I’m still here. I Think.

On the plus side, it’s been only three months, not six, or twelve, or seventy-three.

I’d like to say I have a valid excuse for not entertaining my vast, innumerable readership with more regular musings on nothing at all. My pseudo-valid excuse is being busy, which is probably everyone’s excuse for ever not doing anything. After all, you’re not going to say “How dare you not do that because you’ve been busy!” but you might say “How dare you not do that because you’re lazy!” Either way, what I’ve been NOT doing has been writing. Here’s what I have been doing: watching Bones. I’ve learned a lot about human anatomy and crime-solving, so at least its been productive.

What I realized today, though, was the actual reason for my post-radio-age radio silence. It’s not that I don’t want to write things, or that I can’t think of moderately entertaining things to write about, but that I think they are so inane, uninspired, or repetitive that no one will want to read them or I will bore myself into oblivion simply by putting them on paper (or internet). I mean really, who wants to read about skiing AGAIN? Do you really REALLY want to hear about the absurdity of the people? The idiocy of the customer? How many pictures of stunning mountainscapes can a person POSSIBLY look at? You HATE amusing anecdotes and funny observations, don’t you? I thought so.

Oh, you do want to read those things? Well, I’ll get right on that. After I watch three more season of Bones. Oh, and The Americans. I started that last night. Spies! Russians! Reagan! Galore!

A quick one before I go? Statement of fact: there are two kegs sitting on the deck. I have no idea if they are empty or full or somewhere in between, nor do I know (sad truth) how to tap a keg and find out. Even sadder truth: it’s Passover so I can’t be drinking the beer, anyway. Now, if only they were kegs of rum…

On Racism, Republicanism, and Stereotypically Shoddy Logic

Here is how I arrived at the conclusion that racism exists: firstly, because we talk about. Why would we talk about it if it wasn’t a thing? Just because it is a thing I don’t see doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Let me be clear: I’m not usually one for calling people racists (story perhaps at a later date), or any other kind of blanket identifiers, but I won’t hesitate, after careful consideration, to say thy are behaving in a racist (e.g.) manner or exhibiting racism (e.g.) or racist (e.g.) tendencies.

In reading and discussing–or arguing about–a few recent Slate articles on racism in the Republican party (one creating an argument for neo-racism in the Republican party and the other about middle-aged white men, whiteness, and the Romney campaign; I recommend reading the articles because they can make their arguments better than I ever could) I am reminded of an inalienable truth I learned in childhood: jokes are funny because they have kernels of truth. As tools of humor, stereotypes fall into the same category. Likewise our baseless assumptions about social structure also contain kernels of truth.

An episode of NBC’s new sitcom The New Normal presents us with a superb assumed-truth-stereotype: the incompatibility of blackness and Republicanism. The seemingly well-off, white, openly racist and homophobic (also sexually repressed) grandmother is delighted to meet a fellow Republican in Democrat-laden California, forgiving him his transgression of blackness. In our stereotype-defined social outlooks, this is what we least expect: the black Republican. It’s kind of funny, if only because we are inclined to see it as inherently contradictory. Why? Because Republicans are, obviously, old angry white men.

This stereotype of the Republican Party being the white man’s party, though not categorically true (as the exception-to-the-rule rule teaches us), must possess a kernel of truth. It must also, following a particular path of logic, be racist. Stay with me for a moment as I summarize thousands of words written by better writers than I:

The South is Republican (stereotypical and political truism). The South is Confederate (historical truism). The Confederacy is racist (historical truism). Ergo so too must be the South and, particularly, the Republican South. Can we extend this to say that Republicans are or the Republican Party is racist? Rather, does the Republican Party exhibit racist tendencies? I’d be inclined to err on the side of “yes,” mostly because my Kernel of Truth Logic means stereotypes can be used in proving their basic contention. (If there’s a stereotype about it, it must be partly true: if there’s a stereotype about no black Republicans, then there must be very few.) If we are inclined to think of the white South as Confederate (racist) and simultaneously of the white South as Republican, then logically the Republican party is Confederate and/or racist and all this must be at least partly true. I don’t necessarily agree with this, just following a path.

That’s settled. Now, I want to consider not the role of racism in modern politics, but the baser argument that racism HAS a role in modern politics, or modern society, particularly the South. I’ve proved with shoddy logic that it does, but I believe I have some empirical evidence in support of this conclusion.

