It was in a psychiatric ward, and entering it was his idea because he tried to burn his house down with him in it last night and his family called the police on him and he has a long history of depression and suicidality, and my presence there as his arresting officer was also his idea since he was the one who called me and asked me to come because I am his former debate coach and he talks to me about everything and to his family about nothing and that’s his prerogative since he’s no longer a minor… but still.
They took his clothes. I couldn’t bring a pen in the room with him. A security guard had to let me out. Enormous men in suits were everywhere, and they all looked the same.
I’ve read too much Foucault.
Ever listen to the third movement of Sibelius 5? The guy was a total sadist.
The piece begins modestly, with the strings trading sweet nothings and little else going on. Then suddenly the timpani call everyone to order with a bang and the brass, with no warning whatsoever, blare out a melody so transcendently beautiful and yet elegantly simple that you want to cry. (Yes, you can blare elegance and beauty. Or at least, Sibelius can.) This goes on for a few minutes, with the same melody repeated several times against different countermelodies or whatever they are (I’m no music theorist), and it’s amazing and you want it to go on forever–and then suddenly it’s over.
Not the movement. The movement keeps going. But the goddamned melody, the one you want so badly, is nowhere to be found.
Some other stuff happens. It’s pretty and all, but all you can think about is the melody. Once in a while you think you see it approaching. The violins almost play it–but no, their version is deformed, bastardized, a mockery of the real thing. A crescendo begins, and you’re sure it will end in bliss–and then there’s just cacophony and dissolution. The trumpets–oh wait, nope, never mind. There–! But no, nothing is there.
It comes back very briefly in the end, but by that time you’re so disillusioned that it doesn’t even matter anymore.
This is no ordinary motif-modulation-recapitulation-whatever-the-hell-symphonies-always-do. This is torture. Sibelius is an asshole.
I try to be good. I try to get through the whole movement, the whole symphony. I don’t like cutting off music; I tend to listen to albums, not playlists, and I try a little too hard always to shut off my music at the precise moment when one song becomes another. But sometimes Sibelius is too much for me. Today, for instance, I was shameless, listening to the first few minutes of that movement over and over again. “Haha, fucker,” I thought. “It’s the 21st century now.”
Speaking of the 21st-century, The Melody has of course been appropriated endlessly–most wonderfully, in my opinion, by Gorillaz in “On Melancholy Hill.” That is a good thing.
But Sibelius is still a jerk.
1. One of my professors recently shared something I’d written with the class. It was the reflexive section of a research paper: the part devoted to explaining what aspects of my subjectivity might have enhanced or compromised the study I’d done. When we were done discussing the content of my writing, one girl raised her hand and said she had a question related more to style. “I was always taught to avoid writing in the first person voice,” she said. “Isn’t it… sort of… you know?” Others nodded in agreement; the implication was that my use of first-person pronouns was somehow scandalous, a sign of unprofessionalism or proof that I hadn’t been paying attention in my seventh-grade English class.
2. Whenever I have high school juniors or seniors draft college application essays in my English classes, I talk about what exactly such essays should accomplish, emphasizing the importance not only of writing well but also of writing in an authentic voice and illustrating aspects of one’s identity that no other component of an application will capture. Without fail, at least one student raises a hand to clarify: “But we can’t say ‘I,’ right? No first person in writing?”
3. One of my students’ most common grammatical mistakes is using subjective first-person pronouns when they need objective ones: “between I and my friend,” “my mom grounded my sister and I,” and so on. When I point out such errors, the response is always the same: “But I was told that ‘me’ is wrong–that ‘I’ is more formal and correct!”
I don’t understand why people so often teach rules without teaching the reasoning behind them.
The point is not to avoid first person pronouns at all costs; it is to avoid them when they are unnecessary or irrelevant–that is to say, to eschew wordiness (not saying “I think” before every statement, for instance) and to stick to the subject at hand (not blathering on about your own emotions when you’re supposed to be analyzing an author’s technique, for example). If you’re writing about yourself, you probably need to write in the first person. What else would I have used in that particular section of my research paper? “The present author”? Should I say “The writer of this card is grateful” in every thank-you note I write?
