Saturday, August 25, 2007
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Morning: coffee, Advil, bacon. Sunglasses before venturing out for the afternoon’s provisions (the market for strawberries and the SAQ for white wine). We sprawled carelessly on the balcony and devoted the actual birthday to our characteristic conversational swings. As dusk dropped we dressed up and pranced prettily through the door of my favourite restaurant. The waiter applauded the alcohol consumption, saying most women would have passed out under the table. We drained an expensive bottle of red upon our return, christening the just-renovated porch with its first set of wine stains.
And now… Stash’s vodka has been roundly depleted, days with the California blonde ostensibly left us with nothing to talk about and yet we couldn’t stop. She’s flown back to San Fransisco, and I'm on a train to London, my black skirt and shoes stowed safely in the overhead compartment.
I knew my grandfather had died. I knew halfway through my parents singing “Happy Birthday” – my father was hammier than usual and off the phone quickly. But for the rest of the evening I pretended, like my parents, that I didn’t know. They called early the next morning and everything has been in motion ever since… rent a car or take the train? Quickly send emails postponing or bowing out of the week’s obligations. Find a cat-sitter to take over my cat-sitting, and get a spare set of keys cut. Slide down to the floor and sob my way through a Cat Power song. Decide train, definitely. Call a girlfriend in London and ask her to make up the spare bed. Do a load of laundry, freeze the rest of the birthday bacon. Water the plants, change the cat litter, just keep moving...
The Tetris-like tension of such details breaks as I'm on the train. The tourists in front and behind me (Eastern European and Australian respectively) are captivated by the postcard scenery. My eyes are just as fixed out the window, but I'm seeing different things. The sunlight drops behind heavy clouds and light rain as the train hurtles further west; I try not to read too much into this. I'm quietly anxious. My brother is picking me up at the train station; until then, I tuck my legs under me, turn up the volume on the iPod, and keep staring out the window.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Thicker than water
My mother was not pleased with my choice to go to grad school; her indictment of my decision has surfaced regularly, if passive-aggressively, over the past six years. She and I have very different visions of my future: she sees a handsome, wealthy husband and a handful of healthy grandkids, I see tenure and book residuals and happy pets – or, as she spat vituperatively in front of her friends one day, “That’s all I have to look forward to, a series of dogs” (I was never entirely sure if she meant my canine or male companions…).
When I was home at the end of June I made the rounds of my parents’ social engagements – end-of-term parties, wedding showers for the children that had found the wealthy husband or willing housewife. Smalltalk with my parents’ friends inevitably turned to what I think of Montreal, the requisite appreciative “Ooh, McGill,” numerous polite inquiries into when I think I'll be finished. And in almost every exchange I was told how my mother raves about me, how proud she is of me. Proud. I didn’t what to say. This was something I had never heard before. Part of me was happy, relieved…
And part of me was so angry… why hadn’t I ever heard this before? I have been staring at blank pages that I can’t find the words to fill, at bank statements that balance precariously around overdraft, at dark ceilings in the middle of sleepless nights wondering if I'm only heading down this path because it’s the one I know, and always with the sense that as far as my family is concerned, I'm in this alone. And yet I do believe she’s proud of me, precisely because she’s never told me so. We don’t do emotion in my family. We do quippy deflections and sublimation and can look the other way like few other families you have seen.
Which brings me back to my grandfather. My grandfather is dying. A retiring man, he sits at the edges of the room drawing slowly on his pipe or his cigar (I will always love the thickness of that smell), raising his eyebrows at the conversations going on around him, opening his mouth to say something rumbling and trenchant, and then closing it again. He is an ardent fan of documentaries. His home brew was the first beer I ever tasted, frigid and yeasty, foaming out of the mouth of a cloudy stubby bottle. He took me aside one year at Xmas, pointed to the humidifier he had just given me, and made sure I noted the divot in the top – “You can put weed in it. Make sure it’s a small room and all the windows are closed.” I am counting on our genetic stubbornness to keep him around until the first fall paycheque so I can go to him and say goodbye.
My father has already lost his mother and his brother. My uncle died unexpectedly seven years ago, and that was the first time in my life I had seen my father fall apart. My father keeps his feelings shunted and through a regime of merciless mocking and irascible retorts made sure we did the same. In the middle of his eulogy he bowed his head, shuffled his papers, and I could barely breathe when I saw tears sliding down his stubbled cheeks. He drank so quickly and so heavily that he passed out just over an hour into the wake.
