Three score and four

Today, June 8, 2013, marks the anniversary of the publication of perhaps my favorite book of all time. That book poses many questions to the reader, but if it were to ask me, in the voice of Paul McCartney, “Will you still need me…when I’m sixty-four?” , I’d say “Yes,  1984! You’re as relevant today as you were the day you were born, which, coincidentally, is today!”

A few days ago, President Obama had to explain why an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (whatever that is) that instructs Verizon to secretly turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” the “telephony metadata” (huh?) of all of its customers is not really an invasion of privacy. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2013/06/the-nsa-verizon-scandal.html Obama wants to “be perfectly clear” that Americans know that nobody is listening to our phone conversations.

Hmm.

I read 1984 for the first time when I was 12 years old in the 7th grade. I had never read anything like it before and it totally blew my mind. I had never imagined that the government could just flat out lie; I thought that the government was made up of people, and, bottom line, people care about each other, and so we all act with each others best interests in mind. The idea that questioning was not just a privilege, but also a duty, was born and nurtured in my adolescent mind, and has been instrumental in forming the adult I am today.

The next time I read the book was my senior year in high school. This time I was amazed by the protagonist, who was given the paradoxical name Winston Smith, an extraordinary/everyman. The courage and integrity he showed because he couldn’t – and wouldn’t- deny his own truth became the blueprint of what a hero is to me. Of course this is the case of many literary heroes- John Proctor, Atticus Finch, Harrison Bergeron, and Guy Montag, to name just a few others from high school English- but Winston, and to a lesser degree Julia, his partner in crime, behaved how I hoped I would behave; nobly, with hope and courage, even if the odds were impossible, even if the end result was failure. I have let myself down in my quest to do what I think is right countless times, and I have succeeded a few times as well.

In college I read the novel again and that time was awestruck by the innovation and metacognitive awareness with which Orwell used language. The politics and power of communication, the beauty of craft, and the importance of nuance are what I am studying now in others’ writing and in my own.

So these three things -cynicism, doing the right thing, and care in speech and the written word- have all reappeared with force and clarity in my mind today, on 1984‘s anniversary and in the wake of yet another growing scandal regarding personal and civil rights. I would  hope that everybody would take this opportunity to ask some hard questions as to what is “the right thing”, and to figure out their opinions, and, whether they are pro-increased security in today’s turbulent and volatile times, or for more government accountability and restraint, to find a way to effectively express themselves on this and similar issues.

That’s what I would hope. Not what I would expect, though.

Since America is supposed to be made up of rugged individualists and in recent years we have seen a powerful and vocal uptick in those who are disdainful of government control, you’d think Verizon would have scored points by challenging the order and others like it as a selling point to consumers. “At Verizon, we care about YOU! We’ll NEVER sell out your personal information to anyone or anything – NO MATTER WHAT!” I can hear the reassuring voice-over in the commercial now. But it turns out that in 2007, Verizon and two other groups were awarded enormous contracts with the U.S. government and are more beholden to that big fish client than they are little ole you and me. According to The Daily Beast in this article (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/06/why-verizon-is-happy-to-help-obama-and-the-nsa-spy-on-americans.html):

In the post-9/11 world, no company or brand wants to be on the wrong side of national-security policy. And Verizon, like others in big defense and technology, is in bed with the government, including the security apparatus. They are a big customer. Verizon, of course, is a major government contractor. Back in 2007, Verizon, along with AT&T and what was then Quest, “were awarded the government’s largest telecommunications contract ever, a 10-year deal worth up to $48 billion to supply various telecom needs of dozens of federal agencies,” as USA Today reported. “The contract covers voice, video and data services and technologies for as many as 135 agencies operating in 190 countries. Several major departments, including Homeland Security and Treasury, have already signed up.”

Then of course, we probably wouldn’t care that much if Verizon did go to the mat for us. I think we just assume that everybody has our number and is listening to our conversations anyway. After all, we all know about GPS and Google Earth and cell phone towers and cameras and drones, so I think we’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that if someone knows where to look, we’re pretty much out there, are naked and stuff, for everyone to see.

And even if one does care about privacy and  rights, what can be done about really protecting them? If I quit Verizon (Ha! Take that! You just lost my business! Good day, sir!), where can I go? Is AT&T better? Sprint? I doubt it. I didn’t expect this, though: after The Guardian broke the news of the wire-tapping, Verizon’s stock went up.That’s right, the company’s value increased when it was caught in bed with Uncle Sam. It’s like we see questionable business practices and say, “Yum, yum, gimme some! I must have a piece of that sweet, wholesome pie! Delicious and nutritious!”

