Friday, September 28, 2007

High School's Revenge

Have a confession to make.

Maybe it's more of a boast.

Nobody ever done done me wrong.

Oh, I've had my heart broken. Friends I counted on have failed to come through. There are a few things I'd still like to talk to my parents about. And I'll never understand why when we were ten Tommy Hawkins devoted an entire year to making the game in the neighborhood Let's make fun of Lance. But he couldn't get enough kids to play along and then he took up smoking cigarettes which got him in big trouble with his parents and they grounded him for a month and after that his family moved to Cincinnati so I felt he'd gotten his comeuppance and shrugged it all off.

My first grade nun hated me and emotionally tortured me, but she hated and emotionally tortured just about every kid in our class and what she did to me now and then was nothing next to what she did to Frankie McClintock and Virginia Lamb every day.

She was my first encounter with a crazy person that few supposedly sane adults realized was crazy. Prepared me for Dick Cheney, I guess. Some philosopher or psychologist or novelist must have written about this. Crazy people who are allowed to roam free as if they aren't crazy are as common and as obviously screwy as chipmunks but it's mostly children who recognize them. Adults not only don't seem to notice these crazy people are crazy, they actually go out of their way to give these crazy people power and responsibilities.

Don't know why that is.

At any rate, people have hurt my feelings, they've caused me all kinds of trouble, a few have gone out of their way to do both. But I've never taken it personally. I've either been able to forgive them or excuse them or get over them and chalk up what they did to experience. Mostly this has been because from the time I was three and told my first lie I've always felt a desperate need to live by the Golden Rule. I treat other people the way I want to be treated because I need them to forgive me or excuse me or get over me far more often than I've needed to forgive, excuse, or get over them.

But it's also the case that, while I claim to think people stink and they are stupid, I actually know we are all weak and thoughtless and trapped inside ourselves in a way that makes it difficult to remember that there are other people in the world whose needs and hopes and desires are not the same as our needs and hopes and desires.

Finally, though, the real reason for my saintly forbearance is the truth that I've always been my own worst enemy. Nothing anybody's ever done to me has ever hurt me as badly as I've hurt myself.

Which makes me a very lucky guy.

And probably explains why I don't have much sympathy for people over the age of eighteen who can't get over what happened to them in high school.

I'm not talking about people for whom high school was literally four years of living hell, people who were bullied relentlessly and unmercifully, people who were abused physically and emotionally by adults they trusted, people with undiagnosed learning disabilities that got treated like behavior problems or dismissed as simply proof they were stupid, people whose home lives were nightmares for any number of reasons, people who were suffering from mental illnesses that nobody, not even they themselves, knew they had.

I'm talking about the apparently vast numbers of people who are still smarting because they weren't popular with the kids they wanted to be popular with.

Comment thread regular and blogger, and my source for all things related to climate change, Kit Stolz left a link on my Kerouac post yesterday to an article in the LA Times rounding up a bunch of contemporary writers' reactions to On the Road. Worth reading for what it is, although I was dismayed to find that the writer who best shared my opinion of On the Road was Cynthia Ozick. I respect Ozick as a critic and essayist, but as a novelist she's a writer whose works leave me far, far, far colder than anything Kerouac typed out on his most automatic and self-indulgent day. Nevermind. My reason fro bringing up the article here---my reason for writing this post---is this quote from one of the other writers:

I read it in 1965, as a high school senior, expecting to be hit by the weight of this cool Beat book. I wasn't. I read it in the decade of Dylan and the Beatles, and in its boozy, self-conscious, priapic posturing it seemed a boy's book, as it does to this day. Its central conceit, Sal's adoration of Dean, means that if you don't dig Dean, the book is lost on you, and, frankly, Dean is very hard to dig if you're a woman. He and Sal were supposed to be veterans of life and war, but even then they seemed like the same jerky males I knew in high school. That's what "On the Road" taught me: You don't leave the boys you went to high school with. You go through life with them.

You don't leave the boys you went to high school with. You go through life with them.

Really? You do? That's very sad.

Forty-two years later and she's still annoyed at On the Road because it reminded her of some twerp who knocked the books out of her hands in the hallway?

I stopped counting the number of people I've known over the years, smart, sensitive, sophisticated, supposedly grown-up people, who have let their pleasures in life be dictated and limited by how much or how little something reminds them of kids they didn't hang out with in high school.

