Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bitch Bitch Bitch

I just read an article in the Winter 2007 issue of Bitch Magazine called "Egos Without Borders: Mapping the new celebrity philanthropy." The article is not well organized and touches on many different issues that in my opinion should be dealt with in entirely separate articles. Writer Summer Wood writes about feel-good philanthropy, which Wood defines as the act of giving money to charity just so you can feel better. Some of the people she talks about are celebrities. Some of these celebrities seem to care only about the 'hip' charity, some care about the cause. Some give tons of money, some give make-up kits. (This was, admittedly, a ridiculous gift from Oprah to women suffering from an Ethiopian epidemic, obstetric fistula, however she also gave them each 100 dollars.) I have a problem with this attitude about celebrity contributions to charity. Though it would be nice if every celebrity gave a percentage of their earnings to people in need or research to help people in need, it would be nice if we all did. I don't have a problem with celebrity contributions, because at least they're giving their time, money, and faces to the cause. If this increases awareness for the cause, who cares why their doing it?

Okay, this entry is as unorganized as the article is. Wood did have some good points - normal people as well as celebrities sometimes give unecessary gifts (Wood gives the example of a group of women organizing to make necklaces to take with them on a visit to a third world country). Yes, there are some idiotic people out there. But they're doing more than I am for people in need. If the choice is between a little gesture and nothing, wouldn't you take the little gesture?

In short, when it comes to charity, I feel I'm the last person who can make fun of or chastize anyone helping in any way. I think I would feel the same if I gave to charity.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

BCOO: Hard Times

Wow. I couldn't ask for more from my return to Dickens. For some reason, in high school, though I only read one Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), which I really enjoyed, I decided that I didn't like him. I remember feeling drowned in description, but slogging through it to get to the good stuff. Now, I'm floating - I loved Hard Times.

The novel focuses on an industrial town and two male power figures, Gradgrind and Bounderby, who are men of facts. (Love those Dickens names.) The novel opens with a scene in Gradgrind's schoolhouse. Bounderby is standing nearby. Gradgrind waxes poetic on facts:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.
Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything
else...Stick to Facts, Sir!

The narrator then gives a lengthy description of the man speaking, culminating in:

The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square
shoulders, - nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an
unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the

Gradgrind's children, Louisa and Thomas are raised on facts alone, and suffer
the consequences. Louisa becomes Bounderby's unhappy wife, while Thomas becomes
a thief and miscreant. All works out in the end, however, with some help from
imagination, creativity, and love (which fall strictly in the NON-fact arena).

I got a healthy dose of wit, that's for sure. The narrator in Hard Times makes snide comments about the characters and setting, winking and nudging his way through the entire novel. I never tired of it.

Dickens is a master of language. My favorite Dickens passages are his descriptions of characters. Bounderby is
a man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon,
and ready to start...He had not much hair. One might have fancied he had talked
it off; and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that
condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness.

Mrs. Gragrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed
bundle of shawls, surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily...and who, whenever
she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariable stunned by some weighty
piece of fact tumbling on her...

It's easy to see why I enjoyed the book so much. Dickens targets utilitarianism, labor unions, romanticism, and industrialization in one short book. Wonderful!

Next: The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Merry Happy Christmas Chanukah Winter Solstice Kwanzaa

I love Christmas. I love the weather (when it cooperates), I love the smell (that mix of burning wood and pine), and I love giving people gifts. Okay, I love getting gifts as well. But there is one aspect of Christmas that I can't get past.

I am agnostic. I don't believe in God or Jesus or Muhammad or Satan or a Mother Earth spirit Goddess. I also don't discount the fact that any or all of these entities could, in fact, exist. Agnostics have the firm belief (and yes, it is firm - no flip-flopping) that we don't know shit about our universe and its creation. We proudly admit that we have no idea.

Therefore, Christmas for me is an excuse for my wonderful family to get together. It's an excuse to go way overboard with presents. It's an excuse for my mom to bake (another thing I love about Christmas). J and I don't decorate. I'm not sure we ever will. Most likely not, since he doesn't much like Christmas. Which would mean I would have to do everything.

