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Archive for February, 2009

curious-george

Went off to a party last night – birthday for a band-mate of Meg’s from the inactive-but-not-defunct Flying Folk Army. And as we drank beer and talked about sword-based fitness routines and the possibilities of glory-holes for ex-smokers who crave second-hand smoke, one of the guests noticed a book given place of prominence atop a shelf – a hardcover anthology of Curious George stories.

Curious George – that crazy little monkey whose ADD-like hijinks always got him into trouble. Loved the books as a kid, and still can’t stop myself from flipping through when I come across one.

But as we looked at the book last night, I remembered the first book in the series – the one in which George comes to live with his great friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. Remember this one? Well, the basics are this – Man in Yellow Hat leaves America with his big gun to go shoot animals across the world. During his little fun-with-slaughter, Man with the Yellow Hat catches a little monkey in a big cage and decides to take it home as a living trophy. George gets caged. George gets shipped across the Atlantic in a journey that is not unlike the slave passages to the Americas in terms of his complete disorientation and terror. But on the other end? Freedom. No, not freedom as in freedom to just keep living where he was happy. Not freedom as in freedom to grow and explore. Not freedom as in the ability to decide his own fate. Not freedom as in autonomy. But Freedom with a capital “F” – Freedom American-style. Freedom to be a pet. Freedom to be owned.

In every successive story, the basic premise is the same. George wants to get away, George wants to be free, George cannot negotiate so-called civilization, George cannot sustain himself in this foreign environment, George is re-captured, George thanks his master for providing him food and shelter and the only security he knows in this jungle that is industrial America.

Think about it. George goes to the zoo, and decides it’s the closest thing he can find to home, and doesn’t want to leave. George breaks out of the house whenever the Man with the Yellow Hat is away, only to be scared into gratitude when he either encounters some new civilized terror or begins to starve. George sees something reminiscent of a tall tree, tries to escape up it, and is pursued by cops, firefighters, or other uniformed agents of the state who put him back into his proper, caged place. Man with Yellow Hat arrives, chuckles with amusement at George’s continuing reluctance to accept captivity, and kindly reminds the little monkey that the sooner he accepts his lot as property, the safer and happier he’ll be.

Wow. Never really thought about it before. The whole fucking series is really about George’s ongoing yearning for freedom and a return to a less alienating physical environment, his constant struggles with work and subsistence and the ever-present but so-often-hidden power of the state, his complex relationship with captivity as represented by the Man with the Yellow Hat – the owner who he tries constantly to escape and yet who also provides subsistence and security in this strange new world. Do I fight for my freedom, with all the risks? Or do I submit to captivity in exchange for the banana and the television screen? If my natural autonomy is out of reach, is it better to struggle alone in this alien world or accept the safe paternalism of the master? This is George’s great and ongoing crisis.

I don’t expect H.A. and Magaret Rey – the husband-wife team who wrote and illustrated the George series – intended any of this. I don’t think they were consciously making any commentary about human slavery, animals in captivity, or the contradictions of market freedom. But it’s funny how the world around us seeps in to everything we do, how we can see the conflicts of capitalism, democracy and the civilizing mission reflected in the seemingly-frivolous.

And a last discovery? Wikipedia tells me that the Reys started writing anout George after fleeing the rise of fascism in Europe. Huh. Maybe not so accidental afterall.

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Sabotage

A number of years back I travelled to Chicago for work – a conference of contract faculty union folks. And while there, as I sat in the bar one night a guy dropped into the stool beside me. He’d seen me at the conference, and as we started talking we realized we’d spoken on the phone a couple of times. C had just been hired to do the same grievance work as me, though at a university on the other side of the country. We talked – the two youngest guys in this work – and realized we had a few things in common – getting hauled around the world by globe-trotting parents, falling into the union thing after sporadically thinking about academic careers, shit like that.

Over the next several years, he and I would twice a year find ourselves at another meeting together in another city, and these occassions soon became largely party weekends for us. We’d touch base as soon as we landed, find a bar, and spend each night roaming the town, getting far too drunk and flirting with waitresses. Mostly we talked sex and work at first, but over time something else happened – somehow, though we are really quite different, and though we only saw each other a couple of days a year, C and I ended up pretty close, using these rare meet-ups to talk about our relationships, our working lives, our struggles.

Not a close friendship either of us anticipated, I don’t think. But one that rose despite the odds.

Yesterday morning I woke up to an emal from C, who’s struggling right now with the sudden break-up of his mom’s relationship. Recently married himself, he’s watching her repeat long-standing dysfunctional patterns, and feeling, I think, alot of disappointment and a fair bit of anger – after a life of many struggles, he had finally seen some hope and joy in his mom, and I think is hit pretty hard by seeing that fall apart. So, C sent me an email telling the story, venting, and expressing a lot of pain/ disillusionment/ frustration at watching people he loves sabotage a relationship that has and probably could continue to bring out their very best.

Not an uncommon story, is it?

So I’m thinking about relationship sabotage, and the ways we have of torpedoing what is most important to us.