Like I said, I know high school was a combination of jail and boot camp for some people, and I know that for others it was heartbreaking, soul-crushing, and physically painful, even deadly, for others. But unless there was something my friends and acquaintances weren't admitting to, what was bothering most of these people is the fact that there were kids back in high school who didn't like them and never suffered for not liking them.

These people now have their own auteur. Judd Apatow seems to be set on making his career's work cinematic revenge on the cheerleaders who went to the junior prom with football players instead of with nice but schlubby guys like himself.

Am I missing something? Is there something more going on here than that ten, twenty, thirty, and more years later they haven't gotten over the fact that the guy they hoped would ask them to a movie called them four-eyes instead or the girl they wanted to laugh at their jokes laughed at their pimples instead?

Is it symbolic of a larger societal rejection? The mean girls and jocks who rejected them and marginalized them in high school went on to run the world are in many ways still rejecting and marginalizing them?

Or is the case that it's true what they say about all of life being high school continued and that no matter what happens to us we never really stop being seventeen?

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Amazin' and Phantastic

Desperate note to any fellow Mets fans in the Philadelphia area: Can somebody please lure Susie Madrak into a bar or restaurant where the game is on this weekend? Susie's convinced that the reason the Phils are on a tear is that she hasn't been watching any of their games.

Hey, it ain't over till it's over, but at this point I'm almost hoping the Mets don't make the playoffs even as the wild card. The baseball fan in me trumps the Mets fan. (Sorry, Tom.) I like every post-season series to go the limit, five games in the first round, seven after that, and the Mets, if they sleepwalk into the playoffs and don't wake up, will be done in three. And I like to see good and deserving teams in the post-season.

The Mets' collapse wouldn't be seen as the historic disaster it is if the Phillies weren't playing such terrific baseball. If you're a fan of the game, you want to see a team like the Phils, talented, bouncing back from injuries, recover and go all the way, and you want to see a team like the Mets, sloppy, unfocused, dazed, listless, and confused, get booted from contention.

And not to take too much away from the Phils, but this is the Mets' second collapse this season. They really went to work throwing away the season just after the All-Star break, just that time around it looked as though Atlanta was the team that was going to benefit.

Sour grapes, and of course if the Mets wake up tonight and remember they're in a pennant race, I'll be singing a different tune...maybe.

Funny thing is that I haven't been following the Mets closely all season. "You gotta believe!" declared the greatest Mets reliever ever (who, although he was a great reliever for the Phillies too, was not Billy Wagner), but I just haven't believed since they picked up Moises Alou last winter.

Alou is a very good ballplayer, the kind of very good ballplayer who will inspire some fun debates over the next forty years about whether or not he belongs in the Hall of Fame. (No. At least not until the sportswriters come to their senses and let Jim Rice in first. After that...still, no.) But a team with the best offense in the league already and a bunch of talented young outfielders and no reliable pitching does not need to go out and acquire a forty year old right fielder with a history of leg and ankle injuries.

When they signed Alou I said to anybody who would listen around here, which means I said to myself, "They're not serious."

But you know when I really gave up on them? The first series against the Phillies back in April. Not because of the games. The Mets swept. Because of the fans' and New York media's laughing reaction to Jimmy Rollin's prediction that his team would be the team to beat this season.

But Rollins was only making the not unreasonable observation that a team that has himself, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Aaron Rowand in its starting line-up has a pretty good chance of winning a ball game on any given day.

Mets fans scoffed and said Rollins was tempting the baseball gods to punish Philadelphia for his hubris.

But I thought it was more likely that the baseball gods would punish Mets fans for theirs.



Family loyalties: What I'm really rooting for is that both the Mets and the Phils make the play-offs, preferably with Philadelphia as the wild card. Then I'd like to see them take out the Cubs and Diamondbacks and face each other for the league championship, although that will make things a little tense around the Mannion house.

Going to be a little tense this weekend.

The blonde is a Phillies fan.

She's been trying to keep that to herself all season. Not for my sake. For the teenager's who's been having his heart broken just about every morning since school started when he's rushed out to fetch the newspaper to see how his Mets did last night and found out the answer's the same old story---the bullpen blew another one.

