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Month: March, 2012

Bring on the Knight

The other day I was walking down the sidewalk, my thoughts lost in the beauty of the young day; who knew what lay ahead or really cared? It is springtime in Rome and I was enjoying a bit of reverie on my way to work. Each step blended into the next. There was no such thing as time.

Then a sound from right behind me–unidentifiable except as a signal of imminent danger–came crashing into my consciousness. Something large was coming at me and I would get hit if I didn’t move. In a flash, I turned to look, dodged the oncoming threat, and snapped into hyper-alertness.

What I saw, as I got my bearings, perched on the edge of the sidewalk, was not, thank goodness, a car coming down the sidewalk, though that can happen here in Rome, or a mugger–or worse. It was a jogger.

He was fit and muscular, with all the accoutrements of someone who ran a lot, and all the signs of someone who expected others to get out of his way. His progress was inexorable. He was doing something virtuous and important: high priority.

“Rudeness, pure and simple?” you might ask. “Plain old-fashioned boorishness?”

Yes, and even a bit mean. How did he know I could move so quickly at the last moment, without harm to myself? That I had full hearing and knew he was there? He was willing to take that risk. Maybe I should take it as a compliment. I looked young and spry enough to compete on an equal footing so he did not think of his muscled litheness as intimidating to me. All’s fair in love and sidewalks. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Or is it “each man for himself”…

But was it something more?

In another time and place, long, long ago, there lived a lovely lady who once faced a tremendous danger, a potential threat to her very life. Suddenly, riding up on a beautiful white steed, there appeared a knight in shining armor who swept her up and carried her off to safety.

In your dreams. As the cigarette ad said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Right?

I know, I know, anyone who would suggest there might be something salvageable from the era of chivalry must be not just conservative, but downright reactionary, or worse, self-deluded. A believer in fairy-tales.

It is true there is much to criticize about historical eras when one sex was placed on a pedestal, only to be deprived of the rights, privileges, and basic human dignity afforded the other, and the other sex beset with expectations beyond any reasonable measure. But isn’t it equally cynical to assume today’s way of treating someone is inevitable? Is it really all that crazy and backward to imagine a kind of chivalry for the twenty-first century, one appropriate for an age of democracy and equality?

After all, there are still knights among us. If I had fallen, one of them would have rushed to my aid–whether a pregnant woman pushing a young child in a stroller, her five-year- old boy, the immigrant woman speaking neither English nor Italian going to her cleaning job, the old man doing repair work on the building across the street or the man in the perfectly cut suit. So others clearly think chivalry is not dead.

So what’s with the jogger? Everything about him gave the message that I should step aside. The wires dangling from his ears, his failure to make eye contact, the racing stripes of his expensive running attire: all bespoke his primary engagement with something other than the moment in which two human beings accidentally found themselves, at the same time, on the same humble patch of sidewalk. As Dalton Conley, author of The Elsewhere Society, might put it, in his mind the jogger was elsewhere, somewhere better. He had that grim look of someone who is certain he is in the right, even if he does not necessarily know why–who has to do what he has to do. The “I just work here, I didn’t make the rules” look of so much of modern bureaucratic life. Ok, perhaps he didn’t make them, but he’s enforcing them, isn’t he?

It is jarring to me when, in the act of developing just those things once associated with performing heroic duties–muscles, strength, endurance, self-discipline–, someone acts in a way that is the direct opposite. With today’s dominant culture nodding approvingly, the jogger perhaps places paramount importance on his physique–not because he seeks to serve anyone or anything, but simply for himself. At most, he imagines someone else it might please, impress, or attract. But isn’t it strange to betray ugliness in the very process of trying to cultivate allure and admiration?

The incident made me reflect on the purpose of this kind of self-important physical activity for those not facing warfare or other immediate demands for prowess, those not even willing to employ their strengths in the small tasks of generosity possible in everyday life; on that rarity today, a sense of honor and loyalty to an unattainable love and a belief in inner content, not mere appearance; on the vast differences in the way people can approach the inhabiting of the same moment, including one in which, out of nowhere, we share our little paths with another person, stranger or friend, however temporarily.

If this jogger stands for what it means to be alert and awake in the world as it is today, in the glare of daytime and full consciousness, I’ll meet you in the dream-world.

The future is but a question mark

Hangs above my head, there in the dark

Can’t see for the brightness is staring me blind

God bid yesterday goodbye

Bring on the night

I couldn’t stand another hour of daylight

~The Police

–Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

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Improving the Self Over Tea

Not long ago I made myself a cup of tea.  I was standing alone in my kitchen at the time, and as I waited for the water to boil, I ripped open the paper covering over the teabag so I’d be ready as soon as the whistling came.  This is a ritual I perform often, always alone in my kitchen.  But this time I noticed something different.  At the end of the teabag was a little scroll.  And on it were the words, “there is nothing more precious than the self.”

