Sunday, November 14, 2010

C'est comme ça

In my first few weeks as an English teacher in France I quickly learned that the French public school system is extremely rigid, and that this is especially true with the English language curriculum. There is literally a template document generated by the education ministry, called le Bulletin officiel, or B.O., that is distributed to every public school in the country, and its instructions are law. After my first look at the B.O. I was surprised and a little horrified by what I saw, like a parent who finds out their child has been watching R-rated movies at a friend's house while another parent stood idly by ("How could you let them learn that?). There were too many contractions (an attempt to teach more conversational English); the example dialogue, which brought to mind scenes from Back to the Future 2 ("Great Scott, Marty!"), was pretty outdated; and there wasn't enough emphasis on the fundamentals--conjugation, syntax, identifying the subject and verb (also part of an attempt to teach conversational English).

When I and the other English speaking teachers raised these issues with the pédagogue, the teaching specialist in charge of our training, he listened patiently and acknowledged our criticisms. "Yes, I know it's not perfect," he said, "I know it has its problems. But in our rigid system, it's difficult to change. C'est comme ça." This reply had an air of gloomy finality. And there was that c'est comme ça, which literally translates to "it's like that" but means "that's just the way it is." Something about this expression was annoyingly blockheaded and resigned. What I heard was: "As much as we'd like to see changes, unfortunately on the planet we're on--in the real world--an alternative does not exist." He seemed to be saying that it's just comme ça and thus cannot possibly be anything else than what it is. That it has a certain defined nature; a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat. I didn't see it like that though. A thing has a certain nature, sure, but to me that nature is usually more of an outline than anything else, and that outline can be redrawn. (A dog is a dog? Well it doesn't have to be. Let's take it to the lab and make a half-cat half-dog. Can you say shoe-in for Best in Show?)

The American instinct is to constantly be improving, to never settle. The nature of something is merely a starting point, an opportunity to make it better. And if you're not working at it, you're failing. It's said about Michael Jordan that he would stay out on the court to practice jump shots while his teammates took water breaks. I doubt that this story is completely true, but what it says about American society certainly is. This story, even if it's a myth, comes out of the our culture of fifteen minute lunches, eating with one hand and responding to emails with the other. There is always something more that can be done, and there's not a minute to lose in doing it. Perhaps only because I learned its meaning in this American context, "that's just the way it is" seems to contain an underlying optimism about finding a solution. I envision Jordan reassuring his teammates about Patrick Ewing's dominance in the paint, "He's dominant," Jordan says, "that's just the way it is. But here's how we can still beat them..." C'est comme ça does not have the same optimistic echo in it, and this is probably because I learned it in France, where people are much more comfortable with the status-quo, or to put it another way, are not such obsessive, problem-solving workaholics. In America, you can always take more jump shots, and there are always more hours of the day you could, and should be working, improving. In France, the entire world shuts down between 12:30pm and 2:00pm, as family members gather at their homes for a relaxed meal. And if something needs to get done during that time... But that's the point, it doesn't need to get done. Ça va aller, it's going to be fine.

Even though they translate to exactly the same thing, c'est comme ça and That's just the way it is, are different to me. Any French expression is going to be drenched in the French culture that created it. But maybe it's better this way, to learn how to appreciate c'est comme ça as it is, a fully un-American expression. When you're living in France you have to accept that some things are as they are, and that not everything is an opportunity for American ingenuity and sleeve-rolling-up. So take a deep breath, sit down to a long, relaxed lunch, and accept that, c'est comme ça.

