had been introduced into the concrete.

I don't know when this change in definition officially occurred, or if it always was that way, but never stated explicitly. Whatever the case, it is true that our reality is made up of ideas in the 21st century. Ideas and numbers.

Money is an excellent example. When I get paid, I never see any physical money. It is directly deposited into my checking account. From there, it is electronically deposited into my creditors' accounts. Once I week I take out $100 in cash for my groceries, gasoline, and other expenses. And even the green twenty-dollar bills that spit out from the ATM machine are stand-ins for the "real" money, which still happens to be gold. The only reason it is gold is because someone decided that this was the most valuable of rocks a long time ago. And of course, someone decides the value.

I've never entirely understood the idea of "value". It seems to have something to do with supply and demand. For instance--if I own an LP in my record collection that I know is worth a lot of money, I may not get anything close to that if I sell it on eBay. Why? As my brother-in-law explained, "it's only worth what someone is willing to pay for it." How the value of rocks like gold is determined is a mystery to me. Is gold that scarce?

The whole system seems rather sketchy to me. It's a math game, and I'm not good at math. Basically, the number shown in my checking account must be higher than the number owed on my creditors' accounts. But there's no real money here. It's numbers being spit back and forth between computer servers. People have elaborate systems for increasing the numbers in their own accounts--many having to do with other hallucinations like stocks and bonds. Wall Street was built on such hallucinations. Alexander Hamilton had quite an imagination.

But now that world economies are falling like dominoes, you have to wonder even more about the system. I was chatting with a visiting art historian at our campus, an Irishman living in Cyprus. We were discussing the economic troubles of Ireland, and the likely EU bailout. His comment: "This is good for Ireland. They've based their economy on something transient for too long. They give all these breaks to companies to make them come there, when in an hour they can be somewhere else. They need to start over."

My tendency is to agree with him. But start over with what? Aren't most world economies based on the same thing to some degree? It will be interesting to see if something new--or a return to something old--is possible. People liked the new system because you could build a booming economy in a short time. Trouble is, you can lose everything just as quickly.

Back to the other kinds of nouns. It is ironic that in a world that is skeptical of what it cannot see, we are so out of touch with what we can see. Our lives are molded by this numerical hallucination we call the economy--you go to school, then you go to university, with the object of making a living--making money. Which, as we've discussed, is a numerical illusion. Besides the essentials, what do we need money for? Well, people with lots of money acquire a lot of stuff. If they are aficionados of something in particular, they may collect things related to that. But the stuff is often garish and gaudy. I hardly ever watch TV, but in the last 25 years, I've occasionally seen shows about the houses of the contemporary rich and famous. They all look the same, and all have the same uninspiring rooms full of expensive crap. A collection of stuff just for the sake of having it, for the sake of saying "Look, I'm wealthy!" Which translates in their minds as "Look, I'm successful!"

I don't think this is a healthy relationship to things. It may be funny to hear that from someone who practices a religion that says the material world is illusory. On some level, it is. But this is about connecting to the Earth, to Nature--and not just by being outdoors. As humans, we like to feel useful. We like to feel that what we produce--whether it's creative output or manufactured in some way--is useful to others. I think on some level, even the most selfish people have this desire, unless they're sociopaths. We want to contribute something to the world, and make a difference in the lives of others.

When a child is very small, he will often have a favorite stuffed toy that he or she carries around. They become very upset if they are separated from that toy. That toy is known in psychological parlance as a "transitional object". The child recognizes separation from the parents, and clings to the toy as a stand-in for parental comfort, especially when they are with babysitters or alone in their bed at night. At some point, the object is discarded, when it is no longer needed. It might be thrown out if it is really worn, or might be passed on to another child. The object becomes a subject. We interact with it; it has a meaning to us beyond any marketing hype at Christmastime.

