RSS Feed

Politics on Facebook: Give Me Substance or Give Me a Break

I will not make friends with this post. I may lose some. I can live with that.

I am a Democrat. My parents were Democrats, and I was raised in an environment that favored unions, government’s duty to give a hand up to those who are struggling, and the necessity of real opportunity for all citizens. As a young adult I was “born again” into my own political beliefs, and found that I was a lefty not only by breeding but by choice. I cleave naturally to the party that supports a woman’s right to choose, reasonable control of firearms, and the idea that those of us who are most blessed have an obligation to those less fortunate. I voted for Obama, I will vote for him again, and I am proud to have him as my leader even when he takes a wrong step.

That being said, I am driven absolutely insane by the proliferation of political ugliness on Facebook. Most of my “friends,” real and imagined are also Democrats, but a handful are Republicans. Both groups contribute to the unproductive, vicious mess that I see daily. I read, appreciate and learn from thoughtful articles reposted from reliable news sources, I always read the posts by Factcheck.org, and I am respectful of honest expression of opinions from left or right. What I cannot abide are the cheap shots, the attacks on the appearance, clothing, or intelligence of a candidate or his or her spouse. The current sentiment seems to be that if one refuses to participate, to hyperventilate, and to jump on board every snarky meme that passes through the feed, one has one’s head buried in the sand.

I am married to a Conservative. He and I agree totally on the direction in which the country should move, but we disagree on the best way to make a change. He does not want poor children to be starved, he supports a woman’s right to control her body, and he believes military spending should be cut. This changes my view of this process, and makes it far more difficult to dismiss all Republicans as de facto robber barons and imbeciles. I am not going to vote for them, but I see them as human beings with passionately held beliefs that happen to differ from my own. No bitchy vitriol, no matter how clever or catchy, is going to win over anyone who is undecided, and it is even more unlikely to persuade someone to switch sides.

Serious debate is essential to the political process, as is thoughtful study and the expression of the opinions formed on the basis thereof. It is facile, cheap and dishonorable to say that Romney would make a bad leader because of his religion or his wife’s life choices. Those may be factors deserving of examination in some meaningful context, but how can we endorse the notion that a Mormon would necessarily make a terrible leader while excoriating those who believed that a Catholic JFK couldn’t be an effective President?

Here’s a story: during the primary campaigns, a story circulated on Facebook about one of Michelle Bachman’s many mistakes. It came to me from a generally reliable source, and I hit “Share.” Within thirty minutes I had received a message from a thoughtful friend directing me to the actual facts, which were significantly different from those I had endorsed. I suppose it’s possible to argue that it doesn’t matter, that Bachman was doomed to be hoist by her own petard, and that although she might not actually have made thatparticular mistake, she made plenty of others. I can’t live with that. I do not want to vote for Michelle Bachman, or even have lunch with her, but my cause, my party’s cause and the country’s cause are not advanced by lies and exaggerations intended to confuse and sway the uninformed. That, my friends, is no better than being a “Birther.” A lie is a lie, and a careless lie in the name of political expedience is beneath the dignity of anyone attempting to make real progress through politics.

I don’t have to visit Facebook until after the election; there are plenty of other uses for the hours it sucks from my life. I understand that it is the right of others to post as they please, apparently assuming that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a moron. I also understand that there are diverse opinions about the “proper” use of Facebook, and that while I use it primarily as a social outlet and crowdsourcing venue, many folks believe that it should be used mostly as a platform for the promotion of political opinions.

If I thought for one minute that sharing my political views on a daily basis, and engaging in fierce debates with conservatives would bring One Single Person to fight alongside me, I might engage. I have used Facebook to raise awareness about local, national and global issues in the past and been gratified to see people open their hearts, minds and wallets. During last night’s debate I had one friend from each party who kept up a useful and objective blow-by-blow. Both have a bias, a strong one, but their professionalism and intelligence informed their observations in such a way that the Republican could concede a point scored by Obama and the Democrat could admit Romney’s successes. It can be done.

