Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Emotional Weight of Minutiae

It's interesting. I've run across an object I have not seen in over seven years. The object, itself, is about as noteworthy as, well, it's so damned un-noteworthy that no simile really fits. Its indescribable ordinariness is its most noteworthy characteristic. It's a small, white cotton pouch large enough to hold, maybe a dollar in quarters. It was given to me seven or more years ago by a girl with whom I thought I might be in love. Note that I say "girl" not out of latent sexism, because at the time, I, too, was just a boy. Barely 18. An age at which I shaved out of a flimsy hope that I was manly enough to merit it instead of any actual need.

In it, originally, was a ring. A hammered silver ring that is still, to this day, on my left middle finger. Needless to say, I look at this ring everyday. It holds no special meaning for me in a day-to-day sense. It is simply THE RING THAT IS ALWAYS ON MY LEFT RING FINGER. Once in a while, someone might ask where I got the ring, and I explain that someone I dated a long time ago bought in Mexico when we were both young and stupid teenagers. Even when I explain its origin, I don't really think about the weight the relationship had on my young, stupid life at that point. Moreover, I talk to the now woman who gave this ring to me many years ago on a fairly regular basis. Now she is just my old friend, and to be frank, my past infatuation lingers only in the way one remembers a fairly intense dream. I don't consciously think about, and even when I do, the most intense memories are ones of shame at stupid 18-year-old shit I said in the wake of our stupid-18-year-old break up. I was an idiot at the time, and carry shame like a camel, so that's what sticks with me.

But today I discovered this little pouch. The pouch which carried the ring she gave me after her trip to Mexico with her family after Christmas break our freshman year in college. It's a little dusty, having been at the bottom of a cigar box filled with concert ticket stubs, matchbooks from bars and restaurants to which I have not been in years, a couple of marbles that have no particular significance to me, and a drawing an old friend made in high school. Strangely, unremarkable though it may be, I recognized the pouch immediately.

Upon looking at it I knew immediately what it was. This isn't surprising to me. I remember a lot of unnecessary crap. What was striking, however, was how immediately emotionally evocative this little scarp of cotton was. Strangely, the ring that was the actual gift, is something I associate with my hand....but the little pouch it once came in, is EXTREMELY powerful in its ability to elicit emotional memories. I remember feeling helpless and blissful to be receiving such a nice (and intimate) gift from this girl. I remember thinking that this pouch with this ring in it symbolized something....I dunno...it symbolized the sort of shit a ring might when you're 18 and in a doomed situation with someone. I mean, in retrospect, it's sort of hilarious how serious I was about things there. A) I didn't know shit about shit, but B) the relationship was so very 18 and thoroughly doomed, anyway.

Still...I suppose there it is interesting. I have a watch that was my grandfather's that I wore everyday until it broke. To be frank, at some point, in the front of my consciousness it became just my watch. But I'd find things of his I hadn't seen in years that would send me into really intense emotional states. I suppose, if you want to imbue an article with emotional weight, you really have to hide it from yourself in a place where you'll only discover it every so often. Maybe that's what's so great about old photos...

Monday, May 7, 2007

Sex and Sociology and the Academy: Is The Emporer Shakin' his Junk With No Clothes On?

I studied sociology at a school that brags, fairly or unfairly, a *moderately* noteworthy reputation on the subject. Needless to say, like all social sciences, an investigation of sexuality permeated my sociological studies. On one end, there was a greater focus on sexual orientation as a socially salient identifying factor on par with race, socioeconomic class, gender, etc. This I buy totally and without any reservation. Being gay, being straight, being bi, being transgendered; it matters. Sexual orientation affects all situations just as British theorist Richard Dyer once said with regard to race, "seldom is it the only issue, but it's never NOT an issue." This I believe whole heartedly.

However, the post-feminist climate of social sciences and humanities often has me all bugaboo.