I have always been impressed and awed by the simplest things. An exquisitely designed dinner plate. A well-made glass of wine. The smell of a fireplace in an old house. Even daily routines can be awe-inspiring experiences. Doing the dishes, raking the leaves, baking bread--I like to do these things myself because there's a certain pleasure involved. It's the interaction with things, doing them consciously. Or, as the Zen Buddhists would say, doing things with awareness. Looking at the stars at night, or looking at a beautiful sunrise, just for the sake of looking. If you're bored by these things, then you've lost something of your life. It is true that when we have too many things to do we become overwhelmed, and may want a break from all of it. But that's another problem--we rush around, worry about what we need to do next, rather than focusing on the present and taking our time. And often, individuals are not to blame; society demands it.

This sense of rushing, of needing to get ahead permeates my profession particularly, and I think it's to its detriment. I've attended three workshops on the new cataloging rules (RDA). What I'm being told is that description is no longer important; it's data. Data with which we can make lots of linkages to other data. Changing the way we do data is important, because we want to be part of this futuristic thing called "the Semantic Web". Our information is in "silos", and can only be accessed by going to individual library catalogs. The great irony here is that switching to a "Semantic Web" model and doing away with our very strict standard of description is going to make our information more inaccessible. Since there are few standards regarding entry, the librarians will be as lost as the users when they're trying to find things, because we can't be sure how the materials are being described. Sure, thesauri still exist for subjects, but which one is being used? Lately, library-land is trading its organizational principles for the chance to make some "neat" connections on the Web; connections which will be as overwhelming as the original keyword searches in the 1980s. The description is an art; making it fit the pre-defined rules makes it more of a challenge, though a necessary one if you want to be able to search catalogs nationally and internationally. But it will no longer be about describing the piece; it will be about "data" that's even more "meta".

But maybe they're right--in a world where people treat the world as an object, a means to an end, maybe no one wants description. Ideas are more important than things.

Still, I suspect that there's at least a nostalgia for the thingliness of things. Deep down people want that connection, even if they've forgotten how to make it. It's not hard, really. Just slow down and pay attention. And stop looking at the world as a means to an end.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fishbowl : A Meditation on Love and Family Life

I saw an ad on MySpace today: "9 secrets to get your boyfriend positively addicted to you for life". Why would anyone in their right mind want such a thing? "Boyfriend addicted to you for life" sounds a bit like "psychopathic stalker". How romantic.

I wonder why I still have a MySpace account. Really, no one uses it anymore. Except for John Foxx. Well, not John personally--his management runs the site. Still, that's the only reason I stay on MySpace. Because John doesn't have much of an official presence on Facebook. Yes, there is a Facebook page (run very competently by my friend Gem), but it's at least second or third-hand with regard to official information. This isn't anyone's fault; that's just how it is. MySpace still has the advantage of allowing you to preview songs and put them on your profile. The best that Facebook can do (thus far) is iLike. So, it's not surprising that musicians would prefer MySpace in that regard.

Back to the original quote--I was thinking about the condition of jealousy today--particularly jealousy in relationships. (That would be part of a romantic "addiction", I would imagine?) I've noticed that certain men try to gauge your interest in them by your level of jealousy. I'm not talking guys who are douchebags; I'm talking nice, respectful men. I've run into this a lot, whether in an actual relationship or not, and it's puzzling. Why would you torment someone who's interested in you--and who takes great pains and risks to see you--by trying to make them jealous when you do see them? It seems like a form of sadism.

On the flip side, these same men--who, I should add are not your boyfriend--in fact, are someone else's boyfriend--get very jealous when you either talk to other men or about other men. They indicate this by obvious cock-blocking when you strike up a conversation with a single man in the same room, or by pouting and making snippy remarks when you mention ANY other man that they don't know. I can almost see the cartoon, with the "WTF??" bubble appearing over the woman's head.

