Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Plastic Surgery, Brazil, and our new Pope, Renee Zellweger.

Today on the internet, everyone is:
 wiggin' out about Renee Zellweger's new face,
mad about people being mean about Renee Zellweger's new face, or
depressed the pressure to be young and beautiful in Hollywood.

Much like the girl who told me fairies weren't real in elementary school, I think that if you truly feel outraged about someone's personal life choices, you should just ignore them. Which, coincidentally, is the opposite of what most internet folk have chosen to do, whatever the opinion.

 In all fairness, I didn't ignore that girl, either. I kicked her, and I got detention.

She will be a bridesmaid in my wedding next October.

As a digital shin-kick to everyone and anyone, I'd like to bring up  a couple passive-aggressive, vaguely linked points in response to your overwhelming personal sadness over a stranger's apparent plastic surgery.

Zelly knew what she was doing. She's got agents. She's got publicists. She's got personal assistants, and--I hope--some friends.  In all likelihood, the idea that this would be taken negatively by any and everyone on the internet was factored into the discussion of "should I receive an apparent face graft". The negative, explosive press was likely on the "pro" list of this transformation, and her recent statement  all but confirms that suspicion. At last, people are watching her again. The gaze. The beautiful, intoxicating gaze.

The part of this that is most troubling to me is NOT  so much that older women are altering their bodies in order to be "more beautiful" (more on that later).  I'm more concerned about the growing trend in deciding that anything is better than obscurity. We've always been obsessed with the idea of celebrity; modern society makes the collective psychosis more obvious. In my humble, largely unheard opinion, the message behind this internet explosion is as follows:

Being famous is so important, that I'd literally rather rip my face off than dive into obscurity. 

It's about fame. Our culture  commodifies storytelling, reducing it to something as unimportant as notoriety.

We don't love people because they are brilliant artists.
 We love them because they help us believe in a great and powerful falsehood: immortality.

The links between fame and illusions of immortality are pretty easy to spot.  When your Uncle Maury dies, it's tragic, but only inasmuch as it affects Maury's relatives and friends. Eventually, days pass when Maury is thought of with less frequency. Indeed, months slip by without his name being mentioned aloud. Maury not only physically dies, but his memory in the living world dwindles to almost nothing.  That's dying. The forgetting. Just ask Thorton Wilder.

Celebrities enjoy a lasting power that extends well beyond their final pulse. Foundations are started, Facebook is flooded, news is halted--for the remembrance of one celebrity's birthday or death. Think about CNN or Fox on the anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. Still. Still, this happens. They are, in a sense, immortal.

 The illusion of immortality clings tightly to our brightest entertainers, and so we love them.  Think, then, of the pressure of obscurity. The challenges associated with no one taking her picture. In the unreality of fame and a culture obsessed and terrified of death, Renee was dying long before her time.

We are replacing old gods ( i.e. God, Zoroaster, the Beatles) with the notion of celebrity. The deification of humans always puts me on edge. Think of the problematic rule of the Pharaohs. Or the Papacy.  Trust me, we don't need more popes  running around, eating kale salads and forgetting to wear underpants with their mini-skirts.

Ironically, when celebrities elect to dramatically change their physical states, it causes a troubling inner stir which might otherwise be reserved for, i don't know, people we actually know. 

As for plastic surgery, I'd like to reference an article posted earlier this year that explores the lives of Brazilian women undergoing surgery, sometimes in teaching hospitals that subsidize the procedures, Ivo Pitanguy, the namesake of one such institute, waxed philosophical about every person, even the poor, having the right to be beautiful. 

Many friends and peers lamented at the "distorted notion of beauty" that this mentality supposedly embodies. There were cries of "every body is beautiful" from all four corners of the internet, as men and women alike weighed in on this oft- discussed issue of plastic surgery. I can understand the argument that beauty should be less important than it is today. I nod my head in assent at the argument, "why does everyone have to be beautiful? Can't we all just be good people?". I think it is esoterically sound.

. I just contest the feasibility of a collective change of heart toward beauty, given our aforementioned affection for glamour.

As a conventionally attractive, "normal looking"  cisgendered white female American, it's easy for me to talk about self-love Its easy for me to look at magazines and disregard my cellulite or crooked teeth and say, "every body is beautiful".

 It is easy to go on about inner beauty when you are, in fact, beautiful. Even if you don't feel beautiful all the time.

 But there are physically ugly people in the world. Some would argue that beauty consists of a series of metrics., It's a simple mathematical equation that doesn't add up properly in some bodies,

The golden ratio tells us that exceptionally beautiful people exist for no reason other than that their bodily proportions add up to about 1.61. Aesthetics are not a myth, or even, in some ways, our choice. That ratio has held true in our bodies, paintings and master works of art, and was even referenced in a Dan Brown Novel.   That way, you know it's real.