He was silent after my grandmother’s funeral (three years ago this coming October), staring at the doors of the Catholic church that was the centre of her spiritual life, and turning to point at a cluster of trees across the street. “That’s where your uncle and I would sneak out for a smoke during the service,” he told me. “Those trees have hardly grown.” He didn’t say another word for hours.
My brother and I have talked since about my father’s alcoholism. We had wondered, in the brief moments when we could talk freely on the phone, in the first few years after my uncle died. But we’re a family of drinkers – on both sides – and the other family alcoholics are never referred to as such, they’re just “going through something” or “having a hard time lately.” All we knew was that there was a sense of desperation, a determined move toward the relief of stupor, that hadn’t been in my father before. I had made it home earlier than usual for Xmas two years ago, and when it was just the four of us at dinner one night my father filled a conversational lull by saying he thought he might have a problem with alcohol. It hung there, in the silence that characterizes my family’s ability or willingness to confront cries for help and the weakness we were told they imply.
Things have been spiraling ever since, an awful outgrowth of our collective incapacity to bite back our now-instinctive tendency to turn confession into comedy. When I was home my father’s weight loss was staggering, almost as implausible as the amount of alcohol I watched him put away (and my own tolerance is remarkable). He told me, in a tone that both defied and begged me to help, that he quite literally cannot stomach more than a few morsels at a time. My mother confided in me later (emboldened by the few beers she had just had, us being rather comfortable with irony) that she was worried, that she didn’t know what to do, that he wouldn’t listen to her.
And I don’t know what to do either – there is a frustrating hierarchy in my family, he certainly won’t listen to me. The ten-hour distance feels insurmountable at times. I hear that now-familiar tone in his voice when he updates me on my grandfather’s health, of wanting to say more – to admit to being scared, being sad – and not knowing how.
We re-enact what we know, but learned habits are poor justifications. When my brother called to say that he told his girlfriend he loves her his exhilaration came not from the feeling but the telling; he told me because he knew I would recognize the distinction. I make an effort now to talk with my mother about my work. She never asks, but I tell her anyway. I ask my father what he had for dinner, when he is going to the doctor. Change does not come easily and provocation is only acceptable on the provocateur’s terms, tempers flare and silences stretch as the phone is handed to someone else. Even living within the dynamics does not guarantee you a map of the terrain.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Where do I begin? How about where he began, with ‘choice’ – that she chose to buy and wear the top in question, and as such she, not he, is responsible for his leering. Just how much of a choice is this? Not much of one. There are only so many options – you can either be a woman or be reviled. And to count as a woman you have to flaunt what has been determined as its most obvious marker – your sexuality. North American women live in an environment that assesses their claims to ‘power’ based on how much or how little they flaunt their sexuality (don’t believe me? Haven’t you been following the Clinton coverage?). Out of all the rights second wave feminism fought for, sexual freedom was one of the easiest to commodify and co-opt, to throw back at us and then ask us to be thankful that clothes screaming “I'm sexual!” are now readily available. We are now not just able but expected to present ourselves as sexual, desiring subjects, and if we don’t, well clearly we’re not empowered. The problem is that only certain things are sexy (and not very many), only certain bodies are sexy (and not very many), and to get and maintain those things and that body we have to subject ourselves to a regime of self-surveillance even more hostile and damaging* than the surveillance of, say, this prick on the metro. The power a woman can claim as her ‘own’ eerily resembles the sexual fantasies that have been marketed to men for ages: being ‘up for it.’ Sorry, metro prick, our practices are not freely chosen. This rhetoric of choice transposes responsibility onto the individual woman and away from felt, lived, experienced – i.e. real – social and structural inequalities. 'Choices' are pragmatically made with the full knowledge that the playing field is by no means even, that there are material penalties. We don’t have choice, we have a dangerous combination of patriarchy and neo-liberalism.
But perhaps I'm taking this too seriously. Ah, irony – metro pricks now get to have it both ways. Irony is the new defense against sexism: it’s not really sexism if you acknowledge that you know you’re being sexist. Women are supposed to sit there and grin and take this because obviously if the law says we’re equal then we must be and it’s all in good fun, and if we don’t laugh it off we don’t ‘count’ as modern empowered women. It’s a gas, he used ‘funbags,’ he can’t be serious. Yeah, he used funbags. And melons. And jugs. And hooters. And rack. Which doesn’t even scratch the surface of the panoply of ways women’s bodies are objectified and sexualized; this relentless and exhaustive parceling into pieces systemically devalues and divorces the female body from any real sense of a woman as an individual, and, importantly, of women as social group deserving the same rights, protections, and freedoms as men. There are reasons why women are by far the majority of victims in reported sexual assaults. And there are just as many reasons why less than 10% of such crimes are reported to police. Metro prick is just one manifestation of one facet of a much larger problem. The answer? Longer than you have patience for, most likely, so here’s a good place to start: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” (Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler).
