Thursday, December 21, 2006

Book Meme

Judith tagged me with this meme a couple of days ago, but...well, you know.

1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence
3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on your blog
4. Name of the book and the author
5. Tag three people

The book closest to me is The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors.

Here are the three sentences:

"It's only one of the things I do. Mostly, I count dead things on the beach."
"Fascinating work," Val said with no attempt to hide her contempt.

I tag...Claudia, Pickled Olives, and Ramo.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Guilty Pleasure

I love the word "Schadenfreude"

(Before you jump on my misspelling, I looked it up, and there are six or seven ways to spell this word. I split the difference.)

Anyway, I love the word. I love the idea that there is actually a word for the feeling of joy you get from other people's misfortune. I love that the word is German, which seems particularly appropriate. I love that I'm not the only one who gets this feeling.

I just wish there was a word for the guilt you get from taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Let me give you an example, as it's been on my mind a lot lately.

My mother died in 1991, and my father died in 1993. I was 21 when my father died, and one of his last wishes was that I adopt my youngest sister, Ella, who was nine. Needless to say, this required a lot of changes in my life, but it was my father's wish. Anyway, family is family.

So, long story short, Ella and I chugged along fairly merrily for nine years, until she graduated from high school and went off to study Art at a University in Richmond. There were some difficult times along the way--we were homeless for a brief time (we stayed with a friend of mine), and I had to drop out of school to work a few jobs while I got our situation stabilized. At any rate, though, we made it.

One of the down sides to being a 21 year old male taking care of a nine year old girl is the various disturbing conclusions that people draw about the situation. This made me a bit paranoid. It didn't help that I had a strained relationship with my eldest sister, who was about two years younger than me and married. It really didn't help that her brother-in-law, John, who I knew quite well, took it upon himself to report that I had bought a keg for my youngest sister.

This, by the way, was the product of a joke. When I was 27, and our situation was completely stable, I hosted a graduate student Halloween party at my house. Given that the English Graduate students were a bunch of total lightweights, most of a pony keg that we had purchased was left over after the party. A week later, when my brother-in-law came to visit, the keg was still there. He asked about it, and Ella and I joked that I had bought it for her. Given that she suffered liver damage as an infant, it was pretty obvious that this was a joke. Added to this was the fact that I subsequently told him about the Graduate Students' party.

ANYWAY, John decided to tell my conservative sister that I was buying alcohol for my underage, liver-damaged sister. This would have been funny had my sister decided to talk to me about it. Instead, she kept it secret while she tried to decide who to report me to. When I found out about the whole situation, I went ballistic. After an extended e-mail exchange, I severed contact with my sister. I also confronted John and subsequently severed contact with him. After a year, I reestablished my relationship with my married sister. I have never reestablished contact with John. While I (intellectually) recognize that my scorched-earth policy was a little severe, I felt that I couldn't risk endangering my situation with Ella. Had my sister called her mother-in-law with John's story, Ella would have been taken away, and I would have been presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Part of my anger came from the fact that John discussed this behind my back. Part of it came from the fact that he was high-handed when I confronted him about it. My biggest problem, though, was that Ella and I had taken him under our wing. Although he worked in our town, John lived about an hour away, and his wife was on rotation in another city. We often put him up, made dinner for him, and visited him at work. In other words, we treated him like family, which made the whole situation particularly painful.

At any rate, my eldest sister and I now have a pretty good relationship, and she occasionally gives me updates on John. Recently, I found out that he now suffers from crippling depression. It has caused him to miss a lot of work, has put a strain on his marriage, and generally seems to be making his life hellish. He has tried a lot of different drugs, individually and in combination, and still hasn't managed to regain functionality.

Now, generally, I have a warm spot in my heart for the needs of every living being, etc., etc. However, in the case of John, I make a huge exception. In spite of myself, I can't help but rejoice in his misery. Every time I think about his situation, a grinchy little grin creeps across my face. I feel somewhat guilty for the warm, fuzzy feeling that his torment gives me, but I can't overcome the actual joy I feel. More to the point, I can't escape the words that keep floating through my brain:

"That's what you get for fuckin' with me."

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Monday, December 18, 2006


NB: This post is about Borat. If you haven't seen it yet, please be forewarned: there are a couple of little spoilers I will indicate the offending paragraphs with the word Spoiler!

My wife and I went to see Borat a couple of days after it opened. It's not easy for us to get out to see movies these days, but we were familiar with Sascha Baron Cohen, and had been waiting for the film with bated breath. As soon as it came out, we foisted little George on my sister, Ella, and ran out the door.

We weren't disappointed. From the opening in Borat's village to the closing rendition of "Born to Be Wild" in a vaguely slavic-sounding language, we were laughing so hard it hurt. The movie combined grotesque slapstick with culturally-relevant satire in perfect proportion. Although it shows its subjects in a less-than-perfect light, it somehow managed to make us feel for its victims. Even while they expressed sentiments that made us cringe, we could feel their humanity, and understood that most of them were fundamentally decent.

