The Places That Draw You

The Met scale drawing image for The Places that Draw You post by Malin James

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are certain places that draw you. It could be the diner where you fell in love or the beach where you said good-bye; the house where you grew up or the park where you sat, journal in hand, sorting through yourself and your place in the world.

These places represent tiny shards of memory, or experience, that lodge themselves inside you. They get internalized, and through that process, become resonant, like tiny bells only you can hear. The associations with that place might be happy, sad or complicated, but they become a part of you, and they tend to draw you back.

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to New York. It’s a special city for me, one I lived in, briefly, as a much younger person, but it made an indelible mark. There are a lot of places that resonate with me in New York, like Washington Square Park. In my mind’s eye, it will always be black and white – wrought iron covered in pristine snow, lit by a gray, January dawn. There’s the coffee house on Avenue A where my friends and I trekked to get tea and chat when we should have been studying. There’s the blues bar on Second Ave., where I ordered my first gin and tonic, and the pizza place on Spring that still makes the best pizza I’ve ever had.

The American Wing. My favorite place, in my favorite place.

The American Wing. My favorite place, in my favorite place.

There are a lot of little places like that for me in New York, but the biggest one, the one that is lodged most deeply inside me, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was eighteen the first time I walked up the wide front steps. Even then, I knew that the massive museum was going to be a special place. I’ve been back countless times since – most recently two days ago, when I wandered around with a good friend – and still, there was that same familiar feeling. It still felt like my place.

There was a period during my freshman year at NYU that I went to the Met once a week. I should have been studying or rehearsing, but I needed to think. I was foggy about everything, from what I wanted and needed to who the hell I was. The only place I could think was in the Met, with it’s hushed galleries and wooden floors that creak and stretch forever. Over fifteen years later, I’m still drawn it, even though I know exactly who I am now. Every trip to NY means a trip to the Met.

I’ve changed, but it hasn’t. And yet, there’s always room for me in it. It’s a comforting, comfortable place. Walking through the front doors feels like slipping my hand into a well-worn pocket. It’s just one of those places for me. It just keeps drawing me back.

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Defining Literature

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide, image for Defining Literature post by Malin James

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide

Tuesday was April 1st, which means that no one on the internet could be trusted, including Sparky Sweets, PhD., one of the awesome minds behind Thug Notes, a weekly series on YouTube in which Dr. Sweets systematically breaks down the Western Canon, 4 minutes at a time, in a gangsta version of Cliff’s Notes.

At some point, I’m going to do a post on why I love Thug Notes, because the show is doing something incredibly important, but for today I’m going to focus on Tuesday’s installment – Summary and Analysis for Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight… APRIL FOOL’S! It was actually Huck Finn masquerading as Twilight. I laughed my ass off – they got me 🙂

Anyway, a friend posted the link to my Facebook wall and there followed a short thread in which people enjoyed the joke. One commenter also mentioned that it’s important to get kids to read “real literature”, (I’m paraphrasing). The thread ended when another commenter posted that she had greatly enjoyed the Twilight series, and felt that the definition of “literature” is “in the eye of the reader.” This, of course, got me to thinking..

This small disagreement points to a larger scale dispute in Western publishing, education and culture. Why do people read? Are certain books more valuable than others? How, in fact, should we define “literature”?

While I don’t think that the definition of literature is in the eye of the beholder, I do think that the value of a book is. The commenter who had enjoyed Twilight did something that is perfectly reasonable – she enjoyed Twilight. That series was not designed with any greater purpose than to be enjoyed. As a result, it’s value lies in how well the reader enjoys it. This reader enjoyed it a great deal, so Twilight is legitimately valuable to her – just as valuable as Anna Karenina or Huck Finn is to someone else.

The value placed on a book is personal, and it has to do with two things – the reader and the book’s intended purpose. The Firm, Cuckoo’s Calling and the entire Danielle Steel catalog were written to be enjoyed and consumed, and there is great value in that. Vehicles for escapism are, actually, valuable. It does not, however, make them literature, and here’s why:

Literature is a specific kind of fiction. Literature can, and often does, entertain, but it has a twin purpose –  to examine something in some way. This examination can be anything from the American dream (The Great Gatsby) to the nature of sexual submission, (The Story of O). Literature doesn’t want you to escape, it wants you to engage, and therein lies the difference.

