November 10, 2004

What I Talk About When I Talk About “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

I realize that all of my response are simply my way of talking about what I read. These thoughts come without excessive premeditation, and so they resemble Carver’s narrative in the ordinary, around-the-kitchen-table banter central to it. This is what I talk about when I talk about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

This wasn’t my first time to read this story. In fact, my first time reading this story was this past summer when I assigned it to my “Introduction to American Literature” class. Like many things I teach, I assigned it without reading it in advance and I read it only shortly before we covered it in class. As I reread the story for our class I remembered that this was one of the stories (we often read three or four for a given day of class) that we never made our way to discussing. Our class discussions were designed to be organic, following the interests of the students and the questions and responses they have to the assigned texts. My first response to this text, then, was, “I’ve read this. If I remember right, although I found it reasonably interesting, we never ended up talking about it in class.”

My other responses are more directly aligned with the narrative and characters.

I relate to the shape of the narrative: sitting around the table and talking. That certainly seems like a familiar setting and the fluidity of the conversation seems “natural.” I’ve experienced conversations like this, in fact I quite enjoy them. So I can understand writing a short fictional piece that never leaves the table and that is consumed with the unplanned conversation of four characters, two couples.

Mel McGinnis is an odd character that I cannot quite figure out. He is assigned a certain respectability and intelligence by virtue of his profession as a physician, but he appears broken and, frankly, a bit off. It doesn’t seem to me that it is simply the booze that alters his speech and thinking. Mel has some fundamental anguish or sorrow that remains unresolved.

Terri is a fittingly mysterious match for Mel. She has her own shadowed past with her ex-husband, Ed. Her relationship to Mel seems strange and the terms in which they sometimes describe their love seems particularly pragmatic and unemotional. Terri is a kind soul—probably too forgiving and too accommodating, but these features probably qualify her to be a companion to Mel with his controlling tendencies.

Nick and Laura are the “regular” folks of the story. They are the people that we all imagine that we are. In the context of love, we like to see ourselves as they seem: in love with each other in a way that seems both romantic (magical) and practical (pragmatic). They seem to be well matched without seeming to be a fairy tale couple that gives us reason to feel incredulous or resentful. They are patient friends who know Mel well and put up with him without complaint. They are the “nice neighbors” that we all hope to have or to be.

My other responses include responses to the concepts and definitions of love that the two couples toss around the table in their conversations. Inasmuch as they present a number of different models of love, I find it is easy—and almost expected—to respond to each one in turn, deciding as I read whether or not I agree with it. I find the theories of love presented generally unacceptable, if a little uninteresting.

For some reason, I find this story pleasurable, or at least pleasant, without ever feeling very engaged. I find myself wondering why I enjoy it, when so little about it seems notable. I wonder why it appeared in the anthology I chose for class and I try to remember what arbitrary conditions led me to choose it for the class. And yet, I would be willing to defend the story on the basis that it is rather unpretentious and ordinary—that it seemingly seeks to be plain and unadorned, and that its “greatness,” if it aspires to that, is contained within it simplicity and everydayness.

My final response is a reaction to my responses. I find that I am drawn to evaluate the characters in this story as if they were people that came into my social circle, as if they were people that I would have to sort out in the social organization of my personal life. I therefore judge and assess the characters as people—not as literary characters—and I make statements that reveal who I would likely invite into my life and who I would keep a safe distance from.

Similarly, I respond to the plot (or the absence thereof) as a situation that I might experience in the routine of my own life. It becomes evident that my response is a process of drawing this text very close to me and making it a very personal experience, or an experience which is evaluated on very personal criteria. I wonder if it is the nature of the storytelling itself that causes me to respond in this way. If the story was more dramatic, the characters more spectacular, the plot more active, would I be forced to hold the text at a greater critical distance? Would it be more difficulty for me first to consider myself as a part of the narrative? I think that I do see the conversation around the kitchen table and imagine myself sitting there in ways that might be impossible if the setting and context where more spectacular or dramatic.

