Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Five Stages Of Nitrous Oxide

Mondrian was a great utopian.  This is his Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930.

I had nitrous at the dentist the other day.  For me, nitrous mostly changes a frightening and painful experience into a fun opportunity to take legal drugs.

But then it always leaves me wondering:  why isn't more of life like being high?  And why do drugs have to leave you feeling so crappy afterward?

It's kind an emotional roller coaster.  So here are The Five Stages of Nitrous, According To Me.

1.  Joy.  The initial feeling is joy.  The world is funny, pretty, interesting.  Even the crappy pop music on the sound system seems somehow cute and lively.  Amused wonder, switched on.  Critical negativity, switched off.  Glimpse of utopia.

2.  Conviviality.  It's not surprising.  With all those positive feelings coursing through you your next thought is, "I gotta tell someone about this."  I always have the impulse to make a joke, try to fell a funny story.  I have to remind myself:  not only are you in no state for being witty, you're at the dentist.  It's not a party.  Dentist and Assistant are working hard, don't want to hear your senile reminiscences.

3.  Existential Crisis.  As I settle in, I start thinking.  Why isn't more of life like this?  Why is ordinary life so sucky in comparison?  I mean, how many opportunities do you have to feel a combination of total Well Being and total Non-Boredom?  In ordinary life, things are always harassing or dull.  But not so on nitrous.  You're feeling no pain, and with your critical faculties fogged, the most banal observations and thoughts are totally engaging.

This past visit, I found myself thinking about religious people and how they must feel in this situation.  I mean, I'm an atheist, but if I were a believer I think I'd start having some seriously profane reflections at this stage.  If God loves you, why isn't there be more of this awesomeness in ordinary life?   I think he's hiding something.

4.  Paranoid Fog.  This might be just a dentist phase and not inherent in the experience.  But when I've been under a while, and the dentist is asking me things, like "how does that bite feel, OK?" I get a little freaked about trying to seem "normal" when really I'm so f-ed up.  I know it sort of doesn't matter.   But I also know that if I were to do or say something incredibly goofy under the influence, I'd never hear the end of it. "Good-natured teasing," and all that.  So I try to be cool. 

It always makes me laugh how much this is like trying to be cool in other, non-dental circumstances.

5.  Crash landing.  Eventually it's over.  They shut down the gas and pump you full of mind-clearing oxygen.  And you realize you're starving, because you're not allowed to eat beforehand, and you're cold, because the nitrous does that to you somehow, and your head aches.  Crash-landing, back to reality. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Artistic Interpretation And The Fear Of Human Nature

I went to see Rigoletto at the Canadian Opera Company a couple of days ago.  Maybe you know the set up?  Rigoletto is the court jester for the Duke.  The Duke is a big time seducer, who sets his sights on Rigoletto's pure and virginal daughter, Gilda.  The Duke follows Gilda home, and tells her he is a poor student; she falls for it and falls madly in love with him.  Rigoletto tries to have the Duke killed, and in her passion for the Duke, Gilda substitutes herself for him.  She is killed instead.

David Lomeli as The Duke

The opera itself is an amazing piece of art, and musically the performance was great.  So I couldn't help but enjoy myself.  But it wasn't because of the staging, which drove me nuts.

The staging was complicated, metaphorical, and weird just where it should have been simple, literal, and normal.   When it comes to opera, you should often just play it straight.  Because if you play it straight, it knocks you over.  That's what opera is like.  If it's complicated, metaphorical, and weird, that gets in the way of what is going on.

Worse, it distances the audience from the narrative.  It says, "Hey, it's OPERA.  You're at a PERFORMANCE.  We went through special efforts to STAGE it so it would be THOUGHT-PROVOKING.  Are we awseome?" 

In this particular staging, the Duke woos Gilda while they're standing and sitting on the dining room table.  There's a scene in which the Duke and Gilda are clearly having sex, and this is depicted as happening on a sofa in a living room with the courtiers all gathered around.  Gilda spends half the time in a white bit of underclothing.  And all this in ninetheenth-century costumes and scenery.  A nineteenth century in which obviously Gilda would be in her clothes in public; sex happens in private; and wooing happens on sofas.

It might seem that these techniques would involve the audience, through indirect allusion.  Maybe that can work, but it didn't in this case, and I think with opera, it often doesn't.  Because the emotion of the stories is made most vivid by their seeming real:  when you can really believe that you're watching the Duke promise the world to this young girl and then throw her away.  And the effect of these complex weird things is really the opposite.

I have a dark theory about why this happens so often here (I don't notice it in Europe, but I have before at the COC).  It has to do with the fear people have of actually presenting the story itself.  So often in opera when there is something horrifying or extreme or outrageous, it gets this treatment, and I think the reason is that people are scared to play it straight.