Please note, this observation comes from the existence of subsidized or even free plastic surgery, which provides greater access to cosmetic surgery than we have in the United States. Here in the states, cosmetic surgery is generally available to wealthy people with time and money to burn.  Like everything else, it is used as a symbol of our status and power. It indulges those Calvinistic urges that say that some people are just intrinsically better, and therefore more opportunities are available to them.  But that's not cosmetic surgery's fault. It's due to our ongoing obsession with wealth and status.

So Renee, on an economic way, is jsut
There is something beautiful about the Brazilian perception of cosmetic surgery. Something lovely about a woman taking control of her body, looking the "I-Was-Just-Born-Better" mentality in the eye, and manifesting one's own destiny in the realm of physical beauty. If its so unimportant, then why sweat the changes?

After all, if our exteriors are merely shells,  and not that important anyway--what is it about altering one's body that is so sacrosanct?

Renee's example is not that of bodily empowerment or ownership. She is seemingly entranced by the immortality illusion. But, why are you so sad about plastic surgery in itself? Why aren't you more concerned with the waste of money, or the glaring wealth inequality that allows for such frivolities in this country? Why are you lamenting Renee and demeaning these Brazilian women? Both took control of her body in an unconventional way. One received it for an affordable price. But we are more worried about the transient changes of our godlike examples than the prospect that physical beauty can be created and still  be genuine. Which implies that we are, after all, more concerned with the pursuit of physical beauty than we'd like to admit. It's just that it can only be achieved under certain circumstances. Like wealth, pre-existing beauty, and godliness.

I'm not trying to say that Renee Zellweger is an anti-Calvinist egalitarian demigod, championing female empowerment. Hell, she's saying that she didn't  get plastic surgery in the first place.

 I'm just suggesting that maybe, it's not plastic surgery that's problematic in our shallow, self-absorbed society. It's wealth, fame, and our endless obsession with the pursuit of immortality.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dear West Virginia 4-H: We Have To Stop Using Cultural Appropriation in Our Camping Traditions.

It's national 4-H week, and I am flooded with memories of campfires, once-close friendships, and old songs. I miss my old friends, and wonder why we grew apart. I am grateful for Kyle and the Russo sisters, probably the last holdouts from that  category.

There's one part of camp that, as I have grown in age and perspective, has become disconcerting. It's not the ever-encroaching over-supervision of campers. Or the gossiping counselors.

Every summer (which is the pinnacle of 4H participation in West Virginia), we assemble into tribes.  Four groups, separated by a color, totem animal...and a Native American name.

One of these things is not like the of these things just doesn't belong. 

The 4H camping tradition is over 100 years old. My mother, sisters, and now niece have all participated in this fun, lighthearted and loving week of youth vigor, valor and vim (guess which tribe I was in). Words like "Tradition"  and  "Legacy" are thrown around the campfire pretty regularly. We hold many practices sacred.

I understand. I loved it, too, I loved being a "proud Seneca", serving as both a "Sagamore" and a "Chief" of my "tribe".  Wakonda jokes were great stand-ins when nothing funny happened that day, and wearing a chief's headdress or sagamore tag made me feel proud, even though it did create a week-long ring of green around my forehead.

When I try to relay memories of camp now, I find myself censoring most of the aforementioned events. In my present mind and worldview, these traditions that we hold so dear seem like hurtful, reductive pantomime of a marginalized and oppressed culture that has been ignored or ridiculed by American society for too long.  We are not those people. We do not oppress, tease, or marginalize. We are here to make the world a better place, and this tradition is keeping us from doing it.

Dear fellow West Virginia 4Hers, you're going to hate this. You're going to get mad and feel sensitive, because for so many of us, 4H was a haven from the world, a reminder of how to be a kid, a true outlet of joy.   But we have to stop using tribal symbols in our Camps. We have to let everyone know how wonderful we are, and part of that means making 4H and 4H camp accessible to everybody.

As a community, we strive to uphold the 4 Hs--Head, Heart, Health, and Hands. Mimicking tribal names and traditions is an egregious violation of these four pillars.

  Head: It encourages us to make a moral exception for ourselves, despite the fact that we all know that mimicking Indigenous traditions is racist, reductive and damaging to our society.

 Heart: By denying this fact, we are closing our community to minority groups. Do you think a Native American would feel comfortable joining our group? 4H is for everyone. Camping is for everyone. But, when the basic structure of our camping model violates the personal history of others, we unintentionally exclude those who might view our traditions as offensive. WE need to open our hearts to the potential for change.

Health: Racism is, in many ways, a mental health issue. Using tribal jargon for pantomime desensitizes campers to the implications behind the use.  By making this a non-issue, our organization is sweeping thousands of years of oppression under the rug. If we are capable of doing that with one group, why not others? This practice sends a subliminal message to campers that some racism is okay.

