Too Cool for Internet Explorer


June 29th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Bob Mould: Workbook (1989)

I haven’t read Dante in a while, but I do believe there is a special rung in Hell reserved for those people who abuse and neglect companion animals. Yesterday I met one of these people, and it was all I could do to keep myself from punching her in the face. Let me explain.

For about five years I have been helping animal rescue organizations, primarily the Devonshire Rex Rescue League helmed by my friend Angela. I’ve fostered thrice, successfully placed two sweet Devons (Cosmo and Zappa), and just took on my fourth foster. This time I’m working with a pair of white cats who are supposedly Devons, but in actuality some sort of Frankenkitty. So-called “Backyard Breeders” like to breed Devons with Sphynx and vice-versa, which, of course, is a no-no because of the recessive gene issue but, you know, whatever. These people get a special place in Hell as well for breeding cats that have horrible health problems.

So, Obi died Friday, June 20. On Sunday I got a note from Angela about an urgent rescue in Austin. This was too weird of a coincidence, so I said “bring ’em on.” The official story is that a man who had adopted a pair of two-year-old Devons six years ago had to be moved into a no-pet, assisted living facility. The cats were dumped into a garage of a friend for some months, then taken by his sister. The sister, herself on a limited income, could not afford the vet bills for this “loving” pair of kitties and contacted rescue for help.

After trying to contact the sister for some days, I finally received an email and we agreed that I would receive the cats “early” Saturday morning. I set my alarm for 7:00 a.m., woke up with a battle, and went about my day. Hours rolled by. At 11:30 a.m. I was very annoyed (I thought I might join a new friend for some of the Keep Austin Weird festival yesterday afternoon, but then decided the cats were more important). I sent a blunt email and left a similar phone message. The sister finally called back:

“Uh, sorry Josh. I don’t have a car, so had to borrow one from a friend, and they were late in dropping off the car. I had to run a lot of errands and so I’m a little late. I should be there sometime this afternoon.”

“I have to do things today; I need to know when you intend to be here. Two o’clock?”

She responded she would be here by 1:30 p.m. at the latest. At 1:40 p.m. she called and said she left the directions to my house on her desk, and so I had to give her directions again. She arrived shortly after 2:00 pm. I met her at the car, and told her to help me get the cats to my bedroom.

It’s always suspicious when a pet owner doesn’t have a dedicated carrier; these guys were in cardboard boxes from PetSmart (which means vet visits were infrequent if ever). And it’s hard not to be judgmental when I saw the condition of the cats. They look very sick, the boy with very pale looking skin and lots of bald spots. In the photos you’ll see Keelee first, the rather large boy (overweight). Keelee is on the toilet seat. Kue is cowering next to the toilet (very much underweight—too skinny). Now, the Sister said she bathed the cats last night, but they’re still quite filthy. I want to bathe them right this second, but they are hissing and carrying on pretty terribly whenever I enter the bathroom. Hopefully in a day or so they’ll calm down but, at present, they are not taking handling.

Keelee has a white coat, but is completely naked on his inner thighs and underside, and from his neck up. Kue is almost totally naked (almost like a Sphinx). I said something to the Sister about stress causing them to lose their coat, but she said Kue has never really had much hair, but that the antibiotics she administered last week was supposed to help. There’s a small growth on Kue’s right leg, which could be life-threatening.

I’m no veterinarian, but to my eyes these cats appear to be in bad shape. It could be that they are just Frankenkitties and will never “look normal,” but they are also behaving in that classic “I’ve been mistreated” sort of way. It makes me very sad and then mad. I have often felt guilty for letting my Sphynx go weeks without a bath . . . but her dirty girl impression is nothing up against these two.

After we released the cats to their inevitable under-the-bed sanctuary, the Sister unloaded from a very dirty car a series of very dirty cat beds and a cat condo, all of which smelled like cigarettes, shit, and mothballs. I promptly threw this stuff into the dumpster after she left, except for the cat condo which is with them currently (but which will also go to the dumpster ASAP). The sister also smelled similarly (think here of Aughra from The Dark Crystal).

Of course, the paperwork on these cats has been “lost”:

“Do you have their paperwork?”

“No, it’s probably long gone. My brother didn’t keep very good records.”

“Do we know who the breeder is?”

“No, someone in New Jersey I guess. My brother took them from someone who had them for a couple of years.”

“Are they up on their vaccinations?”

“Keelee is up to date. Kue isn’t, because she was on antibiotics and the vet wanted to wait until that was over before we vaccinated.”

“Ok. So do you have the paperwork for those recent visits.”

“Oh, yeah. Um. It’s on my desk at work. I can mail it to you.”

“Could you scan them and email me the records as PDF files?”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes. I’ll do that first thing next week.”

And monkeys will fly out of my ass bearing Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh when Christ returns next week.

So the next step is vetting. First, I have to get this “thing” on Kue’s leg checked out. Then, we need FIV/FELUK tests. If those are negative, then a full blood panel. Dentation problems are big with Devons, and by the smell of Keelee’s breath some extractions are definitely in order. These poor kitties are a mess. I have to say, though, that getting them healthy is a good way to mourn Obi’s passing.

And since I’m in the middle of a rescue, I cannot help but urge my buddies in Chapel Hill to adopt Mona. She’s a very sweet, well-fed kitty who needs a forever home. DRRL also accepts donations, which are tax deductible. Click here and scroll down to the Paypal link or a snail mail address. Just $5 would be great. Please put “in honor of Obi” in the note field.

another masonic lecture

June 23rd, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: David Sylvian: Gone to Earth (1985)

I am truly thankful for the words of comfort many of you offered about the loss of my companion Obi. It is nice to know that others have felt and feel similarly about their animal companions; it’s a love different from that of a person, and one that is deeply felt. Certainly it is a kind of projective love, but even so, there is something like “animal presence” that extends beyond whatever form we impose on their little beings.

By strange twist of fate—or Jungian synchronicity?—two Devons here in Austin need to be rescued and fostered. I was contacted this morning about the pair and agreed to help. Something about the timing of this rescue, huh? I’ll keep folks posted about this the more I learn.

Meanwhile, I’m editing and finishing-up a speech (or “lecture,” as they’re termed) that I was asked to deliver tonight to my lodge’s annual Festive Board. A Festive Board is basically a fancy, catered dinner where we toast each other, sing songs, and regale each other with accolades. It’s a nice ritual—though if you fill your shot or “firing” glass for every toast you won’t be able to stand up at the end. Anyhoo, owing to my scholarly interest in the Craft I was asked to give the after-dinner speech, which is supposed to be a hybrid “research paper” and celebratory speech. I thought I’d offer up a teaser here:

The Importance of Speech, or, Some Reflections on the First Degree and Psalm 133

Lecture Delivered to Austin Lodge # 12, 23 June 2008

Thank you, brethren, for giving me the opportunity to address you on this most festive of occasions, the annual festive board, a celebration our brotherhood through speech and nourishment. As no doubt my yammering on and on tonight will attest, I would underscore that our jamboree is frequently punctuated by speeches: speeches of thanks, toasts, songs, recognitions of honor, after-dinner talks by long-winded rhetoricians who should hurry up and get on with it, and perhaps most importantly, that communal petition to Deity that we term “prayer.” I said we have come together in speech and nourishment, but today I shall argue that these two nouns, speech and nourishment, are the same in Freemasonry. In other words, understanding how speech is food—and therefore the vehicle of life—is my timely topic, as you nosh away on your (just) deserts.

