Been & Going

[LefthandedJeff] Struck Thoughts on Stake-Burnt Bruno, Effin’ Noah, Unisex Bathrooms and the Infinite Present

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It strikes me that the present is vast.

It strikes me that one of the things I love in a novel is the feeling of living for a while in the mind and skin and experiences of someone different from me—walking some miles in their moccasins, or in this case their high heels. I’m reading the 1977 feminist bestseller The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, controversial in its day—revelatory for many women, deemed man-hating by some men—though I guess to say controversial + feminist is pretty much an oxymoron. But reading it really takes me back to that time of such different cultural assumptions about gender roles and experiences. I was 14 when it came out, son of two “women’s libbers” as the term went in those days. I remember picking it up off the black bookshelves in lush old Jocundry’s Books in East Lansing, intrigued, trepidatious, testing the waters of its pages, getting absorbed and losing time standing there, but not buying it or reading it through. I probably bought some Harlan Ellison or Robert E. Howard instead.

But I’m really grooving on the section I’m reading now, though my Kindle Fire tells me I’m only 19% of the way through. I feel immersed in the lives of a group of fifties housewives. Which sounds desperately boring. But it’s not. It’s actually fascinating. French manages to convey how trapped they all are, without making me, the reader, feel trapped. For which I’m grateful. I confess I was a little worried going in—even though I chose the book for the BCD—Book Club for Dudes—to read. But it strikes me that I’m getting here a more purely woman’s angle on some of the same material that’s come up for popular re-examination in the culture lately, the stuff of Mad Men and Masters of Sex.

It resonates with me personally in a number of ways. A good friend once told me that her mother committed suicide in the early 60s. Dad was a Hollywood agent, who lived an exciting life. A decent husband and father, not mean or cruel or a drunk. But mom was a woman with gifts and suppressed desires of her own, trapped in her role of housewife and mother, and depressed—living just a few years before a more free and fulfilling life might have seemed possible to her. One afternoon she went to lie down, as she often did at that hour. My friend and the other kids thought nothing of it. But darkness fell and mom didn’t emerge. She’d taken the overdose of pills so she’d never have to wake up. Reading The Women’s Room, I feel as if I’m living out my friend’s mother’s life. Again, though, it doesn’t make me want to kill myself. The storytelling voice, the detail, the lively pace and staging of it, keep me at a distance safe enough to empathize but not drown in it.

Closer to home, it helps me understand my own mother more. Helps me fill in details of her consciousness and the raising thereof. She and my dad were both supporters of the ERA—the Equal Rights Amendment—which many today don’t even know about; and which many others don’t realize never passed. I don’t remember my mom reading The Women’s Room, but she read a lot of stuff, more non-fiction probably, when I was a kid, about women’s liberation. Without her bashing me over the head with it; mostly by me listening quietly to her conversations with her women friends, I picked up on and internalized it, thought without doing much of the primary reading—or the primary living.

My mom too, though a wife and mother about a decade after the women I’m reading about now (I was born in 1962, when she was 21), got trapped, then freed, then partially trapped again, in the restrictions of the housewife’s role. She got pregnant with me while in college, married my dad and dropped out to raise me while he worked through to his PhD; then after they divorced she worked through to her own PhD, while still having me to take care of and working a part-time office job. Such a common tale from that time, and so similar to Mira in The Women’s Room. Finally she married my step-dad and without having quite realized this would happen, got trapped again in a mother-housewife script—stuck with almost all responsibility for raising his kids and keeping the house. She still had a career as an archaeologist, but not the same one she would have had if she’d been a man and not burdened in the same ways. I actually carried subterranean resentment against her for years for seeming to sell out her own feminist ideals. Not fair, of course. I’ve long ago let loose from that childish point-of-view—“It’s hard to be a human,” as she would say and I have learned. Nevertheless, I feel like The Women’s Room gives me fresh insight into the times and experiences that shaped her and that she partially, heroically, escaped.

It strikes me, the ironies of the debates I used to have with girls my own age in the seventies about the ERA, where I took the pro position and they took the con. First irony being obvious—I was arguing for enshrining their equal rights in the U.S. Constitution while they argued against it. But there’s a more amusing, also maddening, irony. The argument that seemed to hold the biggest sway for those little girls (mostly repeated from their parents probably) and the argument that I could swear killed the amendment with the average American voter, before it got passed by enough states to make it into the Constitution, was that if the ERA passed, co-ed bathrooms would inevitably become the law of the land. Which of course would swiftly trigger the rending and collapse of Western Civilization.

You might recognize that fear syndrome, since it’s the same kind of outsized, irrational outcome the Christian right prophesies from gay marriage. I never bought it, but it seemed to proceed from a notion that since the Supreme Court had pronounced “separate but equal” inherently discriminatory when it came to Jim Crow segregation of blacks and whites, sooner or later if the ERA passed the Supreme Court would declare separate bathrooms for men and women unlawful. The irony there being that unisex bathrooms are ever more common in coffeehouses and small restaurants, at least here in Los Angeles, without the ERA passing, without mass rape resulting, with barely anyone really noticing, and certainly civilization as fragile as it may be seems to be surviving it, at least so far. Check back with me on that one.