In fact every day, millions of Americans give up for free the very personal sort of information you wouldn’t want anyone to know to everyone. They post embarrassing pictures on facebook or instagram. They upload videos of themselves doing illegal, immoral or superdumbass things on youtube. They tell you where they’re going to be and when, and when they get there, they check in, so you know they have arrived (“I’m checking in from the toilet at the McDonald’s on  Hwy 260! Don’t you touch the McFlurry and the McFatSack I left on the table next to the keys to my brand new tan and blue Ford 150 and my adorable toddler, Kim Carol Ann!”). They write obscene racist comments on other people’s posts or write whole blogs about their innermost feelings about absolutely everything, regardless of how inappropriate or job threatening those feelings may be. Yeah. Some people do some of those things. So why should we care if the government is watching?

There is almost always complacence and compliance in the brutality and totalitarianism of the great dystopias in literature. There has to be a climate of acceptance and a willingness to go along with a new regime, from Lowry’s The Giver , to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, to Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.* Perhaps the people get behind an idea that seems good, but then goes way bad. Like Nazism – Hitler was democratically elected into power, you know, to restore national pride and reduce a crushing economic depression. Maybe people sign on out of of fear, like fear of terrorism. That’s fear of acts designed to cause fear. That makes sense, because fear is scary.

Which brings me back to Winston. He was always scared. At first, all he could do was muster up the courage to think, after years of conditioning, “I don’t believe them. Something is wrong. And even if they tell me I’m crazy, and even if I believe I may be crazy, I am right.”

It took him years to act on this idea, and when he did, he was caught and tortured and re-educated and forced to deny his faith, which is a belief in something that is so strong that reason is rejected. In the end, he lost.

But at least he cared.

Happy Birthday, 1984. Thanks for making me care, George.

*You still haven’t read it, right? Why won’t you? It’s so good!

Also: Happy, happy birthday McAdams! You’ve come a long way, and I look forward to seeing where you will go next! I love you!snail trail

AND! Happy birthday to Renaissaance Man, Mikey the C! I’ll see you tonight!

 

 

Words of Cheer, Words of Cheese

It’s International Poetry Month! IPM is the brainchild of my friend Bonnie; she collects a poem a day from international writers and publishes them on her site with an intro and a reading – very cool! Subscribe and you’ll get a poem a day in your email, and then – POOF!- they disappear at the end of the month! Check her out here: http://bonniemcclellan.wordpress.com  Today’s poet is a sassy French minx who is very special to me – yeah, I know famous writers!

In honor of International Poetry Month, here are a few words about words:

“The picture of the universe shifts from tongue to tongue”  – Davis S. Thomson, linguist from his essay “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Worlds shaped by Words”

The inner voice and the social world are in endless dialogue; like form and content  it can – and should-  be difficult to tease apart”  -Poet Mark Doty, from the Introduction to The Best American Poetry 2012.

The “Ding-Dong Theory” “… [is] a theory of Karl Wilhelm Heyse… it maintains that the primitive elements of language are reflex expressions induced by sensory impressions; that is the creative faculty gave to each general conception, as it thrilled for the first time through out the brain, a phonetic expression…”    Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, 1958

“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” Edgar Allen Poe

“I can sum up what I’ve learned about life in three words: It goes on.” – Robert Frost

“…political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness…such phraseology is need if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them…where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”  – George Orwell, from the essay “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.

“The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” — GK Chesterton

Icelandic ponies. Japanese cats on the Internet. Yawning puppies. Toddlers who give each other hugs. Goats climbing all over everything. Pink and green macaroons. Red pandas. Sparkly nail polish. Do you get where I’m going? Cute things. This cheese is so perfect and cute and delicious you just want to marry it. Or buy one and eat it.”  – Charlotte Kamin of Bedford Cheese Shop, describing the cheese Andante Terry Nocturne

 “The Lindsay Lohan of the cheese world, this pecorino has a tan, leathery exterior that surrounds a delicate yellow paste. With hints of herbs and the aroma of hay, you can almost hear the bleating of Lindsay up in the Italian hills. Pair with nicotine, Red Bull and an alcohol monitor.”  -Charlotte Kamin of Bedford Cheese Shop, describing the cheese Mastorazio, Madaio

“Big and floral in the very best way possible, this firm Sardinian sheep has the cool unaffected strut of Mick in his prime, Lou in middle age or Polly Jean* today.” – Martin Johnson, Gastrononmie 491, describing the cheese Calcagno.