Posted by ogde0004 at 10:57 PM

November 4, 2004

Indulging in the Reality of the Unreal

If there is a guilty pleasure in my media consumption, it is the reality TV shows that have been promulgated on prime time television over the past years. I’m talking about the shows that, while they share a certain ancestry with the first non-cable network reality show success, Survivor with its premise of physical challenges and resourceful innovation, are more directly descended from the Bachelor and its over-hyped and sensationalized romantic (melo)drama.

Shortly after getting married, my wife and I began to relax by indulging in Joe Millionaire (NBC), where, in addition to the normal intrigue of the romantic competition, deception and false appearances lie at the heart of the narrative (Joe was no millionaire catch at all, just a handsome construction worker scouted to introduce the essential twist necessary to distinguish one such romance reality show from another). This lead us to Average Joe (FOX), both the first and second versions, where the twist was that the typical model-esque female protagonist—the one who chooses the guy—was confronted by very ordinary guys to choose from. Some were too fat and some were too skinny and none of them, in a superficial Hollywood/Goldilocks way, were “just right.” The first twist, as if not distinguishing enough, was to then bring in a band of “hunks”—the more typical cast for such a reality show—to compete with the Average Joes for the heart of the girl.

We ate it up.

And we liked it for the simple reason that it was not us on the screen. Whereas Jane Greer’s readers confessed that “some of their stories [in confessional magazines] are like my life, I guess,” we were smugly pleased that these situations were so contrived and so decidedly awful that we couldn’t relate at all. While these shows purport to be reflections of “reality” they are instead distorted projections and fabrications of hyperfictions set forth as unconvincing façades of real life. The accommodations are palatial, the social interactions contrived, the decisions ludicrous (represented well byFor Love or Money), and the presentation—cunningly edited footage—equally unbelievable. Such incredible settings create a safe distance from “reality” so we can enjoy the parade of human sorrow and suffering all the time believing that our humanity is fully engaged and intact when, in fact, we have surrendered our humanity in the name of cheap entertainment.

So many moments in these weekly dramas are embarrassing, even humiliating, and while we cringe at their suffering (like typical reactions to a much earlier form of “reality” TV America’s Funniest Home Videos ala the ever present “kid accidentally hits father in the groin with a baseball bat/baseball/umbrella/watering can” incident), we were really just grateful that we had never done anything that stupid before, at least not on national television.

The pleasure of “I’m glad it’s not me” voyeurism is right in line, I think, with the general appeal that makes these shows both so successful and so utterly addicting: the exhilaration of the comfortable spectator of uncomfortable human drama. On the surface, we think we are connecting with our humanity by choosing the “real” (as represented in the Bachelorette) over the “false” (as represented by Friends) and are spending our TV time watching and learning from “real” people rather than the constructed characters depicted in fictional sitcoms or dramas. The depth of that appeal is non-existent. Neither show presents a “reality,” at least so far as that term means a genuine human experience, and one simply hires amateur “actors” at a fraction of the price they would pay for Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. The producers’ aim in both cases is the same: lure advertisers and audiences.

I never watched the first wave of reality shows; I only came on board once the producers felt compelled to introduce the multiple twists that would make their shows stand out amidst the abundant preview hype. That those twists deeply undercut the legitimacy of the “reality” designation and made the whole project a farce, on one level or another, made it possible for me to enjoy the shows given my academic identity of a critical and selective television viewer with overtones of an aspiring academic. Such an identity makes it difficult for me to buy into a phenomenon that seems to sell itself to the public so seriously as the first wave of reality TV shows did. Once the genre established itself as a surefire ratings success, it could afford to relax and indulge in a playful twist. For me, this brought the previews and the promotions to the level of the ludicrous—and it held the appeal of films that fall in the class of “dumb comedies” (Dumb and Dumber as the quintessential example). I could enjoy something that was obviously aware of how over-the-top it was, whereas I shunned the melodramas that seemed oblivious to their melo- quality.

As a white, middle class man, I think that the whiteness of the shows made it easy for me to watch them without thinking very deeply about them. Reflecting on the participants, the homogeneity is striking. The discourse and figured world of white, middle class, American, young dating were familiar and unchallenging to me. Those features certainly limit the demographic of likely viewers, excluding many who do not share these identities, or who do not desire to identify with them or their values.

Posted by ogde0004 at 1:08 PM

November 2, 2004

Challenging America

It is the first election in which I find myself a father.