FIRSTLY--I consider myself something of a little f feminist, in the primary definition of one who believe in inherent equality of abilities, while also accepting and embracing differences between genders. This comes from a post-World War II move in social theory that, distilled to its purest essence says we're all people. No one (or at least no one group) is inherently good or bad or smart or stupid or ugly or evil or rhythmic or taller or what have you. It's a comforting, we're-all-just-people-swinging-on-this-crazy-rock-that-circles-some-90-million-miles-around-the-sun. I am very much into this populist notion, not as a product of my bed-wetting progressive politics, but rather this opinion has caused my populist progressivism. The reason isn't any sort of religious fervor, but rather, that I've never seen any compelling evidence to the contrary. We're products of our nature as well as our nurture, but in the long run I just don't see any meaningful justification that any one person, in a vacuum, should be any greater or lesser than anyone else inherently. My feminism is merely an offshoot of this.

HOWEVER, since the 1980s the capital F feminist movement has begun to confound me. I am not offended, but rather confused. Capital F partisan Feminists in the last 20 years have done some incredible things such as bringing awareness of the horrors of genital mutilation to the world, promoting breast and cervical cancer research, furthering the cause of conception and abortion rights, to even the good ol' fashioned feminist business of fighting patriarchy through policy and empowerment to name just a very few of the major accomplishments of feminism in the last 20 years. On the other hand, there have been academic feminists involved in political fights that have little impact on the lives of real people who have been in (TONGUE FIRMLY PLANTED IN CHEEK) dick-measuring contests over pornography over this time frame. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon both spent large segments of the 80s and 90s proclaiming porn and erotic work as "acts of rape" that should not be protected by free speech. On the other end of the spectrum, there are post-feminists who proclaim participation in porn and exhibitionism to be the ultimate expressions of feminist sexual empowerment. Maybe my opinion on the subject is invalid (or at least not particularly germane to the topic at hand) as I am a straight, white, college-educated male of middle class standing, but we white guys are pretty known for expressing our opinions whether it's our place or not so I shall express the disjointed confusion that pass as my opinion on the matter: Maybe somewhere between clitoral piercing and public sex shows on the one hand and the sort of vehement anti-porn stance that makes for the strange bedfellows of Andrea Dworkin and Jerry Falwell, there is room for some sort of truth or understanding or reasonable, workable compromise. (We white guys, always trying to be moderate in the midst of revolutions!)

Firstly, I am vexed by porn in general. Obviously, being a secular humanist populist libertarian (and occasional libertine) I am obviously loathe to promote any policy that promotes the limitations of speech. Just as we ought be able to yell "Theatre!" at a crowded fire, why can't we look at dirty pictures occasionally? That being said, I come from a liberal family but from the slightly reserved and thoroughly WASP-ish Midwestern exurbs just outside of Chicago, so it has always caused me slight blushing to discuss porn in polite company. Moreover, possibly given my background, I cannot help but feel some of the erotic charge of porn in contemporary American society comes from the shame and repression surrounding it. Feeling a little dirty can be kind of hot, am I wrong?

On the other hand, porn involving or even fictionally depicting actions by those who did not consent (or those who are unable to consent: children, animals, the developmentally disabled, etc.) not only strikes me wrong but also engenders the sort of revulsion that, after the gagging subsides, engenders a sort of righteousness. It is this righteousness vis-a-vis revulsion that allows me some sympathy for Dworkin perspective. We are all revulsed by different things and by different degrees. Andrea Dworkin's specific sexual past is marred by such horrors that it strikes me as unsurprising that she was wholly intolerant of pornography in any form. That being said, I'm not sure it's a rhetorically strong standpoint from which to draft policy.

So where does the line get drawn? There are some people who find any number of specific kinks to be either incredibly hot or morally reprehensible. There are plenty of us who find porn kinda tacky. (But sometimes that tackiness is kinda hot, too. It's all taboos, and the erotic power of taboo has been so long documented that it hardly bears mention.)

Moreover, another issue is how pornography affects the actual, REAL LIFE sexuality of people. I can only speak anecdotally as I am not in a graduate program, and do not have a grant for research. But I can say that I have known many people for whom porn has played (in my humble estimation) a disproportionate role in the foundation of their personal sexuality. I have known women who liked being called "slut" during intercourse, who enjoyed having the a man ejaculate on her face. I have known men to exhibit the same kinks, a long with a host of others. To a certain extent, I cannot help but think that pornography's thumb print is on those kinks. I am not wholly passing judgment, however. What gets you off, gets you off and I figure as long as no one is emotionally or physically damaged as a result and both parties consent to and enjoy the actions taking place, I see no reason to hold back on doing whatever it is what you want to do. (NOTE: At this point, I'd like to note that I am consciously withholding mentioning any personal kinks out of both embarrassment as well as some semblance of editorial objectiveness and detachment. Plus, of the two people who will even actually read this, you don't wanna know. Suffice it to say, as a temperate honky, I fall somewhere between prude and "freak" on whatever scale one may be measured upon, as evidenced plenty by the, I'm sure, weirdly tacit admissions that permeate the subtext of my writings (or ramblings) on the subject.) That being said, I have known some for whom porn has not only warped opinions on what sex is and should be but has led to disappointment in the act of sex.