We all do it, sometimes, somehow. Some of us more than others. Some of us more consciously than others. But we all do it sometimes. And I’m not talking about the big things we do to end unhappy relationships – affairs, neglect and so on. No, what is more prevalent and I think ultimately more dangerous – dangerous for us personally, because we can so easily deny it  – are the little niggling things that slowly sow seeds of doubt, if not in ourselves, in our partners.

I’m thinking today about what my own examples are. What are the little ways that I destabilize trust and intimacy in my relationships? Well , as I’ve written about here before, I am frequently subject to low-level jealousy. Not crazy-ass stuff that consumes me or is easily identified as a problem, but little ongoing insecurities that over time can do serious damage. Another of my own little self-sabotage-maneouvres is  a tendency to swallow my tongue, to refrain from commenting on the little things that bother me, to refrain from asking for the things I want and need. Again, not a big issue on a daily level, but the kind of thing that over years can build up and sink a relationship. And both of these two specific tendencies of mine are, I think, manifestations of a more general insecurity, a more general doubt that anyone will really want me in the long term, that anyone will stick around if I express any needs of my own, or that anyone could possibly want me when there are so many guys who are stronger, sexier, more alluring. A fear grounded in anything real? No. After all, who could be stronger, sexier, more alluuring than me, right? : )  But the insecurity is there, nonetheless. It does not require justification.

These are my own areas of insecurity. And they are, too, the things that I bring into a relationship that can gradually sabotage its success. We all have them. Me, you, everyone we know, our parents, our siblings, our lovers, and all those we presume are better catches, more desirable, more together, smarter, sexier funnier – whatever.

And as I write this I think: hmmm…Does that mean it’s all inevitable? Clearly our insecurities never really vanish. The best we can hope is to manage them. Clearly, too, we can’t pretend they don’t exist. Our partners will always know, and the silence of not-speaking our vulnerabilities can be just as damaging as the doubt sown by speaking them. I guess, then, the best we can hope for is self-reflection and perspective, to find ways of calming ourselves when we slip into those tendencies, of being aware of what impact they might have, and of finding a balance between denying them and obsessing about them.

Not easy, and not a science, But a worthy effort, nonetheless. Me? I know what I need to do. I need to recognize and remind myself that I tend to silence myself more than I should, and to make a point periodically of not doing so, just to ensure the tendency doesn’t become a pattern. I need to not beat myself up for jealousy, but know when to speak it and when not to.  I can take steps to prevent little waves from becoming a flood. I can decide, consciously, when to let my partner know I’m having a moment, and when to pretend and by pretending let the moment pass, so as not to make her responsible or anxious about what is clearly not her problem. I can be aware, and be aware that both too little acknowledgement of insecurity and too much emphasis on it are equally damaging. I can actively and consciously manage my tendencies once I identify them both to myself and my partner. I’ll never get it perfect, but that’s not the point. The point is the process.

It hurts to watch those we love do damage to themselves. And part of that hurt is because these moments remind us of our own insecurities, our own blind-spots, our own little time-bombs. C is watching now as people he loves unwittingly erode their own relationship. He’s trying to balance out his response – the frustration and anger that they do this to themselves, the sadness that they are throwing away something valuable, and the common-sense responses in him to, on the one hand, step in and help and, on the other, distance himself so he doesn’t get dragged into the dysfunction. And I suspect, too, he’s trying to fight off the doubt that we feel in ourselves when we see our loved ones self-destruct. Not a fun place to be.

But C….It ain’t all inevitable. Yeah, there’s always struggle. Yeah, we all inadvertently hurt those we love, and, yes, we all have fears and anxieties that, if unchecked, can push away those we most love. Those insecurities and tendencies to self-sabotage are issues for all of us. But knowing that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. In fact, I think knowing that might just be the key to managing it and weathering the moments of crisis.

Big love, C.

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Y’know, there is so much to celebrate, so much to live for, so much to love and to appreciate, to savour and to revel in.

There is also, however, capitalism. And even on an individual, day to day level, capitalism fucks with us and fucks with all that is good and decent in the world.

The simple things that make life good – tasty food slow-cooked with wine and conversation; time to move and work your body and breathe deep and feel yourself get stronger; space to love slowly, to love playfully, to enjoy your partner; room to spend with a kid not doing anything but simply being together, making that open space that kids need to talk; mornings to sleep late, wake slow, taste coffee and cream. Music and literature and reflection and art. These are not great demands, in the grand scheme of the universe. But damned if capitalism doesn’t undermine them all.

The last few days I have really felt the conflict of demand and desire. Exercise, writing time, music, visits with friends once or twice a week – seems pretty reasonable. But Meg and I have been finding lately that these don’t happen unless we formally schedule them. Which means earlier risings, more hectic daytimes, later dinners. And which means, too, that nothing comes naturally, organically, but all is turned into yet one more task in a workday that starts before the office and ends long after.

