Thursday, November 22, 2012

Car crash

A little after midnight last night, the night before Thanksgiving, I almost hit someone with my car on the freeway. He had staggered into the lane, and I had to swerve a little to miss him, my tires crunching through the debris from his wrecked SUV. His was the only car stopped, so I pulled over to help. I ran back along the shoulder to him, shouting “Do you need help?” over the hiss of freeway traffic.

I reached him, and he put his hands on my upper arms. “Yes,” he said, his eyes digging into mine, “yes, I need help.”

I pulled him as far as possible from the traffic singing by just feet away, and pulled out my cell phone. “I'm going to call 911,” I shouted.

“No,” he said, “I need you to help without calling 911. Can you call someone else?” He was drunk.

His car was facing the wrong way, its headlights dark. I told him there was nobody I could call.

Almost as soon as I arrived, I saw police lights flashing down the other side of the freeway. I told him I saw them, that they were on their way; he wanted me to find something to break his windshield. He thought that would help somehow. I don't know why. I watched the lights exit the freeway and cross the overpass to the entrance on our side. I considered putting him in my car and driving away – nobody was hurt, there was no property damage besides his own vehicle, he was the only one involved. It was too late. The police arrived.

The whole front of a police car is dazzling lights pointed at you. I felt like I was on stage, and didn't know my lines. I felt like they were going to come out of those lights with their guns drawn, pointed at us.

I told the police that I wasn't involved; I had just stopped to help. They took down my information and told me when it was safe to run around the wrecked SUV and jog back to my car.

When the police had pulled up, he had slumped back against his twisted grille and started crying.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why I'm a Dick About My Moustache

Deconstructing Moustache Praise
Every day, people comment on my huge, ridiculous moustache. Almost invariably, these comments take the form of praise. In (very) rough order of frequency, I most often hear:
    • Is your moustache real?
    • How long did that take?
    • Well done!
    • I wish I could grow a moustache like that.
    • That is a respectable/legitimate moustache.
    • Is it a lot of work?
The number one question, that of whether or not it is real, mostly illustrates the degree to which people have become inured to simulacra and artifice. My moustache is notably large and goofy, granted, but it's still rather disappointing that most people who are moved to comment – and of course, there is no way to measure the number of people who assume it is fake and don't ask about it – would rather assume something slightly outside their daily experience is not real, even something as mundane as facial hair that is styled unusually. Facial hair is something that is within the reach of about half the adult human population of the world.

This is what makes the remainder of the common moustache comments troubling. They are all, to greater or lesser degrees, framed as praise for an achievement. As I've mentioned, nothing could be less of an achievement than possessing a naturally-occurring appendage. In fact, one of the questions, “Is it a lot of work?”, is particularly paradoxical in this respect: is the asker so unfamiliar with the process of shaving that they believe it takes some kind of exertion to grow hair? Obviously, I wax and style it, which requires some degree of effort, but the combing of, application of product to, and subsequent styling of hair is a process with which virtually everyone is familiar. It would be insulting to the asker to assume that they actually believe that not shaving one's upper lip and then twisting the ends of the resulting hair amounts to some kind of Herculean task, the completion of which merits congratulation. What, then, are they congratulating me for?

Most obviously, I am being congratulated for being a man. I am aware that not all men can grow moustaches, and that some women can. I am also aware that among trans and intersexed people, moustache ownership or the capacity therefor is mostly uncorrelated with gender. However, cis people form an overwhelming majority, and in the cultural consciousness of virtually everyone, facial hair is associated with masculinity. Thus, at least in the minds of the people commenting, I have a moustache because I am a man, and I am a man because I have a moustache. And they're congratulating me, in terms of “respect” and “legitimacy”. Wow.

But wait, there's more. Let's talk about expressed envy. It is infrequent, but sometimes it is women who say that they “wish they could grow a moustache like that”. I'll go out on a limb here, and say that all other things being equal, no. They don't. Given that one of the key responsibilities that patriarchy imposes upon women is to conform to prescribed standards of beauty (which most assuredly don't include growing hair on one's face), I'll venture that given the choice, not a single one of the women who have said that to me would wish to awaken the next morning with thick, coarse hair growing on her upper lip. What, then, are they wishing for? One obvious answer springs to mind: they are wishing that they were men. When, living in a world in which men are disproportionately in positions of power and privilege, these women are confronted with an unequivocal signifier of masculinity, they are prompted to express a desire, however transitory, that they were not members of a disempowered class. Perhaps not revolutionary, but not surprising, either.

