What’s up with the weird wonder?

11 10 2011

I blame Greil Marcus.

Yes, Lynda Barry kicked off this theme for the blog, by my ears were first pricked reading Marcus in The City Pages, which is when I first encountered the notion of “weird old America”.

Weird old America: what a wonderful phrase.

Now, does it matter that the actual phrase was “old, weird America” and has something to do with Bob Dylan and basement tapes and an invisible republic? From a librarian point of view, yes, but from the necessity of having one’s ears pricked and interest piqued and thought provoked, not really.

In any case, it gave me an insight into this country that I had never previously considered: that this is a profoundly strange joint, and that maybe, just maybe, I could ease up a bit in my assessments of the US of A. Or maybe not “ease up” so much as “open up”, to let myself see beyond the cold, clear lines of politics and carefully sculpted narratives into the brambles and crannies of these American cultures.

I knew Americans weren’t necessarily more rational or normal than any other people, but that’s how we talked of ourselves, as Americans. To be American was to be free and brave, to live the American Dream, be all we could be, etc. It is a narrative of striving and effort and independence and normality, and while there might be plenty of individuals and maybe even “subcultures” which members deviated from this clear bright line, those deviants were no part of the culture.

Marcus’s phrase (in my misremembering) helped me to see that, ehhhhn, all of those individuals and subcultures who wonder away from that line are also America. They aren’t artifacts or zoo creatures, “outsider artists” who exist to confirm the rightness of conformity or who may only comment upon, but not participate in, this American Life, but are themselves woven into the warped woof of our cultural fabric, that the normal is as warped as the rest of it.

I’m getting too cute with words (one of the side effects of dipping into weird wonder); I mean to say, Marcus fucked with my sense of direction and perception. I took this nation’s superpowerness for granted and Marcus said, quietly, not quite. He undermined my view from above, and with the invocation of “weird old America” gestured toward all these pieces of our lives that don’t quite fit a clean narrative but fit, nonetheless.

You can still be angry, he allowed, but you can be affectionate, too. Open up, enlarge yourself, appreciate what’s there.

Some folks need to stiffen their spines, need a reminder to squint at what they’re told or take a hammer to what is, but I need the nudge to take it easy. I like hard lines and sharp angles and interrogations and prosecutions; to think is to critique.

Except that it’s not, not the whole of thought; that’s where the wonder comes in.

And the weird, the weird can be the lever that cracks open the wonder.


(Almost) No comment

30 06 2010

“The challenge here is . . . to see what could be done to restore this baby to the normal female appearance which would be compatible with her parents presenting her as a girl, with her eventually becoming somebody’s wife, and having normal sexual development, and becoming a mother. And she has all the machinery for motherhood, and therefore nothing should stop that, if we can repair her surgically and help her psychologically to continue to grow and develop as a girl.”

Pediatrician Maria New, in a 2001 presentation to the CARES Foundation, a ‘nonprofit organization committed to improving the lives of families and individuals affected by Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia.’  Girls affected by CAH have been prenatally exposed to higher-than-normal levels of androgens, and can lead to ambiguous genitalia; there may—emphasize may—also be a link to bi- and homosexuality.

New has been experimenting—without any institutional review board approval or the usual experimental controls—on pregnant women, dosing them with the steroid dexamethasone. Notes Alice Dreger, Ellen Feder, and Anne Tamar-Mattis in a recent Hastings Center Bioethics Forum post quote another paper by New & her colleague Saroj Nimkarn:

“Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized in 46,XX girls and women with 21OHD deficiency [CAH]. These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain and later on behavior.”

Dreger et. al. note that ‘It seems more than a little ironic to have New, one of the first women pediatric endocrinologists and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, constructing women who go into “men’s” fields as “abnormal.”’

(h/ts: Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, the Bioethics Forum)

Driving sideways

28 08 2009

I’m losing my mind.

Nothing serious; I’m simply losing touch with reality.

Shall I rephrase that?

I know what color the sky is in the—not my—world. It has just turned August 28, 2009 in New York City. Rain is expected later in the day. When I wake up, it will still be August 28, 2009 in New York City.

So there’s that.

But there’s also the oft-denied undeniability of a life in pieces. Yes, that would be my life.

I don’t want to over-emphasize two things, but I often do what I don’t want:

1. The visit of friends whose lives are more or less whole served notice on a life which is not.

2. That I have never properly learned how to live has not only caught up to me, it has long since overtaken and even lapped me.  (How long will I use this excuse? How long you got?)

Now, as to the first matter: It is true that normal life in NYC is unlike normal life in most other places in the US. Thus, it is normal for these friends to have homes and husbands and regular paychecks and paid vacations and pension plans.

True, there are some places in NY where this is also normal, but this town is big enough to encompass more than one normal. Thus, it is normal to have roommates found through craigslist and odd jobs and to sweat about money and to think of less than 400 square feet of living space as adequate.

If my friends blinked about this juxtaposition of normals, they were kind enough to do so when I wasn’t looking.

As to the second point, well, what more is there to say beyond the profession of ignorance? If it were an argument I could analyze it; if it were a recipe I could cook it.

It is neither. It is a kind of blankness, a lack which offers no clues on how to approach it. Animal, mineral, or spirit?

‘Just do it.’

Okay. But what, exactly? I understand the just, but what is the it and how am I to do it?

Too many questions? Is this why I’ve been told I think to much?

But this isn’t a question of too much thinking, nor or not enough. It is precisely a question of what and how.

So, Ms.-Fancy-Pants-PhD: what do you want and how do you propose to get it?

I want a life that makes some sense.

I have no idea what that means.

Which means I have no way of knowing how to achieve it.

Smaller, more concrete: I’d like to make enough money not to have to worry about it. I would like a job which is more than adjunct and temporary. I would like to take a dance class and re-up on my pottery. I would like to meet more people. I would like to date. I would like to sell my novel. I would like to write more than I do. I would like to be able to leave New York City in August.

Okay, now we’re on to something: Talk to departmental chair about a medium-to-long term teaching contract. Apply promiscuously for jobs. Apply promiscuously for agents. Write more.

Primary, secondary, means and ends, causes and consequences. See, that’s not so hard, is it?

It shouldn’t be.

Practical—I can be practical. I enjoy the theoretical-practical—hang my queries on these!—but the real-practical, the this-is-your-life practical, mmmm, that’s where the dissipation begins.

This-is-your-life: the theoretical-real-practical. But I have neither theory nor reality nor practice. A deductivist trapped in induction.

Einstein: It is the theory which decides what we can observe.

Francis Crick: The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as you can.

Crick, again: There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something.

So not only do I not know where to look, I can’t trust what I can and cannot see.

Still, what theory accounts for my pitiful finances? That, my dear, is all about practice, and is evidence of poor career decision-making.

Still, one shift among the subatomic particles, and idiocy becomes vision: See, e.g., When I sell my novel. . . .

Still, count on nothing. The evidence is unreliable.

Still, such unreliability can be spur, possibility.

I don’t have to drown in it. (Which ‘it’? the evidence, the unreliability, the lack—you name it.) I am tired of treading water.

But I took advanced swimming lessons. I can tread water a long time.

Someday I will swim.

(Credit/blame for this post’s styling to Jeanette Winterson)