Mostly, though what I see is that people like me are beaten to death with negative exhortations to think what we already think, and to vote as we are already planning to vote. I hate them.  I don’t care if Paul Ryan looks like Eddie Munster. I don’t approve of judging Ann Romney as a “fifties housewife” any more than I approved of judging Hilary Clinton as an aggressive ball-buster. It advances nothing, and it does not in any way move this country towards being a place where women are treated fairly, children are fed and educated adequately, and we care as much about poor families as we do about banks. What it does is appeal to people from both major parties who exchange gleeful cyber high-fives about how much smarter and more insightful they are than everyone else.

You may “unfriend” me while I find the sand bucket for my head.

 

Zachary Tennen: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

’m guessing that things were pretty tense at Zachary Tannen’s house during the high holy days this year. I feel sorry for him, but I’m kind of trying not to.

Tennen brought national attention to East Lansing, Michigan in late August of this year by alleging that he was attacked at an off-campus party by Nazi/Klan sympathizers because he was Jewish. The story interested me, particularly, because half of my family is Jewish and because I live about ten city blocks from the scene of the reported crime.

The story was horrific. Tennen arrived at the Emergency Department of a local hospital badly beaten, and told his parents and ELPD officers that he was beaten up and had a staple forced into his gum after individuals raised their hands in a Nazi salute. His jaw was broken. It seemed to be a patent hate crime here in the corn-fed wholesomeness of a Big Ten town, an un-provoked and savage attack on a physically slight and totally innocent boy. I remember the sharp sting of tears in my eyes as I read the stories, imagining my own son injured and alone, and panicky and furious at the idea that Michigan State University was home to some group of virulent anti-Semitic thugs. In the days that followed, the story was all over the internet, and locally there was talk of vigils, Facebook groups and other means of demonstrating support for the boy and his family.

Here’s the thing: it didn’t actually happen. Well, Zachary Tennen was beaten up at a party on August 26th, and his jaw was broken, but the rest of it was fiction. The story started to change a couple of weeks ago, when the County Prosecutor reported that the ELPD had interviewed more than 50 witnesses, none of whom saw anything related to Nazis, Klan sympathizers, or anti-Semitism. I will admit, dear reader, that even then when I heard that particular news, my reflexive reaction was “of course they all denied it!”

It is not paranoia that makes a Jew (or even a half-Jew like me) believe that anti-Semitism is out there. Because I don’t identify myself as ethnically or religiously Jewish, people feel free to say things in front of me ranging from the tired but offensive stuff about Jews being “good with money” to one incredible evening spent with a Holocaust denier. Anti-Semitism is out there, alive and well, and it has been (wisely) instilled in the soul of every Jew I know that if we aren’t vigilant and fierce, it can all happen again.

Sorrow for the sad, brave Jewish boy alone in an Aryan nation ended for me this morning.  Today’s “Lansing State Journal” reports that Zachary got himself beaten up because he was pursuing a young woman “whose name was redacted in the police reports,” and that he would not leave her alone when she asked him to do so, or after others warned him to back off. “After the sixth or seventh time, when Tennen reached his arm across her breasts and began rubbing her right thigh, moving his hand toward her crotch, a friend of hers punched him in the face.” Not astonishingly, Tennen’s family has written to the Prosecutor “asking that the matter be dropped,” and acknowledging that “’substantial resources were expended to investigate [the] allegations.’”

Which brings me to the end of Zachary Tennen’s story, and the beginning of my own. My first reaction after reading the real account of the beating was to post the newspaper story on Facebook and add my own editorial comments. I wanted the world to know that my town was not, in fact, a hotbed of Neo-Nazism, and I had a strong feeling that the truth should receive just as much attention as the juicy and dramatic lie had been given. It was, no pun intended, a black eye for my town, our local University and its students to let the fictional account stand in the national imagination just because it was more interesting than the truth.

As I considered posting the story on Facebook, I began to run into problems with the likely reaction to anything I could possibly say about the whole, sad mess. My visceral reaction as a mother was, honestly, to feel terribly sorry for a boy who got himself into such a deep hole of shame that he would concoct such a story. How does a nice Jewish boy, a good student, a regular at campus Hillel events tell his parents that he got beaten up because he was forcing his attentions on a woman at a party and just couldn’t stop?

But what about that woman? If I express sympathy for poor, screwed up Zachary Tennen, am I discounting the fact that some poor girl was being harassed by him, and touched against her wishes? Because the whole “if it were my kid” thing works both ways – if I had a daughter who was treated that way at a party, I would want to hit the guy myself. Honestly, I would probably be grateful to whomever it was that finally decided the only way to dispatch Zachary and his wandering hands was to punch him in the jaw, all other measures having failed. If I had a son who behaved that way towards women I would be hard pressed to blame someone who swung at him to preserve the freedom of an innocent young woman.