The minuscule optimist inside me is hesitant to accept the kerneled truth of this racist white Southern Republicanism stereotype (though intellectually the arguments are, if not compelling, at least interesting) but then again my white upper-middle class suburban life has been wonderfully and misleadingly absent of racism. All white Southerners could be racist Republicans (I do not believe this); how would I know? Still, in this sheltered upbringing and subsequent, also somewhat sheltered, life experience, even I have encountered racism’s remnants.

Here are two small anecdotes in support of the theory that America is not done with racism:

My only real brush with American Southern Racism (I’m branding it) was in the third degree. My friend and I were driving from Houston to New Orleans and he made sure, repeatedly, I knew “we can’t stop in Vidor. Whatever we do, we can’t stop there.”
“Why?” I asked. Until that point, our discussions of race had extended only to talking about our own, and never in any substantive or broad sociological way.
“My friend just told me not to go there unless I wanted to get shot.” Or maybe he said lynched. Either way.
The implication was clear, but so unreal that I was half-tempted to stop there for some racism-tourism. You’ll be happy to know pragmatism won the day.

I then thought of East Texas, probably inaccurately, as this racist backwater that didn’t reflect Texas or the South on the whole. (I think a lot of terrible things about Texas, but being racist isn’t one of them.) That must be where all those old-school racists are, I thought: in tiny Bayou hamlets hiding in their legacies of hatred. But then I came across a line in one of those aforementioned Slate articles which made me recall another small nugget from my annals of childhood memories.

In the late 90s, controversy and conflict (both internally and nationally) over the Confederate flag flying atop South Carolina’s State House was coming to a head. I will not pretend to parse the meanings of the Confederate flag; suffice to say sighting it causes discomfort. A local artist–we lived in New Jersey at the time–was making statues of individual slaves aboard slave ships shackled to their wood slat “beds”; tucked under each statue’s head, while he lay in skeletal and near-death eternity, was a triangle-folded Confederate flag. These slave statues were a protest against South Carolina flying the flag, against the Carolinian and more broadly Southern legacies of the Confederacy and slavery. My parents acquired one of these statues and it now, as it did then, makes me cringe. I cringe partly because of the realism of the art (look at me, the critic) and partly because it is a constant reminder that the Confederacy still matters in a very real way.

My (thankfully) limited exposure to Southern racism nevertheless forces me to conclude the undeniable: slavery’s most virile offspring, racism, is alive and well. Whether it’s in the United States as a whole, in the Republican party, in the white South, or in some combination thereof, is not for me to say conclusively; but the evidence is certainly intriguing.

How to Win at Life, from Some Chick in the Times

I have recently faced my demon (one of my demons?) that is a) my fear of failure, which is actually related to b) my fear of being rejected for the imagined expectations by the socioeconomic class of my upbringing. Yes: I am afraid of failure to meet non-existent expectations. Let me tell you, it makes that dark head space really entertaining.

For those who don’t know, the socioeconomic class in question is the socioeconomic class of doctors and lawyers and Wall Street investment bankers. Functionally, this meant I grew up with the innate social pre-emption that service = lower class = bad. So when I found myself in the service industry—which was fine as a high schooler, less fine but acceptable (and attributable to “taking time”) just after college, and now, at 25, causes me to hedge answers to “what do you do?” by leading with my occasional freelance work, only at the end adding the fact that, 30-40 hours a week, I sling joe. That’s right, nay-sayers. Career barista, right here. And, in case you weren’t clear, I dig it.

Soak THAT one in.

According to some people (like parents, who I am disinclined to believe because it is in their DNA to make me feel better no matter what), these expectations are imagined. But they’re not. They’re not necessarily expressed, certainly not in my household, but they are by my peers to each other, to my peers by their parents and mentors, and by society/”The Media” in every pop culture depiction of twenty-somethings. We are almost always depicted as being gainfully (read: non-service-industry) employed, and if not, in hot pursuit of that happiest of endings.

The fact that these expectations (which I may or may not imagine) make me feel terrible about myself on a daily basis is why this article, forwarded to me by my mother with pure intentions, made me so gosh darned angry.

Read it, and come back.

