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Category Archives: Culture & Arts

The Bureaucracy of Fantasy

Dobrynya Nikitich, a great Russian dragonslayer. Close-up of the painting Bogatyrs (1898) by Viktor Vasnetsov.

When I started drafting this post, I included a long list of my recent encounters with the medical and health insurance bureaucracies. I’ve deleted all those specifics—you don’t need them because you have a list of your own. Everyone does because virtually everyone lives embedded in bureaucracy. There are very few walks of life where a person doesn’t have to deal with red tape and forms on a more or less constant basis.

Just stop and think how many forms you have filled out in the past year, and how much of your life that has taken up. Then add on the time you’ve spent on hold or dealing with some low-level “customer service” rep on the phone or instant messaging, and the sad truth of these many wasted hours comes clear.

As a person with a chronic illness that is likely to shorten my expected lifespan, I have always chafed at this set of circumstances. While I understand the need for much of it—the driver’s licenses, the voter registration cards, the building permits, the medical histories—I have always grown very impatient with needless bureaucratic obstacles.

But today while I was thinking about this issue, I happened upon some good news for me: Life expectancy for those with Type 1 diabetes has improved greatly in the past couple of decades and for those of us born between 1965 and 1980 is only about 4 years shorter than those in the general population. When I was diagnosed in 1972, it was a whopping 15 or 20 years lower than average. Maybe I am no longer justified in my impatience.

It would be fascinating if someone would do a study about what diabetics do with those extra years we now get to live. I suspect that a goodly portion of it will be spent waiting in doctor’s offices, hassling with health insurance providers and third-party billing profiteers, shuttling medical records from one doc to another, and filling out paperwork related to treatments and benefits.

What I also fear—for all of us caught up in this increasingly bureaucratized world—is that we will turn more and more to fantasy as the antidote.

Because even the word “bureaucracy” is really boring, right? Who wants to even discuss the issue when every one of us has some version of it in his or her own life. Who needs more?

I have a theory that the rise of genre fiction (and movies and gaming and so on and on) has to do with the concomitant rise of bureaucracy all around us, even through and in us. We are living in ways that it’s truly unacceptable to live—inhuman ways that denigrate us. Not that we are living in squalor—perhaps the trappings of comfort and leisure (the TVs, the cars, the iPads, the flights to Paris) allow those of us in the middle class to ignore these cold wastes of time. After all, desperate living and working conditions, hunger and illiteracy, dysentery and violent repression all continue the world over, and are worse than mere bureaucracy.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we don’t answer the bureaucratic inhumanity with the rally or the march or the strike. These methods seem to have lost their effectiveness to a great extent anyway—people march and rally and strike, and the powers that be wait them out. Our “first-world” problems don’t seem to deserve that kind of outcry. When it’s attempted—as in Occupy Wall Street, which I greatly respected as an attempt to bring attention to these and related economic issues—the result is moderate and the fun-poking is huge. The reaction of much of the bureaucratized population to the Occupy movement was “Get a job.” No matter how unjust the implications, that tone has been common.

For the middle class, then, the main protest activity seems to be a retreat into fantasy. Fantasy seems to be something that almost everyone can get behind, no matter one’s political party, no matter one’s income level, no matter one’s level of education. Whether it’s interstellar space exploration or misty dragon-filled castles, whether it’s pretend wars where everyone can be a paintball hero or perfumed spas staffed by buff young men who will oil and rub one’s muscles, whether it’s in book or movie or video game or cosplay form—almost everyone seems more interested in an alternate world than the one we actually live in.

Never in my life have I seen a more prescient film than Brazil. It’s a film I will admit that I didn’t enjoy watching—it’s an ugly film and hard to follow. But the world that it presents—where the only escape from the bureaucracy is in a fantasy where the main character takes on armor and the wings of an angel—seems to me more and more like the world I live in now.

And I think that Brazil anticipates the way in which more and more extreme reliance on bureaucratic thinking about fitting in, strange self-fulfilling forms of meaningless success, pursuit of superficial beauty at any price—these things all lead us not to rethink our own world and its possibilities, but to fall back on hope in the magical.