Then there’s that whole abusing-hate-crime-legislation-tying-up-the-police-department thing. Crying wolf about a hate crime is like mailing gold ingots to every person and organization who thinks that the “whole hate crime thing” is ridiculous and overblown. It is as abhorrent as a woman lying about a rape or a student falsely accusing an adult of molestation. It’s another brick in the wall of “______ lie about that stuff all the time,” and it undermines the cause of every real victim of a hate crime. Anti-Semitism is real, and how ironic that this Hillel-going Jewish boy should choose to lend credence to every denier by making up lies.

In the end, I just feel angry, ill-used and manipulated. I still feel sorry for the kid because I think his spectacularly poor choices have probably ruined his life. I still want to hit him again for making this town look bad, for refusing to allow young women her freedom, and for abusing legislation meant to protect real, innocent victims of hate crimes. This one’s going to leave a mark.

Saint Adderall?

In sixth grade, my bright, beautiful kid became a “problem” in school, and conferences went from unmitigated pleasure to embarrassing episodes in which we were told that he lost his papers, couldn’t pay attention, and had to be moved all over the room to avoid contact with any of his friends. Where was the second grader who was chosen to sit with the “problem child” and help him stay calm and do his work? Where was the fifth grader who was so good at technology that teachers called him all over the building to fix their computers and set up the sound system for assemblies? When did the fault line open between that sweet-natured, compliant little boy and The Bad Ass of Sixth Grade?

It didn’t get better. His test scores were still very, very high, but school was a disaster. Teachers who bothered to get to know him found him likeable, but couldn’t get around the fact that he just didn’t seem to do any work. His backpack was filled with crumpled handouts and notes from his friends, and his locker looked like the aftermath of a pipe bomb. We e-mailed teachers, we set limits, we nagged, we organized and re-organized and I went to school and attended classes with him. A good and compassionate teacher offered to help him get his homework done even after their official classroom relationship had ended. Multiple opinions were offered: “he’s just an adolescent,” “this will pass,” “you need to set limits,” “he’s bored,” “school just isn’t his thing,” and my very least favorite, “you should have him tested for ADD.”

Here’s the thing. There was clearly something wrong, but it was muddled in my own mind. I’m no teacher-basher, having been raised by teachers, but starting in sixth grade there were some issues that were beyond Sam’s control. His sixth grade teachers were ready to retire, a little jaded and bitter, and angry at the fifth grade teacher who had allowed Sam to move freely through the building fixing computers, overhead projectors and sound systems. They clamped down, really making a statement to the world about the laxity of the fifth grade teacher, but Sam was collateral damage.  Suddenly everything he had been allowed, encouraged and thanked for doing was off limits. Some teachers still asked for his help, and when he went to another classroom to provide that help, he was “in trouble” and sent to the office. The principal, a woman concerned primarily with the condition of her hair and nails, never figured out or solved the adult war being played out on our son’s hide; she just threw up her well-manicured hands and agreed that he was “a problem.”

In seventh grade there was the science teacher who notoriously disliked boys (in my experience she was not fond of humans of any variety). We were warned, before the year started, that her shtick was iron rule, no flexibility, and no tolerance for 12-year-old boy stuff. She and Sam were a bad match, and by the middle of the year we were receiving reports from other parents that their children were shocked at how badly Sam was treated in science class. The problem was that Sam was not doing his work, and was not doing well in any of his classes. We didn’t have a leg to stand on. You can ask a teacher not to abuse your child if you are the parent of a fresh-faced innocent, but what if your child has become a Problem, and is not holding up his end of the social contract? The answer is that you do what we did, which was to explain over and over to Sam that there were always going to be teachers, and bosses who were irrational and negative, and that one simply needed to buck up and do the work. He didn’t.

