Monday, February 27, 2012

Things (and People) That P*ss me Off

1. The recent rise in 'artisanal' everything. Not everything needs to be laboriously hand-crafted by a dedicated artiste, and calling some things 'artisan' is just plain stupid, particularly when it's obvious said product is anything but. Yes, I get that the word has cache, but when Lean freaking Cuisine starts using it, the word totally loses its meaning. I recently saw some pseudo-hoity-toity 'chef-inspired' frozen dinners at the grocery store. You realize that's a senseless designation, right? You're saying, "This is food...inspired by people who, um, make food for a living." Would you try to sell someone an "architect-inspired" home? A bartender-inspired cocktail? No? Then chill out.
Artisan-crafted bread from Companion (a local bakery)? Yeah, I'll buy that (literally and figuratively). Artisanal bread from Panera, or some other chain? Not so much. Hand-made chocolates? Fine. Cheeses? OK. Microbrews? Yeah, I guess. But Tostito's 'Artisan Recipe Chips'? Domino's Artisan Pizza? No. Don't make me come over there.  

2.Well, at the moment Rick Santorum is leading the pack--both in terms of position among Republican presidential candidates and in terms of making my blood boil. If I hadn't sourced a lot of his craziness myself--that is, if a pal had just mentioned some of his statements during the course of a conversation--I wouldn't believe it. "No one's THAT fundy," I would say. "Surely no one would make a statement like that in 2012...especially while trying to win an election." But no, he really DID say that consensual same-sex relationships are akin to bestiality. He really DID say that separation of church and state makes him "want to throw up." Yes, he DID say that there's no such thing as a liberal Christian, DID say that working mothers don't really love their children, and DID say that birth control (not abortion...birth control) is wrong, and "encourages a culture of permissiveness..." Got news for you, Rick. Even the folks you're pandering to (and sweet baby Jesus do I hope you're pandering...please tell me you don't actually believe all this stuff with the vehemence you project...please?) aren't behind you on this stuff. According to a CBS poll, 89% of CATHOLICS believe you can use birth control and still be a good Christian. Hell, 75% of American women have used oral contraceptives at one time or another. Go ahead and spout your insanity, though, Rick...I want to see you alienate as many potential voters as possible. And in a weird way, I have to offer you kudos--I didn't expect to see another candidate as cray-cray as Michelle Bachmann for a while. So congrats on that, I guess.

3. I know this makes me sound like an ancient misanthrope (You kids get off my lawn!), but: Children screaming/running/generally reenacting portions of The Exorcist in restaurants and stores. Yes, I get that kids sometimes need to blow off steam. I get that occasionally they squeal and cry and gyre and gimbol in the wabe. But--if your baby/toddler has been crying ceaselessly, at roughly the same decibel level as a jet engine, for the past five minutes...maybe it would be a good idea to take them outside or to the bathroom and see what's going on. This benefits both your child, who may be tired or dirty-diapered or uncomfortable, and myself, who is beginning (despite my best intentions) to entertain fantasies in which the earth opens its maw and swallows your entire enchanting little family. As for young kids who run around the grocery store (unsupervised, it hardly needs to be said) as if participating in the pediatric Olympic's really only a matter of time until one of them gets hurt. I don't blame the kids here, I should say--it's a parenting issue. Rein your child in--even if it means literally buying one of those semi-appalling kiddie leashes. At least your child won't lose his front teeth when he runs face-first into a shopping cart he didn't see.

Monday, February 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Foster Friess

This is a response to Mr. Foster Friess, a prominent Santorum-backer (gigglesnort—if you didn’t get that admittedly puerile joke, google ‘Dan Savage Santorum’) who is now dubiously famous for the following quote, uttered in the midst of the recent Republican contraceptive rigmarole: “This contraceptive thing, my gosh…back in my day they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives…the gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.” 

Mr. Friess,
I will attempt to keep this response civil, free from both ad hominem attacks and gratuitous profanity. Thus, I will leave aside the fact that your name makes you sound like a comic book villain. You don’t look like an evil man, Mr. Friess--while you don’t look like either of my grandfathers,  who were more the wiry athletic type, you certainly look like someone’s grandfather (many someones’, if you conduct your personal affairs in the same manner you seem to be suggesting to all American women). 

Perhaps this was your idea of a joke. I’m willing to consider that. Here’s the misstep you made, though: it wasn’t funny. Now, before you start singing the tired old “feminists have no sense of humor” rag, please look at the jokes I’ve included at the end of this letter. I would include them here, but I think I’ve got a flow going and I’d rather not get derailed. I’m sure a happening guy like yourself will find them hilarious. Thanks.
PS. You know how you look around the room and make sure no one nearby will hear and be offended before you tell an off-color racist/sexist/anti-Semitic/homophobic joke? Maybe if you’d considered that your ‘joke’ was going to be on national television, and thus that the ‘room’ was essentially the United States of America, you’d have kept it to yourself. I know I would have. But then again, I don’t try to use my personal preferences to legislate other people’s behavior, so I can’t really force that reticence on you. Just consider it a suggestion. I won’t even charge you for the image consultation.

