Apples and Oranges are Still Both Fruit

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about a new book by Andrew Solomon, a journalist, called Far From the Tree.  Full disclosure: I haven’t finished it yet.  From what I’ve read so far though, and read about it (a multi-page article in The New Yorker, among others), I’m a bit disappointed.  It’s an interesting topic and approach but there are some glaring questions regarding Solomon’s take on his chosen subject.  The book rests upon the premise that there are two kinds of identities, those that are shared among family members (vertical) and those that people develop independently (horizontal).  To summarize his efforts, Solomon has set out to investigate how families cope with children’s development of horizontal identities and in particular how parents deal with children dramatically different from themselves.  My problem is that I don’t believe that horizontal and vertical identities are as distinct and clearly differentiated as Solomon claims.  Several of what Solomon characterizes as horizontal identities (mental illness, criminality, genuis) arguably are passed on vertically, from parents to children by way of genetics, child-rearing, social situation and status, or some combination of these and other factors.

Furthermore, from what I’ve found out so far, Solomon fails to differentiate between identities based on the level of their social construction.  All the identities he discusses are in some sense socially constructed, but there is no arguing that deafness, for example, has a more biological basis than criminality.  Indeed, his inclusion of “criminal” as a horizontal identity makes me uncomfortably wary of Solomon’s book as a whole.  That “identity” is so subjective (it could be argued that it isn’t an identity at all, as it is primarily defined by behavior rather than any intrinsic personal characteristic) that it threatens to dilute any interesting conclusions he may have reached. After all I doubt he is including jaywalkers in his analysis.

Even having just begun the book, I have also already noticed some off-putting misrepresentations of vertical identities.  Solomon claims that vertical identities are more accepted as immutable and worthy of embrace, even if they are marginalized, which I agree is true.  He goes on though to say that people do not attempt to change these identities and that no one would ever suggest that they should, a statement that seems puzzlingly oblivious to me.  Clearly this is the work of someone who has never set foot in the hair care aisle of a CVS in an African-American neighborhood or been informed about the popularity of nose jobs in the Jewish-American community.  How someone so educated, clearly intelligent, and worldly can so wholeheartedly ignore the ongoing struggles and conflicts over assimilation experienced by many, if not all, vertical identity groups eludes me, and it does not bode well.

In some ways what upsets me the most is that this question, of drawing too sharp a line between horizontal and vertical identities, need not have presented a problem for Solomon.  I believe he betrays a lack of confidence in his argument through his insistence on an either/or system of characterization of identities.  Solomon has chosen an interesting and important topic for his book, one which deserves the attention it is receiving.  I only hope that his analysis proves worthy of it.

Rating in David Tennant “oh yes”s: 3/5 (so far)

White Like Me

I’m reading the most amazing, exciting book about white privilege and being antiracist.  At first I was somewhat disappointed in it because it seemed like it was just privilege 101, but once I got past that and into the discussion of how whites can fight racism it really grabbed me.  My mind started racing in the best possible way.

For instance, I’ve long seen how men and boys define themselves as not-women and not-girls, and I’ve seen how this limits them as they cut themselves off and deny themselves anything perceived as feminine, be it therapy or close same-sex friendships or playing in the school orchestra or making art.  I’ve never thought to apply that to other systems though, other privileged groups.  Yet here is this book, explaining how whites do the exact same thing, and its just as sad and limiting to be not-black (or not-asian, etc.) as it is to be not-female!

Mirrors by Eduardo Galeano

A history of the world according to the lost, the silenced, the forgotten, the oppressed: women, Muslims, Jews, people of color, LGBT folks, the colonized and the impoverished.  Stories that may or may not be factually correct but are nonetheless true.  History told as it was lived: fluid, messy, complicated, and often cruel.

The Beauty of the Beautiful Game

This is what I’m going to think when I’m old. So then, seated on the traces of this circular life I notice a young boy who is alone. He is seated next to me, and I, finally old, would tell him of a fantastic championship and speak of the ball that can transform the weakest into Gibraltar. I would talk to him of the football god and the magic he confers. And the boy would be courageous enough to believe me and follow me into the dusty corners forgotten by the earth. Because there is a god for those football fields. Not for the big famous ones, but for the small ones in the provinces. And if you have the courage to believe in it football will give you much more than you can give it.(Cristiano Cavina, A Final Season for Debutants)

“I Dreamt the Snow was Burning” by Antonio Skarmeta

Is that not the best title you’ve ever heard? I’m just totally enchanted by it, even more so now that I know where it comes from: a Chilean folk song. If you’re interested, you can listen to it @http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IStkuzilAQ.  I haven’t been able to find the full lyrics, but the section the title comes from goes:

I dreamed the snow was burning,

I dreamed the fire froze over,

And dreaming impossible things,

I dreamed you were my lover

So it’s not only a beautiful turn of phrase, but also fitting, because ultimately this is a book about impossible dreams.  For Arturo, the closest there is to a main character, that dream is to become a famous footballer and lose his virginity (he manages one out of two, but it isn’t as he’d hoped).  For those around him, and the author himself, the dream in question is a democratic Chile, ruled by and for her people, a place where workers own the means of production and community centers are full of blistering political arguments. The book takes place in the last days of democracy in Chile, before the military seized control in what I’m guessing was the early 70’s based on the football references. (Before reading this book, I knew nothing about Chile beyond the fact that it was briefly democratic before turning fascist under a military dictator who turned the national football stadium into a prison camp/torture center).  The last days of life in Chile, a poet might say; that’s certainly the way it comes across.  At the risk of sounding cheaply sentimental, all these beautiful people, full of hope but hardly naive, arguing over Lenin and Socialism, boisterous as a spring day and believers, every one.  Yet a shadow looms, of course it does, in the form of Arturo’s humiliation in the match of his career, taking place at none other than the previously-mentioned national stadium.  When he makes “contact with the ball, bringing it to earth with a blow of his boot which to many sounded like a corpse being thrown into a grave,” it’s foreshadowing at its most chilling.  So I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the novel ends with the roar of tanks and the spit-fire of machine guns, doors kicked in and new martyrs with slogans half-spoken on their lips, the-people-united-can-never-be-defeated, an awful ruckus of shattering like I’m sure I’ve never heard, and then, in the end, silence.

“Whip Smart” by Melissa Febos

Finishing a book can feel like losing a friend.  This one certainly did, though I didn’t start off expecting it to do so.  Early on I took it as sensationalistic, pornographic popcorn. It is about a professional dominatrix after all, and there was a certain amount of salacious exposition.  Then it started making me really uncomfortable; all that kinky sex with no feeling behind it, shrouded in shame and revulsion.  All those women going through the motions and all those men digging ever-deeper into the taboo, trying to find something that would cut deep enough to bleed.  None of the trust and mutual care that I’ve always seen as the heart of BDSM.  Not even any shared or compatible desires.  In the scenes described, the women who were ostensibly doing the dominating were in actuality no more important than the handcuffs or any of the other props.  It was honestly nauseating and I almost gave up on the book.

I want to emphasize that it wasn’t the kinks that bothered me.  It wasn’t the idea that New York City bankers and stockbrokers have some truly bizarre fantasies and turn-ons.  That was hardly a surprise.  What made me squirm was the lack of emotional involvement, on both sides.  Where I come from mentally, culturally, intellectually and sexually, BDSM play is an emotional interaction as much as a physical one.  It’s about trust and respect and showing care for another person, accepting them with all their quirks and flaws and needs, even if only for the duration of the session (I once read it described as “sugar coating for trust,” an apt description if I’ve ever heard one).  That’s what I like, the give-and-take, the primacy of negotiation, the compassion and empathy required to seek out another person’s empty places and try and fill them as best you can.  It’s not that I think BDSM should only happen in the context of committed romantic relationships.  It’s not even that I have a problem with the idea of exchanging money for BDSM sex; but I do think that it should take place in a context of mutual respect and care.  I guess what it comes down to is that, while I don’t mind the idea of someone being paid to play, I hate the idea that that is the only reason they are doing it.  As for the other side, the person paying to top or be topped, I find the idea of them treating the session like a candy bar purchased from a vending machine abhorent.  At its most simplistic and basic, this is the same problem encountered by service sector employees and consumers in all industries.  It’s the reason a meal cooked by a loved one tastes better than one purchased in a restaurant, why handmade crafts cost more and service sector employees are told by their bosses to smile no matter what.

But people who sell BDSM experiences do something a whole lot more intimate than people who wait tables.  Good BDSM, as I define it, requires vulnerability from all participants, and that’s not going to happen if one person is watching the clock and the other is worried about getting their money’s worth.  And if it’s not good, the next natural question is, is it safe? Maybe, maybe not. Physically it might be, but emotionally? Febos finds that once she quits drugs, once she’s no longer using heroin and/or cocaine to get through her session, they become nearly impossible.  Without a chemical buffer between herself and the emotional barrenness between her clients and herself, the work becomes intolerable.  Upon reading it, I could hardly get over how much sense that makes. Of course being truly present during her sessions was devastating and nearly traumatic.  No wonder she was shooting speed-balls in the employee bathroom.

Eventually, the book turns into a straight addiction/recovery memoir, which at first I was prepared to be bored by (if you’ve read one, you’ve read ’em all), but then…I don’t know, there’s just a truth to it, a clear beauty or a beautiful clarity to the level of insight and self-awareness present.  Febos ability to articulate the minutia, the minute-by-minute changes and tiny but life-changing epiphanies that make up a recovery was a pleasure to read.  Finishing something is always satisfying, but I’m going to miss this one.