He didn’t do it in eighth grade, either. By last year, his freshman year in high school, I saw no future for him other than that of a very intelligent McDonald’s fry cook. He could function in a couple of classes with very organized and motivated teachers, but budget cuts in the district resulted in a History teacher who was a music teacher who could neither teach history nor control the class, and an English teacher who was a football coach who was similarly disinterested in teaching English. There were behavior issues, Sam skipped classes, and a good day was a day when we didn’t get a call from the school. Sam lived in a state of perpetual anxiety; he knew he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing, but the way he explained it to us, he just couldn’t make himself care. He could fix any problem on a computer, he could negotiate Byzantine Craigslist schemes to get himself anything he needed or wanted, but he could not do an algebra worksheet. We punished, we begged, we took away privileges, and possessions and fawned over every success to no avail. There was failure. There was summer school.

Finally, in shame and despair, we had him evaluated for ADD. I know it exists, but I had my own baggage after working for years as a Social Security lawyer. Parents had brought in their small children seeking benefits based on their ADD and ADHD; often it was patently clear to me that the issue was terrible parenting and an unsupportive home environment. “Those people,” I would say judgmentally, “are willing to put a label on their child for their whole school career just because they want a monthly check and something to blame for their bad parenting skills. They are blaming schools and teachers because they have raised disrespectful, undisciplined children.” I had become “those people.” I also watched the movie “Thumbsucker,” which paints a picture of ADD medication as something that drastically alters personality, creating ultra-focused and high achieving zombies who are chemically separated from their actual personalities.

Our doctor explained that there have always been patient, dogged focusers, the prehistoric ancestors capable of tracking a rabbit for hours in order to make sure there was food. She said there had also always been those easily distracted by the flash of a white deer tail in the woods, people who would abandon the tracking of the rabbit for the chance at a much greater score. The world, she explained, needs both the diligent plodders and the distracted darters; sometimes the distracted folk find or create amazing things that no plodder would ever imagine. Sometimes they catch a deer instead of a rabbit, and they eat for days. School, however, is designed to accommodate and award the rabbit stalkers – the diligent, the focused, the calm and the biddable. ADD medication would help Sam to be a rabbit stalker during school hours, but when he didn’t take it he would still be his impulsive, creative self. We filled the prescription.

The good news, the GREAT news from where I’m sitting, is that Sam is a different person this year, partly because he’s growing up, but largely because of the daily dose of Adderall. His notebooks are tidy, he knows what’s going on in every class, he does his homework, he asks for help when he needs it, and I just saw a 20/20 on the outline for an English paper. He is focused, he is using his fine mind, and he is, I believe, comfortable in his own skin because he’s doing his job and doing it well. He has a great group of teachers, he likes them, and so far they seem to like him back. When he broke his right wrist longboarding last week, his first concern was that he would not be able to use that hand to do the computation necessary for Physics and Geometry. The fault line has closed, and the intelligent, ambitious little boy I lost after fifth grade has come back as a pretty impressive young man.

The bad news is that I keep wondering why we had so very little help or compassion for so many years. Sam can’t be the only boy who ever became an unmanageable squirrel when the hormones kicked in, the only kid who is not wired to sit still and fill in blanks on a ditto. I was always taught by my-parents-the-teachers that the job of an educator is to take each student as they are, and work to find a way that they can learn. I can understand that in a district walloped by poverty, rural or urban, that the prospect of differentiating for each student can be daunting. I understand about growing class sizes, shrinking budgets, and the michigoss of perpetual standardized testing – I really, really do. I would have expected, though, that in a district comprised largely of highly motivated, upper middle class students that we might have had some help, that more than two teachers in four years would have made an effort to see anything good in our kid, and try to engage him on his own terms. Last year, when I was contacting teachers to work with them to get Sam on track, two of them would not return an e-mail. I could not, as I had been advised, get from them a syllabus and an extra text book so that I could work with him at home. I could not get an e-mail.

So Sam’s okay, and I’m pretty confident that he will more than make up for The Lost Years. The Adderall helps him focus, and, honestly, to be more compliant. If he had started taking it in sixth grade, he would no doubt have been less easily distracted, and maybe been less stung by the post hoc criminalization of the “Head Techie” job that had kept him occupied and made him feel important. He would have been easier for the awful 7th grade science teacher, and not made waves. We would have known that he wasn’t being taught well, in many cases, but we would have known that his rear end was in his seat and that he was following the rules. He would have been a successful and diligent student, catching his daily rabbit.