In relationships--there's sometimes the weird "power play" that goes on. The relationship starts off normally enough, but then the guy starts acting weird, and letting you know that you're not going to control HIS life. And you start wondering if you have a doppelganger dating in your place, that is evilly trying to control this person. Because it's definitely not you. No sarcasm here--it's definitely not you. And if there's no doppelganger, you have to wonder what their mother was like.

In any case, men have always been a puzzle to me, because they are so Quixotic, fighting dragons that are only windmills. Are they really that insecure about themselves? Or have they just been lucky enough to have only evil, controlling wenches for girlfriends, and therefore in abject terror when they get emotionally involved with a new woman? The pattern I've seen even in the most intelligent and mature of men is one of emotional superiority. They must feel more personally secure and confident than the girlfriend--if she's comfortable, then they're uncomfortable, and have to do something to make her doubt her sanity. As if they need to keep her on her toes.

Maybe this is why such nice men end up with bitches. It's really the only way for the woman to survive--by keeping the upper hand for herself.

But why does anyone need to have the upper hand? Is there such a thing as mutual respect and love? Or is that something made up, or only attained by sages and gurus? Who are not, I might add, in relationships? I'm guessing such a thing must exist somewhere, but it's a bit like the Loch Ness monster--we've only seen grainy photos of something that MIGHT be it. And even then it might be a hoax. But even if it is, it might still exist somewhere.

Can love exist in marriage and family life? I'm sure it must, at least in some families; I do have friends who are quite content with their marriages and family life. But it's not a life I could imagine for myself.

A few weeks ago I was in my old neighborhood, the one I grew up in. The neighborhood has changed a lot; it used to be a lot of vacation bungalows and colonials; now, most of the bungalows have been ripped down, and their yards totally overtaken by these huge McMansions that are at least 5,000 square feet. There are few trees, and almost no yard; it's all house. And the houses all look the same, with that faux brickwork and beige vinyl siding, along with huge windows and doors with tacky brass fixtures. I see the tenants of these homes get into their cars--bleach blonde women with day-glo nails getting into their white SUVs to go pick up the kids from soccer practice, yammering away illegally on their cell phones as they back out of their driveways without looking. I watched such a scene as I was at a stop sign, and I was suddenly filled with horror at the banality of it all. These women were probably the popular girls in school in their time. And this is what happened to them?

I just finished reading Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog", a book I highly recommend even though it's heartbreaking. In the beginning of the book, one of the main characters, Paloma Josse, talks about suicide. She is twelve-years-old, and already recognizes that adulthood is a "goldfish bowl"--there's no escaping from the life plan made for you. She comes from an affluent family, and is sure that the course of her life will be planned; her thoughts of suicide are her attempt to beat the plan and free herself. Because what do we grow up for, after all? We have big dreams as children--and then become soccer Moms with cheating husbands and garish, pre-fab houses?

I remind myself that I did escape from that, so it is possible. Like everyone else, I believed the myth that this was what I wanted. Then I got married and had a panic attack, realizing that for me, nothing could be worse than life as "Mom". It is true that I have to struggle financially since my divorce (not that my marriage was much different). But I largely get to do what I want to do. I work with old books. I write. I get to teach religion in a liberal arts context. I go to England often, get invited to interesting parties, and have interesting friends. I have a rambling old house with creaky floors, oak bookcases, purple glassware, shelves of occult grimoires, religious histories, and other eclectic books, and a big black cat for company. For me, all of these things are satisfying, and I wouldn't trade them for any boring, rich contractor husband and a brood of kids. It would be nice to have a partner to share my travels with, to have intelligent discussions with, to drink wine and enjoy wonderful foods with. But I also do well enough on my own, and the other will follow if it's meant to happen.

I feel the need to reiterate for the benefit of my married friends with family that I don't think such a life HAS to be banal--and I've seen many examples of very happy families. But it's definitely not the life for me.