  Hands: As an organization, we are dedicated to using our voices to make the world a better place in every scale. "For my club, My Community, My Country, and My World."  This may not cause big waves in West Virginia, where there is a largely homogeneous culture.  But we aren't just worried about West Virginia (although it is the Best Virginia). We are concerned with the world. We want to make it a better, more loving and equal place. Mimicking indigenous cultures is counter intuitive to this mission.

I know that  intentions are not to offend. I understand that 100 years of "tradition" can make our perspective hazy.

I am also aware that we have been through this before, and someone said it was "OK" as long as we are "culturally sensitive". But let me tell you---there is no situation where mimicking another culture is sensitive. Especially when you consider the historical treatment of Native peoples by the United States. I'm not just talking about smallpox blankets and the Trail of Tears. I'm talking about poor resources on reservations, continual socio-economic inequality, and continued cultural appropriation throughout many aspects of popular culture, media and organizations such as 4H. So this time, let's not have to wait to be asked---and sued--by Native American Peoples. Let's do the right thing, and reach this conclusion on our own.

We can keep the bears, turtles and birds. We can still shout our approval, sit by a campfire and sing songs while competing for the funniest skits or best top ten lists. Those are our traditions.They are what make 4H special, sacred even.

 Seneca, Cherokee, Delaware, Mingo and Big Foot are not ours. They do not uphold the 4Hs, and they are holding us back.  Please, for the sake of creating a more conscientious, equal and loving world, consider removing Native connotations from our 4H traditions. I want 4H camp to be open for everyone.  In order to do that,we must create a landscape of equality for everyone, not just for some.

I take my stand, I make my pledge, and each day it means more. And from now on, through all my life, I'll pledge the H's 4. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

draft one--Brooklyn

Morning bicycle rides through southeast Brooklyn,

On broken concrete and glass

Through old neighborhoods where families reside in the same old townhouse

 older tenement apartments  stacked with hipsters already late for the morning commute

The pungent smell of a fish market,  butchers down in Canarsie,

 Dirty Remsen Avenue, with fast cars like a highway

  but slow street traffic lights

On this street, I bike on the sidewalk,

Thread   between students in Charter School Uniforms,

Mothers covering unkempt morning hair with scarves or bandannas

Men on morning routes for the electrical company

Fast Food stores already open, always open.

Reaching the corner of Remsen and Farragut,

 I am two minutes late on the dot

Sweaty from the ride

Ready for the  breakfast left molding on my  kitchen counter.

 Daytime is overworked teachers, social workers, janitors,

And the lilting jangle of Caribbean Accents

Life in not-yet famous parts of Brooklyn

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

My Home State, In One Line.

"West Virginia is so nice. The Taco Bell girl cared so much about my night"

Monday, September 8, 2014

Circular Waltz

Turn on the TV,
pour a glass of red wine,
a heavy-sigh cleans the slate for happier days.

Passing silent after silent afternoon
Would have loved, a year ago,
this place to call our own.

Door creaks in time with the passing Q train,
it used to be my favorite.
Now, any amount of travel promises twinging anxiety.

There are ghosts next door,
leering forms in past and present participle
ghosts in the corners of the psyche.

When will these blue days end.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Two months of silence, amidst a last triumphant finale of  consistence uprooting.  Finally, the Runaway is Reformed.

I live in a rather large apartment in Brooklyn. Prospect Lefferts Gardens. Right by the park.

Work is scarce and hard to come by. My father is sick.  Occasionally, morning heaviness hits, and voices whisper that the effort required to get out of bed is overrated.

Overall, those mornings are few and far between. They are punctuated by urgent whispers-- guilting me into a morning run. With blood pumping sufficiently well, it is hard to hear even the most insistent whispers of my worthlessness.

There usually something to do. An appointment to make. A song to write. A bar to try. It keeps me busy.  But something is gone; it's that ruthless insistence to show my work. To say "Look at me!"
I'd rather just live and do the things that keep me living. After learning very little in my life, I finally learned that this is the most difficult and important part of existence.

New York, perhaps, is not the best place for that sentiment. But it is where I am now. And there is still growth to be found here, lessons to be learned, paths that will ultimately lead me back to the quiet comfort of books, trees. Finally, the pursuit of a humble existence.

In the meantime, I'll try not to be angry at this city. It is always For Sale. I just wasn't looking hard enough before.

And now, there is a voice combating the sadness, saying that life is worth living, even when it is so incredibly hard.  That I am good and kind and smart, even when I feel hollow.  So there are things to admire. There are ways to be happy, although I am unsure how to making a living in this city.

I suppose this is happiness, even if it doesn't always feel that way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

San Po Po Season

If you google "San PoPo Season", nothing relevant comes up.
But in Guatemala City, everyone knows about San PoPos.
Perhaps I am spelling it incorrectly, although it is difficult to imagine a more feasible permutation.

