Saturday, October 22, 2011

My big mouth

When I quit smoking back in the late seventies, the weeks that followed contained the first moments I opened my mouth and spoke as an adult. A smoker since age 15, I’d been shy, a writer, an observer. Tranquilized by nicotine, I had no urge to verbally express aggressive emotions (which I barely felt), and no experience in doing so. Instead I wrote doleful poetry that I showed to no one. As the cigarette-induced calm ebbed, I suddenly began to feel my own angers and dissatisfactions, but I was crude and spontaneous in voicing them. I'd picked up swear words from roommates, and used them, sputtering my first complaints about human (and working) conditions without considering the effect I was having on people around me. It seemed so important to release these burning thoughts and feelings, I couldn’t contain them. I was having tantrums like a two-year-old, and I paid the price. People were afraid of me, and I eventually got fired. More than once.
I also started to write my feelings (now that I was feeling them). This was probably not always a good idea either. I once sent a letter to my mother-in-law chiding her about some of her conservative advice. The next time I saw her, she said quietly, “I’m going to forget you ever wrote that, and I think you should, too.” I felt that my true self had been denied; I hadn’t been seen by her. But I was humbled, and I did henceforth keep mum about some things.
Despite practicing various methods for minimizing reactions and modulating expressions, I was always surprise-attacked by my own outbursts of rage, followed by weeping and guilt. I learned, as an animal learns, to maintain composure in front of those most important to my survival, but I often took it out on lesser persons or complete strangers.
Developing a more civilized language for my anger helped, I suppose. But nothing can disguise a tone of voice. My impatience with callers on the phone was well-known. When the job I have now evolved to include phone work, I struggled to build a "nice" and "helpful" persona. I didn’t want to be false, but what else could I do? I couldn’t afford to get fired again. Honesty is never the best policy, I was learning.
Fortunately, as I became older and more anxious about all of these matters, I got an invite to try antidepressants. After demurring for a few years, I accepted. The situation improved. I rarely opened my big mouth in the way I’d done before. I was tranquilized again. This damping-down was experienced in such a way that I’d recognize what was bothering me, but I could hold it in, or express it differently, or even engage in an exercise of empathy, building those inner muscles until I could almost always put myself in the other person’s shoes, boots, or sandals. My "feeling" responses were considered, if they happened at all. I started to prefer pure information.
I am still learning that even considered responses may not be received well, as with my recent response to a piece of writing by a friend, a tour de force that was supposed to be a joke, a parody, and which I took seriously. I complained about this friend’s "mean" attitude as evidenced in the piece, only to discover that it was a persona; that I had been meant to laugh and not take offense. In this case, my friend had struggled to develop this persona for art’s sake, and was proud of it. I am left wondering why I was so clueless. Is there something in me that seeks opportunities to criticize and find fault with my new-found ability to consider as I respond?
In a literature class I’m taking just for fun, we were discussing Gertrude Stein’s writing, in particular, the poem “Lifting Belly.” Apropos of nothing but my inner churnings, I burst out, “That phrase gives me the creeps!” The professor gave me the same look my mother-in-law had given me, as if commanding me to pretend I never said it. I'm qualified to be an adjunct professor myself, and have taught in the evenings now and then, but when I TAKE a class, I turn into a student, which, for me, means regression. It’s as if I had never been introduced to “political correctness” or even “taking turns.” I become the outspoken, spontaneous, complaining teenager I never allowed myself to be.
Becoming adequately socialized and modified so that no one will EVER be angry with me again seems impossible, at this point. And besides, why aren’t the people who complain about ME (or even burst out at me occasionally) worried about their own self-control and tolerance?
I’m finished with this self-modification project. My big mouth has undergone all the modifications it can take. I will say and write what I think and feel. I will edit myself for style, grammar and typos only, not for possible offenses. It’s took late for that.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Of an evening...

I can stay pretty balanced during the day. There’s lots to do at work, and I’m with people some of the time, so I get feedback. Then I can go to the gym, listen to my favorite podcasts (Dan Savage, Slate Culture Gabfest, Mark Kermode’s Film Review (BBC), Howard Kunstler, Podcastle). But when I get home, I’m at a loss. Hence the beer and wine. Hence the obsessive Fairyland game activity. I used to be more self-sufficient. I also used to smoke cigarettes and write poetry, often at the same time. The same hope still lingers; one more NoDoz tab, and I’ll write the best poem ever! One more half-a-beer, and I’ll figure out how to quit Firefox, open up the word processor, and express myself freely again. I may be addicted to the internet in some undocumented, insidious way. Sometimes we do indulge in television here at the homeplace, but when doing so, I always have the feeling of being “kept” on the couch by my spouse so that we can “enjoy” the show together (albeit it’s always Netflix, since we don’t have cable). My remaining calm involves more beer or wine, and corn chips. Since I don’t really eat dinner, this isn’t making me fat, but I do wonder what exactly it IS doing. Enabling me to work the next day, I guess. Why doesn’t watching a really good episode of an HBO TV show give me the same internal “cred” as reading literary criticism does? Or better, writing some literary criticism! I just don’t approve of myself these days. I don’t know what it will take for me to approve of myself. Probably doing something totally horrendous about which I shall be FORCED to feel righteous. Don’t know what that might be. All I know is that I want to go back to being the author of my own life rather than a spectator, even if it’s being a spectator of others’ pretty-good productions.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What’s art & what’s not...

