Sunday, December 28, 2008

the dark side

Watched Taxi to the Dark Side this evening. Found myself crying a little (yes, Erica, again), frightened and saddened and frustrated and thinking too much about the banality of evil. Hannah Arendt, who first coined the phrase in 1963's Eichmann in Jerusalem, argued that what was so shocking about Eichmann was his very normality. He came across, to her at least, as being little more than a high-level bureaucrat who happened to have the task of streamlining the Jews' deportation to the death camps, and who performed the task, without independent thought, without any introspection on morality, exceedingly well.

There have been various studies over the years on the human capacity for cruelty, including Stanley Milgrom's shock experiments at Yale and Philip Zimbardo's infamous Prison Experiment at Stanford (re-enacted pop-culturally speaking in LeGuin's The Dispossessed and TV's Veronica Mars, but also apparently recently re-enacted for real). These two in particular, along with Arendt's theories, have in some ways come to dominate the field, at least in so far as almost everyone has heard of them. Two psychology professors writing for The Psychologist earlier this year argue that this dominance has actually been a detriment to the field by limiting further study.

But the banality of evil exists, whether it is manifested in powerful figures like Eichmann (or Cheney and Rumsfeld and their defense of torture) or in the individuals actually charged with carrying out relatively mundane acts (German civilians building the railroads that brought the Jews to the concentration camps; American soldiers charged with prepping a prisoner for questioning) that culminate in horrifying brutality, or, most likely, somewhere in the interactions between these two groups. The above-mentioned professors point out the quite obvious (but also sometimes ignored) notion that "brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology." Our leaders equivocate and dodge and set up legal justifications for brutality (Cheney minimizing waterboarding, the so-called 'ticking time-bomb scenario', it's only torture if your organs fail) and then blame a few 'bad apples' when scandals like Abu Ghraib go public.

No matter whether this evil comes down from the higher echelons of power or rises up from the masses, it remains a horrifying thing, this seeming ease with which people can sink into cruelty, can so easily fall into committing inhumane acts, and can be convinced that these acts are normal, even acceptable.*

But also this evening I've been listening to some Jose Gonzalez, who apparently has been around for awhile, but whom I only recently discovered: heartbeats, crosses, teardrop.

Which in turn got me to pulling out a couple old and much beloved Massive Attack songs: teardrop, risingson, unfinished sympathy, safe from harm.

Which made me feel a whole lot better.

*A couple other interesting articles on this stuff are here, here, here and here.

portland, snowbound, 12/20 - 12/23

Friday, December 19, 2008

"And I'm heading west
Without a sad goodbye
And I'm heading west
I'm like a letter with no address
Just like a book I read
I'm heading west..."
(Cyndi Lauper)

Monday, December 15, 2008

feeling toxic, or, the disquietude of bodies and the trails they leave behind

I've had a sore throat, on and off, for a few days, and have been sneezing every now and again. Nothing particularly onerous, but I was supposed to have dinner with a friend tonight and even these small complaints were enough to make me cancel our plans.

This friend, you see, has been undergoing treatment over the last two years for multiple myeloma. A cancer of a particularly nasty sort, from what I can tell, and one that most often attacks people decades older than he and I.

He has been home for awhile now, recovering nicely from the latest bone marrow transplant. But he cannot yet go back to work, cannot eat in restaurants or go to the movies or go out for a drink or walk around in crowds or take public transportation.

And he most definitely cannot be around anyone who is sick, even someone just sick with a cold.

This got me to remembering a particular discussion from a queer theory course I took in college. The topic was, uncomfortably enough, seepage. Fluids. Ooze. Excretions. Specifically the seepage of bodies; the breakdown, the breaching, of boundaries and the contamination, real or imagined, that ensues.

We sometimes think of our bodies (or at least we are sometimes told that we should think of our bodies) as temples, to be honed and toned and shaped into some idealistic mold of what it is to be human, impenetrable to age, disease, danger. But eventually this gets turned on its head, ripped out from the inside, and our bodies betray us and become, in themselves, dangerous. Usually we think of this in terms of danger to ourselves. Congestive heart failure. Stroke. Cancer. But every once in awhile we are reminded that we can be, that we sometimes are, a danger to others, however unintentionally or unwittingly.

A woman I once knew was misdiagnosed as having Hepatitis C, an infectious disease transmitted by blood. She carried this (mis)information around with her for weeks. I remember her telling me about a dinner at some fancy restaurant where she somehow cut her finger. Not a bad cut, little more than a paper cut, but it bled a bit, as fingers do. Not thinking, she staunched it with her napkin (a cloth napkin, this being a fancy restaurant). But then awareness came crashing back into her and she snatched the napkin off the table and crammed it into her pocket, guilt-stricken, not wanting to leave any of her malignant self, any of her personal danger, behind.

I've been thinking about this napkin and the need for containment, and the mingling and unmingling of bodies, and the spaces around bodies, and the traces bodies leave behind.