Bernard Hinault, the great French cyclist, and one of the closest things France has to Michael Jordan, once said, talking about his victory at the 1980 World Championships, "I slept like a baby the night before, because I knew that I'd win the next day." Hinault, at the top of a sport famous for the intensity of training required, probably trained as hard or harder than Jordan ever did. But Jordan wouldn't have said a thing like that; his talent was the sum of his hours of practice, and he would have credited his tireless work ethic. Where Jordan won because of those extra jump shots, Hinault won because that was the nature of the thing, immutable and true: he was the champion, c'est comme ça.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Big world, little trashcan

In my daily life in France it can sometimes feel like I’m once again a pubescent fourteen year-old—I’m constantly knocking into things, misjudging ceiling heights, and generally struck by the feeling that I’ve suddenly become taller, ganglier and clumsier. This has to do with the fact that everything in France is much smaller than it is in the US. This can sometimes mean things are neater and more tucked out of the way, but just as often it can mean that spaces, such as rooms, are compressed, even though certain contents that cannot be economized anymore than they already are—toilets, for example—remain the same size. I’d just about had it the other day when, using the bathroom in the home of a friend in Paris, I banged my head on an exposed water heater, placed perfectly at tourist head-smashing level. To make matters worse, when I instinctively drew up a hand to nurse my wound, my forearm caught a framed picture hanging on the wall. (Thankfully I caught the picture before it fell, making my head the only damaged article in the room.) Walking out of the bathroom—the walls of which had seemed in the process to close in even tighter like the trash compacting room from Star Wars—rubbing the sore spot on my head, I praised my reflexes, which I’d never more felt were a result of my American genetic make-up. I will surely need those reflexes to survive in this dollhouse of a country.

And the flip-side is not as nice as it sounds. In fact, it’s often really infuriating as well. Take for example the absurdly miniature trash cans commonplace in homes and public buildings alike, such as the thimble-sized one above. (To my eyes, these tiny waste containers do not have the capacity to house the tissues of one single nose-blowing episode from a family of mice, let alone a day’s waste from a human being: the French generate a freakishly small amount of waste.) After locating, under a table in the kitchen, say, the Honey I Shrunk the Kids trash can—the location of which can be extremely difficult in and of itself, because not only is it normally not at eye level, it’s probably not at chest level, or even waist level, but probably at something more like ankle level—I find myself having to bend down to insert my trash in ways that my body, previously accustomed to human-sized trashcans, just cannot bend—are all French people gymnasts? At this point, after nearly pulling one or both of my hamstrings, I’m furious at this stupid, ridiculous, exasperatingly small trashcan. All I want to do is kick it, yell at it, and (not so) proudly walk out on it, knocked-over and defeated on its side.

These episodes would be much less infuriating and make a lot more sense if French people were considerably smaller than we are. But—fat jokes about Americans aside—they’re not really. (Ok Americans are bigger, but the point is trashcans and bathrooms have been bigger in the US since way before we became the diabetes nation.) For this reason it can feel, at times, like a personal rebuke to America’s large-and-wasteful-but-proud-of-it mentality. And so, even such mundane interactions as the trashcan episode kick my patriotism into gear. Of course, it’s not that—a personal rebuke of American culture—, but it makes me feel bad about myself nonetheless, like a neighbor who regularly recycles when you don’t.

These moments of exasperation with life in France—a fully First World country—make me feel spoiled and needy, and as a consequence moody and defensive of the reasons for my feeling spoiled and needy. What these moments of exasperation also lead to though, is the awareness of how much the tiny little cultural differences matter—the size of trashcans and of glasses of water at lunch, or the spatial arrangement of bathrooms—and how much I love and appreciate the way it is at home.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Barack Obama is the same as Glenn Beck? Sorta. This headline is meant to catch your attention? Yes.

Love him or hate him, Glenn Beck has a lot of viewers. Millions actually. Why and how has he garnered such a following? His androgynous, boyish complexion gives him the appearance of a lesbian who makes a point not to wear make-up, so it's probably not his looks that get people to watch (see: Anderson Cooper). What is it then? You can smugly write-off his massive, cultish following, disregarding these millions as ignorant rednecks, which is in fact how many liberals approach it. Fortunately, I won't do that. Not exactly, anyway.