I will suggest to you today that the written word speaks death, that text as such is death, and that only the presence of speech can enliven it. Following the instruction of the First Great Light, we teach this lesson in the Entering Apprentice degree. When the candidate is caused to circumabulate the lodge with the Senior Deacon, he is blind. While in motion, his ear close to the measured breath of his conductor, he hears the song of the Degrees of David:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity: It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, that went down to the skirts of his garment: as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

The 133 Psalm of David speaks of the joy of gathering, presumably when the tribes were united; brotherly love is described as a permeating perfume and a quenching morning dew. More important, however, is the way in which this joyous meaning is communicated: it is a psalm, and therefore, a song—a sacred sonnet, to be more precise. The psalm is meant to be sung or spoken in melodious speech, which is precisely what the conductor does, into the passive ear of the candidate, blindfolded and seemingly helpless, led about from the elbow by some psalm singing shepherd.

I encourage you to remember your initiation, what it was like to be blindly led about, dressed in [deleted for the public]. Importantly, the sense that was deprived of you was that of sight.

So, on what did you rely? The answer is twofold: The firm grasp of your conductor and the speech of strangers. A grasp and stranger-speech. That is to say, you relied the on touch and hearing. Perhaps not coincidentally, I will tell you as an aside that in infancy the first senses to develop are that of touch and hearing; the entered apprentice degree is in this respect a reenactment of birth into the blinding light of creation.

Nevertheless, upon entering the lodge for the first time you were [deleted for the public] and made a promise: “Arise, follow your conductor, and fear no evil.” This is to say, after you declare your trust in Deity, a promise is made to you. Your declaration of trust is deemed well-founded, and the Worshipful Master makes a declaration of assurance in return: “you may trust your conductor, dear candidate, as no harm will come to you.” With the promise of your faith, you in turn are made a promise. In this respect you have made your first speech pact in Masonry—the precursor to another pact, the obligation.

Today I suggest to you that the whole of Masonic teaching can be located in this specific moment in the first degree. The nourishment of speech begins here, in the moment when the candidate declares his trust in something beyond his comprehension—Deity, the Great Architect—and the Worshipful Master’s return promise: “arise, follow your conductor, and fear no evil.” The key to understanding the importance of this moment is the presence of speech.

Voice unheard is province of the individual, the babble of solitudinous, an agency without an ear, or as we’re told of one of the saints John, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Speech, however, is the sound of community; speech implicates an ear. Unlike voice, which is given fullness in crying, speech implies an answer from another. Speech implicates not merely a person, but a people.

So, what does it mean to say speech implicates a people? It means that when I make a purposeful utterance, the ear of someone else—the Ear of the Other, if you will—is implied. Here I am making a distinction between VOICE and SPEECH.

Voice is the singular sound that exits the mouth of any one person. Speech, however, is voice as a vehicle of meaning. That meaning need not be word-borne; it can also be affective. One’s tone of voice can communicate meaning, and therefore be deemed speech. This is why the speech of song is more reliant on phrasing and timbre that words, a point to which I will return shortly in reference to the 133 psalm.

I recently compared the first degree of Masonic ritual to birth. Insofar as touch and hearing are our first senses, both infancy and candidacy are understanding of speech yet incapable of producing it. Consider, for example, the cries of an infant: A baby is perfectly capable of a voice—frequently a loud scream. But that voice is meaningless. That voice requires the presence of another individual, usually the mother, to give it meaning. The baby cries out almost automatically, without thinking, in response to his pangs of hunger. The mother interprets that cry as speech: “my child is hungry,” she says, or “my child is teething,” or perhaps just simply, “my child is loudmouth pain in the butt.”

Yet, by assigning meaning to the cries of the infant voice, the parent has agreed to speak for the child: “With this speech I will speak for you,” says the mother. “With my speech I will comfort you.” It is thus in infancy that our first speech pact was made for us over cries and lullabies.

Later in life, as we learn language, our voice takes shape in speech. It is then that we learn how to make demands on others: “I want a cookie,” is typical. Later comes the narcissistic phrase of toddlers everywhere: “mine!” Indeed, the phrases “I want” and “mine” are the province of the terrible twos, followed shortly by puberty and the slow recognition of something else much more meaningful. Or rather, the recognition of something horribly meaningless: death.

It is the recognition of sex that turns children into men and women; it is the recognition of death that turns children into adults. Often this realization only occurs in one’s teenage years, which is experienced as a chip in the usual invincible feelings that abide those awkward voice changes.

Indeed, speech, understood here as meaningful voice, only truly takes shape when confronting the darkness of death, the limit of some no-thing, a nothing, a silent silence. It is only when we are made to confront our own mortality that speech takes on a special status as the promise of life, that life exists. In speech that voice announces that it is, that I am. But without an ear such speech is really voice without meaning, not really speech at all, just a “me-me-me,” “mine,” or a “I want a Lollipop!” in the wilderness. It is only speech with a proximate ear that we are alive; only, in other words, are we something other than ourselves, a community.

Consider if you will the parallels between the first speech pact of Masonry and the psalm that succeeds it: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in community.” Recall that in Psalm 131 the tribes are not at peace, but in Psalm 132 a covenant with the Lord is made. David is chosen by the Lord to lead the united Judah and Israel in psalm 132. In other words, an agreement is made between the Lord and David, which is followed by a celebration of community and brotherly love in Psalm 133. Is not this covenant reenacted in the first moments of the Entered Apprentice degree?

[more later, perhaps. or not.]

r.i.p. my dearest friend and companion

June 20th, 2008 by slewfoot

Obi Wan-Derful: March 27, 1998 – June 20, 2008

Today Obi succumbed to feline infectious peritonitis. This is a painful, incurable disease that slowly shuts down organ function. This is the second cat I have had that died from this disease. I took Obi into the clinic this morning to give him fluids because he wasn’t eating, but was told when I arrived about his blood work, which was not good. When the technician started telling me about his white and red blood cell counts I knew immediately what was coming next. FIP usually strikes early in life, but can lie dormant and become aroused during stressful times. I worry the introduction of Jesús to the family last summer was the source. Regardless, I wasn’t prepared to lose my dear friend today. He was the sweetest kitty I’ve ever known. It’s hard to think about anything else.

mean reviewer blues

June 19th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Last Comic Standing

Writing for publication and the blind review process has been a frequent and popular topic on RoseChron, in part because these things are central to what I do for a living, in part because I’ve learned a large chunk of the readership is comprised of professors-in-the-making.