Still, though? Disgusting to some, titillating to others, foundational to conceptions of sexuality to others, and finally the ultimate act of empowerment of yet others still. I read Ariel Levy's book Female Chauvinist Pigs which sets out on an investigation--and criticism--of the new wave of "sex-positive feminists." As a reluctant moderate, again, I must say that Levy's analysis both merits praise and criticism. While I agree, Gloria Steinem would choke on her own tongue to discover that there are drunken college girls who think of flashing their boobs for Girls Gone Wild as the act of an empowered woman, I also DO NOT think thong underwear is yet another form of patriarchal bondage to keep women down. The argument by the "sex-positive" feminists is a valid one: as sexuality is a part of fully actualized humanity in a general sense, then of course it must also be part of feminist empowerment. I've always said feminists are the best lays. Calm down. It's irony. Partially. As part of feminism is both a move toward equality, there is another component that is the celebration of femininity. A part of said celebration must also be a celebration of the female body and of female sexuality in a way that is empowering. In the context of intercourse, this means comfort with one's own person (body and soul/mind/spirit what have you). Ultimately, you're going to be a lot more fun in the sack (male or female) if you're not weighed down inhibition or shame.

So, there is empowerment quite easily found in sexuality. But at what point does feminist sexual empowerment merely become an easy framing mechanism for justifying crude participation in vulgar patriarchal sexual structures? While thong underwear as anti-feminist weapon of the phallus culture may be a bit extreme, is porn? The participation there in? Can it be empowering? What about promiscuity? Can it be an empowerment in some cases and subjugation in others? Can subjugation itself, if consented to, be empowering? I think the answer is yes, sometimes. But feminism can also be an easy justification for behaviors that actually bespeak shame of femininity manifest in outward expressions of sexuality to please the patriarchal masses. Needless to say, empowerment must come from within and it must be an internal choice of the individual. One can't afterward use it as a flimsy justification for flashing your boobs in a bar that was actually the product of drunkeness and an insecure inability to say no to crowds of cheering frat boys. That being said, OBVIOUSLY, most of the shame of the situation ought be borne on the shoulders of the frat boys for trying to subjugate said woman thusly.

I think all of this exemplifies my relatively wishy-washy point: there are no hard and fast rules with regard to sexuality. Acceptability is determined only by its participants so to say "porn is harmful" is just as foolish as to say that "porn can't be harmful."

ANYWAY...these previous ramblings prove that I'd make a lousy doctoral candidate. I'd rather discuss 27 issues surrounding what root issue than say any one specific thing with any serious research or analysis. BUT...these ramblings all stemmed out in my brain from an interesting piece I heard this evening on NPR about race in the sex industry. News and Notes with Farai Chideya is a news and round table discussion show that airs Monday through Friday that takes a much under-represented African American perspective on the news and tends to be of interest to me. Today they were discussing inherent racial distinctions with regard to sexuality and the sex industry. This ranged from the rather standard depiction of African-American hyper-sexuality (as evidenced by anything from Mandingo to the late night programming on BET Uncut) to a discussion of wage disparity across racial lines in the sex industry.

The main guest discussing the wage disparity was Siobhan Brooks, a former stripper turned PhD candidate in sociology at The New School. (FULL DISCLOSURE: The New School is my current employer and probably had something to do with why this story caught my ear and sent my brain spiraling out in the directions it has for the past hour and a half.) Ms. Brooks was part of a relatively famous unionization effort in a strip club in San Francisco and is now writing a doctoral dissertation about wage disparity along racial lines in the sex industry. She told of being underpaid in her stripping experiences and being told, ostensibly, that her black body was worth less in the stripping market than the bodies of those of her white counterparts. Ms. Brooks' analysis was compelling: essentially since she was black, and therefore hypersexual (theoretically), she could not earn as much given the cultural perception that she would "give it away for free," so to speak. Presumably, white women were conceived of as harder to get naked, therefore more coveted, and of more fiscal value to the club.