If all you know of Beck's show are the clips shown on Jon Stewart, then you actually have a pretty good idea of what it's like. Usually I'd say watch the thing for yourself, and I guess you should, but any given clip--even out of context--probably gives you a fairly accurate picture. Beck fills most of his hour-long show by repeating certain key words--socialist, Marxist, communist--attached to names--Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, to name a few--, drawing connections between the adjective and the person, using laughably sloppy reasoning. In this sense, Beck's show has no real substance, and it's hard not to think the people who believe his gibberish are idiots. He doesn't actually make any points; he just calls people names over and over again under the false credibility of ad-hoc logic and "facts" that aren't really facts. And as propaganda--or "agitprop," as pretentious, Beck-hating liberal rags like The New York Review of Books might put it--it's very effective. (The NYROB readership can be summed up as: people who want to read articles with words like "agitprop" in them, but who don't know what "agitprop" actually means, slash won't wikipedia it because they won't accept that they don't, in fact, know what it means.)

Take a look at this clip, in which Beck constructs an argument based on Obama's childhood influences for why and how the president became a "Marxist."

Notice how he draws his conclusions. Barack's father was a communist, so Barack must be a communist; his mother was an atheist, so she believed in Marxism "to the extreme." There isn't a correlation between the two propositions; the one doesn't necessarily make the other true. Is it possible that a mother's atheistic leanings might influence the political ideology of her son? Sure, but Beck frames his arguments in what logicians, and other nerds, call a contrapositive: if the one is true, then the other is also true. Beck does this and then adds "to the extreme."

So Beck is a phony, an agitator, a propagandist. Many on both sides of the political spectrum--the ones who care about things like facts, anyway--have said as much and have denounced him. That Beck is a quack is indisputably true, but not that interesting. The interesting question is not, is Beck credible? but rather, why is his message--that Obama and liberal dems are destroying America, and that our problems will be solved once he and they are not in power--so attractive to so many people? My answer is somewhat existential, and pretty depressing. "Uh oh," you say, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, "what kind of weird truth bombs is this boy about to drop?"

Cue "Thank You" by Dido.

Times are tough. The recession continues to take a catastrophic toll, and while it's not getting worse it's not showing any signs of substantial improvement either. People are hurting, and they're pissed-off. Beck and others like him recognize this frustration and they have exploited it brilliantly. To these frustrated Americans who are fed-up, understandably, with how their lives are going at the moment, Beck has provided a scapegoat--and a way out. He's produced the following scenario: if this president continues to hold power, your problems will continue as well; but without him and his agenda, your problems will be solved and your lives will improve dramatically. Beck's message then is like a drug, where the euphoric feeling is not "real" in the sense that once the drug wears off and you go back to sober reality you'll still be sad, or poor, or whatever. But the feeling, in that transitory moment, is real enough; you are indeed, if only for a time, happier. Like Spongebob below.

So while Beck's fans believe that a better life is around the corner, but unachievable while Obama enacts his agenda, they are optimistic--happier, even--and violently impatient to get this guy the hell out so their better life can start.

Obama's campaign produced a similar effect among liberals. He captured--or exploited, depending on how you want to look at it; both are valid--the extremely powerful desire people have to want something better, the same desire that Beck recognizes. Obama deceived us, as Beck has. Both are masters at this trick. Obama convinced us--and perhaps he believed it, too--that government could be better than it is, that it could, with him at the helm, provide us with that better life that we all feel is there but just beyond our reach ("I knew real politics could be like how it is on West Wing!"). It's the same, tired dream that's been dreamed and crushed millions of times in this country. It's Gatsby's green light. Spoiler: Gatsby doesn't get the girl, and he dies at the end.

Obama and Beck the same? Well, in a way. They both sold/sell false messages in order to gain an audience. The difference between the two is that Obama employed hope, and an uplifting message of coming together to solve problems, Beck stokes hate and division. But both of them duped/are duping us. I admit I didn't realize this during the campaign. My eyes, just like the rest of the goddamn saps, were too glazed over with hope juice to see anything (it probably wouldn't have been legal for me to drive). Democrats and Republicans coming together; the nation coming together; a post-partisan era--these were pipe dreams. Fortunately, after the dreamy smoke cleared, Obama turned out to be a pretty good president. He is pragmatic, careful. He is--dare I say it--a bureaucrat, the very thing we thought he wasn't. We thought we wanted a superhero, but here's the thing: 1) superheroes, like MLK or Gandhi, won't get elected to public office, 2) people like that aren't actually good as government instruments.