Good mother that she is, she's been trying to hide her delight around the teenager. She even pretends to be disappointed on his behalf and if the Mets do manage to stumble into the World Series, she'll be cheering right along with her son (unless the Red Sox stumble in too) but I'm afraid that if what the baseball gods have apparently been arranging to happen since April---Jimmy Rollins at the plate with the deciding game on the line---happens, her facade will collapse.

A mother is only a mother, but a Phillies fan is a Phanatic.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

That's not writing, or typing, it's driving---and in circles

I have my own dreams of the open road. But although I dream them all with a literary finish----not necesarily with a Fitzgeraldian passage of interior monologue summing up America and my place in it, but definitely with a writing down of my adventures---my dreams are inspired by driving not by reading about other people's driving.

Travels With Charley captured my heart because I already wanted to do what Steinbeck had done, pack light, call my dog, jump into the car and drive.

As for Kerouac...

Well, Kerouac.

I read On the Road when I was exactly the right age and in the right mood to take it to heart. I was twenty-two and I was spending a lot of time alone with my typewriter, making what I've come to regard as the biggest mistake of my life, trying to turn myself from a guy who wrote plays sometimes into a novelist and short story writer. I should have been trying to turn myself into a lawyer or an accountant, but nevermind. As long as I was trying to turn myself into a species of professional writer, I probably would have been better off getting a head start on the way things worked out and tried to turn myself into a journalist, especially since in what I was doing to turn myself into a writer, writing a lot, I was mostly practicing a kind of journalism.

Since I was already pretty adept at dialog, I'd decided that what I needed the most practice in was turning what I'd seen into prose. I needed to learn to be descriptive, I thought, so I spent a lot of time typing out descriptions. I wanted an audience though, so I put all my descriptions into letters. My friends became resigned to receiving 15 and 20 page letters from me. Typed. Single-spaced. I didn't keep copies of my letters but I'm pretty sure that taken together they amounted to a proto-blog, a disorganized, unedited, rambling mix of politics, book reports, romanticized reminiscences, anecdotes that didn't adhere strictly to the facts, self-conscious snippets of prose poems I couldn't bring myself to think of as prose poems and so never shaped into anything, and logs of that part of my day that wasn't spent typing up my letters, which, since I didn't sleep much, included a lot of time watching old movies late into the night, which I dutifully reviewed for my friends who I was sure were dying to know what I thought of My Darling Clementine and Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

All this typing, it wasn't writing, had an underlying message.

"I'm dying of loneliness here. Come save me."

Every now and then one of my friends, usually Nora, sometimes Meg, and, when she was in the country, Cathy, would try to save me. And of course I would type up their attempts to save me and send them off in letters to other friends.

I didn't always stick to the facts.

I don't stick to the facts even now. I just changed all their names.

Sharon, the friend I most wanted to come save me, knew better and kept her distance.

I wrote about her anyway.

Although I didn't recognize it, what I was doing in my self-referential, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing letters was writing---typing---the first draft of my own On the Road and so you might think that when I read the book I slapped my forehead and said, This is what I should be doing!

I didn't. I don't think it even occurred to me that there was anything in what I was typing remotely like what Kerouac had written in On the Road.

It wasn't the case, though, that I was fixating on the most obvious differences, that I was nowheres near close to Mexico City, jail, the merchant marine, or San Francisco. I spent a lot of time in New York City, but not Kerouac's New York City, which I'm sure I was convinced was as dead as Peter Stuyvesant's. But I was a long way from Joyce's Dublin, Conrad's Malaysia, and Graham Greene's Africa, and that didn't stop me from thinking I could learn a few tricks from Dubliners, Lord Jim, and A Burnt-Out Case, which I read at about the same time.

I just didn't like the book.

Dean Moriarty---Neal Cassady---was a bore and Sal Paradise was a drip.

I was myself. I "knew" On the Road was an "important" book. I "knew" I "needed" to read it if I was going to be a great American writer. So I thought I had failed somehow, either as a writer or as a reader, in not liking the book. I had assigned myself the job of reading On the Road, as homework for my self-taught course on becoming a writer, and I finished it with a sense of relief, as if it was homework and I was glad to have the task over and done with it.

I was a savvy enough reader to understand that I was being unfair to the book. I was judging it against my expectations and not on its own terms. But I was expecting, and I needed to read, a book that was a dream of the open road, which is to say a book about escape, and On the Road is a book about being trapped.