I don't think I have a real point here. But then again--neither does anything else we do. That may be the point.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I have to say this has been a happy week. Not a whole lot has happened; work has been busy, I've managed to sell some of my Craigslist AND Edward Gorey items (to the respondents--thank you very much!), and had two very intelligent conversations this week. Plus, I'm thinking about Europe, particularly about taking a cruise in Southern France. This won't happen in 2011 unless my finances get significantly better, but you never know. I find that with money, the unexpected can go both ways--either you take a huge hit or end up with a huge windfall.

I'm not sure why I'm so fixated on getting out of the country these days. Maybe it's because Americans have been pissing me off lately. The recent elections are exactly what I expected, but disappointing nonetheless. No one has any patience, everyone is into instant gratification. Economy sucks? Obama-Jesus was supposed to wave his hand and fix it his first month in office! Never mind that he said right in his inaugural address that our problems might not get much better in his 4 years in office; after all, they weren't created overnight. No matter; Americans want it, they want it now, and if they don't get it, you're a loser and they'll support your opponent again. This goes around and around until you feel like a ping pong ball in a clothes dryer. The other problem with Americans is what I call the "action movie" problem. Too many Americans are influenced by the old Lethal Weapon--Die Hard--Deathwish kind of heroes, who solve problems by blowing the other guy away. Sure, it's fun to see the bad guys get their due in a movie, but they translate it to real life. Screw diplomacy and peace talks! That's for wimps! Real Americans just shove it in your face and you'll like it, or they'll just blow you up! Solves everything, right? Just don't do it to us!

Okay, I'm not interested in giving myself a headache today, so I won't go on about that. But this is definitely the mentality among the conservative factions in this country. I should know--I grew up in a family where this largely IS the mentality. Not my mother or siblings per se, but my father and aunts and uncles. And it's really tiresome. Lewis Black did a wonderful piece about this at his Broadway show several years ago:

I am not blind to the fact that the grass is not necessarily greener elsewhere. Europe definitely has its own set of problems, many just as serious, if not more so. But from what I've seen, Europeans spend their time fighting real problems, and they do it well. American protesters could learn a lot from Europe. And the press there does not suffer fools. If you're a greedy jerk, you're going to be called out for being a greedy jerk. People there seem to be smart enough to recognize that. I'm not a fan of violent protest--I don't think it solves anything. But some protests are quite creative. For instance, the French expressed their displeasure with President Sarkozy by going out en masse and buying the one book that he hated. People were reading it everywhere on the streets of France. No one would think to do that here, except maybe one of the library associations. And they wouldn't get the same buy-in.

In any case, whether it be for a nice long vacation or an eventual emigration, I really want to visit the rest of Europe. I say "rest of", because I spend a lot of time in England.I speak the same language, and I've gotten to know my way around. But I've never been to France, Italy, Germany, Spain--nor any part of Eastern Europe, which is where my mother's family is from. My biggest issue is language. I took 7 years of French instruction, but I haven't used it in years, and my vocabulary is quite rusty. The last time I had a chance to use it was when I visited Canada; I was staying in Ottawa, but had frequent cross-overs into Quebec. Canada is bi-lingual, but I found that when I attempted to speak French (and I remembered a lot more than I thought I would), they were obviously pleased. Not amused--pleased. I can tell the difference. But in general, I would be nervous about trying to hold an entire conversation in French--I need to seriously brush up. But French aside, I'm not that familiar with any other European languages. I usually can decipher writings in other Romance languages, because I also took 7 years of Latin. But I am nowhere near having any skill in speaking those languages.

Now, my friends who either live in Europe or have visited tell me that speaking the local language is not necessary--everyone speaks English. There are some places where I would want them to speak English--at the immigration counter at the airport, for instance. But beyond that, I feel like it's somehow morally wrong to not even attempt to learn at least some of the language of the place you're visiting. We expect foreigners visiting America to speak some English. Why do we think we can go to Europe and not give the native people the same courtesy? There's a certain arrogance to that, and it just underlines how isolated we are as a nation from the rest of the world. I realize some people are not good at languages, and may be afraid to sound like an idiot. Plus, we're not all linguists. Still--if you're going to spend any time abroad, it doesn't hurt to try to learn something new. In fact, one would hope you would go abroad with some intellectual curiosity, and not with the "Johnny Ramone mentality". (When the Ramones toured Europe, Johnny Ramone was known to complain--"F**k these old rocks, doesn't this place have a McDonald's?").

