29 May 2016

My College Revolutionary, Part I

My college revolutionary was Marcel Duchamp, the Frenchman who put a toilet in an art gallery in 1917. The urinal, called “Fountain” and signed by one R. Mutt, delivered a swift kick to the world of aesthetics, ideas and culture. And to my world, too.

Where did Duchamp get off? Seriously. As an 18-year-old who had been given to understand the beauty of the Impressionists, the integrity of a crucifix, the intrigue of the one James Rosenquist painting at my hometown museum, a toilet in an art gallery made me question every single thing. Is value – aesthetic, financial, even moral – a decision?

The toilet was a readymade, one of the art world’s first, though Picasso had put oil cloths on canvases in 1912. Readymades have been “a thing” off and on ever since, and are crucial to the conceptual poetry realm currently in vogue in literary circles. It was an object that Duchamp, a painter as it happened, had certainly not made, had only shifted from one venue to another. And it’s regarded as the most influential artwork of the 20th century.

As Duchamp (probably) wrote in The Blind Man, a little art review he edited, "Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - and created a new thought for that object."

A new thought for an object, all right. And a new object for thought.

And there you were, thinking this was beautiful and significant, thinking this had value.

There were other revolutionaries in college—Nelson Mandela, Daniel Ortega, James Joyce—but this creator, with his mocking, Dadaist approach to art, needled me. There’s no writing about it, try as I might. See Jerry Saltz’s essay calling Duchamp’s urinal a Copernican shift in art.

What has value, what is beautiful, what is important, what changes consciousness?

It’s always ideas, after all. Pretty much as I expected.

28 May 2016

My first revolutionary (actually)

My first revolutionary was (actually) Gloria Steinem. I’d heard whispers of her and of “Women’s Lib” when very young. A song on the radio, “I Am Woman,” was related to the whispers, and then Gloria’s magazine came out when I was 10 and she was in the news all the time. She and her magazine, Ms.
At least it seemed to be Gloria Steinem’s magazine, though there was a large team of smart women behind it. I didn’t know about the rest of them, which women were connected to the civil rights movement, which questioning gender itself; I don’t think anyone within a 200-mile radius of our house in Houston knew about them. We just knew about Gloria, the center of Women’s Lib, the lady with the long hair and big glasses; she might even have written the popular (if irritating and vaguely embarrassing even then) song. We were for Women’s Lib, which was somehow linked to the certainty that women were smart; my mother, her mother, her mother-in-law, they were definitely smart. They were always saying so.
My mother subscribed to her magazine for a few years. I doubt I understood the articles. I thought Gloria was strange looking and knew she had no husband. She had said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” That was funny—fish and bicycles—but there in the suburbs, a woman without a man had problems: maybe a husband, a father, was like water for a fish. And lots of people, especially men, didn’t like Gloria, which made her more interesting and a little scary.
Which is to say I didn’t know if the reason she was unmarried was because she had these Women’s Lib ideas, or if these Women’s Lib ideas arose because she couldn’t get a boyfriend. Which is to say I didn’t know if my mother took the magazine because my father had died and she had to become a Women’s Libber, or if she would have been liberated anyway.
Scary as she was, Gloria rocked my world.
The word Ms. was the detonator. After all, if men are called Mr. no matter what, why shouldn’t women have a word for themselves, independent of marital status? Why should women be exposed in such a way? Gloria had brought the word to us, I thought wrongly. (In fact the Times has a terrific piece on the word’s 1901 beginnings.) Her new word had solved one of the problems with words, and words have always bugged me. Words for men and words for women, especially. At school and on Sundays we heard of Christ who’d come to save all men, of goodwill toward all men, in school I’d learned all men were created equal. I assumed “men” included me; I was told so at some point, and I might have looked in a dictionary to see for sure. The definition was probably a lot like what’s on my apple dictionary now, definition 2 (Of course! We’re always number 2!) man: “a human being of either sex; a person.” That made sense. Christ had come to save all persons, we wanted goodwill toward all persons, all persons are created equal. I was doing the translation work that women are always doing. But bothered by it, and concerned about the effect of so many of us—half the world—saying men men men men men all the time when there were men, actually, who were not women. When men would never allow the world to refer to them as women.
It’s silly to write all this, a child’s thoughts, but I still wonder about that, and I like that English professors from New York to Sacramento now move students away from such word use, scribbling “sexist language” in the margins of millions of papers every year. (I like the serious resisters, too, like genderqueers and others who resent language and its instructions to us.)
All this was Gloria’s doing, to me. And so it was.
In 1973 or 74, my class held a debate on women’s lib. Are women equal to men? Are girls as valuable as boys? I don’t remember the exact question, and I doubt I consulted Ms. for the debate, but I felt having the magazine itself was meaningful, and it didn’t seem like any of the neighbors had it. Maybe that’s why I was on the team. (In a few years I’d be babysitting far and wide and would learn that none of those families subscribed to Ms., but they all, every one, had a stack of Playboys tucked away somewhere, sometimes pretty carefully.)
Forty years have passed; I don’t recall much except that I was given the closing arguments, and (I think) my voice cracked. Men and women were equal, obviously. Or girls were as good as boys. Duh now. Then we played the Helen Reddy song on someone’s Panasonic 8-track.
The judge was a priest who walked over from the rectory for the show. At the bitter end, after some speechifying, he reluctantly concluded that our side had won because we’d been more passionate.