The real horses are starving due to drought. It’s okay, though, because we can pretend that Dobrynya Nikitich and other dragonslayers will ride in on their beautiful steeds and save the day.

This strategy is fine with the powers that be, with those that impose further and further bureaucratic strictures. It is a great opiate. It lets everyone off the hook. It’s the religion without the requisite belief or morality. Win-win, I guess.

I’m sure that if I can only convince myself I have some angel wings somewhere, those waits in doctors’ offices and on hold won’t bug me so much. Until, of course, the end of the fantasy.

The Sun Is Shining

Tomorrow is 9/11—day of destruction, day of my friend’s birthday. Today as I drove home from the vet’s after Jupiter’s cancer check-up and my own entanglements with the human medical system, raindrops started pelting the car—big, enthusiastic raindrops out of nowhere. The sky was not exactly cloudless—it seldom is during Florida summers (and, yes, it’s still thoroughly summer here)—but I could see only a few fluffy white cumulonimbus ones floating in a blue sky.

For some reason, the kitschy Giles, Giles, and Fripp version of “The Sun Is Shining” popped into my head. The blue sky contrasting with the rain perhaps made me think of the cognitive dissonance of this song. And I was also reminded of September 11, 2001, when I had just started my teaching job at Bucknell University—how beautiful the weather was that day and what shared sorrow visited us at the same time. We could hardly believe that the weather continued to be so beautiful.

Perhaps “The Sun Is Shining” also came to me because last week I was revisiting The Prisoner and my college days, where I also had the pleasure to meet all kinds of new-to-me music such as that of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, as well as the better known King Crimson, and in metonymic rock ‘n’ roll fashion Fripp & Eno, 801, and Roxy Music. I had been so sheltered in my Tennessee country-rock-blues-pop universe that I had never heard of any of these. And I loved them. They were my ticket to a cool I had never experienced before. They exploded in my brain.

For one thing, I loved the fact that they could sustain both high drama and silliness. And “The Sun Is Shining” in all its smarmy truth suited my mood this afternoon. I hadn’t listened to the song in maybe decades, but it appeared in my mind full and funny, and I sang it through the pouring rain and sunshine all the way home.

I Am Not a Number!

Re-encountering the bureaucracy after time on one’s own is always a bit of a shock to the system, and one thing it has produced in me the past couple of weeks is a vague nostalgia for episodes of the 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner.

Not that I am a particular devotee. I didn’t watch The Prisoner until I was in college in the early 1980s, and then only in a passel of bodies sprawled together on a mattress in a dorm mate’s room. I didn’t follow it coherently through the entire series, nor did I spend a lot of time in later years looking it up again. In fact, until I sought out video clips for this post, I recalled incorrectly that it was filmed in black-and-white. Probably my friend (if you can call him that) in the dorm only had a black-and-white TV. The guys were all fascinated with it, and we girls were fascinated with the guys.

I wouldn’t really relate to that sense of being trapped in social conformism for decades to come. But I certainly do now, and sometimes Patrick MaGoohan’s voice echoes in my head, shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Number Six’s struggle to retain his sense of individuality, and the inevitable white bubbles that would trap and suffocate those who attempted to escape have stuck with me over all these years.

I also have strangely fond memories of one of the first loves of my life, who was part of the gang that sometimes gathered to watch The Prisoner. He had the habit of parting company with the words “Be seeing you”—and I think he learned all of the panache he had from listening to Patrick MaGoohan say this line. In the show it’s a creepy, ambiguous line—a reminder of how undetermined all superficial social interaction is. When we long for someone’s company, it’s a statement that feels like a promise of a future encounter, but it can also indicate a stalker-like Big Brother threat of surveillance. Sometimes in life, as in The Prisoner, it is hard to tell the difference.

One of the things this chain of associations led me to is that realization of loneliness in the busy-ness. I think this is the common result of people’s individuality not being recognized and of a lack of trust due to a culture in which everyone is out for “number one.”