Native Americans aside, the United States as it is today has a cultural heritage borrowed almost completely from Europe. The colonists and founders of our government were Europeans. I'm always interested in getting to the roots of things, and Europe is certain part of our national roots. I've been to England many times, and never fail to be awed by the history that's there--something the English may take for granted, since they see it all the time. Even the visible England is relatively new--London has had so many fires, and has been rebuilt so many times, that you really have to look for the most ancient parts of the city. One of my favorite experiences of London was in an inexpensive hotel. My room was nothing special, but it overlooked the rooftops of the city, and was quite near to St. Pancras Church. There was something very sublime about sitting with the window open, with a summer breeze coming in at dawn, with my cup of tea. The horizon over the old chimneys turned from a deep blue to pink to orange, and you could hear the bells tolling on the church as the city was starting to wake up. I've been to many cities in the U.S.--many beautiful places in their own right--and never experienced anything quite like this. It's hard to put into words. You just feel the age of things, and it reminds you that you are just a small part of a large universe. It's as if the ancient city blends with the modern city, and resonates across time, and you're there to experience the music.

Ah yes. Time to pay things off and start saving my money again...

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

These Days

Before I begin this evening's blog post, here is a quick announcement:

I am selling some things on Craigslist. Yes, I used eBay like everyone else, but lately selling there has been a no-go, and it costs me a lot of money. These items are cheap enough to not be worth putting on eBay, so I have them listed here, if any of them strike your fancy.
Also--you can respond to that post if you're an Edward Gorey collector--I can contact you about some Edward Gorey first editions I'm looking to sell.

Normally, I would not do such shameless hawking on my blog. But I am beyond broke at the moment, so I'm taking any outlet available to me. Forgive me.

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Mornings are a conflicted time. I wake up at 3:00 in the morning. My body's cortisol levels are not playing a cruel prank on me; I really have to get up at 3:00 in the morning, or 3:30 at the latest. I must leave by 5:00 to get to work, so I can record my Winter session lectures before my day starts. Recording later in the day won't work; I have too many interruptions, too many people are around.

Staggering and exhausted, my brain tries to compensate by chattering away at approximately 100 miles per hour about everything and nothing. This is not good, because I like to meditate first thing in the morning, and the worst thing for meditation is a chatty mind. Still, I slog through my morning routine of showering, getting dressed, meditating, feeding the cats, getting together the things I will need for work, and having breakfast. I need to make an effort to remember what day it is, so that I put out garbage or recycling on the appropriate day. After putting some tea in a travel mug and heading out to my car, I start the long trek to work. It's no wonder I'm dazed by the time I get there. I feel like I've done a day's worth of work already.

Each day is a new battle. My job isn't stressful, but I can be presented with unexpected projects or problems. If I had a different agenda in mind for the day, it usually ends up being shot. But that's a metaphor for life, isn't it? Some days I enjoy socializing with my co-workers, on others I just want to lock the office doors and focus on my work. This is not a reflection on my co-workers; on the whole, I work in a reasonably sane office, spiced up with some quirkiness here and there. And it isn't fatal.

One of my colleagues had a birthday today, so we all went to the student cafeteria for lunch. It's a flat $7.25 to get in (birthday people excepted--they eat for free), and I'm not sure the price is worth it. Still, we don't go to lunch together that often, and after some initial logistical confusion, it ended up being a nice group conversation. And I had afternoon coffee to boot. Just what I needed for a brain already in overdrive.

