[Updated to include Mr. Mourdock's clarification re: his remark.]
I’ve been thinking about Mourdock’s remark that rape is–to quote my writer-friend Stefanie Kalem–”just some kind of unfortunate wrapping paper that the gift of life comes in sometimes.” He shared his account of his personal struggle and his epiphany at the Indiana Senate debate on Tuesday:
“’I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,’ Mourdock said at the debate, explaining his position that women who are raped should not have the right to an abortion. ‘And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.’”
Once the rage cleared (and it took some time) I got interested. I work on the early modern period, so I’m never not steeped in the complex torsions Christian thinking requires (especially when it becomes necessary to denounce Lutheranism in favor of Zwinglianism and some aspects of Calvinism). And it seems to me that Mourdock deserves some credit for being—at first glance—internally consistent. I’m not alone. Many people have noted this, and say Mourdock’s position “makes sense,” and if you take issue with it, it’s because you disagree with his religion. The logic is right if you agree with his premises. This is nonsense, and it’s dangerous nonsense, because it gives people like Mr. Mourdock credit for being logical where they are in fact being extremely sloppy. The (theo)logic breaks down on its own terms when you do it the favor of giving it a second look:
- If you believe life begins at conception—that an egg and sperm are a human being—then you can allow no exceptions: not for rape, not for incest, not for the 9-year-old in Brazil who got pregnant with twins after her stepfather raped her, and was in danger of dying because her body couldn’t handle it. So far, logic and Mr. Mourdock are in agreement.
- He clarified thusly after the debate, horrified that his remarks had been taken to mean that God pre-ordained rape: “What I said is that God creates life.” But here’s the thing: if life is in God’s plan, being divinely created (and intended) in the 9-year-old’s body while her father rapes her, so is the 9-year-old’s death when her body gives out. Life and death are not separable concepts. Ask anyone who’s worked in a maternity ward. Ask anyone who’s worked in a church.
- If that’s your logic, you need to take your belief in God’s plan all the way. God’s plan is not purely creative, however sunnily Mr. Mourdock’s portrayal of it in #2. The context in which he mentions God’s creation is, inescapably, rape; suffering and adversity are important aspects of Christian faith. Even if your branch of Christianity holds that death is the result of the Fall, and entirely attributable to human sin, you also believe A) that death is a step toward everlasting life and B) that death, as experienced by humans, is part of God’s plan. If a loved one dies, the line is not that God was unjust or even that we are being punished, but rather these things are sent to try us. It is part of God’s plan.
- We’ve established that Mr. Mourdock is particularly interested in God’s plan as it applies to life, reproduction, and (as I’ve shown in #3) death, yet he seems singularly uninterested in legislating other violations of that divine plan. What of erectile dysfunction? Infertility? God doesn’t think you should have children. Treatment should be outlawed. Cancer? Disease? It’s in God’s plan–after all, death brings you that much closer to everlasting life. Abolish chemotherapy. For every medical intervention that deals with the foregoing subjects, the question must be asked: why, if you believe in a divine organizing principle that expresses itself in the biological functions of the body (and this is Mr. Mourdock’s argument) are you interfering?
- You can’t. If one takes this line to heart, it needs to be followed with rigor. I can respect that view (and do–I have friends whose beliefs tend this way). But God’s plans aren’t to be trifled with, and they’re not half-baked. You don’t get to cherry-pick such that rape victims bear the brunt of your theology.
- If you persist in this kind of selective thinking, you are not a hero of the Christian right standing up for divine truth in a sea of heresy. Quite the contrary. You are a nattering hypocrite who mistook a shallow exercise in juggling abstractions (conveniently stripped of their humanity) for integrity. Only where your “realization” touches your own life—your own life—does it bear truth or relevance, and there its transcendence ends. Do not attempt to speak of a divine plan, as you are a poor theorist. Instead, realize the monstrosity of your belief that your feeble, moth-witted “struggle” somehow authorizes you not only to legislate your personal theology—in a country founded on the separation of church and state—but also to force women (and women alone) to accept these “gifts” from your bleak and misguided idea of God. You are un-American, sir, and it is not God’s fault that you are a bad philosopher. Have the piety to let the blame for that lie squarely on your shoulders.