This is the sort of thesis I always found compelling in my sociological studies: simultaneously defensible and of interest while still, quite possibly, utter bullshit. Interesting bullshit. Bullshit that could be backed up, interpreted, and analyzed. Bullshit for which the analysis thereof may well prove of actual importance, but bullshit in that the basic premise from which it was drawn was based on a series of assumptions that are simply a pain in the ass, rhetorically, to defend. Still, in sociology, the process of arguing a premise is as (if not more) important than its actual veracity with regard to the real world. Then again, who am I to say? I could not propose a better argument for why she was paid less. Perhaps a general focus on an Anglo-centric standard of beauty? That's probably just as indefensible but somehow fits more with my perceptions of our culture. I've never been a black woman though. Ms. Brooks may well be right.

Regardless, after batting this idea around in my brain, and finding it both clever in its development (who am I to judge, Ms. Brooks is obviously ten times the scholar than I) and questionable in its validity, I was left with one final question: "Yeah. All well and good. But if you're going to fight racial prejudice and injustice, aren't there more important venues in which to fight it than the sex industy?"

Upon asking this of myself, I was instantly transported back to a 19 year old Zak, sitting in an Asian American literature course I took as part of my other major in college: English. On this particular day we were analyzing an essay from a collection of Queer Asian literature and analysis. The particular essay in discussion this day was one a gay Asian man had written about his dismay with regard to the portrayal of Asian men in mainstream gay porn. I admit a great ignorance about gay porn, mainstream or otherwise, but his argument was that gay Asian male sexuality in porn was often submissive to the point of shame. Always the penetrated, never the penetrator and often subject to succession of multiple (or even simultaneous) penetrations that constituted, if not quite rape, a definite depiction and fetishization of the perceived weakness of Asian men.

Several people in the class did not even attempt to mask their disgust at any discussion of homosexual acts, which did nothing to further the conversation. One female student, however, asked a question that both irked me and interested me, which was virtually the same question I found myself asking earlier tonight, some six years later: "Why porn? Who cares? It's porn. It's not like it's a high-cultural form. Aren't there bigger fishes of injustice to be fried?" (I'm paraphrasing, but the gist was the same.)

I mulled this about and just as I was about to decide whether this question was a valid criticism or further prudishness, a young woman on whom I had a tremendous crush raised her hand. What she had to say only furthered the crush I had on her.

"Yeah. But porn's honest. I mean, what turns you on, TURNS YOU ON. You can't lie about it, you can't hide from it. It's subconscious."

My torch for this girl burned at a new height, as not only did the sun make her raven hair shine beautifully, but she was also much smarter than me...and few things are sexier than smart girls who use the phrase "turn you on" in an academic setting while still being learned. It was a brilliant analysis! (NOTE: She was never interested in me, though, in retrospect she must have known I was head-over-heels for her. Of course, theoretcially, it was a secret crush, but I'm certain the aloof, disenchanted, distance-attempting-to-pass-for-intelligence air I copped around her must have completely belied my true intentions. Last I heard she was dating the same poetry student she had been for the entire time we were in college.)

Regardless, this statement exemplifies my entire point, if I have one. I get frustrated, at times, with the academic study of sexuality and porn because there's a prudish part of me that thinks that it's a masturbatory exercise that serves only to inflate the egos of those reading and discussing the material at hand. However, sexuality is unintentionally honest due to its unconscious nature, both on the individual and the macro level. Simply put, we do not control nor are we even completely aware of what turns us on, so it can serve as a tremendous barometer in the gender-relations of culture as a whole. Plus, sex is just plain fun to talk about.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

My Bag: Yes, I am Writing about Myself in Third Person.

That damn green bag. He always has it with him.

He wears is strung diagonally from right shoulder to left hip, always.