Why, though, in a district more “8th Grade College Night” than “Girl Fight in the Bathroom” is a kid’s worth determined not by his intelligence, his imagination or his character, but by his compliance and ability to color inside the lines?

I’m not sorry that we got Sam “better living through chemistry” because I love him, and it makes his life easier and helps him get where he needs to go in life. It helps him to function well in the only system currently available.  I’ve got to say, though, that I’m imagining a world in which we recognize the kinetic potential in a crazy-smart deer chaser, and don’t have to turn him into a rabbit tracker to insure his survival or success.

Beauty is More Than Skin Deep: Why Don’t I Believe That?

First, let me acknowledge that this post is totally inspired by a piece on Huffington Post by Jane Devin, author of the memoir Elephant Girl: A Human Story. She makes the case that it is unhealthy and unhelpful to insist that girls and women are (physically) “beautiful” regardless of their outward appearance. According to Devin, reassuring someone she’s “beautiful” when she knows, and society tells her that she is not, does nothing but reinforce the notion that physical beauty is the most important thing in the world. A girl who is teased at school because of her looks is, as Devin points out, often comforted with assurances that she is beautiful, and that the mean people just don’t see how beautiful she is. This response, taken at face value, does nothing to change the perception that being pretty is the real prize in life.

There is much real loveliness, dare I say “beauty” to be found in damaged, unconventionally attractive places. We can love the broken plate, since mended, because it has sentimental value. We can prefer the strange looking mutt with the height of a Dachshund and the face of a Pug because its very oddness and vulnerability evokes a protective emotional response. We can look on the face of a loved one who is not conventionally, physically attractive and find them genuinely, incredibly and stunningly beautiful because we know them. We care not a whit about acne, beer belly, under bite or lantern jaw because what we value is internal.

We find our children, our spouses, our family and friends to be beautiful as a matter of fact, but what if they aren’t, in the objective sense? What ifwe aren’t? We all know that in the great world there are standards for what is “beautiful,” and that while some of them vary by culture or decade, there will always be a place at the table for a girl or woman with clear skin, regularly spaced features, and glossy hair.

I grew up resolutely un-physically beautiful in a place where a very high value was placed on physical beauty. I heard people criticized by adults and children alike because they were fat, un-stylish, crooked of tooth or irregular of feature. Although my parents always told me I was beautiful, because I was their beloved child and they really saw beauty in me, I internalized the messages I received from the greater world. I knew that I was beautiful to my parents because they loved me, but that I was not a girl who would draw someone’s eye at a dance. All of the niceness, the carefulness, the well-meaning bucking up in the universe could not overcome what I knew to be true: it was good to be beautiful, and I was not.

Every time I was told that I was “beautiful,” and to ignore the labels like “thunder thighs” and “pizza face,” it contributed to the sense that I had to overcome not only my lack of beauty, but my selfish refusal to buy into the pleas to recognize my own beautifulness.  I felt ungrateful because I could not go into the world feeling like some radiant being whose inner beauty would shine from every pore and reel in the superficial infidels.

You can and should raise children not to be cruel about the non-beauty of others, but I don’t honestly think it’s possible to override every cultural and biological imperative. People are attracted to beauty, and the standards of beauty in our society are set largely by the media. While I admire the efforts to include larger models in magazines, I will say that when I see a woman my size in an editorial spread, I immediately notice her as the “token,” and find her less attractive than the “normal” models. It may be self-hatred, I may need therapy, but I live in this world and I have been taught the same lesson as every other woman living here with me.

The thing that needs to be done, as Devin points out, is to make it okaynot to be physically beautiful, instead of telling women they are when they aren’t. Physical beauty needs to be put in its place in a pantheon of highly desirable attributes that are unevenly distributed among humankind.

Why not tell a girl that she is brilliant, that you admire her compassion towards others, or that she always makes you laugh no matter how bad things are?  Why not explain that she will be able to attract the best kind of friends and lovers because they will get to know her and see beauty that can’t be shown in a magazine spread? Why can’t we say “you’re right.  You don’t look like Taylor Swift, but that’s totally okay because not many people look like Taylor Swift. And the ones that do may have an easier time getting people to like them, but it often has nothing to do with their real selves. And even though she’s beautiful on the outside, Taylor Swift still has problems with boys and they aren’t always nice to her.” Why can’t we be honest with our children from the beginning, and teach them that there are all kinds of beauty, and that the physical kind is easiest to see and admire, but no better than kindness, generosity, intelligence, honor, or wit?