Ironically, this is, of course, at the root of the very difference that President Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention–the difference between a “you’re-on-your-own society” and a “we’re-all-in-this-together society,” and it’s one reason why I will vote Democrat in the upcoming election. There is no way that one can truly support democracy without a belief in the value and rights of every individual. This is what democracy is about–collective individualism–not socialism and not the extreme isolationist individualism of the current right-wing. Individuality is only a positive value when everyone has an opportunity and ability to use it, not just the ones in charge who so often try to turn the rest of us into drones.

All too often these days, however, I see a kind of instrumentalism that goes way beyond the Repubicans. I recently started re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and early on she mentions both “what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or obstacle to one’s own plans” and “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

I do believe that the humanities can help us with these endeavors, but not when it becomes a world driven by the old quid pro quo and rampant careerism. The values of the humanities are unfortunately too often betrayed by those in the humanities. I see this very kind of instrumentalism on a daily level even among many of my so-called liberal and progressive colleagues and acquaintances. Too many of us are so busy trying to claw our way to the top of some heap that we lose focus on anything else. It sometimes feels impossible to resist–it’s what we are trained to do by numerous forces in society today. In universities, this creates enormous cognitive dissonance–democratic and critical thinking skills that we believe in except when they apply to the system we’re embedded in. Our work is seldom gauged on its own merits–just by numbers–how many thesis projects you’ve supervised (not how well), how many butts in seats (not whether the students have been engaged or recognized themselves), how many committees you’ve served on (not whether you have created anything meaningful or have merely destroyed work that came before), and most of all how many publications you have (not whether you got them by trading favors, not whether they are of any quality). This is a societal sea-change, and to me it is a fearsome change, an infiltration of everything by those who have a vision of the world as an uncooperative and dog-eat-dog place. Not even progressives are immune.

I long for that kind of community where people recognize each other respectfully as individuals rather than as mere stepping stones on the way to success (or mediocrity, which is usually where this stuff ends up). I give and get some of this recognition in bits and pieces—friends and colleagues for whom I am truly grateful—but there is not nearly enough to go around these days. I know, I know–utopian thinking. Still, I take comfort in repeating the mantra that I am not a number, and I try not to treat others that way either.

Once in a Lifetime

Yesterday, a friend asked me about our cable/phone/TV services. He’s in the process of moving and making all these “choices.” My answer ran to four paragraphs and described the complex array of factors that forces us to choose three different purveyors of such services—our cell service was determined by a requirement for iPhones; that same provider was unable to guarantee us high-speed internet at home, which we feel we have to have to make our work (which we often do at home) more efficient; we chose yet another provider for TV because of supposed more variety and higher quality signal, though the damn thing goes off every time it rains. And it rains a lot in Central Florida.

I told my friend that I consider these overwhelmingly complicated “choices” a symptom of a right-wing, ultra-capitalist conspiracy to keep us all from doing things like writing poetry and thinking about the deeper meaning of life. We are so trapped in all these material goods and services that there’s really little time for anything else.

Today, I participated in yet another part of this—the phenomenon of the big box store. We recently had our guest bathroom repainted, and so we are decorating. We went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as well as Macy’s and Dillard’s. Such outings exhaust me and make me wonder what my priorities are. Most of these stores seem to me filled with so much garbage, ready to be consumed in its trendy moment and then discarded.

Yet, I do want to make my world beautiful. I need to start making more things beyond words again, or at least thinking about more ways to incorporate beauty than just by buying stuff. I think frequently about societies in which people work less and spend more time on their families and friends and the day-to-day arts that bring beauty into our lives—gardening, cooking, singing, playing music, drawing, arranging our homes, grooming ourselves, even the art of lovely kisses.