The problem comes when people assign judgements to these two different purposes by devaluing a fun read, like Twilight, while falsely elevating “literature”, like Ulysses. In fact, what I like about Thug Notes is that it topples the ivory tower that literature is placed on so often – literature can, and should, be enjoyed. It just also asks you to think, or analyze, or ponder, or consider.

If you’d prefer to get lost in a story and escape, read an awesome book – that’s great. If you prefer cultural commentary with your enjoyment, read literature. Better yet, read both. Enjoy both. And find the value in both. Really, when it comes down to it, just read. That’s the most important thing.

Knee-Jerks, or Elle and the Belle Knox Interview

I was going to post something on gotcha questions and how they are both overrated, (as rhetorical tools), and valuable, (as nudgers of social change). However, I’m putting that aside for a second because I got a distracted by my own annoyance.

Why am I annoyed? Because of an interview. Or, rather,  by certain public responses to an interview.

Yesterday, Elle.com published a bit of very timely journalism. Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor and journalist with a well-established track record in the area of sex and culture, did an interesting, insightful interview with Belle Knox, “the Duke porn star” who was outed by a fellow student awhile back.

The interview reveals Ms. Knox to be a thoughtful, self-possessed young woman who sees herself neither as a victim of her choices, nor of circumstance. Her grounded lack of entitlement was unexpected in the face of Ms. Bussel’s questions, which were insightful and wide-ranging. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this piece and what emerged was the portrait of a real young woman, with a brain in her head. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that she was a porn star. Apparently, this devalues EVERYTHING she might have to say.

Elle.com is in the process of receiving a bit of flak for running an interview with, in the words of one concerned reader, “an over-educated whore.”

So, why am I annoyed? Because of the name-calling? I don’t like it, but no. Because of the stigma placed on a young woman’s sexuality? I really don’t like that, but no there, as well.

The source of my annoyance is the blatant lack of thought displayed by many of the people who have posted negative comments in relation to the article. To put it bluntly, it’s fairly clear that many of them didn’t bother to even read the interview before opining. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and ran with it. Much quicker and easier to skip all that reading and head to the comfort zone of righteousness and outrage.

Righteousness and outrage are emotional drugs. They feel good, especially when we get together with a mob of like-minded people carrying torches and sticks. The quality of the journalism doesn’t matter. What many of the commenters did was see is “Belle Knox”, link it to “whore” and then judge Elle for having the temerity to run a piece of journalism that offends or threatens a particular set of sensibilities.

But here’s the thing. In this case, it seems that it isn’t the interview that offends so much as the fact that it was published at all. When it comes right down to it, this post, (okay, rant), isn’t about Elle, or Belle Knox, or porn. It’s about thinking, and how so many people in our culture just don’t.

So, here’s what I propose. If you don’t want to read something, don’t read it. But keep your thoughts to yourself. Consider reading, (or listening, or watching), to be your ticket to voicing your opinion. If you don’t like the coverage, or the interview, or the film, or the book, or the show, that’s perfectly fine. But know what you’re disagreeing with before you open your mouth. Let it be your disagreement – considered and full of your thoughts – rather than the unthinking disapproval of your demographic, whatever that happens to be. Let your brain off the leash and take it for a nice, long walk. It might feel really good.

Grit

gritA few days ago, I was driving along and I heard an NPR article on the radio. It was about a quality called “grit” and how important it is to cultivate this quality in children.

The notion of grit, which was originally coined for the John Wayne movie, True Grit, been defined by researchers as a character trait involving resilience and determination against all odds. It’s a quality that has been slowly bred out of recent generations, in favor of a cultural emphasis on nurturing a sense of specialness (for lack of a better word) in children.

The formalization of research into “grit” is a clear backlash against the increasingly obvious inadequacies of helicopter parenting. The generation currently entering the work force is entirely unprepared for the realities of the adult world, i.e.: things are not always easy; you are *not* entitled to special treatment; indeed, you are *not* special, (at least, you are no more special than the next person). In short, this generation lacks grit – that special something that causes a person to dig in their heels, take responsibility and overcome obstacles. It’s a stereotypically American trait, and the reality is that many younger Americans have never had the chance to develop it.