I received an e-mail from the University of Reading (UK) asking me to join their online alumni community. The registration page gave me a start. Under the drop-down menu for "Title", you expect to see 4 things--Mr., Miss, Ms., and Mrs. On this list, there were about 50 appellations. I am not exaggerating. I debated choosing "Air Commander" or "Squadron Leader", or perhaps sticking an "HRH" before my name just for fun. I have never seen such a list in my life. I was tempted to write and tell them that they forgot "Smt." (Srimata, the Hindu term for "Mrs."). Unless that's what "Smr" meant. If it means anything else, I couldn't tell you. One of the choices was "The". Just "The". "The Brigid Burke". As opposed to The Imposter Pretending To Be Brigid Burke, I guess...

I drove home in a zombified state this afternoon, probably from too much caffeine. This is good, because I'm less aware of irritating drivers around me, and I care less when someone tailgates me or cuts me off in traffic. Arriving at home, I note the 10,000,000 leaves in the yard that will require another 3 to 4 hours of labor to pick up. Mind you, I've picked up leaves almost every weekend since the beginning of September. It's a losing battle, like every other practical task in my life. I feel like Sisyphus. I open the mailbox, and find an advertisement for the Wall Street Journal. Just what I need--more Rupert Murdoch-influenced media. I toss the ad straight into the recycling bin, with the rest of the mail.

Evening arrives quickly now, and I am teetering on the edge of energetic productivity and the desire to sink into the futon with a glass of wine, watching re-runs of Ghost Hunters, or an old movie. Or reading my book. I am reading "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery, which was deserving of its place on the New York Times bestseller list. It is such a good book that it commands full attention and awareness, so it might not be a good idea to pick it up after work, when I am on a downward awareness spiral, heading towards sleepy-land. I hear a mooing sound in the living room; the cat, sitting inside his hooded, wool-lined bed, has reached out a lazy paw for a nearby cow-shaped cat toy that makes mooing sounds. He is ridiculously cute as he curls up to sleep in his bed with the toy between his paws.

Soon I will curl up in my own bed. I do have to get up at 3:00 in the morning, after all...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Common Denominator

I visited my parents after work this week. I usually have a rather busy life, and don't get to stop by that often. On this particular day, I needed to borrow my father's VHS to DVD converter; I have a few VHS tapes that I like to re-watch that my VCR has suddenly decided it doesn't like. So, I made DVD copies.

My Dad is technologically hip in some ways. When it comes to visual media, he likes to have all of the new toys--except for things that have to be done on a computer. He bought this particular converter a few years ago, but almost never uses it. This is because he doesn't understand the difference between DVD-R/DVD-RW and DVD+R/DVD+RW. I can hardly blame him; when you look at the specs, your eyes drift to the letters, not the punctuation. Why would you think those were meaningful? Isn't a recordable DVD a recordable DVD? Sadly no; society has adopted Crowley's view that "standardisation is the bane of civilization". This is one area where that shouldn't be true. But this is all a digression.

While I was dubbing my tapes, my father went into the main living room to watch TV. It was time for Glenn Beck, and today, Glenn was going to talk about socialists using funny voices and hand puppets. I know that the recent Bill Maher piece criticizing the Rally to Restore Sanity is controversial, but Bill noted that Glenn Beck is "close to eating his own poop". I don't think this is an exaggeration.

Glenn Beck and everything else on Fox News is just one of several "obstacles to communication" that I face when I'm trying to visit with my family. Generally what happens is this: I sit talking to my mother who tells me everything she's worried about. My father sits in another room watching TV and shouting 4-letter insults at any Democrats that flash across the screen. When he finally comes out to dinner, conversation can be rather tense depending on the chosen topic. My mother likes to argue with him about politics, which is kind of a no-win venture.