They look like the backseat offspring of flies and ants who had too much to drink one night, and decided, what the hell?! Which is exactly what one says in response to the sudden arrival of San Po Pos.  While you are away doing an exercise video to stave off laziness and boredom, they sneak into your room and blanket your quilts with their six-legged nuisance in under five minutes. When the rainy season hits--and it has--the neighborhood ladies say that they fall from the sky with the rain.   

Adults and children alike collect the San Po Pos in jars and eat them for lunch. There are contests for who can eat the most. They dare us to comelo, just one.  It's una tradicion.

There are many traditions, like San Po Po season, that seem unsavory to an outsider's eye.  For example, setting off endless firecrackers at the crack of dawn in celebration of a birthday. This might  just be an annoyance, if we didn't live in Esperanza. Land of the more-than-occasional sunset shootings.

As it is, one quickly learns the difference between tiny popping firecrackers and the sound of gunshots. But, that first time, when you don't know the difference--your blood goes thick like lead as you sit in bed and wonder, why are there so many automatic rifles going off at breakfast? The truth, is--very few people with a Brahva hangover are likely to crawl out of bed before noon to pump someone's belly full of lead.

The bugs smell like citronella when you crush them, and since the soap is always half-diluted, most of San Po Po season is spent with the roof smelling like a bargain-shop tiki torch. I suppose this odor is better than the smell of burning trash, which I grew accustomed to after the first day.  Although I cannot help but wonder if the perpetual sore throat and runny nose is not a result of the rainy season, but rather a response to the acrid perfumes of battery smoke and old toilet seats.

~~  ~~  ~~

One of the women who works here is eight months pregnant. She lives on the precipice overlooking the dump.  Every morning, she climbs a small mountain to get into the neighborhood.  I don't know her well, but I often wonder if it would be strange to offer to rub her feet.  There are so many things I can't do--but I can give a pretty good foot rub.

Our librarian's neighbor was shot. She was dating some of the gang members.  When it happened, a man was wailing about his brother, and so we thought it was a man who was killed.  Gritando, mi hermano, ay mi hermano, no, mi hermano. 

It's very possible that, as is often the case, I misheard him. That o could easily have been an a.  If his keening hadn't doubled and tripled the length of his vowels--I'd be more willing to admit that, like the time I asked for a "half book of rice"--my intermediate Spanish steered me wrong.

I wonder what his brother had to do with all of that. Was it his girlfriend? Was he the one who shot the gun? Disembodied wails have a strange power.  They leave an insatiable desire to know what, exactly, happened.
They remind you of times that you heard such wailing come from your own belly.  It didn't sound or feel like you. Rather, it felt like grief had momentarily taken control of your body, some possession of sadness. And how that possession lingered.  How you were wailing for months on end, only no one could hear you. It had never occurred to you to stop, until you noticed how strangely everyone was looking at you.  And so you didn't. You just pegged it up inside of yourself, and howled from within.

In Guatemala, a person is buried many times over.  The first time, they are buried in their coffin; a rather large plot. This lasts for fifteen years, until the body has decomposed enough to be moved to a smaller resting place.  Then, it is exhumed and moved to a smaller plot, to make room for new cemetery visitors.

The family pays for the cemetery plot every year, and then pays an additional premium to have the body exhumed and moved to its second home.  If they cannot pay, the remains are thrown into the city dump.  The cemeteries are crowded; this how we make room for new residents.  People are buried into the walls of the cemetery. Climb a ladder, pay your respects, climb back down to earth.  The plots are crowded on mother's day, father's day, during Semana Santa, and on particularly popular birthdays.

many founders of this community moved here to escape a genocide.  Some still wear colorful wrap skirts and hand-embroidered blouses that signify their indigenous homes. most still bury more than their fair share of young people.  I wonder if the genocide really stopped, or just changed hands. I wonder how one person can hold so many memories of loss in her heart, and still have the strength to laugh, eat tostadas, attend long, drawn-out meetings.

The preferred method of gang intimidation is this: they sneak a cell phone in your pocket. It rings, you do what they say.

Last week, one of the women who works at upavim got a cell phone.  Unable or unwilling to pay, she did nothing.  In response, she was issued three warning shots, and then packed up her family and relocated to a place with a different gang.  They offer protection for now, with the promise of future intimidation.

The view at night is incredible, and in the morning, too. Two volcanoes, ready to help the sun rise in as glorious a manner as possible. Always crowned in mysterious cloud cover.  Ready to have poems written in its honor,  to defy your sense of longevity and endurance.  And just to the left of these prehistoric monuments--the city dump.  Always on fire, even during the rainy season.

I wonder if the city dump-creators had a sense of humor, or just lacked appreciation for a good landscape.