And that’s what I find curious. The article outlined various school programs designed to “teach” grit. I’m not actually certain it’s something that can be taught. I am, however, fairly certain that it’s something that can be cultivated.  The notion of grit comes down to determination in the face of challenge. The development of this quality hinges on the habituation of an impulse – the impulse to overcome. As such, allowing children to struggle a bit, to be challenged, to figure things out for themselves, teaches two things:

1. The first is that a person’s worth is not in how much they win, but rather in how hard and how well they fight. How much do you want that passing grade? That place on the team? That skill in dance, or music or art? How hard are you willing to work? If you work the like devil, and don’t get what you want, do you want it badly enough to get back up and go for it again?

2. The second is that the world needs to be actively engaged. One of the side-effects of helicopter parenting is that the child never learns to engage the world for themselves. They learn to sit passively by while their parents engage for them, i.e.: their parents talk to their teachers; their parents do their projects; their parents talk them on to the team. No where in there does a child learn to advocate for themselves.

The cultivation of determination and resilience, (i.e.: grit), empowers young people. It teaches them not only that they have a voice, but that they can use it. This isn’t to say that they will always win, but they will have engaged.

The bottom line, to my way of thinking, is that grit is a fundamentally important quality. It feeds ambition, and determination, and by extension, success. Beyond any external measure, it also informs how you engage the world, and how you conduct your life. As such, I’m pleased to see an emphasis being placed, once more, on it’s cultivation. I’m just sad that it’s fallen so far by the wayside that special programs need to be instated to ensure that grit sneaks back into our culture.

Border Patrol

Big Ben through barbed wire c. 1945

This began as a post about Russia and what’s happening in Crimea, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it rapidly became a bit of a self-centered musing about myself. What’s happening in the Crimean Peninsula right now is legitimately interesting, as is the West’s response, (or lack thereof). Apparently, however, it’s not as interesting to me as myself. For this, I apologize. And yet, I forge on….

Recently, I’ve been thinking about boundaries, specifically my own, and how they are both uncompromising and quite flexible – though not universally so.

I’ve always been aware that I have some pretty serious boundaries, which I tend to defend with equal seriousness . In fact, someone very close to me refers to this tendency as my “border patrol”, calling to mind barbed wire fences and armed guards patrolling with guns and large dogs. And as much as I’d like for this to not be the case, it really is true. I have a border patrol and they are always on guard. The black and white bottom line is that some people naturally skirt the barbed wire fence and find themselves inside, while others don’t and are relegated to some portion of the perimeter… some quite close, other’s very far away.

The mechanism by which a person gets past my border patrol used to be a bit of a mystery to me. Most of the time, it happens quite quickly, though not very often – which is why I have a lovely handful of extremely close friends, (most of whom slipped through immediately), and a nice, healthy number of good, friendly acquaintances with whom I enjoy varying degrees of emotional intimacy.

So, there are the people who slip right through the perimeter, and the people with access cards who come and go fairly freely. Call is chemistry or affinity or sympathy or connection, but something between that person and I subconsciously sorts out where they end up in relation to my boundaries. The only thing I know for certain is that the people who sense my perimeters and respect them, are the people who tend to slip through.

Now, the people who really fascinate me are the ones who occupy a strange middle ground. While they don’t kick me into full alert, they inspire a serious, immovable guardedness in me – a sort of instinctive distrust that often translates to dislike.

When full alert happens, I don’t tend to care why. I generally run on the instinct that the person is a psychopath or some sort of son-of-a-bitch and keep them at arms length. Sure, it’s reactionary, but better safe than sorry. The grey area people are different though. It’s not psychopathy or son-of-a-bitchness that I’m cuing to with them. It’s an inherent lack of respect – for my boundaries, in general, and, therefore, for me.

Awhile back, I wrote a post on dominance, or rather, on women and submission. I think that, buried beneath my rabid hierarchical awareness, is the issue of boundaries and respect. I respect other people’s boundaries, and I have an absolute antipathy for people who try to test mine.