Now, jokes aside, I’m going to assume that you intended this as a (quasi) serious statement and ‘unpack’ it a little bit. So…women who don’t want to get pregnant should just close their legs. That’s basically what you’re saying, right? Given your ‘family values’ stance, I guess you think that couples having premarital sex are doing something immoral. That’s your opinion. But what’s immoral about it? I’m guessing you’d say they’re being irresponsible, that they should exhibit some discipline, some control. But I’d ask you, Mr. Friess—who’s really being irresponsible? Women who are PLANNING their lives by controlling their fertility, and who have made a conscious choice to use contraception because they KNOW they aren’t ready for the difficult and demanding job of bringing a life into the world? Or a group of men who, sight unseen, would seek to wrest that control—that ability to decide, that ability to plan—away from women en masse? Is it responsible to endorse a course of action that will lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies?

You didn’t specify what kind of ‘gals’ used aspirin as birth control in your day, so what about married 
women? I know lots of married women currently in medical school and residency who know that they don’t want to have kids until this physically and emotionally draining period of their lives is over. Are they supposed to abstain from sex with their partners for the next couple years? For some reason I’m imagining you crying out, “But a man has needs!” Indeed, Mr. Friess—and women, too. Alright, abstinence is out—so that leaves the not-so-successful rhythm method (What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mom! See, I told you feminists have a sense of humor) or…pregnancy. And here, I think, is where you show your hand—where the real agenda of anti-contraceptive activists is on display. This mindset, Mr. Friess—whether intentionally or no—reduces women to their reproductive potential, to perennially barefoot and pregnant baby factories. At its heart is the idea that ALL women’s first and primary calling is motherhood. There are some women who may choose that for themselves, Mr. Friess, but the operative word is CHOOSE. It is a grave insult to someone’s humanity to deprive them of the chance to choose their own life path. It is, to my mind (and to answer your evangelical base) a sin to look at someone as a means of production, or as a uterus and ovaries, rather than as a whole human being.
Yours sincerely,
Anne G.
PS. How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? THAT’S NOT FUNNY. (We also would have accepted “Two if they’re really small.”)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

With My Sincerest Admiration

It's unfortunate there aren't as many English words for love as there are kinds of love--I'm sure I'm not the only person who's frustrated by the fact she has to use the same word to describe her feelings for her parents, her girlfriend, her cat, Les Miserables, and eggplant parmesan (not to mention my friends, Divinity, and good LORD these vegan cupcakes you used to be able to get at GreenStar co-op in Ithaca).

So, for the purposes of this post, I'm jettisoning romantic love and instead focusing on people I admire.
Well, first and foremost I would have to put my mother--she is the one exception to the rule I'm setting for myself that these can't be people I know personally, because then it would be impossible to keep the list to a manageable size and if I left someone off (unintentionally, it must be said) I would feel terrible. I've also decided not to go with the 'obvious' answers: in fact, I should probably just get those out of the way now. Martin Luther King Jr, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Sojourner Truth, Leonardo DaVinci, Toni  Morrison, Betty Friedan. And, hell, it's still hard to keep it to a manageable size, so let's just say...five.
So. In no particular order:
1. My mother. Wise, witty, kind, compassionate, blunt. I am my mother's daughter. I love her more than words can say. Especially around Mother's Day it's common to hear people spouting off about how their mothers are the best in the world. This is empirically false, as my mom is the best in the world, and thus every other mother, while of course superlative in her own way, is inferior to her. Just getting that out of the way (and just kidding...kind of. Please don't send hate mail).
2. Albert Schweitzer. I read a book about him (auf Deutsch) when I was in high school and was blown away. Philosopher? Check. Kick-ass theologian? Yup. Physician? That too. Anti-racism and anti-colonialism advocate at the fin-de-freaking-siecle? Sure enough. Premier organist and music theorist? You know it. Established a medical mission in Gabon, wrote books on subjects as diverse as philosophy, theology, medicine, music theory, and civil rights, and was a vegetarian. Everyone thinks William Carlos Williams was such a Renaissance man because he wrote poetry as well as practicing medicine; Schweitzer would have pwned him in a second. He wrote a book called "The Psychiatric Study of Jesus." It gets no more rad than that.
3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Abolitionist, feminist, and scholar, who in the 1890s wrote 'The Woman's Bible,' the first widely known piece of feminist criticism of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. She waded into territory that other early feminists and suffragists thought was too controversial. Also, interestingly, she is recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church. While I was a student at Cornell I got to visit her old house in Seneca Falls, NY--it was a wonderful day.
4. Marie Sklodowska-Curie: First person (not woman, PERSON) to be honored with two Nobel prizes: one in Physics, which she shared with her husband, and one in Chemistry, which was hers alone. She was the first to use the now-ubiquitous term 'radioactivity.' One hundred years later she's still the only person to have received prizes in two scientific disciplines: bam. At the beginning of the twentieth century she used both her maiden and married names, and combined an active scientific career with motherhood. Unfortunately, she died of aplastic anemia brought on by her extensive exposure to high levels of radiation. Sad.
5. Nikola Tesla: Probably one of the greatest engineers, physicists, and inventors of awesome stuff, ever. He pioneered wireless communication (by radio, not Bluetooth), developed a system--bought out and destroyed by his contemporaries--by which electricity could be distributed wirelessly over miles (stop and consider the implications of that for a moment), calculated the Earth's resonant frequency and developed the Alternating Current power system we use today (beating out Thomas Edison, who was by most accounts a total jerkface). He also accomplished all this despite--or perhaps, in part, because of--a severe case of what sounds like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, including an obsession with the number three, among other psychiatric anomalies. He was also an animal  lover, who ascribed his early fascination with electricity to receiving a static shock from his beloved cat as a child. As an adult, he would rescue injured pigeons (at this point he was living in lower Manhattan, so there were pigeons aplenty) and nurse them back to health. He was also close pals with Missouri legend Mark Twain. Pretty fantastic.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Crying, community, and celebration