They're scared to say something about how horrible people really are, how evil and corrupt they can be.  Making it into a "show" makes those things seem less real -- like, Oh, look, the nineteenth century, oh, a virgin, oh oh oh.

As opposed to having the story remind you of things that happened in your own life and that of your loved ones.

Which of course is a scam.  As if that crazed thirst for vengeance, the using of the poor by the rich, and the possible loss of all you value in life was all, somehow, behind us.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dilemmas of Modern Life

My kitchen cabinets are falling apart.  The cabinets are old, cheap, and ugly anyway, and now the hinges have stopped working properly.  They make an incredibly annoying crack-ing sound when you open and close them.  Also, inside, the paint is peeling off.  What to do?

From the environmental point of view, the answer is clear.  Replace the hinges and, if necessary, paint over the inside.

From the common-sense real-estate point of view, though, another answer is clear.  Get need new cabinets, and since the dishwasher also doesn't work and the oven is old and crappy, might as well "update" the whole kitchen.  It's an "investment," right?

I hate carrying a backpack.  It's a pain, and it looks ridiculous with a nice outfit.  But I do it anyway because I want to carry my laptop and no other system seems workable for this.  I'm constantly trying to keep down the number and weight of the things I have to carry, so I can carry a slightly smaller, slightly more stylish backpack instead of a bigger, bulkier one.  I'm already carrying a water bottle, and carrying a reusable coffee cup will put me over the brink.  What to do?

From the environmental point of view, the answer is clear.  Carry a bigger backpack.

From the fashion and life comfort point of view, though, another answer is clear.  Forget it.  Why should I have to walk around like a pack mule, walking through the desert, carrying all my daily needs on my back?  I'm living in a city, for heaven's sake.  In civilized places, when you stop to get coffee they put it in a ceramic cup while you sit and drink it.  Then they wash and reuse it.  Is it my fault that places in North America can't get this sorted out?   

I could go on and on, and we haven't even considered the conflicts between femininity, practicality, equality, and health.  But it would get boring.  I'm already bored, thinking about it.

There are things about consumer culture that I love.  But these things reflect its f***ed up nature. There are vast forces committed to getting you to do what, all things considered, you think is probably for the best, and forces that arise from nowhere, making your sensible choices seem stupid.

And then you pick up a newspaper or magazine, and in section A you read a story that says how the new style of kitchen is retro, or the new thing in shoes is the super high heel, or the new "it" bag is the Prada Glace Calf Degradé Top Handle (see above!) for only $2050, money that if you had it you could never justify spending it on a handbag anyway, and then in section Q you read how kitchen renovations are the biggest contributor to landfills or high heels will ruin your body forever.

I mean, can't they get their story straight?  Is it too much to ask?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

_1984_ And Life After The Humanities (Was_1984_ in 2011, Redux)

 A couple of weeks ago I started rereading 1984.  Last week I finished.

This book is many things, but one of them definitely is a horror story depicting Life After The Humanities.  You want to know what it's going to be like when you get rid of the Philosophy, English and History Departments and keep only Engineering, the Health Sciences, and "Transformational Leadership"?  Read 1984.

Probably you remember that in 1984, the Party controls everything, and they make sure people believe what they're supposed to believe.  But do you remember how sophisticated they are about it?  They don't just fuck with your head; they fuck with the actual evidence.

Indeed, Winston (the main character) works at writing corrections into every edition of every newspaper to make sure the record reads to fit the current regime.  If Oceania is at war with Eurasia they have always been at war with Eurasia.  There must be no proof of anything to the contrary.

Winston is perplexed throughout the book by the problem of evidence and truth.  He knows that it matters that Oceania hasn't really always been at war with Eurasia.  He knows that it matters that the Party destroys all evidence of the truth about the past.  But how the "evidence" part works he can't quite figure out.

At one point he recalls a moment seven years before in which he held in his hand a mistake:  a piece of paper showing, conclusively, that what the Party said happened wasn't what happened.  He destroyed the paper.  But now he thinks:  it actually really matters that I held that paper in my hand, because it proves ... well, what?  He can't figure it out:  how can a moment that has disappeared into the past show anything about other moments that have disappeared into the past?

At the end, Winston is tortured and reprogrammed to believe what the Party wants him to believe.  His old pal O'Brien, his intellectual superior, needles him about his beliefs.  "Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?" Winston isn't sure.  O'Brien forces him to acknowledge that the past doesn't exist "concretely," but only in records and in people's memories. And as long as the Party controls those, they must therefore control the past.

Among the many profound ethical and political morals of this story, surely one of them is the affirmation of the importance of thinking for yourself, making up your own mind, and taking into account the evidence.  One thing that is terrifying and horrible about Winston's story is that he is prevented, unable, to do this.