*"Because I live in a world that hates women and I am one . . . who is struggling desperately not to hate myself and my best girlfriends, my whole life is constantly felt by me as a contradiction" (Kathleen Hannah)
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
On my mind:
'I' could not be who I am if I were to love in the way that I apparently did, which I must, to persist as myself, continue to deny and yet unconsciously reenact in contemporary life with the most terrible suffering as its consequence.
-Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power.
I know it must be hard to fathom that a girl doesn’t care what a smart man thinks about the thing that she cares most about in the world, or that there’s a movement that exists that doesn’t much take into consideration what men have to say on the topic. I know I’m supposed to 1) nod thoughtfully as I process your wisdom, asking clarifying questions about your points just in case I don’t immediately understand something you say, and then 2) offer up some powerful and intelligent argument on why feminism is important, and then 3) try to prove my point with examples from women in politics and a few stories about my grandmother, but of course, in the end, 4) concede that yes, you have some very good points that I will certainly think about, and thank you for educating me about feminism and correcting me on those things I didn’t fully understand about women and the world.
Well, that conversation has been had before and is a bullshit boring ass waste of time that does absolutely nothing for anyone. Pretending to be open to the possibility that I’m a fool for believing what I do is wrong, dishonest, and disrespectful to everyone involved. Being polite and feigning interest, when I’m really thinking “Holy crap, what an indoctrinated, privileged prick he is. Where’s my beer?” is simply no good.
Monday, August 06, 2007
But hey, crisitunity. I've already re-vamped the future: a post-doc at USC, maybe even Goldsmiths (!). And, importantly, there is no shortage of other phone numbers: those who always stick around, who have cracked the requisite caustic jokes and have cried in sympathy and have paid the entire tab at the end of the night.
I'm off to meet such a handful shortly. Not because it’s the 6th (no, really, this rendezvous has been rescheduled three times), and not as that maudlin matter of life goes on. Life does that regardless, it’s just better now. It’s not as linear as it sounds, but when I stare at myself brushing my teeth at the end of the day I can tell that it’s true. And it’s such a relief. I prefer After.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Waiting for it
And now for something completely different*
“Why do we attend to the things to which we attend?” (James Broeke)Good question. When asked why I write about chicks and crime, my response is either flippant (good for cocktail parties) or theory-laden (good for getting someone to stop talking to you at a cocktail party). But those are not the only reasons, and certainly not the most personally compelling.
There’s something about chick detectives. Not female detectives, though I enjoy them. I've shuddered in empathy with the willful and unapologetic V.I. for years, I remember my first encounter with Miss Marple when I was no more than nine, and was livid when Remington Steele was released on DVD and Stephanie Zimbalist received second billing, or, more accurately, a sticker slapped on to the cardboard sleeve that said “Also starring Stephanie Zimbalist!” as Pierce Brosnan’s (much younger) frame dominated front and back.
No, there’s something about this particular character. It’s the same slightly shamefaced draw of chick lit.
I'm changing chapters. I've been plugging away at chapter two for about six weeks now and as far as content and structure, it’s nearly solid. But it’s missing a critical edge (a.k.a., pace my supervisor, what’s at stake?) So I'm heading back to chapter one, which I’d abandoned in the winter as teaching two classes took over. And my brain is ramping up again… I love this stuff. I'm fascinated by this nebulous thing called postfeminism, and particularly by its politics – or, more precisely, just how political its seemingly apolitical stance really is.
So I attend to chicks because, well, because I like identity politics. I'm intrigued by how quickly ‘chick’ has become the cultural shorthand or image of an ideal and idealized new female subject, and the elisions within that of the forces that weigh upon women: the economic, racial, and sexual politics of being a ‘chick’. And I attend to chick’s intersection with crime because it’s there that we get a sense of what worries us most – depictions of deviancy are a telling index of cultural anxieties, and one of the central ways in which North American culture tries to reaffirm the rightness of patriarchy.
Okay. Time to spin this out into 40 pages.
*Meaning the Innis reference. Despite (or deliberately to spite?) my years of schooling as such, I'm not a political economist or a hardcore Canadian communications scholar, so I rarely have the chance to cite Innis.