Back to Beck (could be the title of his secret gay lover's tell-all book?). Fine, he's a liar. But what are his motivations? Is he a racist? I don't think so. I don't think Beck is more or less affected by race issues than the next white guy. Do I think there are there some racial elements in the emotions Beck is stirring up? Yes. The demographics of this country are changing. In a few years, non-white groups combined will make up a majority in the U.S. I think mixed up in all of this is the feeling that people are losing their country, that the idea of America portrayed in Budweiser ads is no longer a reality. (In the New Yorker Kelefa Sanneh makes a strange but indeed plausible argument that politics explicitly catering to "white people" will soon lose its negative, racist connotation as whites lose demographic real estate.) These feelings are not something to just write-off as desperate, pathetic attempts by sore-loser whites to hold onto power. Call me crazy, but I'm sympathetic. These people love this country and they feel like it's getting away from them. That's not something to scoff at--well, okay you can scoff, but have some sympathy at the same time.

So...Beck is an angel? Not exactly. He does play up the fact that Obama is black and that his middle name is Hussein and that he also has a funny first name. I see this less as racism per se, and more giving his viewers as many things as possible to make him "different." (I suppose this is a kind of racism, in that Beck uses Obama's black skin color to reinforce a "not me" mentality with his viewers. Okay, so that's exactly what racism is. Nevermind--my point is, I don't think Beck hates black people.) Beck is more like Kim Kardashian than he is like Strom Thurmond, but not because he looks more like a woman than a man. He does though. Like Kardashian, Beck just wants the spotlight. Unlike Strom, Beck is not a complete bigot.

Let's recap. In this post, I crushed hope and the possibility of a better life, and at times defended a man I despise. I really let the keyboard get away from me on this one, huh. Maybe it was the weed Spongebob sold me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

2nd race weekend

Read about the rise and fall of my ego, here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

This is a post I submitted to the Columbia Cycling blog:

(The picture above shows the sprint finish at the end of my first race. I'm in the center, in blue.)

This past weekend, at Rutgers, I raced a bike for the first time. For me personally, there was a lot riding--yes of course the pun is intended--on these couple of races. And it was more than being able to tell people that I didn't shave my legs for nothing. Over the past couple of months I've invested a lot of time and energy in this thing. It probably wasn't much compared to what more serious cyclists do, but for me, it was a lot. And besides the actual training, I had made bike racing one of my main things. I told my friends about the training, and how much I cared about it; I told myself I cared a lot about it; I gave up other activities to make time. And what's more important than your time?

So I was naturally anxious about the answers this weekend would provide to some of the questions I'd had for months: would I enjoy racing as much as I predicted I would? would I do well enough to justify all my training? and what the hell is a crit, anyway?

Well, I got my answers all right. To sum up, racing bikes is just about the funnest thing I've ever done. Ever. Sure, it helped that I did well, but the main thing was the feeling of being in the pack, going over twenty miles per hour, my senses heightened and my focus laser-sharp. Everything happens so quickly. At one point during the crit, there was a crash right in front of me. It took everything I had to avoid it and stay on my bike. But after narrowly escaping the crash by going off-road into the dirt for a few seconds, and sprinting to catch back up with the field, I found myself smiling. Because that's what it's all about--the high stakes; the danger at every corner; and the rush of getting out alive. All I can say is, I can't wait for the next race.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Shutter Island review

What is reality? Am I crazy? Did I just soil myself? Are Leo Dicaprio's eyes really that blue?

These were just some of the questions going through my head after Shutter Island ended. You know how you felt after watching The Matrix for the first time? For a little while you really didn't know if you were living in the dream world or the real world? I got a good dose of that disorientation--not quite as pungent or long-lasting as from the Matrix, but still plenty powerful--from the new Scorsese flick. The acuteness of this disorientation is the most successful part of this movie, and it's ultimately what saves it and keeps it buoyant despite its flaws.