Spoiler! For most of the film, the entire theater was laughing uproariously. However, there was one scene during which everyone got really quiet. Borat is in an RV with a bunch of young frat boys from the University of South Carolina. The group is discussing women, and the young men are expressing their belief that women are, to put it mildly, undeserving of respect. At one point, the boys ask Borat if it is legal to enslave women in "Russia" (they seem unable to understand that there is more than one country in Eastern Europe/Central Asia). Borat tells them that, yes, women are slaves in Khazakhstan.

When my wife and I watched this scene, we were the only ones laughing. The rest of the audience, which was largely composed of 18-25 year old white men and their dates, was dead silent. The boy sitting next to my wife kept repeating "Oh my god. Oh my fucking god." I think that half the humor of this scene was watching many members of the audience recognizing themselves on the screen.

Needless to say, we weren't surprised when they frat boys decided to sue Borat's production company. While they were merely repeating statements and beliefs that are common in their peer group, the open admission of such perspectives is, of course, a major no-no. After the film was released, the young men were kicked out of their fraternity.

Spoiler! Of course, the news media reacted with the thoughful consideration and well-reasoned analysis that we've come to expect from America's fourth estate. After wagging their fingers at the racist and sexist comments of Borat's victims, the media moved on to the movie, arguing that, because some members of the audience may not get the joke, the film could be dangerous. In other words, because there are slack-jawed troglodytes who take Borat seriously when he asks which gun is best for killing Jews, or how fast one must go in a Hummer if one wishes to kill a Gypsy.

In other words, because Borat could misunderstood by a certain small, demented portion of the populace, we should consider restricting its release. Of course, the author of this idiotic article, Amy Biancolli, of the Houston Chronicle, doesn't openly suggest censorship, intelligence tests for audiences, or any other such icky solutions. However, her article definitely questions the appropriateness of material that is so ripe for misinterpretation. The draconian solutions, of course, aren't her problem.

My question is this: when did we start tailoring American culture for the bottom fifth percentile? I remember when they changed the word "fire" in Beavis and Butthead to "liar," and when they took the lying-in-the-road hazing ritual out of the movie The Program. I also have noted the warnings that appear during South Park and Jackass!, as well as the sleazy little "Midi-Chloridian" wimp-out in the new Star Wars films. I know, of course, that we've put all these warnings in because some idiot in Squirrel Nuts, Iowa decided to set himself on fire, lie in the middle of the road, or fire tangerines at his nuts using a potato cannon. What I don't understand is why we care.

Let me put it this way: if little Billy is stupid enough to try lying in the middle of the road, and his parents aren't inclined to stop him, then perhaps his death is nature's way of thinning the herd. I'm with Darwin on this one--part of life is an informal IQ test, and if you're stupid enough to take yourself out of the game, well, maybe that's best for all concerned.

Let's let Billy do his thing. In the meantime, I don't need your protection, and I resent the implication that I'm not smart enough to learn from Borat. I, and the 95% of the country smart enough to recognize a joke when they see it, will be discussing the humorous and intellectual implications of the film. The rest of you can keep busy with your safety scissors and blunted intellects.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Jesus is with you. Always.

NB: clicking on these pictures makes them a lot larger. Seriously, it's worth it.

Jesus is with you. Always.

Somehow, that doesn't seem too reassuring. Somehow, that seems like a curse.

Jerking off in the bathroom? Jesus is with you. Always.

Hooking up with a two dollar prostitute in St. Louis? Jesus is with you. Always.

Freebasing in a fetid back alley somewhere? Yup, He's there, too. Jesus is with you. Always.

Anyway, what brings this to mind is this website, which somehow manages to make the son of God both insipid and creepy. The artist is Larry Van Pelt. Yes, I know, "Van Pelt" is also Linus's last name. No, I don't think they're related.

At any rate, Larry, aka "Linus' creepy uncle," is an ex-Air Force pilot who has become an artist in his retirement. And, of course, he feels the need to draw Jesus. Larry's Jesuses show up everywhere, helping everybody. Here's his version of Jesus with a welder:

I think the caption should be "Not bad, Jimmy, but you need a little more solder." Seriously, I'm a little unnerved by the idea of a welder who relies on Jesus. I'd prefer to have one who relies on experience and training. I know--I'm a nutjob.

In the same vein, here's Jesus with a dental assistant:

I'm a fairly big fan of Jesus, but I'd prefer that he stay the hell away from the dentist's office when I'm there. There are two big reasons for this. First off, the dentist's office ranks right up there with Boston traffic in terms of things that are inclined to make me take Jesus' name in vain. Second, I'd prefer that the dental hygeinist kept her mind on cleaning my teeth, not on the son of God. Maybe I'm a little too much of a worrywart, but she's poking around my mouth with sharp things; I'd rather she wasn't thinking of the rapture.