I have never wondered why Italians don’t do more in the way of mining for valuable metals. It’s not the sort of question anyone in this day and age would think to ask, but it reminds us that there was a time when mining wasn’t the sort of industry it is today, wherein investors can count on certain countries to happily exchange their copper for a hit of foreign investment and a song. Still, from a 1942 volume on mining called The Pirotechnia Of Vannoccio Biringuccio comes this really beautiful meditation on Italian sloth and anti-entrepeneurship:
VERY intelligent and practical investigator of minerals says that copper ore is found in various regions of the world and that among others Italy is very rich in it. But very little is mined there, perhaps because of a cowardly Italian avarice which has the power to make us lazy and indolent in carrying out those lofty and fine designs which should reasonably make us proceed swiftly, or perhaps because we are not prone to attempt extraordinary profit but only undertake those enterprises in which we are certain of a return on our investment. The reason for this might also be found in the meager possibility of success, which, since these things are not easily attempted because they are enormous undertakings of doubtful outcome, cools the spirit of men and in place of enthusiasm introduces the fear of loss, the fear of having to sacrifice not only time but also the work and money invested; then they think of the difficulty of discovery, of the impossibility of full ownership, and of the necessity of excavating the mineral marrow from the hardest bones of the mountains with the brawn and efforts of men. To this is added the fear common to many that in attempting such things they may be called fools by certain ignorant and dissolute persons, and it seems better to them to be praised for becoming rich through usury and by many other infamous and illicit methods than to lay themselves open to the danger of censure from such as these. But there are those who deserve still greater censure, particularly princes and all rich and powerful persons, and theirs is an even more useless error than that of those who refrain for the above reasons. If the occasion and means present themselves for both attempting and continuing such a profitable and laudable affair as mining ores and if they hesitate solely because of cowardice or because they give ear to the bayings of ignorant hounds, or if because of their own willfulness they wish to remain prisoners of a detestable and ugly avarice, then this is their own loss.
Listen to and look at this lovely thing:
This animated score of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 [h/t Nathan Pensky] is the most compelling visual illustration of musical voicing I’ve seen since—well, since Fantasia. I loved Fantasia as a kid, but it had the formal disadvantage of layering on, not just a visual component to an aural experience, but an entire narrative* over a non-narrative form.
*I had written “silent film” where now it says “narrative” until it dawned on me that “silent film” might be an unforgivable misnomer. The Artist popped into my head as a fresh reminder of how stylized the sounds of “silent” film really are. I just saw it, thanks to Virgin Atlantic’s movie smorgasboard. I chose it groggily on the plane because it was “silent” and would spare me the strain of trying to hear dialogue over the airplane’s ambient noise without blasting my eardrums. And if it put me to sleep—well, there are worse things that can happen on a ten-hour flight.
If you’ve seen it, you know that The Artist‘s “silence” is loud. Loud with what we perceive on the one hand as the absence of eliminated voices, loud on the other with constant, attentive, anchoring music that substitutes melody and harmony for the hyperreal sonic landscape we’re used to in movies. It does this so effectively that by the end you forget you ever missed the talky minutiae of inessential dialogue.
When I was in elementary schools, a group of sound engineers came to talk to us about how they used jello to make the sounds of ET’s footsteps. It took them an eternity to figure out how to make the crunchy sound of biting into a potato chip. I can’t remember how they finally did it, but I left the assembly wanting pretty desperately to be a sound engineer, making a living on the weird fact that random things sound more like everyday sounds than the sounds themselves.
The Artist makes a point of highlighting, in a scene when the main character suddenly hears a door slam in the way we do, the extent to which “silent film” strips out the disruptive footsteps and door-slams of the physical world. But it manages to make the protagonist’s inability to speak a critical plot point that collapses seamlessly back into the conventions of silent film. In this sense, The Artist does what Hugo failed to do: it captures the nostalgia of another time, not by bludgeoning the viewer with bleeding-edge technology, but by inhabiting the technological limits of that past and creating, within those limits, an experience powerful enough to engage an audience so supersaturated with sensory stimuli that it fidgets and bores in the absence of screamy shiny things.
Again, take Hugo. People were amazed by Melies’ films; this is a key point the film wishes you to understand. It instructs you, not by amazing you with the films on their own merits, or the stories they told, but by insisting (pedantically, one feels) on the wonders of film production. It shows you clips, but they function less as objets d’art in their own right than as the finished casseroles television cooks pull out of their ovens after showing you how to combine the ingredients. There’s both too much and not enough of the process that turns a set into a film.
There being several ways to skin a cat, an easier way of putting this is to say that Hugo gets obsessed with the director’s story while The Artist focuses on the obsessions of its actors and audience.
While Hugo goes nuclear with technology Melies didn’t have, The Artist commits absolutely to the technical limitations of the period it explores, rendering those limitations not only engaging and productive in their own right, but central to the film’s aesthetic and narrative concerns. The Artist shows us the crowds adoring silent film and souring on it, but those crowds don’t model the appropriate reactions the way they do in Hugo. Instead, the film positions us as the anachronisms, enjoying a genre the audiences within the film have outgrown. This is how it pulls us into Valentin’s tragedy.