“It is still made only at night, I am led to believe, as it was when I last visited the cheesemaker, and what I haven’t told you is Serpa’s texture and flavor are like sex. There’s just no other way to describe the effect this cheese has on me. Even though I barely remember sex.”       -Steve Jenkins from Fairway Market, describing the cheese Queijo de Serpa

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/23/dining/creative-cheesemongers-pen-clever-descriptions.html?_r=0

A Parable

BY DR. ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
    And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
    And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
    And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
    Not one of them thought of a cow.
Thanks to all two of you who helped me out with my assignment! As it turned out, I wrote four poems and didn’t have to turn in any of them!
BONUS:

Ode to the Midwest

BY KEVIN YOUNG

The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
—Bob Dylan

I want to be doused
in cheese
& fried. I want
to wander
the aisles, my heart’s
supermarket stocked high
as cholesterol. I want to die
wearing a sweatsuit—
I want to live
forever in a Christmas sweater,
a teddy bear nursing
off the front. I want to write
a check in the express lane.
I want to scrape
my driveway clean
myself, early, before
anyone’s awake—
that’ll put em to shame—
I want to see what the sun
sees before it tells
the snow to go. I want to be
the only black person I know.
I want to throw
out my back & not
complain about it.
I wanta drive
two blocks. Why walk—
I want love, n stuff—
I want to cut
my sutures myself.
I want to jog
down to the river
& make it my bed—
I want to walk
its muddy banks
& make me a withdrawal.
I tried jumping in,
found it frozen—
I’ll go home, I guess,
to my rooms where the moon
changes & shines
like television.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2007).

 AND: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179327

Friday’s Goal – Read!

One of the clever sayings I pass on to others frequently is: “People who don’t read are dummies.” Sadly, I find myself in the dummy category for at least six months out of the year. When I am teaching, all intelligence and intellectual curiosity gets squeezed out of me like an adolescent pizza-face’s tube of Clearasil. I become beaten down by stupidity, laziness, incompetence, and tedium, and then after I have dealt with all that from the BSISD administration, I still have to deal with my students. When I come home from work, I am forced to lay around on the couch not thinking in order to replenish the brain matter that has been lost during the day. Sometimes I have to have a medicinal merlot or malbec. Or Nyquil. Sadly, this doesn’t leave much time for reading.

When one doesn’t read often, one loses the ability to focus and concentrate for a sustained period of time. The best thing about a good book is the way the reader can lose herself in it, but if one can’t focus, this doesn’t happen, and reading gets to be a chore. Every year I have to retrain myself to read. I think I have a touch of the Attention Deficit, so sometimes it’s hard for me to sit still and do one thing, and I also feel like if I don’t have proof of productivity (the laundry is done, I printed these pictures, I wrote this), I fret that I have wasted the day. It’s hard for me to actually set aside time to pick up a book and get into it.

But the thing is, I love to read! I ain’t no dummy! So Friday’s goal (which I actually did on a Tuesday and started writing about on a Wednesday, and am actually going to put out thereon a Friday, but almost a week later – I look time in the face and I laugh! Ha ha time! You’re not the boss of me!) is to read all day long, which I pretty much did. Yay, me! Aren’t I the anything-worth-doing-is-worth-doing-well-quitters-never-win-keep-on-truckin’ -really-smart-reading-girl type?! Yes, I am!

I started out by reading some stuff on the interweb. The first thing that caught my eye was an article about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/world/europe/07britain.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp

WARNING! Rant Ahoy! Turn back now, because it’s going to get ugly!

It seems that the British tabloid, News of the World has long adhered to the practice of hacking into peoples’ voicemail in order to get ‘scoop’. They have been busted for this repeatedly; for example, actress Sienna Miller successfully sued the paper’s parent company, News Corporation, for 100,000 pounds, plus court fees, over hackings that took place in 2005. Businessweek says that she is one of more than 20 celebrities and politicians that are suing the paper, and several journalists have been arrested. The latest brouhaha (great word!) is that News of the World got caught hacking into a missing 13 year old girl’s phone. ( Later, when I watched the CBS News, they showed me exactly how to do this. Turns out it’s super easy. I don’t know if this information is on the nightly news because it’s the public’s right to know, but now there sure is a lot of the public that knows how to do it right!) When her mailbox became filled with the frantic and desperate messages of her friends and family, the paper just deleted earlier messages to make room for more. The parents found out that someone was deleting messages, and so they assumed their daughter was deleting the messages, but by then, she was already dead. That was in 2002. Today the New York Times reports that News of the World also broke into the cellphones of several victims of the 2005 London subway bombings. This is appalling to me. I am just disgusted by the lack of integrity, ethics and respect for people that this brings to light. Sure, we all suspect that things like this happen, but it’s just so dirty, and I don’t mean that in a good way! I don’t care what Sienna Miller and other celebrities say in private; often I don’t care what they say in public. Still, just because they feed on media attention doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to some privacy. And the victims of horrible crimes are victimized again, even in death, when their private messages and conversation are turned into tabloid fodder. Sometimes it’s just not worth it to get the story. It’s just not right. Of course, this leads to speculation about where we get our news and information, and how we can be sure that it is fair, accurate and unbiased. I don’t think we can be sure. It’s hard to know who to trust.