The point keeps getting made again and again throughout the novel: No matter where you go, there you are. There being stuck inside your own self.

On the Road isn't about being on the road, it's about being in the car and not looking out but looking up, into the rear view mirror, and seeing the same damn face looking back every time.

Since I was already spending far too much time looking in a symbolic mirror in hopes of finding somebody else more interesting looking back and not enjoying it at all, it's no wonder On the Road didn't strike me as a useful literary model.

Ten or so years later, when I was teaching and looking around for books and authors to put on my reading lists, I decided to give Kerouac another chance and I picked up On the Road again, and The Subterraneans, and Big Sur, and Desolation Angels, and Dharma Bums.

And they all had as one of their themes the same unattractive (to me) theme as I saw in my first reading of On the Road, Kerouac's self-disgust and his wishing that he was another, more interesting, happier, or at least more well-adjusted, man.

The trouble is that what makes the men Kerouac wishes he were interesting at all is the work they produced on their own, and so it's more profitable and enjoyable to read their books and their poems, listen to their music and look at their paintings, than it is to read Kerouac's extensive chronicling of his man-crushes on them.

In an essay on On The Road in the New Yorker, Drive, He Wrote, Louis Menand looks at this theme as it appears in On the Road in a more sympathetic light:

Satire and polemic are, on some level, defensive. It’s possible that something about the Beats simply made people uncomfortable. For the nineteen-fifties images of the Beat—Partisan Review’s bohemian nihilist and Hollywood’s hip hedonist—are almost complete inversions of the character types represented in “On the Road.” The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And the book is not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys...

The car is also a male space. The women who end up being driven in (never driving) the car are either shared by the guys (Marylou, for example, whom Dean hands off to Sal, as Cassady handed off LuAnne to Kerouac) or abandoned (as happens to the character Galatea Dunkel, and as happened to her real-life counterpart, Helen Hinkle). But the car is not an erotic space. Driving is a way for men to be together without the need to answer questions about why they want to be together. (Drinking is another way for men to be together, and there is a lot of drinking in “On the Road.” There is a lot of drinking, period.) In this sense, “On the Road” is a little like another sensational road novel of the time: Humbert and Lolita drive obsessively back and forth across the continent because that is the only public way for them to be together. As long as they’re driving, they’re not doing anything they shouldn’t be doing.

But maybe we should not understand the sexual themes in “On the Road” too quickly. Maybe the best thing to say about those themes is that they are murky and underrealized, not entirely within the author’s control. Sal has a crush on Dean, in the way that attractive but insecure men can form attachments to gregarious and self-confident men. Sal gets close to women vicariously by being closer to Dean than Dean’s women are (until he, too, gets dumped, in Mexico City). This is perfectly consistent with the “Ocean’s Eleven” genre of buddy stories: there is always a dame, but the real bond is between Brad and George. They have something with each other that neither could have, or would care to have, with a woman.

Menand also sees that On the Road is not about being on the road. The road isn't taking Sal and Neal and the various women they pick up and drop off anywhere. They all want to go somewhere, but they can't get there because the road they want to take to get there doesn't exist anymore, it's lost in the past, recoverable only through memories and regrets, and the point becomes simply being in the car and being on the way to somewhere:

Nostalgia is part of the appeal of “On the Road” today, but it was also part of its appeal in 1957. For it is not a book about the nineteen-fifties. It’s a book about the nineteen-forties. In 1947, when Kerouac began his travels, there were three million miles of intercity roads in the United States and thirty-eight million registered vehicles. When “On the Road” came out, there was roughly the same amount of highway, but there were thirty million more cars and trucks. And the construction of the federal highway system, which had been planned since 1944, was under way. The interstates changed the phenomenology of driving. Kerouac’s original plan, in 1947, was to hitchhike across the country on Route 6, which begins at the tip of Cape Cod. Today, although there is a sign in Provincetown that reads “Bishop, CA., 3205 miles,” few people would dream of taking that road even as far as Rhode Island. They would get on the inter-state. And they wouldn’t think of getting there fast, either. For although there are about a million more miles of road in the United States today than there were in 1947 (there are also two more states), two hundred million more vehicles are registered to drive on them. There is little romance left in long car rides.