Not that Hugo is a one-trick pony. (It’s more of a billion-trick pony.) Having amused you with the steampunk charm of Melies’ film production, the film communicates his legendary popularity by showing—not the films—but the delighted faces of a rapt audience. Those delighted faces are in 3-D so as to amaze and move you, the contemporary viewer. The project here is not quite to elicit that reaction from you afresh, but rather to encourage you into it by offering models of old amazement in a flashy new format. Hugo doesn’t inhabit Melies’ form; it leaves it flat and drums up nostalgia from the outside by adding bells, whistles, laugh tracks and applause signs—all beautifully shot.
And it is all incorrigibly retrospective, even as it clumsily points to the future of film. The hint at the end that the whole film was the girl’s journal manages to both acknowledge Brian Selznick and perform a kind of technological tokenism: remember, Melies‘ techniques weren’t enough to hold your interest without 3-D. What should we conclude about the sudden fifth-act appearance of a relic like a book? Especially since it’s implied that the film is the natural endpoint of that book: it sees the book as an early (and less sophisticated) progenitor.
It all strikes this reader as peculiarly condescending. And it creates a telos where none need exist: just as Melies’ charming but archaic moviemaking techniques paved the way for Scorsese’s 3-D extravaganza, the technology of the printed book gets a nod as a point of origin, a distant and even more archaic product that made Melies’ movies possible. It’s as if Scorsese slipped into that 19th century mindset that mistakes evolution for progress and genetic change for the moral improvement of the race. “Fitness” and goodness, despite their frequent overlap, are different categories.
But the clearest difference between Hugo and The Artist is this: both end with the resurrection of the fallen hero. But The Artist ends with the silent film protagonist and the talkies actress resisting the tyrannical narrative that provoked their split. They aren’t doing the new thing—talking—they aren’t doing the old thing—not-talking. Instead, they dance!
And this is purely at the level of plot. More interestingly (at the level of form) is the fact that the film ends with the two main characters tap-dancing “silently”. Their tap-dancing is the perfect compromise: the sound of their shoes has been subsumed into the music that constitutes silence: it’s audible, it’s a sonic expression of physical events. They are footsteps, but they are also music. Silent tap-dancing occupies the same hybrid non-space as the video animation of Debussy’s Arabesque, which was the point of this post, and to which I will shortly return.
But then, suddenly, distractingly, you hear Peppy and Valentin breathing. And voices break out, and you hear Valentin speak (!), but before you can delight in the sound of his voice, the absence of which has motivated the whole film, the noise of production takes over on set. It’s not silent and sweet and fascinating; it’s not the triumphant apex Scorsese would have made it; it’s a throwaway line swallowed by noise, refreshing and ugly and disruptive.
To belabor this a little: you don’t see Valentin finally recognized and remembered for all he’s done. He isn’t resurrected in the minds of his audience, he isn’t adored for what he was. He doesn’t get to take a bow. There are no adoring crowds. “Perfect!” the director says as Georges and Peppy try to catch their breath. And the director asks for another take, and the start walking to their marks, and the camera pans out to show actors and crew and the whole mess of humans trying, over and over, to get “perfect” right, again.
That’s a poem to movies.
But they’re both poems, in their way, and they’re certainly both trying to do similar things with similar meta-narratives about film history. It’s worth trying to understand why one manages with grace and subtlety what the other achieves with bombast. The best way to understand the difference between the two, in my opinion, is to listen to and watch these two animations of Debussy. The first is the one I started with, Arabesque No. 1:
The first time I watched it I got just a whiff of what synesthesia might be like: the blue notes on top are the longer, more languid voices, and the animation reflects this, making them constrict and expand as if each was a tiny ephemeral musical heart.
I used to spend hours and hours rehearsing the various voices of a piece by drilling them separately, then trying to bring them together. This was essential for Bach, of course, but I tended to do it for other composers to. I can’t explain why it was hard to get a grip on—I imagine that for musicians more natural than I am it must come naturally. But for me there was a missing link.
I listened to recordings of artists I admired to see how they voiced the pieces, and it helped, but something just a little more tangible. I tried watching video of various performances, and that didn’t help either, particularly.
Watching this video was exactly what I’d been wishing for all along. It takes the concept of a score and makes it fluid. The colors separate the strands, the voices become clearer—you can see the blue notes linger, languidly. You can watch the runs run.