I write this and know that it’s too late for me. I have regular “I’m ugly and I hate myself” fits. If my mother, my husband or my best friend responded by saying “you’re right, you aren’t conventionally beautiful, but your wit and goodness make you shine” I would be furious. I want to drink the Koolaid; I want to hear about what parts of me look good, not about my inner wonderfulness. I take all that internal stuff for granted; I’ve always had it. I’ve never been admired for my looks.

It’s too late for me, but there’s plenty of time to teach our children that physical beauty is just one of the things that counts as “beautiful” in this world. It is undeniably pleasant to look at someone or something that attracts us with its surface, and that is unlikely ever to change. It is equally pleasant, though, to be in the company of a friend who understands us completely, or to live with someone who lets us shout out “Jeopardy” answers or makes us laugh. It’s all beauty, and we should be raising women who are proud, confident and resilient no matter what they look like.

Then we could stop lying about it, and supporting the perception that nothing really matters besides the way our outsides look to strangers.

St. Sebastian

As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.

I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections,  DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.

Image

Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian.  In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings,  I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.


“Daddy,” I said one night before bed, “why did they do this? Was he bad?”

“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.

“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”

“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”

“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.

“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”

“Do you think that?”

“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”

“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”

“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.

“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?

Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.

Image

Image

Image

Image

When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”

Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.

Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.

Image

Photo Credits:

St. Sebastian: hhttp://arttattler.com/archivemantegna.html

Lincoln: http://www.myspace.com/lincolncollection/photos/2438168

Titian: http://www.metabunker.dk/?p=1919

El Greco: http://www.catholictradition.org/Galleries/life-christ.htm

Michelangelo: http://escape-artists.com/2009/11/michelangelos-pieta/

Tragic Heroine

A literary agent once told me that, although my pieces about my life were well-written and interesting, she could never sell a memoir because I “had no hook.” Again and again she asked me about my life. I answered honestly, and in her e-mails I could see the regretful shake of her head. I was raised by parents married (to each other) for fifty years, no one abused alcohol, heroin, me or my brother, and we did not survive a single natural disaster or part ways with a religious cult. My trials, such as they are, are relatively normal in the annals of human history: insecurity, romantic difficulties, garden variety anxiety, hangnails, aging parents, icky jobs and the unexpected but unspectacular losses that characterize any life fully lived.

Despite the vanilla pudding that is my story, I have always lived a rich inner life in which I am a tragic heroine. Tonight I watched “La Vie en Rose,” a movie about the life of singer Edith Piaf. I was drawn like a stolid, gray moth to a throbbing blue-red flame. I have never been abandoned by my parents, had to sing on the streets for money, or loved a married man who died in a plane crash, but it was my story. Some dark, empty place inside me resonated with every blow, every sob, every self-destructive act. I was embarrassed to find, as the credits rolled, that I was still sitting frumpily on my couch wearing athletic pants and a T-shirt. Really, in the parts of me that are important and alive, I was sitting on a park bench in Paris writing to the man I loved, telling him that I knew he would never leave his wife and children, but that I would sacrifice everything for whatever time he could give me. I was singing “Je Ne Regrette Rien” on stage, my heart breaking with the knowledge that it was my last concert. I was damaged, tragic, and fascinating.

Piaf was not the gateway drug. In middle school I listened endlessly to Don Mclean’s “Starry, Starry Night,” a spear of poignancy. I was drawn to artists who suffered: Schumann who threw himself off a bridge and died later in a mental institution, and Virginia Woolf who walked into the water with her pockets full of rocks. In my worst moments I thought about them as if probing a hole where a tooth once was; I was, as Keats wrote, “half in love with easeful Death.” The sane part of me, though, that practical super ego, was  worried about upsetting my parents, so I kept my secret fascination to myself.

In high school I discovered Sylvia Plath. I read and re-read every word written by or about her. I knew about every suicide attempt, the frantic spurts of writing that characterized the depths of her despair, the handsome Ted Hughes and his cruel betrayal, and the end – her head in a London oven. I loved the poems, the short stories and The Bell Jar, but my love for her craft was magnified and polished by her beauty, her mental illness, and the inevitability of her suicide. There was something about being so crazy that you came unmoored…that you could do serious damage and hurt people and become the burning center of attention because you couldn’t help it. There was no issue of Personal Responsibility, Maturity or Getting Over Oneself if you were Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton; if anything, you were more valuable by virtue of sharp edges, broken places and a perpetual whirl of drama. One could, apparently, just let go and stop worrying about what every damned other person in the world thought, and what would happen to them.

