Sunday, October 31, 2010

Empire Building

I never used to be able to stand A Prairie Home Companion. I would turn on the radio and there, like a cartoon hound dog with his mouth full of mud, would be the voice of Garrison Keillor, singing some old standard song that he had slightly rewritten the words to or telling some nonsensical rambling story about some mildly dysfunctional couple in Minnesota.

What is this, I would ask myself, quickly changing the channel. And why would anyone listen to it?

Then about a year or two ago, I suddenly became fascinated with the show. I would listen every week, waiting to hear what extremely similar thing would happen. Would a cowboy meet up with his old flame…again? Would a Midwestern expatriate writer have a guilt-ridden phone conversation with his provincial parents…yet again?

Once you embrace the logic of A Prairie Home Companion, it’s easy to get sucked in to the bizarre parallel universe it depicts. The show’s audience seems to love the predictability of it, the comforting if illogical repetition. They laugh hysterically at the same joke about Lutherans every week. They love the twisting personal narrative, often told in the second person (and right about then is when you realize…) that always ends up with the same song about rhubarb pie. They chuckle as Keillor inevitably finds himself romantically attached to a much younger, much more attractive woman, and even on the radio they can tell she’s out of his league. And when the show is over, they can even go on the show’s website if they want to delve more deeply in to this make-believe world where not only are all the children above average, but where the red states are full of old lefties and everyone loves gospel music and spoken word poetry and choirs performing the native folksongs of former Soviet Bloc countries.

Predictability like this brings a certain comfort with it. That’s why people enjoy sitcoms, or watching the same Saturday Night Live characters play out variations on the same gag week after week. The joke ceases to be funny and instead becomes soothing like a lullaby.

That’s how I found this alternate prairie reality, a strangely calming bizzaro-world. Each time I heard that Keillor had written an offensive article in a magazine (why gay people shouldn’t get married; why Jews shouldn’t write Christmas songs), I would go look it up, eager to see what new levels of curmudgeonry he had achieved. And because he existed in a half-reality where it was never clear whether Keillor spoke as himself or some sort of parody of himself, the ridiculous beliefs he espoused were more quaint than upsetting.

The more I read and the more I listened, the more I thought: I want an empire. Not a big, scary, hegemonic empire like Rome or the USSR or McDonald’s. Just a small, self-contained empire with a legion of devoted followers who are willing to celebrate my every bizarre whim as utter genius, to lovingly embrace my foibles, to delight at the same joke for years and decades on end.

I have been admiring a number of these small empires lately, and the one I really want isn’t Garrison Keillor’s, but Dan Savage’s. Like Keillor, the sex-advice columnist and gay rights activist has his own brand of logic and language, including a number of acronyms for concepts that are so fundamental to his reasoning that they require shorthands. A good lover is GGG, “good, giving, and game,” which means that you had better let your boyfriend suck on your toes if he enjoys it, no matter how boring or gross it seems to you. If you don’t, Savage will urge him to DTMFA, “dump the mother fucker already.” These abbreviations are so well-known to Savage’s audience that they often misuse them in incorrect and even disturbing ways, forgetting what they actually stand for:

I love my boyfriend but he’s moving out of the country in two months and we’re going to break up then. Should I stay with him for these last months or DTMFA?

I’m a mother of a twelve-year-old son, and I’m doing my best to raise him in a GGG manner.

As these terms suggest, Savage’s advice and opinions follow certain well-worn paths. Like Keillor’s audience, Savage’s devotees, including myself, know what to expect from him. Yet I read and listen to him with a voracious appetite that speaks to either the comfort of the familiar or perhaps some sort of subliminal brainwashing. And I have come to realize that many people I know are equally brainwashed.

For example, when I visited my sister recently, I started to mention something that Dan Savage had said on his podcast. I started summarizing a phone call that he had taken and responded to.

“To save time,” my sister interrupted me, “you can just assume I’m familiar with every episode of Dan Savage’s podcast.”

Sometimes I wonder if the men who rule the empires I admire ever get sick of them—sick of the routines, the predictable logic, the cute terms and sayings? Does Garrison Keillor ever wake up and think, I don’t ever want to sing that song about rhubarb pie again? Does Dan Savage ever get sick of having to talk about sex every single day? Does Ira Glass ever get sick of saying, And what happened next was truly bizarre, as though this is the first time he has ever narrated a bizarre occurence? As successful as they have been in building up their own recognizable brands and selling them to adoring audiences, do they ever get horribly, nauseatingly sick of themselves?