At any rate, in the car driving to the mall, we also heard the Talking Heads, performing their wonderful classic 1980 song, “Once in a Lifetime.” Since the song speaks to our tendency to go through life without paying full attention to where we are and the choices we are making, I thought I would share it today. It helps, David Byrne seems to know all too well, to have a sense of humor and an understanding that all humans struggle with the swift passage of time and occasional confusion about our lives. David Byrne is certainly an individualist, someone not packaged beyond recognition of his individuality, and I wish that more of us managed to remain unpackaged that way. So many forces in the work world tend to turn us into conformists. So, on Labor Day, it’s good to remember that our money, our house, our car, our trophy wife, our career—none of these things define who we are. It’s much more ineffable than all that.

Jolie Holland

The other day I posted about photographer Laurel Nakadate and her project where she cried every day for a year. She noted in an interview that Jolie Holland’s song “Mexican Blue” could be counted on as a good song to cry to. So here it is, though I didn’t find it all that sad myself—a clear sign that often we cry in association with certain memories or personal meanings.

At any rate, I listened to quite a few Jolie Holland songs over the past few days, and I found that her more recent “Rex’s Blues,” a cover of an old Townes Van Zandt song, was more moving to me. I also like the fact that Van Zandt was one of Holland’s Texas predecessors. So I give you that, too, on this rainy day when evil weather of all sorts has skirted Orlando but made its temporary home in Tampa. And just for the record, here’s the Van Zandt version.

Mea Culpa

Mea Culpa, 1987-1997, a sculpture by Robert Bryce Muir, photographed by Russ McGinn, 2006.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about mistakes. What role do mistakes play in being a genuine human being? How do we forgive ourselves for making them, inevitable as they are, without letting ourselves become sloppy or irresponsible?

I make a lot of mistakes, and probably so do you. Fortunately, most of the time these are not earth-shattering. My friend Anna once noted to me that some of our individual anxiety really was silly. “We’re not going to do something so stupid,” she said, “that we’ll ruin our lives.” There are many things that contribute to this state of affairs—“maturity,” education, practical intelligence, family and friends who talk over our major decisions with us. Because I am lucky enough to have all of these things in my life, it’s true that many mistakes that we hear about on the news—playing with a loaded gun, driving while drunk, giving financial information to anyone over the phone—are not mistakes I will make. At least I hope not.

Though in this regard I take Bobby McFerrin’s song at face value and don’t worry–at least not obsessively–I do have some concern about the mistakes I make.

Recently, I heard from a former student of mine who has developed some issues dealing with his own perfectionism. I won’t go into detail about his story, but we had some interesting chats via email about how difficult it is to give up our expectations of being perfect, of striving for it. He was contemplating starting a blog to track his progress in this regard.

One thing that occurred to me is that perfectionism and blogging don’t go very well together. Either you will make mistakes on your blog or you will not be able to keep up the relentless schedule of posting. It’s relentless no matter how often or seldom you post, as long as you do so on a regular and fairly frequent basis. I often think of my boss back when I worked for the Penn Stater magazine, who would say to me, “I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it now.”

In the past several weeks, three blog errors in particular have been brought to my attention.

Error the First

One of these was indeed minor and easily corrected. In my post in response to Marjorie Perloff’s dissing of Rita Dove’s new poetry anthology, I got a guy’s name wrong. This happened out of sheer exhaustion at the end of a long day of work at picking apart Perloff’s article. I just copied the wrong guy’s name in reference to a book title. Although the (I think) significant issues I raised in the post got virtually no comment, someone commented that I had this name wrong. Grateful, I corrected it.

Error the Second

Also, recently, my father sent me an email letting me know that some of the timing and possible motivations I had mentioned about the bitterness between my grandfather and his father-in-law were a bit off in my post about Memorial Day. I had already discovered these errors as I had further researched this very family history for an essay I was writing to submit to a journal, where I am more careful. My father was nice enough to say that he had found the post “well written and touching” and that he didn’t think my inaccuracies negated the theme of the piece. Here, too, I could simply go back and update the post based on new information.