There were others, real and fictional. I was thrilled by Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, Ophelia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman as they broke rules, acted out and left a swath of pain across polite European society. They were mad with love, or just plain mad, and they lived passionately, hurtling towards tragedy without stopping to do laundry, pay bills or think about anyone else. I saw “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” before I read Fowles’ novel, and for days as I walked across my snow-covered  college campus I imagined myself in a black, hooded cloak, flushed with madness over my seduction and abandonment, so far from the plodding rules of society that I could do anything to ease my pain. Meryl Streep’s character would not have sat in the counseling office telling a stranger in a Fair Isle sweater that she got really anxious sometimes. She would not try to get herself together to avoid upsetting her roommate or her parents. 

Later, I was sucked in by Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. Although whinier and more self-indulgent than the clean burning fuel of Plath’s brief, bright arc, her balls-out insanity attracted me. She actually did all of the crazy things that I wanted to do, at about the same time I wanted to do them, on the other side of the Charles River. She got on the plane and flew across the country to see the guy who wouldn’t answer her phone calls. She drank too much, got involved indiscriminately and then apologized to everyone she had hurt. She screamed at people, she burned bridges, and she woke up in strange places only to have some espresso and whip up an article for “Rolling Stone.” She couldn’t help it, she was sick, she was an artiste, she was acting on impulse, damning the torpedoes, creating memoir-worthy scenes and living on the razor’s edge. I was doing what I was supposed to do, unable to risk a reign of terror more significant than a solo crying jag in my apartment.

It is, in the final analysis, good to be relatively sane, to be considerate of the feelings of others, and to be able to conform to the basic rules of society. The drama in my life is confined to passive-aggressive Facebook statuses and the odd snarky remark at a City Council meeting. I’ve been good, I have left most boats un-rocked, and objectively I know that I have done right. The “I can’t help it” excuse for passionate excess is really only valid if one really can’t help it; clearly I can.

Sometimes, though, like tonight, I let myself walk that dark corridor towards the things I would do uncensored, wild, and quite mad. I become a fascinating woman in my imaginings, the jagged bright splinters of my psyche reflecting the light that burns at the very center of my being. I am an artiste, uncontrollable by social convention and hurtling towards a tragic finale.

Beneath the laundry, the volunteering and the sensible flats is a woman with a hell of a “hook.” Maybe it’s enough that I know she’s there.

 

At Fourteen

So I’m watching “Criminal Minds,” which I love because of the profiling part – I would love to have a job in which I had access to everyone’s most intimate, personal business. It wouldn’t have to be killers; I would be perfectly happy plumbing the depths of gardeners, ferry boat captains or veterinarians. I like to know what makes people tick, and I am limited to my own observations because the rules of polite society prevent me from asking the questions I really want to ask.

In the episode I’m watching, the impossibly beautiful Dr. Reed explains that the music that’s popular when a person is fourteen is “their music.” It defines them, he explains, no matter what they hear before or after. Although this information is, in the context of the TV show, simply a clue in building a working profile of the Piano Man killer, to me it is huge. I Google it, and it’s a “thing” that fourteen is, according to no less than The New York Times, “a magic age for building cultural tastes.”

I am as interested in figuring out my own psyche as I am in probing the depths of everyone else’s. I look up the songs popular in my fourteenth year, 1976, and I am horrified. It was a time when disco was not a joke, but the bread and butter of Top 40 radio stations. “Disco Duck” was on the list of the most popular songs of the year. Somehow, probably because I was a very serious cellist by then, living in a house in which pop music was largely ignored, I missed “Disco Duck.” I find it on Spotify and play it, well, the beginning of it, and satisfy myself that I was probably unscathed by that particular hole in my musical history.