In fact, the characters in “On the Road” spend as short a time on the road as they can. They’re not interested in exploring rural or small-town America. Speed is essential. The men rarely even have time to chase after the women they run into, because they’re always in a hurry to get to a city. A lot of the book takes place in cities, particularly New York, Denver, and San Francisco, but also Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Mexico City. Even there, the characters are always rushing around.

The bits and pieces of America that the book captures, therefore, are snapshots taken on the run, glimpses from the window of a speeding car. And they are carefully selected to represent a way of life that is coming to an end in the postwar boom, a way of life before televisions and washing machines and fast food, when millions of people lived patched-together existences and men wandered the country—“ramblin’ round,” in the Guthrie song—following the seasons in search of work. Robert Frank’s photographs in “The Americans,” taken between 1955 and 1956 and published in Paris in 1958 and in the United States a year later, with an introduction by Kerouac, held the same interest: they are pictures of a world not yet made plump and uniform by postwar affluence and consumerism.

The sadness that soaks through Kerouac’s story comes from the certainty that this world of hoboes and migrant workers and cowboys and crazy joyriders—the world of Neal Cassady and his derelict father—is dying. But the sadness is not sentimentality, because many of the people in the book who inhabit that world would be happy to see it go or else are too drunk or forlorn to care. They do not share the literary man’s nostalgie de la boue; they are restless, lonely, lost—beat. “There ain’t no flowers there,” says a girl whom Sal Paradise, the Kerouac figure, tries to pick up in Cheyenne by suggesting a walk on the prairie among the flowers. “I want to go to New York. I’m sick and tired of this. Ain’t no place to go to but Cheyenne and ain’t nothin in Cheyenne.” “Ain’t nothin in New York,” Sal says. “Hell there ain’t,” she says. She wants to get in the car, too.

Nothing worth staying at home for. Nothing in their destinations that make them worth the drive or worth sticking around in once they get there. Nothing to see out the windows or stopping along the way to explore because all that's worth seeing and exploring has vanished. Nothing to do then but drive.

On the Road is one of the most claustrophobic and static novels not written by a French existentialist.

Menand clearly admires On the Road much more than I do, but he sees the book's importance as being primarily biographical and historical not literary. He doesn't try to argue that On the Road is a great American novel. He does point out that it's a better written book than is sometimes thought. It's the stuff of literary legend how Kerouac typed the first draft of On the Road on one long roll of paper in a frenzied and caffeine-(not drug)-fueled three weeks. That's not why Truman Capote dismissed On the Road as typing not writing though. Kerouac may have banged out the first draft in a blur, but he took his time with the following drafts, polishing and revising the book over the course of ten years. Kerouac, says Menand, made a deliberate aesthetic choice in shaping On the Road that his one hundred and twenty-five foot page of paper helped him achieve:

He saw that this-happened-and-then-that-happened had literary possibilities, and the scroll was a way of forcing himself to stick to this vision. (A little later, Frank O’Hara made poems using the same theory. “I do this, I do that” is how he described them.) The scroll was therefore a restriction: it was a way of defining form, not a way of avoiding form. In religious terms (and Kerouac was always, deep down, a Catholic and a sufferer), it was a collar, a self-mortification. He did, after he finished the scroll, go back and make changes. But first he had to submit to his discipline.

Capote was probably refering to Kerouac's "this-happened-and-then-that-happened" approach to his subject. But he might just as well have been referring to something else. On the Road is a written book. But it is not an imagined one.

I mentioned Joyce and Conrad and Greene earlier as writers I was reading for the first time around the same time as I read On the Road. Coincidentally, all three of them, like Kerouac, drew heavily on their experiences and personal biographies in their fiction.

But unlike Kerouac, the other three managed to see and re-create their experiences as having shape and meaning apart from their original sources. Kerouac worked hard at not letting that happen to his stories. I don't think Capote was right, On the Road isn't just typing, it is writing, but in the end it's a particular kind of writing. It's journalism with a get out of the facts free card attached.

Conrad, Greene, and Joyce aren't American writers, of course, and I think it's best when comparing Kerouac to other writers to see him as part of the American grain. Menand mentions Hemingway, Pynchon, Updike, and, not as oddly as it might at first seem, Nabokov---after all, Lolita is the other notorious American road novel from the period. And there's no getting away from or around the other Beats and their sons and heirs, particularly Ginsberg and Burroughs, but also Gary Snyder and Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

Gee, no women. What a shocker.