I was about to declare this amazing technology the miraculous solution for piano teachers trying to teach students like me, when I came across this animation of Claire de Lune, by the same creator:
Same composer, same animator, but the effect is drastically different. The Arabesque animation confirms and extends the languor of the piece; the notes appear and fade, some bigger than others, depending on the intensity of that particular musical line. The movement through the notes is liquid. Chord ideas carry over into each other, notes exist as suspensions and gentle flurries.
The Claire de Lune animation is made up of colored bars or blocks. The bars light up when it’s their turn to be played. It’s very clockworky. The blocks used in the animation tick and tock and sever and chop a piece known for its mellifluous unbrokenness and seas of fermatas. The notes that should linger on and blend are represented with right angles.
No temporality of Debussy’s has anything like a right angle.
I don’t know whether this is an earlier version of the same technology used to animate the Arabesque. I imagine it probably is, but I’m wary of reproducing, in musical animation form, Scorsese’s triumphalist book–>silent film–>3-D narrative. Knowing nothing about the production of either animation, all I can observe is that while both get the job done, and animate a score, one is so right, and lovely, and miraculous, while the other makes a production of showing all its work.
Fresh off the plane from England, I went to the grocery store for the express purpose of buying conditioner.
I had left my half-empty bottle in Stratford-upon-Avon because I’d filled my suitcase to bursting and had two separate nightmares about hauling it up and down the Tube’s liftless stairways. (That the Tube had no lifts was not part of the nightmare; it was just, to borrow a phrase from the Royal Society, whose correspondence I’d been reading, a “matter of fact”.)
My friend and host Will walked in just as I was zipping up the last piece of luggage to ask whether the bottle he’d found in the bathroom was mine. I made a virtue of oblivion and said why yes, it was, but I’d decided, very sensibly, to leave it. “They have conditioner in the States,” I said, in that obnoxious way people do when they’re new to England and pretend that “the States” is how they regularly refer to home.
This was the bottle in question:
My fellow-traveller Irene had abandoned me the day before, just as I was now abandoning the bottle of conditioner. Of the two of us, the conditioner was better equipped to navigate the streets and undergrounds and overgrounds of London. As long as Irene had been with me, I would nod emphatically as she pointed out a route to me on the London A to Z. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that the series of looping pink and yellow lines punctuated by Underground logos was experientially identical to staring at a Jackson Pollock painting. If she really wanted me to understand, I would have to spend at least 45 minutes staring at the map trying to figure out how the damn thing worked. Some people learn to read maps as children and find that the skill transfers to other maps. For me, there’s no crossover between a world map and a road map. Every map is an completely alien syntax that I have to learn from scratch.
Having pulled up the tfl map, I refused Will’s kind invitation to go to the Shakespeare Institute’s library in order to stare for two hours at my computer screen, which showed me this:
What I see when I look at this is a bewildering intersection of colored lines with alternating grey and white patches whose thicknesses vary according to no discernible principle. Those areas marked with numbers–5,4,3–had something to do, I knew, with these “Zones” Irene kept talking about, but I had no grasp of what those zones referred to, or why they existed, or how many I needed to cross. They were the stuff of science fiction—a weird series of concentric amoeba or Russian dolls that we were somehow supposed to instinctively understand.
If the London A to Z was a Jackson Pollock Choose Your Adventure, the Tube Map reminded me of those movies where Harrison Ford has to stop a bomb from detonating, except that if someone said “cut the blue one” to him, there were at least four different wires they could mean. “Cerulean or sky-blue?” he’d snap. “Navy-teal,” Anne Heche would reply, sexually.
By the time Will got back, my screen was badly smudged from my efforts to follow the Piccadilly and Northern lines with my fingers.
But I managed, and determined that there were two different ways to get to the airport the following day. By “determined,” I mean that—unconvinced I’d gotten anything right—I ended up consulting Will and Google Maps for directions.
There seemed to be two routes that would work, once I managed to get myself out of Stratford-upon-Avon and to London. (This is as far as you get when you’re built like me—there seem to be two routes, true, but ultimately it’s a leap of faith.) One was taking the Tube, the other was taking the train.
Knowing I would forget them the minute I needed them, I wrote them down on some old train tickets.