Its presence provides himself with some sort of security. Prepared for whatever situation the city might present him with. Perhaps wearing it such as he does is reminiscent of a seat belt. He feels strapped in while he ambles about New York City, a city in which he does not feel quite at home. Something to protect him.

Its contents are as thorough as those in the purse of a mother of a small child, though different in their nature. A half drunk bottle of Diet Pepsi for fear of thirst. Two books, should the whim to read either fiction or non-fiction strike. Several pens accidentally stolen from his office job. A Moleskeine journal should some sort inspiration strike, a plain steno pad for the more mundane details of life like shopping lists, addresses, telephone numbers. A rumpled and out of date issue of Sports Illustrated that had an article about the Cubs from some months back. A tin of Altoids. Several half-spent books of matches. Hand lotion. An umbrella in case it rains (although the only rain that has fallen on him since he bought the damn thing was on an awkward stroll from Times Square to Penn Station in which he forgot to bring his bag). A folded copy of the Times' arts section with a half-done crossword puzzle. (He has no idea about Oscar winners from the 50s, so he is at a loss with regard to its completion. It is only slightly less outdated than the Sports Illustrated.) Two condoms. Various rumpled ATM receipts. A spoon. Three nickels, two pennies, and a dime that were hastily thrown and as yet unretrieved from the last time he went through a metal detector. An inhaler. An iPod. An emptied blister pack from gum long since chewed. A birthday card from his mom, only under a month old.

Needless to say, he could stand to clean the damn thing out. Moreover, it's not like he carries anything essential in the damn thing. Everything he deems "essential" are in the overstuffed pockets of his jeans or in the pockets of the green corduroy blazer that has on almost as often as the bag.

It's a nuisance. He bumps people with it on the sidewalks and in the subway. He is always catching that comes down over the top on doorknobs. Not a graceful man, when this happens, he usually gets spun all the way around and gets a flustered look of rage and embarrassment on his face. He gets it caught in revolving doors.

It's not even like it's a particular nice bag. It's an old army suprlus bag, and its olive drag is faded by the sun. There are at least two pronounced coffee stains on it. Loose threads hang from the bottom.

Yet, he carries it with him always. It's, apparently, his bastardized superhero utility belt.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Problem with the 24 Hour News Cycle is here Really Ain't That Much Going On

I, like far too few people in the current zeitgeist, am constantly frustrated by the vast majority of media outlets and their "news" coverage. Suffice it to say, it's a relatively rhetorically weak position to begin any persuasive piece by discussing noting that your opinions are more sound than many of those around you, but so often we're all saying such things with the due subtlety of WASP-y "politeness." I dispatch with such pleasantries, if for no other reason than I am a pompous ass. Such is life.

My arrogance notwithstanding, I now, only slightly by choice, live in a world without television. Even if I had one, I assure you, I am far too broke to avoid the 8,000 cable channels I once "enjoyed." Regardless, the hyperactivity of the sensationalist of the American news media still penetrates into my life. I consume media I deem worthy at a pace voracious enough to be worthy of note. I have listened to as much as 10 hours of public radio in a given day multiple times. (With the baseball season upon us, I have stepped away from NPR news a bit to listen to my beloved Cubbies as they flounder in their attempts to throw, hit, and catch, but I still get my news fill.) I am an avowed NPR junkie. To the point where I have embarrassed myself at parties with my dorkiness. It's not Magic Card or Dungeons and Dragons, but it certainly ticks on the dork scale.

So I listen to a lot of public radio. I deem it worthy, whereas I deem FoxNews or CNN unworthy (if also unaffordable). Why? A liberal elitism? Oh, sure, I mean...that's part of it. FoxNews is a wellspring of right-wing partisan hackery, sure. I am, however, willing to say that CNN is almost as bad, in spite of its relative impartiality. Why? Perhaps it can be chalked up to market motive of commercial news media, but there is no depth. There is constant repetition of sound bites and sexy little stories, celebrity gossip, "human interest pieces," the rah-rah jingoism of patriotic war stories, and sappy montages of human tragedy. What there lacks, however, is substance.

Wow. Earth-shattering. Cable News lacks substance. Brilliant, Zak. People should sign up for my fucking newsletter.

...and I could leave it just at that: that the 24 hour cable news realm lacks substance. BUT, that would leave my analysis as paltry and watered-down as theirs. Partially because I'm exhausting and partially because it illustrates my point, I am apt to delve a little deeper.