It’s easy to know who not to trust, though. Rupert Murdoch and his giant corpocracy, which includes The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and 20th Century Fox Studios, is repeatedly accused of ethical lapses, biased media, and sometimes criminal activities. He is launching an internal investigation into the hacking thing… almost a decade after allegations have arisen. Of course this is no solution; the company will just find a scapegoat, cut him loose from the flock, and tell everyone that all is peaceful and right in the meadow. The last time this happened in Britain, the guy who was fired went on to be the communications director for the prime minister. And that’s another thing. Murdoch & Co.’s serpentine fingers, like those of other huge, multi-faceted conglomorates like Halliburton, have snaked their way so deeply into the fabric of society that they are able to control the shots in their own best interests and act with impunity.  We are all bought and sold (or we buy and sell others) for the acquisition and retention of power and wealth, regardless of the consequences or recklessness of our actions.

Sigh. It’s all so Orwellian. Or Shteyngartian.

For Rupert Murdoch to deny any knowledge and culpability is ludicrous. What an a-hole. You can read a blog post by someone who says that Murdoch is Satan here: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/former-editor-denies-knowing-that-missing-girls-phone-was-hacked/

Of course, News of the World or Fox News aren’t forced on people. Even when we know big business is overstepping, infringing  or deceiving, we don’t care. We just accept it and keep buying whatever is being sold, keep tuning in for more. Why? I don’t know. Because we are lazy? Apathetic? Used to it? More interested in satisfying our urges, no matter how base, than thinking in terms of right and wrong? All of us -J’ACCUSE!!!!

END OF RANT (pretty much)

I also read that in Atlanta there was a widespread case of cheating on the state’s educational standardized tests by 178 teachers and principals at 80% of the schools in the district. This does not surprise me at all. Just like I blame Murdoch for creating an atmosphere of non-negotiable ‘do whatever it takes, or else’ mentality, I blame No Child Left Behind for the actions of educators that are told that the schools will be shut down if they fail to make certain goals, regardless of extenuating factors or the feasibility of the objective. I’m not saying that anyone was right to cheat or that people aren’t accountable for their own actions, but I understand why people try to conform to set standard and expectations, even if they know that what they are doing is wrong. http://www.prisonexp.org

I had to look at some pretty pictures to cheer myself up. I do love me some real fine photojournalism, y’all. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/a-fathers-voice-through-kodachrome/

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/father-son-husband-war-photographer/

I decided perhaps it was best that I left the Internet for awhile and read books instead. Not that books don’t possess the power to piss me off – what doesn’t? – but I still like to turn pages and smell paper. It’s soothing. Since I just finished a great novel (Shteyngart? Super Sad True Love Story? Have I mentioned it? Here’s a review not by me: http://www.slate.com/id/2262500/pagenum/2 ),  I thought maybe I’d peruse a little nonfiction. I have a huge stack of books by my bed, and I picked out three of them and read the first chapter. The lovely and attractive David Eagleman has a new book out, Incognito.It’s about how our subconscious controls most of our cognitive reality. This book explores “the vastness of inner space.” Chapter One just kind of nutshelled the study of the subconscious from St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century to Freud and Darwin. I’ll let you know when this gets interesting.

Next I looked at Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test – A Journey Through the Madness Industry. I am familiar with his work from This American Life, and I like him a lot. His voice is honest and unassuming, and I like his dry wit. So far the book reads like a novel and I’m looking forward to reading more. And finding out if I am a psychopath.

The last book I first-chaptered is the most dense and academic, but I think I may end up liking it the most.  It’s about how the rise of alphabetic literacy- read “reading”- replaced the image as a method of communication, which led to all kinds of major changes in perception, and in fact, fundamentally rewired the human brain. This, of course, caused major cultural, historical and religious changes, including a colossal shift from societies that worshiped the feminine to those that revere the masculine. It’s a book that talks less about what we read than how we read, and the effect of modes of communication. Here’s a little teaser from page 7:

“Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of  the image. God worship, masculine values and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.”

I don’t know if I agree with this, but it’s an interesting premise. If Shlain ends up making me a believer, I won’t have to read anymore; I’ll just look at the pictures.

I read some more stuff that day, but by now I’m sure you are bored of reading what I read and I am bored writing it. Saturday’s goal is going to be a lot less wordy, I assure you.

Here is a video of hoola hoops, from the perspective of the hoop. Enjoy.