I labeled the first leg of my journey A. Here is what the front of the ticket containing route A looked like, just so you can get a feel for the thing:
Then I labeled the two possible routes to the airport B:
People with an innate understanding of public transit and/or the vaguest sense of direction will fail to understand the anxiety that motivates a lost soul to write distances in minutes. (My directions to A were written in feet: “walk on Long Lane for 127 ft., then turn right.”) Tube natives don’t need to note that a line is (NW) or (SW) because they carry maps in their head and—this is the most important part—they’ve learned not to take cardinal directions so literally. They aren’t flummoxed by that fatal crossroads where the Tube splits, perversely identifying a line that is clearly traveling in a southwesterly direction as either Southbound or Westbound. (Or, worse, when the same southbound line splits into TWO southbound lines, colored identically, but with different destinations—those are the moments that really confirmed me as a map-atheist.)
Anyway, I left my conditioner at Will’s and made it to the London Marylebone station, where I decided to scrap route B and just buy a train ticket to Heathrow because I couldn’t take the combined strain of another set of tube stairs and another set of tube transfers.
In the last three weeks, Irene and I had brought train tickets from the machines on no fewer than five separate occasions. I took one look at the machines and went straight to the information window, where I sweatily consulted one of the station attendants.
“You’re from San Francisco,” he said.
“How did you know that?” I asked, genuinely amazed. Was it my accent? My hair? My free-spirited West Coast je ne sais quoi?
“You said you wanted to take the BART to Heathrow,” he said, handing me my train ticket.
The next day I woke up at 6:15 a.m. with a sense of indefatigable will. I would make it to the airport! Only two sets of stairs on the BART! I had my train ticket in hand!
I navigated the underground with ease; at both transfer points, just as I was halfway up the stairs, rather proud of my progress, two different people took pity on me and carried my suitcase the rest of the way up. This proves it: anyone who says Londoners are cold and unhelpful is just insufficiently pathetic.
The next theater of battle was Paddington Station. Everywhere you look there are signs for the Heathrow Express. HEATHROW EXPRESS! say the arrows at all the coffee places. Heathrow Express: one every minute! says the screen directing you to various platforms.
I had rather cannily (I thought) avoided paying fifteen pounds for the Heathrow Express in favor of taking the Heathrow Connect, which takes fifteen minutes longer but is seven pounds cheaper.
The trouble was, I couldn’t find a single reference to the Heathrow Connect on any of the computer screens.
Once again I consulted a station agent, who pointed to the very last platform, all the way on the other end of the station, behind some construction work. “Platform 12,” he said. “It’s on the screen.”
Platform 12 had none of the accoutrements of the other platforms: no sign displaying when the next train would come, no people waiting for the same train. Just a number, 12, next to a deserted bit of track. I gnawed nervously at an apricot Danish.
Eventually two women joined me, and we watched from our dim distant corner as eighteen Heathrow Expresses came and went. One of the women, an American, had done this before, so the German woman and I followed her like baby ducklings to where she was waiting. It was only fifteen feet away from where we’d been standing, but it seemed infinitely more official.
The train finally pulled into the station. A tidal wave of people poured out, flooding the hitherto abandoned platform. My earlier smugness came back: clearly these were the natives, the travelers who knew what’s what and refused to pay a silly extra seven pounds for the privilege of fifteen minutes.
The German woman, the American and I got on the train and settled comfortably into our near-empty carriage. I put my train ticket on my right thigh so that it would be ready to hand the ticket inspector with a minimum of fuss. I felt composed, capable. I had even had the foresight to buy a cup of tea.
When the train inspector came, I watched the others digging in their bags for their tickets. When he got to me I calmly handed him my ticket.
“What is this?” he said.
I looked up.
“This,” he said, handing it back to me.
This is what I saw:
“Oh!” I said, and started to rummage desperately through my bag. The German and the American stared. The inspector stared.
I pulled out one train ticket after another. Plans A and C were in evidence, but there was no sign of the train ticket to Heathrow.
“There is a fine for not having a ticket,” the agent said.
“I have it! I bought it yesterday!” I rummaged frantically. I was trying hard not to remember that I had managed, in the last month, to disappear both my passport and my Oyster card.
He sighed. “I’ll come back.”
I found it, and arrived home, triumphant, and went, jet-lagged but happy to the grocery store, for the express purpose of buying more conditioner so I could wash the airplane out of my hair. This was worth it, I thought—I should always leave half-used toiletries behind. It’s silly to carry something so replaceable with you. Yes, it’s wasteful, but maybe this is what responsible travelers do: acknowledge the fact that waste is intrinsic to traveling, and prepare accordingly.
I realized, in the shower, after shampooing, that I’d forgotten to bring in my new conditioner with me. I called for my partner to bring me my conditioner.
“Where is it?” he asked.
“Right there,” I said, pointing to it on the bathroom sink. “Just hand it to me.”
“That’s not conditioner,” he said.
“Oh, yes it is,” I said, condescendingly. “The white bottle. The same conditioner I always get. I left the one I had in England.”