Why would anyone just yell “DON’T USE FIRST PERSON!” at kids without explaining why?
Similarly, because using “me” instead of “I” is a common mistake, it is often correct to substitute “I” for “me”–but only because of the difference between subject and object, not because “I” is inherently and inevitably the better choice.
Why would anyone just yell “USE ‘I,’ NOT ‘ME’!” at kids without explaining why?
If you’re an adult teaching kids, those kids’ brains are better prepared to understand and assimilate new information than yours is. They are made to learn, to adapt, to grow. Why not take advantage of that? Why not teach them?
A friend remarked recently that I am surprisingly “open” about my depression. I explained that the openness is deliberate: mental illness is still poorly understood–stigmatized, romanticized, ignored, and (excessively) normalized by turns–and if I can help change that, even just a little, by offering myself as a sort of case study to those who know me… well, why not?
(His reply: “Wow, so even that is political for you.” I guess so, yes.)
Now, for the first time in a decade, it seems quite possible that I will not be taking antidepressants every day for the rest of my life. I’m going to decrease my dosage in a couple of weeks. If all goes well, that will be the first step in a two- or three-year process of weaning myself off the stuff. If that succeeds, I will no longer have the perverse pleasure of forcing people to confront the fact that my condition, despite my “able” facade, is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I will still have a history of depression, as they say. But it will have been just a phase, something I grew out of once I figured out how to suck it up and be a real adult–and I’m not sure how I feel about that. For me, perhaps, it will be wonderful. For “the cause”–whatever that may be–not so much.
Instead of the personal being political, the personal will risk sabotaging the political–and the political, in turn, will risk undermining the personal. It will be a confusing situation.
Here’s hoping for confusion.
A friend asked me for advice today. He, a middle-aged man, had in a Facebook comment sorely offended a 23-year-old female friend of his, and he hoped that I, a 27-year-old woman with personal and ideological connections to the issues at hand, might help him understand her perspective.
Here is what happened. She had posted a status saying that she was thinking of getting a tattoo. He had written (and this is verbatim): “Just remember that, with some luck, some day you’ll be my age. Let’s just say I am very grateful to my 20-something self for not having gotten any tattoos!” In response, she first called him out for telling her what to do with her body, then wrote an article on the naïveté of (male and other) privilege—framed by the anecdote of my friend’s misstep. He wrote a lengthy response to that article, then asked for my thoughts on what both of them had said.
My message to him is below. I’m not linking to the article or the reply he posted to it; I don’t want a pingback to incite even more anger on her part, and it doesn’t matter anyway; he has said to her everything that needs to be said, and I sincerely hope that they can work things out. But I still want to post this for the sake of catharsis, unapologetically out-of-context as it is.
I totally get what she’s trying to do here, and I get the frustration she feels. I’m that person who, when everyone’s just trying to have a good time or get work done or whatever, always has to pipe up obnoxiously with “Hey, why is everyone here white?” or “Why are all the men here doing this and the women doing that?” or some such non sequitur. And the reactions I often get make me angry, yes—especially the “Aw, look at Rachel doing her cute little leftist dance again” one.
But she’s doing it wrong. So wrong.
First, her tone. “Everybody’s going to need to sit down and stop yelling and actually listen for a while, so go ahead and emotionally prepare yourself for that and come back when you’re ready to be an adult about this.” “Either you can join the resistance or you can sell your soul to the Man.” No. Being an adult means moving beyond condescension, not perpetuating it. It means acknowledging shades of gray. It means understanding that you are not the first person who has ever seen the world clearly. It means eschewing hypocrisy and, even just amorally, it means getting done what you’re trying to get done. And she does none of these things. I hate to play the age card, especially since I’m only 27 and very much in the same boat as she is, but her writing reads like a late adolescent’s. Now adolescence is a very important and potentially productive time, and many adults could use a little more adolescence in their lives. Indignation is a quintessentially adolescent stance that also happens to be indispensible to any fight for justice or progress. But still.