It strikes me that the same religious faith whose dogma justified burning Giordano Bruno at the stake after seven years of torture also gave him the faith and courage to endure that treatment.

Elise and I watched Cosmos Episode 1 last week and Bruno’s story featured prominently. A Dominican in 1500s Italy, he was instilled by his Catholic faith with the conception of a God who rewarded you in heaven for remaining true to him or punished you in hell for being false to him. But Bruno had a vision of a universe grander than that conceived by his church—infinite, where every star was a sun like our own, with infinite worlds like our own and other beings populating those worlds. He was also apparently pantheistic—his conception of the universe had God spread throughout, in everything and of everything. A grand and beautiful vision, and one that comes closer to our scientific conception today. But it violated Church doctrine, so the Inquisition tortured him for seven years, then burned him at the stake for refusing to renounce it. It’s hard to picture a contemporary having the courage and conviction to resist that torture. So ironically, I can only imagine that it was the strength of his faith that he would be rewarded in heaven for his commitment to what his God had shown him, that let him resist what the dogmatic fanatics of his faith inflicted upon him.

It strikes me that we scared up a new band name there: Dogmatic Fanatics.

Once we start down that road, the band names keep coming: The Small Favors. And Feedables. Or Unfed Feedables. The Willy Nillies. The Poetic Eddies (for you fans of obscure Viking references).

It strikes me that the present is vast with sensory data coming in from outside, internal happenings firing off inside—beyond our power to grasp in all five senses, plus integrated awareness.

(The sixth sense = integrated awareness of the first five?)

That thought once struck spreads through me a feeling of continuous, irretrievable loss.

Then I turn it, because I have to, toward a sense of ever-renewing possibility.

Loss and possibility, alternating. Intake and outflow of breath.

It strikes me why Noah’s Ark: The Movie pisses me off so much every time I see a preview for it. It’s clear the movie makers try hard to make this child’s fable believable. The harder they try, the more it points up to me that no one but a child should ever take the biblical flood story seriously. And yet millions do. Right wing fundamentalists find the tale of Noah’s Ark more credible than evolution and global warming. So in a time when those same religious forces are putting the entire human race and our precious, fragile life-supporting ecosystems at risk by aggressively dumbing down American belief in the clear scientific consensus around climate change, as well as evolution and the scientific method itself, I find it ethically, morally and politically abhorrent that Hollywood is basically conspiring to give them an assist.

And it strikes me that almost any Hollywood fantasy ever is more believable than the childish premise of the Noah tale. I love fairy tales, fables, fantasy and myths. But beyond childhood, it can become a matter of life and death to know them for what they are.

And you know, it also strikes me—my wife Elise, The Diamond Cutter, brought this up recently—do we really know if the myths and fables of the bible were believed to be literal truth in their own times? Or were they understood as metaphorical truth? As tales? Could it be that stories like Noah were like our Santa Claus and Easter Bunny stories—meant to be believed by kids until they got old enough to figure out how charmingly goofy they are, and then dispensed with until time to pass them on to your own kids? But never meant to be believed by mature adults?

So to make a movie like Noah which seems to take itself so seriously strikes me as a massive insult to our collective intelligence. On that basis it pisses me right off.

(Though I freely acknowledge this as the worst, most prejudiced kind of movie criticism—that by someone who hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t ever intend to.)

It strikes me there’s a great, great irony in the rightwing fundamentalists trying to destroy science education. To the extent that they’re successful in undermining acceptance of climate change science, they’re helping to bring on the widespread flooding of global coastlines. Greenland, for instance, is sloughing off its ice sheet at a rapid rate. When all the ice on Greenland finishes melting into the sea, it will swell sea levels worldwide by about 22 to 23 feet—enough to swamp that majority of the world’s major cities which are coastal. Ouch. So the bible-literalists in the Noah audience with all their kids on Sunday school field trips are busily helping to bring on the next Great Flood with their destructive ignorance. We enshrine the prophets of old and deny our own, eh? (Kristofferson on Jesus: “Reckon they’d just nail ‘im up/If he come down again.”) So very sadly and perhaps fatally human of us.

It strikes me that we’re used to conceiving of the past stretching far out behind us and the future winding way on ahead, while we’re stuck on this comparatively small spot called the present. But it strikes me that the present in its own right is so vast it’s practically infinite.

The present spreads out to the horizon, to the limits of what we can see, up into the bowl of the sky, down in the numberless cracks in our palms, all of the simultaneous smells curling through the air around our nostrils, the tastes in our mouths, the sounds of music, voices, birds and cars flirting with our attention right now—more in one discrete moment of continuous, infinite present than we can ever hope to apprehend, process and understand if we had all the time in the world to pick through it.

It strikes me as poem-fodder:

Whipped on the Wind

Each moment is denied us.
Each moment is all that is promised us.
Each moment as it’s whipped away on the wind.
Each moment as it’s whipped away on the wind.