But the American writer who always springs to mind whenever I think about Kerouac preceded him on the road, although he didn't go very far down it, by a century, his fellow Massachusettsan, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is another one who took himself as his main subject. But unlike Kerouac he was never tempted to write up his adventures as fiction and, as cranky as he could be, and as unforgiving, he was basically a cheerful man who got a kick out of other people, even if he didn't always like them very much. He was egocentric, but not self-absorbed, and so he was a more active and more objective observer. Makes him more entertaining and more informative company. Thoreau famously traveled extensively in Concord. He got up to Maine too, and over to Cape Cod, but mainly he stayed at home. Kerouac went back and forth across the continent several times. But of the two of them Thoreau did travel. He got away. On his short hikes and lazy canoe trips, in his bean patch, and during one night in jail, he managed to escape. From himself and from his demons.

Kerouac went a long way to get nowhere.

Done and done.

Cross-posted at newcritics.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication of On the Road and Tom Watson salutes it by taking a more Thoreauvian position and celebrating the pleasures of Staying Put.

Your turn: What reputedly great book have you read that disappointed you?

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

"You have a dull sense of humor, Dad."

At soccer game, half-time, thirsty husband, desiring to purchase a cold beverage, puts hand inside pants pocket to retrieve money he was sure was in there last night. Comes up empty. Says to wife, "Wife, did you rob me of my change?"

Wife admits to theft with no sign of guilty conscience. "You only had a few dollars."

Husband says, "Now I have none and I wish to buy a soda."

Wife asks in tone that implies husband has been irresponsible about family finances again, "And you have no money?"

"Not so much as a nickel."

"How much do you need?"

"Buck, buck and a half."

Wife reaches into her own pocket. Carefully counts out one dollar and fifty cents in paper and coins. Husband asks if she'd like a drink herself. Wife declines offer. Son who is not on field says he'd like a Pepsi. Wife carefully doles out another dollar and fifty cents. Husband and son skip off to buy sodas.

Half hour later. On the walk home. Family unit passed by ice cream truck. Sons politely request ice cream. Parents shake heads together. "Not right now," says wife. "We'll go out later," says husband, "To a real ice cream parlor." Sons like the idea of going out later to real ice cream parlor. Dreams of sundaes and milk shakes dance in their heads. Husband's head too. Wife says ice cream parlor sounds like a fine idea.

Two minutes later family catches up with ice cream truck parked on their street. Wife says, "Who wants ice cream?"

Husband says, "??????????????????"

Wife and sons, dreams of sundaes and milk shakes dancing right out of their heads, skip off to buy ice cream from truck, leaving baffled husband behind.

Seconds later, sons have King Cones in hand, wife unwrapping ice cream sandwich. Wife calls out to husband by name. Husband, thinking she's wondering what he'd like, calls back, "None for me now, thank you, dear wife."

Wife gets huffy. That's not what she asked. "I said, Do you have any money?"

Husband, kindly, "You took all my money, sweetheart, remember?"

Wife gets huffier. "How am I supposed to pay for the ice cream then?"

Husband says, "How did you think you were going to pay for it?" but has sense enough to say it quietly enough that only he can hear. Runs a block and a half to house, dashes inside, grabs cash off dresser, runs back. Only needs to go a block though. Wife and sons have already left ice cream truck a block back and are walking home, calmly eating their ice cream.

Husband, gasping for breath, manages to ask if ice cream truck driver let them have it for free or if he needs to keep running on to truck to pay.

Wife looks at him as if he's a fool. "Turns out I had some extra change in my pocket."

Husband falls over in street.

Later, back at house, sons declare the above scene hilarious. Big joke on dad all around.

Husband says, "Ha ha, very funny."

Younger son shakes his head in dismay. Says, "You have a dull sense of humor, Dad."

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Ugly Betty is not hot, neither was Katharine Hepburn, and that's the secret of their beauty

America Ferrera---Ugly Betty---is not hot.

Glamour Magazine says she is. Glamour Magazine is wrong.

