Sunday, July 31, 2011

Childhood memories

The trouble with memory is that it’s always in flux. You want to hear a story from my childhood? I’m sure anything I could tell would be an invention. The events of the past are like clay ready for the potter’s wheel: what was a shapeless mass of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings becomes, in the hands of my imagination, elaborate pottery glazed in clear, vibrant colors. What I distill from the past, bottled as ‘memories,’ are my subjective understanding and narration of a messy stream of information filtered by my imperfect perceptions and my perpetual re-readings of events. There is nothing factual about what I remember.

Describing a memory, then, is remarkably more like fiction. But isn’t that what any kind of writing really is? No scientific report tells the whole story of the complex system it purports to explain. No news article can be entirely ‘objective’ for the same reason: journalists must choose to frame the information they gather in a way their audience will recognize and understand – always choosing to exclude some details and include others. Is fiction maybe more honest than what we call ‘non-fiction’? The first proudly admits its own incompleteness, its own biases, its own fabrications, where the second rather disingenuously claims to be comprehensive and impartial.

In any case, my childhood memories rarely resurface as complete stories but rather as glimpses, flashes of light and color, snatches of conversations, brief scenes completely devoid of any real context. For example, I very distinctly remember – or think I do – sitting at my friend Elise’s kitchen table and waiting rather impatiently for my hot chocolate to cool. It was winter in Salt Lake and we had perhaps gone sledding at the hill by the elementary school or ice skating in the makeshift rink behind her home, or perhaps I had just walked across the street to say hello. As we sat at that table, shape and color of which escape me now, Elise unwrapped Starburst after Starburst – tropical flavors, I think – and dropped them into her mug. I can’t remember what was said, or who else was present, or what happened after, or even what hot chocolate-flavored Starbursts tasted like.

I also remember lying on Elise’s bed – canopy? trundle? four-poster? – and telling her my great-grandfather had just died. That meant making the trip from Salt Lake down to Orem, which at five seems like an eternity. It must have been spring because I remember the hearing the birds chirping outside her window, and late afternoon because her bedroom window faced west and the sun illuminated the gauzy curtains I can only vaguely make out now. She was telling me that three – or was it two? – of her grandparents had died. Looking back it almost sounds like bragging.

Then I remember the funeral, or at least I remember sitting on the front row of the chapel next to my Aunt Emily, who must have only been seventeen at the time. Emily was crying and kept fishing tissues out of her bag, some of which she divided into thirds and let me braid. For me, the funeral was, braiding aside, a rather boring affair. I had barely known my great-grandfather, and visiting him and my Great-grandma Sugar Pie (whose name is another story altogether) was always a little frightening. At five, I was a bit unnerved by their loose, wrinkled skin and their age spots and their rheumy eyes. Death wasn’t quite real for me. I hadn’t watched Great-grandpa Vern die – one day he was there and the next he wasn’t. Nothing was as real for me as the April sunshine or the sound of my black patent leather shoes clack-clacking down the sidewalk in front of the chapel.

The next funeral I attended was my grandfather’s. This time things were different. This man I knew. I had grown up visiting him and my grandmother in Topeka. My grandfather smoked from his boyhood and their home had that stale, acrid, heavy smell of years of cigarettes. When we returned home after a weekend there we carried it in our hair, our clothes, on our skin. Still, I loved him dearly. I was his first grandchild and the daughter of his only child, my father, and he had a special affection for me. He taught me to use his big computer, his adding machine. He let me type up and print what I called newspapers, but which were really pages of letters and symbols and numbers:


and scolded me when I pressed the keys too hard. He flipped coins with me and let me keep the ones I called right – “Heads!” or “Tails!” Every Christmas he bought a tree so tall it had to be hung from their high ceiling, and he looked the other way when I snatched the grape candy canes that decorated the branches within my reach. It was my grandfather who first told me about the new books he had just discovered about a boy wizard who attended a school for magic.

I can’t remember when he first got sick, but I do remember visiting him in the hospital after a surgery. I remember him moving aside his blue- and white-checked gown to show me the staples in his bloated belly. I remember my father taking his illustrated medical textbooks out to explain what a pancreas was, and that grandpa’s had tumors. I remember him growing weaker and weaker. I remember the last time I saw him, his eyes sunken, his skin yellow, his belly frighteningly “distended,” as my father said. I remember being scared to talk to him, feeling shy around this man I only half-recognized. Where was the man who chuckled at all my silly jokes, his toothpick bouncing up and down between his lips? Where was the man who taught me to play Solitaire? Why did he stare so intently at me? It was the first time I saw death, but at ten I still couldn’t look it in the eyes, hiding my face in the crook of my father’s arm instead.