There's also the go-round they have when she's asked him to do something. For instance: She'll leave him a note to make a doctor's appointment while she's at work. She'll ask if he made the appointment. My father will casually peruse the newspaper, and without looking at her, say "What appointment?" My mother, looking frustrated, will say, "The DOCTOR's appointment. I left you a note to call this morning!" My father will reply, "I don't remember any note." This will go around and around until my mother looks like she is going to blow a major artery, and my father finally decides to mention that yes, he made the appointment first thing when he got up. He is actually being funny, but she doesn't get it. Sometimes I take pity and let her in on the joke before she gets too worked up. The final obstacle usually revolves around family issues; usually my Dad and I agree on certain issues, and my Mom does not agree with either of us. The conversations always leave me uncomfortable and at odds with someone, and all I can think is "Can't we all just get along?" If our discussions were fruitful and thoughtful debates, that would be a different story. Instead, they're usually exercises in stubbornness.

This is where humor comes in. You may have noticed over the years that I can be rather "flip" about some things, and tend to make a joke out of others. This is not by accident. This is survival. A means of saying, "Hey guys, we're never going to agree, and we need to stop making this so deadly serious and depressing." Besides joking around and changing the subject, I will also bring strategic media with me if I'm visiting my parents for an extended time (e.g., for an entire evening). "Strategic media", of course, is usually DVDs of TV shows or movies that I know will keep my parents from talking about depressing things, and probably will make them laugh as well.

Here are some clips that have averted family discord. If you have similar family issues, maybe you can use these as well. Some of them may be more "Christmas-y", because that's usually the time of year that I wind up spending more time with them.

1. Mystery Science Theater 3000. Almost any of the movies will do, but the black-and-white ones are best. If you don't have time for a movie, the shorts are a good choice:

2. Found Footage Festival--any of the volumes will do, but to avoid awkwardness, keep the remote handy for such clips as "Disrobics" and "Venus II", so you can fast forward. Nothing more awkward than watching obviously sexual things with your parents. Even that last sentence makes me feel awkward. Found Footage Festival is a collection of "found" VHS tapes that are so awful, they're good:

Drop dead, in the name of Jesus Christ

3. Rich Little's A Christmas Carol--this one is only good at the Christmas holiday, obviously. I happen to own a copy--it's very hard to get these days. Rich Little is a comedian whose entire act revolves around impersonations. The people in my age group are probably the last ones who could watch this and have any idea about who the heck he is impersonating--anyone born later than 1975 is likely to be stumped. But my parents know exactly what he's about, and they find it funny.

Rich Little's Christmas Carol [VHS]

4. Not Necessarily the News--I've only found this recently on YouTube, and only certain clips. We all remember this show, and strangely enough, my father loves it, even though they spend a lot of time making fun of his favorite President, Ronald Reagan. Personally, I wish they would make an entire tape of Rich Hall's "Sniglets" segments. Those are still my favorite, and not available anywhere.

Best of Not Necessarily the News Part 1 of 6 (embedding disabled)

5. Saturday Night Live--this is one of those shows that was great when it first came out, but declined in quality over the years. Still, there are some classic pieces worthy of trying to find either on Google Video or by sifting through DVD compilations. Here is a Christmas one from Robert Smiegel's TV Funhouse animation clips:

TV Funhouse Peanuts (embedding doesn't work)

You might be surprised at some of the irreverent religious videos. But both of my parents are critical of religion, so this isn't a problem. However, if my aunts and uncles are visiting, that presents a different problem altogether...

Happy daylight savings time, and tell someone to turn on the's too dark in here for November.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Subject/Object (The Art of Negotiation)

I present to you two scenarios:

The first: my mother is concerned about another member of our family that she very much needs to talk to about a private matter. This person rarely calls or answers the phone, so my mother had sent a letter. This is all well and good, except that she didn't entirely stay on topic--she told me that she'd sent along books on managing diabetes (this person is diabetic), and other reading material for "improvement".

The second: This one is very familiar to Americans. The missionary who knocks on the door--whether they be Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, or some other group seeking to point out the error of your ways and "save" you, usually in the name of Jesus Christ.