There was a big funeral last Saturday—both in terms of import and in number of mourners. A long-time member of our parish, who was also a major player in the St. Louis art scene, died at 90 years old. She was vivacious and active to the end, and died what might be termed a good death, if such a thing exists, and I think it does: without much suffering, surrounded by friends and family and much love. The church was beyond packed—truly standing room only. Every pew was full to bursting, the extra chairs set up in back were all occupied, and the aisles on either side of the church were filled as well. A few choir members were absent, leaving open seats—and so a few strangers were sprinkled in with the basses and altos. The service was beautiful, replete with the words and rituals that have comforted Christians for centuries. My personal favorite is taken from a hymn that is sung at Orthodox funerals: Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing but life everlasting. All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia.

With any funeral—even one so joyous as this one, even one that is ultimately a celebration of life rather than a grim cursing at Death—there is grief. Despite our best efforts and fervent wishes to the contrary sorrow, death and loss are as much a part of living as joy and birth.  Sorrow moves us and so we respond: with words, with gestures, and above all with tears. To quote Voltaire, “Tears are the silent language of grief.” Like many people I know, I was raised to see crying as a sign of weakness--something shameful to be done in the absolute privacy of one’s room, or perhaps in the shower. I’ve made quite a study of crying over the years, primarily because I’ve done so little of it myself. From seventh grade to my freshman year of college, I didn’t cry at all (I mention this not in the spirit of macho boasting; on the contrary, I realize there is something spiritually, if not psychiatrically, amiss in this).

It is my experience—borne out by many observations-- that when we notice another person weeping, there are three possible responses (okay, probably more, but I’m this is my blog and I get to make the rules). The first is probably the most common, the one that gets employed with those who are not intimates: we look the other way, and pretend it’s not happening. The other person may not want our sympathy, or we may feel awkward about offering it. Sometimes we do this to allow the other to save face; when you see a woman crying next to the frozen pizzas at 7-11, this strategy is easiest for all concerned (having been on both sides of this scenario, I know it’s true; by the way, is there something inherently depressing about frozen pizzas? Besides the obvious, I mean). It’s only when this is our sole method of dealing with sorrow that this becomes problematic. We can use this method with our own griefs too, of course—immersing ourselves in other activities,  or relying on addictions or compulsions (from the benign to the life-threatening) in order to ignore the pain. This is the path of denial and suppression. 

The second strategy gets used with friends and strangers alike: we respond by trying to shame or cajole the other person into stopping their tears. We may not view it that way, but that's often how it feels to the sensitive recipient of such attentions. I heard a number of people at the funeral ‘comforting’ each other with “Now, now, don’t cry,” “She wouldn’t have wanted us to cry,” or “C’mon, smile.” And we do this with ourselves, too, or at least I do. Superficially, this seems like the right thing to do: No one wants to see someone they love cry. If you are a human being with a healthy allotment of empathy, it hurts to watch someone else hurt. At a deeper level, though, this response denies the validity of pain, attempting to sugarcoat it or chase it away. When we employ this tactic with ourselves, it may take a number of forms: “I don’t have anything to cry about,” “Be strong,” “Don’t let them see you cry.” This is a form of denying one’s own truth. It is also a denial of a more universal truth, captured by the psalmist: There is a time to rejoice, but there is also a time to mourn; both deserve respect. 

The last response is probably the healthiest, and is the provenance of those we want (or at least I want) to be with when sad or dismayed. It involves making space for the tears and grief, accepting and holding them. I think of it as a ‘mothering’ response: “There, there, let it all out,” “Go ahead and cry,” “A good cry will make you feel better.” It transforms what Exupery, in his beloved ‘The Little Prince,’ called “such a secret place, the land of tears.” A secret kept to oneself may be shameful, painful, or back-breakingly heavy. A secret shared—a sorrow shared—is a connection and a weight lifted. Humans are social animals; we aren’t meant to experience grief (or, really, many life experiences) alone. And even when we are alone, it’s possible to feel less so by heeding the urgings of the Divine and allowing our feelings—and our tears—to flow freely. 

Here’s to the New Year (though a little late), and to a lifetime of tears, whether of joy or of sorrow, shared in the sacred space of community. Alleluia.