So I am the best target for the Wal-Mart greeters (bravely fighting the war on Christmas, despite the many casualties) who loudly wish me a Merry Christmas if they so choose. But I would like to ask them to stop. No more Merry Christmas for me, please.

I have been examining my feelings about this phrase for a couple of years now. After the whole "War on Christmas" last year, it has become taboo to dislike this phrase (at least in my circle). You are seen as a spoil sport or overly sensitive. But I am fighting for my right to a month and a half without this phrase in my ear.

Yes, part of it is because there are many people in this country who do not celebrate Christmas. Of course, I don't think they get offended by the well-wishing. I don't think it really matters to them. But it's just another sign of the arrogance of America's majority.

More than that, though. I don't think Christmas should take over the second half of November and the full month of December. I don't want to be wished "Merry Christmas" on December 11. It makes me feel manipulated. The only reason that sales clerk is wishing me merriness is so that she will sell more clothes. The phrase is simply another marketing tool.

The phrase is so easily changed so that it is all-inclusive. There are a lot of holidays in the winter, so a simple "Happy Holidays" would be perfect. Plus, it offends Bill O'Reilly deeply, so there's another plus.
So there's my humbug for the holidays. I don't make a stink about it and wipe the fake smile off the clerk's face when she MCs me, but I get a hard feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I'll take the punch in the spirit of Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

BCOO: My Antonia

I don't have much to say about My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I enjoyed the book immensely.

The story follows a young boy, Jim, as he discovers life on a Nebraska farm. His 'neighbors' are Bohemians (Czechs) who have among their three children, a girl named Antonia. She is four years older than Jim. We watch the two children quickly attach themselves to each other, and we follow the relationship for the first half of the book.

This book, published in 1918, is a modern novel. Cather leaves most inward thought and emotion out of her writing. We know Jim loves Antonia, but we never watch that love evolve or come to fruition. Towards the end of the novel, after Jim returns from the city to see Antonia and her new baby (which she had out of wedlock), he finally expresses some part of his feelings in confused terms:

"Do you know, Antonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister - anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me."

The simplicity and honesty in these lines permeates the novel.

Cather's joy for language and discovery is also evident throughout the book. For example, Jim's first real encounter with nature:

"I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

Clearly, it is a romantic novel. Another favorite passage describing a blind piano player finding his instrument:

"Through the dark he found his way to the Thing, to its mouth. He touched it softly, and it answered softly, kindly. He shivered and stood still. Then he began to feel it all over, ran his finger-tips along the slippery sides, embraced the carved legs, tried to get some conception of its shape and size, of the space it occupied in primeval night. It was cold and hard, and like nothing else in his black universe. He went back to its mouth, began at one end of the keyboard and felt his way down into the mellow thunder, as far as he could go. ... He approached this highly artificial instrument through a mere instinct, and coupled himself to it, as if he knew it was to piece him out and make a whole creature of him."

Gorgeous! With this writing, and with such strong, interesting, unique female characters, I was hooked. There was no bite, no wit. But it was a beautiful novel.

Next: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Saturday, December 09, 2006

BCOO: A Prayer for Owen Meany

I don't know if anyone likes reading these things, but it's good for me to get this stuff down.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, is narrated by an American Literature teacher living in Canada. He tells us the story of Owen Meany, who is "the reason he believes in God." Meany is an unusually short person with a high pitched voice (it never changes, even as he matures). Irving writes all of Meany's dialogue in all-caps, to try to convey the range and volume of the voice. The capital letters come into the story, creating a definite reason for them, but the dialogue still gets annoying.

Meany is a Christ-figure, in the most blatant terms. We find out that his mother was a virgin when she became pregnant with him, that he can see into the future and accepts his fate, etc. He is not perfect - he hates Catholics and is extremely opinionated and a little crass.

The narrator, John Wheelwright, is a "Joseph," according to the character himself. He sits on the sidelines and watches Owen Meany try to change the world. And though Wheelwright tells us Owen Meany changed him, I never really saw it happen. Our narrator, therefore, never becomes an active participant in his own life. This makes him an uninteresting character, and is one of the major flaws in this book.

