Friday, June 13, 2008
Despite all of this, I found myself unsmiling today as a classmate whispered what he thought were jokes to a few other students in Spanish 321. Admittedly, there's no end of material in that class. It's smaller size and apparently dry subject matter belie the comic potential of our tiny professor and the absurdity of anything written in Spanish. Our largely inarticulate instructor is defined by her obvious disdain for white people trying to speak Spanish, her blind insistence that ALL of Latin America (and Spain) adhere strictly to the conventions of the Academia Real and that ONLY twenty something American males speak improperly in any language, for which I love her with a kind of paternal affection. She's clueless, well meaning, and cute in a hapless middle aged lady kind of way. I like her. Most of us do.
The kid sitting behind me does NOT. I don't know his name. I don't WANT to know his name. This would only give me something to hate, wheras right now, I got nothing. I hardly see the kid's face.
The words coming out of his mouth formed sentences, but not jokes. Not quips. Not banter. If we read an article about Argentina and the Malvinas, then he belittles the intelligence, military prowess, and judgment of the Argentinians. If our professor is reviewing a basic point of grammar, he ridicules her low opinion of us. If she teaches a more difficult to understand concept, he berates her teaching ability. He thinks it is funny, because a few people laugh. It is NOT. These people aren't laughing because it's funny, because he's not making jokes. He's making a statement.
Any form of 'comedy' that relies on the superiority of the comedian over his subject to achieve humor is not a joke- it is a statement. His criticisms of our instructor don't point out the absurdity of life or the ridiculous in a situation. He is merely insinuating- no, stating outright- that he is better than she is. Almost ALL partisan political humor works this way. It's not a joke, it's an indirect insult. There are few things in life more devoid of mirth, insight, or good fun than this kind of drivel.
So why do people laugh?
The laughter also loses it's normal meaning and abandons its function. The statement, when given to an audience perceived as supportive, changes from "I am better than she is" to "Aren't we better than her?" The laughter is an affirmation: yes we are. The quality of the laughter, ranging from nervous and reluctant to
scornful and derisive, dictates the exact wording of the response. For example, an "ain't that the truth!" belly laugh indicates that the laugher is entirely comfortable with the distinction being made one that has most likely been accepted quickly and without thought. These people like to be better, and generally assume they ARE. A more tentative, half-hearted chuckle might escape the lips of someone whose is not so much interested in looking down on a person as to escape being looked down upon. They want to be part of the club more than deny others entrance. NONE of these parties overtly grasp the significance of this call and response ceremony, nor (frequently) does the teller of the joke.
But it's there. The implication of superiority inspires the desire to be 'superior with' instead of 'inferior than'. Just because it's not explicit doesn't make it any less real.
It's NOT funny. It's not humor. It's a line being drawn by someone who needs to be better than others and can satisfy more of that need by taking others there with him. It is a sneer, not a smile. A demarcation, not an observation.
Mostly, it's hateful.
Or maybe I just have no sense of humor.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
It started coming off, then, in jackets and scarves, sweaters and kerchiefs. Except for one knotty hand bracing itself against the chair, there was no indication that a human body hid under all that laundry. Each new article came off to reveal a whole new animal which would in turn, surrender its hide to the hand and having shed its skin, disappear.
When all of the necessary pelts had been slung over the back of the chair, it wheeled off again into the stacks, and I pretended to resume my work. But it was too late. My interest was piqued. Everything I had meant to do with my layouts and page compositions had been buried under that impossible wardrobe. It suggested a story that I NEEDED to hear.
But how was I going to hear it?
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Monday, May 19, 2008
What's a story, anyway? In the summer, when I walk home from school or work, I often pass a middle-aged hispanic gentleman as he mows his lawn. He's a nice guy, I think a second-generation American, and speaks absolutely no Spanish. Lives about a block from me. He has a tiny front lawn populated by attractive but modest adornments-the standard shrubs and flowers. This man would be utterly forgettable were it not that he chooses to cut his grass in pressed khaki slacks, loafers, and a collared shirt. He even keeps his designer watch on.