And this -- this sacred activity, so basic to democracy and freedom -- is what we teach in the humanities every day:  how to think about complex matters for yourself, how to make up your own mind, rather than believing what some person put on a powerpoint presentation or in a textbook; how to consider and question evidence for yourself, about what you ought to believe.

Now I know scientists do this too, but there are serious differences.  First, in humanities teaching we do this all the time, with every level of student, about everything.  There aren't years of simple information you have to get through before you can become critical of what is already believed.

And second, in the humanities you do it for yourself.  You don't need a lab with a bunch of people and equipment.  You just need you and your own brain.  You can question anything, and you can do it yourself.

This is one reason I am skeptical of the push toward large collaborative projects in the humanities.  If you're going to stand up for what you believe against a bunch of other people, and defend a literary interpretation, an ethical principle, a belief about the nature of the universe or the causes of the French revolution, you're pretty much going to be doing that all alone, not as part of some giant research project.

Thinking about what to believe based on the evidence:  often you have to do it for yourself, and thus by yourself.  Please support your local humanities education!  I can only say this:  if you don't you'll be sorry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Some Graphic Novels And Comics You Should Read

“What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?”  

 That was the question recently posed by The Hooded Utilitarian (The what?  don't ask me, I don't know).   I'm not sure who they posed the question to.  But the answers were collated, or edited, or something, and then presented here.   I learned about this from the always awesome Ted Rall, who posted about it on his blog

I was pleased to see Rall mention and praise Alison Bechdel's Fun Home ("the first graphic novel to fulfill the form’s potential as literature").   But I was really weirded out -- OK, maybe even appalled -- to see that as far as I could tell no other women comic artists or women writers mentioned by anyone.  I don't know all the names so I could be overstating.  But not by much.  Weird, since many of the best graphic novels and comics are either drawn by or written by women or both.  

So, this list.  This list is not "BEST COMICS" or "BEST COMICS FOR GIRLZ" or even "MY FAVORITE COMICS EVER."   It's just a list of some comics, authors, and writers that are so good you should read them and that aren't your everyday super-hero stuff. 

In no particular order:

1.  Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.

Fun Home is a memoir of growing up, a reflection on gay and lesbian identity, and a gripping story about a relationship between a father and daughter.  The drawings give the story an intimacy you can't imagine experiencing in reading a regular novel.

2.  Marguerite Abouet  and Clément Oubrerie, Aya (a story in six volumes)

The story is about life in Ivory Coast in the late 70s/early 80s, and focuses on the young adulthood of three young women:  Aya, Bintou, and Adjoua.  The author, Abouet, who moved from Ivory Coast to France when she was a kid, wrote these books partly to show people that Africa is not just a place of violence and famine but is also a cool and interesting place where regular life happens.  The story and the drawing are both incredible beyond belief.  Available in French, English, and other languages.

3.  Marguerite Abouet and Singeon, Bienvenue

Also written by Abouet, Bienvenue takes place in Paris and tells the story of a nervous young woman whose parents gave her the awkward name of "Bienvenue" (which means "Welcome").  I love this book because you never get to see a heroine who is kind of grouchy and says what she thinks but is also really likable.  But that's what Bienvenue is like.

4.  Anything by Julie Doucet

I wrote about her on my old blog.  Julie Doucet is like nothing you've ever read:  free associative, a little crazy, and a girl's eye view of the world.  This cover of one of her books will give you some idea what she's like.

 5.  Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 1 and 2
Satrapi's amazing books describe growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  The drawing style is amazingly suited to conveying conflicting and complex emotions and the weird atmosphere surrounding the characters. 

6.  Lynda Barry, like, everything, but I love the Maybonne and Marlys books best, like Come Over, Come Over.

Everything you need to know about that very confusing thing that is life as a girl on planet earth.  It's here.

7.  Roz Chast

Chast is more a cartoonist and comic artist than a graphic novelist.  I think her comics are hilarious and in addition to being funny they always make me feel at home in the world, which for me is really saying something.

 8.  Delaf et Dubuc, Les Nombrils

I don't know anything about these authors and I had trouble even figuring out where this story was taking place, but it centers on three girls:  a kind of ordinary looking tomboy and her two super-popular and glamorous "friends" -- who abuse her but get abused in turn by the fates so it all evens out.  Somehow I found the crazy obsessions of "les filles" -- boys with motorcycles, super short shorts,  etc. -- massively charming.

9. Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For

Recently issued in a convenient collection as The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.  You'll laugh, you'll cry, DTWOF has everything anyone could ever want in a comic series.   

I've probably forgotten some things.  But as I said, these are just some things you should read!