This book was really hard for me to get through. It was condescending and watery. By watery, I mean there was no wit, no humor, no meat. The plot was based on an assumed belief in god and miracles. Now, I love magical realism, but this wasn't magical at all. And it certainly wasn't realistic, even in the world in the book.

The book was published in 1989, and the Cold War is inserted into this book awkwardly. It permeates the novel, Irving shoving his politics into the book like he was stuffing a turkey. The goo remains on my fingers still.

Not only does Irving make the Christ figure blatantly obvious (and there is never doubt in the reader's mind that Irving means him to actually be Christ or some faction thereof), he creates metaphors and drives them through the story with a screwdriver. His similes are forced:

"These men looked like granite itself [great, I thought] - its great strength can withstand a pressure of twenty thousand pounds per square inch. Granite, like lava, was once melted rock; but it did not rise to the earth's surface - it hardened deep underground; and because it hardened slowly, it formed fairly large crystals."

Yikes! We didn't need all that. If we did, Irving could have explained this at the beginning of the novel, instead of 60 pages before the end.

I'll stop, before I get mad. I've started reading My Antonia (with the accent on the first syllable), by Willa Cather. Written in 1917-1918, My Antonia is a loving look at the immigrant experience and so far, I'm enjoying it. Though I'm going to go crazy if I don't read something with cynicism and wit soon.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Italy Says No to Skinny

According to Guardian Unlimited's Barbara McMahon, Italy has banned uber-skinny models from their runways in February. I've seen this headline floating around for awhile.

"The code of conduct, to be issued this month, means that models will be scrutinized for body mass indexes, which use height and weight measurements to determine body fat, before they are allowed to work. Any girl with a BMI of less than 18.5 will be sent home. Other measures are a minimum age limit of 16 for models and a ban on using make-up to achieve an 'anorexic look' with dark shadows under the eyes," writes McMahon.

This is wonderful and, sadly, necessary. Though in my opinion, models are not as freakishly thin as they were in the 90s, the majority still do not represent a typical woman.

Yes, I know, they're NOT typical women. They're models. But that means they are in the public eye, showing women of all ages what to wear. Clothes designed for anorexic women look horrible on 'normal' women. And teenage girls who can't get the ultra-low-rise pants to cover her ass crack (because she actually HAS an ass crack) will learn to hate their bodies.

That's a simplification of a real phenomenon, but if you'll excuse the popcorn version of armchair psychology, I'll just keep going.

Of course, there is a risk of discrimination. But it's hard to say that (or type that) with a straight face. When has the fashion industry ever not been prejudiced? They are, in particular, prejudiced against fat women (exception: clothing designers who DESIGN clothes for bigger women). In this case, the ridiculously unhealthy sack of bones can go home while the healthy, curvy girl can show her shit on the runway.

Okay, that sounds harsh. J and I had a discussion about this the other day, and I was the cynic. I have trouble feeling sorry for women (and men) in the entertainment industry who become anorexic or bulimic. The same way that I don't feel sorry for women (and men) in said industry who gain a lot of weight in a short amount of time. All of these situations stem from mental illness.

I have trouble feeling sorry for these ill women and men because it makes me really mad. I can't help but think about all those pre-pubescent/pubescent girls reading magazines smeared with 50-pound women who care more about their careers than their own health. What kind of example is that?

This is why, as per the discussion J and I had, I don't feel upset or embarrassed when people make fun of someone like Mary-Kate Olsen or Nicole Ritchie. Both women have eating disorders and both are ridiculed frequently. They both have experience in the public arena, both know how entertainment news works, and both know that people are constantly looking at them. Most likely because of this (and the stresses surrounding a public life), the girls eat less and less until finally they are on a watermelon or celery diet. The public notices. Obviously. But in 2006, I am finally hearing people talk about them and their bodies negatively. This gives me hope for the public and, maybe, will force these girls to get help.

So, I guess all I'm saying is right on, Italy. I hope this starts a new trend. If models are normal, maybe more clothes will be normal, allowing women to be who they are and find clothes to match.