As a reviewer, if I absolutely cannot contain my nastiness when I’m reviewing an essay, I save it for the editor’s eyes only. (In the blind review process, a reviewer gets to send a private, personal note to the editor and then writes something different for the author.) I try very hard never to send something personal or ugly to an author. It’s unprofessional and demoralizing. If an essay makes me angry (a very rare thing), I’ll let the editor know, but the author I try to shield from my ire.

Many of you are reviewers, or will be reviewers in the future. I think it’s important for we reviewers to follow some sort of protocol when reviewing. That protocol will change from one journal to the next, but I think we can settle on a few standards: (a) if the essay has hope, offer constructive suggestions; (b) if the essay has no hope, be critical but encouraging of the personhood of the author; (c) always make a distinction between the author and her argument, as the two are not the same—you get pissy with an argument, but that doesn’t mean the author is a punching bag; (d) if you really dislike an essay and have nothing constructive to contribute, keep it short—there’s no reason to write three, single-spaced pages on how much you hate the essay.

Of course, there’s an exigency: today I received a revise and resubmit from a journal that I like: Explorations in Media Ecology. I discovered this journal because Ken published in it, and I like Ken’s work. I’ve had some chats with EME folks and would like to get more involved. Part of that involvement has been reading media ecology stuff for the past couple of years and trying to do some work in that area. Admittedly, I’m not terribly well read in media ecology, but I’m trying. Anyway, as part of this effort to learn media ecology I thought I might submit something to EME. I knew—as I warned the good editor—I probably didn’t have all the relevant literature cited, but I didn’t know where to go to improve the piece. He sent it out for review a year ago. Today I finally got the reviews of my piece.

The editor was helpful and gracious with suggestions for revision, as is a reviewer who apparently knew Walter Ong (I cite Ong a bunch). But the second reviewer, I think, is way out of line.

From now on, I think I’m going to make inappropriate and unprofessional reviews of my work public on this blog. It’s dirty laundry, but dammit: let’s stop this “cycle of abuse.” Even if what the reviewer says is true, it still should not be said to the author. I know I’m not Mr. Decorum, but I read this review and thought, “what if I was a graduate student?” A beginning scholar might be really bummed out about such a letter—heck, I was when I started out. Obviously by posting it part of it still gets to me too. So, without further ado, yet another lovely nasty review of my work in italicized fonts, with my reactions [in brackets]:

This essay is written without care.

[translation, “is written carelessly”]

Its author, who has some academic background, refuses to exercise academic discipline in the construction of the work. As a result, an interesting topic remains largely uninvestigated at the work’s conclusion.

The argument is grounded in a few lines from Ong and Derrida: effectively, the sound of a voice is associated with the presence of a person, and people archive because they fear death. From this we are to understand voices of the dead and backward speech.

[Uh, no. It’s more like this: the presence associated with speech is ambivalent, both good and bad, and these are separated out in popular culture into extremes, which EVP and backwards masking represent respectively. The argument is for taking up the ambivalence of speech in a serious way that Ong and Derrida help us to do.]

Both dead voices and back-speech are fascinating, there is no doubt. But when I ask myself what I have learned about them, upon leaving the paper, my answer is very little. That listeners hear their mothers, or that there is a binary of good and evil in the texts—these are hardly psychoanalytically significant. Could they be significant to those unfamiliar with psychoanalytic texts, who study mass media? I don’t think so.

[So far, the review is not favorable but fair.]

No fundamental question is answered in this essay—no question that is particular concern to students of electronic media. [Um, does one have to have a research question to present research? If so, why?] Instead, a couple of “really cool” phenomena are called to our attention. And “really cool” is the deepest problem with the essay, particularly when the author segues into freestyle narrative in the latter part. I leave it to the editor to determine how much license an author might be granted stylistically, given that the journal has to position itself somewhere in the academy. The author shows much more, let me say, “confidence” than I would have submitting to an academic journal when he offers a line of repetitive “S’s”, “T’s” “O’s” and “P’s.” I have seen that used in dimestore [sic] novels.

[It’s called alliteration, assonance, or consonance, fuckwit, and the essay is deliberately playful]

Back to the more fundamental issue: what is the basic question, and why does it matter? Or will we just say that these two tidbits from Ong and Derrida are sufficient to themselves, and let us go about renaming the world around them. That is not a project I could support in the academy. I would suggest, instead, that the author begin with a problem that is specific to electronic media and expressed by these or similar phenomena. That has not been done.

[Ok, this is much more helpful. And I admit this is a problem with the “essay,” which is actually a bridging sort of chapter in the book in process. So the “ta-dah” comes at the end of the previous chapter and in the next one. So I gotta reframe the essay: fair enough. I don’t agree one always has to be solving a problem to write “for the academy.” It’s clear this person has an idea of what is appropriate academic writing . . . that does not include performative writing, which is intellectual vacuous to his or her mind . . . . ]

Could we suggest instead that the cases themselves demand explanation? Not in my opinion. The cases provided are either fictitious or anecdotal. I do not believe there is a serious community looking for an answer to the meaning of Raudive’s book [Breakthrough, a book in which this dude documents the voices he discovers by recording dead-air and listening to it really hard], nor the movie White Noise, nor the lyrics of Robert Plant. On the other hand, the voice that speaks to George Walker Bush is very important to all of us. Thus, it would be possible to find a case with such compelling significance that it would crave attention; and the strength of such an essay would largely be determined by the importance of that question. On this occasion, however, I don not see a question that matters in this sense.

Is there, then, something theoretical that we can learn by virtue of the way that this author answers this question, as insignificant as the question might be? That is what I was hoping as I started the essay.

[translation: when I read the abstract I already knew the essay was shit because it was about popular culture and some insignificant quack who recorded dead air in the 1970s]

But I grew more and more disappointed as I recognized that I was being carried along through an intellectual tour de force, performed by what appears to be the darling of a graduate program, who is [sic] yet to develop a sense of disciplined scholarship ([a footnote here] I use this expression because the author dabbles in scholars and scholarship, in the manner of one who fared well in the general game of fact-fetch that is played in college classrooms. I do not feel that I am reading a scholar who has seriously read anyone). I do gain a sense of who are the “smart” people with whom this author has become acquainted, as well as some of the “smart” ideas they had. But I am still waiting for something insightful and informative about the forms of electronic speech referenced at the outset.