He handed it to me, the nice new bottle I had paid a little too much for.
I stared at the words “ultra-whipped egg white” and “shampoo,” unable to reconcile them. “But it’s exactly like my bottle of conditioner!” I said. “They probably make both,” my partner observed, sagely.
My hair was an intractable tangle in need of something to help me pull a comb through it. I thought of eggs, and of that girl from the Noxzema commercial who said in an early 90s issue of YM that she used some sort of condiment in her hair. “Bring me a knife!” I said.
He did. And that’s how, despite the best-laid plans, however many bottles you abandon and train tickets you deface to better navigate an unforgiving world, you will—if fate decrees it—end up unconditioned in the shower, with liters of shampoo and a greasy butterknife, slathering mayonnaise on your head.
I’m sitting here trying to put together a course description for a class I may or may not get to teach (I’m 18th and 20th on the waiting lists). There’s something about being outside your environment that makes you feel your limits differently. I could, for example, take making woefully little money. That was fine.
I could take having no idea whether I’m going to be allowed to teach (and therefore have enough to live) from one semester to the next. I could take watching the university slowly undermine humanities departments and redefine itself as a private STEM university that costs more than Harvard. I could even take–with pain–watching the police beat my professors, students and colleagues.
But now those same people who were clearly peaceful and clearly victimized are being charged with crimes. The professor who held up her hands and said “arrest me, arrest me,” and was yanked to the ground by her hair by police, is charged—as if we were in fact in a Kafka novel and not at a public university—with “resisting arrest.”
Others have been arraigned and charged for “failing to leave the scene of a riot.” (There was of course no riot; everything was peaceful until the police attacked people with batons. The Chancellor later accused the protesters of being “not nonviolent” because they linked arms–as Martin Luther King did before them.) Still others stand accused of “malicious blocking of a sidewalk or public thoroughfare.”
What’s worse is that UCPD is behind the charges (they presented their “evidence” to the District Attorney, who has decided to proceed). And the chain of command leads straight to UCPD’s boss–the Chancellor.
They have, in their way, succeeded: in the absence of any evidence, in the face of a patently absurd charge, a judge has issued a “stay away order” to twelve of the detainees. That’s right: the students, who attend a public university, are forbidden from being on their own campus unless they have “class” there.
As anyone who understands a university knows, only a fraction of the important work that gets done there takes place in “class.” There are classes, of course. As graduate students, we teach them. We ourselves do not, however, attend class–at least not in our later years. We are there for other reasons that include, for example, research: the work the university is getting paid tuition dollars for us to do.
It would be a mistake to say that the “official business” of a student ends there. There are talks, lectures, meetings, days spent at the library. There are chance encounters between scholars and students in different fields. There are lunches, study dates, conferences, office hours, unofficial office hours, extra office hours. Working groups. Seminars. Panels. People quite literally LIVE at the university. That’s why there are dorms!
And yet the energetic District Attorney, in collaboration with UCPD and those in the administration who would like to quickly privatize the UC system and convert it into an online STEM university without anything so inconvenient as disagreement, has decided that my colleagues can’t even go onto the campus (which receives tuition dollars for their enrollment) to use the library.
The judge laughed when the question of library visitation came up. “Between you and me,” he seemed to say, “you don’t NEED to use the library. Come on now.” The person charged stared back blankly, confused. Neither side could quite believe that the other was real.
Apropos of nothing, I went to the British Library today. I’m going back tomorrow. The next day I’m accompanying fellow graduate student Irene Yoon to the University of Sussex Library. After that we’re going to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. We aren’t funded for this work–we are actually using our own meager funds to GO TO LIBRARIES. The judge who issued the stay away orders would probably denounce us as manticores.
Anyone who loves a public university enough to protest its insidious dissolution knows that you can’t “stay away”. For one thing, that’s just not how graduate studenthood works. One reason you love it is that its spaces have become part of your life. Take me, for example: I came to UC Berkeley six years ago because I believe in public education. There were other and better offers; I turned them down. I don’t believe in “students as customers” or “students as patients” (both are analogies frequently used by administrators at other universities, and increasingly at this one). Being old-fashioned, I believe students are students. It is actually its own very particular relation that proceeds as a fine collaborative balance of effort and instruction and generosity and will.
I love the students here. They’re dedicated and hard-working and committed. They know that this is their only shot to make it in a broken economy. In a world where student debt can never be forgiven and where federal grants are dwindling away, where people scorn the idea of an education for its own sake, there’s still one place where you can get an astounding education without going into indentured servitude.
There was, anyway.