Ferrera is pretty. Very pretty. Take away Ugly Betty's lusterless wig, her complexion-muddying makeup, her fake eyebrows and false teeth, her braces, her dorky glasses and frumpy, unflattering, Catholic grade school teacher on a budget outfits, and Ferrera's a lovely young woman. But she's lovely in the way young women her age are lovely. She glows with good health and energy. Her skin is smooth. Her figure curves in the right directions.

She comes across as a nice and intelligent person, both qualities absolutely essential to being attractive.

And photographed in the right light at the right angles she can be beautiful.

But that's the difference between TV and movie stars and models and ordinary people. There are more shades of right light and more flattering angles for the stars and models. Some models aren't even good looking in real life. They just take the light well.

Ferrera takes light well. She's lovely and amazing.

But she's not hot.

I say that with the respect, admiration, and appreciation of the aging rouee who has not lost his eye for beauty.

I say it because "hot" is not a compliment.

It's just a current slang word that means vaguely, sort of, in the ballpark of, either, "I recognize that a certain person is what most people around me would think is sexually attractive" or "I would like it very much if you agreed with me that the person I'm sexually attracted to at the moment is in fact sexually attractive."

Either way, it doesn't say much about the actual degree of attractiveness possessed by the body being declared hot. It is merely a statement by the body declaring its attraction that it belongs to the group it wants to belong to.

That's the purpose of slang, to identify the speaker as a welcome member of a group, and that's what it's doing on the cover of Glamour. The editors aren't using "hot" to describe Ferrera. They're using it to try to describe themselves and their magazine to the young readers they covet. "Look at us, we're like you. We're in your group." Of course, they don't mean it. They don't want to be part of their group. They want them to be part of their customer base. But I'll get to that.

At any rate, unlike pretty, lovely, beautiful, handsome, sexy, stunning, gorgeous, and just plain good-looking, "hot" is not an automatic compliment. It's a statement of intent. It doesn't describe the person who is "hot." It announces the effect of that person's "hotness" upon the speaker.

"You're hot," "She's/he's hot" means "I want to strip you naked and roger you roundly."

There are only a very select and extremely circumscribed situations under which this sentiment will strike the person so addressed as a compliment.

Compliments are supposed to make the person being complimented feel good about themselves. To the degree that the other person's feelings and autonomous personhood are considered "You're hot" assumes that the person looks the way she/he looks because they want to be stripped naked and rogered roundly and by the person declaring them hot.

Not the smartest assumption, particularly when the speaker is a man and the subject a woman. Men are apt to assume that a pretty woman's prettiness is an act of will and/or she knows she is pretty and understands that with great prettiness comes great responsibility for the effect of her prettiness upon men.

"You were given a gift, young lady, and you were meant to use it---on me!"

Implicit in the thought is a warning. "If you don't want me to react like a dog in heat to your prettiness you should wear a burka and a veil. The fact that you don't gives me permission to think and act as if I stand a chance of seeing you naked, just for the asking."

Probably the editors at Glamour did not use the word on their cover to mean "America Ferrera is someone you'd want to strip naked and roger roundly" and I doubt that Ferrara, if she's as smart and together as the character she plays, would ever regard being called hot in that way as a compliment.

There are times when calling someone hot can be very complimentary. Those times occur between two people who know each other well enough to have already communicated, at least subliminally, their mutual desire to strip each other naked and roger each other roundly. Under those circumstances, "you're hot" means either "I don't have the right words to express my deeply intense romantic and erotic feelings for you" or "Let's not waste time thinking of the right words, let's strip each other naked and roger together roundly right now!"

Whether or not America Ferrera is hot or has been hot under those circumstances is none of my damn business.

The editors of Glamour didn't chose the word because they wanted to let their readers know Ferrera has someone in her life who thinks she's hot.

In fact, on the cover of Glamour, the word has no real meaning. It's just another advertising slogan. It means, as much as it means anything, "Buy our magazine and we'll tell you how by buying our advertisers' products you an share in some of America Ferrera's beauty, success, and celebrity."

"Ugly Betty is hot" is part of the on-going attempt by the fashion and beauty industries to seduce young women into giving up their personhoods to become consumers. The thing to be consumed is an industrial standard of "attractiveness" that's based entirely on what the industry wants to sell this year.

In this, Ferrera's heavily air-brushed photo on the cover is like the word "hot," a piece of advertising. Ferrera is there not because she has any meaning as an actual human being with a real amount of personal attractiveness and charm, any more than the word "hot" in the copy has any meaning as a word actually describing her personal attractiveness or charm.