[Yeah, this is the particularly obnoxious paragraph. I don’t claim to be a genius; I claim creativity. I think I am creative—that’s my skill set. Anyway, though, what gets me about his paragraph is that the reviewer seems to think I am a graduate student. What if I was that grad student trying to publish? This would be totally demoralizing. It’s really a nasty thing to say to anyone, but especially someone who is training for this gig.]

I am particularly disappointed with the author’s jump between non-fiction-writing and cinema, as if the two universes could be directly compared. Raudive is an historical author, Raymond Price is a theatrical character—it is inappropriate to construct an analysis as if the one could offer support for the other. Perhaps, the screenwriter, not the character, should be examined, but even that would strain the comparison. On the other hand, a thorough investigation of vocalic culture should produce some actual cases of significance and merit that could be examined. Again, the author must either abandon or discover a commitment to this project, because scholarship takes time.

[This book has been in process for three years; it’s my fault the reviewer doesn’t see what comes before and after; it’s my fault I didn’t frame the analysis to answer the “so what?” question. Even so, the choice of examples is not “quick”]

I am also disappointed with the author’s general tendency to convert scholarship into storytelling and extended quotes. If we look at the percentage of this essay which deals in nothing other than statements made in other essays, it seems to me, again, that there is a problem. It is a sign of something, when a paper has so many indented paragraphs.

[Uh, yeah: it’s a sign I know basic punctuation. All paragraphs should be indented. By five spaces. Or a tab set to five spaces. Perhaps s/he means offset citations?]

Finally, many years ago I read a line to the following effect, “You write with flare, to show your breeding. But easy writing’s cursed hard reading.” While this authorship is certainly a performance, it falls short when flare is set aside and content is sought. I caution this author to take the act of scholarship more seriously. The pubic intellectual is also a public trust. Neither an academic’s career nor an academic’s writing exists solely for that academic’s pleasure.

[Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I think if I took my scholarship seriously I would have left the academy my first semester as an assistant professor. The values in contrast here are so deep and revealed in this last paragraph . . . I wish my scholarship had that sort of influence—“the pubic trust!”—ha ha haaaaaaaa!!!!! My take is this: curiosity and pleasure in the quest should come first. The rewards of making a statement that somehow lasts for perpetuity are few and go to even fewer. Owing to my interest in popular culture, my scholarship has a five year window of interest at best . . . the act of scholarship, consequently, is saying something that will make someone go, “huh!” now, not a century hence. I’m not so arrogant to think I have anything to say to that future person. My work is shit (in the good sense), and that’s ok.]

hell among the yearlings

June 19th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Martha Wainwright: I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too (2008)


Last weekend I hosted a number of folks for dinner, some friends relocating to Austin from Minnesota, an already-relocated couple from Minnesota now in San Antonio, and my super-cool, soon-to-be-hitched neighbors Jeff and Lindsay (Jeff’s from Buffalo, Lindsay, San Antonio). We had a marvelous time, in part, because none of us knew each other very well. We did a lot of “me too”-style bonding. We had some Mean-Ass Joshritas and I read Tarot. We ate gumbo. We yapped, yapped, and yapped. I learned Jeff and Lindsay were fans of Aimee Mann (they spied my CD collection and noticed I was too). I already knew they worked in radio. I did not know, however, their radio connections scored them tickets to Aimee Mann’s show last night. They told me so. They said they had tickets to spare. I shat my pants and then said, “hell yeah!”

Ok, so, most of my buds who read the blog already know, but, you who know me less may be surprised to learn I have a thing for singer-songwriter ladies with skinny arms. Just the idea of an Aimee Mann show gives me [delete] [edit]: goosebumps. I’m happy to report the show was most excellent, not just because Aimee is smart as frack and delicious, but because the musicianship was top notch and the sound design un-freakin’ believable.

Aimee and band played at La Zona Rosa here in Austin, a sort of concrete floor shack—a large shack—with a tin roof and terrible acoustics. I’ve seen about five bands there, all sounded like a sort-of buzzing through mud unless you were standing in the very center. But somehow the sound reinforcement folks figured it out and did an amazing job. I was really surprised. Mann’s set was super-heavy on electronics—two keyboardists! One was hitched to a howling B2 that was just incredible, and the other to one of the new horizon Moog thingies and a Mellotron! I’ve not got the new album, but I gather it’s keyboard heavy; the “single” she played had simple Boards of Canada riff thing going on (it was quite lovely). The harmonies Aimee and her bassist made singing would make the Louvins proud. The show was just tingly good; I even got a little lump in my throat when Aimee did a reworked version of “Save Me.” This really tall, lanky, uber-geek with that Trekkie-smell standing behind me was singing along with all of his off-key heart. It was touching. I would’ve saved him myself, were I not pining away at bumpy, strumming knuckles too.


The Aimee Mann show followed a fun, fan-boy day with Janet Staiger. Janet is a professor in the Radio, Television, and Film department. I read a good deal of her work in graduate school (my secondary area was in film theory) and taught it myself while on the Audio/Visual Arts faculty at LSU. When I moved here, everyone and their colleague in some odd department urged me to meet her. I finally figured out a way to ask her out: teach her work and then ask her to talk to my class. So that’s what I did, and fortunately, she agreed. I took her out to lunch before her talk and we gabbed.

Janet studied with David Bordwell at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She was in the Speech department, which in the early 80s housed film and media studies. Small world, heh? One of her best buds is John Lucaites, currently the editor of the flagship journal in rhetorical studies, The Quarterly Journal of Speech. So she knew all about what I did as a scholar (which was super nice not to have to explain), and I knew a lot about her work, so lunch was sort of fun and effortless. Her talk to my class was super, though my students seemed a bit sleepy (summer school jet set, you know).

So, like, yesterday I was already blissed-out when I hit the Aimee Mann show. Best. Tuesday. Ever. The only thing better would have been if I could’ve slept in, but I had to wake early to get to the vet, about which more below.


Despite an awesome Tuesday, there’s a nagging mental murmur: oh, how much I owe others in the writing department. [Dear lord: I’ve just turned on the Sex in the City syndicated show and Blossom Dearie’s “They Say It’s Spring” is in the soundtrack . . . another voice I get goofy to]. I’m giving a talk next Monday for my lodge’s annual festive board, and I’ve little more than chicken scratch on a notepad at the moment. Promised encyclopedia entry is due next week. I need to work on my essay with Shaun. I should be writing on my book. I’ve got a revise and resubmit that should be tinkered on. I need to finish my syllabae.

All of this, and what I really want to do is go to music shows and watch season two of Carnivale. And season one of Six Feet Under, which I just got as a gift from my houseguests.

This, and I still need to finish my lecture for tomorrow on Baudry’s “cinematographic apparatus” and Christian Metz on the psychoanalytic turn in film studies. My finances may be in order (almost), but I still find myself running in debt . . . .