I buy Yogi tea for mundane reasons.  Their tea, particularly the Egyptian Licorice variety I was holding in my hand that day, is of high middling quality.  It doesn’t require sweetener if you let it steep long enough, and the flavor has a nice soothing complexity if you concentrate while drinking it.  I should admit that the ethos of natural, organic products also appeals to me, and that I prefer to pay just enough for my tea so I can be sure it came from one of the post-counterculture hippie outpost-corporations in Oregon or California.  I’m a sucker for the imagery of the Far East, and some part of me is probably comforted by the “Yoga Invite to Tranquility” on the side of the box, since this confirms Yogi’s hippie credentials.  The invite is as follows: “Sit cross-legged or in a chair with feet flat.  Rest your right elbow on right knee.  Lean your right cheekbone on the palm of your right hand.  Close your eyes and relax for 1 to 3 minutes.  Your mind and body will thank you.” But (in smaller print) “before doing this exercise or participating in any exercise program, consult your physician.”  The litigious warning was a little jarring, but I still tried the exercise.  Enlightenment comes in many forms, I guess.  But really I just like the tea.

I’m certainly within Yogi’s target demographic, and they’ve clearly sold me on their product.  So why the need to indoctrinate me on the preciousness of the self?  What was I meant to take from this message other than that someone down at Yogi headquarters (or rather, Golden Temple of Oregon, LLC) thought it might help sell more tea?

Anxious for the truth, I began ripping open the paper coverings over other teabags to see what further evidence I might find.  “Empty yourself and let the universe fill you,” said one.  “Be happy so long as breath is within you,” said another.  “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”  “May your mind learn to love with compassion.”

Maybe I was being too cynical toward the Yogi people.  Maybe they really do want to teach me how to live in accordance with the larger principles of the universe and to be a better person.  But why so much emphasis on the self?  Why so much attention to the words “you” and “your”?  Where does this language of the self come from, and why does it appear at the end of a teabag sold to a person like me in the year 2012?

The intersection between Eastern spiritual tenets and the American cult of self-improvement has been especially fraught since the late 1960s.  This was when the two strains began to converge around a mass market of products ranging from crystals to health food, and “yoga” started to become a household word.  Certainly many Americans have benefited from the influx of Eastern ideas and practices that this market enabled.  But it has also aided and abetted our tendency to equate self-improvement with merely personal consumption.

There is much to be said for the meaning of self-realization in ancient Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita.  But when this meaning is distilled, or rather translated, into an appendage to a mass-produced consumer good like Egyptian Licorice Tea, its original form and content have been surreptitiously altered.  Whatever its other connotations, “there is nothing more precious than the self” becomes absorbed in the immediate act of drinking soothing hot liquid and feeling content.  The result is perhaps a perfect synthesis of East and West.  But is this what the saints and sages of ancient India had in mind?

With fresh cup of tea in hand, I went upstairs to check out the Yogi website: www.yogiproducts.com.  There I found tabs for Yogi Tea, Yogi Cereal, and Well-Being.  Just below “Tea Talk With Guru Hari” under the Well-Being tab, I clicked on “Yoga Poses.”  Several of them looked interesting.  Each pose was accompanied by detailed instructions and an attractive woman in stylish yoga pants and tank-top demonstrating what it should look like.  I rolled out my yoga mat and tried a few of them.  Looking up at my ceiling, I wondered if I was doing them correctly.  Was this what “Yoga for natural comfort” should feel like?  I tried to close my eyes and breathe calmly as the instructions said.  But my eyes kept opening.  Bending and rolling my torso across the floor in slow methodical motions, my thoughts kept returning to my self.

-Michael Fisher

Irony, Death, Whitney

Recently, while taking a walk, I decided to phone my grandmother. I try to stay in touch with her as much as possible, usually through weekly or bi-weekly telephone conversations. And usually, upon hearing my voice, following her neutral “hello?,”  there is a noticeable spike in the happiness of her tone. But when I called on this particular occasion, there was no neutral “hello;” nor was there a corresponding perking up in her voice. She was crestfallen, and I could tell that she had been crying. To hear my grandmother so out of sorts, so melancholy, my heart was gripped. When I asked why she had been crying, she responded by telling me that she had just been watching the televised memorial service for the recently deceased Whitney Houston. This struck me.