Being me, I spend the last steps towards my house mulling over possible motives for this aberrant behavior. It could be that no one ever taught him that the proper attire for such a task is cut-offs, sneakers, and t-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands your are now embarrassed to have seen live. It could be that grass-stained dockers are coming into style. Or it could be that he's keenly aware of the prevailing stereotypes assigned to hispanics here in the States, and he wants to make it clear that he is not mowing his lawn in a professional capacity. Honestly, how many hopelessly ignorant white people do you know who assume that all Spanish speakers are Mexican and that they all cut grass? (It's okay for me to say that, I'm white)
This is, of course, speculative. It could be that he likes to dress well, that his desire for a kept and immaculate public appearance has nothing to do with the politics and demographics of Provo, Utah, and stems from childhood humiliation at the hands of a fashion faux-pas. It could be that my insecurities, contemplation of of how I'm perceived and subsequent over-compensations have led me to stated conclusion. It could be the product my own awareness of stereotypes and the mental gymnastics I perform to acknowledge, avoid, and overcome them in my thinking (this concept, I believe, deserves its own 'ism').
Anyway, the point is that everyone is a person, and a person is a character, and a character is a story. A man mowing his front lawn in dress clothes is quirky and odd, but not a story. The reason for a man mowing his lawn in dress clothes, that's a story. It can be a story about a man's fight to control the way he is perceived, it can be the story of how he believes others perceive him, or the story of an ignorant kid walking by and projecting his own ideas onto an innocent lawn-care buff. It can be the story of the latin diaspora or, unfolding from that one split second of observation, it can grow into the history of a struggle between peoples, of wars fought, prejudices nursed.
It can be the story of America, that turbulent and earthy melting pot and the tale of irreconcilable cultures combining, fighting for both identity and integration, to form a wholly new beast, a confusing, hearty, overpowering dish that repels, delights, and defies explanation.
It is the story of colonialism, of invasion, of conquest and violence and the ominous rattle of the conquistador's armor.
It could be the post-modern epiphanal story of a man realizing, as he beats back the grass that he pays to cultivate, water, and maintain, the cyclical futility of it all. The man may sell his home, quit his job, and become a park ranger to be at harmony with nature. He may leave his wife and kids in hopes of escaping cotidian monotony only to realize that what he has lost is irreplaceable. Or he may not miss them at all. Depends on who's writing it.
It could be the story of a heart attack. Paternal devotion. Unrequited love. Masculine duty. Fashion statements. Noble defiance. Tragic dignity. Lawn care.
I just have to care about why that man tends to his lawn in clothes that cost more than his mower. I don't want to KNOW why. I want to make it up. And that, I think, is the bare essence of a story- the why. Grass will grow and men will mow. Why do they do it? Now that's a story.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
From the overflowing landfill of literate America crawl forth half-baked abominations, given a cruel semblance of life at the hands of their authors they limp into bookstores and browsers everywhere on legs of ill-conceived prose and thesaurus-doctored metaphors, spilling into the hands and minds of our innocent young, perverting our libraries and thriving in airport newsstands.
For Whom the Bell Tolls.
All because Public Education, that swaggering Prometheus of federal institutions, insists on carrying the burning brand of letters down the mountain for the good of mankind. How grand. Now O.J. Simpson can read. But he can also pen that stimulating masterwork If I Did It. Is Mr. Simpson to blame for his insurpassibly poor taste in subject matter? Well, him... yes. But those responsible for inducting him into the world of written expression share in his blame, as do the foul tutors of Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, and numberless celebrity starlets whose so-named autobiographies fall neatly into the handbags of their pubescent and doomed fangirls. Ernest Hemingway, too. I hate that guy.
So if you don't like what I write, how I write it, or the fact that I'm stupid enough to scatter my shoddy essays into the virtual ether, don't blame me. Blame literacy.Blame Public Education. Blame my grade-school teachers. And by all means, blame America.