Twenty-four years old and recently broken-up, I was, it seemed, marooned in a very cold place with three friends and coursework for as far as the mind could imagine. That’s when I first found a therapist and stumbled into psychotherapy. That was also the time I thought I might adopt a pet—a puttie to sit in my lap as I typed out term papers. The problem was that, um, I’m allergic to anything that moves, especially of the domesticated animal variety. I researched for months and found that some folks with allergies can tolerate Devonshire Rexes. I found some people in Minnesota who had them and stuck my nose on their cats. Mild itching, but nothing horrible.

When loans came in the next semester I adopted a Devon from Terri in Kansas, now a friend of mine with a different last name in Houston. His name was Vico, and he died within a year of FIP. I was heartbroken. Terri sent a replacement (FIP is genetically linked) and, from some strange turn of fate, a companion too. Ten years ago I picked up a brown Devon and a nekkid Sphynx from the Minneapolis airport. The Devon came named—“Obi Wan-Derful”—and I named the nekkid girl “Psappho Alpurgis.” I cannot believe I’ve had these kitties ten years now.

Over the years we’ve grown as co-inhabitants of my various apartments and now home. Psappho refuses to use the litter box. Thousands of dollars helped me to determine that’s just the way she is: no illness, no problems. She’s just picky. So she shits on the floor and pisses in the sink. And that’s why I have bleach under all the sinks in the house. And that’s why I’m constantly picking up poop.

Obi, on the other hand, is simply a super-sweet lap kitty. He just wants to be on you all the time. He eats. A lot. Or, at least, he used to eat a lot. He got super fat last year, so I started taking up his food. Slowly he started to lose weight this year. I went away this summer for a couple of weeks. I returned finally last Monday. I noticed Obi was skinny. He wasn’t sleeping with me at night. And he couldn’t jump up on stuff.

A few days ago Obi just stopped eating. He stopped drinking. He just slept. His meows were week. I phoned a vet and made an appointment for this Friday, but then, I worried myself so much, and he seems so pitiful, I couldn’t wait. I asked if they could see him today.

So I took him in and left him. They had to sedate him because (they say) he got nasty (I’m not sure I believe this; he’s so weak . . . and they get $80 for “sedation”). The “in house” urine test revealed his glucose at 1,000 (I have no idea of what units). Apparently he has kitty diabetes. I await the blood work tests. $400 of tests today.

When Vico died, Terri said he was my “heart kitty.” What she meant by that was that he had become someone implicated in my self-identity. Vico died so young, I don’t think he was that. Obi, however, has been with me for ten years. Right now he’s in my bathroom, sort-of lying there. He got insulin today, but he still won’t really move. I tried to get him to eat, and he did a little. But then collapsed in a pathetic bones and fur sort of way, just piled on the bathroom rug and exhaling a groggy “maaaahhh.” I’m worried if the vet did the right thing. I’m worried about losing him . . . he’s the real “heart kitty.” I know he’s old in kitty years, but still, he’s too young to leave just yet—and from what I can tell from his pathetic protestant meows, he ain’t ready to leave, neither.

I think tonight I’ll help him get on the bed so he can sleep with “us” (that is, me and the other kitty). I just hope he can pull through this. I’m sort of done with death for the month. Too much death, too much. No more, dear Death. Pretty please, with a cherry on top? I promise I’ll clean the house more often and stop eating chicken.

freemasonic ugliness

June 16th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Judge Judy

My peep Talia alerted me to a story in The New York Times about a wronged Mason that has riled me up. Brother Frank J. Haas, a Mason for over twenty years, was humiliated in front of his father and home lodge brethren by the acting Grand Master of the State of West Virginia. Although Haas served as the Worshipful Master of his lodge (basically, CEO for a year) as well as his Grand Lodge (CEO for his state!), his succeeding Grand Master apparently disagrees with Haas’ political views and kicked him out of the fraternity. What is repulsive about this (Masonically) unlawful expulsion is that it seems to concern old and intolerant segregationist views.

The acting Grand Master cited Haas involvement with this blog, the ill-named “Masonic Crusade,” which was created in support of a series of reforms or “edicts” issued by Haas while he was a Grand Master. In the United States, Masons answer to no higher power other than the state Grand Lodge. In Europe, for example, many lodges answer to the Grand Lodge of Britain, but owing to things like, oh, the revolutionary war here in the states, Masonic leadership is pretty much delegated to each state. Hence, the laws of Louisiana are different than those of Texas (as is the ritual and liturgy). Hence, some states recognize Prince Hall masonry (Texas does) while some do not (Louisiana doesn’t). Haas has been punished for trying to change the laws in West Virginia.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is one of promise-making and tradition versus that of contemporary values and change. When one becomes a Mason, he swears to uphold the constitution and laws of his home jurisdiction. Some of those laws may be unsavory, but the point of the obligation is that, well, you are obliged. Fortunately, there are meetings once a year in which state constitutions are amended and changed, much like Congress does. These meetings are often contentious, as one would expect, especially in the last decade over the issue of race. Masonry since its inception in the United States was a white fraternity. Today, of course, that is not the case: some states are racially diverse (e.g., California), while others maintain a fairly white party-line (e.g., West Virginia). Haas’ edicts were in pursuit of diversity in the fraternity and overturning centuries-old laws that prevented the fraternity from giving to charities that were not Masonic.

Reading the newspaper story, there’s no way to tell what, exactly, the current Grand Master and former Grand Master disagree about. I have a strong suspicion, however, it has to do with tolerance: Haas wants racial diversity and equality, while the standing GM doesn’t. The GM can say it was about procedure, but you don’t have to be an savant to read between the lines here: this is truly embarrassing for Masonry. Racism is part of this country’s historical past, and so too is it a part of the history of Masonry. But today, in 2008, racism has no place in the fraternity. NONE.

I just want all my friends and colleagues who know that I am a Mason that I would never join a jurisdiction that I perceived to be racist or intolerant. What has happened to Bro. Haas in West Virginia is truly unfortunate, but that is in West Virginia. I answer to the Grand Lodge of Texas, and even as yee-haw rope-’em our constitution can read, to my knowledge nothing like what happened to Bro. Haas would happen here.

Moreover, I think Haas mistreatment is thoroughly unmasonic. Masonry in its inception was a lodge created for speaking freely without fear of persecution. All this “secrecy” was in part to make sure someone could chat about astronomy without fear of the pope coming to get him. That a state Grand Master can be silenced for speaking his opinion is an insult to the Craft. Ugh.

the presidential penis

June 13th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Sparklehorse:Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)

Leave it to Jim Aune to discover this prurient pay-pal enterprise: Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones have filmed themselves discussing their sexual adventures with Bill Clinton. Divided into seven segments (each of which are downloadable for $1.99 charge), the women discuss how Clinton’s advances were (apparently) criminal and how his infidelity made their lives difficult.