So I’m sitting here, a continent away, trying to come up with a course description for this hypothetical class I might someday be allowed to teach. Maybe. If 19 of my fellow graduate students on the waitlist find other ways to live. Meanwhile, thirteen of my colleagues have been charged–four months after they were beaten, let’s not forget that small detail–and they’re getting slowly strangled by legal fees.
Graduate students can take a lot. But there was this straw, and now there’s a broken camel. If this is what happens when people try to defend public education; if no one looks up from their computer and writes a letter or makes a call, then we’re done. A California without public universities in general, and without UC Berkeley in particular, will be worse without them. But them’s the breaks. While the sun sets on the UCs, the for-profit Universities of Phoenix will rise and burn and rise again. Maybe UC and UP will merge! Glory be.
There’s a useful semi-consciousness that comes into play when you’re in migraine-land. Your body becomes sort of like a car; it gets you places but you’re not “in tune” with it. You don’t think too hard about how it works, because it’s broken down on you a few times and you’ve been wrong every single time you’ve tried to identify the trigger. You’re a poor mechanic, and doctors aren’t much better.
People around you suggest meditation and yoga. And they’re right, and it’s good, but you can’t concentrate on stuff like breath. (All the meditators and yogis want you to focus on breath. “Feel it go in and out,” they say, breathing loudly, luxuriantly. You can tell they’ve never been afraid of pollen or dust or carpet chemicals, all of which have, at some point or another, given you asthma attacks. You breathe thinly, thinking of yourself as the opposite of the great hoovering aspirators the people around you become.)
If you did things differently—noticed your body, paid attention to how it moved—you would realize that it’s almost always hurting somewhere, and none of it is interesting pain. Your sinuses are just there, gummed up like overused playground furniture, pulsing behind your eyes. The muscles of your neck and shoulders burn as if they’d been weight-lifting. It’s not the kind of pain that really sends you screaming to your mom. It’s the kind of pain you imagine a cow feels when it’s been injured. It’s dumb pain.
You once said this to your mom, when you were little. “Everyone’s always a little bit in pain,” you said, and you wondered aloud what it would be like if things were different. Your mother was horrified. “What?” she said, scandalized. “What do you mean?” And you remembered how she always spoke about your aunt with kidney failure, and how she never complained, but instead made hilarious jokes, and you stiffened up and never-minded, realizing that what you’d said was wrong wrong wrong. Your mother may have meant that you were factually wrong; but you interpreted your mistake as ethical.
Later, you got into the habit of thinking of your body as a sort of ultra-green machine: you gave it minimal air by breathing shallowly, tried to make one restaurant meal last until the next day’s lunch and dinner, tried to minimize your garbage. You slept four hours a night. You didn’t drink water on hikes (trying to imitate your grandfather, a hardcore outdoorsman who almost rejected treatment for his prostate cancer because of how much his surgery would cost taxpayers.) All of this was obliquely reactive—a way to perform a type of ruggedness, and to keep the world from forcing itself into your head and lungs. Superstition: if your demands are small enough, maybe the world with its irritants will forget about you.
Migraine-land, though, turned out to pretty unimpressed by the power of your will. In fact, it double-taxes you: on top of the baseline discomfort, any effort at thinking doubles the (uninteresting, plodding, spike-in-the-brain) pain. But you get used to that—so much so that you’re surprised, one day, when you wake up with nothing hurting. Something seems amiss. There’s no thick membrane of discomfort to fight through to get to your morning, no sluggishness as you try to think of what your day will look like. You feel … glad. Happy. Normal.
It’s only on days like that that you realize what the other days are like. They’re a mixed blessing, the good days. Rewatching old episodes of Looney Tunes, you realize that the good days just might be roadrunners, and you—if you actually decided to concentrate on your body and your breathing and all that—might be in real danger of living a life as Wile E. Coyote.
The thing about migraines, when you have them almost every day, is that they tame you. You stop fighting, sometimes because you’re lazy, sometimes because migraine is its own reality. Like dreams, where whole timelines are born, complete with histories and memories, migraine is a feverish bright blue that believes that you will never be normal:
You will be hurt by the sun.
You will never regard an invitation from a friend as “fun,” but rather, something to be survived. Like drinking anything alcoholic. Like watching a good movie. Like catching up with someone on the phone.