This is the reason that I would be a horrible emperor, not to mention a horrible CEO, middle-manager, public relations officer, or cheerleader; I would get horribly sick of myself. To be a representative of something, to be an unceasing champion, is a really draining job, one that requires a kind of confidence and perseverance that I don’t have a lot of. This is part of the reason I admire the people who are able to maintain an empire, because I appreciate how grueling it is to be the leader of a cult of personality.

I attend a number of schools that are run by a single person. Each of these schools reflects the vision and energy of its teacher: the flashy muay thai school with the blaring music and assertive display of clothing and equipment for sale; the tidy jiu jitsu school where there are specially designated spots for shoes and water bottles and sweaty students and dry guests; the yoga studio whose bare wooden floors are all business but whose ceiling is decorated with Christmas lights and flying monkey puppets; and the one I relate to most strongly, the kung-fu school treading so lightly in its rented gymnasium that it is only a school when we are practicing there.

Sometimes I see signs that my yoga teacher or my kung fu teacher are tired of their jobs, bored with us, their students, discouraged by the low energy of the class. Perhaps they are not really discouraged at all; perhaps I am projecting onto them the discouragement I feel as a student in a sluggish class, the discouragement I fear they feel because I would feel it in their place.

I know that if my suspicion is correct, if my teacher really is disheartened, bored, uninspired, that he can simply close the school. I have recurrent dreams that my kung fu teacher announces at the end of class one day that he is closing the school. I suppose this isn’t such an unreasonable fear, given that I joined his school after my previous kickboxing teacher closed his school in just that way, except he didn’t wait until the end of class: “This will be the last day,” he said casually, as his students jumped rope to warm up. “I’m cancelling the class. But go ahead and work out on your own today. See you later.” And he walked out the door.

This is the danger of a monarchy: it ceases to exist without the monarch. My uneasiness with devoting myself to a single school that could disappear at any moment must have something to do with why I feel more comfortable with a diversified portfolio of schools, even though my heart is fully invested in one of them.

But more, noting the empires created by my teachers, I often think: I am really glad I don’t have that power or that responsibility. I am a teacher, too. But I could quit my job tomorrow and my school would keep on going without me, just as they did before they ever knew I existed, unaware of me being born thousands of miles away the same year they were being founded, and just as they will after I retire and presumably long after I die.

If the only thing keeping the school alive was my own faith in it—if it ran on my energy alone—I don’t know if I could keep it open. Would I have given up during one of those semesters when all my students were disgruntled and bitter and I wondered what business I had being in charge of them? Would I persevere through those times? Or would I decide the entire enterprise was futile and go find some other way to spend half my waking hours?

Every time I walk into a class and my teacher is still there, I know he could have decided not to be, and I am grateful. My teachers might not be able to imagine how grateful, just as I often imagine my students would hardly notice if I were replaced with some other teacher or a t.v. screen or a robot. And I’m also grateful that, nice as an empire sounds sometimes, I have the security and freedom of not having to be an emperor.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's a Girl

As I sat on the couch holding Samantha’s newborn baby, her mother came through the front door carrying a small package wrapped in plastic.

“From Vivian,” her mother said, handing Samantha one of those ornate little envelopes that I had only seen on Chinese New Year.

“How much?” Samantha’s mother asked her.

Samantha opened the envelope and showed me the contents: a crisp new hundred dollar bill.

“Very good,” said Samantha’s mother.

She turned to me. “This is a Chinese tradition,” she told me. “When you have a boy baby, is traditional to bring money and meat.” She pointed at the package she was holding. I couldn’t see through the opaque white plastic wrapper to figure out what sort of meat it contained, whether it was chicken or beef, raw or cooked.

“For boy, you give money and meat,” she repeated.

“What if it’s a girl?” I asked. Samantha’s mother didn’t seem to understand my question. Samantha repeated it: “Ma. What do they give you if the baby is a girl?”

“Oh, if a girl,” said Samantha’s mother, nodding her head. “You still bring meat, but less money. Maybe twenty dollars.”

Samantha and I looked at each other and burst into hysterical laughter. Her mom joined us laughing, too. It was a sinister moment of female bonding as we laughed in shared acknowledgment of our lesser worth.

For two women raised in America like Samantha and myself, this laughter is partly directed at the quaint misogyny of less enlightened nations. A daughter is to be celebrated with one-fifth the enthusiasm of a son, we are thinking. How cute!

In America, at the moment of birth, a daughter is worth as much as a son. Nowadays, she could grow up to be anything—almost. As long as she doesn’t want to pilot a submarine or become a philosophy professor, the sky is the limit. Hell, if she’s white and Christian, we now have documented evidence that she could grow up to almost become president of the United States.