There are other songs, though, that bring back memories of Levis cords, Earth shoes, feathered hair and roll-on lip gloss. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Take it to the Limit.” I think about the Eagles, who I never liked, and about the fact that I bought an Eagles album with my own money because Steve Maltby spent his time in Algebra I drawing alternative album covers with “The Eagles” in fat, curvy letters. I imagined that if I sat in my seat and hummed “Hotel California” he would overlook my frizzy hair and acne and recognize me as his one, true soul mate.

And then, because I felt so sorry for that girl that I was, so protective of her un-pretty, un-guarded self, I wonder about the possibility of going back and fixing her. I develop this plan in which I immerse myself in the music of 1976, let the memories come, and talk to the Ann who started high school that year. As if she were my own child, a dearly beloved creature struggling upstream in a world that made no sense, I will serve as a guardian angel and cheerleader. She was so totally lost, that girl, between a blithe, indulgent childhood and a future that appeared catastrophically bleak for those without silky hair and the ability to flirt.

The music thing is complicated. I rarely listened to “popular” music, even then. I listened to classical music most of the time, or The Beatles and the moody singer-songwriters who spoke directly to my soul. Joni, James, Carly, Jackson…they were my people. I am uncertain whether one’s “own music” is the music a person actually chose at age fourteen, or the music that waspopular at that time. I put on “I Write the Songs,” by Barry Manilow. Closing my eyes, I imagine a high school dance. For some reason, I can see everyone but myself – girls with long, perfectly feathered hair and lots of eyeliner and gloss are swaying in the arms of guys in bell-bottomed cords, and everything smells like bubblegum and Jovan musk. I try “Dream Weaver,” and I’m still not in the picture.

I look back at the article in the Times, and it says this: “’Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,’” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “’Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.’” This would seem to mean that the important music for me was what I listened to over and over again in my bedroom, based on advice from the friends I knew to be kindred spirits. It is not the stuff that played at dances, or on the car radio.

I start again with “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull, “Blackbird” by The Beatles, “Court and Spark,” by Joni, and “Fire and Rain” by James. I see myself, then, sitting on the floor in my bedroom in front of the record player with a pile of jackets, records and white paper dust covers strewn around me. I have a notebook, which is not as pretty as the Chinese silk covered diary I got in my Christmas stocking, but which has much more room for actual writing. I am thinking about the boy I love, who is my friend, but who is on the other side of some incomprehensible barrier. I yearn, I jockey myself into his car when a group travels to a movie or a concert, I sit next to him in the dark of a movie theater and listen to him breathe, imagining in some vague way how it would be to have him breathing closer, or with his head on the next pillow. I am writing poems for him, filling pages with words that release the worst of the pain for a while like a hit of something powerful but temporary.

Surprisingly, I am not as ugly as I remembered; I am certainly not as ugly as I felt at the time. I have thick, glossy chestnut hair, and a faintly exotic slant to my almond-shaped eyes. I weigh too much, but I am not, as I had recalled, monstrous. I have to decide, looking at my thrawn, adolescent self as she writes love poems in a Mead notebook, whether to tell her anything at all. My regression therapy plan is dubious, at best; if I lie around listening to Joni Mitchell and bucking up my fourteen year old self, it will violate the lesson I learned from Star Trek: when you go back in time, change nothing or Hitler will win.

I look more closely at the girl with calloused fingertips on her left hand, and, dear Lord, a “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” necklace around her neck. If she does not suffer, if she does not lean into feelings as dark and endless as a moonless night, she will be a different person. If I tell her everything is really okay, that she’ll outgrow the acne and figure out her hair, that men will someday love her, she might change. She might morph into a confident, gum-snapping creature who stops writing and starts listening to disco. She might never discover Eliot Smith, “Lost in Translation,” or Colette. She might not write, might not need to write, and she might not feel compassion for those who suffer as she has suffered. She might not, after all, be me.

So I leave her there on the floor, knowing that the boy she loves is gay, knowing that her first real boyfriend will treat her badly, knowing that she will make some truly terrible choices because she hates herself with unshakeable certainty. The thing is, love her. I love her for every mistake she’s making as she rises to look in the mirror one more time, checking the constellation of pimples for signs of improvement, her eyes shiny with love for a boy who loves boys. “We Have No Secrets” starts to play after a pause and a scratch, and she sucks in her cheeks, piling her hair onto her head and then dropping her hands and releasing her face in an agony of resignation.

“I love you,” I say as I retreat, “I love you.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 210 other followers