Taking the bus is carsick torture. You sit with the back of your head pressed against the iron bar behind your seat, forcing your neck into the disgusting and sticky metal, hard, so that it gives you pressure, sensation, anything but the tangled muscles and nerves that are strangling your brain. Maybe you can loosen them. You think of an anecdote someone told once about their mother accidentally breaking her own foot with her hands while trying to stop a cramp. You know how it happens. You’ve never forgotten the time you went to the grocery store, with a migraine, and tried to replace your cart. You missed, and accidentally scraped your elbow against the grocery store’s brick exterior. You watched the blood start trickling down your arm and realized, amazed, that your headache was gone. You did a little dance by the carts. You’ve thought many times since about scraping your arm against something to stop a headache, but you doubt you could do it hard enough on the first try, and you don’t want to become a self-harmer. It seems a dangerous road. Anyway, you know you look a little crazy on the bus, with your head at a 90-degree angle to your neck, but migraine clubs your absolute self-consciousness into submission. You don’t care.
You will never be entertained, the migraine says. Ha! It knows you can’t watch or read anything too absorbing, too interesting, when a headache strikes. The excitement makes the headache worse. Instead, you’re condemned to reruns. They’re shows you like–The Golden Girls, Arrested Development, Peep Show, and Frasier is especially soothing–but you know the episodes by heart because you’ve listened to every single one, in the dark, more times than you want to count. You are deeply, deeply bored. Your brain is hungry. If it were a tiny animal it would be starving, with horrible food allergies to all its favorite things. It would eat oatmeal every day and rage quietly at its lot.
So, like a child sneaking candy at night, you read Twitter. Small Tic Tacs of information you can digest. That’s not true, of course, and the migraine knows it; it knows you’ll take everything far too seriously, it knows that you can be tempted into participation and dialogue, and it knows that all of that will only make it stronger.
So you stand on a high-wire, with never-ending doldrums on the one side, nauseating and redundant, and a forest of spikes on the other.
And your balance sucks.
Then the migraine leaves, and all your failures of imagination evaporate. Friends are opportunities, books are salvific, and television does things you never thought it could. You work! You produce! A future seems possible. You imagine a posterity of good conversations, of entertainments, of discussions and walks.
It’s easy to say that the second world is the real one, but when you get one day of it every two weeks, it gets harder and harder to believe that, if one is, say, Kansas and the other is Oz, it’s the good days, the migraine-free days, when the Wicked Witch is dead.
(Yesterday was a #6daymodernlovestory Twitterfest. These are my contributions.)
“Your scars make you very appealing.”
She broke in. He fed her.
“Dad owns the Doubletree,” he lied.
Nobody liked them or their dogs.
Two snails=four compatible parts=passion
Anna wanted to marry Jill, did.
The principal warned her about him.
“I’m not bossy, I’m helpful.” “True.”
Neither bicyclist said “On your left.”
“On the Road sucks!” ”I KNOW”
Her hair tickled, but he persevered.
She earnestly shaved his ironic moustache.
They boiled all the Christmas ornaments.
“I’m tired.” “Pineapple.” “What?” “You heard.”
He wore a crushed-velvet skirt.
Dollar theater. Made out during Twister.
Two moths wanting the same sleeve.
Him: “Crawdads!” Her: “Try bacon bait.”
They quoted Judge Judy during fights.
He kept unbreaking their breakups. “Why?”
“Don’t reset my FreeCell statistics.” “Oops.”
His dad: “Go upstairs. Learn reflexology.”
“Your eyebrows astound me.” “Shut up!”
First kiss tasted like Mango Snapple.
He’s a 10. She knows math.
Fourteen unopened bills. Shh. It’s okay.
He had thoughts about the wedding.
I like how your head smells.
His mother disapproved. Hers wept, openly.
They brewed kombucha. He almost died.
No one changed the tire. Conception.
Walk the dog. Not a euphemism.
Half-gallon milk–expired, not spoiled.
Too much Chinese food in bed.
I like you with your parents.
Two celebrity lookalikes outside the Oscar’s.
“You complete me.” “Ew.” “I know.”
Some things the US is number 1 in, listed in no particular order, according to the American Economy Profile at NationMaster.com:
- Animal oil/fat
- Ferrous waste scrap
- Arms and Ammunition
- Hide skin (not fur)
- Gold (nonmonetary, excluding ore)
- Oil seeds
- Printed Matter
- Manufactured fertilizers
- Art collection/antiques
- Beef: fresh/chilled/frozen
- Steam generating boilers
- Medical and other electric diagnostic equipment also medical instruments
- Wood in rough squared
- Alcoholic Beverages
- Crustaceans and Mollusks
In sum, we send out big animals and small machines, and take in small animals and big machines. When it comes to guns we can’t quite make up our minds: turns out we’re both the biggest importer and the biggest exporter of arms and ammunition. #1 going and coming! And 3rd in cutlery exports.