This girl makes me angry because THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WHAT I DO. She is modest to the point of self-righteousness, normalizes the misguided expectation that all young people have defined career goals and passions (and, beyond that, know what those are), and is sickeningly optimistic. It’s a guilt trip on everyone who hasn’t done, or “achieved,” what she has. Harsh, perhaps. But really: “My heart has always been in Africa” just screams white guilt to me. Perhaps my daily discussions have just been so racially motivated that that’s all I can see, which might be unfair. Good for her, you know, good for her for knowing she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do, but I have a hard time understanding people like her.

Let me put it this way: I am not sure I trust anyone who, at 22, claims to know what they want to do for the rest of their life, or can claim with sincerity where their heart lies. Or perhaps it is closer to personal offense: that she, of my generation, has chosen to incidentally judge my choices and reinforce my own insecurities: I’m just not good enough.

Badlands, retrospective.

(And by retrospective, I mean it happened a while ago.)

I like maps. I had spent hours visually analyzing the selection of westward route choices — freeway? state highway? around the cities or through? risk? reward?

I left Maine in the morning. I climbed the Poconos/Adirondacks/Appalachians (and feel free to let me know which mountains I was actually crossing). I skirted the Great Lakes. Quick change, pizza, bed, and toaster waffles. I rolled over the grassy midwest, detoured north to close the door on a nagging old relationship and rescue my art, waffle iron, and Nintendo 64 from the gaping abyss of a six-month-old break up.

I (full disclosure) nibbled an Adderall and as the sun set, like a cowboy a thousand miles too far east, drove west. Rolling hills flattened out into infinite planes. Perhaps I’ll build a mathematical matrix to represent the great plains of South Dakota along I-90. The buffalo herd is at (103, 37), don’t kill too many or you won’t be able to carry them back to your wagon.

As fortuitously incidental, and thanks to a suggestion from what essentially turned out to be a flavor of the week, the Badlands rose around me as the sun rose from behind me.

Camera and tripod in hand, amphetamines in blood, and awe in heart and mind, I slowed my pace to absorb this strange, stolen glory.

Badlands, sunrise.

I did not go out the way I came—avoiding cities, creativity and efficiency in route—in the North and out the South. Into the heart of Pine Ridge, the largest and most fundamentally heartbreaking and devastating open air human prison in my personal memory. The eighth largest reservation in the country, but I experienced it as eternal. Hidden by miles of barren lands and political gambits from the public eye and consciousness, I was in a world where the buffalo roamed free but the people were fenced in. Inversion, pen.

Entering Pine Ridge, I saw the land browner, surrounded by fences, geospatial politics delineating land appropriation and supremacy. Leaving Pine Ridge, I saw the grass grow taller and geologic formations more impressive. Public use land, preservation over reservation, imposed government over indigenous freedom. In and out, in and out, the boundaries increasingly clearer, then fences increasingly higher, or perhaps this was just my imagination, or my anger growing.

I move through a small town, which perhaps once thought it could attract tourists, but instead showcases only dilapidated pick-up trucks and run-down buildings.

Passing through

The dirt road, as it has been dirt since leaving National Park boundaries, left my small town behind in a cloud of dry red dust and I, like every else, forgot and neglected her, leaving her to waste away as per socioeconomic hierarchies required.

My radio blared the Oglala Sioux tribal station, the only station I could get. As I moved between fences—free like a buffalo, penned in like the Sioux—what I can only describe as chanting and, unimaginatively, traditional music (honest or cliche?) accompanied me on my objectively stunning yet subjectively depressing drive.

I came to established farmland, to bigger, ostensibly wealthier small towns, to state highways, eventually to Wyoming, to gas stations offering “cowboy coffee” with a handwritten sign next to the hazelnut and French roast, eventually to cities and interstates and, short hours later, within view of my snow-capped Rockies. I followed the spine of the Continental Divide until I crossed into my little hamlet, South Dakota far behind me, as it so goes.

Know your audience.