Upon hearing the news of Whitney Houston’s death, I admittedly felt very little emotion other than surprise. She was a figure beloved by millions, but not by me. And though I know her only abstractly as a celebrity figure, godhead to those taken in by what is, in my mind, “bad” music, my acknowledgment that she, as a human being, ceased to exist, frankly under-whelmed me. Though I hadn’t considered my lack of compassion regarding her death, I understood my reticence exactly: we can only make connections to certain people in particular situations; our subjectivity is shaped by the nature of local environments and the emotions of those few people we make lasting connections with. So was I heartless to care so little about the death of Whitney Houston, a distant abstraction in my mind, removed from the purview of real, immediate relationships? How could my gentle grandmother resonate so deeply with the death of the same abstraction?

Rather than trying to understand this quandary in terms of a tired critique of our celebrity worship, I think about the scenario in somewhat different terms: those of irony and death.

My distance from such figures as Whitney Houston, and the for the most part, the general climate of popular culture is, in a sense, an ironic move. In a way, I believe that my distance from figures like Houston is a way of ascribing to myself a sense of superiority. Though my inclination towards egalitarianism makes me shirk at the thought of describing myself as someone with good taste, I recognize that my cultural proclivities and intellectual endeavors betray a sense of distance that tells something of my perception of what it means to fill the cultural role of superiority. Such recognition is ironic, because my choice to generally decry popular culture runs against my competing belief that what one reads, watches, or listens to does not mark one as a better person. So how then could I conceivably reconcile this flagrant contradiction with the visceral feeling of hearing my grandmother crying at the experience of sharing in the event of Whitney Houston’s death?

What I take to be my implicit sense of superiority (though I like to act as though it’s not there) was brought to the fore of my mind when I spoke with my grandmother on the phone. With a lugubrious yet elegant tone, she described to me how beautiful the service was, how profound the outpouring of support, how moving was the impressive attendance. As I listened to her speak and lament, I became suddenly aware of not only my pretense, but how that pretense was undergoing what Jonathan Lear calls “ironic disruption.” That is, I became conscious of myself as a person aspiring towards something, in my actions and held cultural sensibilities, through an uncanny reconsideration of what that aspiration means; that sense of myself returned to me as something both familiar and profoundly disorienting. Stanley Cavell calls this the experience of the “ordinary.” And what attended this reconfiguration was the mournful yet placid sound of my grandmother’s voice, in profound appreciation for a woman she only knew as an exceptional celebrity. It was her sonorous sounds of mourning that arrested my pretense, my desire to control the fact that a human being had died through some snarky derision about her drug use or sordid life. In her voice was something approaching faith; and in my disruption was death saying hello.

When we are lucky enough to experience these moments of the ordinary, these experiences that remind one of faith’s possibility (and we all experience these moments), the thought of death inevitably emerges. With reminders of death, with births, in tone of voice and bodily comportment, death emerges as that one thing that makes us all the same. On this understanding of death, we dance arm in arm with its inevitability, present at all points of our life. But this “being unto death,” as Heidegger put it, needn’t be tragic. It is profoundly ironic, an anchor for both our pretense and grounds for the disruption of that pretense, the disruption of the rational will. When William James spoke of this disruption in his essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” he was, I think, suggesting something we can use to understand this ironic orientation toward our death:

“Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale.”

Our inattention to the other, an undue attention to our practical interests or rational reflections, can make us blind not only to others, but to the moments of disruption, the “becoming worthless,” that attunes us to death and anchors us to the joys of life. Such attunement is like an ironic dance with death, the possibility of transcending our pretense in connections with others.

But what do we make of these connections in the twenty-first century, when so much of what this possibility entails is implicated in the wonderful and horrible juggernaut of instant technology and globalization? My first inclination is to recoil. I want to see others face to face, hear sounds and see images somehow unmediated. But perhaps this is a misguided, quixotic ideal. In our fulfillment of social and cultural roles, in our questioning of those roles, we are always mediated; not simply by language, but by that human insecurity about what it means to live a meaningful life in the face of immanent death, by those disruptions that call into question the relationship between one’s distance from Whitney Houston and one’s closeness to one’s grandmother.

This insecurity will never leave us as long as we remain human. And now we liberate ourselves from this insecurity online, in the capacious world of hitherto unseen images, unheard music, and unmet people. The imperative toward local community and its attendant emotional dynamics may in fact be a foregone conclusion, but we still shape our identity through the tremulous search for connection and affirmation that betrays our ironic orientation toward death, the search for that connection that disrupts our sense of self, that makes worthless our practical roles.

To return to my grandmother, then, I think about how a woman much closer to death than I meaningfully engaged with the memorial service for Whitney Houston, and how hearing of her grief disrupted my sense of self. I still don’t feel moved by Houston’s death. But I think I understand better why we cannot ever escape our ironic stance toward death, why we can only continue to take it by the hand in waltzes; why the disruption of our pretense, our claims on the world, has to be, and is taking shape around us in new and profoundly interesting, perhaps even liberating, ways.