I brought my boy, together with my wife, to our local polling place at the Tuttle School in Minneapolis. It was probably the first public, civic moment of his young life. He was his usual impressive self—charming all the election officials in sight—but he seemed generally unimpressed by the significance of the event. I’ll cut him some slack. He’s only four months.

We arrived at 8:30 AM and were greeted immediately by a poised poll volunteer who directed us to the registration table. It was there that I saw The Challenger: a woman in a black business suit, perched on the edge of her chair next to the registration table. I’ve been attuned to the discussion about challengers at the polls during the past few weeks as accusations of fraud, intimidation, and other improprieties have been bandied about. My mother-in-law, an attorney, is stationed at a polling place today as a voter advocate—The Challenger’s challenger.

Given what I saw today, we need advocates like my mother-in-law around. An Asian American woman was registering to vote with her white roommate, a registered voter, vouching for her residence in the precinct. I watched The Challenger. She was looking this Asian American woman over very carefully. The Challenger didn’t say a word. The volunteers collected all of the necessary paper work and directed the newly-registered voter towards the ballot room.

When the woman was out of earshot, The Challenger spoke, addressing the registration volunteer at her side, “I wasn’t sure about that Asian girl. I wonder if she is a citizen. You know, a lot of University students aren’t citizens.” My body tensed and I felt the blood rise into my face. International students—most of whom are, in fact, non-citizens—comprise a mere five percent of students at the University of Minnesota (approximately 2,500 of 51,000, according to Fall Semester registration statistics). That hardly seems an overwhelming threat to Minnesota or to America. And it hardly seems grounds to raise a question about this voter.

As the registration volunteer explained—plainly and patiently—the process of challenging a voter’s legitimacy, it was evident that The Challenger wasn’t trained. She hadn’t seen the forms for submitting challenges (challenges must be submitted in writing) and she didn’t seem versed in the basic requirements for asserting a challenge (personal knowledge or a reasonable belief that the would-be voter doesn’t qualify). To her credit, The Challenger took no action, she seemed to be thinking out loud, but the arbitrary and prejudicial grounds for her question were unsettling.

I almost addressed The Challenger to remind her that a lot of University students are American born with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth who were born in exotic, far off places like Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. I refrained from comment. I was impressed at my restraint.

As I was moving toward the ballot room, another Asian American woman approached the registration table. I saw The Challenger, who never relaxed for a moment, peer at her driver’s license, looking her up and down. I wouldn’t say that The Challenger posed a menacing threat, but she was conspicuous. If I noticed her behavior, then certainly other voters would too. While that might deter a few dishonest folks who had intended to register fraudulently, I fear that her presence—and her impertinent remarks—have a much greater chance to do harm, disenfranchising legitimate voters. What would a non-white voter think to hear The Challenger question “that Asian girl”? Who wants to get tangled up in some bureaucratic process to defend themselves against a baseless accusation? Maybe it would just be easier to skip voting this time than to mess with all of that. Is it really worth it?

It struck me once again how vulnerable our American polling place—and American voters—are. They are staffed by very ordinary—but dedicated—citizens who receive no compensation for their time and energy. I voted in an elementary school, for crying out loud. There were no security guards, no police officers, no metal detectors, no military personnel. Americans have voted in the simplest and most ordinary spaces in their neighborhoods and communities for generations. Now during this election, more than any other, these spaces are suddenly inhabited by challengers and lawyers. Threatening confrontation—with unmistakably partisan battle lines—looms large. My voting experience today was different from all of my previous trips to the polls. I’m worried that the practice of voting itself will become a “contest,” in the most aggressive sense of the word.

What first-time voter isn’t a little like my infant son, vulnerable and innocent? Who isn’t a bit intimidated at the regulations, restrictions, and rules and worried that they might embarrass themselves—or worse, undermine the integrity of America’s democracy—by unknowingly violating them? Why are the election volunteers, who have been monitoring and regulating our elections in Minnesota for years, suddenly unreliable and untrustworthy?

As my son grows into an active citizen, he and his generation will face untold challenges to America. I wonder what the role of The Challenger will be.

Posted by ogde0004 at 11:49 AM