I’ve purchased and watched a segment for you, dearest reader, as I know you’re just as curious as I am about the content of “Two Chicks Chatting.” They discuss in vivid detail Clinton’s lovemaking style and skills and assess the quality of his penis in its three modes: erect, semi-erect, and flaccid. Paula repeatedly demonstrates the size of Clinton’s manhood using her pinky finger, and debates with Gennifer for some minutes whether or not the penis is “bent.” Paula argues that perhaps it appeared bent to her because Clinton was semi-erect. Because the penis was not bent when she had relations with Bill, Gennifer speculates that Hillary “bonked him on the pee-pee” for his infidelities, and that’s why it’s bent.

Aside from its obvious adolescent appeal, the event of this video is fascinating because of the way it represents what I’ll term “the new publicity” or “postmodern publicity” in respect to the symbolic phallus. By “new publicity”—or should that be “pube-icity?”—I mean to capture the way in which the most intimate and private thing is self-publicized for recognition and/or monetary gain. The new publicity really began with the Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape scandal, and then was set firmly in place by the Paris Hilton sex tape. The former was an accident, but the latter was not, and once we begin thinking about someone deliberately publicizing what is presumably the most private of affairs, we must admit that “public affairs” has taken on a new meaning in our times. The implosion of public/private represented by and other modes of self-publicization is about intimacy and public presentation, or rather, a new, strange mode of anonymous intimacy. Anonymous intimacy is not restricted to sexual situations (or strictly sexual situations, I should say), but is also observable with, say, these “cutting” videos on, or online communities in which self-mutilators share stories about their inner pain (and attempts to inscribe the “law-of-the-father,” as it were).

I say that cutting videos and the leaked sex tape are both examples of the anonymous intimacy of the new publicity because they both concern the “symbolic phallus.” Let me explain.

In early life the conditions of intimacy are established over a love object. Freud said this was the penis, of course, which represents something that the mother presumably wants. Rereading Freud, however, Lacan argues that the biological penis (“real phallus”) is really inconsequential. What matters, Lacan says, is that there is an object of focus—some thing—that we believe our primary parent wants and we try to be this thing, or become it. The infantile way of thinking is, “if I can become the thing mommy wants, then she will recognize me, love me.” Lacan calls this thing the “imaginary phallus.” Later in life when we understand sexual difference we can mistake the real phallus for the imaginary object, but, of course, that’s a mistake.

Whence the “symbolic phallus?” Well, we can think about Lacan’s retelling of the Oedipus complex: in the beginning there was mommy/child, then there was mommy/child/imaginary phallus. Or three objects, if you will. Now, when the child is old enough to start to understand identity, she realizes there is a “fourth term”—daddy. That is, the child realizes there are other objects to love besides mommy, and that mommy’s recognition of others means the dyadic deal is not sealed. Alternately, the new parent says, “no, you can’t has teh phallus!” The second parent prevents the child from identifying with the imaginary phallus, the presumed object that will get mommy’s love.

This realization becomes, as it were, the moment of “castration,” when we have to give up this quest and accept our fate: there is language, the world of “no,” the law of void, the reality of having-not. The symbolic phallus “is not a fantasy,” says Lacan, “nor is it as such an object . . . . It is even less the organ, penis or clitoris, that it symbolizes.” Lacan says that “the phallus is a signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified.” So what does that mean? In one sense, it means the signifier has an agency of its own and that it works on us; we do not control the symbolic. In another sense, it means that the symbolic phallus is the signifier for that which is desire, or to put it in a Cartesian way, the signifier for desiring as such: desiring exists. And for desire to exist, you cannot have its object (otherwise desire would cease). So the symbolic phallus represents castration in the sense that once we become linguistic creatures we have to “give up” something that we haven’t and will never have. This is why the symbolic phallus is “the signifier which does not have a signified.”

Now, why did I go into these distinctions between the penis, the imaginary phallus, and the symbolic phallus for discussing anonymous intimacy? Because I think at some level the “new publicity” is goaded by a kind of infantile desire to become new subjects, to invite castration again (or rather, as in the case of cutters, to finish the job). Although “Two Chicks Chatting” is ostensibly siliceous and akin to a kind of Penthouse letter, is the video really about the real phallus? Is the topic of “the presidential penis” really about Bill’s dick? No, of course not. It’s about the symbolic and the agency of the symbolic, about reminding Clinton that he does not have the phallus even though he thought or thinks that he does.

Obsessive neurotics are individuals who believe they can be or get to the unfettered autonomy represented by the signifier without a signified; if anything Primary Colors was demonstrative of Bill Clinton’s obsessions. Laughing about Clinton’s diminished prowess is one way “castrate” Clinton, of course. What’s even more interesting about “Two Women Chatting,” however, is the segment dedicated to Hillary’s run for office. Will Hillary make a good president? No, says Paula, “she’s let her husband womanize all these women.” Flowers follows, “she’s an enabler.” Both women characterize Hillary as if she is Bill, just another obsessive neurotic.

As interesting as the table-turning (and profit-making) “Two Chicks Talking” represents vis-à-vis the phallus, however, there is still the issue of disclosure, the anonymous intimacy of publicizing private details, and this is a characteristic the video shares with teenage cutter exhibitionists. With cutters, it’s easy to see the process as a kind of writing on the body, a way to somehow bring the signifier into the self, a sort-of self-castration. Hence one might speculate that cutting is often a recourse to individuals—especially young people—who are in single parent households (my own therapist disagrees with me here based on her experience, but I think she takes the “absent father” reasoning too literally). Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers prurient publicity stunt is obviously different: here we see an attempt to negate the symbolic phallus, which is impossible. The more they poke fun of the real phallus, the more they demonstrate the elusive power of the signifier of desire as such: the more they laugh, the more they enjoy.

What’s the upshot, so to speak? I’m not quite sure yet. I’m not quite certain what to make of this Jones and Flowers dialogue except that it represents a new era of profitable publicity—and in particular, an era in which media technologies have made it possible for us to explicitly confront a looming crisis of masculinity. I don’t mean the “crisis of masculinity” ballyhooed about for the past decade, the threat of the metrosexual, and that sort of thing. I mean the crisis that results when nothing is off-limits, when everything is permissible, when there truly is nothing sacred—when there’s no one to spank and scold. I mean, in other words, the crisis of daddies, “father trouble.” In other words: is an assault on sovereignty at issue here? Are the forces of production central to postmodern capitalism truly eroding the keeper of the Grand No! and is this new anonymous intimacy the result? The very idea of the “presidential penis” somehow bespeaks the impotency of the Office of the President in our times of postmodern publicity. I’ll keep thinking . . . and when I figure it out, I must write an essay titled “The Presidential Penis” and submit it to Presidential Studies Quarterly.

the case for (film) theory

June 10th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Sparklehorse: Dreamt For Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)

I’ve returned to Austin after a loving but obviously sad visit with the family in Georgia. I’m getting back into a teacherly frame of mind, which I need to do and which gives me a sense of strength. One place I feel confident, one place where I think I do a pretty good job, is in the classroom. I’ve missed that place, and am happy to be back in it today.