I've been anxious about seeing this friend of mine for months, for almost two years, truth be told. I avoided visiting him for a long time, despite feeling horrible about it, both during his hospital stays and later when he was back home. Never because I didn't want to see him, because I did, but rather because I could never quite trust my generally healthy body to not somehow contaminate his oh so fragile body.

Sometimes when bodies collide, even if it's just the air around them, even if it's just a shared moment of in- and exhalation, bad things can happen. Sometimes the best thing we can do for people we love is stay well away from them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I've been smoking lately.

These past few weeks I've slipped back in to it again, though I couldn't tell you exactly why.

It started with a sudden compulsion, on my way home one day in mid November, the day before going to a friend's mother's memorial service. The day before being confronted, again, with the ex-boyfriend.

He was never fond of it, this unpleasant little habit of mine, and I quit periodically during the years we were together, to greater or lesser effect.

I would quit, and then there would be a fight, and then in a fit of rage and defiance I would run out, slamming doors behind me, to the closest open news stand or bodega. And I would stand outside, sometimes in rain, sometimes in snow, on a corner under a streetlight or overlooking the river, and puff away until I was calm enough to return to the scene of our most recent crimes against each other.

The rage and defiance aren't so much an issue these days, so I'm not sure where this need for some small sense of self-destruction comes from.

It's not something I feel good about.

I remember the first cigarette I ever smoked, one late spring night back in 1993, a few weeks after my father's death, up on the bleachers overlooking my high school's football field.

I remember getting home late, night after night, and dashing in to the bathroom to rub my teeth with toothpaste before going in to kiss my mother goodnight, to let her know that her girl was home safe, that she could sleep soundly.

I thought then that I would stop before I was twenty, call an end to adolescent acting out, but that was half a lifetime ago now.

The other night Nick and I were out for one of our dinners and I was talking to him about the breast lump, and about how, when I found it, my first instinct was to call the ex-boyfriend, looking for something. Comfort, I suppose, or salvation. Nick said his guess was that it wasn't so much about the ex-boyfriend per se, but about the habits, the learned behaviors, we all fall back on in times of crisis.

We left the bar then and I pulled a cigarette and a book of matches out of my coat pocket. Nick glanced over, chuckled, and said, "Well, or there's that."

So yeah, there's that. But there's also the hope - no, the knowledge - that I will move through this too, and come out again on the other side. You know, grow up a little bit more and take responsibility for my actions and all that scary adult stuff.

Man, I think I need a smoke.

Monday, December 08, 2008


I was thinking on Saturday, over the course of an evening spent making ebelskivers and helping Chris and Andrew decorate their first Christmas tree, about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and his band of merry misfits.

This got me to feeling a bit nostalgic for all those old Christmas movies I adored so much as a child, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman and March of the Wooden Soldiers (aka Babes in Toyland), and how excited I would get about watching them every December.

Except that they inevitably caused a bit of conflict in our household, because they inevitably conflicted with the nightly news. My Dad was an avid watcher of the nightly news and, as with so many things, he and I shared a certain propensity for extreme stubbornness.

My argument, of course, was the indisputable stance that these movies only came on once a year and he got to watch the news every other night. His argument, of course, was that the movies were the same damned thing every year and the news was different every single night.

He generally had the good grace to let me win.

manhattan christmas

Friday, December 05, 2008

'preface to a twenty volume suicide note'

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.

(Amiri Baraka)

Monday, December 01, 2008

ode to miss pig

It's been a bad year for the McNeil cats, beginning and now also ending with their loss.

Miss Pig, presumably, is dead. There is no physical evidence, only her unprecedented failure to appear at my mother's kitchen door last Wednesday morning, mewling her ridiculous little mew in the hopes of obtaining foodish delights.

There are coyotes in Anacortes and, on occasion, they have been known to nab unwary felines. My mother fears the worst.

Miss Pig (also known affectionately as just Pig, as in, "Where's the Pig? It's breakfast time!" or, "Oh Pig, what have you got into now?") was a homeless cat, a raggedy muffin stray of a cat, who adopted Mom and Paul five or six years back. She quickly squiggled her way into their hearts through her furriness and funniness and sweetness. She earned her name not by her size, as one might imagine (she was big, no doubt, but much of that was mere fluff), but by her propensity for rolling around in the dirt. Literally. No one was happier during Mom and Paul's house renovations than Miss Pig, who rapturously took advantage of the dirt piles scattered over the lawn. Rumor has it that cats are fastidious in nature, but Pig put that rumor to bed.

She was a funny cat, and made the oddest little chirpy noises, and had the softest (if also the knottiest) fur of any cat I ever knew, and we'll miss her. And for all the horribleness of being eaten, presumably, by a coyote (or perhaps more mundanely, if less colorfully, hit by a car), I am glad that she got to run around in the sunshine, and roll around in the dirt (even if Mom and Paul's comforter sometimes bore the brunt of this slovenliness), and live a life she loved, even a life cut short.