Of course, the vast majority of those who express a wish that they “could grow a moustache like that” are men. Once again, such a comment seems, on its face, paradoxical. Perhaps the texture and growth pattern of his facial hair is such that he can't grow a moustache exactly like mine, but in all likelihood he can grow a moustache. Facial hair of some kind, almost certainly. And there is always something he can do with his facial hair to make him look as ridiculous as I do. So we ask the question again: what is he wishing for? Perhaps he is wishing for the social freedom to grow wacky facial hair. I have the social freedom to wear an eccentric moustache because I am a student who works low-paying low-status jobs in the service industry. That isn't the kind of social freedom that my customers probably want. It's more likely that these upwardly-mobile hard-working young professionals are wishing for another kind of social freedom: wealth. It's common enough – “I wish I could take a vacation in Tahiti”, “I wish I could drive a Lamborghini and not have to worry about speeding tickets”, “I wish I could just party all the time and not have to work”, “I wish I could grow a big handlebar moustache”. The way these commenters conceptualize it, the wish for a big moustache is a wish for membership in the elite, and thus by implication for the perpetuation of that elitism.

Could these criticisms be leveled at me for growing the moustache in the first place? Perhaps. I am a white male, I do have at least the level of economic privilege to concern myself at a given moment with trimming and grooming the hair on my face rather than where my next meal is coming from. In my defense, I can suggest that while my privilege authorizes and enables me to grow a moustache, having grown one does not enhance my privilege, or extend it over others. Ironically, my “unbelievably” weird moustache, though in one sense a function of privilege, serves to curtail my access to opportunities that my maleness would otherwise facilitate, in much the same way that one has to have a couple of grand to blow on tattoos, which subsequently hinder one's earning potential. In contrast, while my moustache doesn't actively oppress others, those who comment on it or congratulate me are expressing their respect and admiration for the position of privilege from which it descends.
Fuck those guys.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I am a product of my past. My identity may or may not be built around some inherent, undetermined core of individuality or personality, but the raw materials of my identity are beyond my control. The people I've known, the education I've received, chance encounters, campfire stories, the pattern of light filtering through leaves on the wall of my childhood home: one doesn't need to be a determinist to agree that my past constitutes the experiential palette from which my present is painted. There are episodes in my history I may downplay, strive against, forget, or wish to forget. However, not only is it impossible to unexperience these episodes, my own desire to obliterate them is itself evidence of the shaping force they have exerted upon my character. This is true of all of us.

I identified this theme of determinism and the inescapability of the past in all of the texts I produced for my creative writing class this semester. In particular, I found that I was exploring the way that our lives are shaped and constrained by the decisions and behavior of other people. 

In keeping with this theme, I generated the final text of my semester protfolio in a (for me) novel way: I drafted a short story, and then deleted a number of key words and phrases. Then, I read the story aloud to my classmates, and invited them to choose words and phrases to replace those I had deleted. I committed both to my classmates and to myself that I would preserve their language in my final submitted draft. This writing process mirrors the way an individual's identity is formed: as the author, I can revise so that the language I received fits elegantly or grammatically into the story the same way that a person has a degree of control over how they interpret or react to their past experiences, but those words, like those experiences, can't be erased. 

Without exaggeration, I can say that as a writer, the prospect of relinquishing control over my text was frightening. As expected, the students chose language that I would not have, and as such the story is definitionally not up to my standards. The experience has had precisely the effect for which I had hoped: it has put into sharp focus the extent to which my life is out of my control, and reminded me just how scary that can be. It has also raised an interesting question: to what extent does this story actually differ from any other story I have written? I didn't invent each word that I use. The worlds I describe in my writing consist of components I have experienced elsewhere. The tiny subset of a universe of infinite possibility that is available to me to include in my writing has always been chosen for me, hasn't it? 

The story is after the jump. I have chosen not to highlight the students' additions -- I think it would be a cop-out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Everyone be scared! Kodak had nukes!

Gizmodo has this article wringing their hands about Kodak's hyper secret nuclear bomb factory under New York City! (Well, okay, Rochester). Why, they "could have started their own nuclear war if they wanted"! We're all safe now, though. It was dismantled in 2006.

Okay, let's dismantle the article. According to the article, 3.5 lbs of uranium is "not enough to create a nuclear bomb". No shit. You need 115 lbs to even reach critical mass. Nonetheless, the article warns us, "illegal arm merchants are seeking small amounts like this to put them for sale in the black market [and] the government doesn't want Iran or al-Qaeda getting their hands all over the atomic candy for obvious reasons." Very obvious reasons. I mean, like, just off the top of my head, we don't want al-Quaeda to have the ability to do neutron radiography testing. And god forbid Iran set up a lab and test materials for impurities! We'd all be doomed!

But we made it through by the skin of our teeth. Although everyone in New York State was walking around above potential nuclear holocaust for a while, there's no problem now, because those 3.5 lbs of uranium are... uh, not there anymore. You see, until 2006, they were dangerously stored "in a closely guarded, two-foot-thick concrete walled underground bunker in the company's headquarters", but now, thank goodness, they're, you know, gone. Poof. So, although the thrust of the article is 'oh no, there was uranium' and 'what if brown people got it', we don't have to worry, presumably, because uranium evaporates or something when the reactor it's in is dismantled.