First and foremost, there is a focus on simplicity in television news. And, moreover, a supposition that only providing the "what" of any given story constitutes impartiality. A supposition that it's simply enough to know that x-number of troops died in Iraq today, that President Bush vetoed the most recent bill for allocating money to troops in Iraq, that a hurricane HAPPENED. Sure, stating simple facts provides the simple facts, but maybe the simple facts simply aren't enough to truly understand something. This is a crime of which CNN's Headline News is most guilty. Also the USA Today newspaper.

Many media outlets, however, SEEK to delve into the deeper issues surrounding the attendant causes, effects, and motives behind the goings-on around us. FoxNews is, perhaps, the most notable. They LOVE expending great wind about dealings on Capitol Hill. Yet, they rarely provide actual substantive material on any such goings-on, because there raison d'etre is provocation. And, for all I can say negatively about FoxNews, I'd be lying if I said they weren't provocative. Sadly they provoke while rarely evoking.

The "substance" of FoxNews is often glib and shallow screaming matches between those of presumably opposing sides. The problem with their coverage is not even so much rooted in their right-wing bias as it is in their belief that every subject is absolutely binary. More ignorant is that the supposed binary nature of everything can be assumed to be exemplified by the two major political parties. Firstly, while not an original point at all it bears repeating: MOST STORIES/ISSUES/EVENTS HAVE MORE THAN TWO DISTINCT PERSPECTIVES! MOREOVER, any rational human being can often understand or have empathy for multiple perspectives on any given issue. Often, they can do this while still having a solid opinion on said issue.

So why is this binary so oft used? Well, for the first part, it sells. It offers a "joiner" mentality that is easily marketable. When there are only two sides to a given issue, one is naturally going to be drawn more to one or the other, whether or not that actually represents the full story or their full understanding of it or even of the possible understanding they could have were there more information made available. Moreover, humans are competitive animals. We take pride in the other guy's opinion (like his asshole) stinking, while ours may be rosy fresh. When there's only ONE OTHER OPTION, of course we cling to the one with which we most agree; no matter how much that position may still be pounding a square peg into a round hole, it's a helluva lot better than the other one. In short, if there are ONLY two opinions, we are naturally prone to identify with one more than the other and that sense of belonging and having camaraderie is pretty intoxicating, and therefore profitable.

But, this binary is only possible by looking shallowly into things. So shallow analysis is all that's permitted, lest we know that there are more options than just two. If there are more than two, we might find one that fits more appropriately, but we would be part of a smaller clan and we would find that less appealing to the part of us that wants company in our righteousness.

Perhaps more sinisterly, shallow news analysis is marketable because its marketed as the only bill of goods available. While P.T. Barnum made a great deal of hay on his adage, "No one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of Americans," it is a glib and short-sighted way of looking at US media markets. We are, believe it or not, NOT inherently simplistic. It is my optimistic (and bed-wettingly liberal) opinion that if we offer people the option of seeing A) the whole story and B) that they are smart enough to make an informed and multi-faceted opinion based on such information, they will do just that. Make an informed decision, that is. It is, however, easier for those in the business of news to have myopic and simplistic news coverage.

It's easier, in part, because it's always easier to oversimplify. It requires no great brains at work. More importantly, however, it requires less time. Firstly, all cliched aphorisms about time equaling money actually turn out to be fairly true. Profit motive does, to a certain degree, breed efficiency. But efficiency cannot trump quality. Or, more aptly, SHOULD NOT trump quality. Alas, so often it does. Glib views on complex issues coupled with childish partisan bickering that passes as impartiality (or, if you prefer, a "fair and balanced look at the issues") does not make up for honest research, exhaustive vetting, and careful explanation. Television news, however, is constantly under a time crunch caused by both the short attention spans of viewers and the need to squeeze as much advertising into a given hour as humanly possible.

Firstly, the short attention span of the television viewing audience is as much the effect of television programmers as it is a cause of anything. It's become a vicious circle. We have become accustomed to rapid fire news coverage and entertainment. The accustomedness has bred a stronger appetite for a fallacious brevity that passes for succinctness. The quicker we get it, the quicker we want it. We lap it up like dogs. This isn't a discredit to us, as the viewing populace per se, but once again, if we perceive it as the only game in town, we are prone to wanting it as quick and slapdash as they can sling it.