This very well may mean that I can’t take a joke, or that I take myself too seriously, but it’s always been the case. At this point in my life, it’s a fundamental part of my personality. So, I suppose that my border patrol is, more than anything, a response – one that can be supple and flexible or cold and hard – and that response, while being an accurate reflection of me, is also a reflection of how I perceive others. While it’s not a perfect lens, it’s the only one I’ve got. The least I can do is understand how it works. I want to be sure that I’m the one paying the guards.

On Food & Love

To say that we, as a society, are conflicted about food, is to understate the depth of our cultural neurosis regarding caloric consumption. We are a nation that openly fat-shames pregnant women while stuffing our faces with Oreos. And yet, our relationship to food wasn’t always so conflicted. For centuries, when lentils were daily fare and a lord’s feast was very much like a family dinner at Buca di Beppo, food was a glory in it’s basic goodness.

My grandmother was born in Spain and escaped during the Spanish Civil War. In the years leading up to Franco’s regime, she knew what it was to be hungry. Decades later, safe and successful in the United States, she still remembered the profound, human anxiety hunger produces, so when her grandchildren came along, she devoted herself to showing us that she loved us in the most critical way she knew. She fed us.

For my grandmother, food was love. If you loved someone, you fed them, because nothing is more basic than ensuring that someone you love has enough food to survive – it doesn’t matter if that survival is literal, as in “here are some berries to tide you over while you hunt that mammoth”, or figurative as in, “you get cranky mid-morning so have a cracker.” To her credit, my grandmother, though a complicated woman, never failed to make me feel loved, and she did so, in great part, through food.

In diametrical opposition to my very modern fears of getting fat, my grandmother felt that if you had so much food that gaining weight was a worry, then you were doing something right. It’s a viewpoint she shared with many people in her generation – a generation comprised of people who had survived World Wars, the Depression, drought, famine and civil unrest, depending on where they had come from. The nation, at that point, was united by the memory of a common experience – hunger, worry and need.

Today, in the wake of a recession that still, in many parts of the country, feels as if it’s going strong, when people have lost jobs and food stamp usage is high despite budget cuts, this type of hunger and worry are all too common. But it’s common on an individual level. There is a divide between the have and have-not’s in this country and that divide is partially responsible for our conflicted relationship, culturally speaking, with food. We are no longer united under the common experience of lean times, as our grandparents were. And so, while there are many (too many) people experiencing hunger on a daily basis in the States, as a country we’re still high on the hog.

So where are we left us as a culture when food is, generally speaking, abundant enough for us to waste, but healthy food the province of those who can afford it? I’m not entirely sure. Without a large-scale catastrophe uniting us in one common experience, our 21st century relationship to food remains complicated. We want to indulge and lose weight, and the stress of that dichotomy has imbued the topics of food and eating with a very different kind of stress than that our grandparents experienced.

The time may have come for us to change the terms by which we think of food. It is, after all, a necessity that crosses all ideologies and all biologies. While I appreciate my grandmother’s point of view, I cannot embrace the notion that food equates love. It is, however, a powerful way to communicate good will, affection, caring and kindness. It’s a way to build community and take care of others. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and a means by which to nourish our relationships, as well.

So, in this month of tortured indulgence, I propose this. That we do not indulge ourselves with despairing abandon, should we have the luxury of doing so, but rather that we share our food with each other freely; that we accept it with gratitude; that we enjoy it wholeheartedly; and that we eat it in a spirit of thankfulness, and yes, of love.

On Divisive Issues, or The Value of the Big Three

In honor of the holidays, I’d like to take a look at what I’m going to call The Big Three – the three topics of conversation that everyone everywhere knows to avoid at social gatherings, holidays and especially family dinners:

Sex. Religion. Politics.