This is how I was raised—to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. My father imbued my sister and I with all the high expectations he would have had for a son, buying us erector sets and electrical engineering kits, staying up late doing mathematical proofs with us while we were still in elementary school, expecting us to magically know how to throw a baseball properly because it came naturally to him.

School confirmed this impression of equality for me. The honors math and science classes I took were equally populated by boys and girls, and the girls were often the strongest students. Many of those girls went on to become scientists and engineers. While I have not talked to most of them about their experiences, I don’t get the impression that they had to crack any significant glass ceilings on their way to these positions. The main obstacle they felt was loneliness, as the numbers of their fellow women scientists and engineers dwindled, as women like me and my sister tossed aside our technical aptitudes in favor of more traditionally feminine careers.

The ideology of equality in high schools like mine is why I’m never surprised when my students believe sexism no longer exists.

“Men and women are equal now,” a girl in hot pants and a halter top will say, and her male classmate will nod serenely in his baggy sweats and oversized tee.

If you ask them if men and women are treated the same in our culture, though, their narrative is strikingly different.

“My friend has a twin brother, and he’s allowed to go out whenever he wants and do whatever he wants, but she has a curfew. They’re the same exact age.”

“How do her parents explain the difference?” I asked.

“They say, You’re a girl and he’s a boy.”

I ask the students why parents would treat their children differently based on their genders.

“They don’t want their daughters to get pregnant,” the students say.

What if their sons get their girlfriends pregnant? Is that as bad?

Noooo, they all shake their heads. Definitely not as bad.

My friend who teaches health told me today that during a discussion of types of contraception, one of these same students volunteered a chastity belt as an option.

“I’m not writing that one on the board,” she said.

“I’m serious,” the student said. “If I have a daughter, she’s never going to be allowed to have sex.”

This is the logic that explains the articles opposing abortion that my students often bring in as part of a debate assignment. Young people need to take responsibility for their actions, the articles say. A young woman needs to learn that if she wants to be sexually active, there are consequences to that decision.

I’ve scanned so many of these articles, and found nary a mention of boys. Articles praising abstinence-only education will laud the positive outcome of far fewer high school girls having sex (or admitting that they do), without ever explaining if this same result was seen in boys; evidently the main goal was to stop the girls from having sex.

These little inequalities and indignities are well-known and obvious, tiresome and uncouth to talk about, so we don’t. No one needs to hear that we still live in a society where women are largely judged on how they look, while men are largely judged on what they can do. If you go out to a bar where men and women are looking for mates, it’s not worth the breath it would take to point out that the men are off-handedly mentioning how they can shoot a gun and they’re working on their pilot’s license and they are an ace at poker, while the women are flashing their cleavage and batting their heavily-mascara’d eyelashes and making the perfect cute face whenever someone points a camera in their direction. If he’s marginally handsome, so much the better, and if she’s really good at playing pool, well, that’s a small enough transgression to be sexy, as long as she’s really pretty.

Only stupid people play out these tired gender roles, you’ll say, and you’ll be right, mostly. I know plenty of women who are considered quite attractive, and whose attractiveness lies in their intelligence and skill—as long as they are also pretty and thin. However, I don’t know any women who aren’t conventionally attractive but who are largely courted for their intelligence, sense of humor, athleticism, or power. There are a million billion trillion men like this, who are funny-looking, with protruding bellies or bad clothing or pockmarked faces or the wrinkles that give them character, who are still considered models of attractiveness, sex symbols, because they are amazing actors or athletes or singers or businessmen.

You’ll say this has less to do with social roles and more to do with whom we are trying to attract. Men are fundamentally visual in their attraction, you’ll say, and women are less so, which explains why gay men are more likely than lesbians are to feel pressure to be good-looking. And you’ll be right, maybe. Maybe if we stopped feeling the need to be so damned attractive all the time, we could accomplish a lot more.

I think this hypothesis could explain the decided lack of femininity in the two recently appointed Supreme Court justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Perhaps they needed to renounce the distraction of feminine self-presentation in order to focus on the achievements that got them to the Supreme Court. Or maybe that's what we need to believe about them. It almost seems that, to be seen as credible in one of the most powerful jobs in the country, women have to present themselves as men. The female mannerisms, the politeness, coyness, flirtiness that characterize femininity all suggest lack of credibility, a lack of focus on what's really important. Women can be judged by what we can do, but only if we are willing to renounce our femininity.

Maybe that’s why my friend and her mother and I laugh so bitterly at the greater promise that the Chinese see in their sons. It is not because the girl can’t grow up to do everything that the boy can; it’s because society won’t find her attractive if she does, and, we are horribly afraid, neither will we.