Day 338 5/29/14: 10 Fascinating Facts about Overpopulation

Tonight I was lucky to attend a talk by Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us and most recently Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Here’s a few illuminating things I learned:

1. The world’s most effective form of contraception is the education of women.

2. Every four days we add one million people to the planet.

3. 40% of the non-frozen land on this planet is devoted to feeding one species: humans.

4. Debunking the myth that a decreasing population means a withering economy, Weisman cited Japan as the country that can teach the world how to “shrink and prosper.”

5. Japan is also the world’s largest producer of robots, some of which are designed to fill in gaps in the labor force and care for the country’s elderly population. Some of these robots are able to help elderly people into wheelchairs or into bed, but dealing with bathroom-related issues remains a challenge.

6. Some of these robots resemble giant teddy bears.

7. To provide and disseminate universal contraception care would cost about $8 billion dollars annually, the same amount we spent daily in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

8. In Pakistan, abortion is punishable by death. Every year, 400, 000 women in Pakistan undergo dangerous, illegal abortions.

9. If universal contraception were available, the number of worldwide abortions each year would drop from 40 million to 14 million.

10.  While “There’s no condom for consumption,”* lowering the number of people who consume is within our power.


*Weisman attributed this snappy saying to Paul Ehrlich, author of the controversial 1968 book “The Population Bomb.”

Day 296 4/18/14: Courage, Diction, Breath

medea3On the threshold of a new obsession, I ask: how much do I want to know of Maria Callas?

Did she really throw a shoe at someone?

Was she better fat or thin?

What was the texture of her exile?

How much of the transcendence I feel  is because I do not understand the words she sings and how much is just the sheer miracle of her voice?

My brother Sean reminds me of the poet Frank O’Hara who, as Allen Ginsberg once said, “loved everything.” O’Hara understood that a poet could not afford to fall out of love with poetry. Frank O’Hara loved movie gossip and he loved painting and he loved the ballet. Sean loves punk rock and film noir he loves baseball and he loves ballet and he loves Maria Callas. Once Sean took me to the Boston Ballet. As beautiful as it was, I felt alienated. It’s a story of gesture, I told myself, of yearning, of emotion. Get out of your head. While Sean swooned and even cheered his favorite dancers, while he transcribed his rapture in a worn pocket notebook, I fell asleep. When I woke up and there was a huge ship onstage. The ship seemed to cleave straight through my gauzy dream shreds, and the elegant, muscular and utterly alien narrative that had unfolded on that stage. Admire ballet? Marvel at it? Yes, but “get” it, even on a visceral level, no.

Around that same time, Sean gave me “Master Class” by Maria Callas. I don’t know Puccini from Verdi. I don’t know Italian. Sure, if the opera is “Macbeth” or “Medea,” I have a bit of a frame for the foreign sounds, but otherwise I have no clue what’s being mourned or exalted. But it doesn’t matter. When Maria Callas sings, I am enthralled. I want to live inside the story of her voice, a place both cavernous and intimate. Maybe it’s the draw of the unfamiliar. Her voice reminds me of unexplored Aegean, all the places I never got to see on my all-too brief tour of Greece. Her face is the drama of landscape, the stark, savage, beautiful and frightening.

Part of my deep attraction to “Master Class” is its documentation of process, of Callas’ comments to her students at Juilliard:

Remember always feel the words you are saying.

 You must do it a little cleaner.

 No. The “R” must not be heard.

 I know it’s difficult on the breath, but it must not be heard, eh?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the poetic process was as collaborative? If there were some rehearsal hall of the mind, where the predominant voice was not the relentless critic, the internalized harpy, but the compassionate master there with us as we construct each line, test it, cross it out try again, the voice that never overwhelmed us with its own skill, but remained a guide there to remind us:

Love the phrase that you are singing

 However difficult Maria Callas might have been in reality doesn’t matter to me. I only want to find within myself that voice that understands the nuance of word and breath, the abiding presence that cares how and where the notes or words are placed and will not be fooled by “fireworks,” but insists on “expression.”

All my main gods are men. John Lennon, James Joyce, Bob Dylan. I have a few goddesses: Virginia Woolf. Marilyn Monroe. What does a goddess give one that a god does not? I don’t know. But when I see scenes from Pasolini’s film adaptation of Medea, I want to scale the stark Anatolian hill and follow Maria Callas inside that severe temple.

My old writing teacher John Rechy used to keep pictures of his goddesses on the wall: Garbo and Marilyn. “She was a creation!” John used to cry when trying to articulate the majesty of Marilyn. I loved that description. A creation! Equal parts self-invention and natural force. John’s students met at a dining room table underneath these glamorous triptychs—two Garbos and a Monroe, if I’m not mistaken.

While we worship  the cheekbones and shadows and fierce eyebrows, we often forget that creation is a process. “Master Class” reminds us of how instructive, how valuable it is to see how a song, a phrase, a voice is made.

Once I stepped out of a New York blizzard into the sanctuary of a quiet library to see the original manuscript of “The Wasteland” and I remember thawing out under the yellow light and looking at the marked up pages, Eliot’s naive and simple stanzas nearly obliterated by Pound’s insights, his demands. I remember the delight of driving from Boston to New York with a fellow Beatles freak who found listening to twelve consecutive versions of “No Reply” to be not only a delight, but a serious education in phrase and harmony and desperate joy.

We each have our own masters inside already– echoes and layers—all that we’ve read and heard and loved and memorized. We don’t need to dissect their legends, but to draw on the deep pool of their mystery, of genius. We need those teachers, those great loves to become strangers to us again and again, their eternity fresh, and powerful and sharp, their names forgotten, unknown.




















































Day 232 2/12/14: “JAWS” & Feminism Part 2

Virginia-Slims-Wonder-WomanWe left off yesterday lamenting the elusive female orgasm and speculating about Ellen Brody’s signature scent.