Additionally, as inherent in its very name, commercial television is WHOLLY dependent on advertising. They have to cram as many ads in as possible. I seem to remember reading the averaged "30 minute" program is actually only something like 21 minutes of actual content. The remaining nine minutes are ads. Think about that. Roughly one third of the television we watch is merely advertising. The consequence is, of course, there's no damn time left to say anything meaningful or substantive about the causes and effects of a given "news" event. We have enough time to say, very vaguely, WHAT happened and maybe to argue like schoolchilren about it for another three minutes before another Viagra commercial needs to come on so the bills get paid on time.

What is most galling, perhaps, about cable news is that in spite of their shallow and truncated news, there is still not enough to talk about for 24 hours straight. Simply put, not enough happens. OR, rather, plenty happens, but not enough that is easily marketable in one to three minute segments. Hence the sensationalization of relatively meaningless items. The actual content of the Kyoto Protocols is too complex to go into, but one can talk about Martha Stewart's incarceration 35 times a day at 45 seconds a shot. There isn't that much going on, especially when one wants a bite size news chunklet. Hence, the need to invent, exaggerated, and sensationalize.

HENCE my love of public radio. No advertising. This offers a great deal of latitude. I will not even begin to get into the self-censorship that is caused by corporate sponsorship of the media, as that is a whole other ball of wax, but the lack of advertising offers a great deal of time to talk about the news with something that resembles real depth and analysis. Moreover, radio offers an ability to multi-task that television does not. Sound is something that we contend with all day long while going about our daily tasks, be it conversation or music or jackhammers. We can take it in at our own pace as we wish, or block it out should something more immediate demand our attention. However, we are visual creatures and find the combination of auditory and visual stimuli both engaging and distracting. We cannot look away. We cannot do anything else. I could never watch 10 hours of television news, it's too active and I'd never get anything done. I can, however, listen to 10 hours of NPR while I get dressed, while I work on spreadsheets at work, while I write emails, while I make my bed. And I can absorb it.

However, as we cannot do anything else (well, anyway) while we watch TV, it's easier to try to cram more into less time. The net weight loss by doing so, of course, is substance.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Series of Tolerable Miseries.

It occurs to me that the day-to-day business of living in post-industrial America is struggling through an extensive series of tolerable miseries. Traffic, crowded subways, wet socks, waiting in line, overpriced and watered down mixed drinks, lumpy mashed potatoes, runny noses, broken umbrellas, hangnails, blisters, head colds, bad cell phone reception, inconsiderate piles of dog shit on sidewalks, underwear with worn out elastic, computer crashes, gas prices, income taxes, aging, unwanted body hair, vacuuming, dance music, and those tiny, useless napkins they have at fast food places that are too small and too thin to be any fucking good at wiping up anything. Et al, ad infinitum.

We as children rapidly learn how to tolerate these tolerable miseries so that we may become adept and understanding and handling much larger ones. It is no wonder that children scream on airplanes, it is only by conditioning that we adults do not. Airplanes are pretty unpleasant places. Moreover, I feel that larger miseries only become apparent when we have learned to deal with smaller miseries such as soggy French Fries and dandruff. I have often noted children more upset about having to wear a tie or a dress than the misery of the funeral for which they are wearing it. Real misery is a luxury only appreciated when immediate miseries are either dealt with or merely tolerated.

That being said, this is not all bleak. If it were not for tiny miseries, tiny joys would be a hell of a lot less fun. An ice cold beer, a smile from shop clerk, a good punch line...

It's not to say that misery and joy are in any sort of balance. Be it the devil's fault as the subway preachers would have me believe, or merely the entropic nature of the universe fighting desperately to expand into more disparate chaos, the bad shit is winning. But if it weren't for having to work late on a Friday or tepid coffee, maybe orgasms and afternoon naps in hammocks wouldn't be quite so nice.

I am tired and feel like this is an embittered chicken soup for the soul. Plus, who am I kidding? Even if life were ALL orgasms and afternoon naps, I think I'd find a way to appreciate it. Struggle, struggle, struggle!