Here's Jesus with a bodybuilder:

You know, Jesus is looking a little chubby. Maybe he needs to take a few crunches. Or walk his ass around the block a couple of times. Crucifixion and celibacy is no excuse for letting yourself go. While we're on the topic, Jesus is also a little too white.

Last but not least, here's Jesus with a soldier:

I don't know about you, but somehow, I don't find that one too reassuring. I can just hear Jesus talking to the young man about to go into battle: "Don't worry, Slugger. I'm on your side. I'll help you get lots of civilian casualties."

On the other hand, it's nice to get a glimpse into Dubya's subconscious.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Finally Done!

Today I finally finished grading. At the end of the semester, my students submitted over 1000 pages of writing. Most of it was pretty good, if I do say so myself, but I'm glad it's over. My head feels like I broke something, and my brain's rolling around like a marble.

It's good to be done.

Thank you to everyone who sent me a note while I was finishing off the semester; I can't tell you how much those little comments added up.

At the end of the semester, I camp out in my office, where I grade like a madman. As my students come in to drop off their papers, I take advantage of the distractions and have little talks with some of them. A lot of my kids just want to say goodbye, and reminisce over the semester, but some of them really want to have serious conversations.

One of my kids, who's been a little prickly all semester, decided that she wanted to have a serious discussion with me. The woman in question is in her early twenties, and is a local, which is a somewhat sensitive subject. While she realizes that Southwest Virginia is a little backward in its attitudes, she has a protective attitude towards it. It's like her retarded little brother--she makes fun of it, but gets a little upset if outsiders attack it. I can understand this, as I'm the same way.

In the course of our discussion, she told me, with granite-faced gravitas, that she's a feminist. She said this as if it was a revelation, or an admission of a lifelong vocation. I neglected to tell her that I, too, am a feminist, because I wanted to hear what she had to say on the matter. As we kept talking, I realized that my student's definition of feminism was pretty much your standard, college undergraduate, "women have been victimized for thousands of years and now it's your turn, buddy" defensive misandrony.

I treaded carefully for a few reasons. First of all, I have found that the sufferers of this particular delusion tend to be like sleepwalkers; if they awaken too quickly, permanent damage might ensue. Also, they often seem threatened by open discussion of their perspective, and react with defensiveness and lawsuits. So, anyway, I listened to my student list the same endless, ragged list of man's crimes against women. Foot binding? Check. Uncomfortable undergarments? Check. Domestic slavery? Check. Legal restrictions? Check.

Never mind that my student had never met a foot-bound, corset-wearing, housewife who had been legally raped.

(Of course, I'm only guessing that this is true. I thought about asking her if she had been foot-bound, or wore a corset, but decided that it would be in poor taste, and might be interpreted as a come-on. Besides, as she was blonde, blue-eyed, and had a southern accent, I thought the foot-binding thing was very unlikely. Also, she was wearing sneakers.)

In short, my student had internalized what a friend of mine calls "victimization trumping." This is the idea that one's value is dependent upon the degree to which he or she may claim victim status. Thus, a woman is more valuable than a man. Similarly, a gay person would be more valuable than a straight person, and a "person of color" would be more valuable than an albino. A non-christian gets more points than a Christian, and an amputee is be more valuable than a person with all his or her limbs.

Of course, in this particular perspective, a one-armed, one-legged, single, pregnant, african-american lesbian who worships Zoroaster would be the ultimate winner. She would have total bragging rights, and would reign victorious over her minions. At the very least, she could anticipate numerous offers for tenure-track positions at universities across the country.

Lest you think I'm joking...well, I am. But only a little.

Anyway, to my student's credit, she was willing to discuss these prejudices with me. She even laughed a little when I told her my personal solution to the prejudice problems of our society. I told her that prejudice will be solved when I am free to despise a woman, a gay person, or a person of color without reference to his or her gender, race, or sexual preference. Part of this, of course, is that gender, race, and sexual preference couldn't be used as a defense by the person in question.

I think the test case on this one is Condoleeza Rice. If I was free to hate Condi for her politics and her moral lassitude, without reference to her gender, race, or presumptive lesbianism, we'd be halfway there. If none of these three elements could be used to justify or explain away her moral failings, then the end of prejudice would be in sight.

I hope we get there within my lifetime.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Back in Ten

Apologies to all, as I've been a little negligent on posting and commenting. It's nearing the end of the semester down here in beautiful Southwest Virginia, and most of my energies are directed towards the huge stack of grading I have to do. Rather than give you a series of half-assed postings, I'm going to slow down on my production for the next week and a half. As I come up for air, I'll stop in on your blogs.

In other news, there's been another development in the Pam Semones/Wendy Covington front--the Christiansburg Chief of Police has retired, citing exhaustion. For those of you looking for a job, here's the listing. I'll report further plot twists as they emerge.

Talk to you soon,


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