This kind of "we almost lost Detroit" nuke gasping makes me sick. 470,000 people die annually from coal and fossil fuel energy production. By contrast, 64 people have died as a result of the meltdown at Chernobyl, predictions for deaths as a result of the Fukushima meltdown run as high as 100, and the high estimate of deaths at Hiroshima is 166,000. So first of all, don't bother me pissing your pants about nukes until something actually happens, and second, if we switched over to nuclear energy, we could let a plant go full Hiroshima every year and still be saving lives.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Defense of Wordiness

                Consider this selection from a hypothetical mystery story:

                 The bar was close to empty, and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was empty in a glad-to-see-you kind of way. The bartender looked sidelong at me as I entered.
                “Something I can do for you, friend?”
                That was one mystery solved.

                The preceding passage is, if I may, pretty good. It says a lot without using a lot of words. Evocative without being descriptive, it pretty well conforms to the ideals of American prose since Hemmingway.
Now let’s dissect the bird. The narrator doubts whether he will be welcome in the bar. Upon his entry, the bartender’s greeting is chilly and sarcastic, indicating that the narrator is not, in fact, welcome. The text mirrors the narrative: by omitting descriptive phrases like “he hissed” or “he asked sarcastically” or descriptions of the bartender’s expression, the reader, like the narrator, must rely on his wits and social acuity to a certain extent if he wishes to unpack the pronouncement’s implications (although those implications are fairly unambiguous).
That’s all cool – for a contemporary American reader. A contemporary American reader would be familiar enough with retail procedures to know that it would be considered extremely rude to greet a customer (or anyone really) with “Something I can do for you?” Likewise, such a reader would know that native American English speakers never use the word “Friend” in that context when they are speaking with a real or potential friend. Addressing someone directly as “Friend" is actually interpreted as openly hostile by many people.
But non-native, non-American, or decades-distant future readers may not grasp these schema. To them, the “solution” to the “mystery” may at first seem that the bar is friendly, and they may be confused when someone’s nose gets broken or something. What we initially valued as straightforward, unadorned prose turns out to be a complex dirty trick on a reader who actually takes the words at face value.
It is often quite convincingly argued that the “text” emerges as the effect that words have on a reader irrespective of the author’s original intent. However, all but the most ridiculously pretentious of the proponents of such interpretive frameworks agree that the author should try to get his point across as effectively as possible. Though a reader brings his own experiences to bear on any final reading of a work, I can’t imagine many writers who wouldn’t be (perhaps quietly) disappointed to hear that a reader interpreted a book, scene, or line completely differently than the author had intended.
In reality, the fewer words we use to get our point across, the more we rely on intersubjectively shared assumptions and experiences to be understood, and the more we exclude those from different social and cultural positions. Or, more correctly, the less different someone has to be before they are excluded.  Obviously, an author isn’t writing for everyone – at the most fundamental level, not everyone reads English. But as writers, we have to ask ourselves, how many people do we wish to exclude?

“The grounds are nice, I suppose,” he intoned over a neat Bruichladdich, “but run by an old Dulwich boy? Well, I suppose they at least have some standards.”
“The grounds of the club are nice, I suppose.” He stepped to the bar to tip a bit of Bruichladdich into a tumbler, eyeing the ice bucket distrustfully. “But I can only chuckle when they call it ‘exclusive’. The president went to Dulwich for heaven’s sake. Ah well, it’s the public school set at least.”

“I do like the grounds at Kensington Men’s Club,” he said as he nursed his glass of Bruichladdich, his favorite scotch, and coincidentally one of the most expensive. He never took it with ice, as in the view of most who enjoy scotches of that caliber, both the intense cold and the water from the melting ice conspire to deaden the nuances of its flavor. “But I can only chuckle when they call it ‘exclusive’. The president went to Dulwich for heaven’s sake. I suppose it should be enough that he’s a public school boy, but Dulwich isn’t exactly the most prestigious.” His father had instilled in him from a young age that breeding was everything, and that the best way to judge breeding was by school. From time immemorial it seemed, an education at a public school (as the finest independent boarding schools in England are called, perhaps confusingly to Americans) had been a prerequisite to accessing the highest echelons of British society.

Which of these three versions of the exchange are better? Well, “better” is a loaded word, but certainly the first is nigh-incomprehensible to someone who isn’t wealthy, or at least British. When we write, and when we avoid wordiness and thus rely more heavily on cultural assumptions to be understood, we say to those outside of our own cultural milieu “keep out”. This can be oppressive, as in the above “royalty only” passage, or it can be revolutionary, as when Chicanos speak proudly in their own voice without shame. But even then, it is important to realize that some readers are being shut out. Maybe you want that. I don’t know.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that we all need to write like 19th century dime novels, but rather that a writer needs to keep in mind the sometimes unexpected ways concision can restrict his readership. Many of the most compelling tales of even just fifty years ago are virtually unknown to many modern readers who would absolutely love them, were it not for the unexplained references to contemporary figures and events, colloquialisms, and other cultural assumptions that may have made them resonate clearly with readers at the time they were published, but make them opaque now.
                You know, unless you don’t want anyone to ever read anything you write, in which case just do whatever, I guess.