Second, her choice of material. There is so, so much good evidence for her argument. SO MUCH. Yet what does she use? A wholly innocuous (yes, it was) comment from you. For me, the clincher is what you pointed out: your explicit use of your own (male) body and experience as a comparison point. Because yes, we are all tired of men telling us how to look. Overwhelmingly, furiously, indescribably tired. But a man who breaks down the gender barrier by comparing our bodies without needing to point out their sexual differences, who links himself to me as both thinking subject and (non-)tattooed object, who relates to me as person to person rather than as man to woman—that man is a friend and an ally. And any brand of feminism that seeks to move beyond solipsism and rhetoric and really change the way women (and men) experience the world needs to recognize that.
The “hot” excerpt is important. You know this, of course; you were one of my best allies at a time when I was first realizing just how inescapable the male gaze really is. Half of my blog posts are reactions to things that male strangers have said to me in passing. But to conflate the harassment and even assault that most of us experience on a regular basis with a Facebook comment like yours—that trivializes feminism, in my opinion. And I don’t like it.
There is one part of your response that might be triggering. In deciding where the boundary between inoffensive and offensive lies, you appeal to reason. Of course you are right to do so, but the rhetoric of enlightened rationality has sinister echoes for many women. “Stop overreacting.” “Why are women so emotional?” The image of woman as hysterical or unreasonable has been used to dismiss so much of what we have said for so many centuries that even I reacted a little viscerally to your wording despite my trust in you and my intellectual agreement with what you say. Again I think you are absolutely correct, but the (gender-neutral and therefore possibly, threateningly, male-dominated) “we” deciding whether a woman’s “feelings” are “reasonable”—the wording, if not the actual meaning of what you say, could trigger fear and therefore anger. Just a heads-up!
I hope that helps. The main takeaway here should be that you did nothing wrong.
“Commonly said: ‘dominant ideology.’ This expression is incongruous. For what is ideology? It is precisely the idea insofar as it dominates: ideology can only be dominant. Correct as it is to speak of an ‘ideology of the dominant class,’ because there is certainly a dominated class, it is quite inconsistent to speak of a ‘dominant ideology,’ because there is no dominated ideology; where the ‘dominated’ are concerned, there is nothing, no ideology, unless it is precisely–and this is the last degree of alienation–the ideology they are forced (in order to make symbols, hence in order to live) to borrow from the class that dominates them. The social struggle cannot be reduced to the struggle between two rival ideologies: it is the subversion of all ideology which is in question.” – Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Every bit of it. If I’d had this twelve years ago. And eleven, and ten, and nine, and and and and.
I don’t need to explain anymore. She’s done it for me.
I was at a busy downtown bus station a few nights ago. It was about 9:30pm on what had been a gorgeous day, and throngs of people were milling about–some waiting for a bus like me, some just passing through on their way to the trains below us. Near me was a young family: mother, father, and baby in a stroller. The parents looked no more than 25, and both were tiny: at 5’6″ and 120 pounds I am hardly an Amazon, but I felt like one next to that couple and their delicate-looking little daughter.
Because it’s relevant, though I wish it weren’t, I should note that the family was dark-skinned–she looked African American, he perhaps Latino–and that I am white, as were most of the others in the vicinity.
Soon after I arrived, a 30-something white guy showed up. He walked past me, then past the parents and their child. As he passed, he half-turned back toward them and asked, “What are you looking at?” (Incidentally, they had been looking at each other and at their baby–not that anyone should have cared.)
When they did not respond, he yelled more loudly: “Yeah, I’m white. What are you looking at?” Then he came to a full stop, faced them directly from about 20 feet away, mustered up the most precise enunciation he could manage, and hurled the n-word toward them with full force. I think he prefaced it with a “my,” but I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter.