This summer I am teaching “Rhetoric and Film,” basically a survey of the greatest hits of film theory since Walter Benjamin’s work on art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility. I decided this would be a good course to teach in the summer for two reasons: first, both graduate and undergraduate students are obsessed with writing their term papers on films; and second, because the summer term has flexible scheduling that allows me to teach for two-and-a-half hour blocks. This means I can show a film in its entirety if I need to do so. While I was away last week the class watched Vertov’s Man and His Movie Camera, and today we will be watching a good hunk of Chaplin’s Modern Times.

My lecture today is titled “the case for theory,” and revisiting the lecture this morning reminded me of a charge I think that is good to promote. My course is based on a number of classes I took from John Mowitt at the University of Minnesota. John—a brilliant teacher and role model—often began his courses with an apologia for theory, and its one I often begin with too. I start by going back to the ancient Greeks and doing the etymology of “theory,” which is, of course, theoresai, “to contemplate” or, more literally, “to see, to observe.” So “rhetoric of film” can be read as “observations about film,” or, “film theory.”

I then trot out that old question: what’s the relevance of theory?. In film studies, the answers led to a debate in two important contexts, the “third world cinema” debate about correct politics vis-à-vis developing film industries (e.g., Bollywood) and the North American squabble between Bordwell and others. Bordwell argued for a focus on history, others on the “appreciation of film” model. Of course, theory cannot be extracted from either.

Following Mowitt, I suggest to students that the questioning the relevance of theory really comes down to the corporitization of the academy, and the “downsizing” of courses focused on critical thinking. The push across the university has been either to focus on the sciences or the pragmatic, the latter courses designed to train students for the workforce. As any office drone knows, critical thinking is relatively unhelpful for pushing paper or information.

The case for theory is thus only made from a Marxian or materialist vantage: critical thinking about film is necessary not because it is profitable but because film watching has changed our reality. The study of film tells us about our reality, how we perceive it. Film also reflects larger cultural transformations, changes, and struggles. Film is history, to be certain, but that history is one of both perception and politics. The case for theory is made in the service of thought and understanding, not so much usefulness.

Rhetoricians are familiar with making such a case: criticism and theory go hand-in-hand. Every critical act is a case for theory. But perhaps unlike our forbears, the assault on theory is stronger today than it ever has been. The assault often takes the form of politics: “you liberal professors are brainwashing our children!” Quite the contrary: we’re trying to teach critical thinking in a world that, increasingly, needs drones.

Charlie Chaplin knew this in 1936. I’m looking at the cover for the DVD of Modern Times. On the back Pauline Kael is quoted as saying, “One of the happiest and most lighthearted of the Chaplin pictures.” Oh brother. Kael obviously didn’t get a schooling in film theory, perhaps proof that we need theory now more than ever.

(the) home

June 5th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: For Against: In the Marshes (1985-1987/2007)

When I was about eight years old I decided I didn’t much care for day care at La Petite Ecole. My favorite “teacher,” Ms. Nancy, had left after being brought to tears by Ms. Linda—the woman who drank Tab, smoked Virginia Slims, and tanned herself in baby oil. Ms. “Perky” Pat started wearing a bra because she noticed we noticed she didn’t wear one. And because I was always “different” the bullying was taking its toll; the girl who kept biting me was starting to draw blood. My best—ok, “better”—friends there had graduated to after school programs. As the end of grade school heralded the return of summer (and thus all-day day care) my parents decided to give me a choice: either I could stay with Granny over the summer, or I could go back to day care. I don’t remember the decision or what factors went into it, but I chose Granny over all the Ms. So-and-sos who babysat me through their “dramas” that they thought children were oblivious to but were not. Little did I know Granny had her dramas too, but they were televised and titled Days of Our Lives and General Hospital, and that I would be made to watch them.

Granny’s place was a small, white-with-red-trim, two-bedroom bungalow on Zoar Church Road. The house was settled in three acres of grass and separated by a narrow swath of trees from Zoar Church, a tiny Methodist postcard of a church. Across the road was a modest cemetery and then farm pasture as far as the eye could see. Down the road in the opposite direction from the church were other parts of the Gresham and Freeman clan: my cousins and great aunts and uncles, lots of them within a two mile radius. Uncle Tink and Aunt Marie were about a mile down the road, closer in were Uncle Morris and Aunt Molly (Tink, Morris and Molly are still there). All this land belonged to my great grandfather, who was a cotton farmer. That’s why all my great uncles, aunts, and Granny have skin cancers removed all the time: they picked cotton in the hot sun as kids.

It wasn’t two days into my first summer with Granny until I realized I had sailed directly into the center of that Dark Continent: the Heart of Boredom. With no brothers or sisters to play with I was marooned with Granny and her soap operas and visits with friends and relatives talking about the weather and gardening. I was put to work mowing grass. She showed me where the small animal traps were stored so that I could trap things (one summer it was a squirrel; another, a baby opossum which I raised all summer until the smell got so bad I let him go). She showed me how to plant and grow squash (yuck). She made me Johnny Cakes with Karo Syrup. I soon succumbed to watching soaps with her, when I wasn’t building a tree house. I learned to love Club Crackers with Colby cheese and Vidalia onion (with Diet Coke). She told me countless stories about her life. Rarely did I hear stories about my grandfather (the drunk). I made her life a pain in the arse by declaring “I’m booooorrrreeeedddd” a thousand times a month. I broke stuff. I scratched her Floyd Cramer records. And I was surprised to learn Gomer Pile also sang under a pseudonym Mr. Rogers would love: Jim Nabors!

Over the summers with Granny she and I become close and have been so ever since. I remember when I was old enough to stay by myself (I think I was twelve or thirteen) I soon missed her company. I would have sleep-overs with her periodically. Granny would play some board games with me, so that was always a plus (my parents never would; just imagine the only child life with parents who wouldn’t play games—that was my life, and I loved Battleship more than cookies). And she loved jigsaw puzzles, and so did I, so we would do them for hours in front of the television on the floor.

As a latch key kid freed from boredom at Granny’s, I remember finally realizing that I shared my Granny, that my cousins also called her Granny and I was not “the only one.” Sharing Granny was probably the closest thing in my life to knowing what it was like to have a sibling.

Even so, I felt (and still feel) special: only I lived with Granny in the summers.