I remember very little of his funeral, except that my cousin Nelson played my song, Amazing Grace, on the bagpipes, and that my father wept.

I suppose I don’t know if anything I’ve written here is true in the sense of historical accuracy. Perhaps someone else – Elise, Emily, my father – remembers these scenes differently. But these are my memories, fragmented and disconnected though they may seem, and they live on with me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'm writing an OpEd, and here's the beginning.

For my advanced writing class (the last one before graduation, hooray!) I've chosen to do a research project on mental illness and its treatment in developing countries. Here's the first bit. I'll probably post the whole thing, with revisions, of course, as I go along. I'd be interested in any feedback, research leads (props to my friend William for a great one earlier today), general commentary... Here goes nothing.

"The first time I met Djarri, I knew there was something different about her. Unlike the other girls of Sanaar Peul, a village on the outskirts of Saint-Louis, Senegal, whose hair wasneatly plaited in tight rows, Djarri’s was a tangled mess full of Sahel sand and bits of straw and, as we learned later, lice. She clambered for attention and threw herself on my – yes, American – friends and I, as we seemed to be the only people in Sanaar Peul who smiled at or tried to engage with her as she prattled on in her native Pulaar, the only language she spoke, never having attended elementary school, taught in French. She often lashed out at the other children of the village, who warned us, “Elle est folle!” They pointed their index fingers, thumbs extended, to their temples and twisted them away with a flick of the wrist: what we quickly came to know as the Senegalese sign for ‘crazy.’ Goading Djarri on to violent outbursts appeared to be a favorite pastime of the children’s, and they often paid for it with a sharp blow to the head or shoulder of surprising force for such a young girl, always accompanied by a fit of laughter.

I never learned exactly what was ‘wrong’ with Djarri, but I suspect her village didn’t either, and probably didn’t have the resources to diagnose, let alone treat, whatever psychological disorder she suffered from. Memories of Djarri and other victims of diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, however, have stayed with me since my return to the so-called ‘developed’ world. What could be done, I wondered, for these individuals whose suffering had so deeply marked me? The interplay between culture and medicine becomes especially tricky when it comes to mental health – that much became clear in the five short weeks I spent in Senegal. Further, even if we can find culturally appropriate ways to deal with mental illnesses in developing countries, the initiatives we push for have to be sustainable, a word that has become so fashionable in development circles for very good reasons. In civil society as well as in academic circles, aid for individuals with disabilities – physical and psychological – is so commonly seen as a luxury poorer countries simply can’t afford. And finally, how can ‘development stakeholders’ – academic development jargon for ‘any group or individual even remotely involved with the problems of development, be that governments, NGOs, members of civil society, research institutions, etc.’ – generate interest and awareness for the need for mental health care? Does anyone care enough to do anything for the very vulnerable, but from a utilitarian standpoint not very societally useful, mentally handicapped in the developing world?

I'm not out to answer any of these questions directly or fully, but rather raise awareness and push and prod the problem in a context accessible to us plebes (don't mind the alliteration). Most of the dialogue on the issue happens at a pretty stratified level, in academic research groups or lengthy and detailed reports by the World Health Organization, in scholarly journals, etc. Here I'd like to distill some of the central conflicts to help folks like us understand some of the complexities of - and more importantly the value and feasibility of - mental illness treatment in low- and middle-income countries."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation

Today, on a flight from Salt Lake to Denver, I sat within earshot of a guy who is deeply concerned about America's global image. Euopeans, he argued, see Americans as a bunch of pick-up driving cowboys, and that the Muslim world sees us as promiscuous lot. His big idea to remedy our reputation abroad is to make Europeans watch MTV and the Muslim world watch CMT, as if Jersey Shore will make the French and the Swedes think we're classy, and that songs about how "it's five o'clock somewhere" and images of busty blondes in daisy dukes and leather boots will make the Khalifs and Imams see that Americans really do have high moral standards.

I wonder if he's considered the fact that MTV already has European satellite stations, or that Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol and promotes (if not requires, depending on the culture) female modesty.

No, no, my dear friend. It's fools like you with ideas like yours that give our country it's bad reputation.

Cue Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

of words and windows

Your eyes are stained glass windows.