At this point the mother was softly but firmly telling the father to stay calm: “He’s drunk. We have our daughter with us. Don’t do anything.” The crowd gaped, the asshole postured, and the father worked very hard to keep his cool. No one moved, but the asshole continued to look menacing. (Also, he was well over six feet tall.)
Afraid things were about to get worse, I walked over and stood between the family and the asshole, facing the latter. I said nothing, partly because I didn’t want to provoke him further and partly because I was scared and therefore stupid, but I glared. The “disapproving teacher” look must have made an appearance, because he immediately shifted his focus to me and starting sputtering things like “You don’t know” and “They’re–[something incoherent].” As we stood staring at each other, though, the bus pulled up behind the family. People started to move again, the mother and daughter got on the bus, security guards showed up, and it was over.
Except it wasn’t. First, I asked the mother if she was okay. It was a stupid question: clearly she wasn’t thrilled, but just as clearly she was composed and ready to move on with her life. She refrained from pointing these things out, however, and simply said “Yes.” I suppose she’s used to guilty liberals’ pleas for validation. Then, as we got on the bus, I saw the baby’s father walking toward the asshole. I turned to her, obviously alarmed, so that she had to reassure me by explaining that he needed to take a different bus to get home. Because I was the one who needed support, of course.
Then on the ride home, the guy sitting next to me–also a 30-something white guy, also a little drunk–turned to me and asked if I was okay. I said yes–that I was just sad and angry because of what had happened–and he nodded. A little while later he asked rather pathetically for help with his tie, which was a mess. I couldn’t do much there, having no idea how to tie the thing, but once he figured it out I did fix his disaster of a collar for him. He thanked me very sweetly and went back to his crossword puzzle.
By this time, angry at the asshole, watching the mother play with her baby as if nothing had happened, bewildered by the juxtaposition between the scene at the bus stop and this almost absurdly benign man beside me, fighting the urge to fall on my knees before the mother and beg her to absolve me of my whiteness, disgusted with myself for the aforementioned urge, and tired and not quite sober myself, I was crying silently. At one point my neighbor turned to me again, pointed to the sports page of his newspaper, and asked whether I followed the Red Sox; I told him how much I like baseball, and we had another friendly 30-second conversation on that topic before lapsing back into companionable silence.
I happened to get off the bus at the same stop as the mother. When I stood up, my neighbor said, “Thanks for the conversation.” The simple goodwill he exuded was almost unbearable. I followed the stroller off the bus, ostentatiously helping the mother hoist it to the sidewalk and hating my unending need to impose my guilt on her. At some point during this process another white woman said to her–I missed the context–”We’ve been through enough tonight already, haven’t we?” and I was enraged. “We” had endured nothing, I wanted to scream. Leave the woman alone; she doesn’t need to watch you perform your futile liberalism.
My hypocrisy, my solipsism–they never cease to amaze me.
“Wait there’s a bunch of people on my timeline thanking cops weren’t yall just saying last week screw the pigs smh y’all so fake either your with that life or your not bunch of fair weather gangstas”
I’m not going to write about my own reactions to the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. Nothing I say is right; everything is too jingoistic, too cynical, too solipsistic, too sanctimonious, too dismissive, too dramatic, too something.
What really got me, though, is what some of my former students said.
These kids–not the entire population of the school I taught at, but the ones quoted here–know they are part of what has been called an “underclass.” They are adept at switching codes, juggling identities, managing the cognitive dissonance caused by living in a system who tells them they must empower themselves even as it does everything in its power to disempower them.
Then, crisis strikes. “Boston Strong,” we say. We stand united against violence, we say. They say:
“Honestly Fuck this Bombing Shit, I want to see them make this effort to catch someone when somebody get shot in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and More. Seriously Caught some Bomber in 3 days but cant find out whos shooting at who and leaving theyre loved ones tramatized?”
That Facebook post got 54 “likes.”