Funny, that. Capitalism doesn’t simply turn our economic activity into work. It turns much of living into work as well, establishing such an order to the day that even those activities that start with  ‘I want to’ soon morph into ‘I have to’. So it’s a bit of a conundrum – a life organized around work does not offer the openness of time and space to allow art, exercise, play, sex, community, conversation to simply arise organically. If we want those things, we need to make them happen, by making them another thing in the calendar. But the very act of scheduling what should be lived takes its toll on those activities, changing the way we relate to them and changing, then, something core to those activities themselves.

Drag. Capitalism indeed. All life as economy, all life as work, all relationships – including relationships with our bodies, our minds, our human-ness – as tasks to be managed. But as much as this is troubling, as much as this frutrates and srresses and overwhelms, it is just as clear that we cannot simply refuse to schedule. Because writing and song and games and movement and love and community are all so integral to us. And I am not prepared to let them fall away simply because I am unwilling to live with the fact that they must take on a discipline and an order I would prefer to avoid.

Yeah, capitalism sucks. How disheartening that such fundamentals of our humanity –  time for loved ones, basic physical health, the raising of children and the building of community – have all become subordinated to labour, and now become things to be chased and nailed down rather than moments of everyday living. But I’m not giving them up. We’re not giving them up.

Sometimes even things that feel like tasks are worth fighting for.

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Workday Fantasies

Crazy busy at work this week, which has meant no time for the blog at all, and a general frustration with the mounds of paper on my desk that seem to never shrink and the ever-growing folder of emails needing follow-up.  Really seeming like there’s a complaint-a-thon happening at the university these days, cause I’m getting new formal investigations to deal with almost daily, whereas typically these only come up a few times a year. Main cause seems to be a new policy on Respectful Workplace, which essentially makes discourtesy and hurt feelings cause for formal procedures – a super bad idea in my opinion, and I understand something frowned upon generally by practitioners in the harassment and discrimination field, who find that policies to police simple bad behaviour only generate work without actually achieving anything, and make it more difficult to identify which issues result from structural inequities and which from just plain asshole-ness.

Anyway. No rant. I’m just really fucking busy and real tired of this whole work thing right now. And in moments like this, my mind strays to fantasies of non-work, to fantasies of deepening crisis and the collapse of this infernal order that structures our lives as nothing but economic relationships.

And when I feel like this, I like to pull out a little comic Meg sent to me some months back. Just a little something to fantasize about – doesn’t help me get work done, but sure as hell makes me feel better.

 

the_office-11

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The last week or so I have been reading John Le Carre again – and early Le Carre, before real world politics and social critique get prominence in his work, and back when he was just writing short little yarns. I’ve written on Le Carre before and don’t intend to get into it again, other than to say – read this guy, particularly his more recent stuff, cause it’s bloody amazing both as story and as political commentary.

No, today’s not about what I’m reading, but about what Meg is writing. We’ve both embarked on a love affair with Jose Saramago in recent months – for ongoing satisfaction and ever-growing anticipation, certainly the stand-out menage-a-trois of my life. I first heard of him a few years back, when a member of the faculty union executive passed on his novel Blindness among a stack of natural history and biology books she recommended. Took me ages to read Blindness, but when I finally did I was simply blown away. Some of the very best writing I’d ever come across – unique in style and tone, gripping as story, fascinating characters and both a breadth and depth of intellectual engagement that very very few writers or thinkers display.

Portuguese communist, devout athiest, living in self-imposed exile from his home-country after a run-in with the Chuch, outspoken critic of Zionism and thoroughly unrepentent revolutionary. He wrote a book as a young man, then waited some thirty years before his next, after which came  a wave of brilliant novels that collectively earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, like all writers for whom English is not the language of their text, Saramago has been largely unheard of in North America, a huge loss for all of us and one only beginning to be rectified now because someone decided to turn Blindness into a feature film – and not a very good one, if the reviews are to be trusted. Because this writer, more than anyone else I can think of, deserves to be read. Because this writer deserves to be read, in particular, at this particular historical and political moment.

Saramago is all about crisis. He’s all about what happens to people when something fundamental about their identity as people suddenly evaporates. What happens when those things that fundamentally ground us to the world, but which we simply take for granted, are just no longer there. What happens when the touchstones of our humanity – not our individual identity, but our collective, social body – are no more? This seems to be the common thread, whether the specific scenario is a mass and contagious blindness, a sudden change in the physical landscape, a destablization of our uniqueness as persons, or an invitation to join the gods. Doesn’t matter what Saramago touches, it is gold.

Me, I’m not going to get into it any further than this. But I write this today because I’m thinking of Saramago, and because Megan has started a series of blogs on him that I hope everyone will take a look at. So far just two are on-line – an intro here and a discussion of Blindness here. Titled Reading Saramago During the Collapse, these posts say everything I could and so much more. And the posts leave me asking, “How could I not be so head-over-heels-in-love with this woman”.

So do read them. Me, I’ll carry on with my Le Carre yarns, pondering that very different writer’s blend of politcs and story-making. And I’ll keep adding more Saramago novels to the list of to-be-reads until I get through them all. And I’ll be watching Meg’s blog closely, and waiting waiting waiting for more from her on this old man we are both so turned-on by.

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