Her face and body are there because they are both currently popular with a certain group Glamour wants to add to its group of consumers by convincing them that Glamour, through the image of Ferrera, belongs to their group.

I forget what college freshman course in semiotics I learned all that kind of stuff in.

Now, here's the irony and perversion.

Ferrera is popular---which is to say useful to Glamour, a beauty and fashion magazine---because she doesn't conform to the beauty and fashion magazines' current standards of feminine beauty and also because she's a very talented actress playing a character who is by those standards "ugly" in a hit TV series that mocks and derides those standards.

So what is Glamour supposed to do with that? They need Ferrera to identify themselves as hip and current, but they can't very well put Ugly Betty on their cover. That would be like flat out saying, "You don't need to read our magazine and buy our advertisers' products to be a romantic heroine and have the Henry Grubsticks and Daniel Meads of the world fall in love with you. All you need to do is be yourself and set your own standards."

That's the irony.

Here's the perversion.

They put Ferrera herself on the cover as if she is Ugly Betty, as if they are saying "To be beautiful, to be hot, be like Ugly Betty," but they make sure that Ferrera conforms to the current standards instead of defying them by manipulating her image and tagging her image with the word "hot."

This happens all the time. Every now and then the popular culture throws up a person who is unique, who is interesting for not being like the rest of the popular culture's currently popular idols, an original whose success threatens to overturn the whole applecart by setting new standards or setting aside---making irrelevant---all the old standards, and the advertising industry which has been feeding off the old standards has to adapt in a hurry.

The more creative and intelligent advertisers adapt by adapting. But the usual response is like Glamour's editors, whom you probably noticed I've been equating all along with advertisers not journalists, with good reason. They appear to accept the new standard, to celebrate the uniqueness or the difference, all the while trying desperately to make it fit inside the old boxes.

America Ferrera is celebrated for being Ugly Betty by making her look as much as possible like every other cover girl who has appeared in the magazine over the last twenty years.

Ferrera herself is probably resigned to going along with this, because she knows that if she is to have any sort of TV or movie career beyond Ugly Betty she'd better look, or be thought by producers and casting directors to look, as much as possible like every other starlet her age.

I hope she doesn't have to go as far as starving herself into a stick and dying her hair blond.

And I hope before she goes any farther along she reads Karen Karbo's book on Katharine Hepburn's personal and peculiar style of living and being beautiful, How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great.

Seventy years ago, Hepburn, as Karbo says, was another original that Hollywood and the worlds of fashion and celebrity fan worship didn't know how to cope with so they tried to cope by denying her originality.

They tried to cram her into the currently fashionable boxes.

How Hepburn escaped the boxes and set her own standards for beauty and movie stardom is the subject of Karbo's book.

Besides being the author of How to Hepburn, Karbo is a novelist, memoirist, journalist, essayist, film critic, blogger, and occupier of a spot on my blog roll. Over there on your left, under Literary and Artistic Types, though her webpage is under re-construction at the moment..

I interviewed Karen about How to Hepburn and she's been patiently wondering why the devil I haven't yet posted that interview. I've got lots of good excuses but my latest and last one is that I had a brainstorm.

Karen's a regular reader here, although unless she's been using an alias, she's been something of a lurker in the comment threads. That has to change. And she's promised it will, at least when I post the interview. Karen will turn up in the comments to answer your questions. The thing is you are more likely to have questions if you've already read the book. Here's your chance.

I'll be posting the interview on Tuesday, October 9. That gives you plenty of time to request the book from your local library or better yet buy it, which you can do right now by clicking on this link to How to Hepburn at my aStore.

If this works out, maybe we can get a Lance Mannion Book Club going. Show the folks at Firedoglake they're not the only bookworms on this side of the bandwidth.

Got to be better than live-blogging Studio 60. Or at least more intellectually stimulating.

Speaking of live-blogging. I'm going to experiment with live-blogging Heroes Monday night. It's an experiment because I have a feeling it might not work. I think I could get so caught up in each episode that I'll forget to type. We'll see. New season begins Monday, September 24, at 9 PM Eastern.

Catch up: The first seasons of Heroes and Ugly Betty are available on DVD. Please help support this blog by shopping at my aStore.

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