-Erik Hmiel

Tourism or Narcissism?

I stood in the early spring sun soaking up the majestic beauty of Trevi Fountain. There was a seething crowd of tourists all around, with groups of every size competing in every language to be heard. It was happy noise and smiles abounded. Though it seemed a little excessive and quite deafening, the excitement was understandable. Or was it?

A woman near me sat on a post with her legs wrapped around the shoulders of her male companion, who was standing in front of her. It struck me as strange both because of the over-zealous public display of affection and the decibel of the unnatural woman’s laughter and because both were facing away from the fountain. Then I realized they were monkeying around for the camera.

Scanning the crowd, again and again I glimpsed people posing for an image of themselves. Except for the occasional solitary soul–no doubt one of the brooding sort like me–rarely did I see someone actually turn around and look at the fountain.

One teenager had furry boots the size of a Clidesdale’s long-hair-draped hoof at the end of her spindly tights-clad legs. As she struck various fashion-magazine-type poses, she seemed oblivious to her surroundings. All I could think is why all the trouble of leaving home if they just wanted pictures of themselves.

It is even endearing at times that people would want pictures of themselves in front of a monument that means so much to them–if it does, that is. It was the sheer number of poses and photographs that added up to what seemed like something other than what it claimed to be.

It is not that I wish to bash tourists. Perhaps it is more a certain tourist sensibility that is responsible for the less pretty pictures one can see even on a glorious day like this one. It actually troubled me a bit to see so few Americans, the usual culprits when it comes to this kind of self-obsession, because self-flagellation was not an option. Was this the culture of narcissism, à la my Dad’s book, gone global?

But lest we get too grim, I really do not think tourists are to blame, pure and simple.

One time I set out on one of the least attractive sections of the Erie Canal walk in Central New York. It was off season and the area really looked down in the mouth, in that distinctive upstate way. This thirty foot section of the path, at the head of the trail just out of the parking lot, was now rural after a fashion, if you consider overgrowth from apathy or neglect the countryside. The postindustrial-looking cement and rusted iron was typical for one of the ersatz grand old cities that form a constellation across the state along Route 90, which parallels the old canal route.

Just starting or finishing my walk, I noticed a small group of Asian visitors ooh-ing and aah-ing, pointing at this and that–a tree branch, the pitiful dirty stream, the sky, the birds? Somehow the sight of these strangers admiring terrain I knew so well as to take it for granted, moved me deeply.

This memorable encounter changed my opinion of tourists permanently. Seeing other people appreciate things can make one see them completely differently. Since then I have a special fondness for the place, the understated charm of which it took the eyes of strangers to make me see.

But there is another kind of tourist, unlike those who were looking at the run-down area of the canal path. The latter gazed with what appeared to be near reverence; theirs was a demeanor of respect and openness to what they could glean from the setting. They wanted their pictures taken with it as the background, to treasure later.

The other kind of tourist has, of course, been much maligned. We know this character from literary portrayals of American tourists in works from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad to The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, with the film version starring Marlin Brando. Nineteenth-century reformer Margaret Fuller, the most prominent female member of the crowd of Emerson and Thoreau, was greatly influenced by her Italian travels, as was Henry James later on. She thought Americans abroad fell in the categories of “servile” (those who voraciously imbibed everything Italian out of pure self-indulgence) or “conceited” (those who thought American achievements to be progress over the old ways, which they saw as inferior by definition). She preferred, naturally, the “thinking American,” who recognized the advantages of the American context (her passion was for democracy) yet did “not wish one seed from the Past to be lost”:

“The history of our planet in some moments seems so painfully mean and little, such terrible bafflings and failures to compensate some brilliant successes–such a crashing of the mass of men beneath the feet of a few, and these, too, of the least worthy–such a small drop of honey to each cup of gall, and, in many cases, so mingled, that it is never one moment in life purely tasted….” (Dispatches from Europe, 1846-60, “Dispatch 18: New and Old World Democracy.”)

What a beautiful phrase: “one moment in life purely tasted.” Fuller’s sensibility is so much more helpful than the supposed cultural expert qua tourist, like one who informs us in Bon Appetit that Trevi Fountain is “overrated” (May 2011). Just what would he think of that little patch of the canal path?

In an act rare for me, I decided I wanted my own picture of the magnificent fountain on this glorious day. With some serious manual calisthenics, I was able to get one without any of the tourists in it. That is, unless when I upload the photographs, it turns out their reflections appear, like that of Narcissus, marring the exquisite pale green of Trevi’s pure waters.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn