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Month: March 2010 (page 1 of 2)

reading elizabeth strout’s olive kitteridge

For my fiction writing class this semester, I selected the 2009 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel in stories Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I hadn’t read it prior to the class (as I sometimes like to read a book for the first time along with my students), but I quickly found myself immersed in the lives of the people in Crosby, Maine, each and every one touched by one oft-misunderstood woman Olive Kitteridge; Olive is a large, loud, generally abrasive women who upon first meeting is sure to rub you the wrong way with her incisive candor. After the first chapter, told from her husband’s point of view, I found little to like about Mrs. Kitteridge. However, once I was privy to her point of view, things began to change (as might be expected). Like in life, if we are given the chance (or take the chance) to see through another person’s eyes, we just might identify with that person–or at least be slower to judge. By that second story, I empathized with Olive. Clearly Strout had yet to reveal all there was to know about her heroine. Before long, I truly admired Olive for her strength, her unflinching honesty, her quiet compassion, and her wisdom. I know that I won’t soon forget her. I highly recommend this book.

a lot of cunt, ass, and napalm

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the general moral sensibilities of our American public. You often hear of Americans being somewhat repressed when it comes to sexuality and the like–certainly as compared to European mindsets. What strikes me as odd, though, is that while nudity, sex, and matters of our physical human bodies make so many Americans uncomfortable, acts of horrible human violence are far less troubling it seems. I’ve seen this clearly in what we choose to shelter our children from and in what we allow them to be exposed to. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that we expose our children to “especially mature” matters of adult life anytime before they are, well, adults (or near to it), but I am curious about what we teach children about violence.

Just this morning, my son and I were watching a video adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hatches the Egg, which we had gotten from our local library. I did not prescreen the video before watching it, and was shocked when the following image presented itself seemingly out of nowhere during the course of this children’s story. Press play to see what I mean.

This bothered me and prompted us to turn off the video. Violence is taken so lightly in our society and children are repeatedly exposed to images of brutality; many parents I know do not bat an eye at this. But each and every time I see a child pick up a toy gun (or other weapon) and proceed to “play” war, my skin crawls and my stomach turns. Despite that some are quick to say it is just play, I disagree with the “just” part. Jean Piaget said that play is the work of children. This is how children learn to lead their lives. Now, I’m not saying that kids who play with toy guns will find themselves one day in a clock tower picking off the neighborhood. No, not at all. That is not my point. What I am saying is that when kids “play” violence, they imagine it, and when they imagine it, they become that much less sensitive[singlepic=571,200,200] Allen Ginsberg–or downright desensitized–to it. It becomes a little more okay–somehow a little more acceptable in the world. This is deeply troubling to me.

The other day a friend of mine sent me an e-mail with a poem attached. The poem is by Allen Ginsberg–one of America’s greatest poets and a man who did not shy away from hard language. He could all at once invoke the beauty of lyricism and and simultaneously slap a person across the face with his words. My friend included this comment in his e-mail with regard to the Ginsberg poem he attached: “Notice how the ‘dirty’ words make us feel uncomfortable but not napalm…”

I’ve included the Ginsberg’s poem below; it was written in April 1973.

UNDER THE WORLD THERE’S A LOT OF ASS
           A LOT OF CUNT

a lot of mouths and cocks,
under the world there’s a lot of come, and a lot of saliva
           dripping into brooks,
There’s a lot of Shit under the world, flowing beneath cities into rivers,
a lot of urine floating under the world,
a lot of snot in the world’s industrial nostrils, sweat under world’s
           iron arm, blood
gushing out of the world’s breast,
endless lakes of tears, seas of sick vomit rushing between
           the hemispheres
floating towards Sargasso, old oily rags and brake fluids,
           human gasoline–
Under the world there’s pain, fractured thighs, napalm burning in black
           hair, phosphorus eating elbows to bone
insecticide contaminating oceantide, plastic dolls floating across Atlantic,
Toy soldiers crowding the Pacific, B-52 bombers choking jungle air with
           vaportrails and brilliant flares
Robot drones careening over rice terraces dropping cluster grenades,
           plastic pellets spray into flesh, dragontooth mines & jellied fires fall
           on straw roofs and water buffalos,
perforating village huts with barbed shrapnel, trenchpits filled with
           fuel-gas-poisen’d explosive powders–
Under the world there’s broken skulls, crushed feet, cut eyeballs,
           severed fingers, slashed jaws,
Dysentry, homeless millions, tortured hearts, empty souls.

Certainly, we notice the “dirty” words–a few of which are unspeakable and unwritable to many people. In fact, if you’ve read this far after seeing the title of my post and reading the Ginsberg poem, I am surprised. (Actually, I fear that I may lose the only two or three readers I actually have with this post.) But consider the comment made by my friend with his penchant for beat poetry. We notice and are bothered by the “dirty” words–words like cunt–but are far less bothered by mentions of napalm, barbed wire, and cluster grenades–tools and horrors of modern warfare. What exactly accounts for these twisted sensibilities? Why have so many become numb to the truly horrifying action of human mutilation and [singlepic=572,250,250] Ginsberg and Orlovskysystematic destruction and so easily offended by the benign obscenities of human anatomy? Why are we more willing to tolerate a cartoon fish shooting himself in the head, children playing guns, and war simulation video games like “Call of Duty,” not to mention actual war, genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity than we are willing to utter the word “cunt,” “ass,” or “fuck” in polite conversation?