Theme of the day:

The first hilariously this-isn’t-me piece of junk mail arrived addressed to me, from a local-ish bank (who, incidentally, is represented for their PR by a former colleague — whoops). “Cheap” bank account? Credit card? What goodies did they have in store? Well, aside from an insert advertising a “free” $100 to open a financially-not-feasible checking account with them sometime in the next eight weeks, it included a letter beginning “Dear Audrey” and which continued “Congratulations on your upcoming wedding!” and went on to describe how many couples-to-be neglect to think about the combining of finances during the wedding planning and this bank was here to save the day! Hooray! Well, No Name Bank, not only am I very much not getting married, but if I were, the first thing I would do would be to think about finances and their combination, or not.

The next instance of Know Your Audience came with the second piece of junk mail I decided to open.

This plea for monetary support was addressed to my father, but reading the envelope which announced its intention to secure financial SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL on behalf of some foundation named after some old presumably Jewish guy, I just had to open it. I knew he wouldn’t care, but sorry anyway, U.S. Government. OopsFelony.

I can’t really describe the letter, except to say there were some embarrassing grammatical errors, so here’s what happened in visual re-enactments (I apologize for the wonky quality of these scans):

The third junk mail I opened was Obama campaign mail (what a lovely infographic they included on job growth) — free sticker! — and the fourth junk mail was actually not junk mail at all, but a notification telling my mom it was time to get her car serviced. So, mom, add it to the to-do list.

29 Down: Pornography, to some.

I realize, entirely, that the source of my impending complaint is my own fault:

Facing an empty afternoon, it seemed my best option was to do both of the daily crossword puzzles staring at me with x-ray vision from the back sections of their respective newspapers. One of the puzzles was the Monday New York Times puzzle; easy, certainly, but a respected and usually well-written puzzle. The other was the syndicated puzzle, tucked alongside the never-funny black and white single-pane comic, and a litany of other inanity.

I never like those no-name crossword puzzles. I find them of internally variable difficulty with inaccurate and/or unclever clue-answer pairs. I try to avoid them, opting for the erudite, sophisticated, snooty and elitist New York Times variation, but boredom inevitably got the better of me.

I regretted my choice immediately, but I am not one to quit a crossword in the middle. Yet so many of the clues were just not right for their answers: natural aptitude and instinct? Weather conditions and climate? Crazy and daft? They’re not wrong, per se, I just think they could have been better.

None of these bothered me as much as the four-word answer to the clue “pornography”: “smut.” Smut has such a negative connotation, and pornography is simply a thing that exists that some people have opinions about; it seemed a little harsh for the puzzle to be levying such harsh judgment on such a nominally innocent noun, when there are so many greater sins in the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pornograph as: “an obscene writing or pictorial illustration.” (The OED in turn defines obscene as “Offensive to the senses, or to taste or refinement; disgusting, repulsive, filthy, foul, abominable, loathsome” and as “Offensive to modesty or decency; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas; impure, indecent, lewd.” Yes, I have a bone to pick with the evolution of the English language: why is lust loathsome?)

Pornography is more specific, at least according to the OED: “Description of the life, manners, etc., of prostitutes and their patrons; hence, the expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects in literature or art.”

Pornography is, essentially, the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness, in particular (apparently) the sex industry. It seems to me that whether or not one finds that offensive to one’s taste and refinement is completely up to them.

Smut, on the other hand, when used as a noun is “a black mark or stain; a smudge,” or schmutz if Yiddish one-word definitions are to be employed. It is also a plant fungus, but that is not relevant. When used as a verb, the third definition of smut is “to make obscene” — not an overwhelmingly common usage. And reference to obscenity is not found until the fifth definition of the noun form of the word, as “indecent or obscene language,” which is hardly applicable to pornography as a whole, though there is surely an argument that the vocabulary of pornography is smut. (Perhaps an accurate crossword clue should have read “Pornographic words”.)

So is, as the questionable crossword puzzle would have us believe, pornography equivalent to smut? Is the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness a black smudge, end of story? Perhaps for some, but obviously there are millions of people who would not think “pornography” and, in a game of free association, next think “smut.”

This is the inherent weirdness of crossword puzzles: the answer always reads as a definition for the clue, and so much can be implied about society and culture by paying attention to these nuances. By using “pornography” as the clue for the answer “smut,” we see that someone is telling us to define pornography as smut. They could easily have used an innocuous phrase like “something distasteful,” or the definition, “sooty matter,” to clue the wanted answer “smut.” Instead, though, it became a judgment call, labeling the expression of lust as something to be wiped away with zealous vigor.