It occurred to me that these scenarios have the following things in common:

1. An individual who reaches out to someone else in a caring attempt at communication.

2. An utter failure because they are objectifying the other person.

Let me see if I can explain. In both cases, the individuals reaching out (my Mom, the missionaries), are often doing so out of genuine caring. My mother genuinely cares about this person's health and well-being. The missionary often really believes what they are saying, and are also genuinely concerned. However, in both cases, they are approaching their subject by pointing out how they are wrong and how they must change. It doesn't matter whether the person is really wrong or not. What would you do if someone tried to tell you how you were wrong? Most likely, you would be on the defensive--you would either tell them to mind their own business, or dismiss them entirely and walk away with no response. Such an approach does not open up dialogue. It ends up coming across as demeaning or accusatory.

My mother does this kind of thing, and from what I hear from other friends, she is not alone in this "motherly" trait. About 15 years ago I had gained a fair amount of weight. Every time I saw my mother, she would eyeball me with this worried look, and shake her head. She would bring me a copy of a new diet she'd found in some health magazine or book. She was doing it "because she cared". However, when she did this, that was not the message I got. The message I got was, "you think I'm ugly and malformed--and obviously stupid". Yes, I know--she was not saying that at all. But that's how such gestures come across.

Returning to the second scenario--famous occult author Lon Milo DuQuette created a great little piece of animation about such a scenario. In this video, the character being preached at (presumably representing Lon) doesn't walk away, but explains to the proselytizer why they are offensive. And he says it very well, so I'll just let you watch it:


This brings me to the fine art of negotiation. Back in the day, I was a co-shop steward for a union, and occasionally had to negotiate gripes and grievances on behalf of employees with management. I knew the management of the place well--some were caring, some were not, but in general, if they could get away with avoiding things like raises and promotions, they would do it. Sometimes there was nothing you could do; they were within their rights as employers. Other times it was questionable. The stiffed employees were understandably angry.

I successfully negotiated a couple of these situations, and I would have gotten nowhere if I'd used the approaches in either of the above scenarios. If I had walked into administration and insinuated that they were trying to cheat the employee, I would have had the door slammed in my face. Even if my statement had been true, you don't ever negotiate by putting management on the defensive. Instead, my approach was to tell the administrator that I was there on behalf of the union, and that someone came to me with a problem. I assumed that the employee must be missing some piece of information, and I would appreciate if they could explain the situation to me, so that I could explain it to the employee. This approach works 99% of the time.

This works because it does 3 things--1. it validates the person you are talking to as an intelligent, thinking subject, 2. it doesn't dismiss or invalidate the claim of the griever--it assumes instead a miscommunication that needs clearing, and 3. it gives the employer an "out" if they have really done something wrong. In at least one case, they said, "let me look everything over, and let you know." Sure enough, they claimed an "oversight", and said they would fix it immediately. I wasn't so sure it really was an oversight, but I was not going to press that issue--the employee had finally gotten what they needed, and the employer saved face. If you're bent on getting revenge or making them look stupid, you will probably lose everything.

This is not about being a flatterer or being dishonest. No matter how flawed you think someone else is, chances are they think they are just fine. Employers are no different. You won't win if you set out to invalidate someone else's point of view. A lot of people have forgotten about this--particularly TV news analysts and most of Congress. How do you find common working ground with someone you're treating like an idiot--an idiot because they won't see things your way?

Because let's face it--no one is "perfect", everyone makes mistakes--and sometimes, it's not a mistake, simply a life choice or worldview that we can't understand because we wouldn't choose it for ourselves. If you spend your time judgmentally telling people what's "wrong" with them and how they should fix themselves when that input was not solicited, you're going to have a lot of trouble being taken seriously. And you probably won't have a lot of friends. Families are a bit different; mothers often see this kind of lecturing as their appropriate role. But it doesn't change the fact that people will be defensive if you approach them critically.