I’ve seen parents shield their child’s eyes from paintings of nudes in an art gallery, or bristle in fear at the sight of two men holding hands or kissing on the street, and then a week later I’ve seen those same parents watch as their child runs about the backyard–toy rifle in hand–“shooting” his little sister. “Tommy! Don’t shoot your sister in the face!” screamed one mom. Presumably the chest was okay, though; keeping the shot in the center mass results in a more reliable kill.

It is not uncommon to see the brandishing of firearms and intense aggression in the likes of G-rated children’s movies (if you are sensitive to such things, that is), but a naked woman’s breast with the slightest suggestion of sexuality would surely warrant an R-rating. And forget about the glimpse of a male penis; this will invariably push the movie toward an NC-17 rating. Why is the male anatomy more troubling than a hand grenade? The Motion Picture Association offers its G-Rating for movies where “depictions of violence are minimal”–minimal–but clearly states that such [singlepic=573,300,300] Kids play with a toy AK-47 assault riflemovies will have “no nudity.” According to a 2000 study coming out of Harvard and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), G-rated films are violent and are getting more so. Today, their is an average of 11 minutes of violent content in G-rated films intended for children, up from an average of 6 minutes in films released in the 1940s. The JAMA study reports, “Most of the violence in these films shows characters fighting with each other and using violence as a means for resolving conflict” with characters using a “wide range of weapons in their violent acts like shotguns and swords….” Children are learning all the time. Repeated exposure to anything dulls sensitivity: one becomes less aware of the message but the message itself persists. Children glean their attitudes and view of the world from their parents–whose sensibilities are being shaped (along with their children’s) through a constant onslaught of mass media. (We will spend nearly five months (3,502 hours) next year watching television, surfing the Internet, reading daily newspapers and listening to personal music devices, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States. Note, too, that this is sought-out media exposure and does not include the passive exposure we all endure each and every day.) That’s a lot to contend with. Certainly, good parents everywhere will try to insulate their children from what they feel is inappropriate. But I wonder when is gratuitous violence for entertainment purposes ever appropriate? Geez.

Isn’t it about time we get our fucking heads out of our asses and stop being offended by our own bodies, our sexuality and the sexuality of others, and the occasional bout of crass language? There is a shitload of real fucking horror in this world to be offended by and to take action against. Let’s be sensitive to that.

credo: a better world, one phone call at a time

Some time ago, I became more aware of how my choices as a consumer have a real impact on the world around me, so Chris and I have set out to make some changes. We’ve been making relatively small, painless changes in our daily shopping habits, but yesterday we made a big change. We dumped our current mobile phone service–Verizon Wireless–in favor of a socially responsible company called Credo Mobile (a Working Assets company). We had learned that Verizon has earned an “F” for overall social responsibility by the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP) and that they have given over $84 million to Washington lobbyists. This coupled with the likes of monopolistic angling, unsavory and discriminatory treatment of pregnant employees, and the denial of service to pro-choice groups, places Verizon in the ranks of “corporate villain.”

So, we’ve moved to Credo. The parent company–Working Assets–was started in 1985. Here’s how they describe their beginnings:

A small band of idealists comes together to further the causes of human rights, women’s rights, peace, environmentalism and an entire progressive agenda. They have an idea about helping people spend in a socially responsible way, turning everyday purchases into automatic acts of generosity.

Credo donates a portion of every dollar (at no extra cost to the customer) to progressive groups working for a better world in the areas of civil rights, economic and social justice, environment, peace and international freedom, voting rights and civic participation. Each year, Credo’s customers have the opportunity to nominate worthwhile organizations to support. Fifty are selected and then Credo’s customers vote on how the money will be distributed to these various causes. To date, Credo members/customers have donated over $65 million to progressive organizations for a better world. I have a feeling it’s going to feel pretty good doing business with this company.

If you want to feel good about your mobile phone bill, try Credo. They offer a $200 contract buy-out for up to three lines to allow you to get out of your existing contracts with your current provider. In other words, they will float you up to $600 to help you break the chains of your current contract in order to spend your money more responsibly. You can keep your current number, and the phones that they offer are made “green” by Credo’s purchase of carbon credits to offset the fuel it takes to ship them and the electricity they’ll use over their life span, and they will make it easy to ship your old phone back to them for refurbishing or recycling–to keep it out of a landfill. Did I mention that Credo’s bills are printed with soy-based inks on all recycled paper? And that for every ton of paper Credo uses, they plant 100 trees (enough for another ton of paper). I’m getting excited now. I almost can’t wait to rack up a big cell phone bill. Some money you don’t mind spending.

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