Yes, as surely as Shaun White is a lovable ginger, this movie has its flaws. This makes it vulnerable, and some took this opportunity and unfairly demolished it. (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, gAy.O. Scott.) The weirdest of the weird in this one, are the super intense flashbacks to German concentration camps, which have all the gruesomeness of Sophie's Choice, but none of the relevance. These occur in Teddy Daniels' (Dicaprio) daydreams (as a solider in WWII, Daniels was one of the first Allied soldiers to find Dachau) and have no coherent link to the overall narrative, except to accentuate Daniels' troubled past. But this story line is overkill: Daniels already has a recently deceased wife (Michelle Williams) to reckon with--this by itself is plenty to justify his moodiness. It's like saying Lebron James and Dwayne Wade will win the Knicks a championship next year, when we know Lebron James will bring New York a trophy plenty easy by himself. Also, it's not like the movie needs any more help in the spookiness department from the piles of dead Jews.

Most unfortunately, the Nazi thing broadens the movie's scope in an irritating way, and comes off as kind of pathetic attempt by an egotistic director to make his movie more important than it needed to be. This has the indirect result of making all the other attempts at transcending the narrative seem contrived; for example, the warden's monologue near the end about violence is wonderfully dark and poetic, but it's sort of annoying in the context of the Nazi hubris.

There are some other minor moments which are pretty bizarre--the kind where everyone shakes their head and says, "what the balls was he thinking?" What, not everyone says that? Like, in one of Daniels' daydreams, a kid who is clearly dead wakes up and starts repeating, "I'm dead." The audience started laughing at that one.

Other things I didn't like about it:
1) Michelle Williams. (Her acting was much better in Dawson's Creek.)
2) The score. (Some parts were so over-the-top, it made me think of Jason Segel's character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall making fun of how he composed "ominous tones.")
3) Leo using the same exact accent he did in The Departed.
4) The giggling idiots sitting next to me who were a little too pleased with their late 20s/early 30s selves for bringing booze into the theater. I haven't seen anyone that proud of themselves for sneaking alcohol into the movies since me, when I was in 9th grade.

Where Scorsese earns his bread though, is with the skillfully woven plot. The ending, while not as slap-in-the-face surprising as, say, the twist in The Sixth Sense, is deliciously good, and leaves you kicking yourself for not figuring it out sooner. So, if you want to be pretty scared, see Leonardo Dicaprio act really well, laugh at some moments that aren't meant to be funny, and get whacked in the face with a cool ending, then go see Shutter Island.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I bet you think this joke is about you

A back injury has relegated me to the horizontal plane for the past week, and I haven't felt like blogging much. But thanks to Allah and Vicodin (mostly Vicodin), I can resume. I'm sorry to my thousands of devoted fans for the hiatus. One particular story from this past week struck a chord with me. If you haven't heard/seen, a recent Family Guy episode featured a character with Down syndrome, the voice of which was done by an actress who actually has Down syndrome. In the episode, it's insinuated that this character's mother is Sarah Palin, whose son, Trig, has Down syndrome. (When asked what her parents do, the character, Ellen, responds, "my mom is the former governor of Alaska.)

Uh oh. Palin has a history of taking jokes about her a bit personally. When David Letterman joked a little while back that Palin had come to New York for the purpose of going to Bloomingdale's to update her "slutty flight-attendant look," she wasn't laughing. Her response was that Letterman had missed the real point of her trip, which was to attend an autism conference. On top of this, she also let fly some barely incoherent, sanctimonious babble—the kind of dialogue that we’ve come to expect, and that I’ve grown quite fond of—, this time something about the degradation of women. Sarah's right, Letterman did miss the point, and I'm guessing he missed it on purpose, because autism conferences don't make for good jokes. Like a true, gross politician, she made a pretty harmless jab into a self-important advertisement for herself about the good deeds she was doing.