The Big Three can be, to put it mildly, divisive, and it’s for this reason that they are often studiously avoided in favor of weather-based small talk. They are naturally controversial – unless all of the conversationalists agree. If the majority of people in the room hold them same beliefs, then these issues are a wonderful way to bond and confirm one’s acceptance in the ideological fold. The ideology itself is secondary to re-affirming a sense of belonging; or, to put it another way, it is the conduit through which this re-affirmation is performed. This is a pretty universal phenomena – doesn’t matter if the ideology is conservatism, atheism, bisexuality or Catholic Pro-Choice Buddhist Libertarianism. But I digress…

The point is that, despite accepted wisdom, and in the face of violently clashing ideologies, tons of people dive right into The Big Three, especially during the holidays, family dinner be damned. And this is important, I think.

What makes us bring up gay marriage when we know Aunt Janice believes homosexuality is a sin? Why talk about The Diary of Anne Frank when we’ve heard Uncle Ed say that Hitler “took a good idea too far”? Is it a simple impulse to provoke? To get a reaction? Or is there something deeper at work? I believe that there is and I suspect it comes back to ideology, and the fact that most of the ideologies currently held by humans on this planet involve, in some way, sex, religion, or politics, is just a happy coincidence.

A note before I go on: I don’t oppose ideology. I’m full of ideologies, as are most human beings. To believe in something is, in fact, to be human, so I in no way fault humans for having beliefs. The trouble isn’t in the ideology, but in the inability to see past it, to the views of others.

Okay. As I was saying, I suspect that this impulse to engage The Big Three, particularly in contexts having to do with extended families, roasted meats and lots of alcohol, has to do with both the assertion of our own ideology, and the deep-rooted need to have that ideology ratified by non-believers. Or, to put is simply, to change Aunt Janice’s goddamned mind. This is clearly not going to happen because she feels the same way about you. But we have the impulse to try.

This impulse is important, because it’s an impulse to engage. While The Big Three can, and often do, lead to uncomfortable interactions, they also prompt engagement, rather than the blind ratification of long-held beliefs.

Sex, politics and religion. They provoke and challenge. Their divisiveness prompts the impulse to engage. That is where their potential lies, but their value lies in going one step farther, past simple engagement, to a place of thinking and of discourse, where we can allow our own ideologies to be challenged, even as we challenge the ideologies of others.

On Identity

I mentioned briefly in the previous post that I have done a lot of things in my not-too-long life. I’ve been an actress, a bookseller, and a graduate student, not once but twice in two different fields. I’ve studied Victorian Literature and medieval romance, Crusade narratives and narrative theory. I’ve developed a dislike of post-modernism and a deep respect for scholarship. I’ve designed story times and assessed historical collections. I’ve helped students learn to read and write critically and, even more importantly, to think for themselves.

During all of this, I taught myself how to write. I did this by reading a lot, and by writing very bad stories for many, many years until I got better and began to get published, much to my surprise and delight. I’ve done a great many things, (a lot of them monumental to no one but myself), but I have done none of them with as much success as I’d have liked.

I’ve wondered, often despairingly, why this was, and I recently realized that it comes down to something very simple and extremely silly. It has to do with identity. We are, in many ways, identified by what we do. Our professional labels carry with them certain societal markers that, for good or ill, place us into categories and boxes.

“What do you do?”

“ Oh, I’m a ____.”

And there. The person you’re talking to subconsciously, or consciously slots you into a box that defines the rest of that interaction, or, potentially, the rest of that relationship.

Doctor = Smart. Fireman = Brave. Teacher = Dedicated.

I’ve never liked boxes. They simplify the inherently complex identity of the person they represent. And yet, my intellectual mind knows how functional these boxes are. My intellectual mind acknowledges that most people know that there is more to a person than what he or she does. And yet, I resisted committing to one field for years. The irony is that resisting commitment to a professional identity does not exempt you from pigeonholing. If anything, that lack of commitment becomes a different kind of marker, one that makes commitment a far more attractive thing.

In fact, it may well be that it is commitment to a particular identity that nurtures and harnesses a person’s full potential. It signals the maturation of ambitions, whether you’re working a day job so you can write at night, or tearing up Wall Street. Commitment to identity signals to the world that you know, at a certain level, who you are, and that you are self-aware enough to pursue your interests professionally and / or vocationally.

It’s that acceptance of public identity, paired with a lack of concern for the illusion of its importance, that frees a person to pursue the depth of their potential in whatever field, or identity, they choose.