The rhetoric of oneness is seductive. It is often valuable. It is even, to some extent, accurate. Most of my former students subscribed to it. They are Bostonians, after all. We all are. But still. One posted:
“This is the first time I’m glad I live in the hood..#PrayForBoston”
He is with Boston. He prays for Boston. But, significantly, he is not in the part of Boston everyone is worried about–the middle-class neighborhoods being terrorized. This is not just dark humor; it is an acknowledgement of otherness, of both geographic and social isolation.
For some, that isolation was transcended. “Can’t say ‘fuck the police’ anymore,” one post read. But I didn’t know whether to be happy or be sad.
I guess it doesn’t much matter, though. Everything will be back to normal soon.
Sometimes I feel like my life is one long exercise in analyzing the ways in which my academic pedigree affects people’s perceptions and treatment of me. Suspicion, respect, resentment, amusement, dismissal, curiosity, awe–I’ve faced all of these sentiments, many (especially the last-named) for wholly invalid reasons. Last week brought a new addition to the list, however: complacency.
I was asking my professor for feedback on the outline of a literature review I’m writing for his class. He sort of laughed and brushed off my request at first, so I pressed it–admittedly in a rather flippant manner, saying something along the lines of “Well, I just want to make sure I’m not totally failing here.” Then:
“Um, where did you go to undergrad?”
“And where did you get your master’s?”
“Right. And you think you don’t know what you’re doing?”
Of course on one level he was just trying to tease me in front of my friends, who were looking on with amusement, and to be fair he did eventually email me some comments on the draft–but still. I’ve never written a literature review in my life; the genre is just not in my repertoire. I genuinely need to be taught this skill, or at least the aspects of it that can be distinguished from effective writing and thinking more generally. I do not, in fact, know what I am doing.
I often wonder how much people let me get away with just because I have a couple of Ivy League degrees. It’s a scary question, actually.
Guys, don’t let me become a total fraud. Call me on my bullshit. And while you’re at it, call Harvard and Yale on some of theirs, too.
Over a decade after I started taking them, I still feel kind of weird for being on antidepressants–but now it’s only because all my friends are on antianxiety meds instead. Progress!
Motherly strangers tend to strike up awkward conversations with me. Last night’s was a real winner:
“Are you a student?”
“Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher?”
“So wait, what are you studying now?
“What do you mean, problems in education? Like kids not feeling part of a group?”
“Ohhh, you’re talking about POOR PEOPLE! So, not here in Massachusetts?”
“Oh really? I heard about this program that gives musical instruments to poor kids. Isn’t that nice?”
“Coherence cannot be the major test of validity for a cultural description. . . . There is nothing so coherent as a paranoid’s delusion or a swindler’s story. . . . Nothing has done more, I think, to discredit cultural analysis than the construction of impeccable depictions of formal order in whose actual existence no one can quite believe.”
A good interpretation of anything–a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society–takes us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation. When it does not do that, but takes us instead somewhere else–into the admiration of its own elegance, of its author’s cleverness, or of the beauties of Euclidean order–it may have its intrinsic charms; but it is something else than what the task at hand . . . calls for.”
“. . . progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.”
- Clifford Geertz
“Of all the team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittence of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely salted with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seemed to be best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
He’s such a brilliant debater, and his arguments against suicide being immoral are awesome–until the very end when in a frenzy of Enlightenment rationalism he goes so far as to claim that no one who has ever committed suicide was mistaken in doing so. That…not so much. Mental illness, Hume. It existed even in the Age of Reason.
Stuff happens. I laugh or ignore it. Five or ten or 24 hours later, I realize that I am angry to the point of paralysis on account of said Stuff but that it is too late to address it properly.
“I felt a bit like a sperm whale that breaks the surface of the water, makes a little splash, and lets you believe, makes you believe, or want to believe, that down there where it can’t be seen, down there where it is neither seen nor monitored by anyone, it is following a deep, coherent, and premeditated trajectory.”