Predictably, many ads in the October 1974 issue of Cosmo focus on personal hygiene and its not-so-subtle campaign to engender women with self loathing. The Mark Eden Developer promises “A Perfect Bosom for the Girls of Summer.” My nostalgia for the word “bosom,” almost lulled me into forgetting how gross this is. Dig the breezy copy: “The Summer Bosom is high and full and firm and proud…and looks enchanting in the bright, brief clothes of Summer.” I don’t think “Summer Bosom” is a copyrighted term, but  the capitalization sure adds dignity and presence. The ellipses encourage the reader to reflect on just what it means to be “high and full and firm and proud,” while I confess that “bright, brief” evokes more than just skimpy clothes to me. It is the fleeting season of Summer itself. I am almost half tempted to clip this Mark Eden coupon out of the page and send my $9.95 & 50 cents for postage and handling to San Francisco and wait for my discreet plain wrapped package (not a cream, or artificial stimulator, but an “exclusive exerciser” that has delighted millions. One more ad before I go on to the serious discussion which a title like “JAWS” & Feminism demands.

Like signs for Burma Shave or Wall Drug that greet the traveler along the American highway, the reader navigating the landscape of Cosmo finds little ads at the end of articles asking questions like: “Do men ignore your legs because you ignore your feet?” Then a smaller, insistent sentence: “Every girl should have pretty feet.” Finally on page 261, we get to the ad which features a woman’s legs from the lower thigh down. Her knees are coyly touching, one foot is raised. The ankle is held by the hand of a nude man who reclines on the ground in a quiet, smiling “HI THERE” pose. “Pretty Feet. Because a girl should snare a man, not snag him.” Haunted by Ellen’s obsessive shaving, showering, powdering and perfuming, I read: “A girl should be soft. All soft. Not just her eyes. Or her lips. Her toe tips, too. Yes, every girl should have soft pretty feet.” I recalled the boyfriends I’ve snagged with dragon claws. The fleeting shame. The laughter. The promise to clip. The end.  How differently things play out in the advertising universe when the tiniest flaw could result in some sort of…what? Banishment from womanhood itself?

But Cosmo, is of course a big contradiction. Right next to the ubiquitous cigarette as emancipation Virginia Slims ad, is an article by feminist novelist and critic Elizabeth Janeway that boldly declares: “Not womankind but the weak among men and women alike–the subordinate, the submissive, the symbolically raped  are THE REAL SECOND SEX.”

As my students so often, so lamentably write, “This really caught my attention,” because of a section in “Jaws” that is just eye-rollingly absurd or downright offensive depending on your point of view. Will a 2014 audience understand the insane ridiculousness of Ellen declaring that her only sexual fantasy is “The usual. You know, rape,” and that her “date” Matt Hooper can barely stop drooling as he asks, “Is it a black man?” I tend to read a long entertaining disclaimer at the beginning of the reading just in case.

Maybe I should just read this article instead.

I like Janeway’s honest analysis of the psychological threat of and “visceral reaction” to the Woman’s Movement. Janeway explains that dividing the power structure of the world by sex binds men both the powerful and influential and the weak together by virtue of their anatomy. But if women are suddenly to be seen as equal to men, it sends a message to men that they can expect to be treated like women—as objects and others, not doers, but those to whom something is done:

“Closing the male/female split means a drastic rearrangement of the barriers between the weak and the powerful…the weak become the second sex–subordinate, submissive, subject to rape. (Though in our society the fear of rape by men of menus not often acknowledged, it exists, and the underlying premise is quite clear: if power has no bounds, it will extend to physical misuse. The paradigmatic act of the powerful, performed up on the weak is rape.)

Now, rape need not always be performed by force. Indeed, one of the charms of pornography is that it records session after session of guiltless rape in which the powerful are licensed to have their will of the weak because the weak “really like it that way.” Last Tango in Paris, the story of encounter between strangers offers a brilliant example of this theme. Only symbolic rape is present here, because the woman accepts subordination and asks for abuse, but we can regard it as psychologically equivalent to physical rape because the relationship  involves dominance of female by male to the point which society usually considers degrading. The heroine, who is not presented as a individual, but rather a mythic projection of “what they really like,” is deputized as wanting degradation and returning willingly to the male in order to receive it. In the end she can free herself only by violence, can win back her autonomy and reassert her identity only by killing him–leaving us with the moral that it is a law of nature for men to be dominant and the only means by which women can reverse this edict is murder. In other words, equality is nonsense and women who ask for it are dangerous fools who end up slaughtering men.”

This last bit about women resorting to violence reminds me of ANOTHER (non-Ellen Brody) moment in “Jaws” when Officer Hendricks is at his desk reading a detective novel called “Deadly, I’m Yours,” as the phone rings (a missing person’s report: nude swimmer, Chrissie Watkins, the shark’s first victim): “the heroine, a girl named Whistling Dixie, was about to be raped by a motorcycle club. Hendricks let the phone ring until Miss Dixie castrated the first of her attackers with a linoleum knife she had secreted in her hair.”

Who would have thought when I sat in a tree in my Wrangler jeans, eating Apple Stix and trying to figure out the weirdo sex passages of this book that it would yield, so many years later, such a complicated feast of gender trouble? Reading Janeway’s article helped me entertain the possibility that Hooper’s titillation was only a projection,  a symptoms of a much deeper fear of subordination and identity loss. But I still wish Ellen had read this article before she met him for lunch.