The last show in our most beautiful gallery (we have three at this university art department) was a very skillful collection of paintings, prints, and handmade books by a student who has found her solace in religion. Her experience of religion is connected with the idea of Family. In all fairness, I have to say she loves children, and is capable of relating to them, catering to them, and portraying them. Some of her artworks are adequate portraits of children, done from photographs.
Many of her handmade books are full of photographs of herself and extended family. Some of these are cleverly made to be contained in small, ready-made tins.
At one end of the gallery, she’d arranged two tables, covered with a tablecloth, and arrayed with containers of candies. She provided plastic bags for collecting the candies and taking them away. I admit I availed myself of chocolate kisses until they were gone. There was also a small table with paper and crayons for any children who visited. This student artist also liked decorating cakes. So there were some styrofoam cakes covered with elaborate fondant on the candy table, and three large posters of cake designs on one wall.
This is an integration of Life and Art. So much so, that the critical thinker wants to say, it’s NOT art. I cannot stop the critical thinker, and I am one. This student’s artist’s statement waxed rhapsodic (not RAPsodic) about the influence of her church, God, Jesus, and (yes) the art instructors in her life. It was decidedly NOT post-modern. It was as if the ART was a by-product of her life. Is that so terrible?
Because of her great skill, her consummate craftswomanship, she will graduate and proceed with her life. I am reminded now of many students whose senior shows were very abstract expressionist; everything that they should have been. And yet, some of them are still struggling in life. I don’t think this gal will be struggling. She has integrated. Her skills are in the service of her particular social subset, and she is adored and praised by her immediate associates. What could be better than that?
And yet, in relation to our department, she has gone astray. It is as if we were unable to reach her. Will she end up doing posters for her church events forever? Or portraits of the children of fellow church members? Has she no critical bone in her body? OK, she NEEDED her community. And they came through. And she then came through for them. So her work is essentially collaborative. So many things are good about this, and yet I am writing her off, intellectually and artistically. This is my fault, my bias. And the thing is, she seems so happy. And I’m not, really.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What is sex these days?

Just had another birthday. I’m rather accomplished chronologically. But not in other ways. I’ve never figured out what sex is. Has anyone? In the last few years there’s been a proliferation not only of “porn,” but of approaches to it; an expansion of “permissiveness” and appeals to its normalcy and desirability. There’s a whole new “normal.” And I thought I was a rebel, losing my virginity at 16.
That loss of virginity had nothing to do with love, and even less to do with a “relationship.” It was simply the thing to do at the time. I sensed that, given the tide of difficulties in my family of origin, I might be leaving home soon. And I would need some currency. I wasn’t capable of loving anyone then. I would occasionally develop intense feelings of dependency, but that wasn’t love.
So, now I’m to understand that I should have known not only how to achieve my own “pleasure,” but how to demand it of my various partners! I was a silent, shy girl at that time. I was lucky people took pity on me and gave me a place to stay. I wouldn’t have known an opportunity if it chucked me under the chin. I once stopped some hippie guy from “going down” on me because I didn’t understand what he was doing, and thought it was wrong and peculiar. I said, “Let’s take a walk instead.”
Although I’ve advanced quite a bit from that attitude, I’m still not comfortable with “kink.” For one thing, my spouse has no inclination at all toward that kind of thing (that I know of). For another, it seems like something that emotionally distances one’s sex partner rather than bringing them closer. But how would I know?
I tremble at the brink of realizing that I’m OF ANOTHER GENERATION! The world of so-called “intimate relations” is changing, and I am not changing with it. Perhaps I should stop listening to Dan Savage’s “Lovecast” on my iPod, and face the facts. I’m friggin’ OLD. Even the sex advice columnists and podcasters rarely deal with those in their 60th decade! I google “older women,” and get things for women in their 40s. Physically, I feel like I’m still in my early 50s, and I look good. But my mind is all a-whirl. Once I got over my runaway stage of life, sex, for me, was proof of love. Now it’s just another art form or recreational activity. I would like to think there is something mystical or cosmic about sex. But no, those options aren’t appearing on the horizon. All I can say is, thank goodness I’m married. Things in the sex department may be old-fashioned, but at least they exist.