I was furious. I didn’t want to win a debate because of passion. I wanted to win it because we were right. I wasn’t sure we were right, to tell the truth. But Gloria Steinem was. And I was so enormously glad that someone important, someone on the news who had made a magazine, said so and was saying it all the time.

26 May 2016

Maybe my first revolutionary

Maybe my first revolutionary was Thomas Paine. Because O ye that love mankind! Stand forth! Because These are the times that try men’s souls. Because we don’t have to go looking for the right time, as he said, for the TIME HATH FOUND US. And because mother.
Paine was her revolutionary, definitely. A history major, she loved all the stories of the American Revolution, but Paine came up again and again simply because her favorite Greenwich Village bar had been on the ground floor of Paine’s last home, the building where he died. The bar remains, a full-on piano bar crowded with men singing late into the night. Alan Cummings reportedly drops by sometimes to let off steam after a performance. Bachelorette parties were recently banned, too rowdy. Peter and I stopped in for a soda a few months ago, or years, and I took the picture of the plaque above. These are the times that try men’s souls.  Mother walked out of there at thirty, pregnant with me, and remained homesick for it until the day she died.
(And all those years, the automatic noun change in my head. Women’s souls, women’s souls; surely Paine knew women have souls too, women’s souls are terribly tried. My mother.)
The bar was not named for Common Sense, Paine’s January 1776 pamphlet that sold half a million copies and sparked the revolution—THE TIME HATH FOUND US! Or, rather, a pamphlet that translated the revolution, its thick, luscious loathing of monarchy. This bar was named for his Crisis, written in December of the same year, the one that begins These are the times.  The one that begins with the soul. Marie's Crisis.  
If there’s anything we know about Thomas Paine, it’s that he gets no respect. The Rodney Dangerfield of the founding fathers, Teddy Roosevelt called him “a filthy little atheist;” normally he doesn’t attract even that much rancor, just a lowly pamphleteer, an easy read for gradeschoolers just as he was for farmers back in the day. The neglect was planned. The Quaker-born, virulently anti-slavery Paine was also an Enlightenment man, like most of the founders. But he was unable to rein in his anger about the corrupt church, his insistence on a dream of replacing revelation (aka the Bible) with direct observation of the natural world. Deism, it's called, and it's laid out in his 1796 Age of Reason, an essay written in France for the French revolution. But that essay got him locked up in that country, then sent his publishers to jail in England, then ruined his reputation in the brand-new USA. Jefferson, who was always getting burned for the same general beliefs, had begged him not to publish. Paine, a man who once wrote, My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light, did as he saw fit. Big surprise. 
But back to the crisis, our revolution. And its necessary war. In the Crisis, Paine quotes Voltaire to praise General Washington, calling him a man who never appeared to full advantage but in difficulties and in action. Paine writes of his own military service, from Fort Lee to Delaware. He whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles to death. 
I think of the essay like the ride of Paul Revere, waking people up. I dwell not upon the vapors of imagination, wrote Paine. I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.
The best line? My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. 
How we loved America, mother and I, and her mother, too. Once I came home from college with a new word: imperialism. It meant America is wrong, is cruel and rapacious. And Nicaragua. We were in my grandmother’s kitchen when I told them straight and clear. America, bad. Mother knew to be quiet in those days, but her mother, the daughter of immigrants, cried, Where else? Where else!
She was as mad as I would ever see her.