But jokes about her family are what get her truly riled-up. In June, Letterman said this: "Sarah Palin went to a Yankee game yesterday. There was one awkward moment during the seventh-inning stretch: her daughter was knocked up Alex Rodriguez." Palin's response was to lash out at Letterman, calling him “sexually perverted” for making sordid references about what she believed to be her then 14-year old daughter, Willow. In his own response, Todd Palin, the husband, threw in the totally harmless words "rape" and "despicable," just for good measure. It should be clear to anyone with even a decent sense of humor that Letterman's joke wasn't that funny, as is the case with most of his stuff. But I also thought it should be clear that Letterman was not talking about the 14 year-old Willow, but the 18 year-old, uber-pregnant Bristol. I guess I assumed this because it seemed to me that a joke about one of the Palin kids being pregnant would, most likely, be directed at the kid who was pregnant—not the un-pregnant 14 year-old. Sarah, darling, sometimes you are such a retard.

Okay, that brings me to the next point. Gear-up the DeLorean and fast-forward to last week. ("We're going the future?")

After the Family Guy episode, Palin asked, "when is enough enough?" (I'd ask Palin the same question, as her seemingly unquenchable thirst for media attention has led her to bring daughter Bristol into the spotlight. Bristol has recently worked as the spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as well as for the Candie's Foundation. You could look at her as the perfect person to speak for abstinence, or as a humongous-ly hilarious parody of herself.) In response to the episode Bristol said, "When you're the son or daughter of a public figure, you have to develop thick skin. My siblings and I all have that, but insults directed at our youngest brother hurt too much for us to remain silent." "If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon thought they were being clever for mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed," she said. "All they proved is that they're heartless jerks."

They are definitely heartless jerks. Seth Macfarlane and the other creators of Family Guy have made it clear over the years that there is no one they will not offend, and they seem to have a jolly good time doing it. But let's get some things straight. If you actually watched the episode it would painfully obvious--yes, even to Sarah Palin--that it was breaking down stereotypes and empowering an oft-degraded character, and that it was not, as the Palins suggest, picking on an easy target with cheap humor because it could. In any case, the Palins' responses to the show's portrayal of someone with Down syndrome bring up some interesting questions with answers that are not so concrete. In the interest of publishing in a timely manner (and also to save your eyes from staring at a computer screen--seriously, go for a run or something), I'm going to do this piece in segments. Here's the first question I pose:

1. Are some things off limits to joke about?
Boy, this is a toughie. After some soul searching I admit I am torn on this question. As a person who stutters, I am perhaps more qualified to answer this question than other, more genetically perfect people. Whether or not this is true doesn't really matter because I got your attention now. My opinion on this is that making certain topics off-limits, like Down syndrome, takes the power out of the hands of the person who's afflicted with the thing; they instantaneously become a victim--even if they don't want to be. It's the same concept as someone stopping a schoolyard fight because she thinks the bully is going to kick the crap out of her friend. Well, yeah, maybe, but that's the way it has to go: it's a nice gesture, but the friend must be given the chance to fight his own battles.

Think people with Down syndrome can't fight their own battles? This is what Fay Friedman, the actress with Down syndrome who played the character on the episode, said in response to the Palins' comments: "I thought the line...was very funny. I think the word is ‘sarcasm.’ In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way the former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes."

Boo. yah.

Also, outlawing certain topics from being used for humor, or making certain topics taboo gives power and importance to those who use them in a real malicious way. Where before these people would just be a-holes, they now become social criminals, rising from anonymous idiots to infamous jerks.

I said I was torn though, and I am. There are definitely downsides to being laissez-faire about this kind of thing. Language is a huge part of what instructs us on how to treat other people. Every time we use "retard" or "fag" as a derogative word--even if we're just joking--it subconsciously trains us to think of people we assign those labels to in a derogatory way. Maybe once won't do much harm, but hundreds of those over time add up to some serious brain rewiring. Think, "the cow goes mooooo".

To be continued.