Your words shoulder past lampposts and brick walls,
trip along the cracked concrete, their chins tucked into their overcoats.
When they left your mouth this morning, a low cold fog hung over the city
but they were happy to fill up the streets, joining the wandering words
of the tens of thousands of other voices that speak this city.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

red ribbon

red sash in hair
inspiration: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait with daughter

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

on how i get dressed up and play house, kind of

Today, I found myself scrubbing the floors in my apartment, wearing this:

and thinking about this:

Ah, la vie d'une femme...

Monday, March 14, 2011

my marxist feminist dialectic brings sartre to the yard

This week for my political philosophy class I read, for the first time in full, the Communist Manifesto. And, don't tell Joseph McCarthy (or the Tea Party or my politicalphilosophy professor) but I actually kind of liked it. Or liked parts of it. What's most intriguing to me about the Manifesto is that it presented a different way of reading history.

I had a conversation with a friend who studies history this weekend about different approaches to historical criticism. First, there's what we all learn in high school and introductory college classes. This is the history of The Great Men Who Made a Difference, the teleological history we trace from Antiquity to Rome to the Christian Empire to the Renaissance and the Reformation to the Enlightenment to Romanticism to Industrialization. This is the story of Plato and Aristotle, of Nero and Caesar, of Augustine, of Christopher Columbus and Gutenberg, of Luther and Calvin, of Vol
taire, of Newton, of Rousseau. This is The Man's history, who tends to be rich and white.

There's also what is called microhistory. This is historical study that concentrates its efforts on a single person, a single event, a single place, and tries to draw out larger conclusions. As Charles Joyner explains, microhistory is the "search for answers to large questions in small places." This is the approach I have been (unwittingly) taking to Loïe Fuller in my thesis research - I use one specific dancer at one specific time in her career as a lens for considering women and society during the Belle Époque. This is, for sake of comparison, some wo/man's history.

With the Communist Manifesto came another approach to historical study, one that scrutinizes interactions between large groups of people. This claims to be the everyman's history.

Marxist history has the advantage of trying to look at all - or many - groups in a society, where our traditional "high school" model looks at The Privileged Few and tends to disregard the history of the quotidian many. Not that I am very familiar with historical analysis, but the problem that would seem to present itself in marxist history is that it aims to draw too specific of conclusions from too large of a field of study - the very opposite of what microhistory proposes.

But enough on historical analysis.
By some happy accident, this week I'm reading some Jean-Paul Sartre (above, left) for my political philosophy class and some Simone de Beauvoir (above, right) for my class on women in French art and culture [Note: yes, those links are both to the Marxist Internet Archives. Funny].

De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is great. If I had brought more than one bra along on this trip, I would already be stoking a fire in the alley behind my apartment. Among the gems I've come across are the following:

"Le problème quand elle souhaite une histoire, une aventure, où elle puisse engager son coeur avec son corps, c'est de rencontrer un homme qu'elle puisse considérer comme un égal sans qu'il se regarde comme supérieur."
"The problem is, when she [the liberated woman] desires a romantic intrigue or adventure to which she can commit her heart and her body, finding a man she can consider her equal and who does not consider himself superior."

"Une femme qui n'a pas peur des hommes leur fait peur."
"A woman who is not afraid of men, frightens men."

Reading her along with Sartre and Marx is really enlightening, but I have to say I'm glad to be reading all this (1) two decades after the Berlin Wall and the USSR and (2) off of American soil. The Second Red Scare may have died with McCarthy in 1957, but thinking that far to the left is still considered bad form where I'm from.

From Sartre I read his in/famous lecture, "Existentialism is a Humanism," which again I enjoyed - at least parts. His emphasis on action really speaks to me, especially when it comes to the example of love, which he uses several times. "But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving." Does this sound like a line from that familiar song to anyone else? "...In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." Or that one time when, at church nonetheless, I made that great speecho: "On apprend l'amour en le faisant [Love is learned in the making of it]." For the record, I was trying to explain that we create love in cultivating it, or that we learn to love truth in living it, or something. Actions though. That's what's important.

It's about actions, not ephemeral feelings or unfulfilled wishes. Concrete deeds. Totally with you on that one, Sartre.

I'm gearing up to hear Sartre and Marx ripped to pieces tomorrow by my more conservative political philosophy professor, so I thought I'd just put out some good vibes in the universe for these guys. I guess my final attitude is this:

There's certainly something to be learned from these "enemies of liberalism" (as tomorrow's class lecture is entitled) so while we explore the shortcomings of their philosophies, can't we have a moment to consider potentially positive contributions? Seek to understand, not first to disprove, right?