I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.
Another thing that college taught me: Don’t trust those who speak of truth. 
Paine died alone and unpraised on Grove Street, in my mother’s bar. He was mother's revolutionary, definitely. But I've never had the character to sidestep my mother's A B Cs. 

25 May 2016

My First Revolutionary

My first revolutionary was Mario Savio. I was fifteen, it was 1977, and we met in a book that was lying around the house I grew up in in Houston.
[I met all my revolutionaries in books, which might hint that I’ve never been arrested.] [Never.]
Mario was dark and handsome and a leader of Berkeley’s FSM, or Free Speech Movement. A bright son of Italian immigrants, his first arrest was at a 1964 protest against the San Francisco Hotel Association, which only hired blacks for menial jobs. He spent that summer in the south registering black voters and returned to learn that his university was banning political speech on campus. It seems hard to believe now—or maybe not. (Though I’m not one to believe that trigger warnings are another kind of ban, they did come to mind.)
Anyway. On one December afternoon in 1964, Savio found himself in the middle of a protest about this speech ban, the ouster of a few students, and the disbanding of a few groups. So, after considerately imploring his listeners not to harass the union workers then painting the administration building and not joining their strike, he jumped on to a car and made a speech, a speech printed in that book in my mother’s house in 1977, a speech now featured on AP history tests. Today I found his words spliced into a Linkin Park song called “Wretches and Kings,” and some Bernie-or-busters are enjoying the video of the speech that’s here on YouTube, with a Marxist analogy that all can understand, claiming Berkeley’s board were the factory managers, its faculty were the employees, and the students were the raw materials being processed. Savio knew that no student wants to turn into a product, and he said so beautifully from the top of a car:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
How can a sixteen year old gal not love a guy like that? I love him still. This semester, I assigned Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as a text in a freshman comp class and saw what I’d never quite realized. You’ll see it for yourself:
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go...perchance it will wear smooth - certainly the machine will wear out... If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.
I guess Savio had been flipping through his Thoreau that semester.

            Mario Savio ended up as a university “lecturer”—basically an adjunct, like me, and died at 53 in 1996. 

01 May 2016

30 April 2016

29? Making up a few.


Once in California testing a boyfriend’s new car,
fast car, we’d found a stretch—oh it sailed, baby—
until a white van honked, waved us down.

Lompoc Federal Correctional, it said on the side.
Our hood was down, that boyfriend charming,
the driver grinned inquiring: How’d you get in here?

This car is fast, he said. Five beige jumpsuits leaned
window-ward in the van to see, especially a laughing one
who looked at me, was mine, somehow, and I his,

so we mocked the accident that had me
in this car, him in that van, a decision of prison walls
had hurt us both the same, not ruined, not quite.

Some years I call that boyfriend to ask
Did we ever race our way into Lompoc on a hot Saturday?

He likes to talk about other accidents.

for 26?

Structures of power

This the acuity test
this the refraction prescribed
this the pair you could afford
this the date they were available
this the way they fell on the face
the film of oil and city at end of day
the papers used to wipe them
clean, clear, clearer.

Where is the place they were lost
when you could not see once again
when you called no one could find
again you could not see, not really see
when you close your eyes, darling
close your eyes and look here.

In dark again following
the old conventions, forms,
easy language a range of options
deep in the mainframe, in your frame
feeling your way home again

sing to us of what you find. Found. Foundering.