In the summer of 2004, though, I was dutifully employed in Baton Rouge, all grown up, and Granny had a fall, likely caused by a stroke, and started changing mentally, sort of regressing. She was still the same Granny, just a less virulent strain or something. A strong woman who lived a hard, hard life, Granny has always been fiercely independent, and I think coming to terms with a lack of mobility was not easy. Shortly after the fall she moved in with my parents, then lived periodically with my aunt and uncle, back and forth, back and forth over the years. On the phone she’s always confided in me complaints she didn’t like to mention to my folks—mainly, about not being able to drive her car. Every time I visited home I was always struck by how my mom and aunt talked to her as if she was a child, and equally surprised at how bitterly Granny complained about her “wheels” being taken from her.

There were more falls. A car accident with my aunt. Another stroke. And then, after this past Christmas, a fateful visit to a physical rehab facility that was negligent. Granny slipped into a semi-mute state, stopped moving. Unable to care for her, my aunt and mother moved her into a home. I saw her for the first time since she was “homed” today.

“Now, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t recognize you,” my mother warned me. “She’s not always there, inside.”

“She’ll know me,” I replied. I was confident with that. And I was right.

It was a difficult sight for me to handle: Granny in a room shared with another, seemingly motionless. My aunt and cousin were already visiting when me and mom walked in, and I noticed Granny’s feet began to twitch. She could hardly move her head, but her black eyes fixed on me and didn’t leave. “Hey Granny!” I said in as cheerful a voice as I could fake, which is hard to do when your voice quivers uncontrollably.

“Look who’s here,” said my aunt. “It’s Josh. You know Josh, don’t you?”

Granny made as big of a smile as she could muster, her eyes got real big. “Of course she does,” I said. Granny muttered something that was not English, but it was obviously a “yes.” I could feel my mother and aunt were excited, because apparently Granny is frequently unresponsive to people. I told Granny about my travels. I figured they had not told her that Richard died yet, so I pretended I was in town because of a cheap fare.

During the visit I worked very hard not to lose it, because I didn’t want Granny to see that. And it was clear to me that, although she’s lost the ability to speak, she was very much present and understood everything we said. My mother and aunt left to talk with nurses, leaving my cousin Kathy and me in the room.

I had to share Granny, again. Since that last summer with her, I have rarely had one-on-one time. For years when I visited home from out of town, she and I would go for lunch at the Waffle House. Two years ago I said that Granny and I were going for breakfast, but the whole family came. No one trusted I would be able to handle her if something happened.

Kathy and I ended up “talking for her” as Granny bounced her eyes back and forth between us as we spoke. She may not be there all the time, but she was following every word during my visit today.

My mother returned and clipped her fingernails, brushed her sweaty hair from her forehead. We talked about the weather and squirrels chasing each other just outside the window. I complained she didn’t have a television to watch her soaps. I vowed (to myself) that before I leave on Sunday Granny is going to have a television in that room, I don’t care what the facility says.

Motions were made it was time to go, so I told Granny I loved her, kissed her on the check (she held her hand up to my face, again, signaling she was all there and not gone in the least) and told her I would see her tomorrow.

Everyday life—the things that all of us face—is difficult. I know if you’re reading this, you’ve encountered something similar. If you haven’t, it’s coming soon.

After we left her room, walking in the hot sun toward the car, I completely lost it.

on adult-onset acceptance

June 3rd, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Spiritualized: Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)

Today seems oddly elongated into two: the “yesterday” of this morning’s mourning of my uncle and the “today” of cooking my family dinner, watching something called HGTV, and following polling results. The stark contrast between these two days is hard to describe as anything other than using mundane routine to create distance from the body we interred.

I was both close and distant with my uncle, close because of affection he always had for me, and distant in recent years because of spaces between us, both the increasing physical distance of my moving farther and farther away and the buffer created by an ever-growing set of grand- and great grandchildren.

Richard was the kind of uncle who spoiled me with attention.
Richard was the uncle who tickled me as a kid until I’d pee my pants.

The reflective posts as of late are not intentionally personal, just sort of representative of the pressing thoughts and feelings of the past week. It’s not always academic with me or the blog, and I think I have had a tendency to “intellectualize” life events too much.

Last Tuesday I didn’t imagine being “home” again, now typing on a guest bed that reeks of cat pee (someone—some furry one—doesn’t like guests, I guess). I have been thinking during the “today” of today that normally I would be wound-up about the funeral service, but instead I feel resigned, ready to drown out the day in some Battlestar Galactica episode with a nip or three from ye trusty smuggled flask (the family—extended included—are Baptist teetotalers).

Growing up attending Southern Baptist funerals, I grew to resent them in my teenage years. After a manipulative and horrifically abusive funeral for Sonny—a man who practically raised me—when I was 24, I swore off going to a service ever again. Of course I went the next year to one. What angered me so about the Southern Baptist funeral was the way in which many people saw it as an opportunity to save me and other heathens from the Pit of Hell. Preachers would often piggy-back on the grief felt by the bereaved to alter calls, heaping on the guilt. I remember one service in which the preacher insinuated the soon-to-be-interred was in hell. And at the last funeral I attended two years ago my self-righteous cousin’s eulogy was about how, even though my great aunt had gone to the same church every Sunday for the past 60 some-odd years, she witnessed to her and made sure she was right with Jesus (so smug!). I could go on and on with the stories, but I reckon I should save them for the novel.

Anyhoo, I expected many of the same brand of abuses today, but surprisingly, the preacher didn’t go down that sickening path of manipulation. He talked a lot about the blood of Jesus, but then read the 23 Psalm and a few passages about heaven. He talked a lot about where my uncle was now playing and so on. He gave what I thought was quite a selfless eulogy designed to make as many people as he could feel better.

Although the preacher did much to set a more upbeat tone, I realized bowing my head for prayer that I had changed a good bit in the last five years. In part because of my work with the Masons, I think about religion in a very different way (I’m still agnostic, though): death is the great equalizer. In part, because I think I’ve successfully (and mostly) exorcized the abuses of my evangelical youth in writing and teaching about religion. In part, because the evangelical bastard I must call my president is on his way out of office. Seven years ago or so I would still be fuming about some of the things that happened or were said today; yet nothing other than the expectation of “viewing” seemed bothered me. The sight of my grieving aunt made me lose my composure more than once, but that’s ok. The point is that today was about my aunt and uncle and being here for others and myself. There was still a heavy-handed politics of grieving, to be sure, but one that I sincerely recognize has value.

The one thing that did momentarily reduce me to a teen inside: the request that the pallbearers do a final viewing before the casket is closed. I do not find staring upon a poked, prodded, and sewed body anything like a comfort or a part of the grieving process. I looked at my cousin and aunt and said, “I can’t do this.” “It’s ok, it’s ok,” I was assured. I’d much rather have the image of Richard in my head that I always have had: an image of him laughing. He was always laughing. I didn’t want that image to be eclipsed.