In fact, this raises the issue of how accurate we can and should require ourselves to be when looking into the past. My own memories of what I’d been told in the past betrayed me. I’d recognized my own uncertainty and gone back to my father after this post was written. I’d done a bit of online research. My father had also referred me to his cousin, Pete, and I’d had a long chat with him. Pete had referred me to his sister and to a pastor who once boarded at my great-grandfather’s house. I have not yet called them, though I will.

And so the truth that we understand may grow more and more refined over time. We can’t research forever, and there are some facts (especially about the distant past) that we can never fully know, though we are irresponsible if we don’t try. The creative nonfiction writer lives in this in-between space. We are constantly reminded of what we do and don’t know and of the unknowability of others, even perhaps ourselves.

And the Third Error

More recently, I made a slightly trickier-to-correct error—trickier because this was about the contested world of politics. After I posted about the Obama-Romney character issue, my friend emailed to say, that, oops, he had not actually seen a poster that said, “Vote for Romney. He’s the white guy.” I’m sorry, he said, but that “was my attempt at satire.”

Ah, that satire. I suppose that if a whole host of people believed indeed that the Martians were coming when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio in 1938, then it’s no surprise that I would think this poster real.

So, is there anything to be gleaned from how I made this mistake? It had even occurred to me that it wasn’t real. But, for one thing, I couldn’t imagine my friend taking time out of his busy life to create the visual that he had used to accompany it. Also, he frequently does photograph and post strange signs that he sees around town (and beyond) that are also frequently virtually unbelievable. Lastly, I live far from the Villages, and they take on an iconic status like that of the mythical Stepford. Too often, it’s possible for me to imagine the majority of the people who live there as completely alien beings.

And, of course, I was in a hurry, didn’t want to bother my friend with blog fact-checking, and needed to get the doggone post up and done.

I have since corrected this, too, but saying that someone created a satirical poster is not so strong as the possibility of seeing a real one. Sometimes the truth goes underground, and this is largely the case with racism these days. It is hard to catch someone saying something outright racist. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

This error also raised a fundamental question about the internet. I finally decided to just go back and change this entry, but should I have instead left the error and inserted a correction, acknowledging on that very page the original flub? I contemplated this latter option, which creates a public record of errors in our thinking, but decided that even this one didn’t change my overall argument, so could simply stand in its correct state. But what does it mean when the average reader (rather than someone who searches out the way-back, etc.) can’t see the evidence of mistakes?

Anyway, even though this misunderstanding also doesn’t negate my themes, it’s an embarrassing error, especially when I know that the right-wing makes so many of these errors intentionally. I’m supposed to be better than they are.

Context

As I return to the classroom this week, however, and confront students in my creative nonfiction courses who are already asking questions about the roles of truth, embellishment, faulty memory, and differences of opinion in what they write, I am somewhat comforted by my own answer to them.

Context, I say, context is key. There are ways that we can indicate that we are honestly speculating, or that our work is based on perhaps-flawed memory. These things are different from an out-and-out lie, a self-serving misrepresentation, or pure sloppiness, and anyone reading the genre of memoir should understand this.

In fact, the genre of memoir is at least partially about how our memories change and shift, how fabricated they are, much less the written versions of them.

If you are writing about a famous person (as I sort of was with the presidential character issue), the standard is more journalistic. I should have called and asked my friend before I mentioned his poster.

Still, a personal blog is not journalism. I at least give myself that out. When I was contemplating starting this blog, I worried about the untested nature of the work that I would put out there. My brother, a long-term blogger (albeit of a less personal nature) said to me, “Think of it as a rough draft.” There was wisdom in that, and it allowed me to go ahead and get started. Yet blogging is also there for public consumption and is not labeled “rough draft” on every post.

I feel a deep responsibility for what I post. I never post anything intentionally misleading, and if it’s controversial I usually get at least one friend or my husband to read it as a litmus test. They sometimes point out claims they think are too strong or ask me to clarify some point.

And yet, and yet… I have to defy paralysis by going ahead. I step into the void over and over and over again. I ask forgiveness for the times when I inadvertently step instead onto a toe.

For more information on the sculpture of Robert Bryce Muir, including Mea Culpa, see his website.

Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?